Those Italian Sweets

Of my 8 great-grandparents, 5 were Italians, including several Sicilians. My wife likes to joke when we’ve been in Italy that Italians don’t seem to know what to make of me. “You look like you belong,” she says, “and they talk to you like you do.”

I’ve run into something similar here in Tenerife. Some Spaniards seem to think I fit in, too. Until I open my mouth, at least. πŸ˜‰

There is also something of an Italian community here. The other night, we wandered into an Italian ice cream and sweets shop. The twenties-something Italian guy behind the counter looked at me initially and wasn’t sure which language to try on me first; he opened with a mishmash of Spanish and Italian until I made it plain I was neither Spanish or Italian.

His English was not great. But the ice creams were excellent. We also noticed the place sold….

What's in the wrapping? [Photo by me, 2016.]
What’s in the wrapping? [Photo by me, 2016.]
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U.S. Expat Murdered In Italy

[UPDATED: January 18: see below.]
[UPDATED: January 13: see below.]

Struggling to outline the next novel and how I am going to attack the tale and its scope, I spent most of this morning and early afternoon reading and tapping tapping tapping preliminary notes – all while trying to take myself back to the 1790s.

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Sneak Peek: Our Grandparents

If you are partly “Italian-American” (as I am), and that ancestry stems from you being a product of immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between about 1870-1914 (as I am), it’s likely you grew up with a complicated relationship with Italy.

My maternal great-grandparents were all Italian immigrants. My grandparents were born in the U.S. Some in my mother’s U.S.-born generation were reared to be utterly indifferent to Italy.

Free Stock Photo: Italian flag in blue sky.
Free Stock Photo: Italian flag in blue sky.

Perhaps World War II had an impact. Benito Mussolini had been a difficult, divisive subject in families like mine pre-war. However, after he joined the war in 1940, and particularly after he declared war on the U.S. in late 1941, he became America’s enemy who needed to be smashed and that was that.

Yesterday I realized it has now been over a month since I’ve shared any of the Distances rough draft here. I worked more on this part yesterday also, and thought as I finished that it merited a “sneak peek.” It all “happens” in “James’s” mind shortly after he has landed in Italy for the first time and is being chauffeured to a Rome hotel along with three rather familiar women.

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An Immigrant Heritage

If I’m given the chance, I’m unsure if I would vote for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for president. I don’t know enough about his politics. They seem deeply conservative, and I’m annoyingly moderate.

He seemed to say some stuff many here in the U.K. disagreed strongly with when he visited recently. However, I am willing to hear more from him. I’m always willing to listen to every reasonable candidate of any major party, and as a governor that by definition makes him “reasonable.”

Screen capture of Twitter.
Screen capture of Twitter.

A separate – and disturbing – issue has been the mockery directed at him on social media (and even in some U.S. mainstream media) for his apparently not being “Indian enough” or even attempting to be “white.”

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Because We Love Italy

In the first two volumes, I concentrated (unsurprisingly, I suppose) on three countries: the U.S., France, and Britain. However, I also made scattered references to Italy. I included the likes of “James” having an Italian aunt, “Isabelle” having been to a language school in Rome, “Giorgio” debating Italian girls with “Isabelle,” English “Natalie’s” younger cousin “Maddie” having studied in Florence, and “ValΓ©rie” loving Rome as a getaway destination.

I did that for two reasons. First, it’s really difficult not to be wowed by Italy. Millions of us visitors (perhaps you have been one too) are every year:

A famous Rome landmark. [Photo by me, 2013.]
A famous Rome landmark. [Photo by me, 2013.]

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Sorry, But You Don’t Have A “Right” To Relocate Wherever You Want

Forgive a long post, but this is a complicated, emotional issue just about everywhere in the world, and can’t be addressed glibly. If you aren’t interested, click away. But please do come back another day! πŸ™‚

In the last decade of the 19th century, Italian ancestors of mine emigrated to the United States. (One was evidently about age 9, and unaccompanied by a parent.) On cramped, uncomfortable ships they traveled for weeks – from Sicily to Naples, then to Marseille, and eventually they reached New York’s Ellis Island, where admittance to the U.S. was not a certainty. They were granted entry. None ever returned to Italy. They had left behind brothers, sisters, and parents whom they never saw again.

