Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Twilight Zone

I am caught in a time warp. This strange, little town from which I hail seems to have grasped onto the 80s and never let go. Hair styles, clothing, and the background music in all the area businesses point to this fact. It’s a place where everything is different but nothing has changed.

It’s been a peculiar experience to spend an extended period of time here and to view the behaviors and attitudes I’d left behind some 20 years ago.

First, there is the food.

I have been astounded by the growth of the population here, and I’m not talking about numbers, but size. While I’ve read articles about the obesity epidemic in America, and New Mexico is certainly not without her share, it seems that the majority of the population here is unhealthily, sadly overweight. It’s no wonder when one realizes what the normal diet is. The dining choices in this town of about 6,000 souls consist of no less than five pizza joints (who do not serve up thin-crusted Italian pizza but heavily-cheesed, greasy behemoths with crusts as thick as a shoebox, the resulting taste somewhat like the contents of a shoebox but greasier and less nourishing). The other options are primarily deep-fried, barbecue, and fast food junk. Fresh perch, pulled from nearby Lake Erie would be a healthful choice, but in these parts it can be served only by breading and deep-frying it (I think there must be a State law governing that presentation); your choice is, “do you want it on a bun or on a plate?” Globs of tartar sauce are to be anticipated with either choice.

The grocery stores are not much better. Most of the produce is pre-wrapped and seems a couple minutes away from rotting. The emphasis is heavily weighted toward packaged and canned and frozen…er, stuff (I hesitate to call it food). Nary a whole grain is to be found in the tri-county area. Organics are frowned upon. And don’t even think about finding ethnic ingredients, the mere mention of which will bring about a diatribe about illegal immigration.

And so, to go grocery shopping we must make the trip to Cleveland, an hour distant. There we revel in the West Side Market experience and find a better selection of meats and some organic produce. We found a small locally-owned health food market on the west side of the city, as well as a Trader Joe’s. There we indulge in restaurants serving Japanese or Lebanese or Thai fare. But it’s the idea…an hour to find edible food? Something that can be truly called food, to give nutrition and taste? In the heart of America’s farm country?! What gives?

And then there is the matter of exercise. One is extremely careful to not move one’s limbs in a manner that might exert oneself in any form. Walking elicits bold-faced stares, as we’ve discovered when we have (gasp!) walked from my parent’s loft on Main Street three whole blocks to the (so-called) grocery store. Oh the folly! The local inhabitants will sit in their cars at the drive-thru window of the ice cream joint rather than park and walk about 15 feet to the building, though service is faster at the walk-up window. When Bryan was out running yesterday morning, some good ol' boys driving by leaned out the window and mocked him, yelling, "Run Forrest, run!"

Then there is the ambiance. Many of the storefronts on Main Street are empty, given up in favor of the mall, strip centers, and big box stores in Sandusky, a half-hour away. Main Street has been largely given over to the semi-trucks that rumble down it on the US route bisecting the town. People don’t seem to take any interest in civic life, in maintaining a sense of community, or fostering local businesses. My parents, God love them, are endeavoring to drum up some type of downtown renaissance, and I wish them well though I fear they face an arduous, uphill battle and will be none too appreciated for their efforts. Apathy runs rampant here, but at least someone is trying. It's sad; many of the old brick and stone buildings are historical and pretty, and downtown could be quaint. Instead, it's practically deserted of life and devoid of charm.

Another problem about hanging around here is anonymity, or lack thereof. It’s a small place and everyone immediately knew of our presence about 10 minutes after our arrival. The two main gossip hubs – the coffee shop and the barber shop – are located downstairs from my parents’ loft. The occupants of these establishments quickly disseminated the news about out-of-staters taking up residence upstairs. And not only does everyone know we’re here, but everyone knows my mom. Everyone. This was a major crimp on my life when I was a teenager. I could get away with virtually nothing. Any activity or attempted misdeeds on my part would reach my mother’s ears before I’d even arrived home for the night. Nothing has changed. Everyone still knows my mom, and everyone still sees and hears about everything that goes on here.

