Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Inauguration Day in Torino

Tom and Ben and I were invited to a Birthday Party/Inauguration Watching Gathering last night at the home of one of Ben’s classmates. At the last minute Tom’s colleague Jennifer, whose son Alberto goes to the school and who introduced us there, had to cancel, as Alberto wasn’t feeling well.

So we were introduced to the mother of the birthday boy outside school at pick-up time and set off on foot through the ice and slush along the river with her and a posse of 10-year-olds headed for the party. The family spent several stints in New York over the years and so the parents Valeria and Simone speak excellent English. Phew.

We found ourselves, in fact, in a warm and welcoming environment. Adults arrived in waves from work over the course of the evening. And Valeria brought out wave after wave of food platters: mini panini with salami, prosciutto, or mortadella. Celery stuffed with gorgonzola. Bread sticks, a specialty of Torino. Massive blocks of hard cheese. Warm little pastry envelopes filled with apricot jam and sprinkled with sugar. Birthday cake, of course. Little marinara pizzettas, just red sauce. Endive with pomegranate seeds. And bottle after bottle of wine – red, white, prosecco.

Valeria waited until it was clear we were ObamaHeads and then took off the sweater she was wearing to expose her Hope T shirt, with the beautiful red and blue portrait of Obama that’s become so ubiquitous this winter.

We watched the inauguration on CNN on the large TV in the living room. It came via their internet cable, as the Sky satellite dish was malfunctioning. So there were frequent stutters and misses both in the picture and the sound. Moreover, a dozen or more Italian 10-year-olds were rioting through the place. At the very moment that Elizabeth Alexander began her lovely poem the kids brought out their noisemakers and began blowing – in celebration of the birthday boy, the inauguration, or for the sheer joy of making the loudest noise possible.

It was surreal to watch such a momentous event in such a chaotic environment. But I loved it. The mood was festive and celebratory and not somber, as it might have been at home. We met fascinating people: a science journalist for Italian TV who had to leave the party early to go home and write something on Obama and stem cell research, energy, and environment for today’s show. Her husband, not in attendance, is a member of parliament from Torino, in a left-wing party. Laura began to tell me the history of left electoral politics in Italy, why it has been so fractured. I want to get more clarity on this, but I did understand that there were many smaller parties in the past, then they tried uniting into one large party, the Partita Democratica. But that experiment has been a failure, according to Laura, and there is talk again of breaking apart, to come together in coalition in the future.

Simone, our host, is a professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, leading a masters program in food studies that combines history, anthropology, sociology, and sciences. It’s affiliated with Slow Food University in nearly Bra. He also teaches in an American Studies program at another university, as his own field is the experience of Italian immigration to the US and the history (I think I got this right) of Italian food there.

Our other host Valeria is a tour guide. We met two auto engineers (Fiat headquarters are here) and a yoga instructor. Almost everyone spoke marvelous, idiomatic English. It made me ashamed of my pathetic Italian. Though I was able to discuss the lunches at Ben’s school with the monolingual grandma: Schifoso, my son says, disgusting, I told her. Yes, Ferdi says the same, she agreed. Italy’s Worst Cooks, we call them. You must complain, she says. Protesta. All together.

Tom and I drank too much and I cried during Aretha Franklin’s My Country Tis of Thee (and thank God she didn’t sing God Bless America) and Tom blew raspberries at George Bush. Just after the swearing in, the kids marched around the apartment waving American flags. Later, I spotted Ben wearing 6 or 8 of them stuck in his collar and waistband, a gorilla mask over his face. Sadly, no camera.

I always roll my eyes at the speeches and their celebration of an assumed American Exceptionalism. But I felt even more acutely last night the sheer arrogance when Obama declared in ringing tones that American is ready to lead again. Tom called out, You hear that, you Italians, America will be leading you now. Aren’t you pleased? As if America is the nun and Italy and all the other nations are little Madeline and her pals lining up in two straight lines behind. (I’m remembering that Madeline and Co. wreck a certain amount of havoc, so perhaps the comparison is more apt than I suppose.)

But we were the only ones objecting. Italians must be so used to this rhetoric by now that they can’t bother to complain. Or perhaps they were being polite to us. Or the chaos of the party obscured the words. Or they don’t care – like the rest of us they are just grateful for the End of an Error, moved by the election of our first Black president and by the massive outpouring of support from the American people, hopeful for a saner and more just American foreign policy.

A kind soul took pity on us and drove us home, though we live in the exact opposite direction from his house. He spared us a bus ride and a tram ride and waiting in the cold for each of them on their infrequent evening rounds. We have small cars in Italy, he apologized, as we wedged our big American butts into his tiny Fiat. Yes, and thank God, we said. Maybe someday America will learn a thing or two from you.

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