Posted by: 4initalia | February 5, 2010

We Are the Worllld…Okay, Not

Now that I’m back in the States, and have learned to froth milk on my cappuccino maker while sustaining only second degree burns, I can reflect on My European Experience. What did I learn? That Europe has a lot of extremely old and cool stuff, and that being surrounded by beauty is so exhilarating, Americans should try that at home.

And that in an international arena, being a jerk can get you labelled as a Nazi and an imperialist. And that’s just on a mommy blog.

First, the good news: America has many natural wonders that Europeans want to visit. The US, like the chests of Italian women, overflows with the bounties of nature. The Founding Fathers scored a continent that was the Marilyn Monroe of the Americas, a land of ample splendors.  But what did we do with our bodacious booty? We clothed our purple mountain majesties in the aesthetic equivalent of a lumpish cardigan festooned with Bud Light logos.   We schlepped our assets into saggy sweatpants, jammed ourselves into Day-Glo rubber shoes, and finished off our “look” with a big ole foam finger.  Americans, go watch a Rick Steves travel video!!  We’re not Number One, we look like Number Two.

We were blessed with vast rolling plains,  lovely wooded hills, craggy peaks, and crystalline shores.  But we flooded our landscape with asphalt,  then sealed ourselves into human storage modules with the aesthetic appeal of the shelving systems sold at The Dollar Store.  When we finished uglifying our cities and Tupperwaring our towns, we crept home to identically beige boxes.

Why doesn’t America dress to impress? It’s  not a lack of time or money.  As much as I appreciate the post-modernist appeal of a WalMart parking lot and a string of fastfooderies, the creation of beauty has always been a key expression of the power of the human spirit. But we seem to have left that off of our national To Do list for the last four hundred years.

All over the world, in every agonized age,  artists created architecture under much worse conditions than we face now. Europe is beautiful because during endless wars, famines, and the scourge of disease, Europeans continued to create, and to preserve, lovely and enduring structures.  Other countries with less moxie and lower GNP look better in photo ops. So it’s not too much to demand better from the developers who design the places we live and work: “If you’re going to build it, make it beautiful, and make it worth saving for future generations. Then we’ll come.”

In Europe I learned that humans and landscapes can make my soul shimmer.  That’s a souvenir worth keeping.

I also learned that Americans have to stop milking US heroics in World War II, because Europeans are totally over it. Sure, the little French town facing Omaha Beach holds a photograph of returning WWII vets, with the caption “Welcome To Our Liberators.” The town of Arromanches is stuffed with WWII memorabilia, including American flags and miniature US tanks. And everybody agrees that American soldiers helped to eliminate the Nazi menace. What a glorious thing to be proud of!! And we are!!

But Europeans, who actually lived, and in mass quantities, died, in Europe during the war, have a slightly different take on things. For instance, “That is soo great that you bombed the bejeebers out of the German army!! Well done!! Unfortunately, both you and the Germans were camped in our cities at the time!!”  Europeans might also point out that while America was giving itself a big ole group hug for heroics, it wasn’t that the French and the Italians and the Dutch weren’t really interested in throwing off the evil invaders, they were kinda distracted by mass starvation, and the shooting of civilizations, and deportations to death camps.

So what you read on the war memorials tucked all over Europe is: “In this place in the public square, beloved citizens of our town were shot and killed by the Nazis, and died a heroic death in the defense of our own country and its proud people. We will never forget their sacrifice.”  No really, it is about them. And giving them McDonald’s and bad coffee is not helping their mood.

But what was most fascinating was finding out what being “an American” meant.

During the peak of the H1N1 flu scare, I learned that being made in America could help, or it could hurt. Because I was outside of the Italian health care system, covered only by an international insurance policy of uncertain dimensions, I was nervous about getting sick. The fact that H1N1 was actually killing people, especially children, was somewhat of a worry. Okay, that painting of The Scream expressed my fears nicely.

Andy and I taught American undergrads in a study abroad program. So when Andy was hit by flu symptoms on a field trip to Rome, we tried to quarantine him in the apartment until he was no longer contagious. To prevent him from spreading the flu to our students, he stayed away from the office the whole week he was sick.

He tried to avoid infecting our kids, but with little hot water, and in a small apartment, it happened: Annalise got the flu.  She developed a high fever and a headache. To minimize the spread of the flu, the kids’ school requested that students stay home for two days after the fever was gone, or until sick family members were free of symptoms. Though Alex was fine, we kept him home for a few days.  After three days,  Annalise’s fever broke, and on the second day without fever, we were happy she could go back to school. But 48 hours after her temperature returned to normal, her fever came back, and brought with it a cough.

