Update from Italy: Life on a Human Scale

Photo by Suzi Kim on Unsplash

After I published a piece two weeks ago about the American work ethic, a friend asked, but what can we do to help effect the change? It seems many people are unhappy with the turn American culture has taken. What can we do to bring it back around to something on a more human scale?

The human scale is a concept I came to appreciate in Europe as a student, and my gratitude has only deepened in the past three decades. A day and a neighborhood that are human-sized for walking and interacting. A manageable day, week, year. Parks and sidewalks. A neighborhood. Cafes and small grocery stores close by. Basic shops within walking distance. Quotidian circuits you can actually do without driving 45 minutes in each direction, and sometimes in a multi-destination route, example: home, daycare, work, daycare, home, spending two hours per day or more in a car. This is not sustainable, but it is normal for many people living and working in America.

Everything has gotten more extreme. This has happened everywhere; in America, especially so. The weather. The climate. Politics. What passes for news. Elections and recalls. Clock speed. Work weeks. The cost of living. Anxiety. Enmity. Fractures and fault lines in community and culture. The pandemic and public health. There is no middle ground. Where is the firm footing? The ice is so thin. How can everything be getting more and more extreme every day, rocketing toward the far right end of the spectrum?

Do Americans even want the culture to change? I wonder. Everyone has to want it in order for it to change. A social contract is only as strong as the collective goodwill that supports it.

This takes the shape of YOUR support and votes for leaders and policies that support families and individuals in meaningful ways. I am talking the Maslow’s Hierarchy here (thanking my ninth-grade health class for a concept I often refer to):

Universal guaranteed healthcare. (I have another post coming about how the lack of healthcare in America has led us down the road of the opioid crisis and legalizing weed faster than a high school sophomore will cut class after lunch. For a different day….) Also and on a side note, if you’re celiac, Italy gives you a nice monthly rebate on groceries because it’s hard to shop gluten free and wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of help where it counts?! On your groceries? What would that cost per day for the US? NOTHING like the $273 million per day we spent over twenty years in Afghanistan.

Guaranteed parental leave. The United States also fails to mandate paid parental leave, unlike countries such as Germany, Mexico, and Niger. See UNICEF on this for excellent information.

Universal childcare. See UNICEF again on this. I remember once when a coworker in his early twenties was shocked when I told him that our bill for childcare in a given year was more than our annual mortgage payments. Younger people do not know this. Older people have not lived it. His response? Blargh.

Universal retirement. Starting at a dignified age. Perhaps 68. I don’t know. Not 75.

Guaranteed sick leave. 93% of the world guarantees paid sick leave. (PRI)

Guaranteed holiday time off.

Universal education at all levels of instruction.

These items cannot simply be commodities reserved for the wealthy or the fortunate, for those who judged to have worked “hard enough” and are therefore deemed to have “earned” these things. Does every person not have a life span that naturally incurs different needs? Pregnancy and parental leave for infants, childcare for working parents, school for the youngest among us. Bodies get sick, both our own and those of family members. Bodies and minds grow old – and sometimes sick – with age, and cannot work like a younger person. We all have bodies. We all know these things will happens to our persons. Why make the ridiculous bet against reality? Why shame people for being ill, or pregnant, or for having ill or pregnant family members, or small children who don’t raise themselves and need lots and lots of care? Have you seen a newborn lately? Your home basically becomes something like an ICU until the kid is six months old, and then you’re in a form of occupational therapy until the kid is 2 or 3 years old. Why is this a dirty secret, a reality to be swept under the rug, when it comes to public policy? American families are under stress because it is hard as hell to be an American family. The very structure of an extreme system deals almost every hand against you, and dares you to survive it.

Maybe fractured American families are broken under the weight of a system that refuses to support them, yet makes them pay and pay for everything, out of pocket and after taxes, with no time off. Unless you’re sick, in which case, you’re using your paid holiday leave to be home sick from work. Does this sound like a recipe for success? It is not. It is insane.

Education offered at no cost to anyone, if public – leave the private institutions for those who work there, and for those who wish to pay and who have the resources to do so. There are a few private institutes of higher education in Europe, for example, but far, far fewer that what we have in the US, because public education carries a very low economic threshold to access in the EU. Typically a few hundred euros of fees per year, plus books. Sometimes a couple thousand euros per year, but I don’t think it’s ever more than that. (The UK used to have a more accessible EU model, but that public payment structure has been dismantled over the past couple of decades, and British students now take out loans like American students for college. Not as much as we do, but a lot, compared to what they paid before, I think in the neighborhood of £7,000-8,000 per academic year.)

Healthcare, for everyone, all ages, all conditions. This can be done for less than what the US spends on healthcare per capita currently. Medicaid, Medicare, the US military and the VA, and Congress all currently operate on what is basically a universal healthcare system. Along with this, guaranteed sick leave for all workers. I can’t believe how no one in the US talks about this. It’s just not on the radar for the frogs in the proverbial boiling pot. About 20 years ago, all worker sick leave was combined with holiday leave so that we were forced to to use holiday pay when ill. Sick a lot this year? No holiday for you! Italians are always shocked when I tell them this. I guess I just got used to it in the US. Since employers in the United States aren’t required to provide any paid sick leave to their employees, many do not. About 32 million workers in the US have no sick leave whatsoever, with less lucrative jobs less likely to offer sick days (Pew).

The US GDP is almost $23 trillion annually. (So that $3.5 trillion bill in Congress is worth about a quarter of our annual GDP…. yes the one certain people are saying costs too much … like they’re buying a sofa or a car or something. Honestly, people should not be in public office if they don’t understand how public spending is different from private spending.) We’re a G7 country, at the top of the rich democratic heap. The wealthiest of an elite group of nations How much of that money is tied up at strategic points, like a blood clot, in massive corporate ventures whose profits become CEO paychecks? Or the defense budget? Our citizens are on the verge of a collective stroke because money and services are not flowing freely through the accounts of individuals. How much would it seriously cost to provide all these things to everyone in our country? Is American culture truly still so puritanical that we think that the only people who deserve a clean shot at a civil life are those who have worked “the hardest,” without “complaining,” eating cold gruel, and weathering numerous setbacks? (Trying to sketch a picture as Puritan as possible…)

So, here is my view on the path forward. If you feel crushed beneath the wheel, vote for the well-being and support of every person in America. You might not need that help now, but there is a 100% chance you will at various points in your life when you are called upon to confront the reality of the physiological needs for you and the people in your family, whom you assumedly love and wish to see happy and well cared for. And well communities make for calmer homes with happy people in them. Happy people tend to be able to better parent, and if they’re married or committed to one another, they’re more likely to remain so if every day is not some infernal slog where everything is difficult and respite is nowhere to be found.

I’m passionate on this topic. Still scarred from medical crises, a few pregnancies, working, babies, and parenting in the US, trying to combine two careers and one marriage in a culture where the pieces just don’t fit together, our savings are drained by normal daily expenses, and we never made enough money, while we are somehow gaslit as people and convinced that it is our fault for not working hard enough or making smart enough decisions. It can be a different way. It has to be, because the way the US is trying to do things – they way things have devolved in the US – is just not tenable.

