Between March 2011 and May 2012 I visited the States six times which, considering the two previous visits, brings the number up to eight. Since my first trip 12 years ago, I’ve always wanted to write my impressions on America and the Americans and it took me that many years to write my thoughts down. Finally, last May, while sitting on a train travelling from Boston down to New York City, I started.
As it always happens when I brandish a pen (or a keyboard) I ended up writing a bible-long essays that no one will never read. To make it easier for my non-existing readers, I split this Dostoyevsky-like novel I came up with in two. Looking at it now, I realize it risks to be too long anyway.
Oh well, I can’t split it down any further or I’ll end up having Dallas. Enjoy part 1.
The first time I put my feet on American soil I was 21 and it was in 2000. June 22nd, 2000. It was just the second time I got to travel by plane (the first time being a school trip to Paris few years before), thus I wasn’t exactly what one would call “an experienced traveller”. Nonetheless, if what they say is that before gaining experience on the field one has to spends years on the books to get the proper education, then I got to that day with a BA degree with honours, a Master and even a PhD from Harvard! Well, relatively speaking, of course.
During the years that anticipated that date, I spent way too long dreaming about my experience in the States, starting right from the leaving day from Fiumicino airport, so that I actually got to the airport full of too many expectations and with a detail-built trip in my head. Now, after 12 years, I can say that few or none of those expectations were met. But one: I did it.
Actually, something did meet my expectations and went exactly as I had dreamt it: my family and friends waving me good-bye at the airport. That went exactly as I was expecting it to be, even the river of tears. What I hadn’t considered, perhaps, was what happened after, once I had gone through the metal detector and taken the shuttle to the terminal and then the long wait before boarding. I had guilty feelings, which is still what I feel each time I go to Rome for a visit and my family drops me at the airport on the way back. I was feeling guilty and that was the very last thing that I should have felt in that moment and I was terrified, but that’s understandable.
I had the first real shot of pure adrenaline though, mixed with terror and excitement for realizing what was going to happen, when sitting on the plane with my seatbelt fasten and after I’d got familiar with the closest emergency exits to me as the flight attendants kindly asked me to do, the engines started and the plane taxied its way to the runway. That one, that freaking-one, is when the adrenaline did kick in as it’s never done again so far. As for today (who really knows me heard this so many times) the noise/sound of a plane’s engine equals to the sound of a dream that comes true. Those few people who came to see me in my new London’s flat wondered in disbelief at how I can put up with that crazy-driving noise, being my flat just on the way to Heathrow. When the landing planes flew over my flat, they’re so low that now I can recognize almost all the BA’s pilots and I give them the thumb-up from my window and they answer back. That really doesn’t bother me (the noise, not the pilots), au contraire, I love it! It keeps me alive, besides that awake.
My flight to New York was with Air France, with a connection in Paris. The real flight to the States then started from there, but to me it had started long before, slowly, a really long way. The milestone that kicks it off was probably the meeting in Questura to collect my brand-new and first passport. The hardest stops were the long and never-ending days spent selling (or rather, trying to) PCs at the Granai shopping centre, which was two hours away from my flat, three buses and two different underground lines. The sweetest one was doubtless the interview at the American embassy in Rome and then the day I went to collect my passport with my USA visa stamped on. The photograph was obviously monstrous, but I got other two visas after that, so I had my chances to make up. The interview was a piece of cake despite my bad English at that time, but that was happening before somebody decided to take a low flight over Manhattan, so checks and interviews were much less tough. The flight from Paris lasted for ever (which means about 8 hours, the standard time, but to me it was for ever). In Rome I had to literally fight over a window-sit with the woman at the desk when checking in, and now my shyness and bad English was keeping me from asking the people sitting next to me to let me through to go to the lavatory. As a result, I kept it for about 8 hours which my poor bladder spent crushed by my tight jeans that I had decided to wear for such a long flight. As I mentioned hence above, I wasn’t an experienced traveller. But boys, what butt-cheeks I had with those jeans!
As soon as I got to NYC, the first hump I had to get over was passport control. I had heard so many stories about people being questioned for hours and the officers’ dark faces really didn’t help. I remember that the conversation with the guy, when my turn came, went more or less as follows:
Guy: what’s the reason of your visit, sir?
