U.S. Election Watch: Update from Italy

Popes of the past perch atop St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Photo by Simone Savoldi on Unsplash

“Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro.” Literally, one pope dies, eh, they’ll make another. An Italian idiom for “life goes on.” No? It marches along.

To the Italian sensibility, the seasons change, grapes and olives and chestnuts are harvested. Politics are but a background wallpaper to scenes throughout the year, throughout a life. And Italians know from some stressful politics. They still have Berlusconi kicking around, for heaven’s sake (his physician said he will live to be 140!), and now a new standard bearer of populist mania, Salvini. It’s no bed of roses in Italian politics. But the peninsula has been ruled more or less in an organized fashion (not to say in perfect hegemony) since Romulus knifed his twin brother Remus and founded Rome in 753 BCE.

Italians really rolled out their moral support for Americans in 2016 after the election debacle. Don’t worry, they told us. We lived through Berlusconi. You will survive this too. We weren’t so sure, but then, we come from an earnest culture that really wants to be good, that wants to right wrongs. The Italian response is more often a shrug, hands outstretched, palms up, saying whatcha gonna do? Change human nature? Pick another fool’s errand; there’s quality espresso, and a fresh pastry, at the nearby marble-topped bar. Seek the micro-addressing of microaggressions. Be a good person in your day to day. As far as what happens in the clicking halls of Rome, well, not much we can do about that from here, but also, the minestra’s done, and it’s almost the ora di cena. Italy’s reliable rituals comfort and sustain a culture and its people.

Jason and I voted weeks ago, in Spokane County. We vote every election we can from here, and Spokane County’s management of absentee and overseas ballots is superb. We’ve both been following the news this election very closely. It’s amusing when stateside friends update us as though we lived on the moon without internet. But, it is sweet, and nice to be remembered by people who wish us to stay updated.

Today I went to work in a quiet office. Ah, peace. I switched on the lights and took out the file I’d been working on yesterday to finish the task in total serenity. The attorneys in the office come and go, are often in court, and frequently absent, which means my corner spot with the natural light is the perfect place to research and draft.

“MONICA! Buongiorno!” The voice of Pinuccia, the woman who cleans the office, echoed down the hall. A certain type of Italian woman finds me in these situations and talks my head off. This was also the case four years ago with the office manager Silvia in my rented space at the Sprachcaffè.

“The elections are today!” she told me brightly.

“Yes! They are,” I smiled, and put down a sheaf of vital records.

“My God! Trump! Let’s hope he leaves!”

“You’re telling me,” I replied. “I don’t even want to hear his name. There are many Troomps behind this Troomp. His presidency has been a failure of our system. It shouldn’t have happened.” I wasn’t really in the mood to go into checks and balances, the three branches of government, and the treachery in our co-opted legislative and judicial branches in Italian.

She regarded me closely. “How did you say his name? How are you supposed to say his name,” she asked. “What’s the proper pronunciation.”

“Oh, I just say Troomp. But Italians seem to call him Tramp. His name in English is pronounced Truhmp, with that beautiful English ‘uh’ that is so hard to say.”

Pinuccia laughed. “You know, I really like Melania! She’s so pretty and European.”

“She is,” I agreed. “She also looks like she could be Carla Bruni’s sister.”

“You are so right! She does!” She looked at me with newfound respect and opened a window to let in the fresh air. A pause. “Why did she marry him?”

“A pact with the Devil. She was meant to to divorce him. He expected to lose in 2016.”

“Ah, poor Melania, to be insulted by her own marriage! day after day! Can you imagine going to bed with Trump?”

Now, this image so early in the morning was far too much for me. I smiled weakly. “No, I can’t.”

“And his two ex-wives! How much was Melania paid to marry him! Well, it’s not her fault really, a beauty like her, from a small European country where almost no one lives.”

“I like Slovenia,” I offered. We went for a week at the holidays in 2016, enjoyed a farm trampoline, and sampled their emergency medical care with a wheezing toddler and a medical staff who spoke perfect English.

“Of course! But it would be hard to be from there!” Pinuccia’s wisdom and insights are always very earthy. She often relates long tales of her family’s struggles in an accent I honestly find difficult to parse. Her drive-by monologues, like those of Silvia four years ago on Piazza della Repubblica, are best received as local color and language immersion.

“I’ll have a glass of wine tonight,” I said lamely. “Get through this day.”

“Oh, do you think we’ll know something tonight?” She looked surprised.

“No, I don’t think we’ll know anything before December, most likely.”

“Caspita!” Wow! She moved off down the hall on her cleaning circuit.

I thought about how the hardest part of the past four years for Americans – and American – culture is our essential earnestness. Like, why would someone be bad on purpose? Why wouldn’t someone try to do a good job? This makes Italians shake their heads in pity. Of course people are base. Why would you torture yourself hoping or expecting otherwise?

And finally, after living four years out of the U.S. and looking at it with distance, and perhaps kinder eyes that see more and understand better, the astonishing ongoing experiment that is America continues to impress. That a country could be attempted (with all due respect to indigenous tribes, and what they lost in this attempt wasn’t right then and isn’t right now) where people might migrate and somehow become a new kind of person, an American, who, after just one generation, might speak English without an accent. Maybe attained a level of education unknown to their parents. Maybe, until recently, found a level of safety and security they hadn’t known before, where they came from (with all due respect to Black and Brown people and POC, and GLBTQI who suffered then and suffer now). Maybe had opportunities impossible for those who came before them in their families. I’m living proof of that, and if you’re reading this, you probably are too.

In many ways America continues to be a global experiment. The whole world has skin in this game. Even though the past four years have been a moral mudslide, we can reverse course and shore up and build again. We can! Despite what Americans might believe in the more insulated pockets of the country, the events and politics in the U.S. impact the globe. Despite what Americans believe on the more urbane coasts, the U.S. is still a global leader for whom every other country in the world is rooting. Our experiment is their experiment is a global experiment.

I hope you voted today. I’ll be sure to report back with Pinuccia’s post-election analysis. You know she’ll find me and have plenty to say about it.

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