March 18, 2012

New German president & old German history

In the very first blog of my two years around Europe I had commented on the German presidential election of the 4th July 2010 - I had expressed my disappointment with the elected Wulff, but I did not foresee how bad he would be (only good thing, one reasonable speech for the 20 years of German reunification, when he dared saying that today also Islam belongs to Germany). And even more my disappointment for die Linke's refusal to support the opponent Gauck.

ReichstagToday, with a 20 month delay, Germany celebrates the election of Gauck, and the 72-year old looks like fresh air in the rather stiff German politics of today. Some complain that he did not actually fight so much for democracy before 1989 - however, as the Catholic Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny (which was the only free medium under communism, and still is one of the best critical voices in Central Eastern Europe) reminded a couple of weeks ago, he was one of the very few in the DDR to try to engage with Solidarnosc in the 1980s. I know that many of my friends in Berlin (especially East) will not feel represented by him - but I expect that he will be magnanimous, as many of the best anticommunist activists have been once in power. Die Linke, again, did not vote for him, but they did not hesistate long before standing up and congratulating him.

But indeed this election confirms how important history remains in Germany. A Stasi hunter is elected with 991 votes, and look at who the other two candidates were: a Nazi hunter (the Sionist Beate Klarsfeld supported by die Linke, with 126 votes) and, quite horribly, Olaf Rose, candidate of the neo-nazi NPD party which is proving so difficult to outlaw, with 3 votes thanks to their representation in some regional parliaments. Expect more history politics in Germany and Eastern Europe soon.

March 06, 2012

Post–shakespearean sexual and religious politics in Stratford–upon–Avon

Royal Shakespeare CompanyIf Coventry is not exactly a cultural heavyweight, at least it is very close to Stratford-upon-Avon, which during the day is little more than a theme park packed with American tourists but in the evening, after day-tourists have left, becomes more silent and allows hearing Shakespeare’s echo. During the last few weeks back in Coventry, while in continental-culture withdrawal crisis, three times I headed to Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company and its theatres for comfort – and as always, I did not regret it.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is devoted to, guess what, Shakespeare, and the main theatre only shows its plays. The other two, the Swan and the Courtyard (recently built to host the main plays during the Shakespeare’s theatre transformation in 2006-11), show also different texts, and generally experiment with slightly edgier ideas, although even there texts need about five centuries before being considered. But one splendid thing of all three is the setting: the Guthrie-inspired thrust stages, whereby scenic illusion (quite pointless in the era of cinema) is abandoned to make the actors play in the middle of the audience and exalt theatrical skills. In this regard, the RSC theatre, which before the renovation had a traditional stage, as it reopened last year is particularly impressive: it fits over 1,000 people, all very close to the stage. The downside may be that seats are cramped, but well worth it. Thanks to generous subventions (theatre cannot compete without public support), prices are affordable, with generous subsidies tickets and some very cheap occasions for places with ‘reduced’ (but fully sufficient) view. Last year we run to see the Macbeth as soon it reopened, and we found the transformation as the best improvement in the whole region foe the last decade...

As to the content, if poetically Shakespeare’s texts are hardly surpassable, I must say, to the disgust of my English-speaking texts, that when it comes to the scene, it is better in translation. My best Shakespeare experiences were all in other languages, from Strehler’s Tempest in Milan, to Cieplak’s King Lear in Warsaw with Zapasiewicz, to Langhoff’s Hamlet (in cabaret-adaptation) at Paris’ Odéon, and even a Ninagawa’s Titus Andronicus in Japanese in Stratford-upon-Avon. The simple fact is that translation disentangles actors and direction from the iron cage of the verse and allows the liberty to express the text as best.

This is not to diminish RSC work – rather the opposite: all shows I have seen are, if not the best, absolutely excellent technically, thanks to near-unlimited material means, great actors and skilful directors. In particular, the RSC manages to strike a very difficult balance between updating Shakespeare to attract new audiences, and be faithful to the text and to the core of its spectators (who are not so young nor so progressive). This is usually done by locating the scene in modern or semi-modern times. Both Richard III and Macbeth were set in contemporary times, with some of the baddies dressed up as terrorists. Last month, The Taming of the Shrew was set in post-war Italy, which is both very attractive visually at a time of retro-fashion, and pertinent as an hyperbole of patriarchy – although a Berlusconi-times Italy could have been even more intriguing.

