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If We Don't Kill You . . .

Thursday, May 22, 2008 by Michael Reynolds

Florentines smile about as often as Frenchmen. Which is seldom. They don’t hand out smiles the way Americans do, for free, for nothing, just because. I have a low smile delivery quotient for an American. A smirk, sure. A droll look. Big, toothy, friendly grin? No.

But being surrounded by people who are baffled and a bit put off by smiles brings out the latent Southerner in me. I smile more. I get a certain sadistic pleasure out of it. A smile here in Italy can be an act of aggression. Don’t piss me off or I swear to God I will grin at you.

You smile at someone and you get that double-take. They glance my way, I smile, they shoot back a look of consternation, clearly thinking, “What the hell is the matter with that guy? What’s he up to? What’s he want?”

Americans are friendly people. It’s a cliche but it’s true. We’re friendlier than Europeans, and paradoxically, more dangerous. It’s smiling Americans who spend billions of dollars a year figuring out how to get a robot plane to fly a missile straight through your bedroom window. It’s Americans who are armed, and maintain that they have a sacred Constitutional right to pack heat. A Marine will smile at you.

Friendly and dangerous. Friends to one and all unless you piss us off, in which case there’s a pretty fair chance we’ll take action more dramatic than passing a non-binding resolution. But, if we don’t kill you, you’re invited to the barbecue.

It’s no wonder we irritate people around the world, we Americans. Some demonize us. Some condescend to us. We’re either the manipulative masterminds behind every crime, profiting from every war. Or we’re big, sweet-but-stupid goofs with fat asses and loud voices. The America of Hiroshima or the America of Hollywood. The America of neo-colonialism and predatory capitalism, or the America of self-indulgence, naivete and genial ignorance.

Those who are fundamentally well-disposed to us make a distinction between us as a people, and our government. They absolve us of the sins of our government, imagining that we are manipulated by Washington. Nonsense, of course. No people on earth has a tighter grip on its government. No government is more solicitous of the opinions of its people.

We confuse Europeans because we are all the things they think we are. All. Yes, we are the ruthless capitalists. Also the smiling, glad-handing, Bible-thumpers. And yes, we can drop a bomb when needed, and we can drop sacks of rice. (Sometimes on the very same people.) And we can ignore the world and embrace the world, and be compulsively open and secretive, and law-abiding and lawless, and creative and ignorant, and generous and violent. To quote Eminem, “I am whatever you say I am; if I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?”

We smile because we can afford to. We don’t have to act tough because we are tough, and everyone knows it. We don’t have to affect hauteur because we are so thoroughly convinced of our own superiority that no such semaphore is necessary. We smile and we laugh and we tell you everything in the first hour you know us because we aren’t scared. We have nothing to hide because we have nothing to fear.

Yes, we are genuinely friendly. Genuinely open. But the American smile is also an expression of confidence. Want to call it naivete? Fine. Want to call it arrogance? That’s fine, too. We’ll smile either way.

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Back Online

Wednesday, May 21, 2008 by Michael Reynolds

(cross-posted from another lucky bastard living in tuscany.)

Many things have happened in the last week. But mostly the last week has been . . . the week without internet.

Cue portentous music.

No internet. For more than a week. No MSNBC. No RealPolitics. No Ambivablog. Ted Kennedy gets a brain tumor and I don’t know about it. My lack of awareness doesn’t have much effect on Teddy one way or the other, but I like knowing these things. I don’t like being cut off. Out of the loop.

We are way rustic here. I am not a rustic by nature. I’m a creature of the much-maligned suburbs where we take so much for granted: phones, for example. Internet connections. 24 hour gas stations with mini-marts. Also, roads.

Here’s how you get to my house. If coming from Florence take the first 192 turns you come to. That’s as specific as I can be because, honestly, I don’t have a clue. I do what the Garmin GPS (which we call “Lady” as in, “Goddammit, Lady, this left or the other left?”) tells me to do. Turn. Veer. Turn. Enter roundabout. Around and around and in and out, and never the same drive twice because you always, always miss a turn and in Florence it’s never as easy as just going around the block to get back where you started from.

So first drive around lost for an hour until, by sheer process of elimination, you end up in Pontassieve. Then look for a crack in a wall and pull in there. Follow a half-lane paved road — no, that’s not a typo, I said half-lane. A full lane would be luxurious by comparison. A full American-sized lane would be what this road aspires to. When this road wins the lottery it will live out its dream to be as wide as the driveway leading to a one-car garage.

On the left, as you climb, a sheer drop of anywhere from dozens to hundreds of feet. No guardrail. A Wile E. Coyote landing on the Marchese di Frescobaldi’s grapes. Multiple blind hairpin turns. When traffic comes toward you, both cars slam on the brakes and one backs down (or up) the hill, depending it seems, on who has the least distance to travel to a wide spot. And by wide spot I don’t actually mean a wide spot. Just a slightly less narrow spot. At one point the road goes right through someone’s house. (I’ll take pictures. You’ll see.)

And then you turn off this superhighway and onto a gravel replica of the above. Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy. And there goes the muffler. And the shocks.

This part of the trip is actually a relief since there are fewer drivers.

The house itself is lovely. We are the first tenants, so it’s a brand-new place. Great Bosch appliances, a massive open fireplace, walls thick enough to survive cannon fire. And the view. I will write a lot more about this, and show some pix soon. I’ll just say that even the view from the bathroom could be framed. U We look down on San Francesco, and on the vineyards and across to villas perched on hillsides. Sometimes we look down on clouds that appear suddenly and then sneak away.

We don’t have the rhythm of the place yet. We are resisting the rusticity. Not rejecting the transplant, but not quite cathecting yet, either. It makes us all a little nervous being this far from a Target store. And until today when our two hardworking but not terribly effective cable guys finally got us online, it was closing in on us a little. It’s dark at night. There are stars. There is quiet. There’s some kind of bird that makes a strangled rooster sound in the morning. We hear of wild boar in the area.

Today we discovered that we lost our passports and two credit cards sometime in the last 48 hours. This unfortunate fact was entirely offset, and then some, by the reappearance of the internet. With the internet I can still see the world. Without it, just the view.

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