I recently returned to the U.S. for a visit after having been away for about 21 months. I did not want to go. I did not want to leave Venice, I did not want to go through the trouble and expense of traveling, and I did not want to drive a car. I had not driven a car since I came to Venice nearly two years ago. I was afraid that they would not let me back into Italy (which fear was irrational, not based on any fact, and, as it turned out, unfounded and imaginary). But I had to go, and so I did.
I had to go partly because I needed to renew my driver’s license, and partly for the purpose of visiting my friends and family. I was curious how I would come to view Americans, and what it would be like to visit the U.S., after being away for a while. It had also been about four years since I saw any of my family, and I was curious to see how people had changed.
As to the question of Americans, I have for a long time thought that we in America were raising a country of fools. Nothing I observed during my visit did anything to change that opinion. But there is one observation I made about Americans that I did not realize was true before: Americans are very nice people. They are the nicest group of people I have come across, although I note that Australians are very close, and the English are nice as well. But Americans are the best; the most friendly, accepting, helpful, and generally downright polite, in stark and glaring contrast to the Europeans. I say Europeans, although I have substantial experience only with Italians. Other people I have talked to about this, however, tell me that the same is true of most continental Europeans. That is, they are unfriendly, pushy, rude and obnoxious, particularly with strangers and foreigners. When going to the U.S. after spending so much time in Italy, the way strangers are treated in the U.S. in comparison to the way they are treated in Europe was noticeable and remarkable. Americans (at least in small towns) always greet you in a friendly way, with a smile and a “how you doin’?” They look at you and smile when they pass in the street and say “hello,” or “good morning,” even if they never saw you before. Italians divert their gaze. If an American bumps into you, he says “excuse me,” or “I’m sorry.” An Italian will bump into you as though you were not there, and not say a word – they will not even look back to see if you are still standing. They will actually push you out of the way.
Now, my beloved wife, who is now a citizen of Italy, and who is by blood half Italian, and who has Italian relatives, hates it when I say anything bad about the Italians. But these are observations I have made, are based on personal experience, and which have been confirmed by every member of the English-speaking world with whom I have discussed the subject.
On the other hand, the Italians are very warm and friendly to people they know – they shout “ciao” to their friends and relatives, and have the annoying habit of kissing, or pretending to kiss, both sides of a person’s face. Don’t be the last one to a gathering – you gotta run around and kiss everyone – even men kiss men (although my Italian friends have the decency not to force this disgusting habit on me, as they know I am a straight American man, and prefer the combined lengths of our arms as the closest male-male contact. I don’t even like to do it to the women, because the women in America might cry foul). Our Italian relatives treat us like kings and queens. But this is not hard – it is easy to be warm to your family and friends. The real trick is to be kind to strangers, and in this the Italians fail.
I have, however, taken up some of the rude habits of the Italians, and find these habits somewhat liberating. It’s work to make eye contact with, and to smile at and greet, every stranger. It takes a lot of energy to politely wait for someone, rather than simply pushing him out of the way. I would have missed more than one vaporetto if I did not push the occasional lollygagging tourist out of my way, generally without saying a word. – no “excuse me,” and not even a “permesso,” which phrase only the Italians understand. And Italians are not afraid to tell you when you are doing something that offends them. Putting cheese on pasta dishes containing fish (the waitress will take away the cheese); asking for cappuccino after 11:00 in the morning, or ordering a spritz with cicchetti. These transgressions are usually met with a simple “no.” Can you imagine going into an American bar or restaurant, ordering something that is on the menu and readily at hand, and having the waiter say “no,” solely on philosophical grounds? My neighbor across the canal complained because my air conditioner was dripping onto the cover of her boat. For Chrissake, it’s a cover to keep water off the boat. But I tried to accommodate her, hoping that she would not rat me out when I cook on my charcoal grill outside.