Guy: what kind of job, sir?
Me: I’m going to work in a hotel (No, that’s not true! It’s not a hotel, it’s a restaurant, you idiot! I’m screwed, I know!)
Guy: What hotel, where is it, sir?
Me: it’s in North Eastham (still today I’ve got problems when pronouncing this name, figure what it was 12 years ago. Moreover I was thinking: all the information you need are on the letter from the American embassy in Rome, why the hell are you making it so long?!?)
Guy: OK, thank you sir. You may go.
Did he really say I may go? I took my passport back, my hand-luggage, I turned around to make my way to baggage collection and there, on the wall in front of me, a big poster said “Welcome to New York, the city that never sleeps”. So much for a good start, how am I going to sleep my jet lag off!
Once collected the huge luggage where I had stuffed everything in, I looked for the exit. Before proceeding though, I’d like to spend few words about the huge luggage where I had stuffed everything in, because when I say “everything”, I really do mean it:
1. Alarm-clock (parallelepiped shaped, about 15 cm tall, with portable speakers). Why bringing such a bulky thing? Simple: the thingy showed the external temperature in both Celsius and Fahrenheit degrees and in my mind-movie I had this image of me waking up in the morning in my American house and video-recording the beginning of my day, starting from the time and the temperature in both units of measurement. I didn’t have a video camera, let alone a mobile phone with a built-in one but I already was a forerunner of video-blogging!
2. Smart / elegant suit with tie, waistcoat and matching shoes. I knew I was going to work in a restaurant in the Cape Cod’s countryside but I was sure I would have soon got many invitations to my American friends-to-be’s dinner parties. Number of times I got to use that suit: 0. Number of dinner parties I got invited to: 0. Number of American friends I made during that trip: 0 (I didn’t count the owner of the restaurant who died two years after and my American co-workers who I’ve never heard of after)
3. Garzanti English – Italian and Italian – English dictionary. Why not to bring just a pocket dictionary? Well, do you know how many more words you can get on a brick-sized dictionary? What if one day I needed to explain the quintic physic theory according to which a photon can be teleported elsewhere in space or if I needed to entertain my dinner party commensals with a dissertation about Hermetic Philosophy, where would I have looked for the words?
4. Various books, such as:
a. American continent atlas (I was aware that during that trip I was not going to visit any other country for the American continent but, let’s face it!, you never know)
b. “The Dragons of Winter’s Twilight”, a fantasy novel of about 300 pages that I had already read twice before and I wasn’t even reading for the third time, but to my mind it was a must-have on a trip!
c. “L’inglese facile” (Easy English). It still is one of my bibles.
d. American slang dictionary. I soon realized that I wouldn’t need that one. Slang is a level of the language that I haven’t even reached yet.
e. Mini-guide to the constellations, with sky maps of both the Austral and Boreal sky. The only mini thing I had put in my bag.
f. Breviary and Bible. Twelve years ago I was like that and I’m not ashamed of it, I probably am for the fact that these are two tomes of about 1,000 pages each we are talking about here.
5. Photo albums. Probably to be brought with me to the dinner parties and be shown to my American friends…
6. Portable CD player with CDs holder. The iPod era had to start yet.
7. Portable speakers to connect to my portable CD player, so to listen to the music while doing my housework and dancing altogether (that’s how they do in the American TV series!)
8. My inseparable diary (or journal, never really got what the right word to use is). Nothing to object about it, if not that I also put in my previous diaries. Perhaps I thought I would have brought them as well to my dinner parties to entertain my hosts with the exiting adventures of a Roman teenager…
9. Songbook with guitar chords. I still wonder why I didn’t decide to put in my guitar too, which I couldn’t play anyway.
10. Bubi, my teddy bear which actually was a rabbit. Was I perhaps thinking of taking him too to my dinner parties?
Once collected my huge luggage, the smaller one (checked-in along with the other) my handbag and rucksack and after paying a visit to the toilet after more than 8 hours, I made it to the exit. Few metres away from the threshold, two policemen, who were friendly talking to each other apparently not paying attention to people around, stopped me (question to my American friends: does it count as being pulled over?)