I was curious about The Taming of the Shrew because it is two most politically incorrect play by Shakespeare besides the anti-Semitic Merchant of Venice. How will the RSC make it palatable for a modern audience in a very PC country? With a female director, Lucy Bailay, who makes of Christopher Sly’s Induction the pillar of the show. The Induction was often omitted in classic times, but by putting the Shrew’s story in the head of a drunken tinker, it reverses like in a mirror the meaning of the plot: it objectifies male chauvinism, which is no longer the meaning, but rather the object of Sly’s wicked imagination and therefore of our laugh. The stage becomes a big bed, covered by a huge lines under which Sly sleeps and moves comically, and which underlines the sexual content of the play. The result is a very funny and guilt-free play.

The other two visits to Stratford-upon-Avon were at the Swan, and for non-Shakespearean plays. The first was The Song of Songs, an experimental work by the RSC Movement Department. The text, originally much older than Shakespeare, is the whole 22nd book of the Old Testament in King James Version – itself more or less contemporary to Shakespeare. This is the most poetic of Bible’s books, and it sounds divine even if it never mentions God. I'd say that even for Shakespeare God is a hard act to follow... I had heard beautiful readings of it before – first of all by my wife at our wedding – but taking it to stage is another matter. Director Struan Leslie does it by leaving any theological content apart, focussing on the erotic poetry, adding minimalistic, oriental-sounding music and letting six dancers create follow the rhythm and the narrative. The experiment was for me extremely successful, even if in its originality it did not attract the crowds that it deserved and that more standard RSC productions ensure. By the way, also on a 3,000 year-old erotic text the RSC manages to be politically correct – the performers are four women and two men and the dances and readings, starting from the opening ‘let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,’ are not always heterosexual matches, and the mentions of sisterly love are particularly stressed, even if the highest points of the show are heterosexual (by the way, nothing explicit in this institution – the RSC had recently to refund offended spectators after an edgy Marat/Sade.

And the last play was a rare modern one - but paradoxically, the only onw which on stage was set in the past: Helen Edmundson's The Heresy of Love, directed by Nancy Meckler, telling the story of Sor Juana, the XVII Century Mexican nun and writer, repressed by an obscurantist Church. You can hardly get a more feminine production - and this is well suited to Mexico, a country where violence against women is ripe, but whose identity was shaped by women, starting from Malinche (see on her the very instructive Malinche's Conquest by Anna Lanyon), to Sor Juana and then artists like Frida Kahlo, and passing from the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The play might be a bit too long, and I found the subplot on Sor Juana's sister rather redundant. The stage and period costumes were beautiful, although bishop Santa Cruz was dressed in a misplaced papal white (tacit anti-Catholicism?), and the nuns were simply overdressed. But above all this was a very interesting play, both on Mexico identity, and on obscurantism, repression and women segregation. And if you think that these were problems of the XVII Century, well, think of the rapidly shrinking academic freedom in Universities and on the enduring female disadvantage on the labour market. Actually, repression of free thought is still ripe: only in the last few days it was revealed that in the UK the police collaborated with construction employers in the blacklisting of union-activist workers - and even on academics, like Charles Woolfson, who dared investigating Health & Safety matters...

Seconds after the end of the play, while we were still clapping, the fire alarm broke out and everybody left the theatre: for some ten minutes, the shores of the river Avon were populated with mysterious XVII Century aristocrats, nuns and bishops... Stratford is a good place to dream.

February 20, 2012

Bruxelles: l’union fait–elle la force?

Grand-PlaceI spent last week, just another ‘crucial’ week for the Greek issue, in Brussels. It is not a city I particularly like. I have visited it often, but always for short, and always with the same grey indistinct weather, worse even than English weather, where it may rain more, but there is some variation on the theme at least. Maybe it's just because most times I just visit its two most soulless and immoral bits: the surroundings of Gare du Nord, with its 1970s World Trade Centre, the red-light district and the European Trade Union House (the reason of my visit is the last), and the European institutions – in whose corridors, last week, the default of Greece was taken as granted, with much shoulder shrugging.

The city centre is pretty, but not as much as other Belgian towns. Since Belgian independence, art is mostly restricted to concept rather than beauty, from art nouveau to surrealism and BD, the cartoons – the new Hergé museum in Louvain-La-Neuve is architectonically impressive but I didn’t have the time to see it and check what they made of Tintin’s reactionary and colonialist tendencies.

Herge MuseumNeither am I a fan of Belgian cuisine. Its large portions and generous fat-intake are comforting, sure, but I think it is largely overrated, overcooked (including the mussels), oversweetened (including the chocolate), and, of course, overpriced. Belgium has just been found to be the most expensive country in the Eurozone, after Luxembourg (I am not sure how Finland can be behind – mystery of European statistics). Of course, there are exceptions, the trappist beer and Pierre Marcolini’s chocolates, but even there, I prefer the less fussy British ales and the bitterer French chocolates (Christian Constant...).

Overpriced, I was saying. This is the headlines in Belgium, which is going through its own little sovereign debt crisis thanks to its debt at around 100% of GDP and a fresh downgrading by the visible dirty hand of the market, the rating agencies. The kingdom has been forced by external pressure to find itself a government after a year and a half of surrealist anarchy. Fortunately, it is a centre-left government, and not a technocratic one, but the pressure is here too on public expenditure, privatisation, and especially wage indexation, on which high prices are blamed.Chocolat

One thing I would in theory like of Bruxelles is bilingualism (or even more than bi-, given the penetration of English and 30% foreign population). I am fascinated by bilingual places, whether Montreal, Südtirol, North Wales or Catalunya. But apart from the cacophonic nature of Dutch (but Catalan is not much better), here bilingualism is more divisive then enriching. The new Prime Minister Di Rupo (who speaks Italian and English) is now taking Dutch lessons, but his faux-pas (like saying ‘recreation’ instead of ‘recession’) confirm Flemish perception of the Walloons treating Dutch as a second-class language, and thereby their refusal to answer in French. Similar fights occur in all bilingual countries and regions (Latvians just voted on Sunday to refuse Russian an official status), but here the division is deepest, with clear geographic borders between linguistic groups. One Dutch word I know is "apartheid"... and without making silly comparisons with South Africa, I am afraid the state of Belgium resembles right now the state of Europe as a whole: dialogue between deaf and façade agreements to satisfy external demands. The Belgian motto is l’union fait la force, unity is strength – which does not sound convincing whether in Belgium or in the EU.

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:

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:

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).


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).

December 04, 2011

A bientôt Paris

I owe to say something about Paris – not easy, given the tons of ink that the city attracts, and the fact that Paris, unlike Berlin and Warsaw, does not change too quickly. The time of the grands projets is gone, due to shorter presidential terms (from seven to five years: not enough to leave an inprint on time to be re-elected) and to budget restrictions. De Gaulle, Pompidou, Mitterrand left important marks; Chirac less, but still he managed to leave the Musée du Quai Branly (the ‘arts primitives’ rebaptised ‘arts primaires’) and the quite unique Citée de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Sarkozy – luckily – has left near-nothing besides anger in the banlieues.

To add to the feeling of immobility, these weeks, Paris was uncharacteristically mild, climatically and politically: paradoxically for the city of revolutions, it was just about the only capital where nobody was occupying anything (a timid attempt at La Défence failed, demonstrators were so few that they got lost in the huge Esplanade). Maybe because the French would never imitate what Americans do. Or more because after the traumatic experience of 1968-69, the French have chosen to always keep quiet before the elections (the next are in April-May 2012), to explode thereafter in what they call troisième tour social.

Quartier LatinEspecially little changes in the area I was staying, the Quartier Latin. Adieu imagination au pouvoir. Of course, it has changed socio-demographically since the times of Sartre or even Foucault, but much less so since the times of Meardi (the influential social theorist of mid-1990s Paris). The Quartier Latin, especially on the 6th arrondissement side towards Saint-Germain, is extremely gentrified now. It is according to the thought-and-foot provoking Paris: Quinze promenades sociologiques by Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, the area with the highest number of professionals, and the lowest number of manual workers. High-fashion shops have long replaced bars and artisans. Fortunately, bookshops resist, but there have been some painful disappearances since the times I was studying here in 1994-95.