Vote, then, for the public good. Support the new infrastructure bill. Be humane, and civil. Imagine life on a human scale, because it is certainly possible. We just have to believe it and want it to happen.

Update from Italy: What Italians Think Americans Do Over There

Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

The preeminent eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico became, after his death, a voice of the Risorgimento (“resurgence”) – the name for the concerted attempt by an élite group to forge a unified nation of Italy. The many cultures that called the Italian peninsula home, with the many voyagers who sailed by and stopped a while, ensure that Italy was characterized, perhaps more than anything, by cultural plurality. The old Risorgimento chestnut – “We have created Italy; now we must make Italians!” – originates in this perceived obstacle.

The solution, as our man Vico understood it, was to culturally mediate among the groups, to find not just common ground, but a shared civility. The end goal? Incivilmento. A social contract, an agreed-upon culture.

In incivilimento the process, Vico maintained, is initiated by certain people — or temosfori—who act as the first cultural mediators between different human groups. (Temosforo is itself an invented term from perhaps the Greek, [tèmis], knowledge or law; [foro] carrier. Oh, Vico.)

My life work, both formal and informal, has been to develop and interrogate my own Theory of Culture, exercising a broad definition of culture. I was delighted when I learned this neologism, which I came across last summer when working on a mammoth editing job for an academic transcript whose theme was right up my alley, At the Roots of Italian Identity.

On that note, I have been compiling, thanks to scattered conversations with Italians and others over the years, a brief list of what Italians think Americans are up to in America:

1 – Everyone’s just getting richer and doing so well because there’s so much work and we pay no taxes.

2 – No foot on the neck of any American over there!

3 – Everything is free and easy!

4 – My personal favorite: some version of We’re all basically 1%ers living in SoCal, eating sushi and admiring the Pacific from Malibu, or strolling through Central Park.

Point counterpoint! A collection of overheard What Italians say about Italy:

1- The healthcare system is dysfunctional!

2 – The tax man will get you in the end.

3 – You can’t start anything here.

4 – It’s impossible to get anything done.

5 – If you’re not “connected,” forget about it.

6 – Everyone and everything and every institution in Italy is corrupt.

7 – Our elections are a joke.

A few of my humble observations regarding What Italians take for granted:

1 – Universal healthcare for all ages, all conditions, everything, guaranteed. Of course it has its systemic drawbacks, as do all systems, but by and large, with experiential knowledge of both countries’ systems, the Italian system is equitable and accessible and serves its purpose. Italians have no understanding of the Wild West scene in healthcare that Americans live every day. Paid for by the public.

2 – Universal education starting at three years of age, with excellent snacks and lunches. Paid for by the public.

3 – High-quality education in public institutions. Paid for by the public. (Downside: Italy has the lowest four-year graduation rate in the EU – 22%. Many start but never finish.)

4 – Many employment protections. (There are downsides to this as an employer – hard to hire, impossible to fire… this is the case in much of the EU. And another downside is that there is effectively no open labor market, and it’s the holy grail of a professional to obtain an indefinite contract, since it’s basically the equivalent of a traditional university tenure.)

5 – Guaranteed holiday time – twice as many holidays (14 official federal holidays) as opposed to the US (7), with plenty of ponti (long weekends, where you take off one or two days if the holiday falls midweek), and paid leave from jobs.

6 – The tredicesima. Employees receive an extra monthly paycheck in December – the thirteenth month. If they are in one of those “tenured” jobs.”

7 – A retirement without wearing a greeter vest at the door of a retail establishment when you’re 72. Which is not actually a retirement anyway, let’s be clear. Retirement, or a drawing back, literally means to draw down, not to draw the short stick and never get to rest in your later years.

8 – Family time. Italian culture understands and values family responsibilities, of children to aging parents, of parents to young children, extending outward to the family at large. See my lengthy analysis of this in a 2017 post, Italy: Who’s Taking Care of You?

9 – Excellent and affordable frequent train service throughout the country.

10 – Affordable excellent food that they know how to prepare at home. Hardly any fast food.

11 – Nice local wine and olive oil.

12 – A country with varied geography – Alps, Apennines, ocean, forest, lakes, cities, ad infinitum.

13 – Founding EU member state.

A few years back I wondered what the world would be like – more specifically, what America would be like – if our culture were able to put down its insularity and inquire with curious minds how things work in other places. An enormous, collective fact-finding mission, if you will. Sort of like delayed study abroad. Perhaps a period of two to four weeks, paid for by the commonweal to anyone willing to go see for themselves. No tourist activities, but a lot of hands-on community inquiry. I am accustomed to cultural woolgathering and grant that I betray my own outlier status on this point as a temosfora. The more we see, the less we fear, and the more we know. In most cases, and eventually, the more we release anxiety. There are so many ways to be. There are easier, gentler ways to be.

It’s well worth a moment to consider how we view ourselves versus how others view us culturally, even as a starting point.

I fully expect additional points/counterpoints, from my own desk, and from inquiring friends in all locales. Let’s hear it.

Love, A Temosfora

Update from Italy: When Fear Looks Like Hate

A Japanese Kannon (Kuan Yin) statue, the deity of limitless compassion, with her thousand arms and hands ready to help and support those in pain and in need. Photo by Hiroshi Tsubono on Unsplash

I fled Facebook a few years ago (with few exceptions) because its psychic sludge was prompting daily cortisol reactions and making me feel ill. I’m not a fan of denial, but neither do I wish to be barraged by online discord that thrives in the echo chamber of social media. I want to work for social change in a meaningful way, whenever possible. What that looks like exactly is something I am always considering.

A friend urged me to migrate to Instagram, a Facebook product. I was heartened by its positivity and minimal signs of political/cultural conflict. It’s full of pretty pictures that calm and soothe. Ahhhh la bellezza! I started posting my pictures there daily.

A friend shared a Twitter screencap on Instagram (the infinite loop of social media!). I adore this friend and her work for social change, but the reshared message stopped me mid-scroll.

Well, here we go again. Instagram, a Facebook product, is now about as fun as Facebook. (No fun.)

I commented. I felt I had to. (This is how social media gets you!) This observation is reductive, I wrote. We know this. Hate comes from fear. People don’t love to hate. People are driven by cold fear. This is what America looks like when people eat fear for breakfast.

My friend didn’t respond or reply. The screencaps kept getting posted.

That’ll learn me, I felt with some remorse. I’d been gone so long from social media that I forgot how much people just scream, and then ignore. Scream, ignore, repeat. Scream, ignore, repeat. Even good people. Being upset takes a lot of energy. Then, after that, listening? Forget about it; who has energy for that, after being in the arena for hours, days, an age?

That person who pissed you off? I assure you that they did not wake up today and think, I wonder how I can really make that other person mad today. Like furious! They woke up, and were going through their day, and then something happened that triggered them into a fear-based response. To think that they singled you out, or a group of people out, to annoy you to the exclusion of any other intent, intended or not, is to think with the mind of a child. It is the cry of an ego that is smarting. We all have egos, and they all wince, some daily, some multiple times per day. This is normal. What’s not healthy is to not see things as they are, and to take things less personally.

People don’t love to hate. People are driven by fear. They’ve got genuine fears that look a lot like anger. Maybe listen to the reasons for that fear? Can we work on listening? Can we respect the fears of others, even if they are not our own shared fears? We all know what stone cold fear feels like. I’m talking about the kind forms cold puddles in the bottom of your stomach and makes you feel like you’ve been sucking helium out of party balloons.

