Beppe Severgnini
Beppe Severgnini
Ciao America!  An Italian Discovers the U.S.
ISBN: 0767912357
Ciao America! An Italian Discovers the U.S.
In the wry but affectionate tradition of Bill Bryson, Ciao, America! is a delightful look at America through the eyes of a fiercely funny guest one of Italy’s favorite authors who spent a year in Washington, D.C.

When Beppe Severgnini and his wife rented a creaky house in Georgetown they were determined to see if they could adapt to a full four seasons in a country obsessed with ice cubes, air-conditioning, recliner chairs, and, of all things, after-dinner cappuccinos. From their first encounters with cryptic rental listings to their back-to-Europe yard sale twelve months later, Beppe explores this foreign land with the self-described patience of a mildly inappropriate beachcomber, holding up a mirror to America’s signature manners and mores. Succumbing to his surroundings day by day, he and his wife find themselves developing a taste for Klondike bars and Samuel Adams beer, and even that most peculiar of American institutions -- the pancake house.

The realtor who waves a perfect bye-bye, the overzealous mattress salesman who bounces from bed to bed, and the plumber named Marx who deals in illegally powerful showerheads are just a few of the better-than-fiction characters the Severgninis encounter while foraging for clues to the real America. A trip to the computer store proves just as revealing as D.C.’s Fourth of July celebration, as do boisterous waiters angling for tips and no-parking signs crammed with a dozen lines of fine print.

By the end of his visit, Severgnini has come to grips with life in these United States -- and written a charming, laugh-out-loud tribute.

Ciao, America! reads like Alexis de Tocqueville reincarnated with a sense of humor. Beppe Severgnini is not only wickedly witty, he is an astute and intelligent observer of the American way of life. A wonderful and uplifting book.
—from the publisher's website

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TRANSCRIPT
Ciao America! An Italian Discovers the U.S.
Program Air Date: July 28, 2002

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Beppe Severgnini, author of "Ciao, America!" how do you translate that from Italian?
BEPPE SEVERGNINI, AUTHOR, "CIAO, AMERICA! AN ITALIAN DISCOVERS THE U.S.": Originally, it was "Un Italiano in America," which -- "An Italian in America." But I have to say, I like "Ciao, America!" better. "Italian in America," you know, you may think it's a story about immigration or -- which is not. It's a story about an Italian or, may I say, a European, because this is very much a triangular book. It is a very British element there. I lived in Britain. I learned my English there. And so it's like a north European, south European American book.
LAMB: What's "ciao" mean?
SEVERGNINI:Oh, you know that. "Ciao" means "Hello."
LAMB: And the name Beppe?
SEVERGNINI:Short for Giuseppe. It's like Bob and Robert.
LAMB: And Severgnini -- what part of Italy does that name come from?
SEVERGNINI:Northern Italy. It comes from a little town called Crema, which is 35,000 people, 30 miles from Milan, southeast of Milan, in Lombardy. It's where all my family comes from, and I still live there. I travel. I lived in -- of course, in this country, in this town. I lived in Moscow. I lived in London and Brussels. But back home.
LAMB: What do you do for a living full-time?
SEVERGNINI:That's a good question. I'm a journalist. I used to be, like, a staff journalist, and I've been a foreign correspondent. Then I write books, and I have my own television program in Italy for Italian television, and I do some radio. So it's -- it's not unusual, what I do, for America. Someone in America -- I know people that, you know, have similar jobs, in a way. You know, for instance, Mike Kinsley, you know? He's been with "The Economist" -- to "The Economist," as I have. I write for "The Economist," by the way. I mean, I've been the Italian correspondent for six years. I still am.

In America, my professional position, it wouldn't be unusual. It is a little unusual in Italy. The columnist -- that's what I am -- is not in Italian. It can hardly be translated into Italian sort of job market.
LAMB: What's this book about?
SEVERGNINI:Your country.
LAMB: Where'd you get the idea?
SEVERGNINI:Here. I decided that I learn -- when I arrived to live here, I read so many books about this country, but nobody told me the many surprises that daily life had in store for me. And I think that's -- I decided that, really, there was -- there was a niche and a need, if I may, for a book that would explain how America works, what makes America tick, the way you drink, eat, buy. And there wasn't such a book.

And the book in Italy went tremendously well -- but really, tremendously well. It is the classic book. Italians coming to work in Washington for the World Bank or -- or to -- you know, to live here, get married here, you name it, is -- you know, they all know about the book. Many have that book in the Italian version because it helps them to understand America. And now I do hope sincerely that it will be useful for Americans to understand not their country -- they know it -- but maybe to find a new angle, to look at your own daily thing with new eyes. I'll be very proud.
LAMB: When I read your book, one of the first times I noticed that it wasn't a book written last year was when you had Strom Thurmond at 92 years old, and he's now 99. So this book was originally done in '95. Why is it now just being published in the United States, 2002?
SEVERGNINI:You want an honest answer? Because you sell books all over the world. You don't buy very many. And it's very, very unusual for an Italian author to be sitting here at C-Span answering your question with an American book. I'm very proud. Maybe because many foreigners cannot come talk to you because they -- their English is not -- but because America -- and that's one -- a little criticism.

I'm a great friend of America. I like America. You cannot write a book like this if you don't like a country. I wrote a similar book, slightly different, but about Britain 10 years ago, and it worked very well in Britain, as well, because I like Britain and America. They're two countries that I really know. I know the language. I live there, and so on.

If you try to write such a book about a country that you do not like, that you don't feel affection for, it's a disaster. Everything you say, it's nasty. There is several books. One of them is out now that is a lot of debate about it. And the bottom line is that you sound judgmental. You sound sort of -- sort of carping. It's no good.

