On a hot summer night, at a gala at Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Italy’s ongoing love affair with America was renewed.
We had retreated to the villa’s garden to wait out a seemingly endless panel discussion, wondering aloud how to get back to our hotel in Rome’s center. Few taxis venture out to these suburbs late at night.
Another refugee from the droning panel accepted an invitation to join us, offering reassurance that he would call us a cab if necessary.
“It’s the Foreign Ministry, after all — they will come for you,” he promised in flawless English accented with charm. He was part of the diplomatic corps.
Introductions slipped into chat and inevitably to the presidential race and W’s departure. The Italian respectfully disagreed with our negative assessment of our president and his legacy. Though realistic about US economic problems reaching Rome and beyond, Umberto was adamant about America’s greatness.
Probably born decades after World War II, he spoke of America’s willingness to “pay the bills” for the rest of the world. He admired our unflinching defense of foreigners’ rights and security. He was sincerely grateful.
No stranger to the US, he works much of each year in New York and travels in a sophisticated global circle. Still, he paints America in the idealistic pastels used by starving peasants, abused partisans, and prisoners liberated from Mussolini’s Italy more than six decades ago.
We became quiet, hesitating to challenge such a pure view of the country we know — which is now so uneasy, so beaten, so unlike the land its admirer described.
During W’s last visit to Rome, our friend was ashamed that no one officially thanked the president on what, coincidentally, marked the anniversary of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild post-war Europe.
When we finally voiced our concerns about civil liberties, the cost of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the greed that has pushed our nation off its economic footing, Umberto nodded politely, unconvinced. Even his worst day in New York, it seemed, was far better than his best day in Italy.
An early morning departure for Florence the next morning forced us to say good-bye.
Umberto called a taxi and walked us to the gates, making sure we got settled safely and that the driver knew exactly where to take us.
Once home, I e-mailed him to thank him for his kindness, attaching a recent column I had written on my own Palin-inspired rage.
His reply was close to poetry:
“So go ahead and fight for a better country, because that is one of the things Americans do that I admire . . . Defend your ideas and your values, because sometimes you can only understand the importance of something after it is lost.
“I think we Europeans sometimes burn your flag in envy, or speak badly of Americans because we no longer have your freedom. We are no longer able to feel proud of our flag or our anthem. We have lost hope and no longer believe change is possible, so we get angry with you, because you still have those things.”
I turned off my computer, wishing that I could share Umberto’s confidence.