March 05, 2008
I don’t wish to be one of those goofball Americans who comes to Europe and starts dumping all over his native land—because, for instance, the U.S. doesn’t have quite so many medieval cathedrals still standing, and notably failed to contribute any Renaissance painters of note. My major wasn’t history, but I suspect there may be good reasons for each phenomenon. I know that some cultural indicators of decline are much more advanced in Italy than in America—a lower native birth rate, a low marriage rate, low church attendance. But there’s one thing I’ve noticed over here which definitely stands out against my American background, and I wish I knew the explanation: The greater dignity of labor I’ve witnessed here in Rome. At drugstores, the clerks are attentive, cheerful, and helpful; they lack the glassy stare I’m used to encountering at CVS in Dallas or Nashua (NH). The waiters, while harried and busy, are much more jaunty than depressed. The service staff at the pensione where I’m staying act like they’re proud to be cleaning hotel rooms, and look you in the eye with a forthright awareness that they are your equal—as they are. They are working, and that has a dignity in itself, regardless of the social status of the job they are performing. All of this stands in marked contrast to my experience in various parts of America—the Deep South, Texas, New York City, and New England. And I wonder what explains it.
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