As Bush visits, Italians take stock of old ally

From roses in 1945 to doubts over Iraq war, Italy shifts its view of the US.

There was a time in Italy when if you experienced good fortune, people said, "You have found America!"

Not anymore.

Friday, when George Bush visits Rome, the so-called "disobbedienti" are warning that they will burn the American flag. Others plan to protest the president's policy in Iraq by wearing Abu Ghraib-style hoods over their heads.

While these dissenters don't represent the entire country's sentiment, the reception could not be more different from the one Italians gave Americans 60 years ago, when US and British forces marched into Rome and freed the Eternal City from Nazi occupation. Then, euphoric housewives threw flowers at their feet.

"If 1944 was a high point of Italian love for the Americans, 2004 is a pretty low point," says historian Paul Ginsborg.

Italy is officially America's second-biggest ally in Iraq, but between 70 and 80 percent of its citizens oppose the war. And the pope's message of disapproval only adds to their discomfort. It is Silvio Berlusconi, wearing a baseball cap for photo opportunities with Italian troops, who has, so far, kept a fragile lid on public unease.

In the 1940s and '50s, the US was Italy's savior. "Italy had no shape back then. You could say that the US gave it direction," says political scientist Roberto Menotti, a Rome-based member of the Council for Italian-American Relations.

American soldiers brought chocolate, cigarettes, and jazz. The US aided recovery through the Marshall Plan and backed Italy's NATO membership in 1949.

In half a century, Italy shot from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to being the seventh-largest economy in the world. "Everything has changed, from the health service to the shape of the women. They have shaken off the heavy, stultifying religious imposition," says Peter Tomkins, who was a spy for the US in Rome at the end of the war. "Meanwhile, in the United States, things seem to have deteriorated."

While Italians still emigrate to the US, today's migrants are the educated elite, seeking jobs as scientists, economists, or designers. Immigrants now flood into Italy for a better life. "In the 1920s, the vast majority of southern Italians didn't have any shoes," says Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist at Rome's John Cabot University. "Now if you go from Rome to Ohio, you might not feel you have really made it."

And as the European Union expands, it is gradually developing its own identity, "in many ways as an alternative to the American model,"says Mr. Ginsborg.

Many Italians are critical of the Bush administration for not cooperating on issues like the Kyoto accord and the International Criminal Court, which many Europeans look to for political identity, Ginsborg says.

Most analysts agree that Italy's admiration for America's cultural dynamism runs deeper, however. Film, music, technology, and television remain a strong influence on Italian life. "[Italians] choose Woody Allen and Bob Dylan but not Bush or Nixon," Menotti says. "Italians have a unique natural ability to absorb American influence without losing their own culture. They are not afraid, like the French, of being culturally swamped."

But while Europe develops a more uniform identity, it is also gravitating slowly toward an American lifestyle. The champions of the Mediterranean diet, whose olive oil and wine is sold worldwide, are losing ground to burgers and TV, as Italy battles one of the highest rates of child obesity in Europe.

"The European Union is just beginning to take shape," Menotti says. "When it does, it is likely to be more like America than the old Europe."

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