Tag Archives: Italy

Shaken and Stirred

I wrote a piece in early January about experiencing the earthquakes in central Italy last autumn. I rather forgot about it — until now, that is. With a new wave of aftershocks and quakes taking place in central Italy (see post below regarding the avalanche in the Gran Sasso region), I thought I’d publish the column.

Shaken and Stirred

My decision to spend the autumn of 2016 studying Italian at the Universita per Stranieri di Perugia, in Umbria, Italy, meant that my time there coincided earth-shatteringly well with a smattering of quakes and aftershocks in the area.

The earthquakes in central Italy were not the first I had experienced. Years ago, I lived in Japan, where I taught English in a car-part factory located in a tiny town nestled under Mount Fuji, in range of volcanic eruptions. But Fuji-san remained calm during my stay. What didn’t stay calm was the earth, which quaked and lurched at moments it chose without asking my permission or warning me.

I don’t remember being frightened. On one occasion, I was mid-lesson with an “office lady” student, when our desk began to move and the cups of green tea in front of us began to swish. It lasted a few seconds and when it stopped, we both burst out laughing. Nervous laughter, no doubt, but laughter. Another time, I was woken up by a quake and in the time that it took me to figure out what was happening, it was over. I simply rolled over on my futon and went back to sleep.

This was not the case in Italy. I felt quite nervous, despite assurances from locals that nothing other than some rocking and rolling would happen in Perugia: a few cracks might appear, a few bricks and plates might fall, but nothing more, I was told; we are 65 kilometres from the epicentre (as though that were a comfort) and not on a fault, my Perugini friends and professors kept insisting.

Niente paura, they said. Don’t be afraid. There have been no deaths this time, they said, unlike the high death toll of the August earthquake in Amitrice.

I suspect that most of the difference is my age. I am 20 years older and gone is the insouciance of youth, the feelings of immortality and strength. I know that bad things can happen to me, to anyone, and randomly, at that. A Ukrainian classmate suggested I must have had more confidence in Japanese building codes than I do in Italian ones, but I doubt I thought about such things when I lived in Japan. I certainly thought about those things in Perugia, and it is true that it was hard to know, in that beautiful medieval city, what may or may not have crumbled, and just how and where those enormous, heavy Etruscan stones might have fallen.

That same classmate confessed that she was frightened, too, but that going home was more frightening, as she lived in the Donbass region, close to the war zone. She reasoned that at least the earthquakes didn’t want to kill her.

During the terremoto (earthquake) of October 26th, I was in my little apartment studying the imperfect subjunctive tense when it suddenly felt as though a giant had grabbed hold of my building and was shaking it around. I reacted entirely on instinct — running down the stairs and out into the pouring rain till I reached the nearby piazza, thinking at least it was a relatively wide, open space. I learned afterwards that I had done everything wrong. What I should have done, I found out, was stand under a doorway and avoid the stairs altogether. Lesson learned, and the following Sunday, when I was jolted out of bed by the return of the giant in the form of a scossa, or aftershock (which felt more powerful and lasted far longer than the terremoto) I dutifully stood under a doorway until he put my building back down. To use one of my favourite Italian verbs, mi sono spaventata. I got very scared. And to use one of my favourite Italian superlatives, that aftershock was lungissimo, very, very long.

Another thing I discovered I should not have done was follow Italian media. Italian news is not that different from news in North America: startling headlines and 24-hour coverage designed not so much to inform as to heighten emotions. Constant reminders of how many aftershocks there were and how there would likely be no end to them anytime soon were not helpful. Nor were headlines with attention-grabbing words like incubo (nightmare), apocalisse (apocalypse) and calvario (Calvary). Nor were the re-played images of strapping, handsome, dust-covered firemen leading nuns from a church – though at least those were touching (and very Italian), and provided some hope. Nor was following the Twitter feed of the national seismological centre, which, in the weeks after the initial quake, tweeted news of over 1000 aftershocks, many of which were felt and at least one of which caused us all to be evacuated from the university’s main building halfway through an important lesson on the cultural importance of the Spaghetti Western.

Nor were panel after panel of “experts” and pundits talking and arguing – Italians are better at this than anyone. Even the most introverted – everything is relative — Italian comes to life when given a microphone. Under other circumstances I would have very much enjoyed listening to the beauty of the language and the passion of the political discussion, much of which involved the December 4th referendum on constitutional reform, Italy’s lumbering, enormous bureaucracy and its layers of checks and balances. (Italians voted a sizable “no” on the referendum and Matteo Renzi resigned as prime minister the next day.)