This would require a new understanding and use of social media. Part of the problem is that disembodied discourses in the online space bring out the worst in people. You can do an insult drive-by and never reap the consequences. I’ve never done it, but have been on the receiving end.

We can all agree, we want to lay down the fear. Don’t we? Everyone in America is so hopped up on anxiety and anger and fear that no one is thinking straight anymore. Seventeen million guns were sold last year in America. This is madness, and indicative of a deeply rooted problem. Rooted in fear. A delusive fear that endangers and tricks people into creating a more dangerous world. Which creates more fear. The cycle of fear and hate will consume us.

I’m not saying to condone hateful speech, but to listen and to really hear where it’s coming from. And prioritize having more conversations in person. You’ll never change anyone’s mind online in what passes for an exchange.

We all need to work on the imaginative empathy muscle. It’s the only way out of the pit of anger, hate, and fear. Can you put down your triggered response, and see things for what they are? A world full of fear and people in need of compassion? Can we try to talk – and listen – to people in person?

Update from Italy: On America and Cultural Psychology

Coming or going? Emigrating or staying put?
Photo by Brígida Lourenço Guerreiro on Unsplash

Last weekend I posted a piece about the American work ethic that struck a nerve. Along with my congenital nosiness, I am also dogged, wielding the scalpel of Why against blur and confusion. Why does America harbor, indeed nurture, this work ethic that seems to undermine our very stability? Have we exchanged one set of values – peace family, community – for another – career, salary, prestige? Do we long for one while working for the other, and if so, why? Where does the American restlessness, the seeking, the striving – and with the flip side of that, the fear – come from?

Does America wonder why other countries in the world do not out their children through active shooter drills at their school, armed with bulletproof backpacks? Why other countries are not struggling with a breathtaking opioid epidemic? Why the very term trigger warning originated in America and never caught on anywhere else, much less its prescribed usage?

I have thought a lot about this. Years of research and reading in cross-cultural communication and cultural psychology have framed my professional discussions and internal musings about the nature of a culture’s collective personality. A few years back, a spate of articles came out about the so-called Wanderlust Gene. Go on, read the summary and evaluate for yourself. If you’re American, you very likely carry a copy of the variant of the DRD4 gene, labelled 7R by some unimaginative lab tech (I might have gone with Woohoo!; the writer of the article opts for the Wanderlust gene – but “Dirty Four” is funny), estimated to be present in 20% of the genpop. (Global genpop, surely – I am convinced it is far higher in America). The variant is suspected to be a predictor for novelty seeking, risk taking, and new experiences. Not like you’re necessarily BASE jumper, or an adrenaline junkie, but maybe even someone who feels restless, internally and externally, and often. The allele reduces dopamine receptivity, so its carriers may prioritize and seek out experiences that offer a greater dopamine release. (Flying from my home in Seattle to Rio de Janeiro in the South American midsummer on frequent flyer miles in 2001 and being promptly pickpocketed in the Metro comes to mind, but that might be a story for a different post. More importantly, why did I envision the trip as an entertaining endeavor, even as it tickles my memory today)? The 7R variant is also a possible marker for ADHD and substance dependency as the person with a higher dopamine threshold seeks to calm themselves with external interventions or experiences.

Anyone who was barely awake in school in the US has learned the story of early immigration to the US. People seeking a better life. Puritans going into exile from an intolerant England. Irish who could not wait for another crop to fail. Scandinavians fed up with thin topsoil, Russian incursions, and seasonal affective disorder. Germans in search of, I don’t know, farmland beyond a single terrace planted with Riesling. Dutch farmers tired of living below sea level in search of higher land at a lower cost. (I am going to set aside the facts of the slave trade for a moment, as people who were human trafficked into unpaid labor from abroad did not opt into this choice based on their preferences, to put it mildly.) In short, people were presented with choices, and they went all in. They picked up and left for good.

People who opted in to (non-forcible) emigration to the US from elsewhere had a different psychological profile than their neighbors at home. They tolerated a greater level of risk, and were willing to take that chance. And, after they landed in their new home, perhaps the 7R allele went quiet for a generation or two, but then it came back to life, hopping and skipping through generations, popping up here and there as the restless brother, the hotheaded sister, the aunt with the attention span of a housefly, the head of household who moves in search of an incrementally better home, greater gain, and more. Now when I meet people who tell me they can’t stand change, hate it when things change, I don’t adapt well, I quietly wonder if they have a recessive gene for a raised dopamine threshold. When people recount travel adventures, times they made a seemingly rash decision (whether or not it worked out), or start dreaming big in casual conversation with me, something deep in my spirit starts thrumming and I think, yes. I know exactly what you mean.

Last summer, our of a surfeit of nosy and dogged curiosity, I completed hours of research on my own family – the Sharps. I knew nothing about our origin story, but as I looked into it, I became more and more interested in how significant life choices repeat through generations. My eighth-great grandfather, one William Sharpe, signed an indenture contract and boarded a ship in Leith Harbour, Edinburgh, bound for East New Jersey in 1685. The generations of Sharps before him painted a picture of lost inheritances, failed farms, an attempt to build a new life in Aberdeen that didn’t quite work out. William and two of his brothers went to East New Jersey – John and George went first, in 1684, followed by William the year after – and there the family farmed for a few generations. William’s son and grandson farmed the same land that William purchased once he completed his contract, receiving a parcel of the same land he’d worked off his ship passage on the banks of the Raritan River. William’s great-grandson Solomon, born in 1765, picked up the 7R thread and moved around the east coast and the expanding American frontier like a wild hare compared to his more rooted father and his dissolute grandfather (perhaps in a variant expression of 7R). Solomon moved from the Raritan River in East New Jersey, to Cape May, in the southernmost tip of New Jersey, to Pennsylvania, to Kentucky in the space of thirty years, finally landing in Ohio, where he was buried. He never knew his great-grandfather, but the life arcs of the two men match. I am sure if they had known one another they would have been strikingly similar, and would have demonstrated a similar dopamine threshold. Some of my ancestors stayed rooted on the farm, but others were more peripatetic, their roots loosely bound.

It seems Americans are convinced they exercise a great deal of control in their daily life, in their work, in the world, and around the globe. We seek experiences that reinforce this belief. But how much control do we have really, versus how much control we believe we exert over circumstances? Our ancestors and instincts would have us believe one way, but experience proves otherwise. Regardless the actual outcome of our quick and comparatively risky American decisions, the identity takeaway for our collective culture is that, in the moment, when presented with the decision, we took the risk. I will say also from experience that this openness to changing one’s whole life in a moment, throwing all the pieces in the air to assemble some new, just-now-seen puzzle that lands on the table, is a uniquely American approach that truly confounds the landed descendants of people who never emigrated. They just do not get it.

An old memory from Spain in 1993 comes to mind. A Spaniard my age named Antonio who begged me to admit that nothing made me feel calmer than picking up a handful of dirt from my home and smelling it.

I was revulsed. Are you kidding? I need a boarding pass! I responded. Pack me a suitcase! I gotta see stuff!

What do you mean, you have no home? he demanded.

