Stet by Ria Bacon

Monday, February 28, 2005

Not the Village People

Despite some imaginative suggestions to my "What's wrong here?" teaser, no one correctly identified the odd thing out.


It was of course the PlayMobil Spirit of Fascism, lurking around the National Alliance election posters. The National Alliance, as I explained previously, are post-fascists, not to be confused with neo-fascists, pro-fascists or the ex-fascists that founded the party after world war two.

Think I'm making this stuff up?
No ambiguity here
Last month, after scoring a goal, Lazio football club captain, Paolo di Canio flashed an unmistakable fascist salute to his adoring fans. They responded with cheers. Di Canio tried to shrug off the gesture, stating that it had no political significance. This from a man who has "Dux", a reference to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, tattooed on his arm. As a youth, Di Canio ran with an extreme right-wing fan group and in his autobiography, he states that he was "fascinated" by Il Duce, claiming that he was "basically a very principled, ethical individual" who was "deeply misunderstood".

Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of Benito Mussolini and herself the founder of a far-right party and a Member of the European Parliament, attended the match and applauded loudly. "What a delightful Roman salute!" she exclaimed. "I was deeply moved. I will write him a thank-you note." Lazio was, after all, her grandfather's beloved soccer club and he often attended their games. Even now -- 60 years later -- the team maintains something of a fascist aura.

Alessandra Mussolini quit the National Alliance (AN) in 2003 to found her own party, "Freedom for Action", disgusted by AN leader Gianfranco Fini's apology to Israel for the treatment of Jews under fascism in Italy. Just in case you might think that, compared to the lunatic fringe of Italian politics, Fini & Co are not all that bad, note that Francesco Storace, National Alliance member, currently contesting the Presidency of Lazio Region, came out in support of Mussolini, asserting that Fini's comments in Israel were akin to the Pope addressing his followers and announcing that there is no God. Storace is estimated to be spending €5 million on the current campaign, which might explain why all the election posters that I described previously belong to Storace's group.

Fini? Ce n'est qu'un début ! Muahahaha !Fini? Ce n'est qu'un début ! Muahahaha !

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Rumble in the Aventine II

Three months ago, I reported how my well-to-do neighbours were up in arms over the planned redevelopment of the main street. Since then, the protests have faded away, with the only reminder of how close we came to revolution being the poster for the Residents' Association Meeting in the pharmacy window.

Unfortunately, at the same time as the protests died down, so did work on the development, with the trenches dug in early December still open to the elements.

Autumn leavesTheTrenchesFeb05
On the left, the trenches on 6 December 2004.

On the right, the same trenches on 25 February 2005.

Last Friday, however, the street was a hive of activity, with dozens of men in orange worksuits working furiously, under the frowning eye of the architect. He walked up and down the street, puffing on his cigarette, while each group of workers made like a tableau of dedicated artisans - this one turning over the cement, the next standing ready to add more water from a hose, the third levelling the ground with a plank of wood. I was impressed and took a photo of the scene. Can you spot anything strange?

Spot anything unusual?
Answer on Monday!

Friday, February 25, 2005

Save the planet - shit in the woods

I'm often asked, "Ria, how can I help the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change and Biological Diversity?"

Well now there's a simple solution.

Enviro-roll: toilet paper impregnated with native seed

But hey, don't take my word for it, read more here.
The paper acts as a water/nutrient retentative agent, once used there is no need for other fertilizers etc...
Whoever said environmentalists had no sense of humour?

The Cabinet of Doctor Ceysar

Just back from the dentist's.

And how's Mrs Zombie?

Mr B. had warned me that Dr Ceysar did not have much a bedside manner, which was fine by me since I never really enjoyed chatting to the dentist with an anaesthetized jaw.
- So did you have a good holiday?

- ggshugnbr bevvfrna shuhptuh

- Yes, I'm sure it must be lovely at this time of year.
Instead I got
- Pain where?

- Ah! (sounding pleasantly surprised)

- Have you ever had root canal work on this tooth?

The horror!

He's booked me for
a triple session next Thursday.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


She whimpered,
“Could call me
A fussy girl;
I only want
A little bit
Of muesli
And some milk!”*

*Apologies to A.A. Milne.

Tetrapak stamp from RussiaYes, just some milk from a carton. Without first having to shred the paper off layer by layer, saw through the seal with a serrated knife, tilt the carton sideways to avoid an uncontrollable splash and then dribble more drops over my hands when I try to close the now ripped and jagged spout.

