Unraveling the Stereotypes

Can I take a break from the travelogue? One of the issues I said I’d tackle is what we can learn from others. In my case, it’s two halves of my brain trying to live together. Maybe they can figure something out.

I’ll get the stereotypes out of the way first: Americans are brash, individualistic yet friendly (have a nice day!), swaggering, big, loud. But efficient. Italians are passionate, family-oriented, clever, chaotic to the point of anarchy, happy.

Even if we say that we don’t believe in the stereotypes, they linger in the back of the brain somewhere, and, like it or not, they inform how we approach certain situations.

So I’ll dissect some of these. First, Italians and chaos. No—it just looks that way. When an American, or indeed, any North American or Northern European lands in Rome, he or she can be forgiven for thinking that the place is a mess run by lunatics. But look closer. Go to the bar—what Italians call a café. Watch the choreography at work. Someone takes your order. Another, the barista, is juggling a dozen coffee orders, and produces an array of drinks in seconds.img_4380

Every day in Italy, baristas serve up about 70 million espressos. And most of the bars are not chains. There’s no Six Sigma espresso academy, no corporate efficiency expert timing every move that every barista makes, or should make.

Another example? Go to an Italian gathering, say, a large dinner party among family and friends. People will gather and stand around and chat, and maybe get a drink. They’ll talk about where to sit, perhaps, but the whole arrival thing is just the preliminary it’s-nice-to-see-you-again ritual. Then at some point, everyone will sit, seemingly at prearranged spots. They’ll give their orders to the waiters, if the meal hasn’t been preordered, and the whole thing will proceed smoothly and efficiently.

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On the other side of things, Italians have this fascination with, if not jealousy toward,  Anglo-Saxon countries. They think they’re organized. They’ll even say they’re “normal,” in contrast to their own street-level chaos—you know, the buzzing Vespas, the animated conversations. To a lot of the colder European types, Italy seems loud and like a big beehive.

But look at the boarding ritual at New York’s Penn Station or Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. Efficient? “Northern,” to use an adjective Latins use frequently to apply to the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tribes? No.

First of all, for these premium, fast (not really) trains, there are no assigned seats, which injects no small amount of anxiety into the wait. People line up waiting for the train to arrive and for boarding to happen. They start to complain. Some may try to get ahead. Some ask the Amtrak person when can they board. At some point, the passengers on the incoming run troop out of the door. Then those waiting start to move, getting their tickets checked as they go slowly and obediently through the door, then there’s a mad scramble for a seat. So much for efficiency.

In Italy, land of supposed chaos, you get an assigned seat on the fast trains. The train’s track shows up on a board in time for you to walk there, and the platforms have signs telling you which car stops where, so you can just hop on board and find your reserved seat.

Of course, both Italians and Americans think the others have it better. Americans think life in Italy is a series of golden sunsets and Chianti. (But not always: There’s that meme about economic chaos abetted by revolving door governments.) And Italians think living in the U.S. is a dream. I’m pushing it a bit, not all of them do. But they see the wide streets, the absence of graffiti in most places, the wood-frame suburban houses, or the heritage of Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and Patti Smith and think that Americans have it made.

Italians complain all the time; Americans seem to take daily annoyances in stride. Commuting gives us good examples. If a bus or train is late in Italy (this is not unusual), people will commiserate, and probably will launch into a denunciation of the government, ending with a shrug and the comment “Questa è l’Italia” (this is Italy). Americans will just stand there mute looking at their phones. You can look at it two ways—either Americans are sheeplike or just more realistic about how things work. And Italians just like to generate noise; it’s part of the landscape. I once wrote a piece for National Geographic Online about Perugia’s policy of limiting cars and its then-new mini metro system. The comments were blistering. I’m happy that the editors there deleted most of them (I had to resist mightily from responding).

Point is, they both have their virtues and demerits. Americans are less tribal, less bound by familial ties. That can be liberating—or alienating. Maybe that explains why they find comfort in identical suburbs, with the same malls, gas stations and shops. It’s what James Howard Kunstler calls “the geography of nowhere.” Italians, if they haven’t emigrated, usually for economic reasons, tend to live near their birthplaces. They have a greater sense of belonging, but for some, that can be oppressive.

In any event, we’ve seen enough of both places to know to look beyond the stereotypes. They might help organize your thinking at first, but they’re woefully inadequate once you get to know a place. So…hmm, where is this going? I was just having fun thinking about this stuff.

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