When I arrived in Italy in early October, I mentioned to an acquaintance that not seeing 24-hour U.S. election coverage was a delight. And yet with the outcome of the American election and the attention turned – however briefly — away from the shaking earth and the scosse, I experienced some relief. Watching Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was a bit like watching an old sitcom I didn’t much like but that at least provided distraction from the non-stop seismic parsing, not to mention the habit I had developed of staring at whatever glass of water or wine happened to be on my kitchen table. A la Jurassic Park, the liquid would, at times, start to tremble, and I knew that T-Rex in earthquake form was in the vicinity.

The parsing was logorante, to use a word I learned thanks to those events. Logorante, meaning draining, wearing, exhausting. Dealing with the aftershocks and the resulting lack of sleep is also logorante. But I was in Italy to improve my Italian, so at least I picked up new vocabulary, including a play on words involving the verb scuotere (to shake). The past participle of scuotere is scossa, as in aftershock, so a standard joke my Italian friends were making, when anyone asked how they were, was to reply “Sono scossa.” (This only works if a woman is talking, though, as it would be “Sono scosso” for a man.)

I also learned that the Perugini aren’t as chiusi (closed) as other Italians assert. During my stay, I did a lot of grocery shopping at a small family-run store. The owners were a friendly couple and I could practice my Italian on them. In doing so, I believe that the word spaventata passed my lips on more than a few occasions. One morning, during the period when we were all feeling aftershocks every day, I didn’t have enough money to pay for my purchases and the husband told me not to worry, to take my groceries and come back later that day. As I turned to leave he called me back. “No,” he said. “Don’t come back today. Come back tomorrow or even next week or even in mid-December. Because we’ll all be here.”

Niente paura.

I’m Back

Yes folks, I’m back on this side of the Atlantic, with many tales to tell of striking Lufthansa pilots of whom I cannot complain because they allowed me extra days in Rome; of jet-lag and postponed surgeries; of reverse culture shock and a desperate need to catch up on all my work. This wee post is just a start. In the meantime, here is a pic of a lovely girl I saw in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.


Remembrance Day

I posted earlier about the quakes and such going on here, and it occurred to me that I really need to put things in perspective. I was talking to a couple of classmates here in Italy who are from the Ukraine, and they basically said they felt safer taking their chances with quakes than going back home to deal with war. And then I remembered my uncle’s letter about nearly being killed in a buzz-bomb attack (two months before he was killed by a German shell). Please read that letter and spare a thought for those who serve and those who served. Remember all those young men and women.

The Earth Shakes

Yes, I am close (anywhere from 55 to 100 km) to the epicentres of several “aftershocks” and/or quakes that have been happening here (central Italy). Yes, one can feel some of these events rather strongly. Yes, I am scared. However, all the locals seem convinced we aren’t in any danger here and that is what I choose to believe. (Positive thoughts, vibes and prayers are most welcome.)

Don Matteo

I’m afraid I became far too emotionally invested in season 10 of the Italian series Don Matteo. The finale aired this past week, and while it is probably not worth reading a lot into it, I have to wonder what it says about Italians that apparently most of the show’s fans/viewers were happy with the ending. (I make this judgment based on reading online reviews and social media critiques of the series, for whatever that is worth.) Basically, this season revolved around a love triangle in which a truly horrible, trashy girl (Lia) wins over the heart of a police captain (Giulio) who is set to marry a sweet, beautiful woman (Margherita) who writes children’s books.

Now, the trashy girl is pregnant by someone other than the police captain and asks him to pretend he’s the kid’s father because, you know, she just didn’t really like the guy by whom she got pregnant. This is just for starters. As the season developed, she did the following: quit her job and moved in with her 60-something aunt and uncle, expecting them to pay for everything and look after her and her baby; pretended to be friends with her rival so that she could sabotage her wedding plans; poisoned her rival; threw herself repeatedly — and in a slutty manner — at the police captain even after he had announced his engagement; was spiteful and resentful that everyone liked the police captain’s fiancée and sulked and pouted about it; made scenes and just generally behaved like a drama queen when she didn’t get her way or when someone displeased her; manipulated and lied about any number of things in virtually every episode in which she was featured (far too many); asked the police captain to be in the delivery room with her regardless of how inappropriate such a demand was, given that a) he had a girlfriend and b) there were countless other people she could have asked; spied on the police captain and his fiancée via a closed-circuit camera (of which they were unaware) when they were on a romantic date, and…more. There was more.

