Decameron, Day 1. The joy of being wrong.

Adunque, – disse la reina – se questo vi piace, per questa prima giornata voglio che libero sia a ciascuno di quella materia ragionare che più gli sarà a grado.
It is perhaps appropriate that, for the first day, there wasn’t a specific topic to guide the vespertine stories of the young Florentine escapees. After all, why shackling their newfound freedom with constrictions? Better to give carte blanche to their imagination and to see how inventive took them.
There are, however, common traits in most of the stories from that night; a fil rouge of sorts weaves in and out of every novella. Nothing is what it seems. Today’s villains are tomorrow’s heroes. Strongly-held beliefs might turn out to be completely untrue.
Ser Ciappelletto, “the worst man ever to be born”: blasphemous, murderer, traitor of friends and of religion, yet capable of swindling a full absolution and nabbing sainthood, all from his death bed. The wise Melchisedech, who convinces Saladin that all three religions have their merits and one cannot be more authentic than the other. Can Grande della Scala and Erminio de’ Grimaldi, when put in front of their own stinginess, change their minds. The abbot cannot punish the young friar he caught with a woman, for he did exactly the same and with the same lady nonetheless.
If ever there was a lesson to be learned from this first day, it ought to be that being certain of something often rhymes with being wrong. And that contradictions are a part of human experience. My story is exactly about this.
Much like most of continental Europeans, I’ve for long considered the southern US to be a swamp of ignorance, prone to the occasional burst of violence and with a penchant setting crosses on fire. I considered them the land of God, guns and Trump, the place where creationism is taught at school. As strange as it might sound, I’d been readier to go to Iran than I’d been to visit Charlotte, NC.
Armed with facts such as that abortion clinics in the state had declined from 112 in the 80s to 14 in the year I was visiting, or that the weekly attendance to the city’s megachurches was higher than what Arsenal could muster – even with the promise of beer – I boarded my flight from Madrid in a state of mild trepidation. Over drinks in Chueca, the night before, a friend remarked how he was told that hillbillies would take pot shot at the 737 airplane fuselages as they left on freight trains, Seattle-bound. “And that’s just down the road”, he smirked as he downed the G&T.

The first indication that things mightn’t be as I expected it awaited in the airport’s immigration hall. American borders are, normally, an obstacle course of beige walls, 1980s carpets and functionaries who behave as if they featured on those Discovery Channel programmes where people dressed like them discover drugs and contraband every other minute. This time, though, there were Cookie and Doug. Cookie was a Latina lady not much taller than three packets of Oreo stacked one on top of the other, while Doug was a monumental man with a Hulk Hogan moustache, a brown suit that had been manufactured by a metal press and a tie that even my dad would’ve defined obscene. They patrolled the queue of travellers as they inched forward in bovine fascination and, instead of barking orders, spoke to people. As my turn came, Doug made a point of asking how I was, if I travelled far and apologised for the air-con being weak (it was so cold that I could’ve squeezed a half lemon with my nipples). When I left to go to the booth, he wished me a great stay in town.

My hosts had laid out an evening of entertainment: baseball. As with most Anglo-Saxon games its intricacies escaped me and, let’s face it, I was more interested in getting rat-arsed than learning why a guy dressed in pyjamas was running around or another was worthy of an ovation for catching a ball mid-air. Yet, even when obfuscated by a worrying amount of Sam Adams, I couldn’t help but notice a few things. There weren’t any riot police, water cannons, horses dressed in Day-Glo orange with a bit of Perspex around their eyes unlike every stadium I’d visited in Europe. Fans from both sides mingled together and gave each other way in the queues for loos and sausage stands in an apocalypse of “After you, ma’am”. And whenever my non-American accent was spotted I’d turn into the celebrity of the moment although, with hindsight, I should’ve passed on the “Italian meatballs” sandwich.

