Thursday, February 22, 2007

Food for thought

Yesterday I had the rare chance of facing what the foreigners think about my city, in a very candid and unfiltered way. I happened to be invited to a sort of conference organized by the Arcadia University, one of the several american university which opened a campus in Rome over the last year, for his students.

Defining it a conference doesn't actually gives an idea of what it was, as the term makes one think of a speaker addressing a bunch of people lost in a variable degree of boredom. It could had possibly had been like that (or maybe not, considering the speaker who was many things, but surely not boring), but the combined effect of the general attitude of students towards extra-curricular activities not giving you credits and the pouring rain that hit the city yesterday turned the whole thing in a sort of round table, only without the table, by about a dozen people on the students' impressions and the speaker's experience about living in Italy in general and in Rome in particular.

Now, being the speaker american, the students americans and american the university organizing the whole thing, the language used english and english the school that gave us the room (which was, actually, the central nave of a former church), it's no wonder everyone forgot there were italians around and among them a real roman... me. Maybe it's the legendary openness of the americans, which someone less used to deal with foreigners might simply label as bluntness or lack of manners, fact is that the comments were clear, direct and, occasionally at least, bright... just as much as a lightning falling right over your head.

And what was the first thing that left an impression of Rome? The sense of history hovering over your head all the time? The magnificence of the churches interiors? The art hitting you openly in the main squares and jabbing you at the sides when turning less famous corners? Nothing like that, the first thing named was: Rome is dirty. Point taken, it's 10 years this city is turning more and more out of control and the cratered streets and litter everywhere are the most evident signs.

Fine, I took the hit like a boxer who instinctively knows where the punch is landing and had prepared his muscles for absorbing it. But the next one took me so off guard that revived in me one of the most classic stereotypes about americans: their total inability of understanding and adapting to the place where they are, expecting the world to turn around them. Romans, in their view, are "hard to adapt to others", the example given being the fact of being looked down when ordering a cappuccino in the evening.

Now, besides the obvious, english, saying "When in Rome do as the Romans do" which was all but forgotten, the romans tend to be, obviously in my opinion, among the most welcoming people in the world. Two thousands years of dealing with (and admittedly, in some period living off) pilgrims coming from the whole Christianity and having stable communities of foreigners in the city for the last twenty centuries made romans very tolerant, even if probably in a condescending way, towards different habits. We are often amused by foreigners walking around the city and often look at them with the sense of superiority and in the way adults do with children, but just the same way we tend to lend a hand to everyone in obvious troubles. So much that is not rare that people coming for a vacation end up staying here months, years or never leaving again.

Surprised as I was, it's not without a bit of discomfort that I observed the talk moving towards more stereotypes spaced out with experiences' tales by the speakers, those often making a long wide sweep before getting to the point he meant to do. So it came the one about italians being able to forget about any trouble as long as their soccer team wins a major game, being very concerned about the way they dress and conformists too at that and so on and so forth.

So I was there, wondering if that's really the way we are perceived even by foreigners living among us, and that much more surprising from someone, the speaker, who had been doing that for the past three decades, when realization did hit me.

First of all, that the journalist was doing, I do not know how much unconsciously out of an unconscious habit and how much on purpose, his job. During the conversation, while discussing how the students kept track of the news, he had pointed out, not without an apparent regret, how the media tended to channel towards the audience the news they thought their readers wanted to read about and that would had met their already formed idea of the fact so that they could related to them. And wasn't, maybe, what he was doing as well, channeling to the students anecdotes about the stereotypes about italians, to have them echoed back to him?

The second thing is, I realized I had done much the same during the round table and in the past as well. Me and most of everyone here. After all, with our idea of americans as uneducated, goofy people with their own standards of morality, didn't we laugh with gusto at the news of Cheney shooting his pal by mistake, Bush almost chocking to death with a peanut or the whole Clinton-Lewinsky affair and how americans took damn seriously something that we would had dismissed with a chuckle and a telling glance?

So I was left with a dirty town, the stereotypes and their creeping appeal, an obviously smart journalist with very interesting stories to tell and a slightly too self-centered and theatrical way of doing that and a bit of thinking to do. An interesting evening, and the pizza in the end was for free...

Btw, the journalist, Christopher Winner, is the editor of an online magazine, The American, which, for the little I could see for now, looks as an interesting read, even if not necessarly one to agree with...

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