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Articles by: Douglas grant Mine

  • Life & People

    Lo straniero (Part Two)

    It’s maddeningly paradoxical, though, Italians’ admiration for the way democracy is practiced in America. Because throughout the two scant generations of their young, post-Fascist republic, citizens of this nation have consistently voted for the same sort of aged and aging mediocre, self-aggrandizing and easily corruptible males who have formed the political caste – La Casta – so damningly depicted as entrenched and unaccountable in a best-selling 2006 book of the same title.
          Italians know they are poorly governed at just about all administrative levels. And when they see Americans make an inspiring democratic exclamation that sets the country on a new and better course, they celebrate along with them. They laud and congratulate and even envy them. But very few entertain the idea that something similar is possible here.
          Here, the way things are is very similar to the way they have been. And to the way they will be.
          It’s like there’s a background chorus of rhetorical questions posed alla Obama: “Can we defeat the brutal gangsters who’ve been sucking the country’s lifeblood for a century? … Can we elect representatives with a vocation for service who’ll put the interests of the citizens ahead of their own? … Can we get the mountains of stinking garbage off the streets of Naples? … Take back our soccer stadiums from hooligans? … Embrace the ethnic and religious diversity that is the hallmark of the New Europe?”
          And the answer comes, again and again, not resoundingly but in a muffled, exasperated, defeated-sounding sigh: “No. Non possiamo.”
          According to analysis from various quarters, organized crime is stronger now in Italy than ever. Confesercenti, the principal association of small businesses, said in a recent report that the four main mafias rack up annual receipts of more than $165 billion, mainly through extortion, loan-sharking, smuggling, robbery, gambling and the counterfeiting of famous-brand goods. That figure, which translates into some $85 billion in profits, would make organized crime the single biggest segment of the Italian economy, representing about 7 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

