A Foreign Perspective
It’s a tad cliché to talk about taking things for granted, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Sometimes you have to be reminded of beauty around you. In all its forms.
When I was last in Italy, M had often chuckled at me when I marveled at, well, everything. Sights, sounds, flavors, customs. To him, it was just everyday life. (Apparently, even a third visit to a country can still surprise you in many ways.) When he came out to California, it was my turn to find amusement. He marveled at the Italian influence all around us. “The founders are definitely of Italian origin…. This is authentic mozzarella – from Italy! …Wow, why is there a [condominium named] Terracina here?” He marveled at the American take on Italian food: “I tried Fettucine Alfredo* for the first time today…I liked it!” He marveled at the well-maintained freeways: “In Italy, the money would go inside the politicians’ pockets and there would just be holes in the road.”
But amid the amusement, I also got to see my habitat from an outsider’s perspective. I’m not saying what was old to me was made new again, but I was reminded a little of what I take for granted. For instance, there’s such a diverse mix of ethnicities here that minorities are the growing majority. Which means anywhere you turn, you hear another language spoken. Any block you walk down presents a different cuisine – and the food is frequently either really good, or really authentic, or both. I forget this, sometimes, until I visit another city where diversity is much less prominent, or when I dine at a restaurant that the locals recommend…where I maybe can’t help but think that the food is better/fresher/more inspired in the [San Francisco] bay. (Sometimes, this leads me to wonder if I’ve become a bit of a food snob. Sometimes.)
Local flavor aside, the weather here is fairly temperate. It’s not as scorching as Las Vegas, it doesn’t snow like in Boston, and it’s not hit with hurricanes like Miami might be. Having such lovely weather was conducive to touring my tourist around the bay, from quaint and coastal Carmel to eclectic San Francisco. I’ve always been adventurous when it comes to new restaurants and experiences; it’s doubly fun when not only am I seeing/tasting/doing/visiting somewhere new in my native state, but also getting a live play-by-play of the same experience from the perspective of an out-of-towner and a non-American.
By entertaining and being entertained by a tourist, I remembered how cool a city San Francisco is, with that vibe all its own. As we drove down the 1 to San Simeon, I re-evaluated my view of the Pacific Coast highway every time he marveled at the vista. I got more excited driving through Santa Barbara than when I actually studied there. I finally walked along the Hollywood Walk of Fame in L.A., head down, looking for recognizable names…despite having lived in California over a decade and having lived in the Greater Los Angeles area for a year. Despite long-ago declaring that I’d had my fill of Las Vegas, I’d agreed to pay it another visit, and will admit it was still entertaining.
Yup, we did a little road trip. And it amazed me that M has a knack for finding other traveling Italians. In most of the cities we went to, we somehow ended up befriending them. At that point, he’d been in the U.S. nearly two months and it was comforting for him to encounter fellow countrymen, finding relief speaking in his native tongue without restraint. At this point, he confessed he finally understood what I’d felt in Rome when I’d said: “I forgot how easy it is to speak English!” When I said this, I probably hadn’t spoken to another native English speaker for weeks. I still recall that odd, familiar, liberating feeling when I was suddenly able to express myself easily and quickly, without being constrained by my limited Italian vocabulary and those pesky verb conjugations.
I could ramble on, but you get the idea. Yes, it’s a tad cliché to talk about taking things for granted, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Sometimes you have to be reminded of the beauty and novelty all around you. And in that reminder, you see that where you are isn’t all that bad
*While Fettuccine is, in fact, a type of pasta, Italians often scratch their heads at the mention of “Alfredo sauce.” To be fair, it’s akin to burro e Parmigiano (butter and cheese), which is very Italian. It’s just funny to think that something so commonly thought of as “Italian” in America isn’t actually a dish commonly though of as “Italian” in Italy!
It’s like the Cioppino story: A yummy “Italian” fish stew originated in San Francisco – not Italy. Relatedly, if you order a pepperoni pizza in Italy, you’ll likely get bell peppers instead of salami (perhaps after getting a strange look from your server) because peperoni, in Italian, are bell peppers.