As I prepare for my first visit back to the US in over a year, I find many thoughts racing through my head. Most of them center around the fact that I live in a very small town here and I’m going back to a very large city. The lifestyles are completely different. But it’s more than that. Here are a few things that have me concerned.
Restaurants and Wine
Don’t get me wrong, I am really looking forward to having a variety of cuisines to chose from, but I’m not looking forward to paying US prices for them. I’m used to eating out in great restaurants and paying about $60 for two people for three courses and a bottle of wine. A comparable meal in Atlanta would probably be more than double that. Sticker shock where it hurts the most – in my stomach.
And the wine. I don’t want you to get the impression that we’re winos (we are), but we do love to have the occasional (daily) glass of wine. We buy wine at the Gala, our local supermarket. You could fit three Galas inside the Kroger where we used to shop in Atlanta. You may not be able to find zip-lock bags in the Gala, but you can find some darn good wine. And every week they have various bottles on “offerta”, or special. These are usually about €4.00 a bottle. And they’re very good. DOCG (the highest category of Italian wine) wines that you couldn’t find in the US with a flashlight and if you did, they would be north of $20. We’re in wine heaven and the thought of going back to spending for one bottle what we pay for five is unnerving.
I’ve been in a self-imposed news cocoon since I got here on July 27, 2021. I have purposely avoided reading the news, other than the occasional NYT headline review. I rarely click onto a news story. I will read human interest things, travel related items, and essays on things that make me feel good, like puppy adoptions. I haven’t seen the Atlanta paper since the day I left Atlanta. I don’t get news feeds on my phone or have any news apps that I check or subscribe to any email news updates. Steve is still reading two newspapers a day and I figure he’ll let me know about major happenings. And he does, giving me regular updates on things of note, like Loretta Lynn’s death.
I have enjoyed my news cocoon world, but reality inevitably creeps into it. People ask me what I think of the recent Italian elections and who I think will run for US president in 2024. The real answer is “Don’t make me think about these terrible things”. I have found that the less I read/listen to the news, the clearer my thinking is on matters of import.
Stripping all the clutter away has a way of making you think for yourself and frame situations in a pure and unbiased way. This has made me re-examine what I think of as “news”. While Ted Turner is Atlanta’s own native son and a larger than life personality and community booster, I don’t believe that the 24 hour news concept was a good one. There may be enough news in the world that you could truly broadcast it for 24 hours without repeating a story, but that’s not what has happened. You don’t hear that a new species of owl was discovered on a tropical island off the west coast of Africa, you hear about whether Donald Trump moved the boxes before or after the subpoena told by 17 different “experts”. It becomes confusing determining what’s important and you come to believe that what you hear must be important or else it wouldn’t be on the news. Who’s making the news here, people? The news makers or the news tellers?
Italians talk about current events, but they’re not obsessed with them. This is a culture shaped by millennia of invasions, dominance, war, and famine. Their collective psyche has been conditioned toward skepticism. They don’t expect that things are going to change in dramatic ways when a new government is elected. And they’ve had practice at this. Since the end of WWII they have had 69 new governments. The US has had 15 presidents in that same time. They discuss politics and world affairs, but it’s with more of a “boh” attitude than a “sky is falling” one.
In my opinion, Americans’ obsession with the news is the primary reason it’s so polarized right now. Politicians have seized on this and use it to scare people into thinking that the other side is evil and awful, when differences of opinion are healthy and vital to making sound public policy. And the media has taken this polarization and highlighted elements of society that should have stayed in the shadows. Giving them a voice is not newsworthy, it’s dangerous. I’m not looking forward to going back to this sensationalism. I think I’ll be saying “boh” a lot.
We’re bringing Millie with us, of course. Her vet here and our vet in Atlanta have both said they see no reason she can’t travel. This is great, but the US offers an entirely different world for dogs than Italy. She won’t be able to go to any restaurants with us, and very few stores allow dogs inside. With her medication schedule, we’re used to taking her and her meds along with us when we stray far from home. But alas, this won’t be the case in Atlanta.
I am perplexed by the attitude toward dogs in the US. After living here a year, I see no problem bringing a dog to a restaurant. You don’t even know they’re there most of the time. I’d rather eat in a room with three quiet, well-behaved dogs than with one screaming child or loud, over-served adult. But that’s just me.
So, Millie will be spending a lot of time in the place we lay our heads. We’ll walk her everyday, but gone are the road trips and lunch and dinner outings. I’m glad she doesn’t know about this yet. It would make her little doggie heart sad.
I know there are farmer’s markets in the US and they do a good job of bringing fresh food to a multitude of people. Wealthy people. Shopping at these markets is great fun and it’s wonderful to get to know the farmers who grow the food. But the prices they are forced to charge limit who can shop there. I simply won’t be able to buy a $5 heirloom tomato when I can get a dozen of them here for that price. This is more a principle than a matter of economics.
We talk about food deserts in the US and how so many vulnerable populations don’t have access to fresh, healthy food. But until we re-frame our food distribution system, this is unlikely to change. Having lived in a place where food is considered a basic right, I see the beauty in making it available to everyone at reasonable prices. I wish we could figure out how to do that in the US.
But it’s not just the food that delights me about the weekly market in Anghiari. You can rummage through clothes – some used, some new – and find an acceptable top or pair of jeans for under €20. I recently bought three pairs of socks (they were new, not used – gross) for €3.50. Really good socks. You can find thread, toothbrushes, walking canes, frying pans and underwear in the booth next to the fresh artichokes. It’s better than Target. And much more fun and infinitely more affordable.
