Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lost in translation - being Italian in America

Last week, I was invited to speak at a conference in New York City, organized by ILICA (Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance). The full title of the conference was "Saving Venezia & Protecting New Orleans. The MOSE project. The debate surrounding Italy's most innovative technology." and it was held at the Manhattan campus of St. John's University. The proceedings were punctuated with a series of sumptuous meals prepared by imported Venetian chefs from the Trattoria Bissa da Rocco in Mestre, coordinated by Andrea Tiberi, an Eatalian chef operating a successful wine bar in New York.
Two thousand pounds of fresh fish and other products (like radicchio chioggiotto) were flown in from Chioggia for the event. The mayor of Chioggia, Romano Tiozzo, accompanied the cargo shipment to personally ensure that it arrived safely to the event. He was not the only notable present at the conference. We had the pleasure to meet the Italian Consul General in NYC, Francesco Maria Talò, and the ambassador's advisor Alberto Gallucci, and heard the voice of the mayor of Salinas, CA, the American capital of radicchio production. The conference was hosted by Cav. Vincenzo Marra, president of ILICA, and Prof. Anthony Tamburri, Dean of the John Calandra Italian American Institute.
In the quarter century that I have spent in the U.S., I never really had much of chance to interact with Italian-American institutions. I always thought that they were the province of Americans of Italian descent, but not for "true" Italians like me. Meeting the members of ILICA, I was surprised to find out that many of them were actually born in Italy -- as I was -- and had lived in the U.S. for most of their adult life -- as I have. Just last week, I renewed my "green card" (which might explain the "green again" in my enigmatic tweet) and was re-awakened to the fact that I am an alien in a country that I consider "home"... I discovered that my green card had expired while trying to embark in a flight from London back to my home in Spencer, Massachusetts, this summer. I was traveling with my son Nicolò, who could get onto the flight with no problems, because he has an American passport (despite having been born in Venice like me). This bureaucratic snafu, combined with the recent controversies surrounding my role as chair of the planning board in Spencer have convinced me that I should apply for citizenship in the country where I have spent the majority of my adult life (i.e. become "evergreen" as I obscurely stated in my tweet). Meeting the members of ILICA made me realize that I really am "one of them" for the first time in my life, and the outcome of the conference confirmed that I am really more American than I thought...
Given the subtitle of the conference that explicitly mentioned the "debate" surrounding the construction of the MOSE project, I though it would be useful to elucidate for the audience the nature of the controversies that accompanied the project for three decades. Despite having made clear both in the slides (below) and several other times during my remarks (which were fortunately videotaped by i-Italy cameramen) that I was simply relating the history of the opposition to the project, which have all been resolved (as I repeatedly stressed), and not presenting my personal views, those who did not speak fluent English in the audience were left with the impression that I was personally against the MOSE project. Very unfortunate indeed...
Ironically, the very last question I emailed to Prof. Tamburri, as I was preparing my slides, was whether they were expecting me to present in Italian or in English. Given the name of the hosting institution, it was a legitimate question, and Prof. Tamburri replied that I should present in English. As it turns out, this was probably a fateful decision since what transpired at the conference clearly indicated that my presentation was "lost in translation" due to language barriers on the part of the delegation from the Consorzio Venezia Nuova (CVN) and the Magistrato alle Acque, headed by Mr. Patrizio Cuccioletta. Their vehement reaction with ad hominem attacks to my personal and professional integrity left me and others in the audience stupefied. It was embarrassing display of unwarranted defensiveness on the part of those who were invited to the conference to represent the "best" that Italy has to offer as far as cutting-edge engineering.
Given the tenor of my presentation, where I actually praised them for their technical skills (slide 10) and expressed clearly that the controversies were "resolved", as well as my faith in the effectiveness of the barriers to achieve what they were designed for (slide 31), it should have been amply clear that my intentions were purely informative.
Quite naively, in retrospect, I was hoping to incite discussion that would take us "beyond" this project to solve the outstanding issues that are of concern to average Venetians like me (slides 73-104), by expressing my hope that we could devote a commensurate amount of attention and funding to these other pressing challenges, thus creating opportunities to develop levels of expertise that could be exported to the rest of the world as the CVN is doing already in its field. These important discussion points were completely waylaid by the puzzling rebukes proffered by Mr. Cuccioletta and Mrs. Brotto, who seemed to be responding to some "other" presentation to those who followed and understood where I was coming from with my remarks.
Although I did not really take personally any of the comments that were made, I was truly disappointed at the missed opportunity for a real "debate" about these matters of crucial importance to Saving the Venetians. While one could possibly understand the obsequious deference to the prestige of the Venetian authorities on the part of some of the spectators, some "neutral" English-speaking members of the audience also seemed to have gotten the message wrong, and were thus intent to "shooting the messenger", despite my repeated re-statement of the informational (and impersonal) nature of my historical retrospective on the vicissitudes of the project. I will leave the readers of the blog to draw their own conclusions based on the included slide show.
It is disconcerting to me that my crucifiction on the altar of full disclosure ended up sidelining the excellent presentations by Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno and John Day, whom I hold in high esteem. The Bongiornos were instrumental in getting me invited to this conference, after having met me at the Wingspan workshop they organized for the development of their WaterMark film project in 2005, where I also met John Day, who presented to us the similarities and differences between the New Orleans and the Venetian situation. I also fear that the knee-jerk reaction that we all witnessed may have marred the potential for future collaborations between the Venice Project Center and ILICA, especially as a potential sponsor of our planned descent of the Hudson and circumnavigation of Manhattan with Venetian row boats in 2012.
All in all, this experience has cemented in my mind the fact that I am really more American than Italian at this point: truly an "American Italian", i.e. an Italian who has been americanized, which is slightly different from being an Italian American, i.e. an American of Italian descent. Regardless of the labeling, we all have more in common with each other than with Italians who only come to America to visit and are unfamiliar with the nuances of the American language, as well as with the spirit of open debate and transparency that are parts and parcel of American culture. It seems to me that to avoid embarrassing diplomatic incidents in the future, Italian Americans (and American Italians) should create a counterpart to ILICA, which we may want to name ELICA, an institution that will promote the diffusion of English Language to help Italians understand the Culture of America.
Having spent the last couple of years to fully release all of our 20 years of research for Venice through our Venice 2.0 anniversary initiative, I think ELICA may be just what we need to propel us together into this new era of open discourse and away from the closed-minded provincialism that is so 1.0 and has prevented the Italian genius from shining again in the world spotlight for far too long.
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