In the wry but affectionate tradition of Bill Bryson, Ciao, America! is a delightful look at America through the eyes of a fiercely funny guest—one of Italy’s favorite authors who spent a year in Washington, D.C.
When Beppe Severgnini and his wife rented a creaky house in Georgetown they were determined to see if they could adapt to a full four seasons in a country obsessed with ice cubes, air-conditioning, recliner chairs, and, of all things, after-dinner cappuccinos. From their first encounters with cryptic rental listings to their back-to-Europe yard sale twelve months later, Beppe explores this foreign land with the self-described patience of a mildly inappropriate beachcomber, holding up a mirror to America’s signature manners and mores. Succumbing to his surroundings day by day, he and his wife find themselves developing a taste for Klondike bars and Samuel Adams beer, and even that most peculiar of American institutions—the pancake house.
The realtor who waves a perfect bye-bye, the overzealous mattress salesman who bounces from bed to bed, and the plumber named Marx who deals in illegally powerful showerheads are just a few of the better-than-fiction characters the Severgninis encounter while foraging for clues to the real America. A trip to the computer store proves just as revealing as D.C.’s Fourth of July celebration, as do boisterous waiters angling for tips and no-parking signs crammed with a dozen lines of fine print.
By the end of his visit, Severgnini has come to grips with life in these United States—and written a charming, laugh-out-loud tribute.
From his temporary home in the leafy suburbs of Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Italian newspaper columnist Severgnini turns a curious eye toward Americans, their bureaucracy and labor-saving gadgets. With the same critical lens through which he viewed England (in Inglese, which was a bestseller in the U.K.), the reporter sees through all America's gimmicks the fat-free, guilt-free, buy-now, pay-later mechanics of advanced capitalism but he is not adverse to her charms. Both repelled and attracted by the wonders of convenience living, he finds a joyous horror in channel-hopping, mall shopping and the pursuit of comfort, in our abuse of English ("La-Z-Boy is a veiled invitation to commit a cardinal sin") and our blatant lack of sartorial know-how ("The President of the United States jogs through the city in shorts that display his milk-white thighs"). In other hands, such a memoir could have been a jingoistic clich -fest. Severgnini, though, is a master in the vein of Bill Bryson, and his every criticism is matched with admiration. Nor does he spare his own people from his caustic wit in fact, visiting Italians often come off as badly, if not worse, than his American subjects. The result is a sardonic tale of cultural bewilderment, an incisive peek into the mundane obsessions of our American existence that makes the commonplace be it a fixation with weather statistics or an air-conditioning complex seem not only insane but extremely funny.
Beppe Severgnini's depiction of American life through the eyes of an Italian is informative, provocative and simply hilarious. His "stranger in a strange land" account of what we Americans hold so dear invites us to re-evaluate our notions on what is "normal". The thud of the heavy Sunday newspaper against the door baffles this Italian journalist as he tries to adapt to "la vita americana". Buying a mattress turns into an adventure of incredulity as he and his wife are shocked to see people throwing themselves on mattresses in order to find the right one. When the salesman tries to convince them to try one out, their Italian sensibility causes them to freeze on the spot. And our morning cup o' Joe that so many of us cannot live without? For Beppe, who misses his own country's brew, we are drinking "acqua sporca"!
America! Why do we have shutters that we never use to keep the light out? Why do we need so much ice in our drinks? Why do we insist on air-conditioning? How does one figure out how to sit in our ubiquitous easy chairs?
The humor is not only in the details. If Beppe can make us laugh, it is because he is desperately trying to understand us. He loves us! His observations are in no way criticisms. As we follow him on his journey to better comprehend our idiosyncracies, we can't help but stand back for a moment and observe ourselves through his inquisitive eyes. As he begins to better understand what makes us tick, he offers us a fresh perspective on the same question.