I stared. If I knew where my home was, I would tell you.

He judged me coy. I knew I was candid. Thus did two perspectives fail to intersect that time, but I always remember it. He was right, and I was right, but we each thought the other was being dishonest, I am sure of it.

America is anxious. Maybe more anxious than most places in the world. America has anxiety and fear on tap. The weight of history and memory of all those disasters, the risks our forebears took that didn’t work out, the hope always that the next risk (frontier, farm, job) would work out. American? It’s not your fault if you’re bouncy, nervous, prone to risk-taking and possibly also substance abuse, overeating, obsessive exercising, extreme opinions, doodling (I have never seen people doodle like an American in a boring work meeting) and non-stop social media doomscrolling. It is easy to trigger an American because most Americans are always on edge. But why are we all on edge? Ask why.

I think, as an assiduous layperson and not an academic, that it’s because the dopamine threshold in the collective American personality is set, through our history and its people, at a much higher level than the rest of the world. The memory of want and famine and war are strong (I might write another piece on epigenetics and how responses to these crises got switched on in us in past generations). It’s not that Americans want to be overweight, or addicted to opioids, or frantically anxious, or changing jobs every year, or getting divorced again, or taking manic roadtrips. I am amused that a NYT article (co-written by Tony Blair, of all people) that keeps popping up for me headlines, We need to start travelling again! One might ask the question first, how do we continue to cope responsibly with an unprecedented pandemic? Is travelling really more important than the collective survival of the human race?

There are motivators deep within us that constantly press on us to do such things. Now, the question is, do we compulsively address these responses, pulled by an invisible thread in a trancelike state, blaming ourselves for our failures? Or do we consider a alternative version of reality in which we are not in control, in which we humbly admit there are forces at work within us that we must learn to work with harmoniously? Do you think you carry a genetic variant that raises your dopamine threshold? Why or why not?

Update from Italy: The U.S. Foreign Policy Squirrel

Incoming for the American attention span!

Like many of you, I have been following the recent news out of Afghanistan. Also like many of you, I am probably guilty of having forgotten, for days at a time during the past two decades, that America was even at war in Afghanistan. I am ashamed to admit this – I, who in high school articulated the goal of “understand global current events,” and tacked it to my bulletin board in my childhood bedroom, I who used to guest on “Worldviews” at KGOU ten years ago, I who chose again and again to follow an international career path (immigration advocacy, higher education, study abroad) accompanied by complimentary life opportunities and choices (various professional positions, living abroad repeatedly) mostly down to the fact that I am just so damn nosy I cannot stand to not know something. I used to joke that I should have been a war reporter, like Martha Gellhorn, but missed my calling.

An abiding curiosity has served me well in this lifetime, however, and the more I learn, the more I see and experience, the more ferret away and file new facts into my existing framework of understanding how the world we live in works. With respect to living abroad, work, languages other than English and cultures other than American, my life to date has been one extended, open-ended, compare-and-contrast essay like the ones we used to have to write against a timer in AP English in twenty minutes or less. People are like this here, that there; France is like this, Spain like this, Seattle versus New York versus the American Midwest; I only realized after 2003 that Finnish culture was a key yet covert component of my personal psychology. I have a solid introduction for this life essay, but the body of the argument keeps swelling and expanding, while the conclusion, if any should appear, seems ever further and further away.

The US finished its evacuation operations in Afghanistan a day early, on August 30. Many people were left behind who wanted to get out, notably many women, professionals, and educated people who may as well have a target sign tacked on their chest now that the Taliban is back in charge again. The daily newsletter (“Letters from An American”) that I receive in my inbox from the preeminent academic Heather Cox Richardson informed her readers that:

Researchers estimate that the war in Afghanistan has cost more than 171,000 lives. It has wounded more than 20,700 U.S. service members and taken the lives of 2461 more. It has cost more than $2 trillion, which adds up to about $300 million a day for twenty years.

I wrote in my piece last weekend that I remembered with clarity the day we began the war in Afghanistan, twenty years ago. The loss of life is irreparable on both sides, and very likely civilian casualties of American military presence in Afghanistan will always be underreported. But two trillion dollars over twenty years is a big number to crunch. It is helpful that she breaks it down for the reader to $300 million per day. If it is helpful to you to know this, as it was for me, one trillion is a million million. So, two million millions.

$300 million per day is a lot of money to spend on “nation building,” that is, when we remembered that we were even there. I have been thinking of $300 million per day all day. When I woke up. All morning. On my walk. On my way into the office. In the office. On my way home, making lunch. Eating lunch. Why, if I were the war in Afghanistan, I would have already thought my way through $150 million today. It’s a ton of money by any measure, but the fact that we were spending it under the pretense of building the new nation of Afghanistan is astonishing. The necessary hubris to presume that our efforts there were meaningful – that we could drop in, halfway around the world, where, for crying out loud, the USSR failed in living memory and Great Britain failed in recent memory, just a handful of monarchs ago – is astonishing. I bet most Americans even now would not be able to identify Afghanistan on a map, much less its spoken languages or prominent peoples. I wonder if most Americans would be willing to concede that the nation on American radar most in need of nation-building is America itself.

While the infrastructure bill has passed ($3.5 trillion, again), that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s no stretch to imagine how $2 trillion would have been well spent at home, for infrastructure, universal healthcare, universal childcare, universal education and student loan debt forgiveness, housing, a dignified retirement (e.g., not working as a Wal*Mart greeter in a red polyester vest with missing front teeth), a living wage, civil communities. Oh America, you have so much money, and you spend it on all the wrong things – a LOT of money of some very misguided projects – all while the citizenry convinces itself that domestic policies are staggeringly expensive and hence out of reach. What could we have done domestically with $300 million per day? I mean, seriously. It would go way past those newborn Marimekko boxes that the Finnish government sends parents every time a baby arrives, but that would be a good start.

But why take a look at our own house when we can point at other countries abroad and crow about how badly they’re doing? The former president took joy in deriding sh1thole countries, but many people were on board with his opinions. Thank God we’re not like sh1thole country X! Never mind our role in the decimation of civil society in any number of countries (various places in Central America, Africa, and Asia come to mind, not to mention pre-Columbian North America), or naive expectations and emptily hoped-for but never realized outcomes. Foreign wars are a policy squirrel that provide a convenient distraction from the meaningful everyday work of good domestic policy, by the people, for the people. I keep thinking too about how Congress has not declared war since Pearl Harbor, that these foreign military interventions represent ad hoc policies inherited like hot potatoes. How the US military, now all-volunteer, seems to shrink more and more from our collective conscience. If America wants a distraction from its internal messes, a war provides an immediate distraction that also permits a healthy serving of righteousness and moral outrage. A memory of watching the news in the Reagan years when we went to war with Granada, and Manuel Noriega. Examples abound.

Back in my radio and op-ed days, and in the years before as a Foreign Service hopeful and larval Hill rat, I will confess I was more pro-“benevolent” foreign intervention by American military. The milieu in which I’d been raised an educated sold a convincing story of American Helpfulness, that it was our duty to somehow police global ethics. That if we did not intervene, bullies would run rampant while civil society suffered. But evidence and years have done their work on me. Living in a civil society that looks after its citizens here in Italy has provided further points to compare and contract in my giant life essay.