I like America. If you like something, you …If a country is your friend -- it's like with your friends. If you have your friends, you can tell them things. You can criticize them. You can take, you know, the mickey out of them. You can tease them. It's OK because it's so obvious that you like them.
LAMB: So why the seven-year delay in publishing here? I mean, what was the dynamic of all of a sudden, somebody said...
SEVERGNINI:Well, as... (CROSSTALK)
SEVERGNINI:You don't buy. It's not easy to sell a book to the American market. Therefore, the book had to be a success, and a real one, in Europe. Then we decided -- it was my publisher, which is Rizzoli, to have a limited edition in English, which was exported here. I was here last year to promote that's little edition, a few thousand copies. "The Washington Post" -- someone saw the book. They loved the book. They wrote a big story. Because of the big story, the book became number 8 overall on Amazon.com, which is, you know, what is this book? No one knows about and Broadway books, so all this stuff. And I say, "We're going to do it." But you see, it's not easy. It was in Italian. Not many American publishers don't have, you know, scores of people that read Italian and judge the book.
LAMB: 1513 34th Street, Georgetown. Your book revolves around that.
SEVERGNINI:Absolutely.
LAMB: Why?
SEVERGNINI:Because I decided America is complicated. And to be in one place, to stay put, to decide here it is, Volte Park, day June 9th. I'm very pleased I'm not in Washington on June 9th because otherwise, I'd be there slaving for some lady living there.
LAMB: Where is this?
SEVERGNINI:Volte Park is like -- is like 100 feet from where I live. I live down there. I love that.
LAMB: And how long did you live there?
SEVERGNINI:Like, 14 months. Here we are. Here we are.
LAMB: Which house is yours?
SEVERGNINI:The white one. The white one. There is a little brass plaque now that says "Un Italiano in America." The new one is a friend. He's -- now he's a friend. He loves the idea of living in literary houses, he says, and he put a little plaque, says, "Un Italiano in America." So he say when my readers go there, and they go there often...
LAMB: Right there.
SEVERGNINI:There it is.
LAMB: On the right there.
SEVERGNINI:Is the golden thing there. When they go there, he doesn't have to tell them, "Yes, this is where Beppe wrote his book. It is the book of Beppe Severgnini." So they know.
LAMB: Georgetown, you say, has 3,000 houses in it?
SEVERGNINI:That's what I heard.
LAMB: And you lived there for how long?
SEVERGNINI:Twelve months.
LAMB: What year was it?
SEVERGNINI:Between '94 and '95. And I updated the book in 2000. I lived there another two weeks and updated the book, and I tried to describe what happened and what changed.
LAMB: So what is it about that part of America that is -- is it unique, by the way? I mean, is it -- is all of America like this area, do you think?
SEVERGNINI:I'm just sorry. I'm just looking. It's "Miracle on 34th Street." That would be a good title because it's a miracle that this book went so well after just one year in living there.

No, to answer your question, yes, I do believe that America inside the Beltway looks very much like America outside the Beltway. I believe there is myth, this idea of Washington being all politics and power and you name it. It is true, but you've got people buying, living, hoping, sending children to school, taking their -- you know, their dogs for a walk, doing a lot of things that are very American. And they do them inside the Beltway, in Georgetown, exactly as they do them in Maine, Kansas or Arizona.
LAMB: How much of the United States have you seen?
SEVERGNINI:A lot. I first came in 1977. I was a 20-years-old young man. Elvis Presley died. I missed the news completely simply because my English was very poor at the time. I traveled coast to coast with a camper and five friends. I came back many times. I would say in the last 10 years, I was back two, three times a year, altogether, like, 30 times and -- but living here was different. The idea was when I moved to the house, I knew America enough to know what I was talking about, but not so well that I would not be surprised. And surprise is the key to a book like this. So it was like a magic moment. That's why I say miracle on 34th Street. It's a magic moment. You know enough. You're not bored. You are still curious. You want to see, look at details. Details are the key to this book.
LAMB: You say that in Britain, the first words that -- or the first word that a child learns is "Please," but the first words that American children learn are, "I'm great."
SEVERGNINI:Yes. I think that's a -- a kind of a writer's way to explain the differences between the two countries. In Britain, there is a kind of quiet attitude to life. Understatement starts from your childhood. Your parents don't really care much for you. If you were a pet, they would. It's -- children are, you know, on their own."We brought you into the world, now you fend for yourself," which is OK. I mean, that's a way to approach things.

America is difficult -- is different. It's -- you want to give your children the right attitude, a positive attitude, you know, a "go and get it" attitude of being, you know, not a loser but a winner and an achiever and all that. And that's why I summed it up, is first words for a British child, "Please," first word for an American child, "I'm the greatest," like Muhammad Ali.
LAMB: Is that a good idea?
SEVERGNINI:I think, to be honest, that something in between would probably be a good idea. You know, yes, give your children the right attitude, to give confidence, basically. But also explain to them that they may lose in life. It's very important. And I take my child to football matches -- by the way, Italy won with Ecuador today. It's a beautiful day.. I -- because I want him to understand that you can lose. Your team can be very good, but you can lose. Losing -- the idea of being -- of understanding -- and I think sometimes there is a little problem there.

