Mt. Etna And Some Thoughts About Being An American Abroad

So our second-to-last day in Sicily we had a really nice trip to Mt. Etna.  We decided to go with a group this time, even though we usually prefer to figure things out on our own.  Seems to be more of an adventure that way.  Anyway, we got a nice group, a half-half mix of Italians and foreigners.  Our guides took us to see several lava rivers from more recent eruptions (in the 70’s, 90’s, and 2000’s), including a chapel that had been in the direct flow of lava but had miraculously escaped destruction, the river only burning a hole in one of the walls.  We also got to hike up to one of Etna’s many lateral craters, from which the most dangerous eruptions occur (when there is an eruption), saw this gorgeous canyon that had been a huge flow of lava and which water cut through and split into hexagonal basalt columns (a little difficult to explain, but basically the water cooled the lava very quickly, which made it split into two, thus forming the canyon.  The colums are perfect hexagons, just another example of Mother Nature’s perfect geometry.).  We also climbed through caves formed by a huge gas bubble “bursting” after lava had formed a crust around it, in which the pre-WWII people of Catania used to store snow that they would bring down to the city in the summer so people could keep their food cold (pre-refrigerator).  They also prepared a wonderful lunch of delicious local breads, salami, cheeses, and wine for us, including several Italian salads of sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, artichokes, eggplant, etc. etc.  There were even pistachios, the most famous of which grow near Etna in a town called Bronte.  Delightful, indeed!  We met some really nice people from all over the world and all in all it was a really wonderful day!

I just wanted to say a few words about being an American abroad.  I must say that there is a huge difference in sentiment towards Americans since the last election and no matter where your politics may lie, that is something.  One thing that really sticks out in my mind from all of the time that I have spent abroad is the love-hate relationship that Europeans seem to have with America.  They love the American Dream, American fast food, American technology, and American clothes.  Yet among all these glistening portraits of what they think America is really like is The American.  This is where, more often than not, the “hate” part comes into play, and to be quite honest, I can understand where it comes from.  Bear with me for a moment.

The Americans that they see are tourists, who (though they may keep their economies afloat) bombard their towns, demand American coffee in bars, go to McDonalds instead of traditional Italian restaurants, and make no effort to understand the culture, the language, or the people.

Now, I have been a “tourist” for the last several years, and I must say that what they don’t quite understand is that traveling in a foreign country can be extremely stressful.  Of course it is also fun and exhilirating, but when you are in the middle of a completely foreign environment, you often seek comfort in the familliar, whatever it may be (language, food, etc.).  I also must say that nearly everyone is a foreigner at some point in their lives, and therefore we should all be a bit more sensitive to other foreigners than we actually are.  So I guess my point is just that I understand both points of view.

I am a naturally helpful person, so when I see an English (or Italian)-speaking tourist on the side of the street, map in hand and looking confused, I am compelled to ask if they need help.  What usually follows, however, is a short exchange in which I not only feel totally used and underappreciated, but offended and defensive.  Its not that I am looking for gratitude in any form, even a simple “thank you” is unecessary in my book.  But when the person whom I am trying to help is scathingly rude, my only response is to withdraw inward and stop offering any help at all.  It’s a real shame, but that is precisely the attitude that many (definitely not all) Americans communicate abroad.

Case in point: In Italy it is customary to order at least two courses when you go out to eat at a restaurant, and in fact many Italians will order three or four courses.  I know this is a lot of food to us (and the bill definitely adds up), but I will add that the portions are much smaller here and that Italians typically do not eat out like we do.  Going out to a restaurant is a special thing for them, a time to be with family and friends, to linger over every noodle of pasta, every sip of wine, every inside joke and bit of friendly banter.  A meal, especially dinner, is not just a means to an end, but an experience, sensory, familial, even somewhat spiritual.  There is no “in and out” dining in Italy: you can typically expect to spend at least an hour and a half at any given meal.  This is not only because you really take your time to enjoy it, but also because everything is prepared with such care that it really takes much longer for the kitchen to prepare each course than is typically considered acceptable in American restaurants.  I think it is difficult for us Americans to relate to that because food pleasure does not really exist in our culture.  We tend to eat on the run or prepare the quickest packaged meal possible, scarf it down, and continue on to more “important” things.  And this is exactly where the American lady we met in Palermo was missing the mark.

So there we were, seated in a wonderfully cozy little restaurant near the main market of Palermo, chowing down on the wonderful collections of appetizers we carefully chose from the buffet.  It was a family-owned place that only opens two days per week.  On the menu it is clearly stated that they do not serve single plates (in Italian, French, English, and Spanish), that if you would like to sit and eat you must order at least two courses.  W and I each chose the delicious buffet of various seafood and vegetable concoctions, and a pasta dish.  We overheard a rumber of confusion on the other side of the wall, as an American woman and her two daughters had sat down and wanted to just order the the buffet, which cost all of 5 Euro.  That means that for a restaurant that only opens 2 days a week, they would be giving up a table to earn only 15 Euro, which according to them was not acceptable.  I thought that perhaps there was just a mistake of the language barrier, so I popped on over to see if I could help explain things a bit.  The owner was infinitely grateful, and I set out trying to clarify the cultural differences to my fellow Americans, only to find out shortly thereafter that in fact she had understood, but wanted to argue about the philosophical implications of the “house rule” with the owner, when they did not even speak the same language.  This basically involved her yelling at him in English, and him staring back blank-faced, and then responding to her in Italian.  Add me to the mix, me, little miss infinitely helpful, and you’ve got a real spectacle on your hands, between her telling me what to tell the owner, the owner telling me what to say to her, and me trying to explain the cultural differences without stepping on anyone’s toes.  But boy was she rude!  I could not believe the way she a) treated the owner of the restaurant; b) treated me; c) used her daughters as leverage in the conversation; and d) refused to leave and refused to order anything!  After about 20 minutes of arguing back and forth I finally returned to my table to rejoin W and our own delicious meal, and she and her daughters left.  I was completely embarassed to be associated with someone with that kind of superiority complex, who used such ugly language to speak to complete strangers.  And I am afraid that these are the foreigners who stick out in the minds of the Italians.

I don’t know how well I have communicated any of this, but I guess in the end all I really want to say is that when we travel abroad, we are all ambassadors of the United States whether we realize it or not.  All it takes is the tiniest amount of respect for the culture, the people, and the language to make all the difference in the world in the way in which we as Americans are perceived abroad.  Yes, it does still have a lot to do with our politics and whether or not they agree with them, but more so than that it has to do with our daily interactions, our choosing to accept that there may be some differences that we really don’t like or agree with, but that you have to take the bitter with the sweet and realize that it all contributes color to the greater canvas of whatever place we are visiting.  It just takes a little patience and an open mind to see the bigger picture, but isn’t is so much more beautiful that way?

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