September 27, 2007


Everyone is talking about the big A, "L'Antipolitica". It started with Beppe Grillo's "vaffa" day and doesn't seem to go away.

Today, Ezio Mauro, the Director of la Repubblica newspaper wrote an editorial entitled, "Anti-politics, for Whom the Bell Tolls", which is a bit rhetorical as it goes on about the "decadence of the country...and the loss of cultural identity" before exploring how this has led Italians away from change and towards rebellion, as if,"Changing Italy was an impossible task, or worse, a useless one." He cites the static quality of the political class as leading Italy into, "An atelier of the West, or a home for its elderly." The Antipolitica is just "an outward sign of a diminishing public and national spirit, a lost sense of citizenship, identity, cultural reference point."

Not an uplifting editorial and really not a very thoughtful one either. I think I have already heard all this. Blablabla.

Instead, a few days ago, I read another editorial -- train rides are condusive to this kind of activity -- one by Sandro Viola, called "What Feeds Anti-politics." This was more interesting. He first acknowledged that while there has been lots of talk, no one wants to dig deeper to the roots of the problem. He instead addresses the role of the media in the Italian people's growing sense of nausea at all that smells of politics. At the top of the list are the TV news programs, so full of comprimises, starting with the practice of "the sandwich" (they actually call it "sandwich" as the practice has Anglo-saxon roots). First politicians from the governing party speak (or have their declarations read) for a pre-set number of minutes, followed by those from the opposition, finishing up with a summary by the governing party's spokesperson. The end result, Sandro Viola calls, "fried air, an avalanche of words." So we see the same faces, every evening, year in and out, that do nothing but repeat the same empty phrases. "The Italians need air," he concludes, "they can't breathe anymore. They don't want to see or hear these people anymore."

The newspapers are not much better as they put out an average of seven or eight pages dedicated to internal "news", of which only one or two pages are of any pertinence or interest to the public. The rest is a repeat of the TV news programs -- detailed analysis of every empty phase pronounced the night before, long declarations, interviews that go on and on. In other words, a dialogue between journalists and politicians with no distinction between what is relevant and what is not. The Italian people are exasperated by this deluge of nothing and have developed an allergy to all that tastes of politics.

The Italian people, he concludes, are no longer divided between "us" and "them" (as in left and right political leanings) as had been the case for over a hundred years. Now, previous enemies march together in disgust of what they see on both sides, while chanting Bebbe Grillo's slogans, abandoned not only by the political system, but also by the media.

Anyone want to rally Italians to a nation-wide TV strike? Maybe for a week or even a month. Where is Beppe when we need him? I know you don't get to hang out in the piazza with your friends or throw a walking street party as you do with a normal style strike and demonstration, but you would get to read a few good book. I read Suite Francese by Irène Némirovsky for the September meeting of my book club and I am halfway through Terrorist by John Updike for the October meeting -- both qualify as a good read. Why not just turn off the traitor and tool of political jibberish and cuddle up with a book.

a domani,

September 22, 2007

Beauty contests

The Miss Italia contest is always a bit depressing to watch, but this year was especially bad, so bad that even Walter Veltroni (Rome's mayor and candidate as leader of the "partito democratico") couldn't hold his tongue. Here is a translation:

"I turned on the TV and I said,"Mamma mia". I asked myself if it wasn't "Schegge" (a program that shows clips of TV programs from 20-30 years ago).....This is a backward looking country, a country that doesn't want to change and where there is a strong prevalence of experience over innovation."

Resistence to change both maintains and enhances traditions, and hinders innovation. School reforms are under discussion, again, but reforms do not take place. Political reforms are under discussion, again, but reforms do not take place. Beauty pagent reforms are under discussion, again -- change is scary, it takes optimism, risks, willingness to see things in a new way, open-mindedness and the willingness to change again if the change doesn't work out. Better to keep things as they are. There is a saying that "the evil that you know is better than the evil you do not know." Just hunker down, complain, endure and do nothing that will actually enact change. Maybe throw a street party in the form of a demonstration just to make yourself feel like you have done something.

If you didn't like the Miss Italia pagent, you could always change channels and watch more scantily-dressed women, this time "show-girls" on the talk show, "Porta a Porta", taking about female orgasms.

a domani,

September 21, 2007

Divorce and all that

It is very difficult to objectively and lovingly examine one’s own culture. Luigi Barzini is the only Italian that has done it successfully, while adding wit, historical background and journalistic accuracy.

His book, The Italians, published in 1964, is still the only true examination of Italian culture that exists today. If you are thinking of moving to Italy, you already have or are just interested in the Italians as a people, this is the book to read.

He made one big mistake, though, near the end of the chapter, Power of the Family. “Divorce is beginning to be adopted as an upper-class custom. Of course there is still no divorce on the law books, and there never will be. Not only is the Church against it, but the people themselves rightly consider it a barbarous and ruinous institution; the necessity to preserve some solid bulwark against the impermanence of things will always prevent its adoption.”

Instead, only eight years later, divorce came to be -- despite the war waged by the Catholic church -- by “furore del popolo” and a public referendum.

Between 1995 and 2005, separations have gone from 51,000 to 83,000, divorces from 27,000 to 47,000. Although Italy doesn’t come close to European standards, or American ones in which 50% of marriages end in divorce before reaching 25 years, separations have become more democratic. They no longer involve only the upper class, which means that more couples that separate end up in poverty.

With an Italian twist. In a country where the family supplies “welfare” instead of the state, one in five separated men go back home, to their parents' home – the only way to afford alimony and a another roof over their head – and yet another example of intra-generational solidarity and family ties. Luigi Barzini was right – “The first source of power is the family. The Italian family is a stronghold in a hostile land: within its walls and among its members, the individual finds consolation, help, advice, provisions, loans, weapons, allies and accomplices to aid him in his pursuits. No Italian who has a family is ever alone.”

A domani,

September 14, 2007

Coffee culture

Seattle skyline, home to Starbucks

My Dad wrote that the Stop 'n Shop supermarket in West Hartford, Connecticut has opened a Starbucks' bar for customer convenience inside the store. To promote it's opening, they were offering pumpkin spice latte and chocolate chip coffee.

Why? Sounds disgusting and really has nothing to do with coffee, that strong bitter zing that we know and love, but Americans, instead, love anything new and different and having lots of choice -- even at the expense of a good cup of coffee -- the more flavors and options, the better.

The Italians would rather just have a good cup of coffee -- quality over choice. Although they can get rather picky about whether it is served long or short, in a cup or a glass, with or without a drop of cold or hot milk and such, tasting the quality of the coffee itself is the point.

The man behind the counter at a local bar, across the street from an American study abroad center, confided one day that he could not understand why the students were always asking to create their own sandwich combinations instead of being satisfied with the standard ones on display. "These are the best combinations that have filtered down over generations: tomato and mozzarella, tonno e carciofini, ham and cheese, bresaola e rughetta." Sacrificing a tasty sandwich to the altar of "choice" was way outside of his cultural code.

Choice and trying new things is at the top of the American value scale, anything new is intrinsically better. Sometimes this leads to innovation and other times simply to bad taste, like pineapple and chicken on pizza.
Guy with cowboy hat hanging at Starbucks.

We stopped in a Starbucks while on a one-day layover in Seattle this summer. My sons, being Italian, were diffident at and overwhelmed by all the crazy combinations on the board and nearly ordered a regular coffee. But the waitress (very cute and just their age) said, "How boring, you must try something flavored." So they did (one with hazelnut and another with vanilla and something) and after a few sips of the sweet and sticky liquid, threw it out.

We stuck to regular coffee for the rest of the trip.

a domani,

September 10, 2007

City lights

My night photography skills need some work.... but in any case, if you are in Rome, stop by the Circo Massimo after 10:00 pm to view the light show before it closes tomorrow --- fantastic (or as the guy standing next to me said to someone on the other end of his cell phone, "una ficata.")

La Notte Bianca came and went, 250 tons of trash have been removed and only the lights at Circo Massimo are left.

40,000 attended the 6:00am concert by the Italian group "Zero Asoluto", another 10,000 watched a ritual dance by a Turkish Sufi group of whirling dervisces at the same time with the sunrise as a backdrop from the Gianicolo hill. 100,000 visited the zoo, another 100,000 watched a circus performance in Piazza del Popolo and 20,000 visited the newly re-opened Palazzo delle Esposizioni. There were long lines for all the museums and 10,000 visited inside the historic building that houses the Ministry of Economics. 730,000 people used the buses to get around, with the center closed off to traffic.

An estimated 2.5 million people participated with only 145 emergency interventions, none serious.

The Romans certainly know how to throw a great party, everyone had fun and no one got hurt. Do we have something to learn from this?

a domani,

September 8, 2007

La notte bianca

Big night ahead. La notte bianca. From the historic center to the parks, EUR, San Lorenzo, the Flaminia -- the city will be awake and alive with music, light shows, art, theater, dance, poetry readings and more until dawn. Museums will be open and ministerial offices will flaunt their secret treasures. Piazzas will serve as stages alongside the auditorium. Over 2 million people of all ages are expected to participate.

It is magical -- masses of people strolling along, arm in arm just admiring the city, the lights, the sounds, the experience.

What is striking, for an American, is the lack of control, fear, containment. No barricades, the police are discrete, no gangs, no violence. Just a special evening for all to enjoy. A salute to the summer. A grand welcome back to the city before the grit and traffic wears on the spirit.

In its first edition, five years ago, the white night became black as the largest country wide power black-out just happened to take place at 2:30 am that night. Masses of people were stranded on the city streets in the dark. The buses couldn't run, nor the trams. But no one panicked, no shops were sacked, no violence occurred. The Romans walked home, or enjoyed the rest of the night in company and waited until dawn. The Italian, "che si puo fare" resignation sometimes works wonders.

a domani,

La Notte Bianca web site for information

September 7, 2007


I've returned to blogging. An official re-entry from the summer.

The trouble with August is that then September comes around. Soon the newspapers will have articles on "September-itis", the annual bug that attacks as everyone goes back to work, study and daily life with another eleven months ahead before August comes around again.

The symptoms include low grade depression, lack of energy, difficulty in getting up in the morning, difficulty in getting to sleep in the evening. The cure is to rest, eat lightly and get back into your routine slowly while allowing time for a walk in the park, a stroll and an ice cream, a chat with a friend. Diving headfirst into a frenetic rhythm is not recommended.

So September starts out slowly, con calma. It is the provisional month -- everything is provided for the time being, pending permanent arrangements.

Summer is over. Families return from the beach or the mountains and while parents slowly get back to their work routines, children finish summer homework under the watchful eyes of grandparents or nannies. The annual September dance begins as everyone engages in the process of moving all that is provisional to its final rest. When I call the doctor to change an appointment, the secretary assures me, “It’s September, we understand.” Everyone understands that arrangements, calendars, schedules and appointments will be provisorio for the interim month that separates the August holiday break from the rest of the year. Then October arrives, the pieces fall into place and the year takes form.

School starts. Early in the month national newspapers and television announce the official starting dates as dictated by the Ministry of Public Instruction. The Ministry establishes these dates by region, the schools in the north start around September 8 or 10, those in the center around mid-month and Sicilian schools start as late as September 25. With the last reforms, individual schools have some administrative flexibility, called autonomia, and they often exercise this new freedom by adjusting the regional starting date to meet particular needs. These dates are then kept a secret from students and parents. The school website gives only its long and illustrious history, not pragmatic information such as the first day of classes. The office is open only three mornings a week and the staff is so busy with enrolling students that the phone rings unanswered.

But the word gets out anyway, in that particular Italian way so that everyone just "knows" although never through official channels. A few years ago, the school suddenly decided that it would open a few days earlier than anticipated. Within minutes, the news had spread down the beach from lounge chair to lounge chair. Parents re-arranged plans, cancelled last minute weekend trips and liberated grandparents from additional days of babysitting. I found it amazing that no one seemed particularly annoyed by this uncertainty, it is just part of the September game – flexibility is the only rule.

During the first days of school, teachers dictate class schedules that children carefully pencil into their new diari -- the colorful agendas will hold a year’s worth of homework assignments, notes from teachers to parents and most importantly student to student correspondence. Although they may seem quite official, these first class schedules will change a few more times before they can be set in pen – sometime in October.

My agenda is starting to fill up for September, in pencil. My pen will have to wait until October.

a domani,

P.S. I have recently posted an interview on an expat interview site.

I also just saw that my article on the American expat community published in The Roman Forum July 2007 issue is online.