For generations, Italy has inspired transplanted writers. From personal narratives to cookbooks, from history books to blockbuster fiction, its enchanting culture and historical legacy has helped to churn out manuscript after manuscript. Although I was fascinated by its history, transfixed by its culture and wowed by it cuisine, my Italian experience, as I write about in The Absentee Ballot, falls into an entirely separate category of “back from Italy” books: surviving liberalism and living to tell about it.
Unlike those who vowed to leave the U.S. if George Bush was elected, I had simply decided to follow my Italian husband who was returning home after spending several years in the U.S. My husband had motivated my move, and in chapter one, I explain what motivated my book.
Historically, there have always been hypercritical Europeans, but the shameless assault that I was seeing emanate from American leftists prompted me to give a broader perspective on a Europe that I found strikingly different from the one championed in their blogs, e-mails and newscasts. European attacks on U.S foreign policy and culture weren’t new, but the rhetoric that was spewing forth from American liberal circles had become unbearable.
More and more Americans jumped on the bandwagon, and the America bashing intensified. It became hip to be an Amerihater. With the casualties rising in Iraq and no WMD to be found, they became bolder in their criticism.
Not only were these Americans blinded to the notion that they were living in the greatest country on earth, most of them hadn’t a clue about the practical effects of the policies which they advocated. George Clooney might have filmed a commercial for the former communist running for Prime Minister of Italy, but his Italian experience is quite atypical. His American paycheck, his reluctance to learn the language and his lakefront villa opulence keep him from grasping the frustrations of a typical hard-working Italian, so how is he qualified to comment, let alone recommend a candidate. I wonder if he has ever attempted to reach the center of Milan on a train, bus or subway when strikers have shut them down. Because I used the train and the subway, I wasn’t as lucky. Then again, I was, because I was able to witness socialism at work.
Looking down, I watched impassioned hippies march through the otherwise car-packed streets, while flags and banners waved as thousands of people chanted and played music. The sea of red had the odd Soviet flag sprinkled here and there. Some protestors screamed into megaphones, while others sang the communist worker’s hymn. Not being a communist myself, I didn’t recognize what the song was until I watched the news later that night.
CGIL (ex-communist union) had turned out thousands of people, including children, to manifest in over one hundred towns across Italy. The strikes varied in complexion from city to city, but the scioperanti, as they are called in Italy, used this occasion to protest a panoply of issues ranging from the war in Afghanistan to environmental policies. In Bologna, they took over a Benetton shop. Elsewhere, anti-Big Mackers organized a three day event against McDonalds.
Every drumbeat and bell struck in squares across Italy signaled new grievances. Ding: Global warming. Dong: Unfair layoffs. Bing: No War. Bong: More vacations. However serious or ridiculous the grievance, the habitual strikers used any and every excuse to march and complain. I guess Machiavelli was right: the power wears out those who don’t have it. Berlusconi and the right had worn them out just as Bush had exasperated leftist Americans.
Strikes were inconvenient and periodic monkey wrenches, but there were other more critical errors in the liberal utopia, namely multiculturalism which is fundamentally altering Europe’s cultural landscape. And because Italian isn’t a widely spoken language, their struggle with immigration doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Italians have struggled with illegal immigration and waves of refugees from Africa, because of their preference for multiculturalism over assimilation. The crisis has been compounded by the severe religious divide between the Catholic majority and those Muslims calling Italy their new home.
The battle between the leftists and those vying to preserve Italy’s storied culture is growing increasingly bitter.
It wasn’t just embarrassment or adding members to their roles that interested the communists. They also used the religion of the immigrants to beat back the dominant faith which they despised. Near Siena, well-known for the palio, a centuries-old horse race in the town square, religious tensions were stoked by a communist mayor, who, without seeking the approval of those living in Colle Val d’Elsa—a village just outside of Siena, brilliantly decided to provide public funds to build a mosque on a public park. The locals were outraged, not because of racism or bigotry toward Muslims in the town, but because they weren’t asked their opinion. There was no referendum.
Construction has begun and minarets will soon tower above the small cobblestone streets and medieval frescoes. Score one for those Marxists who would love nothing more than to snuff out the “opium of the people.”
At times, politicians on the far right utilized rather unorthodox strategies to affect the growing Islamic influence in Italian society.
