The Italians Have a Word For It
My wife and I were watching the last 15 minutes of The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park in which a T. rex rampages through San Diego, tearing up a gas station mini-mart and stomping cars, Godzilla style.
"This is really an Americanata!" she said.
"An Americanata," my wife, who is Italian, repeated. She was fine with the movie about reanimated dino DNA until that point. But when it turned into a comic book, a cinematic cartoon of itself, that, she explained, is an Americanata (AMERICAN-OTTA), an Italian term describing anything that is exaggerated, overdone, garish, pompous, boorish or just in plain bad taste -- in a uniquely American way, whether it's a 60-ounce Big Gulp, patriotic underwear or a fully loaded Hummer.
"But that was cool!" I protested. She rolled her eyes.
Since that moment, I've come to understand the concept of an Americanata, aided by the pointed observations of my wife, our Italian expatriate friends here in Washington and our Italian friends and family back in Italy. Walt Disney World is an Americanata. The breast-pounding State of The Union is an Americanata ("We're No. 1 everybody!!!") And the attempt to ennoble that commercial orgy known as the Super Bowl with both patriotism and religion is a mega-Americanata (What exactly does the minister say when he "blesses" the players before kickoff -- "May the Prince of Peace guide these fine, young men as they proceed to bash each other senseless"?)
Americanate (the plural of Americanata) are as plentiful as McMansions here, so we decided to compile a list of them, based on an informal survey of Italians. Now presenting ... The Top 10 Americanate:
10. THE QUANTUM SLEEPER -- A post-9/11 throwback to the 1950s nuclear bomb scare, this panic-room-in-a-bed promises to protect you from bullets, biochemical attacks AND stalkers. And it comes with a reading light and a DVD! This Americanata, courtesy of an Italian web site, could be quickly dismissed as mere tackiness if just five years ago, amid fears of an al-Qaeda WMD attack, Americans hadn't been rushing out to buy plastic sheeting and duct tape in what would have proved to be a futile attempt to protect themselves from bioterrorists. The tendency to find answers and salvation in technology led to bomb shelters 50 years ago; it's still producing them, albeit more upscale ones. And if a bioterrorism attack does occur, the Quantum Sleeper makes a great, low-cost double casket!
9. EATING IN PUBLIC -- A college student brings a piece of pizza to class and sits there eating it, oblivious, while the professor lectures. "In Italy, we would never do something like that, "one Italian says. Why? The professor-student relationship is more formal, for one. Eating is taken more seriously. And Italians have better manners. You're not likely to see anywhere in Italy a family of Italians rolling down the highway while they each eat their fast-food dinners. The culture of la tavola -- the table -- demands more respect for a meal.
8. RECORD MANIA -- Hot dog-eating contests, amassing the biggest ball of twine in the world, flying around the world in a balloon -- the lure of setting a world record drives many Americans to extremes of accomplishment -- and bad taste. That summertime tradition, the pie-eating contest, may win Bubba a bask in the spotlight at the county fair. But when Italians see boys burying their faces in blueberry pies and scarfing them down come porci -- like pigs -- using food as a toy -- they add another Americanata to the list.
- Italian Festivals
Festivals in the USA
- Italia Festival - Associazione nazionale dei festival italiani
Festivals in Italy
Very funny Italian web site
- Italy on the Web
- Rai Click
Latest Italian news & culture
7. FESTIVAL OF COSMAS & DAMIAN -- The cherished annual "Italian Festival" found in many U.S. cities, especially in the Northeast, is a rich vein of Americanate. Italians brought to these events find them hilarious. One of these in particular is a treasure trove of Americanate, The annual Italian Festival of the Healing Saints Cosmas & Damian in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The festival boasts the usual menu of Americanized Italian foods, bands and raffles. The centerpiece, however, is a procession in which statues of Cosmas and Damian are paraded through the streets while the crowd tacks bills onto them. As the procession winds on, the hapless saints are gradually covered by the money. But the bills just keep on coming, until at last the saints are turned into hulking Money Monsters, and you can barely see their heads popping out of the cash pile.
