Thursday, February 02, 2006

Cellular Phone Fetish

Roaming is something Italians do right

by Carla Diana

ROME, March 13, 1997 -- Maybe I've been hanging [Image]
around with the wrong crowd, but back in the
States, I don't have any friends who carry around cell
phones.

Here in Italy they're so common that the sound of the
phone ringing sends entire crowds of people reaching into
their purses and breast pockets en masse, as if in some
kind of Pavlovian ritual.

Much as I appreciate a fascination with consumer
electronics, this trend left me puzzled. Back at home I
saw two main groups of people who constantly carried cell
phones: There were the security-conscious, who wanted to
be able to call for help during an emergency, and the
neurotic workaholics so pathetically enslaved by their
jobs that they needed one to maintain constant contact
with the office.

The Romans are obsessed with cell phones. Grandmothers,
businessmen and hipsters alike can be seen chatting away
as they stroll down the street, sit in caffes, or ride on
their motorscooters. Mama's boys can be heard on the
train calling home to see when the pasta will be ready.
Many people I've seen whose cultural counterparts in the
States would never think of spending the exorbitant fees
for cell phone service can be found with phone to ear at
all hours.

Why, I wondered, in a country where people live to linger
in caffes, savor subtle cheeses and imbibe fine wines,
would such a disruptive contraption become so embraced?

For one thing, the Italians have a completely different
attitude toward the cell phone. For many Americans the
only phone calls important enough to warrant cell phone
use are business calls. I've often seen cellular or
beeper numbers exchanged when people want to keep a safe
distance from each other by not revealing home phone
numbers. Here, for the most part, it's the opposite. When
someone gives you her cell phone number, it's a social
coup: she considers you a close enough friend that she's
willing to be disturbed by you at any time of day. She
wouldn't dream of giving the number to some pasty
business colleague who's going to interrupt her evening
cocktails to discuss the latest fiscal report.

Communication is an integral part of the culture, and
being able to reach out and touch someone at any time, in
any place, has great value here. With this device
becoming such a personal and social item, it's elevated
to the level of a status symbol. Rather than being a
cumbersome add-on, it's a sleek accessory, worn as
comfortably as a new pair of shoes from Prada or a
Tag-Hueur watch. It's flipped open with flair, and spoken
into with pride and nonchalance, making the whole
exchange look pretty cool. And we all know how Italians
like to look cool.

But mere looks and convenience still don't provide the
entire answer for this social phenomenon. In a country of
recently united city-states, the most striking aspect of
the cellular phone is the empowering feeling of
independence it provides. Not only are there no cords or
physical restrictions, but there's no bureaucracy to deal
with, either. Whereas getting a phone for your home
requires proving your residence and dealing with the
government-run monopoly Telecom Italia, cell phones can
be set up immediately with a credit card and signature.
It's the perfect accessory for this culture of
free-spirited individuals.

If Roman Holiday were filmed today, Marcello Mastroianni
would be carrying a cell phone during every scene.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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