I started my visit in Baltimore, because that is where my friends Steve Kraemer and Lisa Laramee live, and because that is where I would need to renew my license. To get to Baltimore, one must either go through Frankfort to Dulles, or from Venice to JFK. The problem with Frankfort is that there is never enough time to get from the arrival terminal to the connecting terminal. This airport must be a billion miles long. You gotta run, and there is a reasonable probability that your luggage will not make the flight. Then it is about a two hour ride from Dulles to Baltimore. The flight from JFK, on the other hand, goes right to BWI, but there is a layover of four or five hours. We always opt for the JFK route, and that’s what I did this time. That whole part of the trip went without a hitch, and I arrived by taxi at Steve and Lisa’s house at about 9:30 p.m.
Steve and Lisa live just around the bend from where we used to live, and were our best friends in Baltimore. They are foodies as we are, and we used to share dinners at each others houses. After dinners at our house I was ashamed to put out the glass recycling because of the quantity of wine bottles – and Karen doesn’t drink. They had the great generosity to take me in for several days, cart me around to my appointments with the MVA and the AT&T phone store, to cook for me (they are both masters of the kitchen and the workings of its instrumentalities) and to feed me like I was the goddam king of something. I tried not to be too much of a nuisance, and not to make too much of a mess (which I am by nature given to doing). I will be forever grateful to them, and hope to return the favor when they come to visit us this coming year.
During the days I was in Baltimore I had hoped to see some of my other friends, but that didn’t seem to work out, except for a short visit with my former art teacher George and his wife Maria. It was great to see them, and I wish I had time to tip a few with them, but we each had other fish to fry.
The next leg of my journey was to get myself to Dexter, Michigan, and visit with my family. The trip from BWI to Detroit was uneventful. I rented a car, which also went like clockwork, and was off to Dexter. I had to first stop in Chelsea, where my brother had arranged for a hotel at a huge discount. I got checked in without a problem, and the room was very nice. Shortly after I settled in I began to spread the joy that is my presence to my family.
Although I am a member of the bar, live in Italy, and fancy myself all high and falutin’, I come from humble origins, and belong not to the aristocracy, but to a working class family. They work hard, but nevertheless struggle to keep roofs over their heads and to put food on the table. They marry and have children young, not necessarily in that order. They are the salt of the Earth, if I may use (uncharacteristically) a cliché. This I knew and have always known, and was not surprised at being reminded of it. Some members of the family are happy with their station in life and embrace it, and others find it unpalatable, but don’t seem to be interested in doing anything about it. This is not meant to be a mean criticism, merely an observation. Note, however, that I did not finish my BS degree until I was 32, and did not finish law school until I was 41. In between those years I earned a Master’s Degree in business. There is a way out, but it takes a little elbow grease, dedication, and hard work.
One of the highlights of the trip was visiting my sister and her family. She had five kids, and raised them in what I understand was a less than ideal environment – and it is my understanding that they had an unpleasant home life as children, and have struggled with their own demons, and continue to do so. But during my visit they were very friendly to your graying and humble author, and I sensed a great deal of happiness and love in spite of what may have happened in the past. We went out into their detached garage and played pool, where I waxed all comedic. The visit was very pleasant, and I enjoyed it very much. As a side note, one of my sister’s kids had a hearse for a car. I mean a big black 1980-something Cadillac hearse, fancy lights on the side and everything, and fitted out all proper like as a love shack. Fuckin’-A.
The greatest surprise to come out my return was the rift between my two youngest brothers that has developed over the past few years. For those of you unfamiliar with my immediate family, these two guys are biologically speaking half brothers, as they have a different father, but the law ways they are full brothers, I and my closest in birth natural siblings having been adopted by our now father, to his credit. But to me they are simply my brothers. One was born when I was 16, the other was a pink little baby in my mother’s arms when I got married for the first time four years later. They were raised together after my brother and sister and I had left home, and I thought they were close. I will not elaborate here, but one has rejected the other, making accusations most horrible, the truth of which I have not and will not investigate (and the other has made his accusations of crimes and other transgressions against his accuser).
