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Pomp, Circumstance, and Darn Good Canapés

I had been wallowing in a blue-stay-in-your-bathrobe-all-day-and-eat-frosted-flakes-directly-out-of-the-box-for-dinner-writer’s-block-funk (you all know what delicate temperaments we literary types have) for the past few weeks, but got summarily booted out of it this morning after receiving a wonderfully funny and generous email complimenting me on Rebecca’s View. Inspired, buoyed, (guilt-ridden), I sat right down and thumped another one out. So this is dedicated to Sheila L., and all the other kind folks who have enjoyed reading what I have to say and have taken the time to let me know over the past few months. I do it for you. And for that fat check that Pauline sends me every week.

I got a letter from the United States Ambassador to Italy the other day.

Now I know that what I am about to reveal may cause shock and consternation amongst my readers, but the sad truth is, despite my carefully cultivated image of jet-set refinement, cutting edge culture, and general Glamour Queenliness, I rarely get personal mail from Popes, monarchs, presidents or even diplomats. So it was not without a slight frisson of excitement and trembling hand that I opened my embossed envelope. (After a quick reality check. This can’t have anything to do with my taxes, right? No. Okay.)

Inside I discovered an invitation to a cocktail reception at Villa Taverna, the US Ambassador’s residence in Rome. My initial reaction was one I assume most people would share in similar circumstances, “My God,” I thought, “How did they know my address? The CIA must have a file on me.” Upon closer examination of my invitation I found that the reception was being held in honor of the president of the university I attended as an undergraduate. The realization slowly dawned that I had been tracked down by force far more insidious, omniscient, nefarious even, than Central Intelligence. Alumni Fundraising.

But heck, invites including a long, detailed explanation of how to pass the security check in your chauffeur driven car don’t come along every day. Strangely, no instructions on how to get to the place by city bus, which had been my plan until my train to Rome got there so late that I had to break down and grab a cab. When I told the driver my address, he went about ten meters before slamming on the brakes and turning to face me. “That can’t be right, lady,” he said. I asked him why, and he told me that I had recited the address of Villa Taverna. “Exactly,” I said. “Well, that’s the US Ambassador’s residence!” I told him I was an invited guest, at which point he gave me a long up and down and kind of grimaced. In that split second I was reminded of one of the great truths of Italy. Even displaced elderly Sicilian cabbies in Rome who pick you up in the pitch black outside the Termini train station know when you are underdressed for State functions. Unfortunately, I also told him that I was running extremely late, which meant that he managed to gun it across the city in a manner which had me making a mental note to check on my life insurance policy benefits when I got home (and I am no pansy driver myself) while never taking his eyes off me in his rearview mirror. I was apparently the closest thing he had had to a VIP fare in the past twenty years.

To make a long story short, I decided to attend (to much eye rolling on the part of my husband – he was just jealous because his name wasn’t on the invitation). The hook was not meeting the current university president, who wasn’t even at the university when I was there. Had he been, I quite seriously doubt I would have been invited to honor him in Rome, as the few times I ever met his predecessor it was usually while doing things like chaining myself to his office door in an attempt (vain, as it turned out) to persuade the university to divest from South Africa. You know, symbolic gestures which tend to keep you off subsequent cocktail party guest lists for quite awhile. The hook was not even the Ambassador who, as a personal friend of Bushes (father and son), prominent Republican Party activist, and shopping center real estate development magnate, effectively embodies all I abhor. The real hook was the chance to glimpse into Villa Taverna, a beautiful historic residence once owned by the Catholic Church surrounded by the largest private park (something like four hectares) in Rome, a swimming pool built for JFK’s visit in the 60’s, a movie theatre donated by the American Picture Academy, and lots and lots of security people.

It was lovely. The residence is beautiful, the gardens are enormous (though it was quite dark, so I didn’t get to see much of them), the butlers have the US seal engraved on the buttons of their jackets. It was also strange. It has been a long time since I have been to an all-American social function (the SlowTrav GTG this summer doesn’t count, because no one inspected my person for weapons) and I forgot how gosh-darn friendly most Americans are.

Not that Umbrians are not friendly folks. They are largely kind, good hearted people. They are also extremely reserved and reticent at first meeting. A roomful of Umbrians in a social setting will spend the entire evening speaking to their spouses, or, in a pinch, people they have known since grade school. I don’t think that in ten years in Umbria I have ever had an Umbrian walk up to me and introduce himself cold. The few times I have done so have been near disasters. Remember when Michelle Pfieffer crosses the room to talk to Daniel Day-Lewis in Age of Innocence and the scandal it caused? Well, it’s kind of like that. Luckily, as a foreigner I am excused myriad quirks, like actually showing up to pick up my photos after thirty minutes at the half-hour photo developing place.

I often dog my husband about this in the car driving home from yet another party where I spend the evening talking to him, his friends from the third grade, and their wives. “Why, why?” I wail. “Why does no one want to meet anyone new here? Why don’t you want to make friends?” He looks at me quizzically and invariably answers, “Well, because I already have friends. I don’t need any more.” Dynamic guy.