And so it continued for the duration of my stay, with absolute strangers offering help and guidance to other people they’d never met before, drivers letting us know we still had a quarter on the meter as we were parking after them and, above all, genuine pleasure at knowing that somebody from abroad – from Europe! – was coming to visit town. Then, as things were wrapping up and the return flight loomed large on my agenda, came the final lesson.
A barbeque. A quintessentially American affair in a condo with a community garden half the size of Andorra and an amount of food truly worthy of the adjective pantagruelic. In spite of our best efforts it was clear from the start that we’d never, ever be able to finish it all off. But that had never been part of the plan: during the feast, with the savoir faire that denoted a well-rehearsed ritual, our hosts spirited large trays of sizzling meat and potatoes, tubs of salad and big sacks of those fluffy bread buns, stacked them into the back of a van and drove them to a soup kitchen not far from where we were.
It was all so normal that I didn’t notice it and it was only when they returned that I realised what’d just happened. Through the beer haze it occurred to me that the Bible-thumping, Confederate flag-flying, gun-loving hillbillies had taught the European – son of a welfare state, born in the place where the Good Samaritan has been taught for two millennia – quite the ultimate lesson.
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21 Responses to Decameron, Day 1. The joy of being wrong.

  1. Isn’t that one of the ultimate joys of travel, Fabrizio? To be proven wrong?

    There is a quote by John O’Donohue I love and has a lot of relevance to your story and how our perceptions of places are formed:
    “The media is essentially like Plato’s cave – a parade of shadows that we take for the real world. It is a huge abstraction from what is real.”

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s story. Have a lovely day!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Bama says:

    I’ve seen quite a lot of foreigners saying the same thing about Indonesia when they actually visit it (I’m talking about those who explore the country, not just stay in Bali, although the island itself is magnificent). Indonesia on the international media is a place that constantly suffers from natural disasters, where corruption is rife, and where Islamists dictate people’s lives. But as many of us who have traveled beyond the comfort of our homes have proven, traveling does open our horizon to things that are not usually covered in our usual media outlets.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. James says:

    What a hilarious and eye-opening account this is, Fabrizio! You clearly got your fill of famous Southern hospitality. I smiled at picturing you becoming an instant celebrity at the stadium the moment you opened your mouth – so many Americans have such a great reverence for Europe, and because it’s largely an immigrant nation I’ve found that there’s a national obsession with finding one’s own ancestral roots.

    What we see reported in the mainstream media often has the effect of reducing a complex real-life situation into a simplistic caricature, and it’s easy for us to lose sight of the very definition of news, that it denotes a state of change rather than the norm. I was just going to mention the example of Indonesia but Bama has already beaten me to it – from the scaremongering headlines that pop up on occasion, you’d think that Indonesia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world!

    As for the unfortunate encounter with the “Italian meatball” sandwich, I suspect you won’t like what Americans have done with pizza and pasta in general! And wait till you try Korean stir-fried rice cakes (tteokbokki) in a spicy carbonara sauce. It’s something I enjoy as a guilty pleasure but I think you’d be shocked as a true-blue Italian.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Ah, I’m happy if people bastardise Italian cuisine, don’t get me wrong James (unless they pretend to be Italian and mis-spell their place’s name, like MANY chains over here). It’s just that it was something I digested roughly three months later.. Think a two-kilo sub with meatball the sizes of oranges, filled with cheese, dripping tomato sauce.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. lexklein says:

    I love the quotation Jolandi posted. I’ve lived in enough places that inspire completely ignorant stereotypes (Chicago, and Houston, and Texas in general, among others) and that are absolutely lovely, uplifting places to be. I’ve likewise traveled to states and countries that have iffy or negative reputations and have found in them the same warm-hearted people and open-minded ideals that can be found anywhere we decide to look for them. Glad you were able to see the good in your destination.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What an interesting read. People are wonderful aren’t they?! I’ve heard stories of Southern hospitality, but not directly experienced it. Still I’m not convinced. I bet a good portion of them would still routinely vote against any kind of gun control.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The man with the plan, and not above proving himself wrong (but we knew that). Great start.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. J.D. Riso says:

    I love it when I’m proven wrong in such a way. It’s so much more liberating than being right all the time. Bravo, Fabrizio

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You Europeans aren’t the only ones who hold these perceptions. We Canadians are quite smug, especially these days. Thankfully, I am reminded on every trip I take to the U.S. about the kindness, openness and hospitality of individuals (the guy at the top and his goons are a different matter). Really enjoyed your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dave Ply says:

    Just goes to prove that despite a few grains of truth in stereotypes, people are much the same world over. Most are essentially good at heart, with a few bad apples that get the press. I’m glad you learned of southern hospitality, (but maybe not why clothing sized extra-extra-large is a common thing in the south.)

    Liked by 1 person

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