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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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 “Valérie” 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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Language Barriers

On February 24, I noted CNN’s report on the tragic death in Rome a couple days earlier of U.S. study abroad student John Durkin. The 21 year old college junior’s body was found in a train tunnel. He had been hit and killed by a train.

He was last seen alive leaving a bar called Sloppy Sam’s. Insofar as I know, there have been no major new revelations. However, yesterday I did notice the Portland (Maine) Press Herald had reported this on February 27 (my emphasis in bold):

….Italian authorities say Durkin was struck by a train in a railroad tunnel between St. Peter’s and Trastevere train stations. The tunnel is about two miles from the bar, Sloppy Sam’s, in the opposite direction from his dormitory.

The area where the bar is located, the Piazza Campo dei Fiori, has open air markets during the day and is a popular nightspot for foreign tourists. It also has seen incidents of violence in recent years, according to press reports.

Italian newspapers reported that an image taken from a security camera near the San Pietro train station shows Durkin walking along the tracks toward the tunnel at daybreak. He was described as “staggering” but uninjured….

….Durkin went to the bar with friends who left at about 1:30 a.m. while he remained. He left at 2 a.m. when the bar closed but his movements in the four-hour window from 2 a.m. to when he appeared on the camera near the train station are not known.

Besides how he ended up wandering on the tracks, what he was doing and where he was from 2 a.m to 6 a.m. seems something Italian authorities want to find out. However, of course it is entirely possible that it may never be known.

What caught my eye also in the article is this next paragraph:

Sloppy Sam’s describes itself as “the only dedicated American bar in Rome.” It has English-speaking staff and shows American sporting events on television, according to its Facebook page….

I suppose it’s little surprise that American students new in Rome would gravitate to an “American bar.” Yet the presence of the Vatican and the millions of pilgrims who visit it, as well as all of the other Rome tourist attractions, likely contributes to English being not uncommon in the city. For instance, the Rome Metro even offers its automated, on train station announcements, in Italian and English.

Politeness dictates that you don’t reflexively assume an Italian in Rome understands English; but, by the same token, until I’m sure I never assume someone does not understand English either. That’s not to say everyone you meet in Rome speaks some English. Far from it. But in most restaurants and bars in the tourist areas, even if they don’t have signs up announcing “English spoken,” someone working there probably can manage a bit of it.

St. Peter's at dusk. [Photo by me, 2013.]
St. Peter’s at dusk. [Photo by me, 2013.]

When we saw Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square in person back in September, in the crowd my 19 year old English nephew, who had never been to Rome before, briefly ended up standing next to a couple of Italian women. They spoke little English, and my nephew speaks almost no Italian; but he does know Spanish fairly well. He said to me afterwards that they had had a laugh together babbling in bits of the three languages.

Toward the end of our week there, my nephew announced that Rome is his favorite city.

Never let a language barrier be a turn off. Italians are usually very relaxed. My experience after several visits to Rome over the years is, yes, they appreciate when you try some Italian, but they don’t really expect non-Italian visitors to know too much of it.

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.

The World’s Most Photographed Places

The Global Post tells us:

While an American city (New York) takes the top spot, Europe dominates the world when it comes to being photographable. Eight out of the top 10 cities are located on the continent.

However, notice that none of the top ten on either the world or the Europe lists are…. London.

View from the London Eye. [Old photo, by me, 2004.]
View from the London Eye. [Old photo, by me, 2004.]
Paris is #4 in the world. It’s #3 in Europe, behind Rome and Barcelona.

A Paris view. [Very old photo, by me, 1994. Look vaguely familiar? It's on the back cover of Passports.]
A Paris view. [Very old photo, by me, 1994. Look vaguely familiar? It’s on the back cover of Passports.]
Recently I noted the “dispute” between London and Paris as to which city is the most visited in the world. London reportedly had more visitors than Paris in 2012. In response, Parisian officialdom responded there were “reasons” for London’s perhaps surpassing Paris that year (such as “Greater London” covering a much larger geographic area than “Greater Paris,” and the Olympics, and the birth of the royal baby, etc.).

That global photography ranking comes from Sightsmap:

….it uses Google Map’s Panaramio platform, Wikipedia and FourSquare to determine what everyone is taking photos of these days.

Something is not quite, right, though. Think about it. London is massively visited…. by masses of tourists who don’t take masses of photos?

Who knows? Regardless, wait until London mayor Boris Johnson finds out.

An Italian soldier stands guard outside the Colosseum. [Photo by me, 2005.]
An Italian soldier stands guard outside the Colosseum. [Photo by me, 2005.]

As we finish here, a Rome photo was required. 😉