Sunday, April 4, 2010

I cannot find the words

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.


Betsy said...

Wow, it's funny how similar our experiences have been. I ended up in Belgium, learning Dutch / Flemish during the Clinton years and was privy to a lot of interesting discussions during the Bush era.

My absentee ballot probably fluttered past yours on the way to the floor in Florida, as I cried in my living room so far away.

My fluency blinded many people to the fact that I was American, and I spent many hours trying to rectify the image of Americans as being naive, obtuse, bellicose, etc...

Our image abroad seems to have improved somewhat, but like you, I have reservations about the way we are communicating (or not communicating) with each other.

I am trying to take the advice you gave your son: to learn from everything and everyone. Am trying to understand the motivations of Tea-Party compatriots / family members, but it's not easy. It's a totally different world, and one that I'm just not prepared to accept. Your last line says it all...

Jennifer said...

Perfect timing. I just spent Easter with my in-laws, and there was a lot of politics talk at the table. My father-in-law and sister-in-law are pretty far right, while SIL's husband is on the left, and if I voted, I'd vote with the radicals. It makes for an interesting discussion, voices raised (mainly my sister-in-law's) but never any hard feelings.

My father-in-law, actually is HILARIOUS when he talks politics. You never know if he's kidding or serious (maybe a bit of both?) but it's always very, very funny. Even though I usually disagree.

Julie @ jublie's blog said...


Great post. I liked your enthusiasm for an argument. I first moved to Italy in 1987 for a year abroad with Cal State University. What I remember form that year was how much we talked. We talked and we talked.

My friends from that year abroad are still my friends today. We could spend six hours on a conversation. Perhaps conversing is a skill. If so, it is certainly alive here.

When I walked into the teacher's lounge on my first day of work, I just said my name. I was greeted with long long stories of who they were, what was going on, etc. Yes, in Italy, people are passionate about dialogue. Just the same, I have had both pleasant and unpleasant experiences in both countries.

For example, I remember QUITE well how very few people acknowledged I had a baby in a stroller in USA, except the Denny's waitress. While, here, you cannot help but get a thousand kind remarks, mostly from nonni. So yes, I completely agree with you. Let's get these people talking!

I also had the experience of living with some Italians when I was working here, before getting married. These guys would do the same as your post, argue about politics ~ and if I might add, also exchange a recipe at every sitting.

What I loved was how the following day, it was all smiles. It truly was just water under the bridge. There is nothing wrong with having an opinion and sharing it, as long as it is not done in a hurtful manner.

Keep up you love for Italy. It's a wonderful place. Remember, though, the grass is ALWAYS greener, and ever where you go, well, there you are.


anno said...

I think you nailed it on the sheer ugliness of rhetoric around here these days; that, plus the prevailing feeling that if you are not for someone's position, you are therefore against them. Sure have felt muted these days myself.

Understanding and empathy seem hard to come by these days; I would like to think that even just a little could go a long ways to undermine the prickly defensiveness we've seen. Thanks so much for this post.

Betsy said...

So realizing that the end of my comment might have come off as being part of the intolerant stance that's bothering me so much.

But it's not what these family members are saying so much as how they're saying it. Lots of derisive jokes, cliches and shouting going on. Lots of animosity and no tolerance or empathy for anyone with a different viewpoint.

The problem is that this raises me hackles and makes me less able to be open to their views. And round and round we go...