Now processions of the saints are common in Italy, especially Southern Italy, our friend Maurizio from Gaeta, south of Rome, tells us (and who supplied this particular Americanata). But no one ever sticks money onto the sacred figures, such depictions by Hollywood movies notwithstanding. To do so, Maurizio says, is offensive, even profane. "This is an Americanata," he says, smiling politely. So are centurions in Oakley sunglasses playing banjos.
6. MISUSED ITALIAN FOOD NAMES/FOODS -- My wife and I stared at the colorful poster advertizing Pizza Hut's latest delicacy, "Tuscani Pastas."
"Delicious pasta dinners in Meaty Marinara or Creamy Chicken Alfredo. Finally, restaurant quality pasta delivered right to your door!" She wrinkled her face in distaste. "Oh. My. God!" Then she asked the question millions of Italians who come to the USA still want answered: "Who's Alfredo?"
"Tuscani Pastas" ... never mind that neither word exists in English (pastas?) or Italian (it would be paste Toscane). Creating a lasagna-like dish out of rotini and chicken, then covering that with a glutinous blanket of cheese and cream sauce and baking it into a hot, oily mush, well ... any native Italians seeing the ads will likely be retching. A third-degree -- or make that a 350-degree -- Americanata.
Misused Italian food names are a rich source of Americanate, one that will never run out as long as there exists a single food company executive somewhere in the USA hoping to market the latest glop churned out by his factories by sticking an Italian-sounding name on it.
Pizza Hut is only the latest offender in the misuse of Italian terms. My wife and I used to walk past an Italian restaurant -- it has since closed -- in my former home state of Delaware whose sign out front proudly advertised "insulata" (insalata -- Italian for salad). Then there are those signs in upscale delis and coffee shops touting "Our new panini sandwich!" Panini means sandwiches -- plural -- in Italian, so they're actually selling people their "new sandwiches sandwich!" And Italian customers silently register another Americanata.
Then there's Dunkin Donuts' warm-weather drink, the "Coolatta." In Italian, culatta -- pronounced COO-LOTT-UH, just like the drink -- is a buttock. So if you see Italians giggling and pointing at the menu in DD, now you know why.
5. YOU WILL OBEY -- I was on a chair drying off after a swim at the public pool in Georgetown when a teenage lifeguard approached the young women listening to her iPod just in front of me and waved to get her attention. "Excuse me, Miss." Then louder, "EXCUSE ME, MISS." She removed the ear buds and looked up at him. "I'm sorry but no listening devices are allowed here." She looked puzzled. "Huh?" He went on to explain that it's an official pool regulation because someone might not hear an emergency announcement. She turned off her iPod. Probably not realizing she may have just saved her life because she'll be able to flee the inevitable attack by the Sept. 13 Martyrs of The Swimming Pool Jihad 1 second faster.
A pool I used to go to in Virginia -- what is it with pools and rules? -- would order everyone out of the water every 15 minutes of each hour for a "safety break." No matter the entire pool was surrounded by lifeguards in their chairs; apparently, if people were left on their own for more than 45 minutes, they would swim and swim and swim until they began to gradually lose consciousness, then somehow manage to slip gurgling beneath the 4-foot-deep waters unseen, determined to keep their date with Death.
The town of Isle of Palms in New Jersey recently proposed a law that would fine vacationers for leaving sandcastles on the beach. Yes, a fine for sandcastles. Town leaders say they're a threat to the beach. And council members in Friendship Heights, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., unsuccessfully tried to pass a law banning smoking outdoors within their boundaries.
Italians witnessing the Nanny State in action are truly perplexed. "Incre-DEEB-ilay" they mutter. Maybe having experienced two world wars on your soil, a lengthy fascist dictatorship and countless occupations puts things in perspective. Or maybe they're just more civilized and secure with themselves. They find such patronizing micromanagement ... well, incredible.