On the other hand, get a roomful of American strangers together for an evening, and the shaky common ground of a shared alma mater becomes the instant foundations of lightning fast hand-pumping, name memorization, and business card exchanging all round. It was almost too much for me. I must have introduced myself to a hundred people in the space of an hour. It was kind of funny, really. Each guest, to a person, held out their hand and regretfully admitted that their Italian was not that good. To which I replied that neither is mine; I am American. “Oh, but you look so Italian!” they all said. Now, I can hardly show my face in an Italian shop without the proprietor immediately excusing his English or, even more often, addressing me in passable German. No Italian mistakes me for a countrywoman.

Americans can also be disarmingly informal. In Italy, you generally know who the important people are, even if you don’t know who they are. There is a certain aura of power which surrounds them, even if their origins are as humble as, well, Berlusconi’s. And the Umbrians, especially in the area where I live around Assisi and Perugia, are extremely formally mannered people. I have know people for years here socially, and we still give each other the Lei, which is a formal, third person address. I have girlfriends who give their mother-in-laws the Lei. That is equivalent to the Victorian practice of spouses calling each other Mr. and Mrs. Smith in bed.

Imagine my surprise to find that the man who had grabbed my hand, shook it hard, introduced himself as “Mel Sembler” and quickly segued into a long discourse on the merits of Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign work, turned out to be the Ambassador. To be honest, I was kind of disappointed in our diplomatic representative to Italy. I had envisioned a Kofi Annan sort of figure, and instead found a man who, as a response to my question regarding his diplomatic career before Italy, proudly boomed, “Hey, I’m no diplomat! I’m a businessman!” Oh, dear.

I also discovered that I was making small talk with the current university president only after my answer to his question, “Did you enjoy your years as an undergraduate at the university?” (I replied that my memories of those years had grown especially fond once I had paid off my student loans) was greeted with an uncomfortable pause. Until the president’s wife came to my rescue with her raucous barking laugh, grabbed my elbow, and gave me a little squeeze, which signaled to the rest of the group that a little bit of edgy sarcasm was acceptable. Bless her.

I was then saved again by the ambassador’s wife, who broke the long embarrassed silence which followed her husband inquiring as to what I do (apparently running a service sector business rather than paving over acres of perfectly good farm and wood land, over lighting it so much that it can be seen from space, and plonking down a Discount Warehouse which runs the local small business owners into the ground by illegally employing desperate immigrant workers who mop for five bucks a day under the table is not something one admits to while sipping sparkling water at the Ambassador’s residence) by asking me a series of sincere questions regarding my business, feigning real interest in the answers, and finishing the conversation by asking for a business card. Right. Like the Ambassador and his wife are going to bed down on the farm the next time they come through town with their security entourage. But I appreciated the effort. Now she, my friends, was a real diplomat.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, I didn’t have any cards with me because, in anticipation of a security inspection on my purse, I had done a last minute switch to the only bag I own which did not smell of peanut butter crackers and contain a small fleet of Hot Wheels, two sippy cups, emergency wipes, and the latest in Teletubby literature. It also did not contain any business cards.

As soon as the speeches started, I slowly backed my way out of the room and started opening random doors on the first floor. I didn’t have the balls to go upstairs. I figured someone was bound to be watching on a security camera somewhere and would get around to arresting me sooner or later. I discovered a series of lovely rooms downstairs, full of donated art (some of it atrocious, to be honest) and valuable antiques. The only time the building has been vacated by the Americans since the early thirties when it was bought by the US government was during the second world war. The withdrawing Americans entrusted the estate to the Knights of Malta, who converted it to a hospital for the duration of the war, and painted a large red cross on the roof to deter bombing by Allied and Axis forces. The US reclaimed it after the war in perfect condition.

There was also a large collection of Republican knick-knacks about (framed letters signed by Reagan, for example) which got me thinking. There must be two storage rooms somewhere on the compound, one which contains the Republican relics and one the Democratic. That way when the administration switches over, the Reagan correspondence gets boxed up and the snapshots of Carter trotted out. It’s just kind of amusing, when you consider it.

I stumbled upon the dining room at a certain point, set for about twenty who were apparently staying to dinner. My husband had expressed surprise at an invitation to a cocktail party at the strange hour of 6:30 to 8:00. I told him that it wasn’t that the party ended at eight, it was that I wasn’t important enough to be asked to stick around to eat.

The thought crossed my mind that if I were Nikita, I would have a vial of poison hidden in the heel of my boot and would summarily dispose of quite a few members of the higher diplomatic corps in one fell swoop. As it were, I took a quick gander at the menu and china (with US seal, what else?) before being politely directed to the ladies room by a mirrored sunglasses clad gentleman who appeared out of nowhere.

All in all, an experience that I will certainly bore my great grandchildren with its recounting 60 years from now. As I got back on the train home (at 8:10, at the exact moment that the real VIPs were sitting down to smoked duck breast antipasto), I did the unimaginable. I called my husband on my cell phone, and quickly brought all movement in the rows of seats surrounding me to a standstill by loudly beginning to recount my evening at the US Ambassador’s residence.

Tragically, my glory was short-lived, as my husband cut me off laughing, “Quit bragging to the rest of the people on the train, you loser. You can tell me when you get home.” And then he hung up on me.

The man apparently doesn’t know that I am now a personal friend of Mel Sembler’s.

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