When we’re in Italy, we’re often asked what we miss most about the United States. Both Italians and Americans seem equally drawn to this question, which we almost always meet with banality. Zip-lock bags, quality plastic cling film and heavy-duty aluminum foil are always at the top of the list, but we’re pretty sure our friends are looking for something a little more profound. It took a trip back to the U.S. to get our arms around the idea.
I wrote about this topic in a slightly different way when I examined the large and small differences between our Italian and American lives. Not surprisingly, it’s all down to culture, which floats around every aspect of the way we live anywhere with subtle and dramatic impact. The longer we stay and the deeper we delve, the more we notice. Here are the top takeaways, at least this far into our adventure . . .
First and foremost, diversity is everywhere in the U.S., from the way we look to the way we eat. As troubled as our past may be, our populous country is defined by the scope of its immigrant history and bears little resemblance to its birth as a nation almost 250 years ago. As with most of northern Europe, remnants of Old World values still collide with progressive change here, when tradition is confronted by modern society. Yet our national history is fleeting in comparison to the country, if not the nation, of Italy. Perhaps this makes Americans more open to the concept and the experience of diversity, at least in the form of cuisine, art, music, fashion and other elements of popular culture. Cross-cultural acceptance is still a work requiring significantly more progress in the U.S. (just ask Paula Deen), but the discussion is open, vibrant and ongoing.
What does this mean for us on a practical level? Our hometown of Santa Cruz in California isn’t big—just about 50,000 inhabitants—but we can eat Afghani, Thai, Hawaiian, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Brazilian food at local restaurants in the same day if we choose. When we sit down to eat, we’ll be surrounded by hipsters, hippies, surfers, soccer moms, businesspeople, retirees and tourists. We can eat at just about any time of day. We can eat as much or as little as we like. If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that I am passionate about the quality of the Italian kitchen, particularly in my adopted home in the Valle d’Itria of the southern Italian region of Puglia. Yet our fondness for even the most alluring cuisine we know is bolstered by an infrequent foray into the food of another country. This is not a viable option in Puglia unless we cobble something together at home with hard-to-find imported ingredients.
Next, we’ve noticed that we miss the concept of a “third place.” In 1989, Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place popularized the idea of a gathering place that isn’t the home or workplace. According to Oldenburg, third places are anchors of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. Obviously, societies like Italy already have informal meeting places. Italy, after all, is loaded with piazzas, bars and public gardens where people seek one another out. But this is where cultures collide.
In Italy, the local bar is an all-purpose, drop-in fixture that serves everything from morning cappuccino to the evening’s last restorative brandy. Regulars drop in many times a day, but never for very long. The encounter is brief, just long enough to toss back a quick espresso and via, you’re out the door. What we’ve missed is an American third place, the evolving café concept that has blossomed in the U.S. over the last 20 years. Regulars and first-timers congregate in U.S. cafés that offer tables, comfortable chairs and an uninterrupted WiFi connection. Chattering groups are as common as solitary techies; the mood is both leisurely and purposeful. Food is always accessible, but it isn’t the main event since the purchase of a cup of coffee buys a seat for the duration.
Maybe this kind of third place doesn’t exist in southern Italian communities like ours because everyone is already connected. There is no real need to create a kind of social glue because the residents are already stuck together in an enduring, meaningful way. But integration for the likes of us is made just a little more difficult without the utility of a third place. We just need to work harder to grow the connective tissue.
Finally, the culture of physical activity as a pastime that is so entrenched in communities like Portland, Oregon and Santa Cruz, California is not deeply embedded in Italian life. From running to cycling and surfing to kayaking, people of all shapes and sizes engage in daily physical exercise in many U.S. communities. Droves of them claim the river walks, bike paths and beaches early in the morning until dusk, often with canine companions, to stay fit and interact with friends. And proportionally more women can be found pounding the pavement, which is especially unusual in Italy. While we do what we can to stay active in Italy (Brian is the champion in this regard since he cycles regularly with a local group as well as by himself), we are often the lone couple marching purposefully around town in our Nikes and technical gear. It’s a little disconcerting, but not enough to deter us.
So these are the culturally-specific pieces of our lives that we’re working on integrating as we return to Italy in a few weeks. Awareness helps us cope more effectively, and reveling in the elements of Italian life that delight us keeps us from living in a constant state of comparison. We’ll still pack zip-lock bags for the return trip, though, along with some cilantro seeds for cultivation and a few bottles of Thai red curry and can of chipotle peppers for the duration.