Roberto Calderoli, a La Lega politician, planned a “pig day” to protest another planned mosque in Bologna. “I place myself and my pig at the disposal of those who are against this mosque,” he said, offering to tour the construction site with his pig, after which the ground would be “considered infected and no longer suitable” for building. Although the pig day proposal shocked many Italians, only 28% of the population supports any new mosque construction.
Immigration is a main concern of both Americans and Europeans; so is racism.
It didn’t take long for me to recognize a peculiar connection between swastikas, old soviet flags and banana peelings. During European soccer matches, all were liable to end up littering soccer stadiums in appalling displays of racism.
At Milan’s San Siro soccer stadium, Zoro, a player for Messina, heard taunting so severe that he threatened to leave the field. Other players convinced him to stay and play, but the next time he traveled to Milan for a game, he was greeted with a sign that read, “Peanuts and bananas are the price of your fame.”
I wonder how the elites, the self-loathers and the race-baiters would get along in Europe. From human rights to UN resolutions, these folks are constantly in search of European approval. But how would they fair living inside their socialist utopia, and would they be surprised at the life they would find? Would Jesse Jackson continue cashing in on corporate shakedowns and exploiting every race related issue to get mug time on television? In Europe, he would have plenty of opportunities.
If Jesse and Al could help ease European racial tensions, then maybe Al Gore would be happier in Europe under its proactive environmental policy. But, could Gore really last? He would have to alter his rather liberal use of electricity—reported to be twenty times that of the average American household. Electricity in Europe, like fuel, is much more expensive
It would be costlier to operate his SUVs and private planes and then there are also the inconvenient “time outs” from driving in the city. When pollution levels reach a certain level inside the municipalities, the government bans city traffic and declares a pollution free zone.
If Gore lived inside an Italian metropoli, he’d have several options, starting with the many systems of mass transit. If the busses, trains and subways are not available because of strikes, there are always other viable alternatives, such as riding a bicycle or a horse. Somehow I don’t see Al Gore riding the subway or a horse.
If it wasn’t striking workers grinding the transportation system to a halt, it was the ‘save the earth’ crowd’s efforts to ease smog in the cities and municipalities. But as inconvenient as those interruptions were, Italy’s outrageously high taxes had an even greater impact on the lifestyles of Italians, and me. Italians are known for their creativity, and their tax-evading maneuvers required every ounce of it.
I learned the routine rather quickly. If I requested a receipt for any labor completed, the bill was usually higher. Cash was always welcome and utilized more often than I was used to in the United States. My friends were refreshingly honest about their Swiss bank accounts, and would occasionally recount their tax escapades. One of my favorites was a friend who had made trips to Switzerland for years.
One afternoon when it came time for him to cross into Switzerland, the border patrol directed him to pull to the side of the road. They needed to search the car, and they did. They looked through his briefcase, his jacket, the car and in the trunk, but found nothing and let him pass through. The only place they hadn’t checked was underneath his hat, which was where the smuggled cash was hidden. His behavior might seem extreme and deceitful, but the strain and limitations of the tax system had forced him to find another way.
High taxes, multiculturalism, environmental treaties and overbearing unions were just a few of the many socialist surprises that I found had been misrepresented by socialist sympathizers in the American mainstream media. However, their most egregious propaganda—the one that prompted my book—is their suggestion that Europeans hate America.
Getting along was easy. Europeans hadn’t held it against me that I was American, just as I hadn’t held it against them that they were not.
My neighbors didn’t seem to mind having a Yankee in their backyard. As a gated country club community, Monticello wasn’t necessarily a typical Italian neighborhood, but it was almost bizarre to see how the American flag functioned as a brand. I was amazed to see kids wearing sweaters of old glory or shirts with “I love the U.S.A” scribbled across them. None of them had “I love Germany,” or “I love China” t-shirts. It was America they were wearing.
Surely, part of this curious admiration was due to the great marketing of the flag by designers in the U.S. However, if Italians felt loathing or even indifference toward the U.S, they would avoid dressing themselves in red, white and blue.
The most recent U.S. Presidential election, provided voters a clear choice, perhaps the most unambiguous in decades. The background of candidate Obama enticed voters with a chance to make history, while his eloquence before the teleprompter invoked comparisons with Reagan. Since his presidency has begun, however, it has been his frightening policy proposals like healthcare that have functioned as a collective double espresso to the voters.
The triple espresso is The Absentee Ballot.