In a previous post about Valentine’s Day, I cited a friend’s blog that had served as some inspiration for my semi-rant against the silly myths associated with that saint and his day. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, and several people have asked me about John’s blog.
So, by popular demand, John has graciously agreed to write a guest post today on my site. When I read it, I couldn’t stop laughing. I know that any American who has spent significant time abroad will relate to his observations. But it’s pretty damn funny no matter what your experience has been.
I’ve written about the topic of reverse culture shock, too. Last summer I was in Little Italy in New York, which provided a perfect contrast between the New World’s version of Italy, and the genuine article. John takes a different approach, training his experienced journalist’s eye on the homeland. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
To accurately view one’s country, sometimes it’s best to view it from as far away as possible. If you never leave, you can’t see the forest through the redwoods. You might as well wrap yourself in an American flag and only look around when you order take-out. For the last 13 months I have seen United States from Rome where I am a blissfully happy retired journalist. The sweetness of la dolce vita has left a bitter taste about the country I left behind, one I often look with disdain as I sip a cappuccino on my terrace overlooking the Tiber River.
I tested my new findings on a recent week-long trip to New England where I saw friends, ate American comfort food and watched TV shows about women’s prisons. (Hey, cultural research comes in all forms. Honest!) I came away more grounded in my growing beliefs about the evils of American excessiveness. However, I also discovered an obviously long-dormant appreciation for American efficiency, or have you never tried to acquire an Indian visa from Italy?
Halfway through my week, I found myself asking a question: What was bigger, the snowdrifts left by the record seven feet of snowfall in the Boston area or the food portions? It’s a tough call. One of my first meals was at a sports bar called Sam’s adjacent to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. My chicken Caesar salad — the closest thing I had to eating anything that sounded Italian — was in a bowl the size of an offensive lineman’s football helmet. It had enough lettuce to feed all the rabbits in Vermont. It took longer to eat than it did touring the Hall of Fame — or get elected to the Hall of Fame.
But America’s true Gallery of Gluttony was a food warehouse — it’s too big to be defaced by the tame term “supermarket” — called Costco. I had never been to a Costco before. I entered the double-wide doors with the same open-minded perspective as a fisherman from Sardinia. The Costco in Holyoke, Mass., like most of the other 473 across America and 227 others around the world, was bigger than a United Airlines hangar. It had aisles and aisles and aisles of jumbo-packaged food. At the end of many aisles, workers dished out free samples of items they’re trying to move behind them. I had chips with hummus, smoked salmon dip, peach yogurt, a cappuccino protein shake. When my friend said, “Let’s eat lunch at Costco,” she didn’t mean the deli.
Keep in mind Costco has a tremendous international reputation. The food quality is high. I am considering rehab after getting hopelessly addicted to its chocolate-covered shortbread cookies. It also scores major points with employee benefits and its return policy.
However, it specializes in bulk. The words “bulk” and “America” go well together, like “ying” and “yang,” “Yankee” and “Doodle,” “Big” and “Mac.” The packages the food come in look like something you’d pour on a construction site. They are enormous. A bag of meatballs covered my entire chest and I am 6-foot-3. The athletes adorning the Wheaties box would struggle carrying out the boxes without assistance. I saw a bag of chips become a total eclipse of a family of four. People don’t drive their SUVs to Costco. They drive forklifts.
I understand buying in bulk means buying cheaper. Yet coming from Rome where “La Bella Figura” is as much a state of mind as body, where portions are reasonable and healthy, Costco cemented my problem with American obesity. As of February 2013, Costco had 71.2 million members who pay $50 a year for shopping privileges. Its 2014 sales topped $112 billion. This leads to the United States’ most embarrassing statistic: 35 percent of Americans, 78.6 million people, are obese. In Italy, only 10 percent are obese — and most of those are in Bologna. (That’s a joke, a weak cheap shot at meat sauces.) It’s hard for America to reverse this trend when they buy enough sausage to feed Yankee Stadium. Some American pantries are the size of Connecticut.
Consequently, walking around New England in temperatures that never rose above 20 degrees Fahrenheit was like walking among the elephants in the Serengeti. Maine has two seasons: winter and July 15. Many people in Maine are massive. Keep in mind New England is arguably the most educated, liberal region in the U.S. It’s where health is valued and researched, where disposable income is spent on good quality food. In the Deep South, where I went on many assignments as a sportswriter for nearly 40 years, it’s much worse. Obesity was the rule rather than the exception. I came away from America last week with one inescapable question.
However, it’s no mystery why the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population yet uses 24 percent of its natural resources. Houses in America are huge. The U.S. has more space, more money, more egos. Bigger is better, whether it’s burgers or houses. Despite the constantly frigid temperatures, inside the homes I visited were as toasty as cocoons. As another snowstorm pelted the streets, sticking like molasses and growing by the minute, I was in shirtsleeves inside. I had left a Rome apartment where any temperature under 50 outside meant I was wearing two sweaters inside. Heat from my three Renaissance-era thermostats is a mere rumor. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and after 10 p.m., my apartment building turns off the heat to cut costs. In New England, people keep the heat on all day while they’re at work. Then again, I don’t recall myself complaining.
Yes, something can be said for American efficiency. Italian efficiency pretty much ends with the perfect foam on your cappuccino. My post office doesn’t have stamps. My bank doesn’t have money. My cell phone office doesn’t have Wi-Fi, for God’s sake. Last year, it took me a month to get Internet in my new apartment. Christmas presents sent from the U.S. the second week in December arrived in Rome the second week in January. All of this puts a damper on an expat’s honeymoon in Rome, kind of like a tropical downpour on your suite in the Caribbean.
Little things I never appreciated about America felt last week like the discovery of an ancient temple. Numerous books I had mailed to a friend’s house all showed up on time. I had no need for tracking numbers or standing in line at a post office for two hours to ask some bedraggled clerk about a package that apparently burst into flames in a Poste Italiane warehouse.
Then came a short phone call. I had spent two days trying to acquire an Indian visa for a March holiday. I won’t go into the boring details. Just note that you can’t get more than a one-month, multiple-entry visa for India from Italy unless you’ve lived here for at least two years. When I asked why at Rome’s Indian Embassy, the clerks gave me the shrugged-shoulder, raised-eyebrow response that pretty much says, “Hey, it’s Italy.” The Indians only allow 30-day visas to be acquired online. That meant filling out the form about a dozen times after mistakes, resizing and re-shooting my mug shot and Skyping India about a dozen times. By the end, I was practically conversational in Hindi.
When I finally had my visa secured, I had to change my itinerary. Oh, no. One more colossal headache. But I called United Airlines and in five minutes I had a new itinerary. I exhaled.
Then I ate some meatballs.
Burned out by too many mutant linebackers after nearly 40 years as a sportswriter, still remembering the sweet taste of cappuccino from a previous 16 months in Rome, John Henderson retired and moved to Rome in January 2014. He has been to 96 countries and written more than 100 travel articles from about half of them.
He also wrote a book about his previous life in Rome, “American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” When he is not sipping cappuccino on his terrace overlooking the Tiber in Testaccio, he is writing for his website, Dog-Eared Passport