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Atlantic Abroad
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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • French Games (John Robinson, Madagascar, August 27, 1997).

  • Heaven in a Ballotin (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, August 13, 1997).

  • The Tentative Tourist (C. Michael Curtis, Spain, July 30, 1997).

  • The Sausages of Wrath (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, July 16, 1997).

  • Classic Tricks (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, June 25, 1997).

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

    Share your tales of life abroad in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

  • blazhd picture
    Rome -- September 11, 1997

    Telefonini ("little phones") have wormed their way into the Italian lifestyle like the perfect parasite. Almost eight million people carry them here: Milanese executives and Sicilian Mafiosi, school children and octogenarians, window cleaners and politicians (who sometimes carry two). Professors lecturing to crowded auditoriums have been known to receive and accept calls. I have watched a bishop in full ecclesiastical regalia marching across St. Peter's Square, a phone tucked pistolero-style in his purple sash. Though cellphones are officially prohibited in the Italian House of Representatives, the Speaker has had to have a military signal-jammer installed to cut the chatter. A Catholic friend of mine has seen a priest stop in the middle of the offertory -- preparing bread and wine for communion -- to fish a squealing telefonino from his vestments, and answer it.

    Telefonini are entering the everyday language: "blazing telefonini" is journalistic shorthand for frenetic (and usually lucrative) activity, while "telefonini turned off" means a total information blackout. But telefonini are hardly ever turned off, and indeed the "blazing telefonino" has become a crucial index of social cachet. At a Milan disco recently a young gentlemen standing in a conspicuously public place was seen to receive call after call. When a nearby dancer keeled over with a heart attack, alarmed onlookers asked the man to call an ambulance. He sheepishly admitted that his phone was a fake. Telefonino replicas with piercing rings, it turns out, are available in most Saturday markets.

    Telefonini are booming in Italy because they suit the Italian mind. Their sleek, tidy shapes satisfy the local taste for fashion, especially when kitted out with the colorful sheaths, leather holsters, and other stylish accessories now available. They indulge Italians' near-American craving for gadgetry. Telefonini are also the perfect tool for la chiacchierata, the fine Italian art of confabulation -- with a telefonino you can have a chat any time, anywhere. Business associates, dear friends, and la Mamma herself are never more than a few touch tones away.

    Telefonini are not without their problems, of course. There are frequent black holes for cellphone communication, for example -- among them the railroad tunnels just north of Rome, which regularly throw entire trains into commotion. The analog signal of many cellphones is easily intercepted, and many a VIP has found a transcript of last night's juicy conversation in the morning paper. The medical effects of intensive cellphone use are still being debated, and Italian scientists are busy bombarding gerbils with massive doses of telefonino-like radio waves. There is talk of heated brain matter, of impotence, of cancer.

    For my money, though, the gerbils are getting off lightly. At least they don't have to listen to the conversations. Perhaps the most sinister aspect of telefonini in Italy is how they are eroding the content of the average conversation. They are just too convenient to require any ordering of ideas, any mental digestion. "Hi! Has what's his name, Giovanni, called? WHAT? I CAN'T HEAR YOU! I'M ON MY CELLULAR! He has? Well, could you call and tell him, uh ... tell him, uh ... that I'll call him soon, about whatsit, that thing. No, forget it, my train is pulling in, I'll call him myself...." At the same time the cellphone in your friend's pocket reduces you to a second-class citizen, who must at all times be ready to relinquish the floor to an unknown caller.

    Cellphones, I know, are evil. And yet I am not made of ice. My Italian friends occasionally ask how I have managed six years of work and social life in Italy without a telefonino. They speak of enormous technological advances: DECT phones receive calls to a home phone number from anywhere in a city, GSM phones span Europe, and cellphone signals will soon be ricocheting off satellites to every point on the globe. Cellphones can send faxes, receive e-mail, and access the World Wide Web.

    Such talk evokes images of total independence, complete control. I see myself in the lotus position on a mountaintop, thinkpad balanced on one knee and telefonino on the other, beaming a stream of shining words toward the stars.

    Sometimes, after an extended battle with an Italian pay phone has sapped my resistance, I price cellphones, as furtive as a paterfamilias browsing a sex shop. Every day the prices and payment schemes get more irresistible and the phones get smaller. Cuddly, even. I am not sure how long I can hold out.

    Tom Mueller lives in Italy and is at work on a novel set in Rome. His article "Underground Rome" appeared in the April, 1997, Atlantic.

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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