Stunningly, amidst all the Obamania of this past week, there’s actually been some other news coming out of Europe; my favorite headline concerned those lovable, madcap Italian bankers. According to the Swiss media, the Italian banking industry is bragging that it managed to avoid much of the credit crisis because Italian bankers don’t speak English well enough to understand mortgage-backed securities.
Mama mia. Could you make this stuff up? The Italians are essentially saying – proudly – that their economy hasn’t completely tanked because they're simply too incompetent to grasp what’s been going on.
Although there are a zillion reasons I love Italy, this one really takes the Panettone. The only other country I know that’s ever been as cheerfully forthright about its own ignorance is, well, the U.S. of A. itself. ( We confused Sunnis and Shiites? Whoops! Our bad…)
The banking industry’s claim is the most amazing news I’ve heard out of Italy since Silvio Berlusconi announced that he had been missing in action for almost a month because he’d been getting a face lift in preparation for the 2004 elections. No, I am not making that up, either. What’s more, he was completely unabashed about it; he behaved as if cosmetic surgery was not only his right, but practically his political obligation: how else would he remain a virile, powerful leader? (read: sexually active). Wilder still, perhaps, was the fact that nobody in Italy laughed him out of office for this. They actually seemed to think it made sense. La bella figura trumps all.
My other favorite news story from the past week is more poignant: on the eve of the U.S. presidential Inauguration, Jews and Arabs here in Geneva got together at a public square to hold a sort of bonfire/candlelight vigil/dialogue. Among those present was Ruth Dreifuss, a former president of Switzerland (not only the first woman, but une juife, as the newspapers are often quick to point out.)
As news cameras panned across a huddle of women shivering in hajibs and men in yarmulkes shivering in down parkas, Dreifuss explained in the fire light that Jewish and Arab residents from all over Geneva – whether they hailed from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Israel, or Switzerland itself – had come together to show the world that they could meet, speak together peacefully, and reaffirm their common humanity during the crisis in Gaza.
It was a small group, and Dreifuss spoke with humility. The media coverage here seemed glancing; elsewhere, it was simply nonexistent. But it was a story that I believe deserved more attention. After all, it embodied the same ideals that were being celebrated that very moment half a world away on Capitol Hill.
Which was precisely the problem, of course. While the vigil’s intentions were admirable, its timing was terrible. On January 20th, there was really only one story worldwide. For the first time in history, even French television broadcast the L' Americain Investiture as it's called. (And the earth, as you might imagine, nearly fell off its axis...)
Now, a week later, while the Italian bankers and Genevoise Arabs and Jews are no longer news, Obama still is – he’s a brilliant, blinding star, the center of the media universe here. He and Michelle grace the cover of almost every magazine. Every half hour, Euronews leads with his cabinet picks and executive orders. Large portraits reading “Barack Obama 44th President of the United States” fill the windows of the biggest international bookstore downtown, displaying no less than 23 different books about Barack and Michelle in a variety of languages.
If the world’s attentions are not on the Italian banks, or the well-meaning Arabs and Jews here, it’s because everyone is besotted with “the kid with the funny name.”
I can’t say I blame them. I've got to admit: I'm swooning along beside them -- one proud (albeit smartass) Yankee.
Bestselling author of "Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress," "Kiss My Tiara," and "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven." Her debut novel, "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street" will be published in June 2014 by Grand Central Publishing-Hachette. You can also hear her commentary on NPR. Go to www.susanjanegilman.net for more info.