Lia was just the worst. Una stronza.

And yet…she is insanely popular with viewers of the show. When Lia won over Giulio and he humiliated Margherita at the altar, a majority of viewers were happy! Why? I have no clue, but it’s a sorry reflection on Italian TV viewers.

All of this was aggravated by two other factors: 1) Lia’s character is the cousin of Giulio’s dead wife. In other words, he is marrying his dead wife’s cousin. Ew. And the dead wife was terrific — I have no clue why the show’s writers killed her off after Season 8. 2) The actress who plays Lia — Nadir Caselli — has what Italians call a voce di ochetta (roughly translated, a goose voice, a bimbo voice, a screechy, whiny, profoundly grating voice). I found her fastidiosa, una lagna, una stronza, egoista and cattiva. Of course, one of the reasons I watch Italian TV is to keep my level of Italian up, so I guess my contempt for Lia served a purpose. Lagna, for example, was a new word for me.

Further, the show’s title character behaved in an appalling way in the finale. Don Matteo is a priest who spends virtually every episode lecturing everyone and sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong, but also being kind and empathetic, even with murderers and rapists and thieves.  And yet, in this last episode, when Giulio dumps Margherita at the altar to run away with trashy Lia, Don Matteo smiles and seems, like, really happy! And then, outside the church, when Margherita is clearly suffering, he doesn’t so much as offer her a kind word or a shoulder to cry on or an invitation to come and talk to him at the church (where he usually helps people in their moments of woe). He just talks about her behind her back with some of the guests. Huh? Gosh, very compassionate and priestly.

So that is my rant – I got far too upset and invested in the series this season. I’ve seen every season now (though not all of them in real time), but I honestly don’t think I will watch if there is a Season 11. I don’t think I can bear Lia’s voce di ochetta for another three months.

A(nother) great Nick Cohen Column

The column in question is ostensibly about why we should all become Jews. Of course, Cohen isn’t really suggesting we should, although Significant Other and I often say that we will have to join the Israel Army one of these days…if they would have two middle-aged out of shape folks.

It’s a column about the pathology of anti-Semitism and how far it is spreading, in particular its grip on much of the political left.

But consider how many leftwing activists, institutions or academics would agree with a politer version [of blatant anti-Semitism].

Western governments are the main source of the ills of the world. The “Israel lobby” controls western foreign policy. Israel itself is the “root cause” of all the terrors of the Middle East, from the Iraq war to Islamic State. Polite racism turns the Jews, once again, into demons with the supernatural power to manipulate and destroy nations. Or as the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, who sees herself as a feminist rather than a racial conspiracist, explained recently, Islamist attacks in Paris were the fault of Israeli occupiers in the West Bank.

(Oh man, I know so many people — some to whom I am related — who buy such nonsense. Depressing. As my late brother used to say, “the ’60s have a lot for which to answer.”)

Cohen writes of his own experiences (his father was Jewish, not his mother) growing up with a Jewish name and in particular of the temptation — which he resisted — to become a self-loathing Jew.

He does suggest one pretend to be Jewish to see how people’s reactions to you change. It’s fascinating, because when I was in Italy in 2014, there was this awful woman who was always very mean to me and I remember one day she asked me if I was Jewish. I just knew that if I answered “yes,” she would have hated me even more, but I thought the fact that she suspected it (as though it were a crime) was revealing.

January 1, 2016

Born on this day in 1449, Lorenzo de Medici, “Il Magnifico.” He wrote — among other things — the following words:

Quant’ e bella giovinezza,

Che si fugge tuttavia!

Chi vuol esser lieto, sia:

di doman non c’e certezza.

If you know any romance languages, you can probably figure that out, but just in case, it says (more or less), “How beautiful is youth (or how beautiful is it to be young)/which nevertheless disappears (runs away)/Be happy all who wish to be/of tomorrow there is no certainty.”

Basically, “enjoy life while you can.”

I am currently reading this book, from which I am learning a good deal. Tim Parks’ non-fiction are always terrific. (Not saying his novels aren’t terrific, I just haven’t read any of them — yet.)

Update: Ok, I just finished the afore-linked Tim Parks book and it includes his translation of the bit of poetry above. His translation is, obviously, better than mine. Here it is: How fine youth is/Though it flee away/Let he who wishes, enjoy/Nothing’s certain tomorrow.