34. Drive-Thru Culture

Have you ever been a guide to a foreign person in your own home? I highly suggest that you try it. You’ll inevitably discover new things that have hiding in plain sight for your whole life.   Through a pair of foreign eyes, things that have always seemed like banal, background elements to your existence suddenly force themselves to be revisited.  Things like the shape of a stop light, or how shopping karts feel different when you steer them suddenly demand further examination.  I once witnessed a squirrel while in an American park in the company of a European person.  At the sight of the common urban rodent, there were shrieks of bewildered excitement as if a primeval subconscious had been awakened in the presence of what was perceived to be raw nature.  I found myself confused, wondering whether I’d missed something. Despite claiming that seeing squirrels was quite common, my friend wildly snapped photos, fearing the end of such a rare encounter.  I found myself questioning my understanding of squirrels and nature via a voice in my head that had taken on that of Sir David Attenborough.  

During our first visit to the United States together, my wife who is Italian, and I managed to experience an impressive number of iconic American things.  We stood on the Golden Gate Bridge, we ate chicken and waffles at 2:00 am in Oakland, and we camped under the stars as we made our way through Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Colorado.  Those have indeed remained special memories, each in their own ways, but it’s the smaller things that fascinated my wife and made me reevaluate so many of the experiences that I’d taken for granted or just never noticed growing up in America.  I would have never thought that spending a night in a cheap motel would end up being the impetus for cultural discovery.  Marianna examined every aspect of the room like a detective, saying things like “Look at this sink!  Why is it like this?”  Or “What kind of sheets are these?”.  To her disappointment, I had no satisfactory answers for her questions.  

My wife is still fascinated by seemingly random American things.  To this day, even after having visited the US and my family in Denver multiple times, she still finds herself compelled to do things like schedule long visits Walgreens.  She walks down the aisles as if it were museum, reading labels and taking mental notes.  For her, it’s like going on a cultural safari citing that she just never gets to see the kinds of products or clientele that Walgreens regularly provides.  It’s true.  Walgreens, for better or for worse, is a window into contemporary American cultural reality on par with the Smithsonian.  


Back in Italy, on a rather mundane Sunday during Season 3 of the Global Pandemic we were driving through the outskirts of Bologna. Heading to my wife’s sister’s house and Marianna, out of the blue, noted:

“You know what I’ve never done?  I’ve never got food via the drive-thru window and then eaten the food in the car.” 

There was a particular emphasis on ‘eating in the car’ as if it was scandalous thing even to mention out loud.  Italians don’t eat in the car.  Marianna’s father, who is moderate and progressive compared to the majority of Italian traditionalists, always forbade eating in the car to his children growing up.  Food is sacred in Italy and the consumption of it must reflect the appropriate amount of respect and reverence.  I sensed an aire of rebelliousness in my wife’s voice as she imagined what it would be like to consummate a family meal within the confines of our vehicle.  I, having consumed a considerably large amount of meals in cars during my existence as an American from Denver, found it hard to share the same excitement for her anarchistic plan.  I also couldn’t believe that I had overlooked such a blaringly American experience on our many trips to the US.  Eating fast food in the parking lot at a drive-thru hadn’t come to mind when I was thinking of emblematic experiences through which to share my native culture. It is what it is though. Like Walgreens, what exists will be noticed sooner or later.

So, with mischievous determination, Marianna insisted that we, as a family acquire a meal from Burger King and eat it in the adjacent parking lot.  I was worried that her initial excitement may lead expectations that wouldn’t live up to the actual experience.  I tried my best to explain that nothing really happens other than parking, eating, and leaving. However, there was no point in resistance.   Marianna also doesn’t share my reluctance to indulge in fast food.  For her it’s a harmless novelty that’s fine every now and then. I, on the other hand, grew up too close to America’s raging junk-food fire and don’t really feel comfortable with industrial fast food anymore.  Having moved to Italy, I acquired a greater vision of how to perceive food and how it can be shared and consumed.  I am now ever-conscious of my privileged, regular access to delicacies that are the envy of much of the world as well as simple, quality vegetables. I can walk down any street, in any direction and get locally produced, unpasteurized cheese that, for a number of backwards reasons, is illegal in the US. We actually possess two different qualities of olive oil in our kitchen and understand how and where each of them will improve certain dishes. The mere existence of fast food in Italy seems to me like a dangerous transgression.  I feel like I should be telling a survivor’s story, defending what remains of the storied, local products and centuries of painstaking development against the encroaching corporate machines that long-ago ruined America’s foodscape by forcing the lowest quality possible upon us in the name of profit.   Of course, Marianna wasn’t suggesting that we throw out our grade A quality olive oil or that we cease to shop at local markets.  She simply wanted to have an experience that she just realized had evaded her up until this point in life. 