Even a recent Ezra Klein podcast with Robert Wright, a purported left-leaning progressive and author of the newsletter Nonzero, was astonishing for his guest’s myopia. He veered into a explanation of the rebirth of the Cold War. The US wants to take on China? There are things we don’t like about China and we would like to change about its leadership? China commits human rights abuses? And their borders? I am so sorry, but we have no moral ground to defend here. I shook my head and thought, what if China turned the tables, came in one day with troops and said, America, big ni hao. Hey. You need to make some changes. In your leadership. And we don’t like how you run your borders in Texas and Arizona, and keep these kids in detention, and for that matter, we don’t like Guantanamo or your death penalty either. We need you to make some changes, mmmk? And we’ll stay here on your borders and construct garrisons in your towns until things look a little more here like we think they should. Where is this generation’s Jonathan Swift? Can someone write this counterfactual novel for me please? We need to hold a mirror up to this so we can see it and name it for what it is.

So, America. Forget the foreign wars, the squirrel that distracts, the sock puppet held up to make you smile, your eyes focused beyond the frame. Fold up the operations and go home, America. The world does not need your help – unless they ask for it – and almost always, interventions just exacerbate the existing issues and we leave a greater mess then first we found. Look at Afghanistan. Libya. Tunisia. Iraq. Others. Many others. I’m no isolationist. Very much not. As a global citizen, I am all for respectful, meaningful global engagement. But the US has got to get off the Helpful Train when it is not at all helpful, not to ourselves, not to others. And perhaps most importantly, we need to stop telling ourselves we’re helpful. To ourselves and others. Find what’s really helpful and maybe start there first. I’d like to see us start with a basic social infrastructure that supports civil society in the US.

I now relieved that I did not join the US Foreign Service. I would be so out of a job for having, much less publishing, these opinions. I would like to thank the diplomatic service for twice telling me, eight years apart and in identical anonymous conference rooms, that they declined my earnest offer to work for them.

Update from Italy: Cultural Musings on the American Work Ethic

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Twice this month, Europeans have ribbed me about Americans hating to take vacations and accepting work conditions that no one else would do in a developed economy. Once in English, and once in Italian, I tried to explain on the spot that in fact Americans would love to take a vacation if they only knew what one was. Well, because you people just love working so much, they replied. Both times, this was said to me; and both times, I felt like I might pass out from frustration, either atop that Alp or in the Tuscan countryside at an outdoor dinner. There were so many layers to this onion that were impossible to peel back before the end of the pétanque round or the primo piatto. It’s been bothering me since and I’ve finally found the time to collect my response into something rather more coherent, and for this I must thank a friend who sent me an essay published on Medium that added fuel to this fire, in which the writer states his rhetorical premise:

Carl Jung, one of the most prolific psychotherapists of the 20th century, remarked that about a third of his cases were suffering from “no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.” What happened in modern society to make this state of affairs so widespread?

Okay, first of all, Mr. Writer, Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of Carl Jung in Vain, but He appreciates your freshman-level qualifier. Maybe, as the writer answers for us, it’s because we sit around and wait for the universe, or God, to provide us with the life we desire instead of taking the hard road of Work and Will to go after it. The entire article needs a caveat for American culture. Much of the rest of the world does NOT think this way. This piece lays so much blame at the feet of the individual, which is inaccurate and unhelpful. America works Too Hard. There are historic reasons for this. But we’ve painted ourselves now into a pretty corner.

Distance brings perspective, and perspective brings wisdom. But perspective is elusive to many people, be they tied to a place, a career, a life that seems immutable, or some other anchoring object. I think often about the nature of Home and Belonging, and with each passing year in Italy, the struggles and frustrations that I experienced in America somehow arrange themselves into a pattern that reveals clarity and answers. I know that I am lucky to have this gift of distance and time to help me see more clearly my past life, and hopefully offer these observations to those who may continue to find themselves in circumstances now similar to what mine once were, struggling for answers, a way to make this life all work somehow smoothly.

When I lived in America, from 1974 to 2016, minus about a decade for shorter sojourns abroad, my life was ruled by the twin demons of Success and Failure. One I yearned for, the other I dreaded. It started early and often, from kindergarten on. There was little Being, and a lot of Doing and Achieving, preparing me for the Great Machine of the American Career. Why did I need to work so hard, all the time? Make the best grades, do the best projects, come out on top, wreathed with awards and scholarships? Why did my stomach clench for weeks over a low grade, a rejected application? Applying for college and getting through those years were their own sort of values-based purgatory. The more I received, the more hollow I felt. I only knew the How. I did not know the Why. Work or drown. Achieve or die. And for my understanding and compliance, I was rewarded with an oddly gas-lighting label: I was, unfortunately, an Overachiever. I somehow achieved Too Much, and worried too much about achieving Too Little. This, ironically, placed me at risk for being an Underachiever – someone who did not want to achieve at all, and so who achieved, insanely, Nothing!

The only exception to this rule was found in my time abroad, when all the rules changed, the base shifted, the common denominator titled. I understood how a person transplanted to another culture could find herself in possession of past awards and future goals that felt less and less meaningful, seeing as they weren’t shared by 40 or 60 million new neighbors, my temporary compatriots. Many of them, at my ages and various other ages, did express worry about some things, but not the same things I did, and not in the same ways. Scholarships, grades, awards, career, what? In Spain and in France I saw for the first time how these goal posts were nothing more than cultural constructs. They were in no way universally acknowledged. My new, if temporary, cohorts, saw their families on weekends, and whenever possible. They never missed a meal. They partied in moderation. They truly loved their friends. They lived with a sense of place, in a place that loved them back. Of course there were some disadvantages to be found in a life firmly rooted in a town where your family had lived for half a millennium. But the relative advantages included a calmness and a sense of identity that I did not have. Monica, the free radical. Spanish and French people, safe in their cluster at the center, the nuclear family.

No matter. I returned to the US and, anxiety barely in hand, hopped into that hamster wheel, ready to run, to put that education to Good Use. I wanted to work, not just hard, but really hard. I quickly learned that working long days, evenings and weekends for $21,000 a year was little fun, regardless the philanthropic satisfaction and the fact that I was employing my acquired and, back then excellent, Spanish every day, verbal and written with a clientele that did not speak English and was largely illiterate. I could not pace myself. I was there To Achieve. I made some hopeful but terribly rash decisions. Then I burned out and hard. I stopped and started again, heavy on the brake, the gas, the clutch.

What never once occurred to me once, during all that time, was that it wasn’t my fault. I’d been so well trained to swim in the cultural waters that I could not see how implicit expectations were shaping me. My brief insights abroad were now buried in the sands of time. But a few years into post-collegiate Work, I saw very well why I was trained to achieve: in America, if you are not achieving, you are not surviving. If you are super-achieving AND very lucky, maybe you have the life you want. If you are like many, you are failing, and “underachieving,” with only yourself to blame. I fell off the professional ladder a few times between 1996 and 2001, and each time, I blamed myself and hard. For not working hard enough or smart enough, for not being patient enough, for not reading the tea leaves, for not coping well with my office circumstances. I had an expensive healthcare bill that went terrifyingly into collections. The ice was thin beneath my feet, and failed to conceal the still, cold water.

