Behavior matters,especially when you’re in a Foreign Service family.

1961-07-03 Bologna, Amerson family on terrace001-wc 2
The Amersons in Italy, 1960. Photo: Tom Fina.

After Dad’s initial four years in balmy Caracas, we moved in 1959 to Milan, where there were strict rules governing how things were done.  Although Dad’s job at the USIA office required my mother to be available for after-hours socializing and cultural events, finding a live-in maid proved difficult.  In the meantime, she did our laundry by hand and hung it to dry on clothes lines my father had strung up in the large marble-floored bathroom. To expedite things, Mom opened the bathroom windows which opened on an interior courtyard. That lasted about a day: the landlord came up to say that the neighbors across the way were offended by the sight of drying clothes. The signora’s ragazza should know that clothes were to be dried on the roof. Mom just nodded. Lesson One in how things were done in Italy.

Lesson Two came via the large terrazza outside my parents’ bedroom which accumulated soot daily from Milan’s dirty air. One rainy day, Mom decided it was time to clean it. She filled a pail, took off her shoes, put on her raincoat and got to work. She looked up from her task a few minutes later to find the Contessa who lived on the next floor down watching her from her own balcony, open-mouthed, a cup of tea in her hand. Mom smiled, nodded and finished the job. The next day, she watched as the Contessa’s maid emerged briefly onto the three-by-five balcony to dust the table and chair, followed by a butler delivering a tray of tea and a newspaper, followed by the Contessa herself. Lesson Two.

Lesson Three was demonstrated by the woman my mother eventually found to be our live-in maid. Maria Pia was a country girl but a social climber in the making. The first morning she worked for us Mom asked her to get some ciliori from the pasticerria on the next block. Maria Pia said, “Va bene,” and went to her room, although her coat was hung on the tacapani next to the front door. She came clicking back down the hall in high heels and she had changed from her blue and white uniform into a party dress. Mom’s eyebrows went up and her lips pressed together into a small smile.

Italy was governed by la bella figura and la brutta figura. No matter ones station in life, women wore the right color coat, the right length skirt, the right poofy hairdo. And it didn’t matter whether you were throwing out the garbage or shopping in Milan’s Galeria Del Duomo.

Tourists in front of us on a recent trip to Europe… add baseball hats and water bottles to American gear.

Behavior mattered. As we moved from Milan to Bologna to Rome between 1959 and 1963, my sister and I learned that in Italy you shake hands, but in America you don’t. You could chew gum at home but not gum or food on the street. You said Ciao to friends and Arrivederci to grown ups. You spoke English with each other and Italian with everyone else. In sum, you acted like our hosts acted. American visitors didn’t know these rules. American tourists and Study Abroad students wore shorts and blue jeans, spoke loudly in English, and stepped over the little iron fences bordering park walkways to have picnics on the grass. We usually pretended we were Italian when we passed them. Brutta figura.

The Amerson family behavior was defined, to some extent, by the rules of diplomacy. In the aftermath of WWII and into the Cold War, David Brooks writes, the relationships America developed “built organizations and alliances to fight communism, create a stable trading system, combat poverty and promote democracy.” Thomas L. Friedman notes: “[t]he world came to rely on an America that, more often than not, [was] ready to pay any price and bear any burden to do the right things, say that right things, model the right things and stand for the right things — when others were unwilling or unable to do.”

Foreign Service officers like my father have served both Democratic and Republican administrations in faithfully carrying out America’s mission. Not every White House has carried the standard as gracefully as the professional diplomatic corps — Dad recalled Vice President’s Lyndon Johnson’s legendary ego translating into American arrogance during his visits to Rome — but the postwar order has prevailed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel deliberates with President Donald Trump on the sidelines at the second day of the G-7 summit on June 9.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

But now? We are far from la bella figura. President Trump has taken American arrogance to a whole other level: discarding democratic allies, cozying up to autocrats, blowing off historical partnerships and disregarding advice, he spins chaotically around the globe, arms folded and chin out. According to the White House, the Trump Doctrine boils down to: “We’re America, Bitches.” There’s no amount of diplomacy that can surmount such a statement.

Until Congress is willing to bear the burden and pay the price of standing up for the right thing, la brutta figura rules the White House. Is it too much to hope that la bella figura steps up in November?


One thought on “La Brutta Figura: Italian Manners

  1. All of us who worked for the government and sought to portray us as capable and refined are appalled. I’m glad the timing was right for me to be retired. I worry about the colleagues who are still there, trying to navigate and stay viable while serving constituents.

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