          Two dozen sitting legislators have been convicted of crimes, mostly relating to their own illicit enrichment. They don’t resign and are not booted out. The country’s third biggest city, Naples, has been living under what is euphemistically called a garbage “emergency” for years. Meaning that the inhabitants of a major metropolis and cultural center of an industrialized Western European democracy have been obliged to get used to walking past mounds of rotting refuse. Fathers do not take their sons to big-city soccer stadiums for fear of the violence that regularly erupts between groups of rival fans, who even when blood is not shed compete to see which side can put on the most sustained spectacle of vulgarity and loutishness, often punctuated by overtly racist denigration of the black players on the field.
          The head of government, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is a former cruise ship lounge singer who made billions of dollars by excelling at the shady – often non-competitive and corrupt – way big business was practiced here among politically connected cronies, palm-greasers and kissers of cheeks both fore and aft. He owns much of the media, wears lifts in his shoes, sets aside affairs of state to jet off to Switzerland for a facelift and hair transplant, and not long ago recommended to a recent college graduate given the chance to ask him about job prospects for young people such as herself: “Since you’re so pretty, I’m sure you’d have no trouble finding someone rich to marry.”
          He thinks he’s funny. That’s understandable, because for the past 30 or so years he’s been surrounded by sycophants and subordinates who laugh at his dumb jokes, a couple racially-tinged ones of which went over like lead balloons with the American couple residing in the White House.
          Lately he has been accused of serially entertaining high-priced prostitutes in his palatial homes and dallying with an aspiring model 54 years his junior. She calls him “Daddy.” His wife has filed for divorce, saying she cannot remain married “to a man who frequents underage girls.”
          “Non è un paese serio.” It is a comment your hear over and over again in conversations at cafes, at bus stops or dinner parties. “It’s not a serious country.” Or: “If this were a serious country …”
          It seems incredible to non-Italians, but an astounding number of citizens of this country do not take their own nation seriously, at least not nearly as seriously as they take the quotidian enjoyment of delicious food and leisure time that affords them the gregarious company of family and friends.
          So should I be happy about becoming a citizen of this land? Or seeing my sons grow more Italian with each passing year?
          Well, the answer to those questions will probably hang in the air, half-hidden, for a couple decades.
          But, like I said. I’m not sorry we came.
          Our boys are good kids, in so many ways. And some of those ways are ones that they would not have had access to had we stayed forever in the States.
          They all know how to fold and pinch the cappelletti stuffed pasta that, served in beef broth, is a traditional Christmas-season dish here in Le Marche. Every December our kitchen becomes a pasta factory, with Bruno cranking out the sheets of dough, Joe running the pizza-cutter up and down and across to make the squares, Toby placing pinches of the three-meat stuffing on the grid and then everyone picking up the pieces one by one and executing the little origami-like move that makes each delicious “little hat.”
          They all know their Nonna Elvira’s stories – many told over food-preparation tableaux like this one – about the hardships of WWII when the allies were advancing up the peninsula and British and American bombers were pounding the German-occupied cities and the people had spread out in the countryside, sleeping in barns and gathering wild greens.
    There you go. There are two big elements of life – food, and the role of the elderly – that say a lot about any society. The weight people give them and how they fit into the bigger picture. And in those spheres, Italians have it all over the U.S.
          In spades.
          Beppe Carpi is a middle-aged longtime bank employee from Rimini, Fellini’s hometown on the Adriatic coast, who for the past several years has spent much of his free time caring for his elderly mother disabled by diabetes and other illnesses.
          “I’m just giving back to her what she gave to me when I was small and helpless. Now it is she who is helpless,” he says over a simple meal of the regional piadina flatbread folded around sausage or steamed greens and stracchino cream cheese.
          Assisted living facilities and old folks’ homes and the whole idea of packing the infirm elderly off into the care of strangers are notions that have not taken hold on this peninsula. Because Italians’ principal loyalty – before that which they feel toward nation or even the Catholic Church – is to their family. And not the nuclear one. La famiglia easily encompasses distant cousins, great-aunts and in-laws who remain hooked into the clan even after the death of the blood relative whose marriage established the original tie.
          I have three first cousins in the States. I’m in touch with only one of them. And as far as my brothers’ wives’ siblings, well, I couldn’t even tell you how many of them there are. Here in Italy, you find yourself around a table with those relations not infrequently. You do them favors, small or large, that are returned.
          Or not. Because the favor you did was not predicated on eventual reciprocation. It was done simply because that is the way things work here.
          It’s true that such bonds and whatever implicit obligations they might entail contribute to nepotism, which is an age-old and festering problem. But when family allegiance is not abused – and most of its manifestations are mundane and inconsequential in any larger scheme of things – it is consistently lovely to behold.
          Isn’t that – the willingness a priori to make a sacrifice for a member of your extended family – an ideal? Of course many Americans take care of their elderly parents, and others bend over backwards to help a nephew find a job, or provide him a room if his university is in the uncle’s town. We just don’t do it as much as Italians do.
          We also don’t eat nearly as well. Not just in terms of flavor. But with regard to health, too. You don’t see many fat people in Italy. Which is no small matter.
          Two other things, both in the realm of the ideal of fairness: education and health care. They are national systems here.
          Spending per student has nothing to do with the property tax base of the school district, a modus operandi in the States that makes for excellent schools in well-off areas and bad ones in poor regions and inner cities. Where’s the democracy in that scheme of things? If the quest for success and self-realization is a race, then isn’t the U.S. educational system assigning different starting lines to kids according to the relative affluence of their neighborhoods? Is that fair?
    In Italy, spending per student, the curriculum and the overall quality of teachers is pretty much the same in the working-class outskirts of Bari as it is in the wealthy suburbs of Verona.
    Private schools barely exist here, and often are diploma mills for troubled kids who can’t make it through the public institutions.
          Top-notch hospitals in the United States offer facilities and expertise and technology unsurpassed by any nation on the planet. The billionaire Berlusconi, when he needed surgery in 2006 to correct an irregular heartbeat, went to the Cleveland Clinic rather than undergo treatment in his homeland.
          But such care is provided in the United States according to a discriminatory curve having to do with wealth and the quality of one’s insurance, providing one has insurance.
    While hospitals and doctors in Italy, overall, are quite good. And every single person in this nation is covered by a national plan that assures citizens, and non-citizens, that they will be cared for at near-zero out-of-pocket expense. That fact provides people an underlying tranquility stemming from the knowledge that injury or illness will not eat up their life savings or leave them desperate and alone.
          Another point for Italy in the realm of simple fairness, human solidarity and civility.
    So maybe fretting, even if it’s passive and occasional, about the degree of my sons’ attachment to “the land of the free and home of the brave” is a waste of time. It probably is.
    Overall, I’m OK here, and OK with the prospect of my kids becoming more Italian than American. I’ll take the bad along with the good, and they will, too. Which is what you have to try to do wherever it is that you live. Right?
          And when I do get my citizenship, I’ll use it to vote. Maybe help kick some bums out of office.
          That’ll feel good.

    Douglas Grant Mine, along with Nicoletta Spendolini, his Marchigiana wife, publishes a magazine for middle-school aged kids (www.scarpecotte.com). They are aided in that enterprise by their sons Bruno, Joseph and Tobias (15, 14 and 13), who have lived for long stretches in both the United States and Italy and consider themselves fully engaged members of both societies.

  • Life & People

    Lo straniero (Part One)

    Today, after three years of residence in centroitalia, I handed in my application for Italian citizenship.

