Italy is a place of politics. It is a chaotic, turbulent, roiling mess, and in the fifteen years I lived there I saw the evening news awash with politics. I never quite grappled the intricacies of Italian politics, where every political party, no matter how small, has a stake in the parliament, where coalitions are formed over night and divorce the next day, usually with a public display of huffing and foot stomping. Politicians are recycled forever in Italy. It is akin to the ultimate consignment store, where a politician can walk in and hang him or herself up on the rack and wait for the next unwitting customer, who always arrives sooner or later. Italian politics are a mess, a show and a mystery.
Italians also love to talk politics. Really talk. The dinner parties I attended over the years were inevitably destined to wind up in great debates, bordering and sometimes spilling right over into quarrels. Fists would be pounded onto the table and wine would stain the tablecloth. Voices would be raised higher and higher, cheeks would flush, hair standing on end. Oh, the fights I saw! Oh, the stories, the history, the passion. I could almost imagine Julius Cesar himself beating his chest through his toga.
I also partook of these debates. I arrived in Italy during Bill Clinton's presidency, and I was greeted with the friendly, excited way that Italians perceived Americans then. I was still learning Italian in those early years, so my accent would inevitably result in the shopkeeper or taxi driver asking me where I was from, and when I would say I was American, their smile would grow large and they would tell me all about their great aunt or cousin or neighbor who immigrated to America. Later during my years in Italy, I was thankful that I spoke Italian fluently without an accent, for the Bush years were not kind to America's image abroad. And frankly speaking, I was grateful to be abroad during that time. But I would still bear the brunt of many heated discussions around the dinner table, as if somehow my very nationality made it all my fault, even though I had the ubiquitous fortune to have cast an absentee ballot in Florida, of all places. A ballot which surely wound up on the floor.
The beauty of those arguments haunts me a bit today, as I am living in such turbulent times in America. After the wine and espresso were polished off, and the hour was late and the guests had lost their voices from arguing politics, everyone would push their chairs back from the table, get up and once again be friends. We would kiss each other's cheeks and wish each other buona notte, and be back for the next round the following week. I spent most of my "formative" years in Italy, the years when I believe I began to comprehend politics, my own stance, my own values and what it meant to my own life. While I remember feeling the chaos was too much, the passion too great, I also remember learning a lot, and being able to disagree without degrading my opponent.
My American experience of politics of late has been something else all together. Are we so ignorant, so uncivilized in America? Are we so bratty, so scared and dull? Are we so far gone that we are turning into great bands of gun-toting, shouting fools, foaming at the mouth and fearful we may be tread upon? Are we so dense that we cannot see that we have a lot to learn, that as I told my willful son, we must learn from everyone and everything, especially from those we see as our enemies? Are we incapable of dialogue?
While I personally feel I returned to America at just the right time, where I felt my voice was heard and I could hope for changes that I believe to be desperately needed in this country, I also feel a sour dispassion, not for politics or politicians, but for the people doing much of the talking. Or the shouting. The Italians are loud, passionate, obnoxious and in your face. But they always leave you with a handshake and a history lesson. Their politics are a contest of wits and intellect, while here I sit with my mouth agape, wondering how on earth I can ever bridge such a great divide. How ironic that I learned to debate politics in what was a foreign language to me, and now that I am in my native land I cannot find the words.