Let's be -- an example to explain what I mean. I heard of a test for aptitude, for people as young as 2-and-a-half, 3, to be admitted in nursery schools. Of course, children don't know what they're doing and don't care. But I -- my American friends were in tatters while they were doing this. And I think to -- to put children and their parents, when they're very young, but children through such a stress is probably wrong.
LAMB: How much education do you have?
SEVERGNINI:You mean back in Europe?
LAMB: Yeah.
SEVERGNINI:I have a law degree, and I studied at the university
LAMB: Where'd you study for your law degree?
SEVERGNINI:Pavia University, one of the oldest in Italy, founded in the year 800 -- very old. Very proud of my university.
LAMB: How long did you spend in England?
SEVERGNINI:Five years.
LAMB: What years?
SEVERGNINI:I lived in England between '84 and '88. Then I went back in '93, when I worked -- I was staff at "The Economist." I was seconded there. And then again in England -- I first went to England as a kid, to learn English in 1972. And I was last in London, like, two weeks ago, something. So it's a country that I know well.
LAMB: You say that Americans tell you more about themselves in one hour than the British do in 10 years.
SEVERGNINI:No, I said 20 years. Yes, Americans -- I like -- Americans tend to be open and friendly, I think probably a little less friendly than they used to be. I think what happened on September 11th left a deep scar. It's understandable. You can see that sometimes that fantastic trust in other people and -- it has been sort of eroded somehow. And it's understandable.

Sometimes -- sorry if I don't answer your question immediately. I will go into that in a minute. Sometimes I have the feeling that people back in Europe do not grasp the enormity of what happened. When people tell me and start to talk about it and I'll -- and they say "What happened was terrible, but" -- I just stop and say, "But? No. No but." "But" is one of -- is a European disease at the moment -- "but." No but.

If you understand what happened, you should -- you are Italian? Can you imagine Saint Peter's and the Duomo in Milan full of people being attacked, demolished, and thousands of people die? You lose two symbols of your country and many thousand of your countrymen out of the blue. Or you are British. Can you imagine Wembley Stadium and Saint Paul's Cathedral? You just give them -- and then people realize how hugely -- how huge it is.

America has been so spectacular in film and movies that some -- in some back -- in the back -- or in some recess of the European mind, there is this idea that what happened is not entirely true. They've seen it on television. I don't know how to explain. I should have busloads taken to ground zero. I've been there -- to -- it really happened.

Anyway, to go back to your -- to your -- to your question. Yes, Americans are still very open. They talk to you. And socially, they tend to answer questions, which is a big shock for us. We ask questions, we don't really expect an answer.
LAMB: Why?
SEVERGNINI:Because some questions are not -- you know, your questions need answer. You ask me question. We're here, sitting in front of each other, and I'm supposed to answer your question. If you were an FBI agent, I would answer question for a different reason. But in conversation, cocktail parties, people ask you, you know, questions -- or you ask people a question. "When have you last been to Europe?" And they tell you, and they really tell you.

And they tell you, "You know, I've been to Europe last year," and they tell you what they have done in Europe, how long they've been in Europe, what they eat they like, what they see in Europe. And you're shocked. You say, "Come on. Come on. Hold on. I was not -- it was not a real question." You know, it's a cocktail party. I don't want to eat too many olives. That's why I'm talking. That's what cocktail parties are about. And Americans give you answers. I love that.
LAMB: What's the big difference between being an Italian and an American?
SEVERGNINI:Well, let's stick to conversation, to answer this other question. An Italian answer is -- is a way of -- very often, we answer with another answer -- sorry. We answer a question with another question. A Brit answer with a joke, which is a nice way of not answering questions. A German answer with a little essay. An American answer with an answer.

And to be an Italian, it's tricky because you have to understand all this. And -- but it's OK. I think sometimes we have to learn to be precise -- an appointment, 10:15 means 10:15 -- to give proper answer, to use a lot of numbers and figures, which you love. I mean, America is -- when you put some figures to things, you love that. I can see that. There is a kind of physical pleasure of putting numbers to things. We don't use -- we don't do that as much as you do. We have to learn to do that a little.
LAMB: Italy what, 60 million people?
SEVERGNINI:Yeah.
LAMB: America, 285 million. Do you feel the difference in the size in the countries?
SEVERGNINI:Well, I'm a European, too. I live on a continent where we are a little bit more. I think we are 320 million or something, so -- and we have a cell phone that work all over the place, which is something that somehow -- another miracle. I don't know how we achieved that in Europe. We did. We are a little ahead of America in technology just in that field. That field, teletext, not much else.

So we -- and we have a common currency. We have an era in Europe where we need no passport. So yes, I mean, if I were just Italian, I would probably be kind of sort of in awe and shocked by the size of this country. I'm a European, so I have traveled around Europe a lot. No, I'm not worried.
LAMB: In the book, you talk about going to Dahlgren Chapel on the Georgetown University campus. Catholic?
SEVERGNINI:Yes. Jesuit.
LAMB: Jesuit -- are you a Catholic?
SEVERGNINI:Yes.
LAMB: The reason I bring it up is that -- what's the difference between being an Italian Catholic and an American Catholic? And especially in this period that we're going through here.
SEVERGNINI:I love that question because I've just been -- last Sunday, I've been back to Dahlgren Chapel. I can say that their air-conditioning is not as extreme as it was. I normally would go there dressed like an Eskimo in June or July because it was so cold. And I even took notes yesterday. You didn't know this, so it's a -- I took notes on what changed because how fantastic it was yesterday to go and -- and see they still -- they have a sense of humor. When the -- when -- during the sermon, they have a sense of humor. They use jokes. Unheard of in Italy. People actually are a community. They talk to each other. They hug each other. They tell each other. You know, I was informed by the lady next to me -- that is in the book, but it happened again on Sunday -- you know, why she was there, who she was. When they tell -- you know, think, you know, about pray for your loved ones, and people actually name -- mention names aloud -- you know, Nicholas, George. And then say about your loved one who died, and people say, you know, "My father," "My grandfather." I said my mother. I mean, I like that. I think there is a kind of open approach. And even this horrible scandal happening in this country with the Catholic church -- and I hope the pope is going to be as determined as it seems he wants to be -- they were -- they talked about that at mass. It's not that they don't talk about it in Italy, but -- but there is a kind of a -- some subjects are better not to be brought up on certain occasions. There is an openness which I kind of like.
LAMB: There's -- there's -- in some -- I've read this and, you know, seen it, even, that there's some sense that in Italy, they -- the Catholics don't go to church. And in America, they all go to church. I mean, comparatively speaking.
SEVERGNINI:Well...
LAMB: Any experience like this? Like, on Sunday mornings, the women all go to church and the men are somewhere else.
SEVERGNINI:Well, I live in northern Italy, in a small town. We tend to go to church. And my child, who'd like to go and play soccer, but he comes to church. And so -- but it is true. Young people tend to go less and less. While in America, you can see a young country. That's a real, crucial thing. You can see a young country.