          When it comes through, in about two years, it will make my life here easier and only then will I enjoy a full complement of civil rights. But it’s not like it’s a red-letter day for me, something to celebrate. It leaves me almost melancholy, feeling diminished in my American-ness.               
          I’ve always disdained flag-wavers. I subscribe to the thesis that ostentatious patriotism is the refuge of jerks. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m not very happy, deep down, to have been born in the USA.
           I made the 20 minute drive from Fano, the little Adriatic coastal city where we live, up the two-lane highway bordering the shore to Pesaro, the provincial capital. The bureau for these procedures is in the prefettura, which is housed in a handsome 15th-century building, the former ducal palace, on the north side of the expansive main plaza, the Piazza del Popolo.
          I found the appropriate office and sat in the waiting room with several other people, mostly younger folk, all extra-comunitari like myself. There was an Argentine couple in their 20s. They might have had Italian grandparents, which could make things easier for them. A West African woman about 30 years old was giving some valuable advice to a couple from Moldavia. She, the black woman, spoke excellent Italian and was gladly and generously trying to help them avoid some of the setbacks and pitfalls she had encountered along this sinuous trail toward a new nationalityFor my companions in this antechamber, Italian citizenship would represent considerable improvement of their chances for a modicum of prosperity, for a better life for themselves and their children. This was a momentous step for them, one fraught with hope.               
          My motivations were different. I didn’t come here for greater opportunity. My own country continues to be unmatched in the world for offering to its own citizens and to arrivals from around the globe a bountiful banquet of opportunity, along with the chance to experience and embrace the concepts of liberty and responsibility, the rule of law and individual rights as described so eloquently by those iconoclastic revolutionaries named Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison. (Granted, Canada and Australia provide similar contexts. But even many Australians and Canadians emigrate to the United States every year. Why is that?)               
    Of course not everyone achieves The American Dream. The struggle leaves some by the wayside.                
          But most of those who reach U.S. shores and work for a degree of material security and a sense of belonging to a country that stands for something do indeed achieve most of their goals. In so doing, they become Americans. Something different and, in their own minds, better than what they were before.                
          I’m not Italian-American. I’m a typical American mongrel mix. Of my eight great-grandparents, three were German, two were Irish, two were Swiss and one was Dutch. But I grew up in New Jersey, which after New York has the biggest Italian-American community of any state. So throughout my childhood and adolescence, half or more of my friends and classmates were the children or grandchildren of immigrants from Italy. Mostly Sicilians and Neapolitans.                
          Stirling, where I went to middle school, was (and still is) more than 80 percent Italian.

