Friday, February 24, 2012

From The Outside Looking In

The longer I live in Italy the more difficult I find it to return to the U.S.  I was apprehensive about visiting for a full 2 months this time, since it’s been two years since I’ve been back, but damn, I have to get something done. Things naturally move very slowly in Italy.

Upon arriving in New York I immediately sensed the stress. I was overcome by a bizarre feeling of reverse culture shock which I still feel after 2 months. Has a mere 3 years of living in Italy changed me enough to make me feel like a stranger in my own native country? Why do I feel like I’m on the outside looking in?

I was immediately reminded how easy, automated, convenient, efficient and orderly everything is here. After hiring my rental car, I was spooked as the windshield wipers turned on automatically a few seconds before it started raining. The next day, approaching an intersection on my bike, the traffic light yelled at me to “wait!” There were video cameras everywhere controlling traffic, surveilling stores, walkways, even the bike paths. Instead of feeling protected, I was afraid to make a false move. And this is the land of the free. I noticed several times being followed by the county sheriff. The elevator asked me if I had a good day and what floor would I like to be left at. Good thing I don’t pick my nose while I think nobody is watching. Several times I had to apologize for my ignorance. There wasn’t a bar or cafĂ© that didn’t have Wi-Fi.

In the grocery stores shoppers were scanning bar codes with their IPhones, not to calculate their spending, but to check the nutritional value and fat content of their groceries, where after getting lost for an hour and shell-shocked by the infinite choices, I forgot what I’d come for in the first place. So I grabbed a bottle of Pinot Noir and found my way to the cash register where they checked me out with their bright white smiles in record time, bagged my purchases and assisted me to my car. I felt guilty, bored, spoiled and unchallenged. Why, oh why don’t I enjoy being treated like an American princess? I used to!!

I never took these things for granted. I knew I was asking for pain when I moved to Italy. Over the past 3 years I’ve been brain-washed to believe that things look better, work better, get done better and taste better only if you wait, suffer, fight, cry, wait, complain, argue, litigate, debate and wait more, only to get the wrong or inferior product or service at twice the price. We love pain and suffering. Mea culpa! It makes us feel more holy, worthy, deserving. It gives us a reason to go to church, light a candle and cry to the Madonna. My Italian friends think I’ve lost a screw having chosen to suffer when I could be in America snapping my fingers or making a phone call to get it done, fixed, delivered, refunded, picked up, installed. I am a masochist. They would trade places with me any day.

Since being here in the States I’ve on the other hand, been feeling offended by the pervasive propaganda that controls American buying behavior, convincing us that we need more stuff, bigger stuff and better stuff. We desire to consume enormous amounts of energy, drive enormous cars and buy and waste enormous quantities of food. You can’t just buy a head of lattuga, you must buy 4. Products are sold in exponential quantities, pecks, crates, family packs, big lots, party packs, cartons, king size portions, 20 for the price of 10. The only thing that gets sold by the gram here is saffron. Even Weight Watchers frozen meals are twice the size and calories of yesteryear. Shopping can be accomplished monthly with a mere gas guzzling mack truck, and an extra refrigerator in the 3 car garage. No need to worry about a tsunami, earthquake or flood. The choices are endless, every possible ethnic variety of food, prepackaged, ready to nuke for dinner on the run. No more do we cook. How boring. How mechanical.

I had sworn to avoid stores like COSTCO, but felt it necessary to see what’s new in American culture and entertainment. So, I borrowed a COSTCO card. After only a few minutes in the store, I honestly started to feel sweaty and faint, kind of like Stendahl Syndrome but I wasn’t in the Uffizi. I was experiencing American consumer overload. I thought about my little market in Florence and missing it, bolted for the parking lot.

I must say that technologically, Italy has plunged me into a regressive abyss. I was excited to come here to find out what I’ve been missing during my 2 year absence. It pretty much boiled down to an IPad and stereo bluetooth earphones. A few cram computer courses brought me right up to date and when I arrive back in Italy next week I will be bleeding edge.

Driving in the California desert, the environment is meticulous, perfectly landscaped, litter-less and graffiti-less. The weather is perfect and predictable. People’s teeth are perfect and everyone’s bodies are lean and mean, the way mine used to be before I lusted to live in Italy. Eating is scientific, based on nutritional content rather than gluttonous appreciation for food. I was shell-shocked to see that every restaurant menu had the calories indicated for each dish. I learned that this is becoming the norm. We Italians don’t know what a calorie is…. And just forget the food pyramid. Lard, lard and more lard.

I treated myself to another great American pastime and went to a gym where I have a lifetime membership. When I showed my card at the desk, they confiscated it, tore it up, fingerprinted me and explained the new fingerprint entry scanner. Unlike the health clubs in Italy, women actually come here to work out and sweat instead of walking around in sequened studs to look at themselves in the mirrors. But where is the balance? In Italy the women won’t sweat. In America they sweat until they vomit. Today I observed a super-athlete running a marathon on the treadmill and later saw her vomiting in the locker room from working out too hard. In America, this is considered to be admirable and good.

Don’t let me get on the subject of American T.V. The Italians think their television choices are bad, so they all watch dubbed American films from the 80’s. They’ll stop imitating us when they see the trashy disgraceful "The Bachelor" or "The Jersey Shore."   Television entertainment reflects the culture of the people and American T.V. does not make me proud to be an American.  On the other hand, Italian T.V. offeres an abbondance of classic films, outstanding cooking shows, opera, art and cultural documentaries, game shows that quiz the common people about their culture, food and customs, and talent shows that allow people to sing, dance and make complete fools out of themselves.Italian style!

So, what else did I do while in the U.S.? I rode a bike, watched the spectacular Pacific sunsets, had a blast with old friends, worked on a presentation for the Italian Cultural Center in San Diego, got a perfect manicure, went to a mall and stocked up on vitamins, make-up and Power Bars, bought a shower massage that I can’t find in Italy, and even got a dental implant. I got more accomplished in 2 weeks than in the past year in Italy.

HOWEVER……much to my dismay…… I noticed something that I never would have noticed if I didn’t live in Italy. Something is missing here in America.  Something BIG.   Something that glues and connects the Italian culture to itself. Something that in order to be a culture, we can’t and shouldn’t live without.  Our old people and our handicapped people.

Of all the things that make me cry about America, this is to me, the gravest sin of all. Where are our grandparents? Where are our elders? Where are they? For the past 2 months I have not seen an old lady with a cane shopping in the stores. I have not seen an elderly couple locked arm-in-arm limping with smiles along the street.   I have not seen a single grandchild holding the hands of their nonni. I have not seen a single 70 year-old walking around the malls.  There are only two possible reasons. They either don’t exist or they are hiding. They are not integrated in the fabric of the people. I am sure that they are not all dead. They are hidden in nursing homes, segregated from their children in Leisure World communities, being taken care of by someone else but their families.  In America it seems to me (now from the outside) that our grandparents are completely disengaged from the core.  Disgarded? Removed?  Whether the choice to live apart from their families is theirs or the choice of their children they are just NOT THERE.  Perhaps one of the most beautiful things about Italy is the tribal nature of the family... where grandma and grandpa are literally at your side until the day they are buried.  And then they are ritualistically visited, on Sunday.  Always there and never forgotten.  Where have we Americans put our grandparents?  Whew! 

Monday I leave to go back home. I cannot wait to sleep in my own bed, to hear the birds in the morning and the bells of the Duomo. Back to the country that nourishes my soul and feeds my heart.