From the USA July 23, 2004


July 23, 2004 I am nearing the end of my longest stay in the states since I moved to Italy almost four years ago. I arrived on June 1 and will return to Italy on July 25 to begin a new life in Sarnano. Here are some observations of American life from an ex-pat’s eyes:

When did the Hummer replace clunky gold chains as the symbol for conspicuous consumption? What is the attraction? Why would anyone want to buy a vehicle that looks like the design was taken from a drawing by an artistically challenged four-year old? I can assure you that I have never seen a Hummer in Italy not only because there are minus style points involved, but mainly because it would be impossible to find parking for one of these behemoths. You couldn’t even drive one up the street outside my new apartment without doing major damage. I realize that the bigger the better is the American way but the Hummer may have crossed a line. With a cost of over $50.00 for each feeding at the gas pump, I wonder how long this curious fad will last?

Marketing is something that America does well. After all, we have somehow convinced the world that Bud Light is a wonderful beer. (Why not just drink one less beer?) But with this trip back, I was impressed by the different way advertisers, promoters and programming gurus approach American audiences rather than Italian. Take CNN for instance. In Italy, I watch CNN International. The programs are called “Your World Today,” “Inside Africa,” “World News” and so on. In America the same corporation, CNN, apparently finds it necessary personalize everything, particularly during prime time. So you get “Wolf Blitzer Reports,” “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” “Anderson Cooper 360,” “Paula Zhan,” and finally ending with “Larry King Live.”

This personalization is carried even further when it comes to the coverage of the Tour de France by OLN. I have watched the Tour for three years now on Eurosport. I’ll admit it is a little weird watching a bicycle race in France while sitting in an apartment in Italy and listening to German commentators. With Eurosport, the coverage begins at the start of the race and continues until the race is over. There are commercial breaks to be sure, but they only cut away from the race every fifteen minutes or so. The coverage on OLN (which stands for Outdoor Life Network, but should be called Our Lance Network) is totally different. The coverage begins two hours after the race has started, has non-stop commentary, is totally focused on Lance Armstrong, and consists of five minutes of racing followed by five minutes of commercials, interspersed with annoying taped “up close and personal” style interviews that were initiated too many years ago by ABC during the Olympics. And most of the interviews concern Lance Armstrong. Don’t get me wrong—I admire Lance and have been pulling for him to win the Tour for an unprecedented sixth straight time. Obviously, the execs at OLN think that Americans will not watch this event unless there is a parochial focus. And they are probably right. But it is interesting to contrast the differing focus of Eurosport and OLN. (If you have cable and time in the early morning, tune in even if your last cycling experience was in middle school. The helicopter views of the colorful riders pedaling through the French countryside are beautiful.)

Relentless marketing of fast food has had well-documented catastrophic results on American waistlines. (Unfortunately I’m beginning to see this phenomenon spilling over into Italy.) And because national and even regional franchises have huge advertising budgets, it is possible to drive from sea to shining sea without ever leaving the all too familiar confines of KFC, Burger King, MacDonald’s, Pizza Hut, et al. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when traveling in that you can pick and choose your own particular brand of mediocrity. You might miss some great dining experiences, but you can also avoid some true disasters. There are certain similarities when dining on the road in Italy, as there are four chains that operate restaurants on the autostrade in Italy. But since they figure that you are a captive audience (you pay a small premium if you leave the autostrada and then get back on), they feel no need to advertise. And the food is surprisingly good.

Speaking of eating out, there is a downside to living in Italy. When I want to take a break from shopping, cooking and doing the dishes at home, I have a choice of one kind of ristorante—Italian. In the larger cities there might be a Chinese restaurant or two, and perhaps a Japanese or Vietnamese restaurant. But if I have a craving for French or any other international cuisine, forget it. As a consolation, Italian cuisine is one of the best, and the pizzas are always excellent if I don’t want the full-blown dining experience.

In closing, it has been a fun eight weeks. I have never seen San Antonio so green and lush—a wet spring and 9” of rain in June will do that—and Seattle has been warm and dry. You can’t ask for better luck. I want to thank my generous hosts along the way: Alan Cutler, Maureen Nowotny, Linda Nelson and Sara & Charlie Lewis. But it is now time to get back and start a new chapter in life in the small village of Sarnano. I have no illusions—I am going to miss Verona, which has been my home for the last three+ years. But I think Sarnano will be a good fit. I will keep you posted as to the various triumphs and frustrations of fixing up a 200+ year-old apartment and living in an isolated medieval hill town. Also, I will send you any developments in the upcoming tours—London, Paris, Umbria, Bulgaria and Egypt. Hope to see you soon on my side of the pond. (back)