Tag Archives: Italy

Missing the U.S.A.

19 Jun
19 June 2016. There must be something in the air causing ex-pat Americans in Italy to miss America.  I am pretty certain it isn’t Trump, Clinton or Sanders conjuring up the emotional response to missing the homeland, but a rash of articles, blogs, and posts to Facebook broke out in the past couple of weeks.
We’ve now been in Rome four years (as of May 18, 2016) and retired for one (as of May 19). We have found the experience as true ex-pats, outside the protective bubble of the embassy, to put us more in touch with what it is really like to live here. And yet we do not have to face many of the challenges working Italians that are raising families face. We have no pesky jobs.
Still, I have to say from time-to-time I get a little maudlin about not being in the United States. Rome is so beautiful and a delight to walk through when people aren’t knocking you off the sidewalk, but there are a few things from the U.S. that I miss so very much.
Clothes dryers
Drying rack on our terrace. It faces south, so when the weather is good the drying is fast. That's Libby in the foreground.

Drying rack on our terrace. It faces south, so when the weather is good the drying is fast. That’s Libby in the foreground.

You can try to romanticize the fresh-air drying, clothes warmed by the sun, blah, blah, blah. The truth is, all we have is a terrace with a rack from IKEA. The clothes come out stiff. I have never ironed so much in my life. There is nothing fresh about the motorino-scented air of Roma and if I leave them out too long, they gather pollen and dust. 
In winter, we have to hang clothes on a smaller rack in our second bedroom because they won’t dry in the cold and not enough sun hits the terrace. Drying bed sheets can take 24 hours. Give me a good old tumble dryer! We had one in our embassy apartment but running one is cost-prohibitive for the average person. Plus, there’s not room for one in our apartment.  
Ethnic food
Yes, we love Italian food. We can (and do) eat it day and night, but we miss the diversity of Peruvian, Mexican, Lebanese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indian available in most great cities. Certainly some are available in Roma. We’ve tried Thai in Roma and just was not comparable to anything we get in the U.S., although there is an excellent Lebanese place. On our recent trip through Switzerland, we managed to find excellent Mexican, Vietnamese, and Indian food. Oh, yeah, we had Italian, too. 
It is also challenging to find certain ingredients. I have been seeking fresh cilantro for 4 years. No dice. 
Understanding what is going on around me most of the time
How wondrous it would be to not only understand the words but also most of the pop culture references. Italian journalistic style takes some getting used to. Reading the paper is a chore for me, and I can understand the TV news only if I sit and watch it, completely focused, so I don’t. 
Family and friends and easy visits
Seeing family means an awfully big trip for one of us. We have American friends in Roma, but it is a transient community. In fact, our closest friends of the last two years are leaving this summer. 
Pedestrian-friendly sidewalks
Walking down the sidewalk is a full-body-contact sport in Roma. In the U.S. sidewalks are wide and level.  In the U.S. foot traffic moves more smoothly because there are norms. People in most cities, whether Paris or Portland, stay right or move over well in advance of any possible impact. In Roma, five people walking together expect to walk abreast of one another regardless of oncoming traffic. They gather in large groups in the middle of the sidewalk blocking passage while carrying on a conversation. People barge out of shop doors without glancing left or right. Add the bancarelli (sidewalk vendors) and cars parked on the sidewalks, and you get the picture: There’s little space left for pedestrians. 


A classic example of Roman parking: across the sidewalk, on a pedestrian crossing, in a school zone. I'm sure s/he was only going to be a couple of minutes...

A classic example of Roman parking: across the sidewalk, on a pedestrian crossing, in a school zone. I’m sure s/he was only going to be a couple of minutes…

This is our street. We live in the orangey-pink building on the left. Note the tow-away zone yet cars parked half-on-half-off the sidewalk. There is a sticker on the sign right below the arrow that says "Capito?" Ha! Never, ever do they enforce the parking law here.

This is our street. We live in the orangey-pink building on the left. Note the tow-away zone yet cars parked half-on-half-off the sidewalk. There is a sticker on the sign right below the arrow that says “Capito?” Ha! Never, ever do they enforce the parking law here.


Things working and making sense
  • Buses have no schedule because the traffic is heavy and double-parking is so rampant that the bus cannot keep to a schedule. AND the bus drivers are willy-nilly about departures from the top-of-the-route, so often 2 or 3 buses on the same line are within 5 or 10 minutes of one another and then there will be no bus for 45 minutes. WTF? Funny how in Paris you can set your watch to the bus. In Paris, the parking laws are enforced. How novel.  
  • Websites with an “events” page last updated in 2013
  • Stores that close for the afternoon just about when you have time to actually go shopping, and Post Office hours that are 8:35 to 13:05.
  • Parking in the pedestrian crossings, or on sidewalks, or anywhere the driver damn well feels like it. Arrrggghhhhh!
  • Needing to pay the cable company when we disconnect service. Yup, it costs €200 to disconnect and 60 days notice to do so. We might just test this program by not following the rules….
We recently took a cab home from Stazione Termini and the driver was incredulous that we choose to live in Roma. “Why?” he asked. “America is great. Everything works! Italy is a third-world country!” Even Italians know things don’t work here as well as in the U.S.
Talbots, Zappos, & Nordstrom
I miss my favorite stores and online shopping. We have (not good for clothes), and Lands End U.K. (which is good for clothes). I hate going from one tiny store to another looking for something. 
Going out to breakfast now-and-then
Real American smoked bacon is missing from my life. Along with fluffy omelets and breakfast potatoes. I don’t need them often, but more often than twice in four years would be great. 
Reading the Sunday paper (You still have them, right?)
Still we are privileged to live here. In May, we celebrated four years in Rome. Il tempo vola! My grievances are so-called First World Problems. The food in Italy is terrific, the coffee unbeatable, and the wine both excellent and inexpensive. After a recent 7-night stay in Switzerland where we practically had to sell our blood to afford wine, Italy looks mighty affordable. Our rent is less than we’d pay in Portland and we have trains
We do miss you, though, America! Baci to our friends and family. 