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American Study Abroad Students … And Alcohol

Back on Saturday, CNN reported on the death of a American college junior in Rome:

A U.S. student who went missing while studying abroad in Italy was found dead inside a railroad tunnel in central Rome, police there said Saturday.

Investigators are looking into the death of John Durkin, an economics major from Rye Beach, New Hampshire. The 21-year-old attended Bates College, but was one of six students from the Maine school taking part in a study abroad program in Rome through Trinity College in Connecticut, his school said. Both colleges are working with Italian authorities….

….He’s been in Rome for a little more than a month as part of a semester-long program, according to Tom Durkin, a family spokesman.

Two days ago, he went to a bar with a group of friends and never returned, according to the spokesman, who said he left the bar alone….

We do not know exactly what happened there yet, of course, so we should not jump to conclusions. That said, whenever we hear of such tragedies, I wince. I find I cannot but think on the incredible disservice we are doing in essentially infantilizing 18-20 year old American adults when it comes to banning them from access to legal alcohol.

Yes, we are told that young man was 21 – so had reached the “21 year old” age to drink legally in the U.S. However, that would have meant he was encountering alcohol legally for the first time in Rome three years later than young Europeans around him in that bar. Even if he had drunk legally at home briefly before venturing to Europe, the legal social alcohol scene (including how to consume sensibly, with whom to engage in a bar, when to stop, etc.) would still have been very new to him; and on top of that, he finds himself ignorant of local European social signals.

Obsessed as we appear to be in the U.S. with “protecting our kids,” are we honestly preparing study abroads for “18 year old” alcohol legality outside of the U.S.? Do we not realize that American 18-20 year olds in England, France, Italy, and elsewhere, find themselves mixing with young Europeans who are familiar with legal alcohol and adult behaviors surrounding it? In compelling American 18-20 year olds at home into drinking as an “underground activity,” when they find suddenly they can consume booze “above ground” legally in places like Italy are those young Americans mature enough to handle it?


It seems not, and it is no joke. When I worked in a London university, I noticed that when it came to alcohol American study abroad undergraduates often behaved like kids let loose in a candy store without parental supervision. Effectively, we force an extended childhood on them at home, but we don’t appear to want to reflect on the dangerous ramifications of that for when they “leave the nest” and fly off to study abroad.

She Had Better Not Get Less Than A “B”

Leaving aside the question of whether one Amanda Knox is guilty, let’s briefly consider a broader issue. I had noted back in December that there seem to be Americans ages 18, 19 and 20, wandering around abroad who look just like adults. Usually they speak like adults too.

However, behind the adult facade, far too many are still, emotionally, essentially little more than “spoiled children.” Their being so far behind in their maturation process is not their fault; it is America’s fault. It should be a source of U.S. national embarrassment and a cause for soul-searching, yet it prompts neither.

It all starts at least a decade before. As they are schooled, they are “adored.” They are always assured they are “special.” As the saying now goes, “Everyone gets a gold star.”

By 18, they don’t lack for “self-esteem.” In fact, often quite the opposite. They may well possess a “superiority complex.” They think an affected naivete and a (“What? Innocent me?”) grin will always serve as a – no pun intended – get out of jail free card. They are sure they are never in the wrong, never to blame for anything.

“I am a wonderful person.” Of that, they are totally convinced. “I have a voice!” they cry out. “The world just doesn’t understand what I am.” How often do we hear that?

With that mentality, many venture overseas. If you have seen Amanda Knox interviewed, or read any of her voluminous – usually opaque, often muddled, and sometimes incoherent – literary efforts, there is something disturbingly ordinary, and irritatingly familiar, about her. You know her somehow. I suspect many of us have run into “Amandas” at times over the last two generations. (And don’t think this is only about women; they are young men also.)

Too regularly, I taught them in U.S. college classes. You can spot the type almost immediately. She had better not get less than a “B,” or she’ll complain to the Dean and her parents.


Of course, almost none of those other similarly stunted 18-21 year old Americans abroad end up going as far as also being convicted of murder. Yet given all that has been said, written, and revealed in global media about her immature behavior in Italy as a 20 year old prior to the murder, Amanda Knox is now probably the most well-known American study abroad student ever. That is nothing to be proud of as a country.

Creativity From Anger?

You may not have considered this, but it may be worth asking it of yourself. Do you find you write better when you’re feeling generally contented? Or does it come easier when you’re irritated, down, and even angry?