The structural safety that is built in to many countries does not exist in America. There is no guaranteed education, parental leave, childcare. No protected holidays or retirement. Most importantly, for my many rash professional choices, no health insurance. I shake my head now to think that in 2000 I was hired at Microsoft as a professional contractor and there was no healthcare insurance offered. I bought a new health insurance policy from a local organization for $48 dollars a month, in hopes it would stitch me back together if I got in a car wreck on the 520 bridge on the way into Redmond. In America, people move for jobs in decisions that are deemed career choices, but are closer bottom-line decisions based on needs around education, childcare, healthcare, and retirement. We are trained to lean in, to blame ourselves, to shop the self-help section to learn how to deal with depression, anxiety, and more, rather than address the structural issues that directly contribute to American anxiety. Where will I live? What will happen if I or someone in my family become ill or injured? How will I navigate new parenthood with work? Who will look after my kids while I work? Where and how will my kids attend school? Will I ever be able to stop working? What is this thing called a vacation? Will I ever know a moment’s peace? How can I ever afford any of this?

How can I ever afford any of this. Here’s what I want to put a pin in. Even a bright, motivated, hardworking person, with a string of degrees and professional savvy, cannot predict how much life will cost in America in any given year. What is the real cost? We never know. It’s not that we’re all bad at math, or terrible at saving money, or hate vacations: it’s that you cannot predict or budget for life in America. With healthcare alone, bombarded by co-pays, co-insurance, minimum and maximum deductibles, retail pharmacy, and out-of-pocket costs, the only and shocking option left is to try as hard as you can to make as much money as possible in hopes that it’s enough to take care of your needs. Taking jobs further and further away from family, from community, into schools and neighborhoods where you don’t know anyone and no one knows you. I haven’t even mentioned entrenched economic inequality or the invisible aquifer of racism that lies beneath the bedrock of American culture. I have not even gone here into my theories about collective cultural inclinations or the great self-sorting of mass migration to America, whereby in certain moments in time specific types of people found themselves , by force or choice, traveling to America to make new homes.

So, America. My fellow Americans. I am here to tell you that it’s not your fault. You are smart, and just fine as people. Americans have yoked ourselves to work over the years, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are structural choices we can make as a society to make life more manageable and more livable, a life in which we build meaningful community and regularly see our parents and children over dinner, in which our children are educated at no (or even reasonable) cost, in which children are looked after and the sick and injured are not blamed for having gotten themselves into this mess, in which older workers are offered a graceful and supported retirement, in which a couple annual holidays a year to genuinely unplug and be with your family are not just possible, but collectively valued. Don’t let anyone tell you that it costs too much and that we could never afford it, in America, still – arguably – for better or worse, the wealthiest country in the world. It just takes some decisions, over time, to build a more just and equitable society.

It’s more likely we’ll remain in Italy to raise our kids here and eventually retire (on what….). I don’t know that anyone in America agrees with me, even as the drawbacks to our collective assumptions are evident in a thousand statistics about housing, food scarcity, education, healthcare, childcare, retirement, and more. I feel guilt about not wanting to return to America to work for change (how American is that? agh). But it’s not my job (agh, more American jingo) to convince people that my vision skews more kind and just, and can result in a greater safety and happiness for all.

Plenty more where this came from. Thanks for reading, if you did, to the end. I tried to organize it as coherently as I could, but no kidding, when someone tells me that Americans work too hard and hate vacations, I could just spit.

Update from Italy: Thoughts on Kabul Etc.

Kuan Yin Goddess of Compassion • Mandalas Life
I offer these observations with a compassionate heart.

I wasn’t even sure who Ezra Klein was until a few months ago. Obviously he is a well-established journalist, but I dismissed him for years as just another glib gadfly with a Twitter obsession and an enormous following, someone whose faint echoes reached me here but whose opinions and conversations formed just more media noise hardly worth examining. My media bubble had become a micro-media-bubble. But this summer I found his podcast. I catch up on news and science when out on my daily stroll, and his conversations are on point for topic and well-tuned for the truly curious. Psychology, neurology, foreign affairs, pandemic. All very lucid and, I have to say, calm. The calmness is what won me. What, he lives in San Francisco? What? He also writes copy for the NYT? I am very, very late to this game, okay. His recent opinion piece about Afghanistan inspired me and got me musing about where my own awareness has intersected with Afghanistan at specific points in my life.

In the summer of 1979, I was five years old, a year younger than my daughter is now. I have a very clear memory of perhaps my first moment of awareness about the greater world, sat in front of the television and watching the tanks roll into Afghanistan. Who is doing this, I asked. I felt sick. The footage showed violent images. Russia, came the reply. This was the same year that the veiled, green-eyed Afghan girl appeared on the cover of National Geographic. The network news came in about the Iranian revolution, the American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran, tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree. The second Christmas of the hostages, there were no Christmas cards, the network anchors intoned, as images flickered by: thin, bearded men; machine guns; the embassy. Although I had no context whatsoever for what I was seeing, I empathized with the tragedy of loss on all sides, and I understood that we’d done this to ourselves by somehow being somewhere we were not supposed to be. I asked my parents many questions. I am sure they tried to answer them as best they could.

Then Reagan was elected and my primary education continued and the US continued to send money and arms to the mujahedin. I wondered what a discothèque was because they seemed to be in Europe and get bombed a lot when US soldiers were inside them doing whatever people do in a discothèque. When I was twelve, the US bombed Tripoli and Michelle told everyone in vocal music that Nostradamus had predicted this centuries before in one of his mysterious riddles. To be a suburban white child in the eighties meant to live a safe life while hearing extraordinary news about people in other parts of the world who were not safe at all, and very often made so either directly or indirectly by the actions of my country. The instability in what we call the Middle East. The Achille Lauro. The Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. Sandinistas. Granada. My earlier sensitivity receded into adolescence as the news became nothing more than scrolling wallpaper for my own solipsistic dramas.

Foreign language learning opened a world for me, and as my curiosities were always prelude to actual adventures, I soon ventured well beyond the seeming calm of suburbia in search of backstory, context, and understanding. I made Moroccan friends and shared mint tea with them in Spain. I learned that Communists were not bad people, and that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I started to work in immigration advocacy.

Then 1998. The embassies bombed in Africa. Bin Laden emerged as a name. Al-Quaeda means The Base. The WTO and the Battle in Seattle, with those people dressed up as sea turtles on Capitol Hill. A brief detour for me into the wealthy world of software. 2001, perhaps my most fraught year on record, punctuating my own losses and insecurities with 9/11. I woke up that Tuesday morning, my clock radio blaring the news about the towers tumbling. I thought it was a joke. It was not a joke. I sat in my basement and watched tv with my roommates. My sister-in-law called me on the landline and urged that I not leave the house, everything was very dangerous.

One Sunday morning that month I sat in a pew at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. Before the homily, the priest announced that we had declared war on Afghanistan. The bombs had begun to drop. My heart felt like it landed on the kneeler before me. Not long after, Colin Powell appeared before the UN to make the case for war in Iraq. Yellow cake uranium. WMD. Uganda. In his face I saw a leader co-opted. The apparatchiks clapped their hands. They were going to get their war. The war would pay for itself? Give me a break. I didn’t believe it for a minute. Pure spin. People were clueless. I read the superb historical analysis by Peter Hopkirk on Afghanistan (The Great Game). A federally-employed aunt in DC was full of praise for Rumsfeld. I liked only his quote about known unknowns. Well, spin forges ahead, regardless. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Remember that banner, and W in his military kit, jumping around on that naval destroyer? Good grief.

