Thursday, February 25, 2016

Marco Polo, Turandot and China Night at the Stranieri

China Night at the Stranieri.

The Stranieri
One of the enormous benefits of life in Perugia is the diversity of the student population.  My class at L’Universita per Stranieri has students from Belgium, Sweden, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Israel, Holland, Turkey, Palestine, Senegal, Korea, Libya, one guy from Canada and two guys including me from USA.  And Italian is the lingua franca of our class.

my class
Earlier this week I attended what I thought would be a simple concert by student at the Stranieri (short for Universita di Stranieri, University for Foreigners.)  We were urged to attend by our Italian teacher, Bianca, because one of our classmates, Anna, was in the chorus.  I had been copying Anna’s homework for about a week and thought I’d show my gratitude by attending and filming the concert.  What I found as I entered the Aula Magna of the Palazzo Galenga was a packed house of mostly Chinese students.  I soon learned that it was not just a concert, but a welcome to the many Chinese students enrolled in the MarcoPolo/Turandot program, which sets aside so many seats for students from China who wish to study here.  The Turandot part of the program was especially for students who wished to study music, art, dance etc.
. . .

Marco Polo?

I’m sure you a familiar with Marco Polo, the famous 13th Century merchant-explorer who visited and stayed at the court of Kubla Khan, and whose account of the many wonders (pasta?) he found in this relatively advanced civilization was widely published to a skeptical yet curious Europe.  Later it inspired Cristoforo Columbo, claimed by Italians as a native son, but possibly a Catalan converso Ebraio. 

“Turandot” is set in medieval China with its popular aria,  Nessun Dorma, sung by Prince Calaf who awaits his fate as he courts  the icy Princess Turandot, Interestingly, the opera, with its characters Ping, Pang and Pong,  was banned in China for  72 years after its 1926 premiere in Milan.

 After an hour of the usual series of long-winded speeches by everyone from il magnico Rettore of the Stanieri to the Perugia chief of police, the concert began.   I’ve posted a few videos: two of the chorus: “Va pensiero,  the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi’s opera, Nabuco, and another number from China called the “Bed of Chrysanthemum flowers.” The third, by a remarkable pair of students, is an American pop song “Perfect”  by  the“boy  band” One Direction. There were several other knock-out numbers, particularly “Non piu andrai, Farfallone”  from Rossini’s Barber of Seville sung by student Geng Zihao in a booming baritone voice.  I couldn’t get a video, oto.
Geng Zihao

The evening was unlike anything I’d ever seen.  I gave “Bravos” to some of the students after the show and  now I enjoy their courteous greetings when I see them around town.  Like so many of the foreign students at the Stranieri, I’ve come to love these kids, their openness, and passion for Iphones and learning!

Saturday, February 6, 2016


Traveling with a Ghost

   This is my first time back in Perugia since my beloved Judy died last summer.  We had been coming every January for nearly ten years, but our last visit was cut short by her swiftly deteriorating health.  Ever since, I have felt almost a duty to return and complete our trip.

    I recall one time a woman from
Judy's aerobics class ran out of a shop when  she saw us pass by soon after arriving.  "Buon tornato! E 'certamente gennaio perché qui è di nuovo Judy!"  (Welcome back.  It must be January because here is Judy again!)  Now I must explain several time each day why I am alone:  "Mi despiace ma mia moglie ha morta"  (I am sorry but my wife has died."  And as I walk the dark lonely medieval streets of this ancient city every stone is haunted. So I'm not really alone;  I'm traveling with a beautiful ghost.

    Ten years ago Judy and I enrolled in the Universita per Stranieri (University for Foreigners) to learn "un po' Italiano" -- very little, but we had a ball distracting each other and making friends.  So I enrolled for the next course "advanced beginner" this year.  This has been more painful than I expected but I still believe it's necessary to look my grief in the face with courage; that was Judy's final gift to me.  And I do believe it's already getting better ...

 . . . with a lot of help from my friends

    We developed a nice tradition over the years:  On our last night in Perugia, we would to eat one last pizza al zucco at Al Mangiar Bene, then "faremo una bella passiagata"  (take a beautiful walk)  circumventing the 3,000 year old Etruscan wall that surrounds the historic center, and finally stopping one last time to buy two Baci at "Sweet sweet way" for our nightly dolci.  Well, I nearly lost it when I saw that chocolate shop the other day --
I think I will stay away for more reasons as well

    And last night I braved a return to Al Mangiar Bene, happily accompanied by my old friend Wally and enjoyed Umbricelli with Sugo d'Oca (spaghetti with goose sauce), a bottle of Montefalco Rosso, and Panecotta caramelo for desert.  Wally paid. And I was OK, thanks Wally

    Everyone has been so kind to me this week and I have already had more fun than this post would have you think.  I do have many fun tales to tell in this blog.  Stay with me, it's getting better!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Back on the beat with my panel of experts

This blog has been relatively inactive since our last sojourn in Italy. Much of my light comments have been reserved for Facebook. But I thought this might be a good place to record my observations and opinion as an American in Italy. Although I don’t speak the language very well, I do try to read the local papers and La Repubblica at least once a week.

And, of course, I have a small circle of local Italian friends to whom I turn for information: Fausto, my barber, Fabrizio, the laundry guy, and my buddy Valter, slow food impressario, sommelier and olive oil taster. I almost always misunderstand the news- papers, so I rely on Valter for precision. None of them can speak English, except Valter, who studies and tries hard.

Next posting:  Did Bob Dylan write a hymn to Silvio Berlusconi?

Silvio Berlusconi jams with Bob Dylan!

Left to Right:  Dr. John, Sandro Bondi, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young,
Rick Danko, Silvio Berlusconi, and Robbie Robertson

Silvio, silver and gold
won't buy back the beat of a heart grown cold.
Silvio, I gotta go
Gonna find out something only dead men know.
-- Bob Dylan, Silvio
No, this is not a real photo, but a slanderous photoshop attempt to link Bob and the psico nano.  The picture is actually from Martin Scorsese's film of the Band's farewell concert  Last Waltz. Sandro Bondi's face is superimposed on Neil Diamond's body -- hence the cheesy outfit -- and Silvio's face replaces Van Morrison.  Bondi is the former Communist mayor of Fivizzano, who sucked up to Silvio and was appointed Minister of Culture.  "Sporca Communista!" says Fabrizio.  Actually, Sandro did not fare well with the Communists who called him "un rapanello" or radish: that is, red on the outside but white on the inside.

Io non capisco la bunga, bunga. (I don't understand bunga, bunga)

The big story here since we arrived is another scandal by the allegedly depraved Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi.  The scandal, referred in the press as “il caso Ruby” features a 17 year old Moroccan exotic dancer with the show name, Ruby Rubacuore  (her name is translated "heart stealer" but Fausto calls her Ruby Rubasoldi, or money stealer) who allegedly participated in “bunga bunga “ parties with Silvio and his buddies (who include Putin and Kaddafi) with underage prostitutes, and lots of drugs.  (La Repubblica reports cocaine; Fausto adds “e multo Viagra!”)

 Bear in mind, this is a man who has been indicted at least 12 times.  He’s always been able to beat the rap, and when not, was able to change the law and legislate his immunity.

You hear a lot of cynical young people refer to their society and its government as a  “gerontacracy.”  It’s hard to dispute this:  Berlusconi, the Prime Minister is 74+, and the President of the Italian Senate, Napolitano is 90.   I like Berlusconi’s full title: il Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri della Repubblica Italiana, although he's often referred to by his nickname. Il Cavaliere. I asked Valter to compile a list of nicknames.  Here's what he sent me (untranslated):

Ecco i soprannomi di Silvio Berlusconi più divertenti :

- Burlesquoni: in omaggio alla sua goliardia
- Cavaliere Mascarato: perché l'immagine è la prima cosa per lui (copy: Striscia la Notizia)
- Sua Emittenza: a causa di Mediaset
- Bellachioma (copy: Marco Travaglio)
- Testa d'Asfalto (copy: Beppe Grillo)
- Psiconano (copy: Beppe Grillo)
- Er Catrame, sempre per la capigliatura immobile frutto del celeberrimo trapianto
- Nanefrottolo, per chi vuol mettere in dubbio la sua credibilità
- Al Tappone, da quando s'è messo in testa il panama bianco. Il riferimento ad Al Capone è chiarissimo (copy: Marco Travaglio)
- Il Caimano, dal celebre film di Nanni Moretti
- Il Cainano, parodia della pellicola di cui sopra
- Bandanano, riferito a quando ricevette Tony Blair e moglie, in Sardegna, con in testa una bandana bianca
- Silviolo

A little nip, a little tuck,
and molto hair plugs -
before and after.

(My own favorites are the two coined by political satirist, Bepe Grillo.  "Testa d'Asfalto" or asphalt head, and "Psiconano" or psycho-dwarf.)

Berlusconi owns most private TV stations and, of course, can influence the public ones. In addition, he owns newspapers, magazines, and Mondadori, Italy’s largest publishing house.  Over the past several decades, he has managed, thereby to shape the popular culture, especially its portrayal of women, replicating his predelictions on a grand cultural scale. For a serious account of psiconano's influence, see  Barbie Nadeau's perceptive article "Bunga Bunga Nation".

My research revealed that the first recorded use of the expression “bunga, bunga” goes back to 1910 and the long-forgotten “Dreadnought Hoax” the brainchild of Horace de Vere Cole, perpertrated by Cole and a small group of Bloomsbury smarty pants.  The group, which included Virginia Woolf with a false beard – see picture, she’s on the left – posed as a group of Abbyssinan princes on a state visit to  England, and managed to get a tour of the great battleship, HMS Dreadnought.  Where they were greeted by the flag and national anthem of Zanzibar – who knew?  As they inspected the ship, the princes would express their approval by nodding and exclaiming, yes “Bunga, Bunga!”
The current scandal is celebrated by an inane pop songby a weird, but musically respected, group known as “Elio e le storie tese” (Elio and the tense stories) whose brand of “dementia rock” is influenced by Frank Zappa and the dada pranks of the situationist artists.   The song itself is both a comment on Berlusconi’s behavior and I’ve learned a parody of a song called “Waka, Waka” by Shakira.  (How do you parody a song called “Waka, Waka”? )  

Next few posts:  So what?

Why bunga bunga is NOT funny

Why Berlusconi?

 To most Italians, Berlusconi’s antics are old hat, although even the Vatican, which has generally accommodated Il Cavaliere’s politics, has expressed concern with his morality.  And on TV, Silvio gave a forceful defense claiming that it would offend his dignity to pay for sex.  Even Ruby, who has admitted that “Daddy” has paid for an apartment, clothes, jewelry and spending money, claims that he is the first man who hasn’t asked for sex.  I've been having fun with Silvio B in the last few entries, but I want to be clear that I consider myself a guest in Italy AND I love Italy.  So this mess saddens me.  I am

often asked why Italians put up with their scandalous PM, and frankly I don't know.  There are two theories: (1) they like him and his style of living, and (2) they don't see an alternative.  Both of these answers are depressing to be sure, and seem to point to something in Italians that Americans cannot understand.  There is a sense of pessimism, or cynicism, that I often hear expressed and it leads to a kind of resignation.  You see it in the smallest things:  the ubiquitous cigarette smoke on the street, the incessant line jumping, the petty littering, the unfixed washing machine, and the unreturned call.   Maybe this "caso Ruby" thing will shake things up a bit?  Sadly, I doubt it.  After all, when a third of the Italian legislators were indicted in the early 1990s, it was Berlusconi to whom Italy turned.  One of the more benign stereotypes of Americans is that of the slightly goofy naive optimist.   And not all Italians shrug their shoulders at the latest scandal.  There are at least two groups who are affected by the misbehavior of il cavaliere:  women, above all, and workers.  I'll start with the latter.

The real issue, as Fabrizio, Fausto and Valter will explain is that while their leader was having sex and drug parties at one of this three villas, he was neglecting his duty to secure the welfare of the people and the rights of workers.    Italy takes the rights of workers seriously, the right to organize, to bargain collectively, and to strike (scioperere) are enshrined in their post-Fascist Constitution.  Some believe these rights are too freely exercised, particularly the last one.  Strikes here are announced well in advance and one plans travel, for example, around scheduled train strikes etc. And among the most historic site of labor history is certainly FIAT’s Mirafiori plant in Torino.

Italy's growth rate, I'm told, is a mere 1% and traditionally protectionist Italy is now facing a growing encounter with globalization  (globalizzazione).  I don’t understand the story completely, but the new FIAT management, led by CEO Sergio Marchionne (whom, Valter complained was hugged by Obama, when he visited Chrysler last year).  Marchionne has offered to invest huge sums to retool Mirafiori as part of a plan to produce Jeeps in Italy, but insisted on some “give-backs” from the union.  The terms didn’t strike me as too draconion:  limits on break times, additional guaranteed overtime,
and promises to limit striking.  FIAT had already negotiated a deal with workers at its plant in the job- scarce south, and recently a referendum was to be held in the more militant north.  As it turned out, the workers voted to approve the deal, although the balance was achieved with the support of FIAT's white collar employees.  However,  one of the unions, FIOM-CGIL, in the federation,which bargain together. rejected it.  Marchionne decided he had his approval and moved to block the dissenting union from further organizing activity in its plant.  This divide-and-conquer strategy is apparently unprecedented.  Not only was the disenfranchisement of the leading leftist union a particular outrage, but more importantly, the idea of dealing with different plants instead of a national bargain was unprecedented.  Moreover, there was already a national agreement in effect that had been previously negotiated.  These national agreements are always negotiated with the government acting as mediator.   Where was Berlusconi when the workers needed him?  Partying, perhaps.  Berlusconi declined to intervene, and anyway he had already shown his position when he declared FIAT “would be justified in pulling out of Italy” if the workers didn’t ratify the new accord.   

Is the US the Mexico of Italy?
But where would FIAT go if it pulled out of Italy?  Quite possibly, according to Marchione, to the US.   FIAT's outsourcing jobs to Poland and Serbia is one thing, but to the USA?  Here we see how the process of globalizzione has made the US, Italy’s Mexico!

Women in Italy

I've already mentioned the sorry state of women in Italy. Recently, Berlusconi advised women that the path to success is to marry a rich man!  I can't say how many women take this advice, but coupled with the fur coats and cigarettes, it sometimes feels like the 1950s here.  Worst is the portrayal of women (and men) on Italian TV, which is almost totally controlled by the PM.   Berlusconi built a media empire, in part by populating  TV quiz shows and news with beautiful sexy young "veline" (literally, scraps of paper) being leered at by middle-aged men.  I'm told that the selection of the annual "velina" on Striscia Noticia, a news parody on Berlusconi's Canale 5, is an event which young women eagerly follow and for which they vigorously compete.

Maybe I'm judging Italy by puritanical standards, or worse, maybe I am  trying to score political points, but there are facts that should be considered seriously.  Italy ranks extraordinarily low on almost all standards of gender equality.  According to the World Economic Forum, no hotbed of socialist feminism, Italy ranks in 87th place in women's labor participation, and 121st in wage parity worldwide, and 74th overall.  In the words of its 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, "Italy continues to be one of the lowest-ranking countries in the EU and deteriorates further over the last year."

So it was encouraging to learn that women throughout Italy, and beyond, were organizing a "Giorno della Donne" -- a day of the women -- to demand respect for their dignity, and the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi.  Taking a slogan from a book by Italian-Jewish Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, "Se non ora, quando?" (If not now, when?)

   We just happened to be in Siena last Sunday when the manifestazione was scheduled.  Ironically, I suppose, the demonstration was held in the beautiful Piazza Salimbeni, under the watchful eye of Archdeacon Sallustio Bandini, and in front of the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world (1474) AND the place where Berlusconi kept a special account to compensate Ruby and the bunga bunga girls.

We struck up a conversation with a young Italian woman who was full of joy witnessing this show of solidarity among woman of all ages.  "Finalmente!!" she yelled.  I have to agree.

               Here are two videos of "No Berlusconi Day" as it was celebrated back in Perugia: