Did you miss me?
I flew 'back home' to the United States for the holidays. (Santa couldn't deliver me.)
It had been quite a while since I'd been back to what I used to call home. I was surprised that I actually used to live there. Why, you ask? (Okay, you didn't ask, but play along.) It's my own fault, you see. When I lived in the U.S., I worked mostly in advertising agencies.
We were pretty effective at persuading people to rush out and buy stuff whether they needed it or not. Besides being loads of fun, it was a good way to make a living while avoiding actual work. (No surprise there, right?) So why was I surprised that many American stores stayed open 24 hours a day, even on Sundays and that a typical grocery has a hundred varieties of frozen pizzas? I mean, who even eats frozen pizza? If I had wanted, I could have bought a frozen pineapple and ham pizza... at a grocery store... at midnight... on a Sunday.
(Surprise! I did not want to.) That sort of thing just isn't done here in Italy.
It also surprised me that so many medicines were sold directly to customers, without a note from a doctor, a chat with a pharmacist or so much as a tip from the village elder. Did all the anxiety over the recent presidential election cause this? I hope not, as voters' decisions are always painful for one side or the other. Can medical amateurs even make an informed choice between AbraCadabraZall and YabbaDabbaDoodina? Medicines and the merits of politicians make regional Italian pasta specialties seem easy to understand by comparison.
In my 'reverse culture shock', the ordinary things in the U.S. surprised me the most. I had forgotten how laid-back Americans are. They aren't scandalized by someone eating lunch alone in their car, sitting directly in a draft, swimming immediately after eating, or even (gasp) drinking cappuccino after 10: AM. Of course, they also wear pajamas and flip-flops to the opera while Italians must change outfits to take out the trash. And Americans are so friendly. Entering a giant hardware store, I was surprised to find an official greeter. "Hello there! Welcome to 'BuyaBunch'. How are you today?" Since he asked me, I was obliged to describe to him in great detail the twinge in my neck from riding in the car without my scarf which I had foolishly forgotten at the house in spite of being reminded to wear it by my charming wife, the ever-lovely Ora. He seemed very surprised.
People in the aisles also seemed to notice that I had no scarf and they said "How are you doing?" Well, the more I thought about it, the worse my situation seemed. So of course, I had to tell them about the growing pain in my neck and missing my scarf. At the checkout, even the cashier asked how I was feeling. I thought, "I must be deathly ill by now", and so I told her too. Coincidentally, this hardware store also sold scarves. That was a very nice surprise, indeed.
I cannot imagine any Italian who would stop me in the store with a, "Come sta signore? Tutto bene? Avete bisogno di una sciarpa?" It's not that they don't care about other people's health and whether I needed appropriate neck apparel, but a simple 'ciao' is sufficient.
I believe that Americans deliberately set out to surprise me in order to divert attention away from the food. Did my advertising create the demand for 30 kinds of milk (the poor cows)? How did they grow their 'seedless' melons? What on earth is Mom's Old-Fashioned Artificial Cheese? If you desired bread with your fake cheese, there's white, wheat, whole grain, rolls, buns, and flat breads; available in 12-grain, 8-grain or a paltry 6-grain; potato, oatmeal, sourdough, rye, honey and nut; brown, black or marbled; or gluten-free.
I pleaded for a simple loaf of Italian bread and was surprised with a French baguette. I did not eat a single sandwich my entire time in the United States.
Oddly, the medicine department is self-serve. Oh good, I can't decide on a loaf of bread but I can pick up laxatives and sleeping compounds (two items, by the way, which should never, ever be sold together) without talking to anyone.
So to negate my discomfort from all these surprises, I simply reverted to life back in Italy. I screamed 'pronto' whenever the phone rang; I greeted my friends with wet kisses on both cheeks, and invited them out to dinner at 9:45 PM. I gave everyone in the restaurant Italian lessons and I provided legal warnings in case someone was accidentally slapped from wild gesturing. Yes, it was all 'un po' pazzo', a little crazy, but I really started to enjoy surprises.
If you return to your home country after a lengthy stay in Italy, do not be surprised if your friends find you odd for saying what's actually on your mind, with no sugar-coating—whether they ask for it or not.
Don't worry if they think you peculiar for describing things as 'bellissimo!' or 'fantastico!', even if it's just a cup of coffee. They may even be amused by a steady flow of loud and colorful Italian curse words as you drive around. Urge them to relax and to just consider what an amazing and wonderful surprise Italy has been on your life. Tell them that the best surprise in life is that life continues to surprise us all. Then, slip them a couple of those little pills you selected all by yourself at the pharmacy and tell them to call you in the morning... to let you know how they're feeling. That will be a real surprise!
Frank is an award-winning advertising professional, now retired, from Denver, Colorado who is living the sweet life in southern Italy. In addition to a successful career in advertising, he had stints as the owner of an old west saloon, a film and stage character actor, a certified Santa Claus and a university professor... all of which, he says, are 'remarkably similar'.
He now focuses on traveling, honing his skills as an Italian chef, and writing about Italy as he and his charming wife, the ever lovely Ora, renovate their home in beautiful Basilicata.
Their journey back to Italy started 100 years ago when their ancestors first arrived in the United States. Frank and his wife had dreamed of completing the circle of immigration by returning to their ancestral roots in southern Italy.
Their collective memories of the traditions, values and Italian lifestyle drew Frank and his wife back many, many times until they finally bought their house in Italy and moved there permanently.
In honor of the past, and in anticipation of the future, their lovely home is named, 'La Casa Cent'anni', (The Hundred Years House). 'Cent'anni' is also a celebratory toast of goodwill.
So, "Cent'anni" to you, and to us, and to the next 100 years!