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  • Seeing America through Italian Eyes
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    December 26, 2004 - I haven't written this column for a month because my boyfriend Antonio and my cousin Fausto came from Ischia, a small island in the Gulf of Napoli, to visit me. Before they returned home on December 20, they had been to the top of the Empire State Building, posed with wax versions of J. Lo at Madame Tussaud's, witnessed the emptiness of Ground Zero, visited the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, stood in the rain to hear Maroon 5 perform outside of NBC Studios, passed through Little Italy, experienced an Italian American Thanksgiving, walked through the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and rode Space Mountain - and a slew of other rides - at Disney World in Florida. In between all this, they stuffed themselves with food and talk at numerous breakfasts, lunches and dinners with relatives and new friends. For me, however, the most interesting part of their journey was the chance to see my America - and Americans - through Italian eyes. Here's some of what I observed:

    Everything is bigger in the United States. The streets are wider, the supermarkets larger and better stocked and the cities more populated. Average U.S. homes seem like mansions and high-rise buildings are unfathomable. Even the American people are bigger - at least at the waistline - and this is most apparent when you tour a Disney theme park. These observations sometimes shocked and/or overwhelmed Antonio and Fausto. I think, on occasion, they felt like little fish in a very, very big sea. At the same time, the hugeness of America fascinated and intrigued our Italian guests, whose grins grew every time they saw another example of American ostentation. Even if they don't agree with our politics or get fed up with our occasional bullying, many foreigners still see the United States as the land of opportunity. And the country's awesome size still draws respect.

    Americans never really get a day off. My brother John used a few vacation days during the first week in December to show us around Florida. But he still got phone calls from work almost everyday, had to turn in employee schedules, attended a breakfast meeting and filled out other documents during his vacation. I too was on vacation but still had to turn in an article and check in with my boss. The vast majority of Italians don't do that. If they are on vacation, they are on vacation. They have no conversations about work, don't think about it and certainly don't call up their bosses to hear about what's going on while they're away. Antonio and Fausto were appalled by the fact that John ended up spending practically one whole day of his vacation chained to his job. The Italians think we're a little sick when it comes to our obsession with our careers - and I can't really disagree with them. It's true what they say: Life is sweeter - and more valued - in Italy.

    Microwave popcorn might be the greatest invention ever. Microwaves exist in Ischia but hardly anyone uses them. My boyfriend Antonio is one of the few families to have one - and he doesn't know the full extent of a microwave's usefulness. Neither he nor Fausto had ever tasted microwave popcorn. When they put the bag into the microwave and pushed the "popcorn" button, it was as if they were launching a rocket to the moon. They stood in front of the microwave to watch and listen as every kernel popped. I worried for months that they would be disappointed by America's fast-food-and-snacks diet. But no - they delighted in savoring every last bit of microwave popcorn and McDonald's and KFC and Burger King. They wanted to taste all the different meal options at all the different chains. Their guts grew a couple of inches but so did their level of pleasure. Go figure.

    Playing games brings people together. People have always told me to steer clear of playing games when first starting a romantic relationship. Normally, I would agree - if I was talking about games like making your significant other jealous or waiting three days to call him. But Antonio and I welcomed the opportunity to compete against each other in basketball and air hockey at an arcade at the Magic Kingdom. There was soccer on PlayStation 2 and a trivia game on the airplane from New York to Orlando. A couple of rounds of table soccer with my cousin Nino and Antonio and Fausto had secured positions on the family tree. Italians take their carefree but passionate approach to their playing time as well. Games are a great way to break down language barriers, get comfortable with one another and see a person for who he really is. It also shows the difference between Americans and Italians. The Americans were most concerned with winning in the end and the Italians were more interested in whether the game was played with style and flair. I think one day Antonio and I will be ready to take our relationship to the next level by playing the king of all American games: Monopoly. For now, we'll just have to weather the distance and wait for our next encounter, when he'll have home field advantage in Ischia.

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