This was a scary time, not just because I was reading in Modena’s newspaper about high numbers of children with H1N1, and flu fatalities among young and healthy people. Our internet connection was spotty, and just when I needed to communicate  with our doctors, I couldn’t reach them. My concern that Annalise’s cough was the secondary pneumonia that seemed to be killing kids. But I had no one to ask, and how would I know?

So I called Melanie, who of course knows everything. She said to go to a Pronto Soccorso, an emergency room, where we would wait four or five hours to be seen. But if Annalise didn’t have Andy’s flu, she had a great opportunity to catch someone else’s. Okay, no. Or we could call Italy’s home health service, where EMTs would come to our apartment, but Melanie was skeptical of their medical prowess. “Go to Pronto Soccorso,” she insisted, but without a clear sign that that was necessary, we continued to worry and wait.

When her cough and fever lasted a second day, we took a cab to the only hospital we had every used, Hesperia. Hesperia is a private hospital where our doctor once sent me for tests. After four nights without sleep, I stood in front of Hesperia’s lovely receptionist, and could say nothing. I had no Italian words to explain what we needed, and she didn’t speak English. So I dialed Melanie, and gave the phone to the receptionist, who told Melanie that Hesperia didn’t have an ER and didn’t take walk-ins. Melanie begged the receptionist to take pity on the clueless Americans. The receptionist  called a pediatrician to examine Annalise.  Thanks to Melanie, we didn’t have to wait four hours in a room full of people spewing various germs, we sat on a hall with women waiting for face-lifts. Sometimes cluelessness has its advantages.

By the time the pediatrician arrived, I had translated Annalise’s symptoms, and our fears, into Italian. The fatherly doctor checked her thoroughly, found no sign of pneumonia, and sent us on our way. Phew.

The kids went back to school, symptom free. And then on Monday morning, Alex’s class left on a seven-hour train ride for a five-day field trip to Germany. On the train platform, I said goodbye to my son and heard something about his roommate being home with a fever that weekend. When later I learned that the roommate’s brother was very ill, and that the roommate was sick as recently as Saturday afternoon, within the two-day contagion window, I emailed the mom on Tuesday to ask how her son was doing.

What happened next was very funny, if your kid wasn’t sharing a hotel room in another country with a kid who might contagious with a potentially fatal disease. The mom’s emailed response was breezily oblique. She said she hadn’t spoken to her son, but he was fine when he left on Monday.  Fine on Monday, is he fine on Tuesday?  I dunno. So my next question was more precise: “At what date and time did the fever end?” She answered: “Saturday afternoon.” My own child got sick again after 48 hours, and so did that woman’s younger son, which left open the question: Was my son’s roommate still sick? And contagious?

So now it’s Tuesday, and I don’t know if my son is in Germany with Typhoid Mary, I don’t know if the teachers know that the child could be contagious, and Roomie’s Mom couldn’t have been any more terse if she were texting with two hands tied behind her back.  Apparently my two questions were the maternal equivalent of water boarding:  They didn’t yield any useful intel.  But I felt like I had to know what was going on, for my son’s sake, and the sake of the other kids.  So I emailed “If you don’t call the teachers, I will.”  The response?  “Be my guest, dear.”

That made me feel much better about the entire situation. And then I read the mom’s blog, where I learned that my questions constituted a witch hunt. I learned about the tedium of having to muster fake concern for other moms who were actually worried, since this mom believes in abandoning her own kids to their viral fate. This information stuck in my craw like an exploding land mine. So did the part about flu not being a big deal because Germany has excellent hospitals. I responded with a comment on her blog, from the perspective of the mom whose son was sharing a room with a potentially contagious kid.

That’s when it got interesting. Roomie’s Mom provided me and the blogosphere the critical information that although she hadn’t talked to her son, her son’s friends said he was fine, and that the teachers were aware of the fact that he might be contagious, and were watching him to make sure he was okay.  But I totally understand that you wouldn’t want to put that in an email response to a direct question.

Now I was angry because I worried for no reason.  I had plenty of other things freak about, like our lack of dependable insurance. I didn’t need to add new items to my Basket O’ Noivus Condition.  I tried to point out that she should have told me before they left, and that she could have told me in the email that she knew that her son was fine.  But the comment space in her blog wouldn’t accept the War and Peace version of my response, it wanted three characters or less.  So I spit something out, and fumed.

