America is a great place to live, there’s no arguing that. I just hope we’re able to realize we’re already great, and hold onto the things that make us so. We are, after all, the new Rome.In my work, I meet people that travel to different parts of the world for their jobs. After they describe their experiences, nearly everyone finishes off by declaring The United States is still the best place to live. I can’t help but follow up with asking why? Their responses typically include citing taxes, the cleanliness of streets, that foreigners are lazy and of course, food. Nothing beyond superficial observation. I’ve never once heard anyone say that our politicians are honest while foreigners are not. Or that we are safer than other countries who are plagued with terrorism, because we are not. I’ve never heard anyone give me a truly convincing answer why the U.S. is “better.” What we mean when we say that we are “better” is that America is home, it is familiar and comfortable. And that when we are faced with an external threat we set aside our neighborhood loyalties for the namesake of our global phylum.
It was astounding to me, though maybe it shouldn’t have been, how well everyone in Rome spoke english. A family friend from Spain assured me that it was that way across Europe, English is the universal language. She doesn’t speak German, she said, but she can communicate because she can always find someone that knows English. Contrary to popular belief, that has more to do with the history and influence of Great Britain than it does the U.S. I was grateful for the fact I never had to struggle with a language barrier but at the same time I felt a little guilty for it. We were guests in another country, and yet, no one was shouting at us to “press 2 for English.” Even the shop owners we met who didn’t know much English, were happy to navigate around the words we knew respectively to work toward our mutual goal.
I did my best to express my gratitude for the patience shown to us when we had no idea what we were reading on labels in a deli. You may think you know the difference between cold cuts by looking at them, but have you ever tried to pick them out without reading the card first? And I wondered if this same kind of patience is shown to guests in the U.S. Surely in heavily traveled cities like New York this happens more than at the Steak ‘N’ Shake in Plainfield. But what would happen if a bus full of tourists wanting to taste Indiana wine at Chateau Thomas Winery rolled in for an early lunch? Would the patrons of the restaurant stare at the foreign oddities and mock them for coming to America without first learning the language? Is being able to order off the menu without guessing, a check-mark in what makes America great?
The excitement of the holiday season in Italy was only slightly overshadowed by the military soldiers standing outside landmarks in roped off areas, holding semi-automatic rifles next to their trucks, parked facing outward in case they needed to spring into action. It didn’t stop me from standing and gawking at the Pantheon. I could barely see the soldiers in my peripheral vision, but I knew they were there. They were actually everywhere. Stationed in piazzas, outside landmarks and in popular shopping districts. Groups of police, four or five officers at a time, patrolled the streets and though I didn’t know what they typically wore, it seemed like they had a little more armor on than usual.
Maybe it’s just that I don’t live in a large metro area and so am unfamiliar with “big city livin’.” But, I do travel to a lot of large urban areas, through several different airports, and have in fact lived in a couple of major cities in my life. So I think I’m on the up and up when it comes to what security in America looks like on a regular basis. Is the fact there are not soldiers patrolling the streets regularly something that makes this a wonderful country to live in? After all, we do have more mass shootings than any western country. We might be shielded from foreign threats, but what about domestic?
It must be the quality of our air, and the cleanliness of our streets and sidewalks that makes a difference. I was the first one to say it there, and I’ll be the first one to tell you now, Rome is a dirty city. With the exception of the shopping districts, litter is everywhere. Cigarette butts, flyers, broken bottles and dog feces are just the beginning of the list of things you can find on any sidewalk. Does that mean the people are more dirty, or more disrespectful of their home than Americans are? I don’t really think so. The streets aren’t built for cars, and so they’re crowded with foot traffic, cars, mopeds and dumpsters. Not because they’re intentionally trying to be filthy, but because there is nowhere else to put them. The litter is so bad, and the city so underfunded, services we take for granted in the States, like street-sweepers, are hard to come by. Instead, homeless people sweep the streets in the morning, then ask for tips from patrons for cleaning the city.
It must be the quality of our air, and the cleanliness of our streets and sidewalks that makes a difference. I was the first one to say it there, and I’ll be the first one to tell you now, Rome is a dirty city.
Orvieto, a small village we visited to the north of Rome, wasn’t dirty at all. There also weren’t any cars squeezed into alleyways and plenty of green space. I wouldn’t describe Greencastle or Brazil as dirty, but there is litter to be found. Indianapolis, on the other hand, has some pretty dirty areas. Ever been to east St. Louis, the southside of Chicago or Detroit? What is it that makes “dirty” a better word to describe a foreign city that has existed for nearly 3,000 years than any city in America, the oldest of which is what, 500 years?
Italy’s economy is the second worst in the European Union, just before Greece. It’s “underlying problems, which include low productivity, too few big corporations, sky-high public debt, a fragmented banking system limited competition, slow civil justice and underfunded, underperforming universities, were all handicaps before.” While it is on a slow rise, it is still a rise. The country’s largest hangup is its politics. Something which we don’t have to worry about, certainly. The best hope for Italy is in May, when elections might produce a more unified government capable of sustaining itself through what will undoubtedly be a period of harsh decision-making. Experts aren’t so hopeful.
The leading parties in Italy are plagued by old dogmas and have become susceptible to the rise of new organizations. Due to their unwillingness to compromise, groups like the Five Star Movement and the Forza Italia party have become influential minorities within the government. Much the same way the Tea Party and Libertarians have emerged in American politics. The platforms of these parties compared to what we have seen in the last decade in the United States is uncanny. So much so that the infighting is causing a fissure that is allowing the neo-fascist group, CasaPound, to leach into the system. But that’s Italy, not the U.S. We don’t have anything in common with them, right?
Ultimately, the Roman Empire fell because it shifted away from a culture of tolerance and into monotheism. A pillar of its initial success was the Empire’s ability to absorb other cultures without dismantling their belief structure. When Constantine converted the whole of Rome’s territories to Christianity, he single-handedly knocked out a key part of the Empire’s foundation. The vastness of Rome’s reach was so great it could no longer afford to maintain its borders. Military spending consumed most of its resources, which stymied its infrastructure and technological advancement. Amateur politicians and warhawks took over the daily decision making. The Praetorian Guard fell to corruption, taking bribes from large trading merchants and selling the Emperor’s seat to the highest bidder. The Huns grew as a world power in the northeastern part of Europe, forcing Germanic tribes inside the borders of Rome as refugees from the invading forces. The Romans brutalized the newcomers, creating a hostile population within its own territories that led to revolt. Economic disparity created by “east versus west” trading policies drove prices for goods sky high. Reliant on importing, rather than exporting its products, the western half of the empire’s financial strength collapsed. Mercenary forces were hired to fight in the military because there was no one left to recruit from the citizenry into the Roman legions. Overcome with a long train of abuses and usurpations, Rome succumbed to its own too big to fail mentality.
That was ancient Rome, and I’m certain we’ve learned from history, and put safety measures in place to prevent such a collapse of a society. Surely we’ve learned something in the last few thousand years about human nature. In the coming months I will be thinking about the conversation we had with our new friend and restaurant owner, Gigi. A man who is only trying to make a life for he and his family. He and so many other people, in so many other countries, in so many parts of the world.
America is a great place to live, there’s no arguing that. I just hope we’re able to realize we’re already great, and hold onto the things that make us so. We are, after all, the new Rome.