          My wife is Italian. Not Italian-American. Italian-Italian. We met 16 years ago when we both were working in Central America, in El Salvador. We had a whirlwind romance and got married and we had three children in rapid succession, in 1994, ’95 and ’96. All boys.                
          From birth they were dual citizens; American by way of dad and Italian through mom. But we spent most of their childhood in the United States, in Miami. To be precise, we lived in Coral Gables, a lovely residential municipality of Greater Miami. The kids, naturally, became more American than Italian, even though their mother, Nicoletta, did an admirable job of making sure they learned her language.                 
     “Non capisco se mi parli in inglese,” she insisted for months on end, feigning incomprehension when, at the age of around 4 the kids, immersed in pre-school and American daily life, wanted to use English inside as well as outside the house, where up until that point either Spanish or Italian or a pidgin of the two had prevailed.                
          More than eight years went by. And we were happy there. Then, three years ago, when Bruno was 12 and Joseph was 10 and Tobias was 9, Nico and I decided to move to Italy.                
          I’d spent some time here, and liked this country. I spoke the language fairly well. (My Spanish, which had become almost a second native tongue after 13 years of work in Latin America, helped.) It was Nicoletta’s homeland and in my mind it harbored a wealth of history and culture. My college roommate for four years was a Cuban intellectual who turned me on to “foreign” cinema in the 1970s, and Cornell had three small theaters on campus that held several retrospectives or mini-festivals every year. I loved the movies of Ettore Scola, Lina Wertmuller, the brothers Taviani. Italy in the early 21st century seemed to Nico and I a fundamental part of both the Old and New Europe, and as such an eminently interesting place for us and our kids.
          This was our reasoning: If we, because of our particular circumstances, were able to bestow on our children the extravagant gift of becoming full partakers of and participants in two worlds, then we would be almost negligent not to do it.
          In the late summer of 2006, it became a matter of Now or Never. Bruno had finished his first year of middle school. He spoke passable Italian, but his entire academic formation had been in the States. He’d never been instructed in the intricacies of Italian grammar, the formal study of which is a big part of elementary school here. He could not write in that language. So seventh grade seemed to us the last point at which we could drop him into the Italian public school system with the expectation that he’d be able to catch up. Waiting any longer might be asking too much of him.                
          We came. And the kids have done great. In school and out. They now enjoy that rare condition of being absolutely bi-cultural. If you see them in an American context surrounded by American kids, they are indistinguishable in idiom and mannerism from their mates. The same goes for here. Unless you know their background, if you watch and listen to them on the beach in Fano, playing with their pals, you would think they were born and raised here.               
          By the time they finish high school, though, they will think of themselves as (and thus be) more Italian than American. I believe they will retain a good dose of their American-ness in their psyches and hearts. I’m still pleasantly surprised by the fact that, 38 months into our life on this side of the ocean, they still speak to each other in American English. I thought they would have switched to Italian by now.               
          But how do I feel about the prospect that their principal cultural identity – their framework of cardinal references and signposts – will be predominantly Italian? That they probably will not feel, like I do, a visceral attachment to and a kind of spiritual kinship with Bob Dylan and Jackie Robinson and Walt Whitman?                
          I feel a little sad about it, honestly. Voglio dire, I’m glad we came here and that we made our kids bi-cultural. I’m proud of them, of the kind of adolescents they are becoming before our eyes.                
          But what I cannot help feeling a bit sorry about is that Italian society, the one into which they’ve become so thoroughly integrated, does not set before them a construct of ideals suffused with nobility.                
    Not that the ideals of America –  freedom, the rule of law, inalienable rights, equal opportunity –  are unfailingly practiced or rewarded. The system is far from perfect.                
    But most Americans have absorbed, even if only by osmosis, an affinity for those concepts and they share the objective of seeking to perfect their democracy, their country, by using the principles and ideals on which it was founded to effect progress from generation to generation.                
    That shared notion is generally ennobling. To varying degrees, of course, depending on the individual. But the underlying current is there, and flowing.               
    Here it’s a different story.
             There could be no Italian Rosa Parks. No individual standing up (or remaining seated) in defense of her or his rights could catalyze a movement that, through grassroots protest and civil lawsuits, might erode injustice and advance the development of democracy. Neither the courts nor politics – the two main avenues upon which a people makes concerted moral and civic progress – work that way here.                
          That does not mean there are not heroic Italians who take a personal and dangerous stand against perfidy. Dozens of brave men and women in recent decades have refused to pay il pizzo, or protection money, to extortionists from La Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria or the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia. But they usually are terrorized into submission, and the idea that they might defend themselves or their families and somehow strike a blow against criminal tyranny by pressing their case through the lethargic, politicized and ineffective judiciary is beyond Quixotic. Any suggestion – by an outsider, say – that one might try that route would elicit from most Italians only smirk of resignation tinged in equal parts by disgust with the status quo and pity for the foreigner’s naiveté. 
          Andrea and Paola are friends from our years in Miami, where Andrea was an IT manager for Costa Cruise Lines for four years.  He was transferred back home, to Genoa, five years ago, and left the cruise company in 2006 to set up his own business as a consultant and software designer in Arenzano, outside Genoa.
          “It’s tough these days for a lot of people,” Andrea told me as we strolled through the narrow streets of downtown Genoa. “The middle class is really hard-pressed. It’s the first time in my memory that middle class people find themselves barely reaching the end of the month with any money at all in their pocket, having to go that fourth week without things they always took for granted.”
          “Why is it that?” I asked him. 
          “Italy has very deep-rooted structural constraints on its economy. The huge and inefficient public sector, corruption, cronyism and organized crime. And all the entrenched powers that benefit from the status quo. It’s very hard to change things here.”
          “So you’re not optimistic about life here, say, over the next 20 years? About prospects for Ricky and Alberto?”
          The kids, 16 and 18, seem like happy and well-adjusted ragazzi. They both study at Arenzano’s liceo scientifico, and are planning on going to university, which here costs less than a thousand dollars a year.  
          “I wouldn’t say I’m not optimistic,” he said as we stopped beside Paola and Nicoletta at the display window of a shoe store. “These problems are eternal. They’ve always existed, and we always find a way to get by and get through them.”
          That sort of resignation is endemic. 
          There could be no Barack Obama in this country. That’s not to say that Italians don’t love him. Most of them do, and are eager to say so. Even those who line up on the conservative side of the political spectrum.             
          Such moral support for the U.S. president is, at heart, an expression of admiration for the essential American-ness of Obama’s storyline. And Italians – even knee-jerk leftist ’68-ers, even after eight years of George W. Bush – genuinely like Americans. I don’t know if it’s because so many have a great-uncle or great-aunt and second cousins who made good in the U.S., or because Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe or because of stories handed down from parents and grandparents about GIs and chocolate and sliced white bread, or Rocky, or what. A combination of all that and much more, probably.
          Obama rules here. It’s a manifestation of excitement and enthusiasm for the fact  that there are countries like America where politicians are held accountable for their deeds and fresh ideas emerge to fill the citizenry with resolve and hope.

    (to be continued)