The Lessons of La Dolce Vita
Voluptuous Italy shows expatriates how to weather the war
They look so grim. I cant 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 thats 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.
Dont think this is unpatriotic or un-American . It smacks more of pioneer common sense. Just remember the fathers 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 were gonna do is go on livin. Were gonna eat, were gonna sleep, were gonna work and tomorrow were 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, Id 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 correspondents 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 doesnt help. It takes little foreign language skill to understand "Bush Assassino" or "Stati Uniti = Nazisti". Not all Europeans are cheerfully on our side.
Dont 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 theres just a touch of "hmpff, you had it coming" hanging in the air, as if the class bully finally got his comeuppance. Dont expect to be a superpower and popular.
Whats a girl to think? The war on terrorism isnt so clear-cut overseas, so neatly packaged by the patriotic spin doctors. Americas 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 systems 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 isnt so immediate, so nightmarish, that I cant escape into a foreigners fantasy of Rome.
Im not the only Yank retreating into Italys 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. "Theres a collective phobia in the States. Its 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, well all start writing like Ernest Hemingway.
"I just cant 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 worlds 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 its just the Flower Power cry Make Love, nor War dusted off and gussied up with a European bow. Perhaps its selfishness or cynicism or hedonism. Or perhaps, deep in our Chianti cups, weve stumbled onto something.
hiding from reality or wallowing in it honestly, Im not sure
which. But were 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.
If this continues,
in a street
not live for the
Back to the portfolio