If you look at the way you do things, from -- you know, when you go to war, when you play sports, and when you are inside a church, you can see the enthusiasm of a young country who discovers new things. You can see -- you know, they were singing in Spanish yesterday in that chapel, and there were a lot of mixed couples, like a Latino and an Italian, an Anglo-Saxon, and you name it, and an Asian. You can see America's young. You don't know how young you are. If you're not a European -- you come here, you can see how crisp it is, the way America -- America does many things in a crisp way. That's a key word, crisp, which I like.
LAMB: There are a lot of things you talk about in your book, and I'm going to give you just a bunch to expound on, just go down the list of some of them.
SEVERGNINI:I'll try to be quick.
LAMB: Credit cards...
SEVERGNINI:We'll cover a lot of ground.
LAMB: Credit cards.
SEVERGNINI:A nightmare. They didn't want to give me one. I have no credit history, no debts. I pay my car, Ford Taurus, in cash. Apparently, only Italian tourists and Colombian drug traffickers use cash in this country. They were appalled that I did that. Say, "You have no credit history. No credit card." It was a drama. Then I managed to have my Italian credit card converted into an American one. Not a good memory. Once I had one credit card, they all wanted to give me a credit card. And I said, "No, thank you."
LAMB: You say that Americans use the refrigerator door to communicate.
SEVERGNINI:It is true. I think the Internet is an expansion of this concept, that people put things on their refrigerator door. I was staying with friends, very nice friends -- I'm still staying with them now, during this visit. And we talk to each other putting little notes on the refrigerator door. I like that. That's a grand -- that's a -- the -- the refrigerator door is a sort of -- is a grandmother of email.
LAMB: Do you not do that in Italy?
SEVERGNINI:Oh, of course. Refrigerator door are to keep the refrigerator shut. (LAUGHTER)
LAMB: What about Fresh Fields? You went to Fresh Fields, and what'd you see there you can't find at home?
SEVERGNINI:The esthetics of food. You pay -- you know, the price is half for what you see and half for what you eat. I prefer to pay -- I would prefer to pay half the price. But I really admire the Fresh Fields. I -- I think it's a fascinating place. It's a little eerie. People are very much on their own. It's like a communication between -- between, like, a -- you know, a woman and her -- and her tomatoes. It's like an encounter. She's talking to them and evaluating them. And then she moves to the wine department. People don't look at each other, they are so concentrating on these objects.

And then all these sort of new things and new -- everything is organic. I asked, "Is this" -- I did it on purpose. I saw some flat peaches, and I say, "Are these peaches genetically modified?" And they say, "Oh! No! Nothing is genetically modified in here!" I like that.
LAMB: An itemized phone bill.
SEVERGNINI:I liked it -- you know, now they are more common in Italy, too. But you have to ask for them. In Europe, they are seen as an invasion of your privacy, while here, rightly, they are seen as the way of checking what you -- how much you pay and when.
LAMB: Smoking.
SEVERGNINI:Poor smokers. I don't smoke. I don't like tobacco companies, and I don't want to go into that, but I'm not a lobbyist for them at all. But sometimes, when I see smokers, I see them, you know, like group of homeless outside building. In the middle of the winter in Washington, downtown Washington or Manhattan, you see them smoking. They look like drug addicts, which maybe they are. I don't know. Whether you want to go and huddle them, say, "Come on, have some coffee."

I don't think why you put "No smoking" signs in this country. You shouldn't. You just put a huge thing -- "Hey, you can smoke here. It's one of the 25 places in the United States where you can actually smoke." So inform people.
LAMB: Now, in Italy, still a lot of smoking going on?
SEVERGNINI:Well, worse than that. What happens is very often there are "No smoking" signs, like hospitals, and you have a doctor smoking away in the corridors. It happens. Not everywhere, but it happens. Real problem with Italy, and the one thing that I like about this country -- there are things that I like Italy, I think Italy is better and ahead of the States. But the one thing -- there are many things the States are ahead of Italy. Is not a book to say who's better. Those books are a waste of time.

But a thing that in America is good, you got a rule, you got to respect the rule. You do not respect the rule, you going to be fined, or it depends on what you do. In Italy, you got a rule, but there often is an opinion. You got a red light, and is an advice. You know, "You better stop." You know what? In Florence, they have a lovely expression called rosa pieno, a "full red," means is a red that really is a red because you don't see who's coming, so you better stop.

