Saturday, October 09, 2010

A View from Italia

It was a Friday night when I first met Francesco and Catia. I was having a late dinner in a hotel bar in Orlando after flying in that day. We chatted quickly for a few minutes, just long enough for me to find out that they were Italian and on their honeymoon. Catia wanted to go to Alaska or Cuba, but they settled on a tour down the east coast. They started in Montreal, then continued on to Quebec, Toronto, New York and Orlando, before ending in Miami and heading home. For Francesco, it was his second time in these parts; for Catia, her first.

Then the following night, while I getting another late night bite at a sushi bar in the same hotel, they sat down next to me again. We laughed, and joked about them following me. Then we politely ignored each other as they ordered. But when I saw Catia struggling with chopsticks, I leaned over and offered to help. And we started to talk... in English I might add. Francesco's command of the language was more than competent, Catia's a bit less so, but both were far better than my pidgin Italian.

I asked them about their perceptions of America. The first thing they said was that it was "too big." They were both struck by the many different races they encountered. "We are used to different people but in the same form, as they are all Italian," Catia told me. They were also impressed with New York being such a melting pot, though they did note that "people there seem confused about the time... always running, no one is sleeping." But they also remarked on how friendly everyone seemed.

They were quick to say what they admired about America. "This is a country of opportunity," said Francesco. "Italian people came to US four generations ago. The first generation worked hard with, but had nothing. The second generation started to have something, and it continued. By the fourth generation they were able to go to college. The US is wonderful. If you work hard, study hard, you can have anything. That's not like in Italy. There you work hard, but you stay in same place for 30 or 40 years."

I asked them what they would tell people about what they saw and felt... not about the specific places they visited, but about the country as a whole. Catia said, "America is quite the same as the movies we see." When I asked which movies she meant, she said "Saturday Night Fever" and "Rocky," this despite the fact they hadn't been to Brooklyn nor Philadelphia. I asked her to explain what she meant. "In the US you love your country. It's not like that in Italy. We don't love our country as well as you... we have no flags hanging out the window."

They offered opinions on a number of other things. I threw out a topic, they discussed it in Italian, then Francesco answered for them both. Politics: "US politicians want to do something good for the country. That's compared to Italy, where politicians only want to have more money. In Italy we have a lot of Madoffs, but they don't go to jail, they stay in Parliament." Obama:  "We admire Obama... he is like Jesus Christ. Not in a religious sense, but in that he gives everybody hope. But he says one thing and does another. He goes on expensive vacations and doesn't care enough about poor people."

I asked them what we needed to do more of or better. First on their list was environmental issues: "You Americans need to use cars with less power. You're good at recycling, but need to use less oil... you don't care about the environment enough." They also talked about the food: "You people eat unhealthy... everything is fried." And they critiqued what we consider Italian cuisine: "good, but too much garlic."

As their table was called, I asked them one last thing: would they come back? They both nodded in agreement: "We will come back, because it's the country of opportunity," said Francesco. But they also missed the slower pace and feel of their home country, and wondered if there might not be a better balance in work and play. "Italy is too slow, too safe.  America is too fast, too unsafe. Maybe we'd all be better if we were a little more in the middle."

Slow down. Fewer fried foods. More recycling. Less garlic. It might not be the whole answer to our troubles as a country, but it's a start.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to talk to people with different experiences. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer. 

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