An Italian discovers the US
Published in Italian 1995
English version 2001, no translator credited
[Beppe Severgnini is living in Washington DC as foreign correspondent for an Italian newspaper]
Being here when it snows is fun for another reason, apart from the fact that no-one switches the air-conditioning on. The white stuff brings with it silent parks, adorning the cupid in our garden with an elf’s hat of snow and uncovering a few interesting aspects of the American character. In London, snow is greeted enthusiastically because it constitutes a minor emergency (the British are specialists in emergencies). In Washington, it brings out the local passion for statistics (“It hasn’t snowed like this for 1410 days”), the love of forecasts (“From midnight to five am four and a half inches of snow will fall”), the spirit of initiative (seven offers to shovel the snow from my drive in one morning) as well as an attractively childish side to ordinary people’s personalities. Despite all the statistics and the forecasts, people are out to have themselves a good time.
And to have a good time, they don’t need the designer spacesuits and state-of-the-art equipment that Italians can’t wait to clamber into. A stout pair of shoes, a hat and a thick sweater is all that’s necessary.
observations: I re-read this book after reading John Hooper’s very entertaining book The Italians – see entry earlier this week – and succumbed to its charms one more time. I first read it when I was leaving the USA after living there for six years, and it served as a lovely nostalgic reminder of my experience as an immigrant (even though we lived in Seattle, nowhere near Washington DC) – many, many of his experiences and observations were familiar to me.
Comparing it with the Hooper book – Severgnini doesn’t bother with much history or politics at all, and I wonder if the Ciao America! has its bones in articles he wrote at the time, a month-by-month description of his life. (He should really have missed out the section on Americans mis-spelling his name – does he think that doesn’t happen to everyone, and wouldn’t happen to an American in Italy?)
He and Hooper overlap delightfully – Severgnini hates air-conditioning, Hooper writes about his surprise that Italians won’t have it. Both agree about bureaucracy and about the family – Beppe, talking about community organizations, says ‘In Italy the ideal association has a president, a vice-president, and two directors general. Mum, Dad, and the two kids.’ I loved his comparison between going to church in Milan and in DC: ‘Mass in America is not for spectators, as it is in some Italian churches where actually singing or saying the responses is considered a lack of respect. In America, you either take part or you stay at home.’
The book is in many ways out of date now – his tour of duty was in the 1990s, and his strictures on phones and computers seem older – but it is still completely charming. He is very funny about national differences, but makes it clear that he respects and likes America and Americans, he just wants to entertain and amuse us, and perhaps make us think a little. Very similar to the Hooper book, and also like Bill Bryson’s revered Notes from a Small Island (all British people love the way he made fun of us). It’s nice to have a tradition of these books to keep international relations happy and harmonious and easy.
The picture – of Washington DC under snow – is from Al Jazeera via Wikimedia Commons.