24 Oct

Thanks to our overseas move, I’ve spent more time in medical offices in 2012 than I did in the ten years prior.  Dental, optical, general medical: you name it I had it checked. None of it because I was ill, mind you. I had hoped the appointments would end when we arrived, but a minor problem had me heading to a specialist in August. Luckily the Embassy refers us to English-speaking physicians so language is not a barrier. But there are surprising differences in our systems.

In Italy, staff is limited. The doctor met with me alone. Completely alone. There was no one else present, primarily I assumed because it was the end of the Ferragosto holiday period, but the experiences of friends – and one appointment Ric had – point to a trend: There is not a lot of support staff. One American doctor who is familiar with the situation here told me “they can’t afford a lot of extra people in the practice.” Still, there are not many American physicians who would treat a woman alone in his office, no one else even in shouting distance. There would be fear of allegations of inappropriate behavior. Maybe that happens here, too, but it doesn’t seem to paralyze. It certainly did not bother me.

It’s all about conversation. There were no forms to fill out or extraneous medical history. Just info pertinent to the problem at hand. Maybe that was because I was referred in and a foreigner.  (As an aside, I can’t even buy coffee at the Nespresso Store without having given my codice fiscale — sort of like a social security number or Tax ID — and it is not uncommon to be asked your date of birth as a form of ID, almost as nonchalantly as asking for a cell phone number.) The doctor simply engaged me in conversation: What is your problem and why are you here? What’s the family history? OK, let’s take a look.

Doctors do their own billing. Again confirmed by an Italian friend: yup, it’s routine if they want to get paid. I suppose this pertains only to private patients that are not on national healthcare, but imagine my surprise when I received an email from the doctor, at 8:00PM that same night, with a full report and bill.  (In a future post I’ll tell you about bill payment and banking. Another cultural shift.)  As if to prove it is not an anomaly, when Ric had a medical visit the doctor hand wrote an invoice and gave it to him. We were surrounded by fascinating and state-of-the-art healthcare and diagnostic technology, but the bill is written out long hand. It probably took less time to do it by hand than to submit the details to a billing department that would spew out an invoice. And neither Ric’s appointment nor mine cost nearly what one might expect from a specialist. Low-overhead = Sensible bills? Could be.

Doctors spend time with you.  Kaiser Permanente docs seem to have 15-minute increments for patient care. My doctor must have spent 75 minutes with me, not only on the medical issue at hand, but just talking: His vacation, my vacation, summer in Rome, working in an embassy, his time in Texas. It was nice. And he personally answered several emails.  The guy is a world-class vascular surgeon and he’s answering emails about my minor issue. No advice nurse, no middleperson, no gatekeeper receptionist. He even made my surgical appointment personally. (Although I did have a challenging moment in language use when I spoke to the hospital billing office. I always love it when they say my Italian is better than their English. That means their English is really limited. )

Doctors answer their own phones. Ric was given a phone number – turned out to be a cell phone – by the Embassy doc and called for an appointment. The specialist answered his own phone, made his own appointment, and when we arrived we found this excellent specialist in a one-man office. Very simple, very hands on, and (we think) very effective. There is no diluting the doctor-patient conversation. Need an ECG or an Echocardiogram? The doctor will do it.  No technician, no nurse, no waiting.

Patients have a greater degree of personal responsibility. Need lab tests? There’s a lab up the street. Send the doctor the results when you get them.  This means in all likelihood you will go for the lab test then have to go back in two days to get the results, scan them and email them to the doctor.

So no charming pictures of quaint villages this post. Just an observation of unique – not bad – cultural differences. Interestingly Italy is known for having the 2nd best health care system in the world (France is first). The U.S. is #37, but we spend more.  I’m sure some of the reason for the high-ranking is due to access to national healthcare, but they spend less than we do in the U.S., and rank higher. There’s no lack of knowledge or technology; these are good doctors with all the resources and expertise one would expect. But the story is not over. On Thursday I will have un piccolo intervento chirurgico (minor surgery). I’m sure I will have more stories.

OK you made it through an all text post. Here’s a beauty shot bonus. I can walk by this every weekend. SIGH.

Nobody does it better: Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza Navona.

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