Two chicken nuggets rest on the dashboard on a foggy night in Bologna, Italy.

So, there we found ourselves on a cold, foggy January evening, munching on whoppers and chicken nuggets as our windows steamed up.  Our seven-year-old son, who had no cultural references for this was mostly surprised at his fortune.  A burger and fries just like that? In the car, no less? Were these people still his parents?  He inhaled his Whopper Jr. with the speed of someone who understood the finite limit of time on whatever magic spell had enchanted the authorities.   Meanwhile, our two-year-old daughter delightedly spread half-eaten fries and bits of nuggets throughout the crevices between the seats.  Incredibly, no ketchup ended up on our clothing nor on the upholstery.

I was surprised at how surreal it felt to watch my family in Italy eat Burger King in the car with such elation.  To make things even stranger, Marianna inspired by the intercultural moment opened youtube on her phone and searched for the Pharcyde’s “Oh Shit!” I have tried time and again to get her to understand my love and appreciation for hip hop.  For the most part, my efforts have gone in vain with a few random exceptions, including her inexplicable and seemingly random love for the 90’s group, The Pharcyde.  As the completely inappropriate-for-kids song played, (our pandemic-influenced outlook on parenting is decidedly lax) I could not help but feel that I had detached from my reality and was elsewhere in the multiverse, in a blended experience of past and present.

I was astonished at the amount of nostalgia conjured by those greasy, steamy moments in the car.  To understand a culture is to see it from all sides and to explore even the smallest and most commonplace aspects of the overall experience.  A totally unexpected flood of burger fueled memories came over me.  I remembered opening McDonald’s happy meals with my Mom.  We ate our fries, both of our seat belts still on.  My mom, whose vegetable garden is famous throughout the neighborhood and was a member of food coops in the 1980’s understood that the occasional fast food meal in the car was an effective remedy for much of childhood’s difficulties.  I remembered my Dad taking advantage of the moments of pause in parking lots. In the time it took to finish off a value meal to he was able to wax on father-son discussions and monologues about life.  I remembered the infinite lunches and late nights, bonding with friends over music, girls, hopes and dreams as we sat five deep in our parents cars, reveling in the flavors of ketchup and budding, adolescent freedom.  

Eating fast food in a parking lot is certainly not the noblest of cultural experiences.  It is what it is.  Compared to the high-browed 5-course Italian meals with paired, local wines that can last for hours, Burger King drive through doesn’t even seem comparable.  Yet there is a link, and a strong one at that.  It’s the people.  Humans need to eat in order to continue to function.  But when we eat in the presence of other people, the act takes on a whole different purpose.  When we eat together, we’re relaxed.  We’re happy.  I love great food but I’m here to admit that I think that it’s the company is the most important part of any meal.

Fast food in a parking lot in all of its glory, immortalized forever.

31. Grazie Siena

English / Italiano

I didn’t envision opening up my next chapter like this.  I knew change was coming my way, but I couldn’t imagine the current scenario.   I’ve known for nearly a year that I would be leaving Siena to move two hours to the north to the city of Bologna.   I will be taking a step away from so many things that I had a hand in creating, yet I can’t bring myself to leave it all behind me.  I will still be connected and working with SIS in Siena, but in a different, new way.  Just when I started to become comfortable with telling friends and colleagues about the coming change, we all got locked away inside of our houses.  The complex plans that had been previously clear in my mind blurred into something that I still can’t quite put into focus.  

