All 28 entries tagged Italy

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June 19, 2012

Euro successes

Market SquareThe two Euro 2012 groups playing in Poland (and the only ones I've followed so far) may have not offered the best football, but they did offer the best fans: the Irish, winners of all prizes as most popular fans, the Russians, undeservedly attacked by hooligans in what however became an occasion for most Poles to rethink their anti-Russian complexes, the colourful Spaniards, the noisy Croats, the musical Greeks, the good Czech soldiers, and of course the poor Poles, who keep singing “Polacy nic nie sie stalo” (Poles, nothing has happened). The only exception is the Italians: few and made of essentially two groups: clueless families and fascists. A few times I wished I was sitting on the other side, but at least, after last night, I can confirm the positive observation that even right-wing fans now appreciate Balotelli.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon and night in Poznan with the Irish fans. While still in a good mood, they did go through a certain involution over the last week: “you’ll never beat the Irish” became “you’ll rarely beat the Irish”, and eventually “you’ll always beet the Irish”. As the football became less and less rewarding, “stand up for the boys in green” gradually gave way to “stand up for the Polish girls” (a bit sexist: just like the various versions of “shag the queen”, not an inherently wrong concept, but space for improvement on form). By the end, they even stopped cheering Trapattoni (he had to wait until the age of 73 for conceding 9 goals in 3 games). Poznan's beer, Lech, is sold in green bottles and cans and enjoyed much favour, even more than the equally green, but weak, Calrsberg sold in the stadiums. Seeing the queues outside bottle shops in Poznan, Polish onlookers could only comment: “it’s just like under communism”.

Quite. Mass rallies on Plac Defilad in Warsaw, under the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science, were not seen since the 1st of May marches of communist times. And Poland’s tournament, even if unsuccessful, has still been their best since… 1986.

What has changed since communism is the perception of Poland. It is, so far, a very successful tournament, all visitors visibly enjoying the perfect organisation, the new stadia and, most importantly, the beautiful cities and the landscape between them (not always the roads, but believe me, they are so much better than just ten years ago). Just like the 2010 World Cup changed the perception of South Africa from dangerous violent country to emerging world economic power, Poland now has strong ambitions of getting rid of any ‘grey’ or ‘poor’ perception. Most Poles have kept the white-red flags on their cars despite defeat. The open racism feared by the BBC has been limited so far to one Croat banana. This ‘feel-good’ effect may not last. When in 2006 Germans broke the tabu of waving their national flags during their home World Cup, the surge in national pride registered by surveys only lasted one month or two. In Poland, the bills for the stadiums, and the poverty of those who could not afford a ticket, will remain. Many companies building the stadiums (incluiding the main contractor of Warsaw's National Stadium), after cut-throat competition for the contracts, have already collapsed and failed to pay subcontractors, leaving hundreds of workers without months of hard-earned wages: like for the recent North Korea-style queen jubilee in London, should modern mass events have to rely on unpaid labour? Unpaid workers were rightly protesting at Wroclaw stadium last week.

PS I was forgetting that the Euro is about football after all. Cheers to Spaniards and Croats, who have provided the ultimate falsification of stereotypes on lower morality of Latin and Slavic people in comparison to pretendedly superior Scandinavians (see Swedish-Danish biscuit, Euro 2004). And cheers to Pirlo, but it hurts to think Milan gave it to Juventus for free last year... a karma for having previously given away Shevchenko and Kaka for trillions after their sale-by date, I suppose.


June 16, 2012

Croatia – Italy, national questions

Italy - CroatiaPoznan is one of the most dynamic cities in Poland, radically changed since the times I went there as a visiting student in 1989. It is one of the most western in both geographic and socio-economic terms. Which also means that on Thursday, it was full of cars with German registrations but Croat flags… There are more Italians than Croats in Germany, but clearly they are either lazier or, having been in Germany for much longer, less keen on expressing their national pride.

Croatia is a young nation and pride is even more important for them. On the packed tramway from the old town to the stadium I was about the only Italian in a sea of White-Red chessboards… who started to jump with an intensity close to bring the tramway off the rails, while singing ‘tko ne skaca pravoslavni je’: who doesn’t jump is orthodox. Not very relevant on a day match against Italy. But I knew that: when in Travnik, Bosnia, in 2008 as a election international observer, on one evening I was eating some cevapcici in a bar. A group of local (i.e. Bosnian-Croat) youth stared at the way I was eating and then asked why I was not eating the mountain of row onion accompanying the meat – a clear sign that I was a stranger, a rare one in that corner of Bosnia. Once learnt I was Italian, visibly unhappy (Italy had an ambiguously pro-Serbian stand during the Bosnian war), they asked me to make the sign of the cross. This is when my Catholic education came to hand, and I did it the "right" way (left-to-right), earning me the locals’ enthusiastic appreciation –(in Travnik they clearly didn't know that the probability of finding an Italian Orthodox are etremely low). They even offered me a glass for a toast to the pope, adding that ‘we are all Catholic here’… Which was true in Travnik East, but only because the Muslims had either ended in mass graves, or been expelled to Travnik West. Three years earlier, I could imagine, my unexpected drinkmates were fighting. But things have moved on a lot, especially in Croatia, and Zagreb is probably one of the most liberal and open cities in Central Europe – although Croat Bosnia and rural Croatia, especially if affected by the war, less so. And I still have the unpleasant feeling of remembering that some of their hooligans, like the Serbs, were also active in the paramilitary forces in the 1990s.