But that implies that you've got many other forms and shades of red that if you see who's coming, then after all, no one is coming, or you have a red but is a school, a pedestrian red, is 11:00 o'clock at night, nobody's coming. Come on. That kind of thing is fantastic. You have a rule, but you want to interpret it. You want to decide whether that particular rule applies to your own very special case in that very moment. That's not good. Italy's not a nation, is a collection of individuals, I sometimes think.
LAMB: What do you like better about Italy?
SEVERGNINI:That -- this collection of individuals, the fact that we all feel we are special cases, gives us a lot of stamina and fantasy and pride and -- and that's good. Very often, northern European, which are better organized than we are, tend to be a -- not all, but sometimes their life tend to be dull. They tend to be sad. Italians have no time for sadness. They are too busy dealing with their daily life.

Let me take a very serious subject such as suicides. The percentage in Italy is very, very low because people are just basically too busy battling with their life. Sometimes, when you have it too easy -- I'm not saying that in order to bring down the suicide rate, you have to be disorganized. I'm just saying that Italy is a lively country, is a country where there's fantasy. There is no such thing as a standard encounter. Everything is a happening. That's why Americans and the British and the Germans like it so much, because you have the feeling that everything can happen. It can be good or bad, but you know every day is different from the other one.
LAMB: Why do Americans like America?
SEVERGNINI:Because it's their country, because they built it, because it is an experiment which is still going on. Not because they're the most powerful country in the world. I don't think that's the answer. It's because you're trying something spectacular, which is a country of people coming from different backgrounds trying to find something together now that unites you, the melting pot OK. Call it the melting pot but it's now something more sophisticated than that.

I've seen young Chinese students in Boston or in Berkeley coming over. They are so lost. After six months, they have a baseball cap. After a year, the baseball cap is turned around just like in the cover of my book, Federico de Montefeltro, yes, like him.
LAMB: Who is this guy on the cover?
SEVERGNINI:This guy is not me, although he's got a funny nose as I have. No, this chap is Federico de Montefeltro who was the Duke of Urbino. He was a Duke in Urbino in the 15th Century. I think it was the 15th Century yes, and there was a painting by Piero della Francesca and it's in Florence, that particular painting.

Anyway, going back to the Chinese student, he's got this baseball cap. He's got an Eastpak or Jansen backpack and track shoes and here he is. You've got almost an American and if he stays here you know all his life, his children will be completely American. What is about America so powerful?

I think the American daily life is a very, very powerful, can I say solvent, something that dilutes everything into - which is more than a melting pot. It's fascinating. That's what I try to look at in the book, what is the secret of America? Why America is so addictive.
LAMB: What did you find in American motels?
SEVERGNINI:Predictability. I love that. I live in a country which is unpredictable, I just told you, and to find a place where everything is absolutely the same, remote control, television, not so comfortable bed, because it's either too big, too large with acrylic often bed sheets. The bathroom is always there. It's plastic that pretends to be marble, all that, the switch, all is there. You know where it is. At night, you're going to a European hotel, you have to go around, you know touching, frisking, the wall on your own, trying to find the switch.
LAMB: Liberal return policy?
SEVERGNINI:Dangerous.
LAMB: What do you mean by that anyway?
SEVERGNINI:Well, dangerous because you buy more.
LAMB: No, but I mean liberal return policy? Let me explain, is it...
SEVERGNINI:OK, liberal return policy, you mean you can buy things and return them if you no like them. So obviously you probably don't know or think about it because it's obvious.
LAMB: Yes. Move your mike up a little bit because you're about to lose it and people won't be able to hear you. Yes, thank you.
SEVERGNINI:You know why, because I wave, because I'm Italian.
LAMB: That's fine.
SEVERGNINI:I like - if I don't wave, I feel - and in England and in America I wave a lot less. I tend to wave during interviews.
LAMB: Really?
SEVERGNINI:Yes. In Italy, you should see me, fast speaking Italian; a) your listener wouldn't understand apart from a few Italians; and b) my microphone would be all over the place.
LAMB: Well, feel free to wave. I want you to be yourself, but I just want you to know you're losing it there. Go back to the liberal return policy. When did you first notice that?
SEVERGNINI:When I realized I was buying too much, and I was buying too much because I knew I could return things. Of course, I didn't return anything. I just bought too much and you know what, I even used coupons. That's something that proved to me that America is such a powerful country, coupons. The idea of me cutting out coupons out of newspaper, nobody does that in Europe. Yes we've got coupons but they're there. Nobody touches them.
LAMB: Really?
SEVERGNINI:Yes, of course, coupons are one of the mysteries of this country.
LAMB: What's the return policy in Europe?
SEVERGNINI:You buy and you shut up.
LAMB: You don't return?
SEVERGNINI:You don't return very often because you can't, and if you can, they make it so difficult that you have a credit but you can not have cash refund. You had all - once I told a - I explained this to a friend who owns a big fashion shop in Milan. I said why don't you do this?

People would buy more if they know they can return things, and he said you must be joking. People would come on Friday to buy very nice sort of jacket and dinner jacket or attire a woman and they will return it on Monday and say I really didn't like it and they used it all the weekend. I don't think it would happen but it's what it is.
LAMB: What about two people talking to one another? You point out in the book that there's a difference in the way when two people, two Americans are standing talking to one another compared to when two Italians are talking to one another.
SEVERGNINI:Many differences: a) You tend to stay closer to each other for some reason. I don't know why. b) We discussed that already. You tend to answer questions and your conversation is really factual. You ask a question. You want an answer. c) You know each other's name. I'm fascinated by that.

I know your name but believe me if this was an Italian interview, my dear Brian, I wouldn't know your name because you told me your name but then I would forget it and then I would find some strange, devious way to find out what your name is.

