Sunday, November 9, 2014


 A few months back, at a book club meeting which I facilitate at a local library, when we discussed Wallace Stegner's exquisite novel about friendship  Crossing to Safety, I was reminded of one of my pet peeves.

In Stegner's novel - two married couples spend a year in Florence wandering around museums and churches writing, discussing art and literature, enjoying wine and Italian cuisine, and having picnics in the countryside.   The men are writers and academics. But the entire time they are in Florence, they feel no need to engage Italian writers or academics or Italian people of their educational background.  They don't even betray any curiosity about doing so. In fact, the only Italians they meet are the portiere, amusing and quaint to them for his tireless work ethic, and a village girl who longs for the sophisticated life of travel to America.  Oh yes, and there is also some guy they meet on the road, who is drunk and has suffered an injury and who they do the kindness of conveying home to his village in their car.

This is the extent of their interaction with Italians.  One comes away with the sense that Italians are quaint and loveable country bumpkins, while Americans understand more keenly the sophisticated elements of Italian history and culture.  The foreigners in such fictional accounts are the ones who seek a higher tone.

And this goes for films set in Italy - such as The Talented Mr Ripley, based on the Patricia Highsmith books - or the Italian Spring of Mrs Stone. In The Talented Mr Ripley,  it is the Americans who sit in cafes, looking glamorous, just before zipping off on motorini in front of the Spanish Steps.  Meanwhile, the Italian characters are bumbling police detectives and a naive country girl who drowns after a failed romance with one of the American characters.  In The Italian Spring of Mrs Stone, Helen Mirren plays an English woman swanning around Rome as the great exemplar of sophistication and taste.

I lived in Italy for four years - and I can tell you - this just ain't the case! We are not the sophisticates on the scene. By and large, we are the bumpkins.  Americans visit Italy dressed in shorts, t shirts and sensible walking shoes.  They absorb culture, art and history,  but are struggling first and foremost with language, and don't strike the casual observer as particularly suave.

I remember attending a launch in a beautiful reception room on Via Veneto - for a book of travel writing from the New York Times.  One of the contributors ( an American) told a story about how much he loved Italy and his countless travels over the years. He was speaking in English, by the way, and began with an anecdote, evidently intended to amuse and show how fond he was of Italians,  about how he and his wife had once mistakenly checked into a brothel - instead of a hotel.  It was supposed to demonstrate that wild, crazy and whimsical character that is the Italian.

THUD. Not a soul in the largely Italian audience laughed.

Americans are prized for a casual openness and winning enthusiasm. We really want to be liked when we're overseas. But sophisticated and urbane? By and large only in fiction.

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