Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A return to California

A work project took me and the Stoic One unexpectedly back to the United States for about 9 days.  We have just returned to Italy. It was fasicnating to try to see the Bay Area, a place that so many Italians love, through their eyes.  It became increasingly more difficult to do this as we fairly quickly fell into the "old" way of seeing things. Here are some early observations about the Bay Area in California.

Let's start with something important, the attire in Silicon Valley.  Everyone there looks like they are going to or coming from the gym.  This is not "casual dress".  This is a work out uniform. Midcalf spandex, white work out top. If Italian women are going to the gym, they wear sparkles on their shoes, shirts, shorts. ...I know, I know, how many go to the gym and actually sweat?  Not too many.  Anyway, someone told me that spandex has become the new jeans. The spandex people wear no sparkles, in case you were wondering.

The people I saw around Stanford looked, young, confident, and athletic. Probably because of all of that gym time.  They do seem like a new master race with their muscled calves, their shoulders back, chins up and firm jaws. The men and women look formidable. It is impossible to get their attention when they are jogging. They are so tuned into their exercise and their technology, music, cell phones or whatever, that I can not imagine what it would take to interrupt them. There is no time for a chit chat along the jogging trail that is for sure.  People don't stop and greet each other, with hi, come va? This exercise is a serious business. The American confidence and athleticism is truly remarkable compared to people I see every day in Umbria.  Sometimes I sense an Italian weary "savoir fare" which is much in contrast to  the brash confidence that Americans display.  The "can do" American spirit  is reflected in all of their outward appearance, their clothes, gait, eye contact.

At a stop light, I saw a young male jogger without a shirt on.  It was shocking to see.  Nude torsos are seen only at the beaches in Italy.  As a matter of fact, there is now a law in Italy that says in beach cities you must cover up if you go into town. No bikinis of nude torsos are allowed in shops or restaurants. I had forgotten that men in California run around half naked. The women that I saw all had on work out tops on.  Their running shoes looked like serious affairs; sturdy, brightly colored and new. (No sparkles.)

As much as I have written about the lack of money motivation in Umbria, I have actually complained about this, watching the flip side was not pleasant either.  In Silicon Valley, it is basically about the money all the time.  This focus on money takes many different approaches, i.e. certain questions you would never hear asked in Italy. "What start up you are going to and how much money you are going to make?" is one. Comments about the lack of money are also prevalent, i.e. working at the university is NOT a place that you are going to make money.  This would go without saying in Italy. People talk about the Google, Apple, Facebook employees and how much money they have made, and how they are inappropriately spending it.  The comments about them are said with both awe and resentment.

 I have a friend who lives in Atherton, the richest of the Silicon Valley cities.  The house next door to her was torn down and they are putting up a $12 million dollar "spec" house, meaning they are building this house without a buyer in mind. At that price point you would think that would be a risk, but no one seems worried. Stories abound about this or that person paying millions in cash for some real estate property.  It is as if the money isn't real, like it is some Monopoly money, which maybe it is.  In Italy money is very real.  It is a scarce resource and is hoarded rather than spent.  Conspicuos consumption is not a concept that has taken over the Italians. My Italian teacher told me that Italians are suspicious of rich people because they think the money came from nefarious means, in Italy you know what that means.  Anyway, a poor person here is not looked down up.  They are regarded as someone who is honest but down on their luck.  Rich people, particularly people who spend lavishly are very much in the suspect category.

Then there is the age thing.  I never feel as old as I do in California.  All of this emphasis on youth, working out, staying in shape is borderline obsessive.  It is ok to be older if you are "trim". Let me say I haven't been trim since I was 10! Someone asked me don't the old people get segregated in Italy? Don't they all group together away from the rest of the population? They don't. Old people here are included just as young children are included. There isn't a negative value judgment assigned to being old.  You are just old, or older that the others.

The last question that I was asked about my life in Italy was this..."Are you accepted there?  Are you integrated into the community?"  Intersting question isn't it?  What is the opinion behind that question? Am I treated like someone who has been here forever, whose family has lived in the same place for 300 yeas? Of course not. I am American living in a type of exile here in Italy.  It is quite frankly a mystery to people in Umbertide why I am doing this, but they try to include me in every way that they know how.  I have never felt discriminated against, only discriminated in favor is an odd thing.

Ok.  I good thing about California that I can't do here. I ate Japanese food at 5:00 in the afternoon.  It was shocking that the restaurant was open and I could eat. The Japanese food was great.  I also ate Peruvian food, also excellent and Thai food, again very good.  None of these would I eat here in Umbria.

I was asked if I had it to do again, would I?  I have only been here 6 months, so not really a fair time for an assessment, but my answer is yes.  What else would I do? I fell in love with the country, the food the people, and I have not fallen out of love.  I felt totally at home in California.  I understood the ways of the natives. I was understood, and I understood others.  But at about day 5, I started thinking about my piazza.  I wondered what the nuns who live in the cloister across from me were doing.  I wondered how Manuele's father was dealing with his new diagnosed diabetes.  I wondered how the garden behind me was doing.  What vegetables had they planted.  In summary, I missed my home.

California is beautiful.  A view of the Pacific Ocean from Half Moon Bay.

China town in San Francisco.  A truly unique place, that you can not find in Italy.

Another version of men playing cards in the piazza.

No I didn't wait in the long line to take the cable car.  I took the picture just for you.

California was beautiful.  If the streets are not really paved with gold, the real estate is made of gold. I liked being there but it wasn't home.



  1. Hi Susan . I get it and am very happy for you. It always feels good when you know you made the right choice for you.

  2. Hi Melanie, thank you. It has not been an easy choice but I think it has been the right choice.