Although my knowledge of Serb-Croat (sorry Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs, but it does look like one language to me) is very limited, I could often understand the Croats in the tramway and later in the stadium. The youngest ones, while singing in Croat, spoke to each other in German: they are no ‘Integrationsverweigener’. Some also spoke Italian, either because from largely Italian-speaking Istria or because of having spent time in Italy. And in the stadium, they were often singing insults in Italian, thanks to the strong links of love-hate between Croat and Italian hooligans. The Italian fans are too illiterate linguistically to be able to answer – and towards the end of the match were also too depressed.

Apparently some Croat fans booed Balotelli, and one threw a banana. I did not hear or see any racist tone, though, all Croats I saw were all friendly and hopefully, despite the negative efforts of a bit of the Italian right who want to equate fascist crimes and Yugoslavian crimes against Italians at the end of the war, the bad times may be at the end. What I am sure of is that, in both two opening matches, Italian fans supported Balotelli unanimously, and not for instrumental reasons given that he clearly disappointed on the pitch: the time when a part of Italy booed the first black Italy player are definitely over (we have come really last on that: even Poland and Croatia have had black players for longer, and easily got over that).


May 19, 2012

Aiming high: occupy in Milan

Macao - Torre Galfa skyscraperLast year, my arrival to Madrid coincided with the first demonstration of what, a few weeks later became the indignados movement. This week, my arrival to Milan, on my way to Florence, was less lucky: the clearing by the police of the occupied skyscraper Torre Galfa.

While Milan has a long history of occupying spaces, second probably to only Berlin and Copenhagen, over the last decade, under the Berlusconian version of privatisation and commodification, the occupied centri sociali have been silently disappearing, and social movements have been very shy. This Spring, finally, something fresh: at the beginning of May, the occupation of the skyscraper Torre Galfa, in the middle of the new business district. This occupation is different from those of Puerta del Sol or Wall Street. It was not of a public s[pace, and it was not primarily political. It was of a private space, and highly symbolical: skyscrapers are the architectural symbol of financial capitalism. And it was primarily creative/artistic: creating a space for ‘co-working’ of creative cultural projects in Milan, called ‘Macao’. This is itself very political, though: Milan is in many regards the cultural capital of Italy – theatres, galleries and publishers are based here -, but what was an avant-garde city decades ago has become stiff, bourgeois, conformist and very commercial. A visible cultural centre outside market logics is politically disruptive.

Macao, in its short life, received the support of leftwing mayor Pisapia and of the icon of Milanese alternative culture, Nobel Prize Dario Fo (who knows something about occupying: his occupied Villa Liberty was in the 1970s the Milanese centres of experimental theatre). However, it also received the attention of Interior Minister Annamaria Cancellieri. In a very Italian twist, her son happens to be an executive director of the developers’ company that owns the empty skyscraper, a company which has been involved in nearly all corruption scandals in Milan for the last 30 years. The very quick police intervention to clear the occupiers is therefore at least suspicious. It also raised ironic comments: the police would have got confused and cleared the wrong skyscraper – the really illegally occupied one is the adjacent Pirelli tower, seat of the regional government, which is squatting there despite a huge amount of scandals involving both ruling parties (Berlusconi’s Freedom People and the Northern League) and charges of electoral fraud.

After the evictions, the occupiers have refused Pisapia’s offer of a space in the former Ansaldo factory – a central area which should become the art and cultural district of Milan. Insisting in ‘aiming high’, they refused any compromise with the institutions, occupied the street for a while, and today moved on to occupy an empty palace, belonging to the Ministry of Culture, in the arty Brera quarter. I have taken some pictures with the occupiers under the cleared skyscrapers, but better ones had been published by... Vogue.


April 18, 2012

With the unions of Emilia Romagna

Emilia-Romagna is a specific "social model" in Italy (Or actually two, because Emiliani and Romagnoli are two separate breeds). It has been ruled by the Italian Communist Party and its heirs since the war, it has the highest unionisation levels, and its public services for childcare and for the elderly are considered to be amongst the best in the world. The management of immigration is also better than elsewhere.

monument to the rice picker

Like with all social models, there are visible cracks in it. The Right often wins in the most north-western part of it, Parma and Piacenza - the latter is where the new left journal "Quaderni Piacentini" was born in the 1960s, and despiute the small size it still has some lively political experiments (I used to escape there from Milan in my student years). It also shockingly won once in Bologna in 1999, showing that the Left monopoly cannot be taken for granted. Corruption scandals occur nearly as often as in the rest of the country - the Parmalat case being particularly noticeable. The Left here, despite its anarchist and communist roots, is as pragmatic as it gets though - the current leader of the Democratic Party, Bersani, is one example.