This is arguably the place in the world with the highest concentration of books, great food, and art. In comparison to my student years I can afford, at least for three weeks, the extortionate prices of local shops. This is now the most expensive area in Paris except a few streets near the Champs-Elisées, at over 12,000€/m2 to buy and over €25/m2 to rent. Shops cater for people who can afford living here and for tourists. But at least the quality is exceptional. Round the corner, I had one of the best bakeries in the world, Gérard Mulot (Rue de Seines Quatres Vents), and a few steps further, the best in the world, Kayser (rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, or rue Monge) and of course Poilâne (rue de Cherche-Midi). Some produce is extremely expensive, but remember that the price of baguettes is politically regulated in France (like espresso's in Italy), so do buy them in the very best places, and you'll get much more for the same money. Also very close, the covered market of Saint-Germain with fantastic fish, meat and cheese, and just a bit further, even better produce at the little market and shops of Maubert-Mutualité. And on Sunday morning, the mother of all posh organic markets, on Bd Raspail. In the middle, my favourite chocolatier, the leftist-for-millionaires (a bit like the trotckist patissier of Moretti’s movies) Christian Constant (rue Assas): he spends half of the year exploring Latin America in search of the best beans, but if he is in the shop, he will be happy to engage in conversations about all aspects of cocoa, including the socio-economic ones.

With such fantastic food on sale, you can eat well at home even if you can't cook (c'est pas mon cas, bien entendu). But if you want to eat out? I was staying in front of the Palais du Luxembourg, hosting the Senate (which just swung to the Left, for the first time ever). Given that law makers, unluckily for the tax-payers, like to eat well, this has the effect of providing some very good and reliable places, not necessarily at extreme high prices. Actually, two years ago, when the government had reduced the VAT on restaurants, on condition that the owners would reduce prices, this was about the only place where they complied, advertising the lower prices clearly: the effect of being watched closely. In particular, I love the bistrot La Ferrandaise (rue de Vaugirard), according to many the best in the city, appreciate the traditional and quiet Au Bon Saint-Pourçain (rue Servandoni), and when missing the Med on a grey day, of course, there’s nothing better than La Méditerranée (place de l’Odéon), a bit old-fashion but with excellent seafood in a historical setting.

Walking a bit further, this is an area with an extreme concentration of Michelin stars, and with inflated prices. But there are a handful of honest places (L'Epigramme, rue de l'Eperon, or Le lutin dans le jardin, rue Gît-le-Coeur), and it is possible to try famous chefs’ dishes at much lower prices, especially at lunch time, by going to their second restaurants or brasseries, such as La rotisserie d’en face (rue Christine) of Jacques Cagna (his main restaurant has actually just closed) or Les bouquinistes (Quai des Grands Augustins) of Guy Savoy. And if you like them and want more, only a bit further, already in the 7th arrondissement, there is L’atelier de Joël Robuchon, where you wait and pay not so much for the food eaten at the counter, but for the privilege of having a view of the kitchen and of a new generation of chefs learning from the most precise master in the world (for instance, the Roca brothers went through here).

Plenty of places where to drink a glass too, of course, like the alternative-looking Bar Dix on Rue de l’Odeon, or the intimate La crémerie (Rue Quatre Vents), with its very idiosyncratic, but interesting, owner.

And the famous cafés? I do not like Parisian cafés particularly, unless they come with intellectually stimulating encounters. Bad coffee, limited food choice, appaling service, exaggerated prices, cramped tables - and you meet more Italian tourists than philosophers. Also, since the crisis and quality collapse of Libération, there is hardly any newspaper worth reading in the morning in Paris and therefore little reason to stop in a café (Le monde, also in crisis but still oustanding, comes out in the afternoon: better read in a brasserie). For cafés, not only central Europe, but even Madrid and Lisbon are better than Paris. Although nowhere matches Italy on this front. Time to go to Milan!

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