Italy has beaten back this devastating Coronavirus only to be hit with a lack of tourism which is hurting their economy with equal ferocity. A CNN article titled Italy Laments the Loss of the US Tourist talks about how they are especially missing Americans. What does the American tourist mean to the day to day lives of Italians? I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience of living as an American in Italy for the better part of 7 years. It was clear then as it is now that the Italians have mixed feelings about their relationship with us. They love Americans for many reasons, but the feelings become clouded because they find themselves dependent upon us for tourism dollars. Annually US travelers spend more than $3 billion dollars in Italy, an amount that makes a difference for many Italian merchants and families. When I lived there there was also a feeling of being bombarded by everything American and thus, there developed a constant comparison of their lives to ours. Today it is more of an economic nuisance—they love much of the American culture while regretting having to be at the mercy of our spending habits.
It was a long time ago that I lived in Italy, 1980’s and a lot has changed since then. You have to imagine a world that was very separated; ocean distances were connected only by TV programs, the International Herald Tribune and Hollywood movies. The image of American life was glamorous with good-looking people living in big houses in wide open spaces, driving sexy cars, listening to Rock ‘n Roll, dressed in the most contemporary designs and living life with a sense of adventure. Very few unsolvable problems were ever depicted on shows like Happy Days, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Three’s Company or Family Ties and the villains on Dynasty, Dallas and Miami Vice just made life on the “wrong” side look sexy and glamorous. Our music flooded their nightclubs and discotheques. We were seen as the epitome of the good life, one to aspire to, but Italians, at that time, did not see it as a realistic possibility; America existed as an unattainable dream. Sighs of “Ohhhhh, e` mio sogno di andare in America!” ” It is my dream to go to America” would pour from many upon hearing that I was from California. Songs like “Tu Vuo` fa` l’americano” “You’d like to be an American” is a Napolitano song that talks of someone who is trying to be a big-shot, an American. “You wear trousers showing a famous brand, you wear a hat with the peak raised, you trot along the streets, showing off yourself to make people look at you, You’d like to be a American, but you were born in Italy!”
Italian friends were a constant source of comparison asking me how we did things back home so they could compare their life in Italy. Life was challenging, governments came and went quickly and in 1982 we were living with the 41st postwar government! Accomplishing anything in Italy took extreme patience; the red tape was a bureaucratic nightmare. Women kept their maiden names, not because of advanced emancipation, but because it took years to have it legally changed and if you needed to divorce, well, that took upwards of 10 years to accomplish. There were rules and regulations at every turn—if you owned a leather store, then you could only sell leather goods—-no little trinkets at check out, no paper goods or a candle, just leather. I remember sitting at the SIP, the government owned phone company, for over an hour waiting to get an international connection so that I could talk with my parents. Once a connection was made I was led into a soundproof booth where I would take the call. Somehow it was always the middle of the night when I got through and yelling into the receiver was never quite enough to overcome the significant static noises. To get a drivers license took months, to send something through the mail, well that was risky and to cash a check or do any kind of banking took an steely will and an inside friend. They did not use credit cards or checks, it was predominantly a cash society which meant a lot of transactions were in the red. To combat this massive underground economy which avoided paying taxes, the “Guardia di Finanza” were in charge of closely monitoring whether customers had been given receipts from store purchases. They would walk through the old towns and stop people coming out of a shop to ask for their receipt, it was a huge problem for the owner of the store if you did not have one.
Our music was ubiquitous, our TV programming more popular, our image more appealing, but our sports, nothing could beat Italian soccer. It was the epitome of pride and in 1982 Italy won the world cup and cities across Italy rejoiced in a way only Italians can. Men cried, car horns blared and everyone came out of their homes to dance and party in the street. It was a moment I shall never forget.
And while they loved us, they also resented us and made us the butt of many jokes. We were often depicted as having no sense of style and as camera-carrying, tennis shoe-wearing Americans passed, the lack of finesse would be pointed at and ridiculed. My signora with whom I lived the first 6 months would laugh at how she caught an American couple washing their lettuce in the bidet and a friend would talk about how Americans at her restaurant would mix spaghetti with their salad and drink cappuccinos after dinner!! Horror after horror to dilute the sense of something desired being out of reach.
A great joke a friend of mine would tell was about American tourists on tour with an Italian guide going through the streets of Florence. At each monument the guide would describe with pride the beauty, its’ importance and the number of years it took to build. “The Duomo, Santa Maria Del Fiore, an architectural treasure stands in the center of Firenze as a symbol of ingenuity and perseverance, took 142 years to build.” The American responds, “Oh in America we could build that in 50 years!” Confounded, but not deterred, the guide continues. Upon reaching the Ponte Vecchio the guide thinks to himself “Ahh this will impress them!” and he tells them the history of this magnificent Old Bridge and tells them that it took 6 years to complete construction. “In America we could do this in 3 years!” Now the guide is getting annoyed and he takes his guests to the church of Santa Croce, one of the most beautifully and intricately designed churches in Florence and is the burial place for some of the most famous and notable people connected to Florence. It is the “Temple of Italian Glories”. The American points to it and calls out to his guide “Wow, what is that” to which the guide says “WHOA! That wasn’t there yesterday!!”
I worked in a friend’s leather store on one of Florence’s most famous streets, Via Guicciardini, which ran the length from Pitti Palace to the Duomo, about ¾ of a mile. The store was closer to Pitti Palace and where I lived on Via Toscanella. . We sold beautiful handmade Italian leather shoes, jackets and small accessories like wallets, belts and handbags. It was a fun job because I loved all their products. And so did many other Americans. No shopper was ever discouraged, but everyone got very happy when Americans came into the store. They loved to shop and didn’t bargain with you or concern themselves too much with prices. The wives of couples would shop while the husbands pulled out their credit cards which we had just started accepting in early 1980’s. The shoppers loved that I could speak perfect English and so did my friends who spoke very little—-the perfect combination for lots of sales! It was common knowledge among all shop owners that if you could hire an American speaking “comessa” that your sales would increase. The eighties also saw a very strong dollar and money was flying in every direction. The American consumer was king.
This has never changed, American tourists are still the most beloved and the most joked about in all of Italy. They laugh at the way we eat, the way we dress and the many differences in our approach to life, but they love us too and are now very much missing our presence in their newly reopened world. In the CNC article attached, Natalino Gisonna is quoted as saying, “Americans spend big in Rome and we don’t take this for granted. But mostly we miss their laughter and infectious curiosity for our country.” And I say, “I miss you too Italy, very much.”