There they were, two real American cops, just like the ones in movies! With their 44 Magnum in the holster (or, more generally, gun), the tear spray and truncheon on the other side of the belt. Their dark uniforms and their pointed-shape hat. Yes, the pointed-shape hat just like on TV! Once I had got over the surprise effect (given by their hats and not by being stopped in an airport, in NYC by two policemen), I realized that one of the two was actually trying to ask me something. He wants my passport, which I had just put back inside my rucksack, thinking that I was done for the day. I put down my luggage and I quickly look for my ID (better be quick before getting shot, they to these things, I saw it on TV) which I hand over to them. They both check it and then ask me where I am from. From Italy, you dumbass, it’s just there on my passport, think I, but obviously keep it for myself. I answer the obvious and they (apparently happy with my answer which coincides with what reported on my passport) hand the ID back to me. I’m about to take my luggage when one of the two (the black one probably, there is always a black cop. Or I should say Afro-American perhaps, to not risk getting shot) says:
Afro-American guy: Your watch. Take it off.
Now, my English was already at a good scholastic level, of course, but the usage of modal verbs in a sentence spoken by a (Afro-American) cop with a New York accent was way too much for me. Thank god the guy was still staring at my wrist and I realize I heard the word “watch” somewhere in between the sentence, so I understand he is actually referring to my time-counter device on my wrist. I shyly reach out with my hand to facilitate a closer look for him, and he repeats “Take it off”. Just then, as sudden and unexpected as your mum’s key in the hole when you’re making out on the sofa, I get what he wants. He is asking a kickback. He wants me to bribe my watch for my freedom, for my right to walk as a free man on American soil. What if I don’t do what they want? Will they handcuff me like a criminal and get me into their black and white police car (just after I realized that NY police’s cars are white) and take me somewhere in an industrial area of New Jersey just to beat me up with their clubs which they will then use to sodomize me before finishing me with a bullet on the back of my skull, leaving my dead body with pants down in a canal, food for rats and seagulls.
I did as he was asking, I took off my watch and handed it to him. I didn’t like the idea of my body being found with the pants down, I don’t feel comfortable when it comes to show my nudity in public. That’s a nice watch, says he. I think “Please, at least have the decency and discretion to just shut the freaking mouth and let me go!” To my big surprise instead, he just gives a second glance of approval to my watch, hands it back to me and as naturally as to my mind it would have been natural for him to use his club on me, he says “Yes, a nice watch. Have a nice day, sir”
I did it! I had been accepted by the Afro-American community of New York City, I was free to go wherever I wanted, I was part of the society!
This is pretty much how my American journey started off. It continued with a taxi ride to the Columbia dorms where I was supposed to spend the first night (few years after I recognized those places in the Spiderman movie and I still have multiple orgasms when I watch it and can say “I’ve been there!!”)
The Columbia’s dorms (at least, the ones where they put me) were what of more decadent one might find. Yet, they were so deliciously American! I could smell ‘Fame’ in the air, so much the oldness and smell of rotten wood reminded me of the TV series. I was expecting somebody to start a dance anytime in the corridors, followed by 10 other people, all coordinated in a perfect choreography. But alas, such thing didn’t happen. At least, not while I was there. What did happen was the police sirens passing by at night, I could hear them coming down from afar along the never-ending avenues (or streets, I don’t know), the coloured neon light filtering in through the blinders and of course, the fire-stairs outside my window! So West-Side Story, so American!
The following morning I managed not to get lost on my way to Port Authority station and I even managed to buy a one-way coach ticket to Hyannis, MA. One of the best memories I have of that trip (which actually, became such just the year after, not right there) was spotting the Twin Towers from the coach’s window while crossing Brooklyn Bridge. I had my camera with me but I thought “No, it would come out all blurry from the coach. I’m sure I will come here again for a weekend before going back to Italy, won’t I?”
No, I didn’t get to spend a weekend in NY during that trip. I went there again few years after, but by then it was too late and I’ve never got to take that picture again.