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Oh, What I Would Give to be Canadian!

Rebecca Winke

Okay, okay, pipe down. I know I promised part two of Bedford Falls, but something else happened in the meantime.

I broke my candy thermometer, which I need to make soap (it's a long story), so I've been looking around for a new one. This is one of those strange kitchen implements that I can't seem to find in the house wares section of the Coop (apparently Italians don't make a lot of Divinity), so I decided to take a look in Genevieve Lethu. To those of you who don't know, Genevieve Lethu is an upscale kitchen store kind of like Williams Sonoma, where I usually don't buy anything, but rather wander around and dream of the day that I live a life glamorous enough to necessitate such accoutrements as silver grape scissors. However, they do have lots of gourmet cooking supplies, so I stopped in.

I found a saleslady, impossibly thin and with perfect skin like so many of the women in retail in Italy (which made me think to myself, "Why is this woman working in a gourmet store, since she apparently doesn't eat?") and asked her if they carried candy thermometers. She went to go get me one, and when she came back and handed it to me I took a look and noticed that it had a tag which read 40.80 on it. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but if my memory is accurate I picked up my last candy thermometer at Target in the States for a buck ninety-nine. We're not talking about nanotechnology here. We are talking about a tool commonly used to make popcorn balls.

"That isn't the price, right?" I asked the woman incredulously. She looked at me and smirked, having already pegged me as the kind of person who does not spend roughly the GNP of a small African nation on pastry blenders and crepe pans, and indicated that Genevieve Lethu, God bless her whoever she is, did indeed intend to charge me over 40 euro for a candy thermometer.

I still couldn't believe it, so I said, "Are you sure there's not some mistake? I mean, this is something I can get in the US for under two dollars." At which point she snatched it out of my hand and snapped, "Well, why don't you go buy it in the US, then?"

So I used some of my kickboxing moves on her and folded her up like a piece of lawn furniture.

No, I didn't. But I was sorely, sorely tempted. Only the presence of my son stopped me, since I have been trying very hard as of late to curtail those behaviors which could possibly serve as material for the "Things My Mother Did Which Psychologically Scarred Me So Profoundly That I Am Now A Mass Murderer/Founder Of A Satanic Cult" tell-all book that I suspect he will be writing 30 years from now.

As I was driving home, I got to thinking about how so many Italians I meet have such a strong reaction to any mention of the US or anything American. (That is, after I snapped out of a twenty minute trance during which I replayed my fantasy version of How This Scene Would Have Gone in Rebecca's Perfect World, which culminated in me unveiling my true identity as the CEO of Genevieve Lethu and firing that cow on the spot, despite her tearfully pathetic groveling, and how she subsequently became obsessed with candy thermometers and candy, thus becoming fat and zitty, and was eventually institutionalized. No, I don't have an anger management problem.)

I've noticed this phenomenon often when I go out with one of my closest friends here in Umbria, who is a transplanted Australian. We chat between ourselves in English (or in what Barbara claims is English as spoken Down Under - it has taken me ten years to realize that when she's pissed, she means she's had one too many, not that she has her draws in an uproar) and are sometimes interrupted by Italians who ask where we are from. My friend responds, "Australia," for which she gets a friendly nod and sometimes an inane comment about kangaroos. I say, "The US," and spend the next half an hour in conversation about the current president, Wall Street, and if jeans really are cheaper there.

These exchanges almost inevitably end with the phrase, "Well, this isn't the US, you know," which can have two completely different meanings depending upon the tone with which it is said. It can either be the belligerent, "you people think you're better than the rest of us" tone, or the wistful "we are just backwards folk here in Italy and you have to accept it and shrug" tone. It is never, ever a neutral tone.

I've found I have to be careful making comparisons between the two countries, or even just random comments about life either here or there, because unfortunately they are most often interpreted as a critique of the Italian Way. Usually I am simply making an innocuous passing observation based on the only experience I have had, which is growing up in another country which happened to be the US but could have just as easily been Bolivia, but even what I intend as neutral comments seem to bring out the national Italian inferiority complex. The sometimes defensive responses inevitably push me to take the side of the US, which I find an uncomfortable position to be in. Though I love many things about America and would never deny my nationality, I am not what you'd call a girl with a star spangled heart. Don't even get me started on George "there is no French word for entrepreneur" Bush.

And when I'm not defending the US to Italians, I'm defending Italy to Italians. So many seem to just assume that things are better in the States and that I have made a huge sacrifice by relocating. Now, there are certainly some things I miss about the US and wouldn't mind if they were adopted here (24 hour dry cleaners, for example - or even just one that could manage a turn around in less than four days), but quite frankly if I thought everything was better in the US I would be living there, not here. I can't begin to count the number of conversations which have ended with me listing off all the great things about Italy to an Italian. "C'mon, stiff upper lip, you've got tiramis and great fashion, right?" I say as I search around in my bag for a tissue to hand over.

What it comes down to is that whether I like it or not, the US is a larger than life presence in this world, laden with image and myth (and misconception). And as an American living abroad, I am alternatively saddled with, and blessed with, all the presumptions and assumptions that entails.

This doesn't necessarily explain that saleslady. She could have just been a bitch. But I'd bet my last greenback that if I had said that candy thermometers were cheaper in Canada, I would have gotten a serene smile and a "Canada, huh? I hear the foliage is lovely this time of year."


Rebecca's View is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Rebecca's View - Introduction" for more information.

Rebecca Winke lives in Assisi, Italy and operates Brigolante Guest Apartments. www.brigolante.com

© Rebecca Winke, 2003

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