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The Promise Of America’s Young People. A View From Rome

(Bert Kaufmann/Flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
(Bert Kaufmann/Flickr)

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Our Italian landlady, who I'll call Adriana, dropped by this week to the apartment she owns and that we have rented in Trastevere, a neighborhood in Rome. Ostensibly, she was straightening up the mess we’d made of our television reception by pressing too many wrong buttons. But her eagerness to offer technical help was half pretense. I’m quite sure she came to talk with us about the protests. She knew we’d attended a demonstration near the American Embassy supporting the March For Our Lives and voter registration — and she was thrilled.

We told her about the young people with connections to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL who spoke, and her eyes filled with tears. Everyone she knew had been talking about the demonstrations in American cities. Sunday, she’d seen little else on Italian social media. Maybe, she suggested, the young people could help America restore itself.

Listening to Adriana reminded me that one of the saddest aspects of our current administration is how poorly its saber rattlers seem to grasp America’s actual place in the world. Meanwhile, anyone who travels outside the United States, looks around, and listens even a little, can quickly see for themselves that our nation’s outsized place is appreciated. There’s no need to “make America great again,” there’s only a wish -- an urgent one -- for the United States to act steadily and thoughtfully.

Adriana worked for 25 years as an airline stewardess for Alitalia. She’d traveled the globe: Asia, South America, the United States, Africa, Europe -– many places. She learned from her voyages, she told us haltingly, that we are one world, that we need peace.

Since America possesses so many resources, she wanted us to lead the world forward. But she was troubled by how badly we were falling short, not only internationally, but domestically. “Your country is killing its own people,” she implored, her eyes still teary. I thought she meant guns again, but no. “Your big companies, they have too much influence. They are killing your children. Your government isn’t stopping them.”

I couldn’t quite follow. She elaborated, “I was watching a movie about Woodstock. Fifty years ago, and no one at the concert was fat. Now your whole country is filled with too big people,” she said in her heavily accented English. “They are fat because they eat ‘shit’ --  no one stops your corporations from selling terrible food that is killing them.”

Her angle was new to me and at first puzzling in its intensity. Later, I realized she was trying to link the way children are killed by guns with the larger indifference of our government to its citizens’ well-being -- especially in the face of corporate lobbying. She was suggesting that the U.S. government was owned by private interests and thus failing to protect and take care of its people in important ways.

She hoped with all her heart that our children could bring our nation to its senses.

From her tears, I understood that she wasn’t speaking from any sense of superiority. Italians right now are terribly distressed by their own political situation. Their last election is still unresolved, there’s a resurgence of right wing extremists, high youth unemployment, inadequate services for refugees, and far too much corruption. But she wanted us to appreciate — as Europeans of her age still do — the horror of power when it runs amok, and to stand for something better. Instead, the U.S. has allowed private citizens to stockpile military weapons, while some advocate arming teachers and our president casually threatens to start a nuclear war.

Adriana gave me a huge hug before she left the apartment. We'd become part of her passionate wish that America would regain its sanity; that it would recognize how much the rest of the world needs it to have the courage to face the future.

She hoped with all her heart that our children could bring our nation to its senses.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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