Man on the moon, human genome, inter-super highway netweb … and I can’t just pour some milk on my muesli? Who’s responsible? Step forward Ruben Rausing, founder of Tetrapak, the most profitable Swedish company after ABBA. Tetrapak’s products are everywhere in Europe (and in North America?) and come with an impressive variety of openings. To find out more about how to open my morning milk carton, I visited the company website and compiled this list of their openings:
  • Straw hole
  • Perforation TB
  • FlexiCap TB
  • DIMC ScrewCap
  • PullTab
  • StreamCap
  • Easy Opening
  • FlexiCap
  • ReCap3
  • SlimCap
  • Neck24
  • FlipCap Barrier
  • TwistCap Barrier
  • DeltaCap
  • FlipClip

Go on. Guess which one I’m looking for.

Of course, it’s the Easy Opening.

Artist's impression“Need we say more about this classic? Just split the top side seal and it folds back without fuss. Its perfect functionality has been proven billions of times.”


Without fuss?

Perfect functionality?

Prove it, baby, one more time!

[Quick fade to Stephan Eicher]
Et elle prend son café en riant
Et me regarde à peine
Plus rien ne la surprend sur la nature humaine
C'est pourquoi elle voudrait enfin si je le permets
Déjeuner en paix, déjeuner en paix

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Tits 'n' bums, kids 'n' mums

Peeling postersThe city council has put up extra billboards to host the thousands of posters for the forthcoming regional elections. The regular billboards are overloaded with dozens of posters stuck on top of each other by the busy glue boys working under cover of darkness. In their hyperactive haste they seem to drip as much glue on the ground as they do on the board, judging by our sticky tiptoeing to the car each morning. By election time there may be as many as fifty posters on a single board, the edges curling up and creating a confusing collage of political messages. Eventually the heavy mass falls to the ground, lies in the rain for a couple of days and dissolves in a glutinous mush.

But we're not there yet.

Most of the election posters are head shots of the candidate. Occasionally the communists will put up one with text only, shunning idolatry for the purity of the true word - as if anyone can read a paragraph of text from a speeding car. From the driver's seat of my own speeding car, I carried out an extensive survey of the image of women in the posters lining the route to school. It may not bear up to scientific scrutiny, but so what? - it was raining heavily and my son kept wanting me to turn round and admire his glow-in-the-dark shoes.

This is what I saw:

-No turning back-

Election poster #1
Big-haired brunette beauty, bare shoulders, beaming smile, her arms protectively around a little boy

Election poster #2
Small child with his head against a naked pregnant belly. Woman's head and legs cut off. (Reminds me of the tits 'n' bums photos in porno mags, and of the Meat Manual that we produced recently.)

Election poster #3
Young mother standing side-by-side with man and two small children

Election poster #4
Girl, aged about 9, backpack on, heading for school

Election poster #5
Beautiful blond woman, head thrown back, laughing loudly on the phone

Election poster #6
Middle-aged woman in hospital scrubs, smiling softly

Message to the female voter:
Get a basic education
Gossip & flirt
Get pregnant
Look after your kids
Stand by your man
Take care of sick people.

. . .

Is that all there is?

How does the commercial world present women on my drive from school to work?

Ad #1
Intimissimi, with their new winter range of push-up lingerie for teenage girls

Ad #2
LookAtMiHonda's new scooter, with a perfectly sculpted woman's face in deep shadow, bee-stung lips and a wide-eyed side glance at the shiny SH125i. Look at mi is the caption, in English.

Ad #3
Casaidea, the interior design exhibition, showing a zany mussy-haired woman with an apple on her head

Ad #4
Where's the jack, Jack?Telecom Italia, promoting a double-speed ADSL connection by using the obvious image of a gawping raven-haired beauty lying naked with phone cable wrapped round her breasts and hips. Double-speed ADSL :: near-naked woman. Gosh, the copywriter really pushed the envelope on that one.

My caption: "Find the jack, Jack". I should get paid for that, don't you think?

What message do you get from these ads?

Sunday, February 20, 2005

5 a.m. Sunday morning

I had recklessly offered to drive my sister-in-law to the airport for her early morning flight back to the Netherlands. The offer was made in the memory of a similar airport run last June through empty streets in the first rays of dawn’s soft light with mist rising from the fields. This time it was dark, wet and cold and the surprisingly heavy traffic was unforgiving as we tried to cross the road to my car. We sped off to Circus Maximus and turned right along the Baths of Caracalla. I like to party hearty!There was no trace of the massive soundstage that had hosted a concert just hours previously for the latest Italian hostage in Iraq, part of a big demonstration organized by the Communist Party. Later this morning I watched a drive-by of a dozen buses stuffed with flag-waving, chanting communists, each bus followed by an equally stuffed, but silent and morose bus full of riot police. Disregarding the politics, if you want to get out a bit, practise your Italian and meet new people, then join the Communists. They hold marches, concerts and meetings every month. I almost feel sorry for the lonely Christian Democrats stuck at home watching the telly.


Lose 10 points for hitting a pilgrimI chose to take the most scenic and historically interesting route to the airport - the via Appia Antica. With no traffic lights for most of the way, it’s also the fastest route at this time of day. It’s closed to traffic on Sundays, but we were four hours clear of the closure time and so zipped straight down the Via di Porta San Sebastiano. Behind the 10-metre high walls are very private villas set in parkland. We went to a birthday party at one of them last year and got lost trying to find the way out of the estate.

Rome welcomes Roma A.C. supportersThere are also no pavements from here on, so it was just as well there were no pilgrims strolling around at this early hour. First, under the Druso Arch, which was part of the Antoniniana aqueduct that brought water to Emperor Caracalla’s Baths; then under the massive Porta di San Sebastiano, one of the most impressive parts of the Aurelian wall around the city. A four-storey fortress built in the 12th century, with battlements on the twin towers and a portcullis in the centre that can be lowered to protect the city from invaders - these days that means Lazio football club supporters. Large sections of the wall here seem to be permanently scaffolded for restoration work. Some years ago, part of the scaffolding was taken down and the wall immediately began to crumble … so up went the scaffolding again.

Rome Highway Maintenance Department ... Please hold ...We bounce on to the Appia Antica proper. It was built 2,317 years ago … and they still haven’t fixed the potholes.

Caravaggio's St Peter is not a heroic martyr ...[read more]We zipped past the spot where Jesus appeared to Saint Peter who was fleeing Nero’s persecutions of Christians in Rome. Peter asked Domine, quo vadis? (Lord, whither goest Thou?) – To Rome to be crucified again, came the reply. Peter took this as a rebuke and so returned to the city and his own martyrdom.

On down past the back entrance to the Catacombs of San Callixtus, a mile-long road through quiet fields and open sky where you can easily forget you are in a major capital city.

The Appia Antica then sweeps up on humming cobbles into darkness, growing ever narrower, with high walls on either side. Built to fit five Roman soldiers marching abreast or two carriages to pass each other, it can lead to strife when two modern-day Romans try to squeeze past in their SUVs. “I paid €50,000 extra for a gold-knobbed gear stick so I’m not backing down!” “Well my family hasn’t said sorry for over 400 years, so back it up buddy!”

Cocooned in the darkness I forgot it was in fact a two-way street until I saw the oncoming headlights. Fortunately it was only a Smart. Smart car, stupid driver, is how it goes. They drive as if it is a scooter – no space is too small to squeeze into, no way you cannot be first in line at the traffic lights.

HE'S the mansWe’re forced off the Appia Antica around the point where the tombs of the Roman nobility line the roadsides and the cobbled surface gives way to the huge blocks of volcanic stones, still grooved in places with chariot tracks. This was also where 6,000 rebellious slaves captured in the final battle of the Spartacus revolt were crucified along the roadside in 71 CE. Unlike in the film, Kirk Douglas missed being crucified as he was apparently killed in the battle and his body was never found, leading to rumours that he might someday return. Unfortunately, he did.

In complete darkness and open countryside now, on via Pignatelli, a fast run all the way to the via Appia Nuova, a road as charmless and uninteresting as the Antica is picturesque and fascinating. The first red light since the city wall seems to be an option only as we stop while two other cars shoot straight through. The only redeeming feature of this last stretch to the airport is the big white sign by the roadside:

Disco Pub

In spite of its name, it seems to be quite a happening place.

Shortly after, the blinding police searchlight marked the entrance to the airport, with armed soldiers patrolling the arrival and departures areas. Inside it was as busy as this little airport ever gets, with four flights leaving before 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. That’s why they’re so cheap, of course.

I turned Roots Manuva up loud on the way back and couldn’t hear the engine protesting as I sped along thinking I was in 4th gear when in fact I was in 2nd. BreakfastRound trip in 60 minutes. My stomach was growling so I had an early breakfast at the Caffè del Parco opposite my house. As I stepped into the little oasis of light and warmth I was greeted by three welcoming Buon giornos – ahhh Italy, land of overstaffing and unpredictable opening hours, I love you.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Ria Bacon is unwell

For every problem there is a solutionI’m indisposed
I’m out of sorts
I’m laid up, feeling peaky
I feel run down, below par
Laid low, down with a wog

Feeling crook and poorly
A bit seedy and woozy
Moby Dick, currant cakey
I’m wobbly but running a temperature
As sick as a dog but not as a parrot

Ain't got the trots or the runs
Me Bali belly's holding steady
Not green but off-colour
No Wallace & Grommit, just iffy
Ain't been talking to God on the porcelain telephone …

Still ...
"Je suis maladeuh! Complèteuhment maladeuh!"
- Serge Lama

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Fresh outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease

It is rare to meet someone who admits to having voted for Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi - it's like telling the psychiatrist, "A friend of mine has been feeling depressed lately and I, er she ...". So the best you get are explanations by proxy, such as, "A lot of people figured that since he was such a successful entrepreneur, he could use his Midas touch for the whole country." Berlusconi also knows how to feed the Italian desire to present la bella figura to the world, saying, "I like to see myself young, and it's a form of respect towards others". The Prime Minister disappeared from view last summer while recuperating from his lifting and hair implant treatment. He emerged, chrysalis-like, smooth and shiny to boast that he felt 20 years younger. You're only as old as the woman you feel, would have been a classic quip in the style of Il Cavaliere, but I don't think it translates well. Nevertheless it is the truth. He's proved his virility with 3 children by his second, younger model, wife, and has avoided being seen with his grown-up children from his first marriage.

What always stuck in my memory from the Midas story was that the proud king was condemned to live forever - he just got older and older, more and more shrivelled until he ended up like a grasshopper. How many lifts can you have before it snaps?

Oh, but he's so charming. When asked about his latest cosmetic surgery (he's a recidivist here too), he reminded the press conference how important it was to look good on television and finished his briefing with a wink at a female journalist and the promise, "I can give you some addresses ..."

Other outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease, strain B:

Investment advice at the New York Stock Exchange
"Italy is now a great country to invest in ... today we have fewer communists ... Another reason to invest in italy is that we have beautiful secretaries... superb girls."

On his conflict of interest as prime minister and one of Italy's biggest tycoons, with major media holdings
"If I, taking care of everyone's interests, also take care of my own, you can't talk about a conflict of interest."

On Mussolini
"Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile."


Be informed that this disease is highly contagious. The feeble-minded are most at risk, such as the leaders of The Northern League, which has remodelled Italy into 14 independent states, with their own, The Republic of Padania, preserving such ancient Celtic traditions as hunting, drinking and shooting immigrants.

Now wake up.

The Northern League is a key member of Berlusconi's coalition government, together with the "post-fascists" (sic) I mentioned previously. The Minister of Justice is theirs, as is the most incongruously-titled Minister of Reform and Devolution (very sic), Roberto Calderoli. There is an online prize named after him (in Italian), awarded to victims of foot-in-mouth disease. The inspiration for the prize was Calderoli's suggestion that for each day Italian hostages were held in Iraq, "1 000 Islamists from so-called gangster states will be rounded up and shipped home."

SinkingShipAs for incoming immigrants, crossing the Mediterranean in often unseaworthy boats,
Calderoli demanded that the Italian Navy should not aid sinking ships but "repel" them. The ships, he said, did not only carry helpless children, but people who would "plunder the cities, deal in drugs on the streets, traffic in prostitutes [...]".

So there's the checklist for the 1 000 repatriates per day.

Advanced foot-in-mouth disease severs the connection between the victim and the world of rational thinking. Life's complexities fade away as the sufferer veers towards megalomania and the belief that the world would be a better place under his benevolent dictatorship. Nonconformism gets short shrift. Sinking ships are cast adrift.

Calderoli imagined himself in a spaghetti Western last November when he sparked a manhunt after offering € 25 000 for the capture of a murderer. When he was told bounty hunting was probably illegal, he backed down regretfully.
I would have preferred something like "dead of alive", but they told me the law wouldn't allow it.
In Calderoli's world, the law would be privatized and the rich and virtuous would be free from crime.

His attitude towards penal reform is equally blunt:
Once upon a time one spoke of chemical castration, but personally I tend more toward simpler methods: scissors, and ones that are not necessarily sterilized.
His cross-cultural sensitivity is unveiled:
If someone comes from the jungle and is used to going around dressed like Tarzan, they can do it there, but not here.
And most recently, he railed against the verdict allowing a gay Senegalese asylum seeker refuge in Italy. The court decided that the man faced persecution and prison if he was sent back to Senegal and was therefore entitled to protection of his human rights. And yea verily there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth by Calderoli who saith unto thee:
Poor justice! Poor Italy! Once celebrated as a land of saints, of poets and explorers, is today a land of terrorists and illegal queers!
On that last point, my only question is - how could they tell? Most Italian men live with their mothers until their mid-30s, they love tight clothes and shopping for shoes, and are quite open about waxing their eyebrows.

We therefore call upon Minister Calderoli to draw up a new checklist to help us identify all the deviants among us.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The customer (with a shotgun) is king

Antoinette is smoking again.

She works in the next office but the walls here are so porous that the smoke just leaks through. Our building was once Mussolini's Ministry of African Affairs, a rather grandiose affair since his attempt to emulate other European colonial powers was limited to Abyssinia and Libya. The large offices of the colonial administrators have long since been divided into smaller units, almost all identical. Almost. It's the details that reveal your rank. Short-term consultants don't bother investing in decoration; at level 5 you can have carpet on the floor, but there must be a 2 cm gap at the edge by the wall -- wall-to-wall carpeting is reserved for directors only.

VietatoFumareSmoking in the office has been banned for quite a few years - it still goes on behind locked doors with windows open and air freshener to hand (hey that was me when I was ... 15). The law was recently toughened to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, causing surprise and confusion - that it should be applied at all and that it should be applied so quickly, unlike other legal processes. The first fine was issued in Naples, one minute after the official introduction of the law. It was also in crime-ridden Naples, however, that the chair of the traders' association worried that asking a criminal to put out a cigarette "is no easy matter. I'm not risking getting kneecapped". Yeah, that could be a demotivating factor.

Antoinette has now finished smoking. I know because the gagging odour of Wild Rose air freshener is now seeping through the walls.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Benvenuto amore

LoveCherubLeftLoveCherubRightStuffed among the bills in my mailbox was the latest copy of Love News, full of illegible, eligibible ... oh bugger it! ... desperate career women and randy widowers. There!

The editorial of Love News thoughtfully echoes the inscription on Marx's tomb with the headline, Lovers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose except your pride, it didn't add. The editorial laments the loss of the romance of yore, that today has become merely a pretext for business (true).
And 100 years from now? Will we send flowers by spaceship? Will we use holograms to send greetings? Will we have created a machine that can kiss our lover light years away? Well then ... lovers of the world, UNITE! Don't let your sentiments be beaten down by supertechnology ... are they not better than chocolates?
Err, the last bit is lost in translation, I think.

I had been hoping that the ads would be suitably cringeworthy and amusingly exaggerated but I get the impression that the agency has rewritten them as they are very bland and standardized.
Thanks to the joys of automatic translation, however, we can still get a cheap laugh.
I feel my large house therefore and empty and this feeds in me desire of one similar. I am a 75-year-old widower, I have large sons and arranges, I would want to find one to you good mrs., serious cake and for living with the days of our life.*
Ahh, bless...


Graduated in Jurisprudence, I carry out the profession of Lawyer near one company be them, 44 years nubile. I would want to meet a sincere, cultured man, celibate, I am catholic and I would want to finally marry in church and possession of the sons.**
One important point to note before dating an Italian: the women are usually not nubile and the men are never celibate. Both words simply mean single.

*Sento la mia casa così grande e vuota e questo alimenta in me il desiderio di una compagna. Sono un 75enne vedovo, ho figli grandi e sistemati, vorrei trovare una brava signora, dolce e seria per vivere insieme i giorni della nostra vita.

**Laureata in Giurisprudenza, svolgo la professione di Legale presso una azienda statale, 44 anni nubile. Vorrei incontrare un uomo sincero, colto, celibe, sono cattolica e vorrei sposarmi in chiesa ed avere finalmente dei figli.

Motorcyclist against a pole, torn to pieces body

When I arrived at work on Friday, many people were complaining about the traffic being backed up all around Cristoforo Colombo, the main expressway into the southern part of Rome. For a fraction of a second I thought that maybe it was my fault, that the runaway car had caused a fatal accident, but then it would have had to have rolled up a 50-metre off-ramp onto Cristoforo Colombo. Phew. Not MY fault then.

I checked the news for the incident, but despite the gruesomeness of the reporting, it is too much of a recurrent event here in Rome for it to have made more than one online report. I used an automatic translation to preserve the "lacerated" tone of the report.
Motorcyclist against a pole, torn to pieces body
The impact has been therefore devastating that has quite torn to pieces the body of Giuseppe Z., 33 years, after the crash against the pole. The motion of Giuseppe, for causes still to assess, is escaped to its control and is ended against a pole of the light. The body of leading has been bounced and torn to pieces from the collision [...] Also for the difficulty of the reliefs and the complexity of the removal of the corpse the traffic is remained blocked until to the 10 in all the zone between Marconi tree-lined avenue.
I confess I was still relieved to see no mention of a silver Nissan Micra.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Mea culpa (heehee)

This morning I was trying to manoeuvre out of my parking spot. I backed up and immediately nudged the car behind. Oops never mind. So I clenched my jaw and strained to get full lock without power steering and edged forward. Ker-bump. The car behind had rear-ended me. I aimed my hardest Paddington hard stare at my aggressor only to realize that the car was empty. Gingerly I reversed back, nudging the little silver Micra back a few feet, then edged out into the stream of rush hour traffic. And to my astonishment, the Micra rolled up behind me! I accelerated slightly and let another car get in between us. The traffic was moving slowly and on the uneven cobbles, the runaway car didn't gain much momentum. I followed it in my rear-view mirror, unable to contain my laughter and yet also feeling I was somehow at fault. Still it seemed so comical, like a silent movie with Buster Keaton. Instead of heading right to school, I went round the Piramide one more time just to catch a further glimpse of the runaway car's progress. It had rolled almost two hundred metres and had come to a stop in the middle of a three-way junction. A line of cars was forming behind it and I could see the occupants beginning to gesticulate their fury. Too bad I couldn't see their faces when they tried to remonstrate with the absent Micra driver.

Made my day.

Piramide Roma
The car rolled from the tree-lined boulevard at the top (north), southwest to where the top of the pyramid is.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

I'm a patriot, you're a nationalist, he's a terrorist ...

Driving back from the school run, back into the centre of Rome and thus at crawling speed, I get a chance to look around at the billboards lining the roadside. With regional elections due on April 3 and 4, the posters of busty pouting women squirming over now 0.25% lower interest rates have been replaced by campaign posters. The first to catch my attention was unattributed to any political party as far as I could see and contained only the crest of Lazio Region. Two bare arms, one male, one female, were raised with hands clasped together holding an Italian flag. The slogan was "Cresce l'orgoglio di essere Italiani" (The pride of being Italian is growing). I googled the expression in quote marks and got three hits. The first was in a speech by the President of the Republic, Ciampi, in 2002; the second was an ironic (sexually explicit) photo illustration; and the third was a description of visiting an exhibition in Rome on anti-semitism.

By far the greatest number of posters belong to Alleanza Nazionale, a key party in the current coalition government, whose leader, Gianfranco Fini, is the Italian foreign minister. The recurrent theme of the posters is nationalist of course, but with degrees of difference. One slogan might champion the value of hard work, another the value of the family. One echoes the slogan above: In the past there were only a few of us. Now the majority are proud of being Italian. The party's main slogan is more succinct: One single concern: the Italians (Un solo interesse: gli Italiani).

Yet for many Americans, the idea of being proud of your country is as normal as apple pie. It doesn't take long to find American blogs with banners and buttons celebrating the blogger's patriotism. And there's the difference: patriotism, not nationalism. It's as if the concept conjugates irregularly: I'm a patriot, you're a nationalist, he's a terrorist bent on rooting out foreign influence in his country. For many Europeans, the idea of swearing allegiance to the national flag smacks of the worst totalitarian regimes the continent experienced last century. Saluting the flag is a purely military ritual. This is a feeling that is particularly common in England, I think. Morrissey sang recently,
I've been dreaming of a time when
To be English
Is not to be baneful
To be standing by the flag
Not feeling shameful
Racist or partial

-Irish Blood, English Heart*

Now take my own case: born to Scottish parents but raised in England. Lived in France, married a Dutch national. Now in Italy. I cheer Scotland against England, but England against Australia, and France against the Netherlands. Norman Tebbitt, Thatcher's chief kneecapper, suggested testing citizenship among British-Pakistanis and British-Indians by seeing which cricket team they cheer for. Similarly, French National Front leader, Le Pen claimed the French national football team was not really French when "most of the players can't or don't want to sing the Marseillaise". Fortunately, the "foreign French" team won the world cup and Zidane became the most popular man in the country. Le Pen is a mere detail in history, to paraphrase his own idiocy.

Back to present-day Italy and Alleanza Nazionale (AN), a party born of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) formed after the second world war and composed of ex-fascists. The posters today still have the MSI letters and symbol of tri-colour flame (always a suspiciously fascist icon - the eternal flame, etc.). Yet AN's leader has managed to heave the party into the mainstream, even veering towards traditionally more leftwing territory. Last year, for example, Fini shocked many of the old guard by calling for recent immigrants to be given the vote in Italy. Even more recently, he called on his supporters to reject racism and xenophobia. This must be confusing for the party members. I mean, why would you vote for a party with fascist origins if you weren't racist and xenophobic?

Fini promises more policy changes in the future but for now I'll continue decoding the billboards. And for me, when a politician starts praising the glories of hard work and motherhood, I reach for my revolver, metaphorically speaking, that is.

*I'm not a big Morrissey fan, but as a northener I'll always admire his managing to mention Humberside in a song.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Playing with sweetness

Interview With Franco Di Mare of RAI Channel One TV of Italy
Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Rome, Italy
February 8, 2005

QUESTION: [beginning of live interview, speaking in Italian]

QUESTION: [in English] Welcome to Italy, Madam Secretary. I wonder if your enemies know about the meaning of your name?

SECRETARY RICE: Oh no, they certainly don't and you won't tell them, will you? [Laughter]

QUESTION: No, no, I won't tell them [laughter].

Then I will. Her music teacher mother invented the name from the Italian con dolcezza, meaning to play with sweetness. How ... ironic. Con bocca chiusa (with closed mouth) would be more appropriate, given the ever-widening gulf between her puff and reality.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Is he strong? Listen, bud ...

animated spidermanThere was a carnival parade at school this morning and Spiderman™ was by far the most popular character there. Among the Italian kids, there were a few Zorros and the hipper British and American kids were Incredibles. The girls of course were princesses or fairies, except for one Spiderman™girl and a single mermaid wearing an old curtain stitched up by her alternative™ parents. The air really was electric as they marched round the atrium wearing 100% polyester and polyamide. I almost expected to see sparks fly as they pushed past each other.

Monday, February 07, 2005

A Farewell to Flesh

Tomorrow is the final day of Carnival, culminating in Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. For us it will mean fancy dress at school on condition that there are no guns, swords or any other instruments of violence. The two beefy school security guards will be frisking the under-fives and confiscating any offensive weapons at the gate.

Rome is where Carnevale first started, although the practice of a day of debauchery certainly pre-dates recorded history as a celebration of the rising sap of spring. Ancient Greece held a spring festival in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine. And just as the Romans copied many things from the Greeks (statues, philosophy, architecture), they adopted this festival and renamed it Bacchanalia in honour of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. It seems that at their origin, the festivals were secret, women-only rituals, held three times a year near the Aventine Hill, not fifty metres from where I'm sitting. By 350 BCE, men had been allowed to join and the party went public, overflowing into the streets with revellers dressed as fawns, satyrs and nymphs, and phalli in abundance. The debauchery got completely out of hand over the years, with reports of anyone who tried to spoil the fun being murdered. The Senate banned the festival in 186 BCE, fearing political intrigue and plotting amid the orgies.

baccanali_mantegnaAccording to many sources, another possible origin of Carnival is the festival of Saturnalia, held in honour of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. For up to a week, the social order would be relaxed (casual dress rather than togas at dinner, playing dice in public, for example) and slaves could dress in their masters' clothes and be waited on at table (by whom?). However, given that Saturnalia was celebrated around the winter solstice (just before December 25), it seems more plausible that it was the inspiration for the date of Jesus' birth, a celebration which began only in the 4th century CE.

So although modern Carnival resembles these festivals in a spirit of indulgence and merry-making, they do not match the calendar. The date was determined by the Catholic Church and corresponds to 40 days before Easter, the oldest Christian festival. Forty is of course one of the two magic numbers in the Bible (the other being seven) and this period, Lent, is traditionally a period of reflection and abstinence, beginning with Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras then is the last day to get ur freak on à la Bacchanalia, and use up all the butter before it goes off - hence beignets and pancakes.

Folk etymology attributes the origin of the word carnival to Medieval Latin, carne vale, meaning "flesh, farewell", but more probably it is derived from older regional Italian forms such as Milanese or Old Pisan. These non-attested words *carnelevale and *carnelevare both have the idea of removing meat, i.e. scraping the bones clean and using up the last precious meat before the period of fasting in Lent.

So there you have it, pagan debauchery mixed with sound home economics. Rome City Council proposes a first-ever Carnival parade in via Margutta, with the aim of reintroducing the spirit of "the real Roman Carnival", thoughtfully adding, "within the limits of civil society and security, obviously".

