Thursday, November 30, 2006
An Evening in Rome
The young Italian university professor Arturo is holding up his right hand to emphasize his statement. His index finger punches the air as accent to his anger.
“America is a cancer in the world,” he says. “Un cancro,” he repeats in Italian.
The subject is Iraq.
Sitting on the floor next to the fireplace a few feet away from where Arturo sits on his sofa in the coziness of the comfortable loft in the center of Rome where he lives with his wife, I shift uneasily on my heels and lean forward to gain his attention.
“We're not one single unit,” I protest, holding up my own index finger. I speak in English which I know he understands along with most of the other twenty or so people gathered there that recent evening. “More than fifty million Americans voted against Bush,” I add.
A low murmur from the others that may express some acknowledgment of my point is encouraging.
“But Americans should do something,” he insists. “They should do something.”
I raise my hands and shrug, smiling, “I'm sorry, but Bush won't take my phone calls.” I'm trying to defuse his anger a little. I'm also trying to mount a defense, to remind him to differentiate between the current administration and the American public.
A young woman from Yugoslavia, Vera, seated across from Arturo speaks up. She is tall, with long blond hair, attractive, articulate, spirited. A few minutes before, she and I had been discussing contrasts in conversational behavior of Italians, Americans and people in her own country. Vera had told me that the long period of sanctions against Yugoslavia during the time of the Serbian conflict had created a cultural isolation there. “It made us so hungry to talk to others about many things.”
Now she challenges Arturo's harsh judgment. She reminds him of a not so long ago action of his own country's leaders, Italy's foreign minister had approved the bombing of her country. It seems to me, however, that she is challenging Arturo more out of kindness to me than real conviction. I'm the only American there. And I gather from the ongoing exchange that this accusation of malignancy is not something new in the conversations of many of the professionals, academics and students gathering there informally that evening.
I am not a fan of the Bush administration or its policies. I never have been. I too have felt frustrated and powerless in observing American military and political actions in recent years. Still it's not so easy to hear others completely write off your own country in such blunt terms.
A couple of feet from me, also on the sofa, is a young Canadian, David. He is an anti-terrorism expert who works for his government. He is visiting Rome for a conference. He and Arturo are old friends from the days of the late '90s when they met while studying at Stanford.
Arturo has joked in introducing his friend that he is “right wing” in his views, especially on the middle east. David seems somber, his thoughts perhaps preoccupied with his work. A couple of times he alludes to a speech he made that day. He frowns, his expression worried, as he repeats warnings about the threat posed by terrorism today. He also persistently offers some praise for historical achievements of the U.S. military, and recognition of the challenges the country faces as the only superpower at present.
Even so, it is not David who is the target of Arturo's anger but his neighbors who live in the country immediately south.
As the conversation continues around me, I join in and try to offer a wider perspective on what is happening with the public in the U.S., on the various disagreements there over current foreign policy. The others listen, attentive to what I am saying. Perhaps it's the too-rare opportunity to put their English skills to use, perhaps it's interest, perhaps it's a little of both.
Other than the whaling to the midsection of my national identity, Arturo also is a solicitous host to me. The disease reference wasn't intended to be personal perhaps. And yet, of course, it is.
A short time later, he pops a dvd into the laptop plugged into the widescreen television filling one corner of the room. He hands me the plastic cover and I see that it is a series of exposé documentaries by a popular American filmmaker. Arturo is laughing in anticipation of showing it to us. It's really funny, he repeats, as he urges me and the others to watch it.
As the program begins, and everyone gathers around to see it, the room becomes unusually quiet. The filmmaker is merciless in his humiliation of his targets. It seems to me, however, that none of the participants is spared from the splash of the ridicule, including the protagonist and the various people he has enlisted to help him. Everyone in the episode comes off looking at least a little foolish and pathetic, -- and all of them are Americans.
Several thoughts ran through my mind on the way home from that recent evening in Rome. Some were self-recriminatory, some were defensive. Among the latter is that Italy was one of the “coalition of the willing,” and, therefore, shares at least a little responsibility for Iraq. Arturo might note, however, that Italians did something last spring by voting the leader who supported this policy out of office.
And I can note in kind that at the polls this fall, it was reported that many American voters indicated that their vote was a protest against the leaders who were in power and against the policy in Iraq. And I can say that we are doing something. I hope.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato