There are no better Americans than those living in a foreign country. They are expected to defend the United States every day, at home, at work, in the streets. Whether they want to or not. Whether they understand the issue at hand or not.
It's 1968, and I am in Naples, Italy, teaching English as a Foreign Language. I'm on my daily three-hour lunch/siesta break and wandering the city with my camera and notepad. In the infamous Spanish Quarters, the poorest section of the city, I befriend a group of young mothers and children. They sit, literally, in the cobblestone street, the babies playing with jagged tin cans, the mothers cooking beans on an open fire in front of their dark, one-room basement apartments. They are friendly and curious, as Neapolitans are. They want their pictures taken. I snap a few, and three days later, December 23rd, return with the photos and a few small toys for the children. In the Christmas spirit, I'd spent a good part of my meager salary on the toys. The children, laughing, unwrap the gifts, and after a few minutes their mothers push them forward to thank me. Each child gives me a smacky smooch on the mouth.
That evening, my Italian fiancé and I go to a cocktail party on Via dei Mille. The host's apartment is lavish, full of velvet damask sofas, Baroque gilt-framed oil paintings, elaborate silver services displayed on eighteenth century credenzas, and a huge balcony with potted lime trees. My fiancé is proud of his little American future wife, and relates the story of the gift-giving in the Spanish Quarters. We are both immediately attacked as "American imperialists" trying to buy influence.
"What influence?" I say. "Neapolitan children have no influence! It's Christmas; I just wanted to make them happy."
"Americans! Always trying to make people happy with money," a young lawyer says.
An older businessman who had made a fortune supplying the local American naval base with something, (toilet paper?) says, "Make us happy and stay out of our politics."
I vaguely remember the Marshall Plan, but say only, "Look, I just teach English."
"Ah! One of the corrupters, the avant-garde, slipping American propaganda into the lessons!"
The argument becomes more heated, and I find myself surrounded by twenty red-faced screaming Neapolitans, reliving World War II, the bombings, the starvation, the chaos. Outnumbered and confused, I exit in a huff, my bewildered, apolitical fiancé behind me.
Five years later, in the early '70s, my fiancé, now my husband, has been transferred to Verona, and I am teaching Italian Language and Culture on a US Army base. My American students are very young paratroopers, none over twenty-three, though some are Vietnam vets. You can pick the vets from the group. Their baby faces have old, flat eyes.
Many of my students have never left the base. I want them to lighten up, to see what I believe is the most beautiful small city in Italy, Verona. I hand out maps and directions. Their homework assignment is to buy a small spiral notebook, put on their jeans, and take the bus downtown. Once there, they are to record their impressions of the Roman amphitheatre, the Arena, the medieval and Early Renaissance Palazzo del Podestà where Dante lived for a while ("Who's Dante?"), and the Capitolare library near the Cathedral, where Petrarch found some of Cicero's original letters. ("Who's Petrarch? Yeah, man, and who's Cicero?").
Three days later, they report back to class.
"So, what did you think of the palazzo where Dante stayed?"
"Kinda old and crumbly."
"Yeah, and real cold inside. How that dude kept the pen in his hand is a mystery."
"Man, our mall back in Baltimore is nicer than that place."
But a group of African-American soldiers is elated. They have been invited to dinner by some people they met in Piazza Erbe.
"Veronese?" I ask.
Khaddafi, that crazy Arab renegade, I think, but say nothing. My young soldiers feel accepted off base, and happy.
They are wined (okay, watered) and dined by the Libyans for a few weeks, then report back that they are taking lessons in Islamism, off base, every Wednesday night. I go to the base commander. He seems to already know what I am about to report.
"Everyone is entitled to practice the religion he wishes; that's an old American tradition," he says.
"Yes, but this is Libya's religion. Khaddafi's religion."
"That's true," he says.
"It's not so much the religion itself," I say, "but who's promoting it, and where, and with whom."
"With whom? Wow," the commander says, a little smirk on his face, "I haven't heard 'whom' in years."
That stops me for a second, but I push on.
"But these kids are soaking up something really foreign."
"Well, for one thing, there's no separation between church and state in a lot of Middle Eastern countries. Isn't the separation between church and state an old American tradition?"
I can tell I am getting on his nerves. He dismisses me by saying, "Those troops' normal tour of duty ends in a month. They'll be shipped back to the States. And that will be the end of it."
It's 1999, my husband has been transferred again, this time to Brescia, another small Northern city. I am teaching English language and translation at the local Italian university.
It's a heady, confusing time for Italy. On the national scene, the old Christian Democrat and Socialist parties have been dismantled after mass corruption and campaign slush funds were uncovered. The old Communist Party had renounced communism years before, then courted elements in the Catholic Church and subsequently won the general elections in 1998. On the international scene, the European Union, NATO, and the UN had been dillydallying for years over the chaos resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia, just across the Adriatic Sea. Belgrade is 789 kilometers from Venice.
We are at dinner with old friends. They are friends, yes, though we have never understood their politics. In the 1930s and '40s, Romolo's father was a ranking Fascist; in the '60s Romolo and Anna were Communists; in the '70s they were Christian Democrats; in the '80s Socialists; and now they are "Catto-Communisti," Catholic/Communists, a contradiction in terms, of course. But, that's Italy.
After spaghetti alla puttanesca, and a pot roast simmered in red wine, with a good Chianti, we are all feeling mellow. But then the debate over whether to support the American intervention in Kosovo heats up. The Catholic/Communist Italian government has decided to honor its NATO commitment by contributing troops and by allowing air movement from Italian bases.
But wait, our friends say, weren't the people who voted for this Italian government all anti-American? Hadn't the pro-government media harshly criticized American foreign policy, American TV, American food, family values, fashion, sports, literature, science, plus Bill's funny nose, Chelsea's wardrobe and Hillary's hair? Our friends are livid, truly outraged.
I say, "Yes, that may be true. But Italy, like a lot of other European countries, is a member of NATO, and NATO has decided to intervene because of the genocide going on just across a very tiny sea from Italy."
They say, "But our government is bilking its own voters by participating."
I say, "Well, maybe denying NATO is a worse crime, considering the casualties in Kosovo."
Our friends insist. "The Italian government was supposed to be anti-American. Why help the Americans in Kosovo?"
They just don't get it. And they feel betrayed, from their coifed hair right down to their Ralph Lauren trousers and Timberland shoes, by their own government!
Again, I am the only American in sight, and again, when faced with screaming red-faced Italians, find myself defending anything and everything American, whether I like it or not. Whether I understand it or not.
Our nice dinner is ruined and I, too, am shouting now. "And what about Italian promises made to NATO, the dead women and children caught in the tribal warfare over there, international cooperation, etc., etc.?"
"Let the Slavs figure it out. It's their territory," says Romolo, guzzling down the last of the Chianti.
Within the week, thirty years after first being accused of it, I start slipping American propaganda into my lessons at the university. I continue to do so until I retire, two weeks after 9/11. Then I think my little clandestine propaganda efforts are no longer necessary. The US will have the world's sympathy, understanding and support for many years to come.
Now, twelve years later, a short, efficient Italian word comes to mind: "magari!" Translated, it means: "It's not so, but I fervently wish it were."
Title graphic: "Enough Said" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.