Last week, I spent two days, regrettably under the rain, in the hills off Bologna in the CGIL-Emilia Romagna convention centre, discussing with unionists about the state of industrial relations in Europe. All very interesting, and I had forgotten how long Italian unionists can talk for. Two observations. First, Italian speakers were nearly only men, despite the fact that the labour movement of Emilia Romagna has feminine roots, illustrated by the monumement to the rice pickers in the same location. Second, the food of Emilia (parmigiano, lasagne, agnolotti, mortadella, aceto balsamico...) is not the lightest but it is more and more a matter of cross-class pride. Maybe to compensate for the vanishing political one.


February 07, 2012

Italian cuisine – between slow food and slow hybridisation

Italian food is a tricky topic for me. I don’t share the gastronomic chauvinism of the majority of my compatriots (as attenuation, it is one of the least harmful forms of chauvinism, although no more clever than the others). The risk of being stripped of my passport for admitting that Italian food and wine are not the best in the world does not scare me at all. However, I am not immune to the ‘Proustian’ turn of world gastronomy, where the ambition is to reproduce granny dishes with extreme faith to taste, but new techniques (the most genial realisation is by the Roca brothers in Girona). So when I go to Italy I do instinctively look for the Italian equivalent of madelaines.

Fortunately in this regard, Italian gastronomy has been extremely successful in sticking to the tradition. So successful that it is even a unique case of economic success in a country approaching bankruptcy: Italian food exports keep increasing by 10% a year, as if they were German machinery. But this comes at the cost of innovation, and Italian cuisine, in the last twenty years, has fallen well behind the Spanish one.

artichokesThe good side of traditionalism is best expressed by the ‘slow food’ movement. Its protection of endangered produce through "garrisons" is laudable – and has successfully moved from the local to the global. Yet if I look at La Cucina Italiana and Gambero Rosso, the two serious food Italian magazines, I am struck by a process of commodification of tradition: if on one side I would be charmed if a restaurant reproduced the dishes of my granny (without any chauvinism, the best cook ever – fact), I am not so sure that I want to see a price on it. The Gambero Rosso’s trajectory is particularly telling. It was born in 1986 as the food supplement of the leftist newspaper il Manifesto, in close connection with ARCIgola, the association that gave birth to the slow food movement. I remember, at that time, ideological disputes on whether it is acceptable for communists to spend more than 20,000 Lira (about 20 Euros at today’s prices) on a meal (Rossana Rossanda argued that it isn’t). 25 years on, it is as commercial as any food magazine, with even a TV Channel that shows international chef series. Yet while the TV Channel is indeed a dumbing down function (a dubbed Jamie Oliver showing Italians how to cook pasta!), the magazine has kept all its seriousness, contrasting with the humour, but also superficiality, of Anglosaxon gastronomic publications, but to the point of stiffness. Even new techniques like sous-vide are presented to defend the orthodoxy in terms of ingredients and flavours, a bit like the Catholic Church was fast to embrace new communication technologies to disseminate its dogmas.

Conservatorism is most visible in the refusal to embrace ideas and ingredients from abroad. While this avoids some monstrosities of (con-)‘fusion’ cuisine, it is a historical nonsense for a country that owes its culinary achievements not to the gluttony of its aristocracy, but to the discoveries of its explorers and even more the influences of its innumerable invaders, from the Arabs to the Spaniards and the Austrians. Yet chauvinism now blocks external influences. Until a few years ago, there were strikingly for ethnic restaurants in Italy. As a student in Florence in the mid-1990s I remember finding only one non-Italian restaurant in town (Chinese). More recently, politicians, especially the xenophobic Northern League but occasionally also leftwing administrators, have contributed to this state of affairs forbidding non-traditional restaurants in historical city centres (while the only thing which was needed is a ban of fast-food chains).

During the last two months in Italy I noticed the walls of the Italian cuisine’s fortezza starting to crumble. Numbers of ethnic restaurants keep increasing. This is mostly concentrated in the most cosmopolitan place, Milan, not only in terms of numbers (ethnic restaurants are 12% of the total in Milan, as against 4% in Turin and 8% in Rome), but in terms of significance: outside Milan, the majority of ethnic eateries are nothing more than cheap kebab outlets, but under the Duomo you can find fantastic Japanese, African and Latin American cuisine. In addition, foreigners penetrate the fortezza from within. In Milan, already in the 1990s Egyptians made up the large majority of pizzaioli. In the 2000s, they started owning the pizzerias. Now they are starting changing the menu.

