I am an ardent critic of the country I call home. Depending on various factors—fiasco-heralding headlines, a surly barista’s complete disregard for how I like my coffee, the spectacle of cleavage that passes for Italian television—my esteem of Italy oscillates daily and wildly. But I’ve learned to curb my rants, hazardous as they are to budding friendships and polite dinner conversation.
No one really wants to hear about Italy’s dark side, about the frustrations, obstacles and enigmas that constitute life here. As topics go, how my own cultural make-up reconciles with what I find erroneous and maddening about Italy (yes, the very quirks that once charmed me) can’t compete with the quaint and tasty anecdotes. Besides, maybe it’s better not to spoil Italy for others, to leave the neophytes their mouth-watering fantasies. Rumor has it Italy needs tourist-generated revenue more than ever.
Among another set of people, resident non-natives like myself, the rules are different. With them it’s open war on Italy. And when Italy injures, we’re resourceful self-medicators. We form social groups. We heckle, plot, and drink a good deal. We swap embellished stories and show off our scars. We write, not for fame, but because aside from trash-talking nothing is as cathartic as dishing about Italy in print, and our daily battles for hegemony make for rather entertaining prose. To our credit, we try to keep the passion we once felt for Italy alive via Italianesque interests and hobbies. Me? I make pizza.
Not a day passes that Italy doesn’t try to trip me up. In turn, I demonize and undermine her, allow nasty rumors to spread unchecked. I’d kick Italy in the shins if I could. Instead I scribble notes in my version of a burn book, a blog I launched with the ostensible goal of sharing my Tuscan life (apologies for the gag reflex), but in truth a project much more darkly motivated. I wanted to expose Italian absurdities and garner a readership of point-and-snicker critics like myself.
For years I’ve clung to these tactics like a life preserver in the rough, alienating sea of otherness. Together with the above-mentioned curatives, somehow they’ve always delivered me ashore, where I revive, dry off, and prepare for the next skirmish. Recently, though, I’ve been craving the old days, when Italy was but a notion, a dream, a promise of beautiful things to come (I, too, was once a drooling Italophile.) I miss Italy the wizened, tomato-canning nonna, and have lost all patience with the rude, ridiculously pretty waitress she’s become. I miss when we were friends. I want a truce.
You see, Italy did me a good turn last year. An illness brought me up-close-and-personal with the Italian health care system, and when I least expected it, Italy stood up for me. I’d grown so used to my antagonist’s devious ways, I hardly knew how to react when the civilized friend of before offered assistance. In the months since, ten years’ worth of angst has been quietly dissipating. And my once-best-pal-turned-playground-foe and I are trying, albeit guardedly, to patch things up.
The mammogram cost me €25, an insurance deductible, since I’d splurged on the convenience of going to a private clinic close to my place of work. The biopsy cost €76, tax-deductible since I was now at a public clinic. After those two initial tests, I never paid for anything else. Not the surgery, the three days in hospital, specialist visits, blood work, follow-ups, prescriptions, chemotherapy or radiation. Not once was I asked to open my wallet. My ongoing treatment will include yearly check-ups, exams, and medicines, all the standard stuff. I can call my surgeon, my oncologist or my family doctor when I need to, or seek out any one of the many therapists, counselors, dieticians, or support groups available to women like me. I’ll never be asked to pay for these services, either.
Throughout last year’s unpleasantness, the only payments required of me were things I could manage: paperwork, waiting-room anxiety, a few bureaucratic hiccups. With my financial stability safe from threat, I could devote my energy to getting better. I never had to consider selling a car or a kidney to pay for my medical bills. Come to think of it, I never even saw a medical bill. And to qualify for such coverage, for the excellent care I received every step of the way, I needed only to be here, living in this at once dazzling and exasperating country.
On a visit home to California a few years ago, I caught a nasty bug and decided to seek medical attention, motivated in large part by the timing—my vacation coincided with the swine flu scare. After waiting in line at a public clinic, for much longer than I would have thought possible in my cutting-edge, health-care-for-profit native land, I paid $150 for a doctor to check my vitals and prescribe me an anti-nausea medicine, which cost another $30. That’s right. In the nation of which I am a citizen, the costs to treat a bout of influenza totalled more than my entire seven-month breast cancer treatment in Italy.
Having fallen into such disrepute of late, perhaps Italy has forgotten her fundamental superiority in this sphere. Italy may be bad off—if measuring ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in terms of economic opportunity, then currently bad off indeed. Despite the corruption and controversy, however, between the newspaper headlines that speak to a nation seemingly bent on self-delusion and self-destruction, there is another Italy. The Italy that taunts and trips, yes, but also extends a hand and gets you back on your feet. The Italy that plods along steadily and imperfectly taking care of its own. The Italy that sticks by friends.
So I’ve unclenched my fists, Italy. I’m using my words. You still tick me off, but I’ll ease up. After all, I owe you one.