The markets provide more than a place to get your supplies. They’re the essence of community here. Locals gather in small groups trading intel on what’s going on. You stop for an espresso and sit outside watching the market theater. You find out if the olive crop was a good one this year. You hear about who’s ailing and who’s on the mend. You bond.
Traffic and Cars and Driving Everywhere
Having mastered the art of driving a stick shift, I am now faced with another driving dilemma – traffic in Atlanta. If we have a back up of three cars at a traffic light, that’s a traffic jam here. If road construction blocks our lane and we have to wait in line to get around, that’s a traffic jam here. We don’t have backups that stretch for miles or snake through city streets as you sit still and watch the traffic light run through three cycles. And I don’t miss that.
I’m also used to small streets and small cars. We are seeing more and more SUVs here, but for the most part cars are small. I’m wondering how I’ll fare driving down Ponce de Leon Avenue with a Jeep Grand Cherokee cruising beside me. And now that I’ve gotten used to driving the stick, will I push my phantom clutch in an effort to slow down and regroup?
I will also miss walking most places. When we decide on the spur of the moment to go out to dinner, we don’t head for the car, we walk down the hill. When we run out of prosciutto (a sin no Italian would commit) we walk to the pizzicagnolo (basically a deli, or specialty food store). When we want to go have a drink or a gelato or mail a letter – we walk. Often our car sits idly in the driveway for days on end, begging us to take it out. But we walk by and give it a pat on the bumper as we head out on foot.
Tear Down Culture
A friend of mine from my former workplace sent me some pictures of construction that’s going on around our building. I had to look closely to get my bearings. I went to work in that building for over seven years, yet these pictures bore no resemblance to the place I knew. Atlanta is always on the move (except when you’re stuck in traffic) and this is a sign that things are alive and well in the “City Too Busy to Hate”. That’s its culture and what it made it the premier city in the Southeast. But it’s also disheartening to me to see old buildings being razed to make way for trendy condos and Starbucks.
Atlanta is a new city with an old soul. In the mid-20th century, Atlanta’s leaders realized that they had to somehow take a less than stellar past and try and make something from it. And they did. That’s how Atlanta became a bastion for the civil rights movement. They didn’t run from the mistakes of their forebears, they owned up to them and set out to change them. That’s what gives Atlanta its soul. I hope that Atlanta, in its constant efforts to better itself, doesn’t lose that thing that makes it so unique. I hope it remembers its soul and where it came from.
Here, I have drinks in a bar with a 200 year old fresco on the outside of the building. My library is a former palazzo with frescoed ceilings and marble fireplaces. My city hall is a 600 year old former palazzo with Roman ruins underneath it. My doctor’s office is in an old convent. I live with history everyday. I marvel at the way they have taken these ancient buildings and repurposed them to meet modern needs without sacrificing their integrity.
I often find myself getting frustrated by the Italian way of life. There is no sense of urgency here and everything operates on what I like to call the Alfred E. Neuman philosophy – “What, me worry?”. Italians are generally very laid back. They are emotional and you do see blow-ups occasionally, but they’re over as soon as they begin. The watchword here seems to be tranquillo – calm. Things that frustrate the hell out of us (like a twenty person line at the post office that moves like a snail) don’t bother them at all.
I’m better about not letting these things agitate me, but I’m still American. I look for efficiencies in everything. And there are many that can be implemented here. While the Italian way of living is perfect for a vacation – take your time, don’t obsess, relish every little thing – it takes some getting used to as a permanent lifestyle.
But once you embrace it, it is a magical thing. Your blood pressure drops and your mind stops racing to the next thing on the to-do list. You become more calm (tranquillo) and you tend to see little things that you missed before. You make the transition from living life to enjoying life.
I hope that I don’t lose what little tranquillo I’ve acquired here on my three-month visit to the US. Like the subtle ways that you grow accustomed to snarled traffic, I think I’ve relaxed my pace of life in ways I don’t even realize. I still sigh as I join the long line at the post office, but I tell myself there’s nothing I can do about it. And while I’m waiting, I’ll people watch or try to engage in a conversation with someone. I see people pass by that I know and we exchange greetings. I hear old-timers talk about what kind of winter we’re going to have and if the wicked tramontana is going to be bad this year. And I realize that I’m not just waiting in line, I’m becoming part of the community. And what better use of my time?
Living in Two Cultures
For all the things about going back to the US that have my tranquillo ruffled, there are countless others that I’m so excited about. I get to see my great nephew and great-great niece for the first time. I get to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with my grandchildren. I get to have dinner with my friends, the tribe of women who know me better than I know myself. I get to touch the hands of all these dear, dear people and hear their voices in real life, feeling their breath as they talk. I get to wake up in the same time zone and not worry about sending a text and disturbing someone’s slumber. I get to fall back into my old life – a life that suited me and that I loved. In a city that saw me through college, brought me into adulthood, watched me get married, and helped me grow my career.
The concept of living in two completely different cultures is a strange one for me. Until I made this move, I had never lived more than 60 miles from where I was born. I was always just a short drive from my parents, sisters, brothers. My anchors. Now I live across an ocean from all that I’ve ever known. How I’ve become so comfortable in this place where I struggle to communicate remains a mystery to me. All I know is that my soul has found peace here and when I think of home, I think of two places. And that doesn’t seem odd at all.