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THIS WINTER IN ITALY, AN AMERICAN VISITOR HAD SOME EXPLAINING TO DO

It is one thing to look at the news about America and Americans from inside our borders. I found a very different viewpoint this winter on a visit to Italy.

Near Cavalese, where on Feb. 3 a U.S. military plane flying too low clipped the wire holding a cable car and caused the deaths of 20 European skiers:

With a gesture that could not contain more cynicism, my friend looked at his watch altimeter. "We are now at 1,850 meters. It will be only 300 more meters to the peak of Plan de Selva. If I can read the altitude off my wrist, couldn't the American pilot with his advanced technology know that the plane was flying only 80 meters above the ground?"

The skiers' deaths unleashed a torrent of anti-American sentiment against cowboys of the air, against American military strikes of Iraq, against retaining American military bases on Italian soil. To control the damage, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made an express visit to Italy.

Many Italians I encountered have profound respect for the United States. They admire our technology, our superpower status and, yes, our film industry.

Yet in a six-person cabin ski lift, there was an awkward silence when my friend told the other passengers that I am an American. I joked that my Roman friend is very intelligent because he takes an American skiing with him as insurance against American pilots. Laughter broke the ice.

Secretary Albright has her work cut out for her in Italy.

Rome, about the time the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke:

With the implication that Americans are still children, people repeatedly asked me, "How can you Americans concern yourselves so much with your president's sex life?" When I tried to explain that this was a serious matter and that there was considerable talk of impeaching the president, every Italian was incredulous. Even derisive.

Anyone spending some time in southern Europe understands that American attitudes toward sex do not apply there. The Italian media contain more explicit sex than their American counterparts, and many Italians overlook illicit liaisons.

At the same time, there is more prudery than in the United States among both men and women in everyday conversation. In all the years I have lived in and visited Italy, I have never heard off-color jokes among men and women or the equivalent of our locker-room humor among men.

Here was my weak response to their questions about President Clinton: "No, we are not children."

Perhaps they believed me.

Also in Rome:

The Texas execution of Karla Faye Tucker received extensive media coverage. The press trotted out the old standbys about the barbaric West, lack of civilization, what can one expect from these people and so forth. Friends were truly puzzled as to how such a great nation could be so out of step with other Western nations, which virtually all banned capital punishment long ago and stuck to their bans.

This, coupled with the U.S. willingness to bomb Iraq, gave grist to the anti-U.S. stories in the press.

I pointed out that many Americans are opposed to the death penalty, myself included. Still, the question was, why could this happen? Relying on a limited knowledge of Verdi operas, I tried replying that perhaps the explanation is that many Americans simply want revenge against the convicted killers. I drew blank looks.

I turned the conversations toward Iraq, arguing that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has to be stopped. Perhaps I made some headway there, but I am not sure.

Elsewhere in Italy:

Perhaps nothing spoke as strongly of cultural difference as the reaction to reports on a study that compared mathematics achievement among the world's high-school students. It was the same survey that touched off national soul-searching in the United States.

The Italians did just about as bad, but the self-condemnation was mostly missing. I found this commentary inside an Italian newspaper:

"Italy is near the middle-bottom, just above the U.S., in ranking of students' performance in an international mathematics and science study. . . .

"This is the country of Peano and Fermi. . . . It now produces argumentation, comic operas and wonderful cocktails. . . . If we had an Olympics of gossip-mongering, we would have no rivals. It is too bad that in order to compete in the world there are other requirements."

The writer was selling Italy short. This is the country that produced the Renaissance, Galileo, Caravaggio, Monteverdi and a postwar economic miracle.

But still, how refreshing -- and different -- that a country can look at the less serious side of its national character and, instead of wringing its hands and preaching, be conscious of its charm.

MURRAY BROWN lives in Amherst.

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