Obviously you can leave your phallus at home, and don't kill the party poopers.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The consolation of Nutella

For Nutellaholics everywhere, and especially those at Petite's, eat your heart out.

Moretti nutella

Yes, that is a jar of Nutella on the right...

Whine anyone?*

A student of mine from two years back was training to become a sommelier. His day job was at the help desk of Oracle Corporation here in Rome but he was sick of dealing with clients whining about poor customer support. How he longed to e-mail back, "RTFM before you waste my time!" How he yearned to leap from tree to tree as they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia! ...

Er, wrong story. No, my student wanted to be Master of the Wine cellar and to this end had been studying for several years, attending master classes and spending way too much money on wine. He assured me that it was "impossible" to buy a drinkable bottle of wine in the supermarket and never for less than 30 or 40 Euros. Obviously he had passed "Intermediate Wine Snobbery" with distinction. For him, there was only one Italian wine one could drink with assurance, Barolo. We drank a bottle this week, and it was good ("I could drink it every day!" said Mr B. enthusiastically) but not ten times better than the Bardolino at a tenth of the price in our local supermarket.

baroloWine, like computing (you mean you don't use Firefox??), is a domain that thrives on snobbery and exclusivity (Gmail invite anyone?). Chauvinism is also rampant. It is hard, for example, to find many non-French wines in France - Sidi-Brahim is used as a token example of foreign wine. Similarly, here in Italy, it is hard to find anything but Italian wines (or Italian cheeses, for that matter). As for the oenological jargon, do you know anyone who says things like "good legs, meaty body" without trying to get a laugh?

I finish with my favourite wine story, in my Larousse "Les vins" encyclopaedia (ahem), about the Italian wine Est! Est! Est! di Montefiascone.

The story dates from 1111, when a German bishop and wine buff, Johannes Fuger, was on his way to Rome, preceded by a servant whose job it was to scout out the best wines on the route. The servant had been instructed to write the word Est on the wall of each inn that served good wine. The Latin word would indicate to his master that the wine is (est) good. Passing through Montefiascone, the servant was so impressed with the local wine that he wrote Est! Est! Est! On arrival, the poor bishop set about drinking himself to death. The epitaph on his tomb relates the story in Latin and has been "piously conserved".

*Yes it's the second time I've used this pun in this blog's short life, but if no one else is going to link to me then I might as well do it myself. *sniff*

Brand everything

Taking a leaf out of the Vatican's book, one of the departments in my organization is making an innovative attempt to raise awareness of animal diseases by marketing a children's T-shirt in black cotton with a blue cow-shaped blob and a text promoting one of their mission goals:
0% rinderpest

I want two!

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Inherit a nose

The scene: a crowded LA restaurant. At the centre table sits a lesbian couple on a first date. One of the women talks loud enough for everyone else to eavesdrop.
She says,

“Yeah the main reason I had the nose job was that I want my kids to have cute noses.”
The restaurant falls silent.

The woman looks round,

“What? What?! … Oh I get it – it’s because we’re gay, right? Well hey, get over it. Lesbians can have children too, you know!”

Puppy love

"You know, I'm gonna marry Nelson", announced my 4-year-old son for the umpteenth time. "And, you know, we're not gonna have a baby. Noooooo. We're gonna have a ... puppy!"

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

My ancestor, the Pope

Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas

At school this morning I saw a new poster display outside my daughter's classroom. "F is for family" read the banner heading and below were the first two contributions from the Prep class (aged 5). Both had photos and colourful drawings in crayon but the text differed somewhat. In the first was written,
This is Tom. He is eating a banana. He has a dog.
In the second were two typed extracts from an Italian history book with added comments in pencil in italics:
1. My great great grandfather was a General who won WWI. In October 1918, General Antonio D. launched a heavy offensive which the press called the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. [...] On 4 November, Antonio D. announced victory.

2. [...] But the problem of residence could be considered brilliantly solved for both families. The P---ini family took up residence in Palazzo G., while the Barberini family took up residence in their magnificent, recently built Palace of the Quattro Fontane.
But the matter of the Palazzo V. was not resolved until 1708 when Cardinal Bruno P---ini successfully negotiated the marriage of his niece to the grandnephew of (Pope) Clement XI...
[4 more paragraphs]
To think that the kid will have their illustrious heritage drummed in to them from age five. Bit sad really. For a description of a children's party with the Italian rich and famous (apparently), read here.