I suspect the latter may provide a burst of extra creativity over a short-term which likely cannot – indeed, should it? – be maintained throughout an entire work. Meaning a brief keyboard-thumping literary tantrum might be helpful … up to a point. For if you do have one, you may have also accidentally produced an outline for something which, after a good clean up (and a few deep breaths) may result in a sharp (and perhaps unexpected) story-point.


Why do I raise this? Personal experience. During mid-2013, I found myself increasingly infuriated as I became aware of fawning news coverage granted to a certain individual. For several weeks, the incessant media background noise seemed inescapable.

One morning, with Twitter open on my PC next to Word (as it usually is when I write), some tweet I saw jolted me into realizing that person’s stupid and immature behaviors years earlier provided story material. It was like the proverbial light bulb going off above my head. It was too good to pass up: I found myself weaving in a subplot revolving around the troubles caused by, uh, a tearaway, self-absorbed U.S. college student in Italy who makes life extremely unpleasant for her English roommate.

Once again, from where “fiction” sometimes comes….

Consular Access? Uh, Maybe….

Americans’ reactions to Amanda Knox‘s treatment in the Italian justice system are often intriguing. Some seem to feel she is an “innocent abroad” Italian prosecutors have decided to persecute despite there being “no evidence” of her guilt. Others appear to think she is a victim of a foreign miscarriage of justice.

Italians “targeting” her – from among thousands of other U.S. students in Italy each year – hardly seems credible. As for a “foreign miscarriage of justice”? U.S. official responses to her arrest, trial and conviction undermine that contention also.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome was notified by Italian authorities within hours of her arrest in November 2007, and she was subsequently visited in jail regularly by American consular officers. U.S. officials kept an eye on her murder trial and visited her in prison after her conviction. Throughout, the U.S. appears never to have lodged any complaints with the Italian government about a “biased” or “shoddy” prosecution.

Interestingly, commiserating with Ms. Knox’s plight, Tony Renzo, a 23 year old Italian who had participated in a semester-abroad program in the USA, recently told USA Today:

“This story is like a nightmare for students abroad,” … “It’s so frightening to think about getting arrested in a foreign country.”

Mr. Renzo makes an excellent point there perhaps inadvertently. Objectively it could be extremely “frightening” to be a foreign national arrested…. in some states in the U.S. Due to the U.S. federal system, “international law” is often of no concern to state-level officials. CNN:

….Edgar Tamayo Arias, a Mexican national, was executed at 9:32 p.m. [January 22] CT, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said….

The Mexican government had vehemently protested his pending execution, asserting that he, as a Mexican national, had been denied access to Mexican consular help. CNN continues:

….The Bush and Obama administrations had urged Texas and other states to grant Tamayo and inmates in similar situations new hearings, fearing repercussions for Americans arrested overseas.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also weighed in on Tamayo’s case, arguing that setting an execution date is “extremely detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

“I want to be clear: I have no reason to doubt the facts of Mr. Tamayo’s conviction, and as a former prosecutor, I have no sympathy for anyone who would murder a police officer,” Kerry wrote. “This is a process issue I am raising because it could impact the way American citizens are treated in other countries.”

That “process issue” evidently matters not at all to the state of Texas:

Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said the state was committed to enforcing its laws.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from β€” if you commit a despicable crime like this in Texas, you are subject to our state laws, including a fair trial by jury and the ultimate penalty,” she said.

However, as Secretary Kerry noted, Tamayo’s guilt was accepted; the issue was the question of disregarding the process agreed under “international law,” and in doing so creating difficulties reciprocally for Americans arrested abroad. Meaning is the U.S. upholding its end of the 1963 Vienna Convention, which the U.S. ratified, and allows U.S. diplomats to visit Americans who are arrested overseas?


It is easy to imagine the indignant rhetoric that would have come flying from the Texas governor’s office if Ms. Knox had been a Texan and Italian authorities in Perugia had denied her U.S. consular help. Yet given that Texans do travel outside of the U.S., we may hear some for real someday regarding someone else, because with that execution the state of Texas may have just made life a little tougher for U.S. citizens abroad like Amanda Knox. It will become harder for the U.S. to argue it is entitled to consular access to its arrested nationals abroad when certain U.S. domestic jurisdictions choose to wave aside that reciprocal right to access when it comes to someone else’s.