It is not the accusations that offend me so much as it is the schism itself, and the way I discovered it. That these two guys were close brothers I took as one of the pillars of truth, and a universal constant. I would sooner learn that f = ma is false, or that the speed of light is not 186,000 miles per second, than to discover that these two hated each other. I was aware that they had had a falling out of some sort, but no one told me much about it before hand, and no one explained to me the nature and extent of it. I discovered it only when I invited them both to my hotel room to watch Monday Night Football, as my team the Baltimore Ravens was playing. One of these chillun arrived before the other, but immediately left when he discovered that the other brother was coming. This was a shock to me, and left me in a position most awkward. It also made my life much more difficult, because I had to visit each “side” separately. Someone should have told me.
Such, however, is the nature of families. Sometimes a transgression, real or perceived, great or small, will cause a division that is never healed. It seems that this is the case with my younger brothers.
All was not drama, though. My cousin and his wife came to visit me. They spent no small effort in doing so as they had to drive from Toledo after work, but I appreciated it greatly, as I had to drive all over the state of Michigan to visit other members of the family. I hadn’t seen him in a few years. We are more like brothers, and it was very good to see him again. We also went to visit my parents at their house. My cousin and my mother got together again and had a nice visit for the fist time since my grandmother passed away. It was good to see, and I was happy they were able to do it. The rift there was created due to the disposition of my grandmother’s estate, the division of which was more favorable to my mother than to my cousin’s side of the family. i.e., they got jack, as did I (and I did not expect anything, and was not, under the law, entitled to anything). There are good reasons why the disposition of the estate with respect to my cousins was not unjust, but it did not ease my cousins’ pain, nor my sympathy for the way they felt. For the sake of completeness in this discussion, I note that the failure of anyone to help pay for the funeral was not such a reason – these things are paid from the estate of the deceased, not from the pockets of those who got nothing, to the benefit of those who took all.) I digress.
I also went to visit my brother Tom to have dinner with him, his daughter, and his fiance and her son, at the restaurant where he works. He works as a cook at a huge sports bar, where they have a typical menu for such a place. It includes Italian and Mexican foods, as well as good old American specialties, such as hamburgers. I had a Mexican dish, which was not bad, but could have used a bit more spice. The generous lad intended to pay for the dinner by having it subtracted from his next paycheck. But I corrected this faulty thinking after he left, and picked up the tab. It was good to see him, and I knew he could ill afford the cost of the dinner. I drove the hour back to my hotel in the pouring rain on poorly marked roads, virtually unlit, shiny as a mirror, and almost impossible to drive on while wet. God, I hate to drive.
Get away day finally arrived, and I got myself to the airport. That whole operation was much less trouble than I expected. I am used to being in Baltimore and in Venice, where we are plagued by long lines and delays and snotty counter personnel. But it looked as though there had been a plague in Detroit. The place was empty. I was not sure where to check in with my baggage, and I found a sky cap, and he actually took the bag to the counter, went in front of everyone, and got me checked in. For this he earned a $10 tip. I got to JFK, waited around a while, got on the plane, and ended up back in Venice. It was less trouble to get back into Venice than it was to get into the U.S. I don’t even think the Italians checked that my passport was valid. The Americans scanned it and asked me a boatload of questions, although I have God-given right to get into the U.S.
Other things took place during my trip, and I was shown other acts of kindness and generosity by my friends and family that I do not mention here – but that is not because they were not appreciated, it is in consideration of the limited attention span of my readers. All in all, it was a wonderful trip, I’m glad I made it, and it was much less trouble than I expected. I do not, however, intend to make any further sojourns to the U.S. for the next several years. I will be glad to entertain and even to put up any visitors who wish an audience. But from now until further notice, you will need to come to Venice to warm yourself in my light.