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia : Hopkirk, Peter:  Amazon.it: Libri
Seriously. Pick it up.

My dreams enlarged; perhaps I could help change things from the inside a sprawling and immensely funded institution. I had worked in Washington. I interviewed twice for the US Foreign Service, but was twice told in the most diplomatic of terms that they did not have the news for me that they thought I might hope to hear. I kept working in immigration, chipping away here and there as I could. I found myself in a position of responsibility as great as I had sought, but in a different context. Once I sat awkwardly in a conference room with a Kurdish delegation as my colleagues apologized on behalf of the US for the entire Iraq debacle. The wallpaper come to life.

There is little changing an institution from the inside. The Inside will change a person, change perspective, sap energy, much like a newly minted lawyer who plans to “go corporate” and remain there only as long as necessary to pay off the student loans prior to getting down to work as a constitutional lawyer, or a pro bono advocate of some noble and worthy cause. You learn plenty on the Inside, but you do not necessarily learn things that help you to act, or act well. You become tired of the inaction. People stop seeing things. You stop seeing things. I got out of the Inside. I felt I had changed nothing. In retrospect I was grateful the Foreign Service never scooped me. We moved abroad. New perspectives, new challenges.

Then Trump was elected. Shock. Art and lit will save us, I was convinced. It was my best strategy. Art and lit might have helped me in that time, but plenty of people suffered and died as our collective moral compass became as hazard as a housefly. I know that many people on the Inside felt they too were able to change nothing, and they left. Friends who were FSOs held out as long as they could and then packed up to take a sabbatical from Foggy Bottom.

Earlier this month as Afghanistan found its way once more into the headlines. No doubt many forgot we were “fighting a war,” and a very expensive one at that. I connected with an old FSO friend in Tanzania who served for years in Kabul with her FSO husband. It’s bad, she said, it’s really bad. She’s stayed on the inside, working for change, doing good. I love her for that. A few days later the 40-point headline blared, Kabul Falls to Taliban. Again. Here we are again. Rumsfeld was laid to rest. A teary Cheney mourned his friend. Congress squawked about the price tag of the infrastructure bill, protesting the cost, $3.5 trillion. The bill on Afghanistan came to more than half that over twenty years, $2 trillion.

This week marks five years that we have been living outside of the US, in the relative comfort and calm of Italy, EU founding member and G7 economy. The pandemic was tough at the start here, but in general, things are under control here. Even on sweltering days in Florence people weren’t complaining about wearing a mask. Afghanistan is making the news here in a wallpaper sort of way. It’s covered, but it’s not urgent.

All this to say, as I review my personal timeline with specific events and decision points of US foreign policy, and I see the US from here, I am struck the many ways in which my country might have seen to its own house first. Four More Wars, said the bumper stickers. I re-read 1984 after the 2016 election. I was struck by the satirical Ministry of Peace and the constant wars televised into citizen’s homes to keep them fearful of an unknown and distant yet treacherous enemy who threatens their very way of life.

I’m older now, a mom with kids, and I wonder how much the US would benefit – and benefit the greater world – by taking care of things at home first. Universal healthcare. Childcare. Parental leave. Retirement. Vacation that Americans actually take. Student loan debt cancellation. I find myself wondering how much healthier our foreign policy would be for everyone involved if we were taking care of our own people at home first, helping to reduce American inequity and inequality, anxiety and anger, that all get channeled back out into the world in the form of public policy and decisions. We spent $2 trillion over two decades in Afghanistan, and for what? Back to square one, as the UK and Russia knew well before we did. Plenty more blood to spill before August 31, and it will.

If you throw tons of money at a perceived problem, you can prop up your version of the solution for as long as the budget – and public goodwill – last. I really hope we learn our lessons from this, and change strategic tack. But I’m a realist about that. My heart aches for all of this, but especially for the Afghan people and for everyone who worked to help them.

Update from Italy: Everyday Ephemera

Just a random list of things I have noticed in Italy.

The wisteria is out of this world. I have never seen wisteria in the New World look anything like the wisteria here that’s been climbing and blooming since the Roman Empire.

Beds are small compared to the U.S. Yet somehow none of the U.S. sheets can even be remotely provisioned for use. This is a conundrum. Actually I think maybe the beds are shorter but wider.

Wallets are large. Those big euro notes need a nice big pocket. American dollars are small. Ergo small fat wallets. Maybe American wallets are baby Italian beds.

They never put salt in their baked sweets and so the sweets taste pasty. Please, Italian pastry chefs, for the love of all torta di Spagna, throw a pinch of salt in the mix.

I can’t get used to millefoglie. the standard Italian festive dessert, which I have not tasted in forever because no one has had anything resembling a party since Carnevale 2020, last year in February. A million flakes and cream should be delicious, right? Like a French Napoléon, a silver fork tine dragged through the wet chocolate forming waves on the vanilla cream top. But … eh. I really just want what I have learned is properly called a sponge cake, which I called a layer cake when I was stateside.

I love the flower vendor in Piazza della Repubblica. Rain or shine, Katia is there with gorgeous bouquets for less than ten euros. She’ll even wrap them for you in bright plastic and raffia. I am telling you, that is service, and I am turning into Clarissa Dalloway.

Katia’s Handiwork

Italy has been in a declared state of national emergency for fourteen, going on fifteen months. There are very few Covid vaccines in Italy. Finger crossed for German mRNA vaccine approval next month.

Italians are super mask compliant but struggle more with social distancing.

Italian lawyers wear an incredible kit. Lawyers: cravat is one color, judges: cravat of some other color. Everyone gets shoulder braid. I spied this in a shop window today and promptly took it to the studio legale to verify accuracy.

Note LEX tatt on neck. Pretty hot. Does the ink come with?

Update from Italy: The Burden of Accent Embarrassment

In social situations, who gets to avoid embarrassment, and who bears the burden of embarrassment? I suppose this applies to many different types of circumstances, but I am here specifically considering language learning and the stress of immersion acquisition.

I will explain the rabbit hole.

I don’t want to speak English, say some Italians. Il mio acento è bruttissimo. My accent is very, very ugly.

This always makes me laugh, then cry. I, who bear an accent in Italian that must sound something like a Valley Girl ca. 1984. My main evidence for this is the mockery of the polizotti at the questura in January 2017. I don’t mean for this accent to happen, and it was never an issue for me in Spanish, where my immersion acquisition foray into Spain in 1993 spit me out with a near-perfect accent (in my mind) at the end of six months. Why can’t my Italian sound more like my Spanish? ¿Por qué no?¿Por qué?¿Por qué?¿Por qué?

Then I panic. How ugly is my accent in Italian really? Do my vowels make native speakers cringe, the way I fumble for consonants? Are they all thinking, she seems quick enough, but oh my god that accent is like nails on a chalkboard. I fear this in my more anxious moments.

Then I think, wait, if they think MY accent is annoying, why do they let me keep talking? That’s it. I’m not speaking Italian again.