The mom replied to my comments, and so did her blog friends.  The mom responded that my worry was overblown: eight moms with small kids were invited to lunch while her younger child was home sick with fever. All eight moms came, and they all laughed off fears of the danger of flu.  The lunch moms, and sundry friends she polled, agreed I was rude to demand that she call the teacher to make sure her son was fine.  And let’s not forget that Germany has excellent hospitals. See, that part about Europe laughing in the face of danger is totally true.

The mommies at lunch scenario, tittering over a lunatic who had no respect for German hospitals, was maddening.  Especially because I didn’t know if they were the mothers of my daughter’s friends.  Or if the mommies she polled were the mothers of my son’s friends.

I am an idiot, and I like to argue. So I tried to respond again.  “If letting moms know is a courtesy extended for a lunch visit, it’s even more important when a child is on a class trip in another country. And I don’t want to hear that the hospitals in Germany are first rate!”

And then came the return volley.  Several mommy bloggers said I was paranoid, one sighed that it was too bad that moms at our school weren’t particularly nice, and two others sniffed that when they had once admitted that their kids were sick, they were mercilessly hounded for illness updates, and  would never disclose a symptom again. But one mom was the Mother of All Mothers: She called me a Nazi, for worrying about such piffle.

The purpose of the class trip to Germany was for the kids to visit a concentration camp. You know, so we never forget.  And I was called a Nazi for needing assurance that the kids were alright. Sometimes irony is funny, sometimes not so much.

Roomie’s Mom came back with one more response, and added a few painful zingers about other troubling aspects of my behavior that Had Been Noted by other moms. That stung, mostly because they were true, but also because I had no idea who these women were.  But she concluded her blog post with an admission of guilt on both sides: her friends said she was wrong to not tell me what what going on, but that I was wrong to ask questions in the way that I did. The final verdict? The mommybloggers denounced me for acting like an imperialistic American: That’s not the European way.

Wow – my problem wasn’t that I was acting like a worried jerk, the problem was that I acted like an American, which is all wrong for European germs.

How did it end? I realized I was being an idiot. I was arguing online with people I didn’t know, shadow boxing  in a crawl space, fighting over a  misunderstanding that only got more bitter as it continued. I apologized, and never looked at that blog again.

When the field trip ended and we picked up the kids at the train station, I kept my back to the crowd of moms on the platform. I didn’t know who the eight moms were, or whether any of these people answered the poll, and I didn’t know if the woman who called me a Nazi was within choking distance.  To her credit, Roomie’s mom approached me, and gave me a hug. We embraced, and I let go of my anger.  But I was no longer interested in bonding with the school moms, I was embarassed and uncomfortable.  Although I really liked some of those women, the anonymous attacks made me distrust the whole bunch.

It was another Teachable Moment in my European Adventure. I learned a lot: We aren’t the world. We’re wearing labels that define us, but maybe not the labels that we think we’re wearing. I’m an effete easterner leftist liberal vegetarian who didn’t have good insurance. I’m a lawyer: I love to argue. That’s enough to be called a jerk in any country. But on an international mommy blog, I became a  rude and paranoid imperialist, because sometimes that’s the label that explains American behavior: adopt a certain tone, and all of a sudden you’re Dick Cheney. I considered emailing His Surliness, to see how he handled the hate, but I decided that if the mommysphere thought my problem was that I was an American, my response was “So?”

I learned a lot from Europeans. I learned a lot about how America sees itself, and how others see us. I learned that nationality can become an explanation for purely human behavior, and that using your words can raise a lot more questions than it answers.  I learned how quickly trust erodes, and that when you put the name of a group on that mistrust, you eliminate a whole lot of options to move forward.

It was a relief to come home, and get my labels back:  Pinko Easterner Liberal Lawyer. Here, the label of American doesn’t explain anything. But out of gratitude for my European Experience, I’m sorry that I didn’t turn into that crowd of mothers, and smile.


  1. Andrea…you are presenting at my home…on your adventures in sizzlin Italy…I am providing the cocktails and exotic grub…and toxic choco desert…so bring it on…lol…Anita.

    • That sounds like so much fun! I’m looking forward to it!

  2. Ah-ha!! An answer to my question once asked of you before! I can predict who called you a ‘Nazi’…and who is the ‘mommy of all mommies.’

    Well done…Love your soon-to-be-future-memoirs!!

  3. Very great read! Honestly..

    • Thanks, Corrine!

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