When you buy property in a foreign country, you have to wonder what people think of you.
Just for the record, know that I’m not one of those gung-ho, “I’m gonna be Italian if it kills me” kinda people. I feel half-dressed in penny loafers without socks.
No, I have quite reasonable expectations. I am an outsider and expect to always be considered an outsider. I speak Italian like a three year old and expect people to tire of communicating with me on that ignorant, superficial level unless my Italian improves drastically.
War and increasingly fractious politics threaten to widen the cultural gap beyond my control. Still, I hope my presence will allow Italians to peer a little deeper into the American spirit. In turn, I hope they’ll eventually have enough patience to teach me what it is to live like an Italian.
I know, I’m dreaming of discovering the secret of perfect truffled tagliarini and the joys of cheering on the little red cars at the televised formula one race on the tv at the local watering hole in perfect harmony with the village’s characters. You’re thinking I’m heading myself toward morally reckless, breakneck-speed autostrada driving before getting mired in impossible to crack, bloated bureaucracies. National character is hard to pin down. You have to dig.
You still wonder, deep down, what they think of you—or at least which bits of a national character your personality might reflect.
I spent a considerable time tramping through the Italian (and American) countryside looking for and evaluating cultural artifacts as an archaeologist. That was years ago. I do the same these days as a homeowner over at Brico, the do-it-yourself stores scattered throughout Italy. You can make cultural connections anywhere if you look hard enough.
For example, do you know what Italians call duct tape? You know, the tape that prevents air ducts from leaking, that keeps bashed fiberglass bodies of racing cars together, and has a million uses, even in outer space?
Yes, that duct tape. It’s called “American Tape” when you buy it at Brico.
Now, I’m guessing that the reason they call duct tape “American Tape” isn’t just because it was invented in the U.S. That’s because when I talk to Europeans about the U.S., they seem to eventually zero in on one single characteristic of the American psyche: our ability to Get Things Done.
Yes, it’s a recurring theme. Americans as economically efficient and inventive people.
Over dinner, a yacht owner talks glowingly of having repairs done in Florida in a fraction of the time he’d have spent anywhere else. Journalist Beppe Severgnini is bewildered by the fact his American phone can be connected in hours rather than months in Ciao, America! : An Italian Discovers the U.S..
Duct tape evolved out of war. It was developed as a way to seal ammunition boxes against moisture. But then, when war was done, American ingenuity took over. After the war, the tape was used in heating and air conditioning work, but it wasn’t until they changed the color to silver that people started referring to it as “Duct Tape.” It was always “Duck” tape before that, referring to its waterproofing abilities.
Now people make wallets out of duct tape. Folks in love have won good money for making a prom outfit.
But the duct tape story isn’t all about beating swords into plowshares. The current Under Secretary of FEMA, R. David Paulison, made a name for himself two and a half years ago with his pronouncement that duct tape and plastic sheeting should be part of any home’s “survival kit” in preparation for a terrorist attack. That set off a run on duct tape at stores (making prom dresses more expensive, no doubt) not to mention setting off widespread criticism of the administration.
Duct tape is important in the grander scheme of things. We connect with it. It connects with us.