Of course, the misused words are just the surface covering the real horror - the food itself. Most Italian-American dishes sold here are cheesy, oily, caricatures of Southern Italian cuisine, whether it's Tuscani Pastas or that big plate of spongy pasta topped with a brownish, tannic-tasting red sauce and mealy meatballs you get at your local Mama Whatever's ("serving fine Italian food since 1957"). Often these are the creations of food company marketers, like the horrendous "stuffed crust pizza" now being touted by several pizza chains. Olive Garden's website currently boasts its latest specials, "Five Cheese-stuffed Rigatoni with Shrimp" and "Five Cheese-stuffed Rigatoni with Sausage." But ... the essence of real Italian food is simplicity and quality. Filled pasta like cappelletti is made with either ricotta or mortadella and served in a simple but delicious chicken broth. Period. And regular pasta is typically served with a few herbs, vegetables and olive oil, or with a simple red sauce or béchamel. There are Italian rigatoni dishes that include ricotta, bits of sausage and a sprinkling of pecorino, but the star of the dish is still the pasta; they don't stuff the rigatoni with five cheeses, drown it in oil and then bury the resulting mess under sausage and shrimp.
4. LOOK AT ME! Whether it's appearing on American Idol, Dance War, or The Biggest Loser, becoming a YouTube sensation or the star of your local karaoke night, the desire for public attention, for that 15 minutes -- or even 15 seconds -- of fame, is a top Americanata. Or, as our friend Giampiero e-mailed, via translation, "The mania to astonish people, at all costs, and in all ways -- and on TV if at all possible." So we have brides and grooms saying their vows while skydiving, or wearing scuba masks, fiancés pledging their love on billboards, or, as the newswires recently reported, an "artist" in Orlando, Florida, marking Feb. 29 (Leap Day) by devoting himself to leaping off a platform for the entire 24 hours "to get people to think how they spend their day."
3. SUPERSIZE NATION -- Italians like Americans but often joke about our love of living large, a love that has spawned various Americanate. Used to small cups of espresso quickly downed while standing at a bar, they gape at workplace coffee cups the size of small buckets; accustomed to ultra-compact Smart Cars, they are stunned by SUVs so large they are a threat to anything that gets near them and actually require small-truck license tags. Now Americans themselves have become the gag. After a generation of Whoppers, Big Macs, and foot-long hoagies, Leon is getting LAAARGER, so large department stores have added an 18-plus to men's shirt sizes, car mileage is dropping and highways are being redesigned to accommodate the excess poundage. That rumbling you hear? It's Americans -- and they're headed this way. RUN!!!!
2. THESE COLORS DON'T RUN -- The presence of the flag at the football pre-game ritual -- and everywhere else you look -- is a quintessential Americanata; no other country in the world waves the flag quite so tirelessly as Americans, whether it's in ads for patriotism-injected pick-ups, blue-collar beer, or power tools, on T-shirts or underwear, a lapel pin -- lawmakers, don't get caught not wearing one! -- or a house-size Old Glory looming perilously over a car dealership parking lot. Italians marvel at this, the pride and pomposity of it all. Maybe they're more jaded when it comes to nationalism -- their last embrace of it didn't end so well. And national identity in Italy is a relatively thin veneer over much more deeply rooted allegiances to family, town and region. Whatever the reason, watching Americans shouting "Yoo-Ess-Ay! Yoo-Ess-Ay! Yoo-Ess-Ay!" or wearing their patriotism on their sleeves -- and sneakers, and beer wraps and briefs -- makes Italians laugh. And groan.
1. OVERKILL -- And No. 1 ... An Italian web site that looks at Americanate past and present includes this video of a vintage Americanata, one that taps deep into the American soul. If ya can't figure any other way to do something, just blow it up!