Nevertheless, here we go.  To be frank, I’ve known that uprooting from Siena was a likely outcome of marrying Marianna Bolognesi.  She’s fearlessly ambitious.  She also understands the importance of my efforts and contributions to SIS and to Siena.  Research opportunities for Marianna in Amsterdam and Oxford came and went over the past 5 years and yet Siena still remained the city in which we set our anchor.  In June 2019, Marianna was offered the position of Associate Professor in Linguistics at the University of Bologna.  This kind of opportunity in the current Italian job market is an endangered species.  Her CV is certainly strong enough, but there are so many strong candidates in Italy today that are forced to settle for temporary work or to leave Italy in order to pursue their ambitions.   A secure job at the University of Bologna is not something that neither Marianna nor myself could turn down right now.  We’ve both made so many sacrifices.  We both spent significant time living alone with our son.  Our driving hope was that our sacrifices would make way for opportunities. This is the opportunity.  

I’ve enjoyed a unique experience in Siena.  Siena is not one of Europe’s intercultural hotspots, and could be considered an unlikely place to have dedicated more than a decade creating intercultural exchange and experience for thousands of young people.   Nonetheless, that’s what I did with a wonderful group of like-minded individuals.   I am fully aware of how difficult it can be to assimilate into Siena’s local culture as an outsider.   While I have experienced some prejudice and exclusion due to being a foreigner for the most part I found it easy to move among the proud Sienese.  I have to acknowledge the fact that I start off at an advantage as a white, American male.  Even with this advantage, Siena’s social fabric is difficult to permeate.  Maybe it’s the difficulty itself that piqued my interest.  I have always been fascinated with the local culture that many perceive as fanatically devoted to the past.  I make a concerted effort to make sure that that passionate interest is open and on display.  Learning to speak like a local and showing a general interest in understanding local life has worked like a trojan horse, letting me pass through walls.  Whether people liked them or not, I brought my inherently foreign ideas with me.  My goals were never imperialistic, but rather to simply be as participant as possible in society in my own, personal way.  I searched and found common interests and uncovered spaces where my own American-acquired abilities could be put to use for everything from local development to my own entertainment.  

I found myself in situations very few outsiders have experienced.  Looking back at the things I was able to do, sometimes it doesn’t seem real.  As a kid, growing up in Denver, Colorado I never envisioned living in Siena, Italy.  I could not have even conceived of Siena as a place back then.  Yet, I found myself standing on the sidelines of a Serie A soccer field, translating for an elite player.  I forged bonds with friends for more than 15 years on the common grounds of local basketball courts, which seems ironic as I wasn’t a great basketball player growing up in the US.  I got better at the game in Siena.  Together with locals and other brilliant people I created a school, a few volunteer organizations and countless projects where people from different backgrounds work together to improve local life, even in the smallest of ways.  I have been lucky enough to experience ancient institutions and rituals from the inside.  I may have been the only American to have ever participated in the eternal rituals of the Palio by dressing in the traditional clothing, representing the city of Siena in the historic procession preceding the Palio.  My own son is also a son of Siena, baptized in the most Sienese way among the people of one of the 17 extended families.

It’s all been fascinating but walking this path, ever farther away from what could be called familiar can feel lonely at times.  At this point I don’t have a shared base of cultural common experiences with anyone.  I have an assortment of so many different cultural experiences that, put together, make a unique cultural fabric that I adorn, making me visibly different from so many around me.   When you’re different, everyone seems more eager to offer opinions on your situation.  I have heard everything from “Someone like you shouldn’t have wasted so much time in a little, provincial town like Siena” to “The only way to truly understand this place is to have been born here.”   I disagree with both of those opinions.  My ever-complicated being doesn’t make me sad, but I’ll admit that it does force more internalization of feelings than I would prefer.   

At this point, adding more and more dimensions and hues to life’s pattern seems to be the only natural form of progression.  I have been ready to take this next step now for a while but the uncertainly of all of our futures brought on by a global pandemic has added an extra layer or two of anxiety to the way that I look towards the coming change.  I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Siena and SIS, so I had figured out a way to step away, without totally separating.  Now the moment has arrived to step away, but I can no longer be sure whether to say “see you later” or “goodbye”.  

Professionally, I have spent a long time helping people adapt to new ways of life.  Now I get to use everything that I’ve learned to do some adapting of my own as I look to discover more new things.  I hope that I’ll be in Siena frequently, working with the small, independent and rebellious study abroad program SIS.  Thank you to each an every one of you who have been a part of my unique experience.