AAR Society of Fellows
Spring 2002


The Lessons of La Dolce Vita
Voluptuous Italy shows expatriates how to weather the war

Reports circulate of
attacks on the American
Embassy here – white
powder, tunnels – like
whispers from a war
correspondent’s dreams.


The faces – fresh off the plane – are tight, dour. Newcomers babble about airport security, shoe bombs, confiscated nail clippers, fear. "Where were you on September 11th?" they obsess. "What were you doing when you found out?

They look so grim. I can’t admit that I was watching Shrek. And worse, that I went on to a beer and nacho fest with some British bachelor buddies, who thoughtfully screened Fight Club. "Hey, those falling skyscrapers look a bit like the World Trade Center!" they guffawed. "Pity about your country – but that’s crap foreign policy for you. Fancy some more lager?"

Tough love, by any standards, but it worked. I watched the plane clip exactly three times, read a special edition newspaper, and tried to get on with life.

Don’t think this is unpatriotic or un-American . It smacks more of pioneer common sense. Just remember the father’s plucky spirit in the classic Western film, Cat Ballou (starring a very young, very minxy Jane Fonda). Menaced by a hired killer, he declares, "What we’re gonna do is go on livin’. We’re gonna eat, we’re gonna sleep, we’re gonna work and tomorrow we’re gonna go celebrate the fall harvest day."

Sign me up. Of course, the character Frankie Ballou was shot down, but his final few days were humdingers. And if a bomb shatters my window tomorrow, I’d like to say the same.

Because we are at risk here. The State Department has issued specific warnings about Americans in Italy, which were blown massively out of proportion by the local media. "Institutions which symbolise American capitalism" seemed too vague, too dull for these ace reporters. So they cast about for some seemingly rich, bratty bastions of Yanks, then published details and photos of McDonalds, the Hard Rock Cafe and the American Academy in Rome. Grazie, amici.

Worried officials tripled the number of leering military police outside, who mainly read pornographic comic books and play pinecone football, machine-guns in hand. Two security guards pace our grounds, when not sneaking coffee and cigarettes. Our gatekeepers sort the post in sterile masks and gloves, keeping one eye on suspicious street traffic. Reports circulate of attacks on the American Embassy here – white powder, tunnels – like whispers from a war correspondent’s dreams.

People are edgy, to say the least. "I keep waiting for someone to chuck a vial of acid on me, whenever I speak with a Yankee accent in public," one fellow confessed. The graffiti doesn’t help. It takes little foreign language skill to understand "Bush Assassino" or "Stati Uniti = Nazisti". Not all Europeans are cheerfully on our side.

Don’t get me wrong. Most Italians are horrified by the events of September 11th. They wrap bimbos in the Stars and Bars for ‘solidarity’ photo shoots and exclaim at every turn: "We are so sorry – sorry about the attacks and sorry about your stupid president. But we have a very stupid president too, so you are not alone, OK?"

But there’s just a touch of "hmpff, you had it coming" hanging in the air, as if the class bully finally got his comeuppance. Don’t expect to be a superpower and popular.

What’s a girl to think? The ‘war on terrorism’ isn’t so clear-cut overseas, so neatly packaged by the patriotic spin doctors. America’s critics are defiant and loud – and might just have a few valid points among the ranting. I have lived abroad six years: time enough to see the system’s flaws, not time enough to quell the vertigo of terrorism. My head and heart are at odds.

Like many expatriates, I have avoided the shell-shock in the US, the nation that fell from untouchable grace. The wound here isn’t so immediate, so nightmarish, that I can’t escape into a foreigner’s fantasy of Rome.

I’m not the only Yank retreating into Italy’s blithe, voluptuous embrace. A graphic designer friend just moved here, fleeing the morose atmosphere of America, the broken confidence. "If a pin drops, people jump a mile," former Visiting Artist Garrett Boge said. "There’s a collective phobia in the States. It’s better not to be there right now."

La dolce vita soothes over the rough edges, infuses the situation with a Casablanca glamour. Look – the world is on the brink of war, death lurks in envelopes and we are sipping Campari in a piazza, surrounded by golden palaces and beautiful people in even more beautiful clothes. Each moment becomes more precious for the threat, and more spiced with delicious disobedience because we ignore the news and drink until dawn. If this continues, we’ll all start writing like Ernest Hemingway.

"I just can’t get down to work," we moan, then order another round and rack the billiard balls. Drive a Vespa down the Via Appia to watch the hookers defiling ancient tombs. Haggle in a street market, dance in the piazza, excavate fresh tiramisu from under thick chocolate dust. Soak in a cliff-top hot spring. Why not live for the moment in this glorious land of gratification? Especially when that bomb, that envelope, could realign the universe at any second.

The city inspires us. Roma, after all, was founded by Venus and Mars – Love and War – according to legend. Women totter the cobbled streets in high heels, cleavage bursting into the Mediterranean sunshine. Men strike Brando poses, extravagant compliments ready on pouting lips. "Ciao bella! Ciao bello!" they cry, even to casual friends. Hello, beautiful.

This is how to live. Sharp espresso and sharper passion. Mellow wine and lazy strolls. Sweet gelato and golden sunlight on the ruins. Let problems spice your daily grind, then cast them aside with an eloquent Mediterranean shrug. I can think of no better place to hide from the world’s fresh terrors and contradictions.

So here we are in bella Italia, unable and unwilling to mourn current affairs in a style befitting our native land. Perhaps it’s just the Flower Power cry – Make Love, nor War – dusted off and gussied up with a European bow. Perhaps it’s selfishness or cynicism or hedonism. Or perhaps, deep in our Chianti cups, we’ve stumbled onto something.

We’re either hiding from reality or wallowing in it – honestly, I’m not sure which. But we’re going on livin’ and savouring the times at hand. And that feels good.

Amanda Castleman is a freelance journalist and former Visiting Writer. She lives in Oxford, England and at the Academy, with her husband, second-year fellow John Curtis Franklin.

Each moment becomes
more precious for the
threat, and more spiced
with delicious dis-
obedience because we
ignore the news and
drink until dawn.

If this continues,
we’ll all start writing
like Ernest Hemingway.

Haggle in a street
market, dance in the
piazza, excavate fresh
tiramisu from under
thick chocolate dust.

Why not live for the
moment in this glor
ious
land of gratification?


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