It can be surprisingly easy to neglect the history and symbolism of July 4th, otherwise known as Independence Day, when surrounded by family and friends, a picnic table full of delicious summer treats and an explosion of red, white and blue fireworks.
The rhythmic nature of our daily routines and habits does not lend itself to a full appreciation of the basic principles and values upon which our country was founded – including freedom, security and lawful order – particularly when we have never encountered an experience that denies us those very things.
It was an unexpected sequence of events in Italy several years ago that led me to this stark realization, where I not only gained a greater understanding of the cultural and societal norms of another country, but developed a newfound appreciation for “all things good” in America and was reminded of how much there is to be thankful for in this great “land of the free, home of the brave.”
When it comes to things like train and bus schedules, hotel chains and post offices, things in America are, generally, consistent, reliable and safe. You know what to expect and are fairly certain that your expectations will, indeed, be met.
It was a different story in Italy.
It began in Florence when my mother and I found ourselves in an escalating argument with a hotel housekeeper (and her partner in crime) while I was trying to explain (in Italian, no less) that we had returned to our room from a morning of sightseeing to find our door not only unlocked, but wide open:
“Siamo tornati e la nostra porta era aperta!”
Trying to convince us that she had just left the room to retrieve a light bulb (the light bulb was working when we left), something wasn’t adding up and after another unsettling feeling that someone had gone through our things, we checked into a new hotel.
While this was certainly the most disconcerting incident we had, daily and comical inconsistencies would contribute to one of our most memorable adventures and heighten our sense of relief – and gratitude – upon returning to the United States.
Take, for instance, something as simple as hotel maps. Having lost a local neighborhood map we had received upon checking into our hotel in Florence, we requested a new one only to find that it did not resemble – in no way, shape or form – the one we had been given the day before. It was not that they had run out of the earlier map, so much as it was that their stack consisted of maps of all different sizes, shapes and types – some of which were not even of the surrounding area.
Similarly, on one particularly hot afternoon, my mother and I stepped into a small convenience store to buy a bottle of water; nothing in the shop had a price tag on it. The next day, the same bottle cost an extra euro. As I would soon come to learn, such discrepancies are characteristic of the “Italian way” – that is, doing (or charging, for that matter) whatever they deem appropriate at that moment.
Even signed shop hours were open to interpretation. Similar to other European countries, Italy has a “riposo” (“rest”, or “siesta”) in the afternoon where shops close for an allotted amount of time. After learning that a TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) store would reopen at 3pm, I purposely came back at the appointed hour and waited until 3:30pm before giving up. I’d be inclined to say this was simply bad luck, but quickly learned that it was just another aspect of the “Italian way” that I would be reminded of on numerous occasions.
Perhaps my favorite example comes from a bus ride I took from the outskirts of Rome with the intention of ending up on Via del Corso – a mile-long shopping avenue in the historical center of Rome. Four stops into the journey, the bus driver stopped five stops short of where I needed to get off – and where that bus was scheduled to go – threw up his hands and announced that he was “finito” for the day and was not going any further. Laughing, I eventually made my way to the Italian metro station to wait for a train that would show up ten minutes behind schedule.
Anyone familiar with Italian culture likely wouldn’t be surprised by any of these stories. In fact, they are some of the very stereotypes that I learned about as an Italian minor at Holy Cross (this video says it all), and some of the very memories I fondly recall with a knowing smile.
While poking fun at such mishaps and cultural differences is easy to do for anyone traveling outside their homeland – I’m sure many Italians would describe us Americans as “irrispettoso, scortese e odioso” – there is also something to be said for Italy’s ancient history, architecture and art, along with its social, demonstrative, animated people, endless varieties of homemade pasta, scenic landscape and strong family unit; such things have led me to return time and again, keeping my long-held passion for “all things Italian” steadfast.
But, as the saying goes, there is no place like home. Despite my attempt to act, dress and speak like “una signorina italiana”, I left very much an American – one who will forever treasure my time in Italy, but one who has come to treasure even more the safety, security, reliability, order and freedom that define America.
This Fourth of July, I will be grateful for those very things. While we are far from a perfect nation, we have remained a leader in the world for a reason – and I truly am proud to be an American.