We lived in a village in New Mexico with roughly the same population as this town, and the contrast is striking. It is also depressing. The delay in our dream has us temporarily stranded in this strange little place where everyday feels like a Twilight Zone episode. I can hear Rod Sterling: “A couple arrives in a dingy, small Midwestern town where time stands still. Can they escape?”

The wheels of bureaucracy are turning slowly, inching us closer to Italy. I know we’ll get there. We are motivated; we really, really want to live in Italy. And we really, really don’t want to stay here much longer.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Mean People

After a tedious drive across the country, all I wanted to do was relax and visit with family. We arrived near Chicago at my sister-in-law's home to a warm welcome and the promise of a massage for my car-confined aching muscles. Then the dreadful news. After several calls to the Los Angeles Consulate to check the status of our visa application, we were hit the stomach-dropping blow...our application was being returned. We were shocked. The pencil-pusher on the phone would give no additional details but seemed to delight in telling us we'd have to wait for the packet to arrive with the letter explaining the denial. Days and more miles passed.

With legalese, the letter stated that we submitted an incorrect form, thus not proving "adequate" evidence of housing arrangements. We had also included details of our enrollment in a three-week langage course (following the advice and format of a letter on an expatriates website, and also the recommendation of the vice-counsel with whom we'd had contact). This was, apparently a no-no. Yes, showing that we'd make effort to become part of society was forbidden by the government representative who reviewed our application, as it confused her into thinking we would be vagabonds, without proper housing, drifting from place to place.

We are stuck in bureacratic purgatory.

Phone calls to said government consular agent were not only unfruitful, they were downright discouraging. She told us we'd have to start all over again. She told us that "maybe" we could try again and "take your chances" at being approved. She was rude; she was glad to be glum. She was a dream-quelcher.

Unanswered emails. Unanswered phone calls. Questions abounding, frustrations darkening our dream. What to do? We drove to a nearby (read, 2 hours drive) consulate to inquire specifically about their application process, for while each consulate represents the Italian government, each has its own requirements instead of one, uniform policy. Rather than dealing with the Evil Woman in Los Angeles, we figure if we're entering a crap-shoot, we'll take our chances with other, hopefully nicer, people.

The intial impression wasn't too encouraging. The woman behind the glass had a grown man shaking and stammering. She cut off his questions and answered curtly. She grabbed papers through the little window, ticking off requirements and what he still needed, then pushed the papers back through the hole and sent him packing. She asked, "Who's next for the visa department?" and we quivered, as it was our turn.

We swallowed hard, tried to look confident in the face of obvious authority, and squeaked, "we're next". She eyed us calmly, then asked if we were Italian citizens. Alright, I admit to being flattered as it meant that 1) she'd not looked at the Germanic-sounding name on the sign-in sheet and 2) she'd sized us up and thought we were one of her. Not a bad start. We said no, that we'd researched citizenship through my grandmother's family but that we wouldn't qualify, and, kind lady if you please, we have some questions. Then we produced our list. She was tolerant for the first four inquiries, answering them evenly and without the edginess she'd displayed to the man before us. But after the fourth question, she was obviously becoming impatient with us and tried to wrap it up by saying, "alright then" firmly. We pressed on with a couple more questions until it became evident she was done with us, so we fled a bit breathlessly for the elevator. She did at least answer in a straightforward and fairly tolerant manner. Much more so than Evil Woman or her minions in L.A., and that alone felt like a welcome change, so we'd rather work through this kinder, gentler consulate.

But this entire ordeal has made me wonder...what is it about bureacracies that they always seem to produce that type of behavior? Are those impatient and almost-inhumane government workers born that way and thus recruited because of their callous attitudes, or are they normal, everyday people who must undergo extensive meanness training before being let loose to intimidate the public they are supposed to serve? I can understand becoming frustrated if you're having a bad day and seemingly ignorant people inundate you with seemingly inane questions. But to consistantly behave in a rude and malevolent manner, to delight in dashing people's dreams, to joyfully and sadistically make well-functioning, college-educated adults feel hopelessly inept seems to be their goal in life. They seem to enjoy plunging you down to the depths of a bureacratic abyss from which you must fight and claw your way out. Rather like Dante's Purgatory. I guess Dante could concoct such an image of Purgatory so adeptly because he had been in intimate contact with Italian bureacracy.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider