Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Flesh circus

Dear Readers,

To quote the writer Ignazio Silone, "Non c'è popolo più triste di questi italiani allegri": there's no sadder people than these happy Italians.

Silone's words came vividly to life for me after I recently went to Marina di Grosseto for a few days' holiday at the beach. You must understand that the seaside--il mare--has both a mythical hold on the Italian imagination, and an iron grip on the collective consciousness. Everyone, I mean everyone must go to the beach for a summer holiday. Like sheeps to the slaughter, Italians go dumbly in droves to lay on their square-meter patch of hedonistic heaven.

Why do they go? It is no secret that Italians love ritual. The Catholic Mass, the morning coffee and brioche at the bar, lunch at 1:00 and dinner at 8:00, the evening passeggiata--all illustrate the ways in which Italians prefer to order their universe. (It could even be argued that these rituals are the anchors in what is otherwise an almost completely disorderly and chaotic existence). The yearly exodus from the cities to the beaches is but another example of the herd mentality that governs much of Italian life.

Now don't get me wrong, I like the beach too. It's just that the kind of beach holiday I have in mind is one of relatively tranquil stretches of clean sand, scattered with a few happily noisy children and their families, quiet couples reading and sunning peacefully, and shore and sea stretching gracefully before the eye like a cat on a sun-washed windowsill--a placid tableau of nature punctuated by some unobtrusive human elements. Il dolce far niente, after all, has its allure.

The reality of many Italian beaches, however, is jarringly different: a honky-tonk atmosphere of carnival madness--great swaths of riotously-colored beach umbrellas as dense as an Amazonian jungle; the bagni blaring announcements over loudspeakers ("Sono arrivati i bomboloni caldi!" "Buon onomastico all'Alessia!" "Oggi è venerdi 17!"); gyrating, noisy crowds; a shoreline that looks like the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela; third-world hawkers of cheap tinselly goods; coconut-sellers with their bawdy calls; sand flying in all directions from over-zealous children; and a sight-line that is wall-to-wall seething flesh. Flesh as far as the eye can see. Flesh of all shapes and sizes and ages: popping out of too-tight bikinis, oozing over tiny Speedos, lithe and muscled in the young and genetically-blessed, buttery and taut in children, withered and leathery in anziani, and watermelon-like pregnant bellies bobbing in the sun. Flesh lounging on chaises, flesh flung in adolescent torpor on towels in the sand, kid flesh industriously building sand-castles of medieval proportions, flesh jiggling, flesh browning, flesh glistening and oiled like some kind of offering to the gods--and always, always, flesh on the move: strolling the water line, going to and from the bar for espresso, gathered in raucous groups smoking and laughing and gesticulating like mad. Flesh flesh flesh! Other than the sea and perhaps a hazy outline of hills in the distance, nature is not visible through this writhing human canvas stretched to the horizons. It seems Italians are happy to swap the crush and madness and heat and traffic of the city for the crush and madness and heat and traffic of the beach--only with a lot less clothing required.

While hiding under my enormous sun hat and watching the spectacle before me, I had an epiphany: why, Italians don't go to the beach for relaxation, or to commune with nature, or for fitness, or even to play--they go for validation. It's the age-old obsession with fare figura (to cut a figure) taken to the extreme. They need to be seen at the beach, they need to show they have been there. They have always gone and they always will go--in short, they need to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves. Il mare--that watery redeemer--is an important social ritual to them, however empty it really is, just like going to Mass once a year for many is a knee-jerk reaction to Christmas. Of course, herein lies the monumental importance of l'abbronzatura: the suntan (and the deeper the better, cancer cells be damned) is proof positive of the pilgrimage completed, the gods appeased--it's the ultimate membership card, the prize, the grail brought home.

I'm sure more time and money is spent on the whole cult of the beach than on any other pursuit: there's the season's latest bathing suits that you must have, and only one won't do, you must have 3 or 4. There are the coordinating gauzy, see-thru cover-ups to acquire, and the sequinned infraditi or even high-heel wedgies to totter along the boardwalk in. There are the expensive sun-protection, tanning and post-sun products, the cute tote bags, the colorful towels and straw mats, the vast array of inflatable mastodons and sailing vessels, the shovels and pails and toy bulldozers, the pedicures, the glitter bandanas to protect one's hair, the temporary tattoos--all in service to unabashed hedonism and corpulent consumption. Surely a heavenly being, looking down on this scene, would bet his last shekel that the apocalypse is at hand--for all is vanity, truly.

Watching the undulating and shrill crowds around me, and basking like a cold-blooded lizard under the Tuscan sun, I couldn't help but feel that there is something desperate and rather tragic--yet perhaps even noble--about this beach mania all'italiana. Something akin to instigating a conga line on the Titanic.

My best regards,


Monday, July 27, 2009

The pilgrimage that never was

Dear Readers,

A while back, it was my in-laws' 50th wedding anniversary. As a gift, my mother-in-law Elena's sisters wanted to give her a trip to Lourdes. (They knew, of course, that that would be the ONLY place she would even consider going; her Catholic guilt would never permit something so hedonistic as--gasp!--a holiday. But if it's in service to the Lord, well then...). Elena seemed rather thrilled at the prospect--poor woman, she never goes anywhere, not even out for pizza or gelato--and she told Gaetano, my father-in-law, about the upcoming pilgrimage. The whole family was suddenly abuzz with the excitement of international travel to a glamorous destination. Meanwhile, cynical me was thinking: it'll NEVER happen. These are two people who have NOTHING to say to each other--when they eat meals together they sit in total silence and stare at the TV--how they would share an hours-long train ride was unfathomable to me. Moreover, I could not envision them off their home turf, in a hotel, eating strange food, having to deal with train schedules and stations, having actual conversations with normal people, etc. And foreigners too! It might even mean my father-in-law would have to bathe regularly.

Then, sure enough, the drama started: what would Gaetano eat??? He is used to eating those few things he always eats---his familiar Tuscan kibble. Breakfast, in particular, was discussed at length. For this meal, my father-in-law scarfs a great plateful of stale slices of Tuscan (saltless) bread soaked in olive oil and scattered with slices of raw onion. Depending on the season, he eats cucumbers and tomatoes---again, smothered in oil--or maybe a raw clove of garlic, a good many slices of thick prosciutto (hacked from the haunch with his large pocket-knife), and polishes off a half-bottle of homemade red wine. Surely he would starve to death in France. Their bread isn't Tuscan. Their wine isn't Tuscan. They don't have Italian prosciutto. He couldn't possibly have croissants for breakfast--they would constipate him, and he'd shrivel up from lack of energy and strength. The phone rang constantly for days with relatives weighing in on the problem; my sister-in-law Silvia and hubby Paolo were called in for a consultation on the logistics of taking a whole (mind you, we're talking a PIG'S THIGH) prosciutto on the train, along with a bottle of olive oil and as many bottles of wine as they could carry. Meanwhile, I'm laughing maniacally and shouting across the courtyard at Paolo, in English so they couldn't understand me: "Why take the train? Have them go by caravan because THEY ARE GYPSIES!! Maybe they should take along a GOAT and a couple of LIVE CHICKENS too!!!" And, "Yeah, they need to go to Lourdes all right, so they can pray to the Madonna for a healthy dose of SANITY!"

In the end, of course, Gaetano pounded his fist on the table and shouted, "I'm not going!" My poor mother-in-law seemed rather downcast and resigned. I think she was looking forward to a week spent at the feet of the Holy Virgin (perhaps to pray for a swift kick in the ass to befall her husband from on high). Life returned to normal. Breakfast remained unsullied, sacrosanct. They did attend the anniversary luncheon in their honor--a grim repast if ever there was one--at which, even sitting side-by-side (as rigid as two coat racks) they exchanged nary a word or smile with each other.

My dear Readers, we've all heard the clichés: Romance is dead, etc. etc. In my in-laws' case, Romance was stillborn.

My best regards,


Thursday, July 23, 2009

I live in a Renaissance toilet

Dear Readers,

Now, I don't like to complain... but yesterday morning as I was parking my bike in its usual spot near work, I saw--and unfortunately, smelled--two generous piles of human excrement by the curb. One pile even had a wad of soiled toilet paper next to it (since when, I wondered, is a street-defecator so fastidious about personal hygiene??).

I pretty much can't think of a worse way to start the day.

Mind you, in this little corner of Florence--spitting distance from the glorious Duomo--I normally have to skirt stagnant puddles of urine, broken beer bottles, and trash strewn about and decomposing forlornly--so my skin is fairly thick when it comes to urban blight. But this was the shit that broke the camel's back.

In a lather, I stormed into the shop raving about the degradation of the city. I told my bosses they ought to call the vigili and tell them that this corner of the city is turning into an open sewer. (I figured that coming from small-business owners, the complaint might carry more weight). They merely shrugged it off and called the quadrifoglio instead (the people who come and clean up after the horse-drawn carriages) and presently a man came and blasted the whole area with soapy water. I watched from the window, a-stew in impotent rage, and formulating an angry letter to the city's new mayor.

Of course, the larger issue here is one of civic pride. I can't help but ask myself why a Houston or Milwaukee or Cleveland suburb--places with the architectural interest of a port-a-potty--are kept in pristine condition (manicured lawns, gleaming paint, not a wanton wrapper or stray cigarette butt to be seen), while Italian art cities that are bursting with architectural and historical treasures grow shabbier and more tawdry as the years roll by.

Not too long ago, the ex-Mayor of Florence, in a Rudy Giuliani-like move, banned the squeegee guys from the intersections, saying they detracted from the overall quality of life. Oddly, he and everybody else turn a blind eye to the relentless graffitti that tattoos over virtually every surface of the city--even such monuments as the Accademia and Duomo are not immune to this scurvy. And everywhere you look, paint is dingy and peeling, the streets are filthy, the trash bins inadequate and overflowing, dog-poop peppers the sidewalk, even the backside of the Duomo is covered in black grime (the façade, strangely enough, is kept in mint condition--that is, after all, where all the tourists gather and where important civic events are held). I have heard many visiting Americans and Brits comment on the shockingly slovenly state of cities like Florence and Rome. When this happens, I feel rather sorry for my adopted city--like I would perhaps for a once-lovely pin-up star who now goes around in dingy underwear with dirt under her fingernails.

Why don't more Florentines care about their city?

I am truly puzzled by this. Florentine orgoglio floweth over--their pride in their Medieval and Renaissance past is unbounded. The glory of their statesmen, artists and thinkers is cause for much strutting, even to this day. Yet--yet--many Florentines do not go to the Uffizi or to the Accademia, they do not stroll the Boboli gardens, or gaze at the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. A great many Florentines no longer live in--nor do they ever go--downtown, to the historic center. To the cradle of all this Renaissance wonder, as it were. So, my theory is, they simply do not care very much what happens there. It is not the Florence that they live on a daily basis. (However, I must say that the state of cleanliness in the peripheral neighborhoods is perhaps only marginally better).

Downtown Florence is almost entirely abandoned to gawking tourists, foreigners and students who can afford to pay the exhorbitant rents and live there, or poorer immigrants who live in ancient squalid flats that haven't been updated since the time of the Medici. (There is a smattering of adamantly ancient Florentine widows who hang on to their apartments with every decaying fibre of their being. You see them shopping at Pegna and defiantly letting their dogs crap and pee all over the pavement. They tend to wear turbans of the silent film-star variety). Many tourists treat the city as a rollicking Renaissance Disneyworld, leaving a trail of empty water bottles and gelato cups in their wake. Other abusers are the Florentine (and American college) youth, who come downtown to hit the discos and get drunk in the pubs--their piss, vomit and vandalism are all over the place. I think, paradoxically enough, it is the foreign permanent residents that show some of the greatest respect to this city. For instance, recently, a group of foreign residents formed a "Clean Up the Mugnone [riverbank] Committee" and did just that.

And then there are the gypsies. Now, I'm sure there are some fine, upstanding gypsies out there--there must be. But I have to say that the ones I see--the ones that prey upon tourists in the historic center--are little more than human barnacles. They come to Italy in droves, are granted medical care and free daycare and school lunches for their kids, they don't pay taxes--and the ones I'm talking about paint their faces white like mimes and dress in white Klan-like robes and mercilessly buzz round the poor out-of-towners like pesky flies. They gather next to the bookshop and guzzle beer from great brown bottles, then smash the glass for fun. Their attitude is one of entitlement and disrespect--I even get the sense they jeer at their host country, and harbor the kind of resentment that comes from accepting begrugded charity. As an immigrant myself, I'm all for making room for others, but come on.

So who, then, was responsible for the brazen b.m.? Your average born-and-bred Florentine might shrug and say, "Who cares?" and abandon the potentially beautiful historic center to the uncouth masses.

But I, dear Readers, know who was responsible: Indifference.