Socially it's a tragedy for Italians, Italians who live in Italy who come over to America, because you are sitting down with dinner with a lady who tells you her name, Beppe. Beppe, my dear Beppe. Beppe, and she knows. The moment you tell her something clicks in her brain and she knows Beppe forever; she's going to pass that information on to successive generations that your name is Beppe.

She told you her name. She told you, "my name is Brenda or Joanna" or you name it, and you say OK but then you forget and then it's too late. She's telling you what happened to second husband that night in August. Then how can you say that's really terrible but please what is your name? You can not do that.
LAMB: But this thing about people being closer, you really notice the difference in the United States about people standing close to each other when they talk and in Europe they don't?
SEVERGNINI:That's my feeling. Maybe some anthropologist could tell me that I'm all wrong, but my feeling is that I've seen sort of dental works of a lot of people that I didn't want to see.
LAMB: Neon?
SEVERGNINI:Love that, reassuring.
LAMB: Why? Where do you see it? Where do you notice it?
SEVERGNINI:Everywhere when you have beers. The name of the beer is outside in the dark. You are driving in the middle of nowhere and you see the name of a beer, a famous beer or the name of some other strange, you know, like in blue, in red. It's very reassuring. I think neon lights are the sort of the perfect cure for American anxiety and for our anxiety too because it tells you know - everything changes but those names are there.

That's why I think it was Bill Bryson who said once that - he said McDonald's exit here and he thinks there's an order and actually exits and goes to a McDonald's if he doesn't feel like having a hamburger. I'm not to that stage, but I feel the power of American predictability.

There are motels, McDonald's, neon lights; they are the - or this, can I say oasis of American landscape, the places where you know I go there for rest. I know what to expect.
LAMB: This next subject, I don't know what you can say about it, but you wrote about Americans' reaction to unpleasant body odor.
SEVERGNINI:Well, there is such thing as body odor, number one and if you have too many showers and if you use too many sort of bath sort of shower gel, bath foam, whatever, your body odor disappears completely and maybe your fiancee, your wife, or whatever, she may think that you're - then your body odor is exactly the same as the product you've been using for the last two years. If you buy some other product and she thinks she's lost you. She thinks you are a different person.
LAMB: Is that unusual to Americans?
SEVERGNINI:Well, it's unusual the number of showers. You have to remember that I come, that I lived in Britain for years, and Britain is a place where people have baths in theory. In fact, you can not have a bath every day because it takes too long, so their choice is not to have a bath, and when they think is, you know, bidet, which is in Italy absolutely crucial. A bathroom must have bidet and bidet is a cultural thing.

In Britain and in America, sometimes I think you think the bidets are something to wash your violins in, because they're the right shape, but they're not. But in America, showers OK, you take showers. You can do without bidets, but do without bidets and showers and maybe windows in the bathrooms. I love the British because sometimes they're really funny.
LAMB: You say Americans don't have a sense of humor.
SEVERGNINI:You have a sense of humor, but it's very special. You don't like to joke about sex, race, physical details, being fat, tall or whatever, bald, and that's a problem because they're what humor is about. I can see political correctness is a good thing. In America what it means, you don't want to offend people, fair enough.

But sometimes, I would say often, it's just over the top and that takes away the fun from life and humor. I think that it's a way of using the same subject in an affectionate way and to take everything away, all references, not only from examining New York as the New York Times said the other day was fantastic in taking out all references to you know races or whatever from famous writers, and then asking questions based on those details you have removed. That's political correctness. Political correctness doesn't get along with humor at all.
LAMB: What about swearing?
SEVERGNINI:You're good at that. I think you're good at that but...
LAMB: Compared to the Italians?
SEVERGNINI:You have a few classic expressions. For instance, you have something which is called a four-letter word. Don't worry, I won't use any of those. Otherwise it's going to beep me. Do you beep people off C-SPAN? You probably did. You may start today.
LAMB: We don’t
SEVERGNINI:I won't use any of that. You have something called four-letter word. We don't have an expression that can not be translated. You know why? Because we have a fantastic array and variety but they go from two letters to fifteen letters. You are very - you have classic expressions that you tend to insert. You look in American movies sometimes, the "F" word, the "F" word which is probably too much.
LAMB: Do we swear more than Italians?
SEVERGNINI:According to your movies, yes you do. I think the now movies you know represent an America of their own and they portray an America that I'm not entirely sure it does exist. When I am around, I don't hear people swearing all the time. In movies, the actors do nothing else.
LAMB: You even tell us in your book when the House of Representatives, the United States Senate, and the White House got air-conditioning.
SEVERGNINI:Yes.
LAMB: The House in '28, the Senate in '29, and the White House in '30.
SEVERGNINI:You see how my book is useful.
LAMB: Numbers again.
SEVERGNINI:Numbers again. I learned my lesson. I tried to explain but again I used that piece of information to explain how much air-conditioning has changed, not only production in this country, and daily life, but it changed my little house on 1530 34th Street, Washington, D.C., because I realize that all the windows were painted over. It was impossible to open and looking at the age of the paint, I realized that more or less it was probably 45 to 50 years old exactly when air-conditioning came to Washington, D.C. More or less that was the time.
LAMB: How about in Italy? How much air-conditioning comparatively?
SEVERGNINI:We tend to open windows.
LAMB: Does it get as hot there as it does here?
SEVERGNINI:It does in - well no, it doesn't to be honest. I live in the Pianola Padona (ph) in the Po Valley which is really hot and when I came here, I said come on people, I'm ready for everything. You know I live in the Po Valley. I know what really hot weather is.

And, I came over and I lasted 15 minutes and then I shouted where is air-conditioning, immediately rushed and actually it wasn't working well and I called the number, the telephone, the emergency number of the label on the sticker on the air-conditioner. The first time ever I did call a number on a sticker. It proves how shocked I was.
LAMB: You say Americans like competition?
SEVERGNINI:Yes, you do.
LAMB: Why?
SEVERGNINI:Because I - because they're not afraid of losing. I think that's the key thing. You can like competition in business, in academia, in broadcasting; you name it, when you're not afraid of losing. When you think losing doesn't mean you're a loser. That's a big problem in Europe. You lost, you're a loser. It's different here. You lost, you tried at least. That's a crucial thing.

When you fail in business, you're sort of labeled for life sometimes, even the law about failure, it's called "fallimento," about bankruptcy exactly the translation in Italy. It is very dire. It's very severe. You hardly can start again. It's really a problem and it affects your life.

In America, you tried. You were honest. You tried hard. You didn't do anything to damage or cheat your shareholders or your partners or whatever, you must be given another chance, and that's a good thing, and then you become competitive because you know and then if, you know, I want to win. I may well lose but I want to win.
LAMB: Is there more choice in the United States, like when you go into a grocery store and you go in for cereal?
SEVERGNINI:Too much choice.
LAMB: Too much cereal?
SEVERGNINI:I like to - I know you are the interviewer, Brian, but I'd really like to turn this around and ask you why on earth do you need 54, 58 different kinds of cereals? Cereals are basically not necessary in life. I don't think Kellogg's is going to sponsor this program, but I think they're not necessary. I mean you can live without cereal.

There are things you need, water, meat, vegetables, but cereals, we don't use cereal. Not only you have those but you have 54 different brands and some of them are really morbid, the combinations are morbid, let me tell you.
LAMB: Do you think, though, they would be there if there wasn't a demand?
SEVERGNINI:Of course there is a demand, and why there is a demand I don't know. I think it's people think that if you have less than 30 brands or kind, that rationing is started. I don't know. I think being a rich, wealthy country and having been a wealthy country for longer than we have been. I was born in 1956. I'm a few weeks older than the European community, and I was a lucky boy simply because I was born in a Europe that was in peace. It was starting to pick up and maybe I have this attitude to life. You'll see that in the book.

But Italy was a poor country in the late '40s and early '50s, and so my father remembered extremely well when there was not enough food and they would eat meat, and my father is a lawyer, but he remembers when they would eat meat once a week and have one orange for special occasions in the '40s or '30s.

America doesn't have these memories. You have the memory - your only memory is plenty of everything, which I'm not accusing. It's a fact and then maybe then you want 54 kind of everything.
LAMB: Where did you meet your wife?
SEVERGNINI:She's from my hometown. I travel all over the place and she was born 200 yards from where I was born, but we met in our 20s.
LAMB: Her name?
SEVERGNINI:Hortensia.
LAMB: What kind of a name is that in Italy?
SEVERGNINI:Very unusual. It's a flower. In English it's a hydrangea. In French it's Hortense and in Italian it's Hortensia. It is a nice flower, very unusual name. It was in her family for some time, so I think aunts and great aunts were called Hortensia.
LAMB: How long have you been married?
SEVERGNINI:Sixteen years.
LAMB: Does she have a profession?
SEVERGNINI:Yes.
LAMB: What does she do?
SEVERGNINI:She works in - she helps me a lot. She works as a professional help for me, very important to sort out and help me with a lot of things that have to do with, you know, money and taxes and all that stuff, and she wrote guidebooks, very good guidebooks in Italy, and she's now very busy helping children in hospitals. She devotes at least a third of her working day for that. I'm very proud of her.
LAMB: Back in the liner of your book, we'll get it. There we go. I want to show the - get it lined up here. This little thing right here if we can get a close-up of that. Where did this come from? Is that you?
SEVERGNINI:Before I answer your question, I'm really impressed by all the notes you took and where you took them. I'm not used to an interviewer being so well prepared. Anyway, yes that is me. That is me. That is a very good cartoon. It was drawn by Chris Riddell which is "The Economist"'s editorial -- he's been the editorial cartoonist.

Normally he draws - I'm one of the very few human beings he's actually drawn because he normally draws like presidents and big shots everywhere. But because he's a friend, he decided to give me that little drawing. I think it's very cute.
LAMB: You say that Italians don't copy the important things in American life, patriotism, optimism, and a sense of personal responsibility. Instead, they copy vocabulary, soft drinks, jeans, hairstyles, film, songs, and I'll just add, maybe they don't, cereal. I guess they don't buy cereal in Italy.
SEVERGNINI:No, we don't.
LAMB: But...
SEVERGNINI:At least that one we don't' do.
LAMB: Why do they copy one thing and not another in your opinion?
SEVERGNINI:The answer is easy because the things that you mentioned first, personal responsibility, patriotism, good patriotism, sense of your duty, commitment. They need effort. You really have to work hard to achieve those.

The other things that America sells extremely well, not only to Italy, but to all over the world and some of them, not all of them, some of them are not appreciated everywhere but nonetheless sold extremely well from Japan to Africa, from Southeast Asia to South America. Those things are easy. All you need is a credit card or your currency and you buy those things, easy.

You want to buy the latest fad, the latest fad in drugs. You want to buy the latest song, and it's there to buy. And, of course, drugs is bad. Sometimes we import those habits. Songs are fantastic. I'm very grateful that you gave the world Bruce Springsteen, just to name one of them, or Tom Waits.

