- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

On books

By Beppe Severgnini
Translated by Giles Watson
Broadway Books, $21.95, 242 pages

Americans always have relished images of themselves in foreign eyes. Alexis de Tocqueville was the great commentator on our ways, of course, and Frances Trollope, mother of the novelist Anthony, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde also made their impressions. More recently, resident correspondents of foreign newspapers have done their bit, the latest being Beppe Severgnini columnist for the distinguished Milan paper Corriere della Sera, who also writes for London's Economist.
The subtitle of Mr. Severgnini's "Ciao America: An Italian Discovers America," could be argued to be to be a bit of a misnomer. The book, affectionate and appealing, is in many respects a local story, being the author's account of living on 34th Street in Georgetown, between Volta Place and P Street NW, for a year. After 40-odd years in the city as an immigrant Englishman, I long have concluded that Washington is not America, which is somewhere else, in Iowa, say. Here, we have congressional and other government people, plus diplomats from all over, and the rest of us are clinging to the Atlantic coastline in what is in many respects a European outpost.
Mr. Severgnini, who was born in Crema, Northern Italy, doesn't deny this for a moment. Of his wooden, westward-facing house on 34th Street, for example:
"These cramped, dark houses with their steep staircases are about as un-American as you can imagine. A farmer from Oklahoma might use one for keeping poultry… . Yes, we Europeans love houses like these to distraction. In a detached suburban house, we might risk feeling we were actually living in America but the tiny rooms of and woodworm-riddled floors of Georgetown serve to cushion the blow of moving from the Old World. We are prepared to pay a premium for inconvenience of this caliber. The agencies know it and take full advantage."
The author's year here was in the mid-1990s, so some aspects now seem slightly dated; though he returned more recently and provides a postscript, lauding, for example, the wonder of Fresh Fields supermarket, which has in some regards eclipsed the so-called Social Safeway on Wisconsin Avenue. Mr. Severgnini's comparisons between life here and in Italy are an inexhaustible source of humor and insight. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in a wholehearted way, while the Italian response to anything going well is limited to not complaining. We love science and technology, while the Italian attitude is to try and ignore it so far as possible. Thus:
"America's problem and Italy's revenge is that sometimes the system gets too sophisticated, and ends up becoming ridiculous. The electronic exchange of information over the Internet is sometimes more complicated, and less efficient, than a phone call."
On the other hand, Mr. Severgnini acknowledges the simplicity of the United States telephone system in which all area codes are three digits and local numbers seven. In Italy area codes and numbers can vary, as, I might add, they do in Britain, where the phone system is a numerical labyrinth unguessable unless you know precisely where you are going.
Mr. Severgnini is no stranger to the British, having written "Inglesi" (1990), a portrait of modern Britain, followed by "L'inglese." His "Lezioni semiserie," is about the English language, and he has written travel books. His discrimination throughout his book between British and American English is acute and entertaining. And his erudition in English-language literature is impressive. Very occasionally he gets a little something wrong (the film "American Graffiti," so far as I remember, had the famous Wolfman Jack rather than a radio man called Lone Wolf, but that could be a result of mis-translation). British-isms in the text (when buying a car, "I had genned up on the various bargaining techniques") also could be the work of the generally proficient translator Giles Watson, but who's to say and they don't hurt.
My comment about Mr. Severgnini's subtitle notwithstanding, he does have a lot to say about America in a more general sense, as discovered by him and his wife Ortensia (they have a little boy, Antonio). He found our bureaucracy a "pushover," compared with the difficulty of negotiating Italy's. On the other hand, getting credit here was difficult, despite having assets back home. Renting a car here was a downhill glide compared with doing so in his own country. (I've never had any trouble in Italy, but that may have been because an American company made the booking.)
Mr. Severgnini's views on the superiority of American supermarkets over Italian ones did not quite gel with my impressions of Lucca's Esselunga one of the finest food stores I've been in but, again, the book was written some years ago and first published in Milan in 1995. The author's reported perils of negotiating American gasoline pumps did not impress me as much as they might have if an American companion (we were somewhere in Tuscany) had not lost a 50-thousand lira note in a pump that turned out not to have any gas in it.
Mr. Severgnini's talking about the hazards of getting about the sidewalks of Georgetown after Christmas with all the discarded Xmas trees laying about waiting for pickup by the garbage people seemed mildly exaggerated. His account of how carelessly the city trashmen collect one's regular rubbish did not, though; he was right on.
The author's comments on Washington's weather rang especially true in light of the heat wave we recently have been experiencing. Having grown up in the Po valley, he thought he could handle anything. But this view had to be qualified to "almost" anything after seeing what our summer climate could do to one. Then there was the experience of trying to get the bathroom shower to issue water with more pressure. Apparently, there are legal restraints to the power of showerheads, but a plumber of the old-fashioned sort was persuaded to bring an older showerhead, that produced "a violent jet of water," all for $12. And he said:
"Tell me the truth, Italian. You don't like it because it's strong. You like it because it's illegal."
The Italians are famous for being a people united by their antagonism to authority. Mr. Severgnini gets it right, saying that "Italians don't copy the important things about America, such as patriotism, optimism, and a sense of personal responsibility. Our passion, which is shared by three-quarters of the world's population, is to imitate the superficial aspects of American life, which include vocabulary, soft drinks, jeans, hairstyles, films, songs." I could add that in Italy one does not get the depressing feeling of fatalism so characteristic of the British these years.
Mr. Severgnini is admiring of the "stunning progress" of Italian restaurants in Washington in recent years, places like Galileo and I Ricchi. When Italian friends visit though, he has difficulty explaining that there really isn't any place in Washington to stroll in the evenings, no passeggiata. He enjoys his visit to Rodman's on Wisconsin Avenue, "a sort of creatively chaotic drugstore where you can find anything, provided you aren't looking for it." I've always thought of Rodman's as a fire-sale establishment where one finds great products, but rarely more than once.
Americans, the author finds well-mannered and gracious, more familiar than the British but none the worse for that. He obviously loves the United States and is glad to have been here and shared our rites, such as the 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The one regrettable moment on his recent visit was the people in Georgetown who had bought the house where he lived refusing to let him back for a look around. But he was too generous to let it matter, which tells you a lot about the kind of man he is.

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