Then I think, they must think people are so mean. This makes me sad. I explained the other day to an Italian friend that it is almost impossible to speak English with an accent that a native speaker would pretend to absolutely not understand. English offers a marketplace of global accents, all comprehensible. Maybe Italian doesn’t exist in enough accents.

I am thinking of Italians who won’t speak English because they are quite certain that native English speakers are quietly mocking them, which is not happening. Instead they would rather their interlocutor speak an accented Italian.

Immersion acquisition is the sink-or-swim model of language learning. You go to the place, no one speaks to you in anything other than Language X, which is not the language you were raised speaking. This was a honorable way to learn language in horsey times before the interwebs and dumbphones existed. Eventually, over time, and frankly over a lot less time than sitting in a classroom, you remember words and phrases and pronunciations, verbs and tenses and the rules around the subjunctive and formal usage. These lessons are engraved on your brain, the synapses knitted closely together in a tight dance of emotion and language. I’m no neurologist, but as a lifelong language learner, I can say that without feeling there is no language. Perhaps language can exist without feeling, but it sounds a lot like that weird male voice that reads PDFs out loud for me sometimes on accident and I still don’t know how to make that happen on purpose.

At any rate, without having a feeling about whatever linguistic point I was learning – really any feeling at all, so long as it was a good strong one – there was virtually no chance that the lesson would stick. The word would be lost, the verb forgotten, the tense misused yet again. Someday I will catalog a list of language learning highlights that stay with me today, particularly ones about oranges, lollipops, and the subjunctive tense that expresses a set of circumstances that will never, ever happen in this lifetime. Some combination of joy, fear, elation, shame, wonder, even a warm-natured pedantry can work; for example, I will never forget how to say “sunset” in Spanish after a kind older Gallego sitting on a long stone bench with me in Santiago de Compostela admired the sunset with me, and seeing that I fumbled for the word, intoned la puesta del sol. In that moment, the magenta-streaked sky, the cool air, the kindly man in his cloth cap, the hard stone of the bench, all converged to make sure I never forgot this term.

You really have to be willing to put aside your fears and never stand on ceremony. A language tiger must wade in, chin up, ears open and pricked up for clues, eyes scanning the near and far horizon, her language whiskers attuned to usage and intonation. It’s not easy. It is, in fact, exhausting.

One summer in Finland, my cousins looked at me pityingly and said, You must be so tired, listening to us, in spite of our mother’s warm cinnamon buns and hot coffee. Go take a nap. And they were right. It could have also been the marathon of Formula 1 they were watching in the living room with Finnish commentary. I trundled off to a guest room, lay down on a twin bed with a cotton coverlet, and had the best nap of my life. Listening in that state of high alert with your toolkit of feelings at the ready to be deployed in the service of effortless remembering – because memory is the better part of this enterprise – is exhausting, like the beginning stages of any relationship.

All this to say, feel free to be embarrassed. It will lock in some language, if you’re trying to learn one. I am sure of it. Then, after a long day of navigating one or more languages, go take a nap, if you can.

Update from Italy: Tampone Negativo

Signora guarda su! su su su! / Lady look up! Up up up!

It was going to happen sooner or later. I’m neither neurotic nor avoidant. I just hadn’t had a reason to date to get my brain swabbed yet for Covid.

No, I have not been vaccinated yet. Yes, I am on a list to get a shot as soon as it is possible to do so. No, Italy is not lazy, or poor. There are no vaccines right now. It is a supply and demand issue, and the supply is not to be found in the EU at the moment. I feel if I have to explain this any more my head might pop off. Millions of people in Italy would get the vaccine tomorrow were it readily available. It’s not. So, in the meantime, we are in a zona rossa (a red zone), with businesses shuttered and faces drawn as the local economy contracts even more severely. I sincerely hope that the world is flooded with various effective and updated Covid vaccine. But until it is, this is the boat we’re in. Masks. Social distancing. Closed schools. Cases climbing. Mortality, not great. Case positive reports.

And so, around March 23, Eleanor had had a cold for a week, then Victor, then Jason, then me. Since I had babies any cold immediately turns into a sinus infection. I think the smushy bones of pregnancy rearranged my sinuses. I battled the crud for a weekend, then reached for an unopened box of Zithromax (three tablets) that we had in the cabinet. My face stopped hurting, but I still had a headache for a week, and then a little cough crept in. It is the kind of cough that sounds like the mmmf a dog makes when he’s taking a nap and hears the first crunch of a distant mail truck as it makes the turn onto a gravel road. Calmly sitting, Mmmf mmmf. Reading for an hour. Mmmf mmmf.

Shouldn’t you get a tampone? Jason asked me late last week, his brow furrowed, as my canine vocalizations had gone on more than a week. I still cringe because the Italian for test swab (tampone) calls to mind Tampax.

I am fine! I protested. This is a cough that signals the tail end of a sinus infection. This happens. It could go for nine weeks.

It is also a symptom …. he said.

I know that, I responded, growing snappish. We all know that a cough is a symptom. Victor has a cough too.

Maybe you should both go get a tampone.

This is where the discussion remained all weekend, until I learned at church on Sunday that a parishioner had tested positive a few days before, along with their family. I had seen this person at Good Friday service. I spoke with this person face to face, with masks on and in front of an open door, but still. I talked to an increasingly annoyed Jason about it at lunch. He begged me to stop talking and to just take care of it. So, by late that evening, after some proactive messages to savvy locals, I had found and made an appointment online at a private clinic for 7:05 AM. I paid the 40 euros online. I printed my receipt and confirmed where the lab was located. Fortunately my daily walks in town have contributed to a finely tuned urban orientation in Florence. I’d ride my bike there and be home in time to get the kids to school. Right? Of course.

The morning was dark and soaked. Rain pounded our skylights all night long. I was up at 11 PM, 3 AM (whimpering Eleanor), 5:15 AM (overnight tooth loss, Victor). I made my tea and suited up for a spin in the rain. I got to the lab easily enough, greeted immediately by two smiling (!) receptionists, who took my tessera sanitaria from me and confirmed I’d paid online. (I don’t know why they needed that since it was a private lab, but whatever.) They ushered me into a small room when a murse in a bunny suit awaited me with a foot-long Q-tip. He was efficient even as he counted to five while the cotton swab brushed my frontal lobe. I suddenly understood how knights and knaves who took a sword in the nose ended up with strange injuries and prodigious recoveries.

Fatto, the murse smiled behind all his PPE, all done.

A few minutes later he called me back to show me the negative result on the stick that looked a lot like a pregnancy test. Just one line, he observed cheerfully. Not positive! Moments later the reception desk had my receipt and results for me. I rode my bike home, a drowned rat, but not infected with Covid. My heart lighter. I changed clothes and took the kids to school.

Now that I know how easy it is to do, I am telling everyone. No one can believe how fast it was. Instant results!

When I got home I had an email from my new medico di base (PCP) with a prescription for a public tampone. I responded with my negative result and a thank you. Also good to know my medico di base is fast on the email. The idea of a “public tampon” still makes me giggle. I suppose I feel like I can giggle since I did not pick up Covid at a voluntary event.

Mmmf mmmf. Still waiting for that mail truck though.