The process of culinary cross-fertilisation is still in its infancy and prone to In the Same Pizzeria-Restaurant near Porta Romana I tried the Pizza Egiziana, and I received a good pizza with falafel on the top. I like falafel more than pizza, but their texture, look and taste could not combine at all with pizza, remaining like alien asteroids on a fertile planet's surface - I was tempted to wrap it all up to pretend it was a falafel sandwich. In the old suburb of Rogoredo, the local Osteria de Rogored is kept its dialect name, old decor and strictly Milanese menu – but it is now Chinese-run, just like the old bar on the other side of the road. The restaurant is, with its good portions, warm and quick service, and unbelievably low prices, very popular with locals – but the risotto is made with Chinese rice instead of Arborio, resulting in disastrous texture...

The most successful cases of hybridisation are then on safe and well-beaten paths of the border regions: couscous in Sicily, Austrian-Italian combinations in South Tyrol, and French-Italian ones in Piedmont. Turin, with its Francophone royal family and its Napoleonic alliances, makes the most of French influences, for instance in chocolate. Piedmont is not by chance the place of birth of slow food, and the region with best Italian reds. The best meal of my stay (caused by the events at Fiat) was probably at Scannabue in a pretty but unassuming old square off the city centre, where the young chefs combine French influences with the best traditional recipes of the Kingdom of Piedmont (including Liguria and Sardinia). Their bravery was evident in the wine list, where, in contrast to the defensive protectionism of many Italian restaurants, both Piedmontese and French wines were very well represented (and very honestly priced). So I could drink a lyrically profound Barbaresco out of choice, and not of duty. At Scannabue, after a deliciously humble tonno di coniglio (rabbit turned into canned tuna) and masterly agnolotti, I tried for a test the same dish (veal cheek on potato mash) I had had a couple of weeks earlier in Meran at the Michelin-starred Sissi of Fenoglio, himself a master of Piedmont-Tyrol hybridisation. And with great surprise Scannabue won the ‘veal cheek contest’ over Sissi: the potatoes had better texture and the meat was even softer while with more flavour – as a counter-surprise, though, Fenoglio’s wine sauce of Lagrein was much more robust than the classic one of Nebbiolo at Scannabue.

And what about the orthodox Italian cuisine that is still so successful? In some cases it bores me – especially in Rome where it is restricted to very few recipes (but I love the artichokes). In many others it is a fake. But in Milan there are a handful of authentic places really honouring genuine ingredients from slow food “garrisons”, like l’Osteria del Treno near Central Station and Gloria near the Navigli. And, even rarer, there are places full of history which honour traditional recipes. Some have become slightly stiff in their orthodoxy, but remember that old Milanese are meant to be a bit grumpy (it is the case, notably, of the Osteria Meneghina). Others still recreate popular memories with their poor dishes of offal and vegetables. It is the case of La Bottiglieria hidden in Via Cerva, open only for lunch (and favourite destination for academics and lawyers from the nearby University and Court). And then there is, incredibly surviving after three decades of Berlusconism in city, the most unbelievable garrison of Milanese proletarian gastronomy: the Albero Fiorito restaurant, very well hidden away from the city centre, not far from the Polytechnic. The cuisine is from Friuli, not Milanese, but this is a real social institution surviving unchanged for something like 50 years. The genuine home-cooked food, served at communal tables only before 12:30 for lunch and before 8pm for dinner, is prepared by mother, son and daughter, all now in age of retirement but still charging only 2.50 Euros for primi piatti, 4 Euros for mains and 3.50 Euros for a bottle (genuine) wine. It goes where the Italian welfare state does not arrive: healthy nourishment, human warmth, socialisation. And honesty: they don’t accept tips and, in a country of tax evaders, they regularly issue tax receipts.

By the way, the veal ethics issue. I don’t particularly like veal meat, but it is a core ingredient of so many Italian recipes. In some cases it can be replaced with little loss: by pork in costoletta milanese and by beef in ragù alla bolognese. But other dishes – saltimbocca, veal cheek, veal liver alla veneta and especially ossobuco there is no replacement. The big wthical problem is that most veal farms use cruel crates to keep veal meat tender and white. However, veal farming is not necessarily unethical, and is in some situations even the right thing to do. First, many dishes (and especially veal cheek) are even better with pink veal meat, that does not require crates nor any other cruelty. But also, the alternative of not eating veal can be worse: male calves are a by-product of the diary industry and in the UK, where they are not raised for veal meat (and very few are suitable to be raised for beef), they are killed at birth, which is, to me, more upsetting. So while I admire vegans, I fail to understand who objects to veal, but pours milk in their tea (and maybe even eats chicken, talking of cruelly farmed baby animals).


January 26, 2012

Stalling mobility in Italy

My fast train from Milan to Rome yesterday morning was stopped after only few minutes by... an earthquake. Nothing serious, just a few minutes checks and eventually a 30 minutes delay - elsewhere there was more panic but no damage.

These days, moving around Italy, as I am doing intensively, is not simple, and transport problems are the prominent news: ships sink, taxis are on strike against liberalisation, bus drivers are on strike against cuts, lorries block the motorways in protest against fuel prices, car traffic is restricted in city centres, fast train line works is blocked by environmentalists... and now even the earthquake gives its contribution. A monument to immobility, from all direction. All is political in Italy, and both sinking ship and earthquake are immediately referred to Berlusconi, because captain Schettino's partying approach to navigation was identical to Silvio's approach to ruling, and Silvio's government has famously defined the L'Aquila earthquake as a mediatic event.

TramwayMore seriously political are protests on traffic. Among taxis and lorries there is a strong echo of Chile's protests of 1972, hich paved the road to Pinochet. I believe, as already written, that taxi liberalisation has to be very careful to avoid the wild situation of the USA, Ireland and some of Eastern Europe. But on fuel prices, I am with the government. I remember that even Blair struggled against a similar protest in 2000, but it didn't last for long. In Italy, goods' transport is by 90% on road, and on this account Europe is much worse than the USA.

A forefront of political struggle on mobility is Milan, where last week a congestion charge zone, modelled on London's, was introduced by the new leftwing mayor. Critics, and the Right, say that it has not improved the quality of air, but that was not its real aim. Traffic in Milan's city centre is now down by 40%, and moving around has become much faster and pleasant, whether on bus, foot or bike. And one important form of pollution has clearly declined: noise pollution. If the problem is that 'it is not enough', it is then auspicable that the congestion charge zone is soon extended to a broader area (as originally planned). The congestion charge zone received an enourmous support in a referendum last June, and those who protest are a minority embodying the moaning tradition of the Milanese. The idea of making people pay for using the car is not actually leftwing, it is rather liberal (liberals have always been in favour of toll roads, and on prices on everything), or even common sense: you soil, you pay.


January 16, 2012

Don Giovanni's triumph at La Scala (but failure at La Scala del calcio)

scala.jpgLa Scala summarises Milan’s modern history for good and bad. Built under Austrian empress Maria Theresa, home of music under Enlightenment and then romanticism, symbol of the Risorgimento when Verdi lived down the road and the Nabucco inspired patriotism, destroyed by Allied bombing and then immediately rebuilt (se sta mai cuj man in man) and re-inaugurated by Toscanini with a Tosca in strong antifascist tone. From 1968, its season opening on the 7th of December (Milan’s holyday, Sant’Ambrogio), the poshest of all events in Italy, is on and off the opportunity for political protest, including occasional egg-throwing at aristocrats, nouveaux riches and fur-dressed ladies. At the peak of Berlusconism it was privatised (1997) and completely renovated (2002-05). Love or hate opera, this is THE place to love it or hate it.

This year’s season was opened by the most important opera of all, Don Giovanni, and it was attended by fresh new prime minister Monti, who had just replaced a prime minister that had not come to the previous openings but believed to be himself the best embodiment of Don Giovanni. Given Monti’s symbolic (not yet regulatory, unfortunately) heavy hand on tax fraud, maybe for next year’s première tax police will make on-spot checks on the public – as they did for last new year eve in Cortina d'Ampezzo, the most exclusive Italian resort. It was also the first opening for a long time under a leftwing mayor, who made sure that no tickets were given for free to authorities and arranged big screens for live broadcasting around the city.

What a symbolic occasion for a turning point, it would seem: after a taste of Haendel, here comes Mozart to celebrate, with the most popular of all operas, the descent into hell of the Great Seductor and maybe the rise of new morality. However, Mozart stands in the way: too complex for instrumental readings, and especially so in the minimalistic and modern staging of Robert Carsen. In the most remarkable of a few coups-de-théâtre, at the end Don Giovanni, after falling into hell, reappears, and nonchalantly lights a cigarette smiling at the other characters descending themselves into the abyss... contrary to any moralizing, Don Giovanni wasn’t so evil and the others were not so innocent. Already the initial mirror behind the scene, portraying the theatre behind the theatre, had exhorted to look at ourselves and find the Don Giovanni in each and every one of us...

I didn’t go to the première, of course, but I managed to get in to the last show on Saturday. Opera tickets at La Scala are very expensive and big shows sell within minutes, but if you don’t mind standing in queue for a few hours in the freezing cold, on the day of the performance 140 gallery tickets are sold for just 12 Euros or less. This is especially for the cash-poor music fanatics, those known for whistling and throwing tomatoes at the slightest misinterpretation: this is the most difficult opera audience in the world. The two high galleries have a separate side entrance and you cannot mix up with the upper crust of the other levels of the theatre, least of all peak in into the foyer and disturb those who paid twenty times more: the reason they paid is not the music, it is exactly not mixing with you.

In my student days, the cheap day entrance tickets were more numerous but standing. Now, it is all-seated, and with E we were in the closest seats to the scene, at the very top (sixth) level: we had to dangerously lean out, but we could see almost all quite well. For the January shows unfortunately the best attraction for us (the direction of Barenboin, and Bryn Terfel as Leporetto) were missing, but replaced very well (by Steffens and D’Arcangelo). And if opera’s usual attraction is the over-the-top staging, this minimalistic one allowed welcome space for singers’ acting skills, and provided food-for-thought for further heated discussions on competing interpretations on the icy Piazza del Duomo.

La Scala del calcioIf there were only two isolated whistles for Don Giovanni on Saturday, there were 80,000 people whistling a disappointing Alexandre Pato on Sunday at the second Scala of Milan: that ‘of calcio’, itself long all-seated, for Milan-Inter. Unlike the triumph of last Spring, this was the most frustrating of Milan derbies: lot of Milan sterile possession only to be punished by an Inter break. Pato had been nearly sold to PSG on Thursday, but then held back by Berlusconi, whose daugher and AC Milan executive has been romantically conquered by the 22-year old player...... messy seductions go on.


January 07, 2012

End of an era? "Goodbye Gramsci" in the Mirafiori FIAT factory

Even though Italy is the slowest changing country in Europe I know of (for good and bad reasons), something deeper is now changing and some images are emblematic. This week, after more than six decades, the FIOM-CGIL union has been expelled from the Turin Mirafiori FIAT factory, the largest factory in Italy and, when it was built in 1936, the largest factory in the world (up to 60,000 workers, now ten times less).

FIOM-CGIL is the largest trade union in the factory and has a heroic tradition as a pillar of the Italian labour movement – and of its communist component. Turin is where Gramsci’s workers' councils started after World War I, where antifascist strikes started in 1943, where the Hot Autumn of 1968 was at its hottest and in 1980 a month-long strike was one of the most significant ‘heroic defeats’ of the unionism worldwide. FIOM-CGIL is expelled because it refused to sign the last collective agreement, marking FIAT exit from the Italian industrial relations system (until then based on sector agreements and on eleted worker representatives), on which I wrote this blog last year.

Having spent months around Mirafiori interviewing FIOM activists for my PhD in the 1990s, the pictures of militants emptying their offices and removing decades of materials and historical pictures is heartbreaking – but even for who has not been there, the image of Gramsci’s portraits being removed has a strong ‘Goodbye Lenin’ reminiscence:

http://torino.repubblica.it/cronaca/2012/01/04/foto/mirafiori_i_delegati_fiom_sgomberano_la_sede-27593221/1/

An international campaign has started to restore FIOM union rights in Mirafiori. I had written my reactions to the FIAT developments last year, and I feel FIOM, whose unhelpful nostalgia I had already highlighted in my PhD and my "Trade Union Activists, East and West" book twelve years ago, has some fault in scaling up the issue excessively. Their appeal says that FIOM refuse to sign the agreement because “it violated workers’ rights (including the right to strike)”: this is not technically true, as the agreement only introduced a peace clause, which although a novelty in Italian industrial relations, it is not as such as right violation and is commonplace in many countries. Nevertheless, the appeal is worth signing to remind of union rights at a time of upheaval in Italian industrial relations:

http://www.labourstart.org/cgi-bin/solidarityforever/show_campaign.cgi?c=1201


December 27, 2011

The fantastic world of South Tyrol

Clouds on the Etsch/AdigeIt is a proof of my weak national identity that my favourite Italian province – the one I visit most often just for pleasure, for no ulterior motives like family or work reasons – is the least Italian of all: Alto Adige, which I call with its original German name, Südtirol.

South Tyrol has, to name just three things, the most beautiful mountains (the province itself is a geological museum, with the Dolomites as masterpiece), the best apples and the best white wine in the world: Gewürtztraminer comes from here (from Tramin, as the name says), while Riesling achieves here very distinctive results, and the Sauvignon from Terlan is just about the only wine to go with asparagus. It is not that the red are worse (especially the local Lagrein grape), they just have stronger competitors elsewhere. This is the Italian region with the highest percentage of quality wine on the total production: the usable surface is so narrow that there is no point focusing on quantity over quality, so that, here, you run little risk of finding bland or bad wines, unlike in the rest of Italy (not a scary risk anyway, when prices start at 1€/bottle).

The famous Vinschgauer ÄpfelIt also has some of the best ski slopes in the world (the mythical ones in Gröden/Val Gardena), but this year so little snow has fallen to make them hardly skiable. A strong foehnkept all the clouds and snow just on the other side of the mountains, in the Austrian North Tyrol, keeping the Italian side sunny but dry. No big deal. We still spent a splendid weak in the Mutöfen – high mountain alms – overhanging 1,000 meters above Meran, the largest majority-German speaking town in the region (South Tyrol’s capital, Bozen, is now majority Italian-speaking), hosting marvellous thermal spas. Alpine pastures and farms are so high-cost today to be economically viable, and are among those activities that fully deserve European subsidies on the grounds of their positive environmental and cultural externalities (it is the implementation, not the idea of Common Agriculture Policy that is wrong). Most alms, to survive, combine agriculture with tourism, like our Muthof, dating back from the early XIX Century, when Tyrol, under the leadership of Andreas Hofer from the neighbouring Pustertal, rebelled against Bavaria, Napoleon and the Enlightenment. I guess that the let of our cosy apartment, with its breathtaking view, produces as much added value in a day as the fourteen cows put together.

Schloss TirolHere, it is as German as it can get. Pustertal is still tied to Hofer’s anti-Enlightenment views: men on important occasions still carry their huts with feathers indicating their marital status, and are the most opposed to any accommodation with Italian rule. Here in the Muthöfen, children speak only German: they do have some Italian at school, but with whom can they practice up here? On TV, a wide range of Austrian, German and Swiss-German channels, but the reception of Italian channels is too bad. And one can live in South Tyrol without speaking Italian: like the octogenarian landlady of the Meran’s B&B where we stayed a couple of years ago, who, with no hint of irony, moaned that Italians coming to live in Meran learned no German.

Nowadays, South Tyrol’s autonomy is often advertised as a model for minority rights and inter-ethnic relations, for instance in Northern Ireland. But the path to the current situation had its nasty moments and the reality is not as glamorous as the Alpine views and the current economic wealth. The four parts of Tyrol (East with Lienz, North with Innsbruck, South, with Bozen, and the Italian-speaking Welschtirol or Trentino with Trento), whose unity dates back to the middle ages under the castle of Tirol just below our Muthof, were split after the First World War. Austria had come to accept the idea to cede to Italy Trentino already before the war, as a concession to avoid Italy changing sides, but Italy profited of Austrian collapse to move the border till the Alpine dividing range, the Brennerpass, which made geographicbut no cultural sense: South Tyrol was then 90% German-speaking. Italy did not comply with Wilson’s criterion of self-determination, and instead started a program of forced Italianisation, building in South Tyrol industrial zones for Italian immigrants and forbidding German-language education. Soon, Mussolini pursued Italianisation with an even heavier hand. It is to some extent understandable, then, that the South Tyroleans made their own historical mistake in 1939, when 86% of them, under Goebbels propaganda, opted to relocate to the Third Reich within the framework of the Hitler-Mussollini pact. The war interrupted the relocation plans and after it the Italian Prime Minister De Gasperi, himself from Trentino, exploited this pro-Nazi episode to delegitimize the South Tyroleans and create a united Trentino-Alto Adige region where the German speakers would be a minority. This situation led to an international dispute in the UN between Italy and Austria and to the rise of South Tyrolean resistance. Under the leadership of Silvius Magnago, the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) became the assembly party of all German speakers. In 1957, a historic demonstration took place in the Sigmundskron castle under the ‘Los von Trient’ (Away from Trento) slogan. After waves of bombings by South Tyrolean extremists, negotiations led to the ‘Paket’ agreement on autonomy was reached in 1969, narrowly accepted by the South Tyroleans and implemented with characteristic slow pace by the Italian state: only in 1992 it was fully implemented and the Austrian-Italian dispute ended. With autonomy, South Tyrol has achieved the ‘Los von Trient’ goal, and only marginal minorities nowadays want the further step of ‘Los von Rom’. Last week, the Northern League’s leader Bossi was in Bozen try to tempt the SVP into an anti-Rome alliance, but he was coldly rebuffed: for the SVP, Milan is no better than Rome.

Today, also thanks to wealth coming from hydroelectricity and tourism, Südtirol is a peaceful and happy place. The Austrian access into the EU also opens the perspective of a united Tyrol, if not as a country, as a ‘Euroregion’, although Trentino is still to be convinced.

Is this a model, though? The German-speaking majority and the Italian minority (alongside a smaller Ladin minority) live peacefully, but separated by sectarian education and employment systems. Politically, on the German side the SVP, supported by the Athesia media empire and the only German-language newspaper Dolomiten, maintains its hegemony and is still to lose its absolute majority (only recently threatened by the extreme-Right Freiheitlichen, spillover of the FPÖ), while the Italians have often supported the neofascist Right. Lack of alternative and vote along ethnic-linguistic lines do not make a good polity. While the meeting of two cultures and languages has produced interesting results, especially gastronomically (try the Sissi restaurant in Meran by Langhe-born but Tyrol-adopted Fenoglio), this is arguably the least multi-cultural part of a non multi-cultural country. For most German-speakers, any multiculturalism is tantamount to surrender: in many ways, out of reaction and survival instinct, the South Tyroleans are more Tyrolean than their counterparts North of the border (but no more Austrian: as they say here, if anything South Tyrol can be above Austria, because its Ortler, at 3,905m, is heads and shoulders above any Austrian mountain).

Oberegghof

Schloss Tirol

The force that has done most to turn South Tyrolean protectionism (embodied by the Schützen) from what is no longer to defend (a unified mono-cultural Tyrol) to what is to be defended (a unique natural environment) are the Greens, who in this region reach the best results of the whole of Italy (2nd party with 17% in Meran last year). The leading figure of the South Tyrolean Greens was, until his shocking death in Fiesole in 1995, Alex Langer, a leader of the 1968 movement and an active pacifist. The best-known one, is the most famous of all South Tyroleans: the climber Reinhold Messner, first man to climb all world’s 8,000 meters, founder of the Mountain Wilderness movement and of the Messner Mountain Museum, and an MEP in 1999-2004. Among is numerous books, many translated into Italian and some also into English, there is Gebrauchsanweisung für Südtirol (2nd ed. 2010), for the non-touristic and no-nonsense German-language series Gebrauchsanweisung. A great climber unfortunately does not make a good writer, and Messner views are often contradictory, but the book express well his frustration for the SVP-Dolomiten power monopoly that has effectively defended the region from Italian intrusion, but unfortunately also from new ideas.Meran at night


December 13, 2011

4 countries, 4 views of the Eurocrisis

The taz title on Saturday was brilliant, as usual: Merkel rettet Euro-krize taz_2011_12_10s1.pdf(Merkel saves Eurocrisis). Like a soap opera, it never ends, and it should not. To be precise, what started in 2008 does not deserve the definition of “crisis” in the κρίσις sense of moment of decision, because so far there has been so far little choice and little rupture: we actually have more of the same (more power for financial institutions, more inequality, more neglect of democracy, in short more privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses). It would be better defined as ‘shock’ perpetuation in Naomi Klein of Shock therapy, whereby every month or two we are faced to a new disaster, delivered with good timing by rating agencies, wits a There Is No Alternative message – the opposite of a crisis.

Yet at the EU-level we have now reached a sort of crisis, not so much on socio-economic issues (the agreement solves nothing and more austerity will only dig us into a deeper hole), but on UK-Europe relations. I had the luck to observe the last three weeks, building up to the agreement of last Friday, from the four largest EU countries, while travelling between Paris, Coventry, Milan and Hamburg. Despite information being increasingly transnational, reports are quite different country by country. In the UK (except for FT and Guardian) the summit was a British victory (!!!), in France and Italy, a German victory, and in Germany, a German half-defeat, because already in January Italians and Spaniards will come asking for more cash and Germany has gained no new excuses to say no. These differences of perception make a Euro-polity still difficult to imagine, but at least shows that national political spheres still matter, and at least at that level some debate could take place.

In European politics it happens what I always tell my English students when I try to raise in them at least some interest in international issues and foreign languages: Europeans know much more about Britain than Britain about Europe, which is a competitive disadvantage for the Brits, for instance in the hierarchy of multinational companies. This fact has perhaps a more flattering side for the British: Europe is fascinated by the extravagant British, while Britain's interest in Europe is limited to sunshine and little else. In any case, reports of British politics in European newspapers are much deeper and better-informed than British newspapers’ reports of European affairs, except perhaps for The Economist and FT, which are more global than British. Le monde, die Welt, die FAZ have published detailed analyses of Cameron’s stance, although opinions differ: for Le monde and die Welt Cameron is authentically anti-European and will eventually bring the UK out of the EU (you can see the happy smile of the journalist through the lines at this point), for der Spiegel he is just an opportunistic tactician, who embraced anti-Europeanism only to get elected as Tory leader in 2005 and now simply avoids at any cost any treaty renegotiation, which would break up his government and his own party. By contrast, British medias’ analyses don’t go beyond stereotypical portraits of Merkel and Sarkozy, failing to spot that within a year or two both Germany and France will be much less Anglophile than today. At the SPD congress last week-end many spoke up to wish a British exit, to finish off with free riders and with obstruction. Le monde has regularly wished the same for very long (I suspect, since 1973). Italians have to keep a low, penitent profile nowadays, but Repubblica still hopes that Clegg will one day grow up, leave the coalition and send Cameron, rather than the whole country, out of the UK. By the way, even in the new member states, its natural allies, Cameron finds few sympathetic voices except in Hungary and the Czech Republic, due to his decision to combine with nutty populist righting parties from Central eastern Europe in the European Parliament.

The funniest reports are certainly the British rightwing press triumphal reports of a ‘victory’ and a ‘veto’: according to them, 26 countries have remained isolated. Indeed the agreement of last Friday does not change much. Read for instance the interesting interview with Sarkozy in Le monde, where a new 85%-majority voting system on the European Solidarity Mechanism is mentioned, which would give the UK, France, Italy (and if they were there, the UK!) a veto power. In the short term, the new EU-26 financial regulations cannot go against the single market and punish the UK for its non co-operation, especially on a possible Tobin Tax. But over-time, excluding the UK from all new ‘enabling’ financial regulations may isolate and damage the City of London, that 28th, non democratic EU country (see the analysis by George Monbiot in the Guardian). Maybe the next UK elections would be a moment of crisis for British voters: the time to choose between staying with the EU-26 or with that 28th country (by then 29th: welcome Croatia).


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