But, those things are easy. You go in a CD store, you buy a CD out and you feel American while you're driving on ….in Italy, listening to you know "Drive All Night" or "Racing in the Street" by Bruce Springsteen and you think you're American. You're here because the sense of optimist, personal responsibility, the feeling you know, I tried. I lost. Let me try again. The idea of, you know, coming back, that is different. It takes more changes, more adaptation, more patience. Sometimes - some people have done that.
LAMB: You don't talk about a lot of people in your book. The first person you mention is Thomas Jefferson, who I'll ask you about in a moment.
SEVERGNINI:Oh, the great gadget man.
LAMB: But you have referenced on three or four occasions to a United States Senator from Montana. SEVERGNNI: Because he lived next door.
LAMB: I'm guessing it was Max Baucus.
SEVERGNINI:He is the one. I think he still lives there. I met him briefly. I met his wife a few times and she was absolutely terrific, kind, and nice, and she actually taught me and explained to me what to do about tree boxes. But I was very disappointed, I have to say, because the moment we moved, we forgot to ask little permission about the van, the removal van, which is very little.

We didn't have that much furniture, and the van came, parked too close to her house apparently, and she knew it was us and she came and she said I'll give you, I don't know, two minutes to take this away and she shouted and I’m the wife of a Senator. I was disappointed. It's not something - I expect that in my country sometimes.

You don't know who I am and …in Italian. In America, I was shocked. I was shocked, a little disappointing. I'm sure she's a great lady and she was just nervous that very day, so one has to be forgiving, but I was a little disappointed.
LAMB: What about that sense of importance in a town like Washington? Did you see much of that?
SEVERGNINI:Yes and sometimes people have a sense of importance where they're not very important. I think maybe if you're an American Senator or if you are the vice president of the United States, after all it's human or understandable. And then this town leaves the industry's power so one has to accept that. One thing that sometimes I find a little disconcerting that people ask you not who are you and how are you but what do you do, so they want to make sure they're not wasting time with you.
LAMB: You said earlier when we started that you've been all over the country. You've been here 30 times. You got a recreation vehicle of some kind and went with your friends across the country?
SEVERGNINI:Yes.
LAMB: What year was that again?
SEVERGNINI:That was, the first time was in '77 with five friends, and I came back with my parents. In '87 they decided, you know America, we want to go to Boston. We want to go to the Grand Canyon. We want to go to the Monument Valley, and I had to arrange everything and pay for it. I say "pappa, but you're a lawyer. You are richer than I am." He said "I don't care. You take me" and we had a great time. I came back with my nephews and with my family, with my wife and son, went to Yellowstone. So, I've been to, I guess, 42 states.
LAMB: But if...
SEVERGNINI:But I understood more staying put in Washington, D.C. in a little house on 34th Street and writing "Ciao America" than traveling around. Traveling around great fun, but you have to stay put, stay quiet and wait for things to happen, for Americans to behave like Americans, and you have to observe. I am my, I use the expression, beachcomber. America is my own beach.

I go around and look for little things, those details that really tells you what a country's about. You could do the same in Italy, but if you go to Florence Venice, and Rome in a week, you would understand. Stay put. You come to my little place. You stay there for six months. You live the daily life and you really start to take the risk and the pace of a country.
LAMB: You say that understatement is alien to Americans, understatement.
SEVERGNINI:Yes it is, but I got used to that. You want me to brag? I can do that very well. I have an American CV where I'm really proud of what I've done. I have an Italian CV where I sort of - I tried to achieve an aesthetic effect, a bella figura, you know, look what I've done, but it's different, and have a British CV where I actually ask forgive me for what I've done.
LAMB: The language, do Americans like to hear you use your Italian?
SEVERGNINI:They do, although they wanted me to pronounce a word like linguini. We don't have linguini. You have to understand.
LAMB: You do not have linguini?
SEVERGNINI:Of course not. Linguini, yes we do have linguini, but they're in a few restaurants where Americans go. Linguini Alfredo are an invention of America. America is so fantastically proud of herself and so creative in a way, that you invent these things that do not exist in Italy. You have a - I go to shops, malls, very expensive suits with brand names.

There are no brands in Italy, like Giovanini's Ties and this chap does not exist and you're paying a lot of money. You should really know about these things; otherwise, we take too much advantage of you.
LAMB: We're about out of time but your son, how old is he?
SEVERGNINI:Nine.
LAMB: What's his name?
SEVERGNINI:Antonio.
LAMB: How long has he spent in the United States?
SEVERGNINI:Well, he's coming back in a few days. We're going to meet in Chicago and we'll go to California to talk about the book, and he wants to be an American. He loves America. America is his playground. He thinks it's great fun.
LAMB: How's his English?
SEVERGNINI:Nonexistent. Well, his passive English is - he understands the most - he watches cartoons and things. He understands what goes on but he's shy and you know if you want to learn languages you don't have to be shy.
LAMB: We can't complete this but television you write about and you say it's constantly agitating.
SEVERGNINI:Not this one, how about that?
LAMB: What is it you mean by that?
SEVERGNINI:People seem to be in a frenzy all the time. They have sort of glassy eyes and they tell you everything. They are excited. Everything is so important, dramatic, spectacular, and maybe it's nothing. It's like a little accident next door or well I don't like that. I think the attention span of people is reduced to - it becomes too short if you just have bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. You're probably thinking I'm being clever and I want to be nice to C-SPAN who had me for an hour.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book. It's called "Ciao America." Our guest is Beppe Severgnini. Thank you very much for joining us.
SEVERGNINI:Thank you, Brian.
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