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Basil Fawlty and International Understanding

10/14/2013 10:14 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

It was the kind of exercise that I, in my teaching days, would not have touched with a 10-foot pole. The idea was to get us speaking in Italian using the present conditional and the past perfect subjunctive. The question was "what would the world be if country x, y or z had never existed?"

I am studying Italian for a couple of months at one of Italy's 'universita per stranieri' or universities for foreigners. As the name suggests, the class is full of foreigners (to Italy) from around the world, all studying Italian. In September, I was the only English-speaker in my class. The majority of my classmates were European, though the Middle East and South America were also well-represented.

When I saw the exercise in question, I winced. I used to teach ESL and I learned pretty quickly to keep politics out of the classroom unless absolutely unavoidable. Nothing pleasant comes of it, on top of which, people tend to revert to their mother tongue when angry or frustrated or shrieking, defeating the purpose of a language class.

I thought of my classmates. Oh, the things I could say! But no, I would only say good things. The professor asked about some of the countries represented in class, though not all (she carefully avoided Iran and Israel) and about some not represented.

When we got to Germany, I think I said something about Beethoven and apple strudel. Others followed suit. When Canada had its turn, many jokes were made about hockey. We all said nice things about everyone. It was civilized; a wonderful day in the neighbourhood.

And then we got to the United States and our 'hood turned ugly. There was nothing I hadn't heard, much of it sounding like regurgitation from an undergrad political forum. The i-word got thrown about, as in, 'if there had never been the United States there would be no imperialism'. Seriously, this was said in a classroom in Italy. Apparently the Roman Empire was insignificant. This was also said shortly after Vladimir Putin's humiliation of Barack Obama over Syria, as though Russia has no imperial designs.

Further, as a Canadian, I consider myself a direct beneficiary of the British Empire, so I hate for it to go unappreciated. Yet no one mentioned it or any other empire -- no attack on the Ottomans or the Caliphate or even the French. One would think one could count on some anti-French comments in this life. Only American imperialism got a (negative) nod and only the United States received criticism.

Much of that criticism was coming from the European contingent, primarily the German students. I was particularly disappointed in them. How many times, I thought, had I been crowded by the half dozen of them in the student café (they always seemed to travel in a group) pushed out of the cappuccino line-up and yet I never once cried out, 'will you people please give me some lebensraum!'

I had to say something, so, I pointed out that if there had never been the United States we would all be speaking German and our Israeli classmate would not be with us. There were some exasperated gasps and some eye-rolls but one of my class-mates did then concede that "at least America has done one good thing." One? What about the Cold War? What about intervention in the former Yugoslavia? What about humanitarian aid and unspeakable generosity?

I did not get a chance to make those points, because the campanello rang. I felt some relief, not just for the end of the uncomfortable moment, but for the fact that the United States under Barack Obama gets the same reflexive, thoughtless criticism that it always did under George Bush. Our professoressa looked relieved, as well. I suspect she had projected her own niceness onto us and assumed no negative words would be spoken.

Other than complaining freely about their own government, most teachers here, to their credit, try to put the smack-down on most political discussions. That said, many don't shrink from putting a particular spin on recent Italian history.

Much hay is made about the allegedly nefarious influence of the Marshall Plan -- supposedly, without it and its implicit support of Italy's centrist Christian Democratic Party, as well as the prosperity it allowed to flourish in Italy, Italians might have elected a leftist government after the war and lived in bliss ever after. A recent book that explores this theory, among other things, is Manlio Graziano's The Failure of Italian Nationhood. (How do you know, by the way, that you are at an Italian university? Well, one clue is that your teacher is wearing loafers with no socks, shiny black pants, a T-shirt with the silhouette of a pin-up girl on it and Prada glasses.)

The American military bases in Italy were presented in one of my history lectures as being little more than quid pro quo, rather than being also for the protection of Italy. And I was interested to hear that Italy was freed from what they call 'Nazifascisti' here, by the partigiani, the partisans. Now, many of the partisans were courageous and that should not be forgotten. But without the Allies, they didn't have a hope in heck.

My class this month has a decidedly different make-up: majority Asian. I was chatting with one of the Chinese students the other day and discovered she was from Nanjing. We got to talking about the Iris Chang book, The Rape of Nanking when one of our Japanese classmates joined us. We immediately stopped mentioning the war.

Later, I showed the same Chinese student the famous Basil Fawlty 'Don't Mention the War' clip, which she had never seen. It's been a long time since I have seen someone laugh that hard. It gave me more hope for international understanding than I have been experiencing lately.

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