Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Grass Is Always Greener On the Other Side of the Ocean - L'erba e' sempre piu' Verde Dall'Altra Parte dell'Oceano

Visiting Italy one month per year and living on the other side of the ocean for the rest of the year is odd, fun and quite challenging. You feel a bit like Babar, the elephant in one of Tronk’s stories. He goes to the city, learns things such as how to wear a hat and how to eat with fork and knife but continues to miss his native country and the values he shares with his people. Then he goes to visit them in the jungle and he cannot help telling them how to dress and eat. It’s like being on a seesaw. You are going up and down, depending on the country where you are and on the person who is sitting on the opposite side.

You were in Italy? Oh my God!” ”Do you go back often?” “Once a year”. “Lucky you!” "Oh yes, I am", I often say, while I am thinking, at the back of my mind, that one month of Italy (Europe) per year for me is not very much. Then I think of all the people who could not/cannot afford to go home and then I feel incredibly lucky. For one entire month I have the privilege to find all the fresh food I can possibly dream of at the farmers' market. I can stop wondering if there are onions or garlic in my salad causing me severe bloating and whether the olive oil on my table is better suited to running my car. I can talk to friends and experts with a wider outlook and more willing to help address small but serious health issues. I can try medicines whose flavor is familiar and reassuring, I can hug people without feeling guilty. I can chat with the Head of Gastroenterology about the latest music festival in town, without worrying that I am wasting his time. I can relax and order another gelato, without feeling guilty - the Italian doctor says I should eat a bit of everything! - and without looking pregnant. For one month I can relax and recharge, until the forbidden word comes up in a conversation. Ooops, here it is again: America!

In Italy, if you say you live in America, no matter who you say it to, you know what is coming. You’ll be questioned about your life like a star in town and you won’t be able to escape from being further questioned. All the attention will be on you and you won’t be able to change the subject. Unlike the Americans who briefly say they love Italy and then move onto something else, the Italians want to know more. “Vivi in America? Davvero?” (Do you live in the US? But really?) “Come ti invidio! E’ sempre stato il mio sogno andare a vivere in America! Si vive meglio la’?” (I envy you! Going to America has always been my dream! Is life better there?) I often hear this question when I am in Italy and I really don’t know what to say. Think about it, beside the word “male” (bad) that I often hear in Italy… don’t you think it is hard to convey the complexity of your life in your own country? Right, for me it is the same, with the added complexity that I lived my life in three different countries, that I don’t live in Boston but in the burbs, like most Americans, that Boston is not America and that America is not New York - certainly not Manhattan. See what it looks like on Google maps? Like this.

Wellesley, MA
So you don’t live in Boston?” asked the mom who was sitting next to me on a bench one tepid afternoon in Turin. “Most Americans don’t live in the centre of Boston but in the suburbs, with one or two hours commute to work every day; where there are only houses, usually bad pizza places and fast-food chains.” She looked at me surprised. Whether I liked it or not, I did it again, I carefully prepared the ground to talk about my least favorite thing in America: food. Oops. Like other times, I couldn’t help adding useful details to increase that surprise. “Do people really eat in their car?” “Yep, they eat whatever and whenever” - I was doing it again! I was talking about food, the one thing Italians are so sensitive to and which drives all of their decisions. I was about to destroy her American dream.

Filled with guilt, I talked about my life in America and the things I love most there: the lake I can walk to, the rabbits that return to our yard at Easter time, the geese who are waiting for their turn to cross the street, the cute white van of the postman with the mirror at the back, the coffee shop that roasts the coffee, then the beaches and the cute little villages by the sea, with the stores open all summer. I explained to her that villages are positioned in the middle of nothing, and with only a main street and a little downtown that go through them… that is America. She was finally looking at me enchanted.

Make way to ducklings
Most Italians are obsessed with America but not with the America I know. As soon as I land in Milan, I see this obsession, which looks a bit like infatuation; I see stars and stripes printed all over on t-shirts, sweatshirts, backpacks, scarves.

Tronk's hairdresser in Turin and her American dream
I see either vans, nike or chuck taylors on people of all ages, fake American clothes with obscure writings in bad English, and with names of cities and teams that don’t even exist. Not to mention the clothes designed for doing specific jobs in America, and worn by people who only think of themselves as cool... and the baseball caps worn backwards. In Italy, it isn’t just high-school students. I even saw one of Tronk’s teachers in Turin with one. 

This ridiculous imitation of America in Italy has now, sadly, extended to food. When did they start talking about food in Italy instead of making it? The Expo in Milan, which turned out to be just an expensive celebration of different forms of junk food, is not the only place where I experienced this.

Warning: if you go to Expo 2015, a taste of junk food will cost you 10 euros
I saw many stores exhibiting/selling special healthy bread or pasta and junk food listed on the board. Also, donuts and muffins that looked like they were dipped in paint. A store manager at Eataly, as soon as she saw Tronk, tried to persuade me to try hamburger with fries. In America they eat this way! Come here, I'll show you... If you don’t pay attention, there are now restaurants in Italy that serve food reheated in the microwave. There are also “slow fast-food” restaurants - the name sounds like a joke, I know - and the star of Starbucks, with its burned coffee, has made its appearance in Milan. When did all this start in Italy?

Welcome to Milan!
Subway too?
How many Italian parents are still going home to cook lunch for their children? Do they still know how to do it?

One evening I took Tronk to my favourite buffet restaurant, Brek. I used to go there for lunch on saturdays with my parents to celebrate a good mark in latin or greek. They used to serve all types of food (pasta, meat, fish, vegetables), all cooked from scratch in front of us. That night I saw the restaurant door open but only two counters with the light. The others were completely dark. I was wondering whether the restaurant was open. It turned out it was open but the food was not quite what I expected. To my horror, on the left, I saw a fridge filled with prepackaged food. On the right, they were serving hamburgers, hot-dogs and fries. I was in a state of shock. Was that the same restaurant where I ate as a teen? Manning the hot dog station, I saw a woman who used to work there when I was a teen. She thought she knew me. After hearing me complaining, she said: “ You are right. Brek is no longer the same. People are no longer the same. The new generations ask for this type of food, my son included. What can we do? I don’t like it. I am quitting.” I was confused, disappointed. While I was leaving the restaurant, I saw a kids menu filled with junk, just like the ones we see every day in America. I saw similar kids menus in other restaurants and parents asking for them. In my country?? How could this be possible?
Baby drink?
Red Pizza?

With all the delicious lunch options available in Italy, you go for sugary bombs? 

What changes will our children see in Italy one day? I often wonder about this. It would be nice if this obsession of the stars and stripes brought the best of America to Italy; the ideas of social equity, responsibility, commitment, respect, hard work and justice are all needed in my country. But these things are not in our genes. Instead, we are importing the superficial America; the easy things that ultimately become problems, if they are not already. But why?