All entries for December 2011
December 27, 2011
It 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).
It 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.
Here, 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).
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.
December 13, 2011
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
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.
Especially 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!
December 02, 2011
Last September, coming back from the Mont Blanc, I commented on the tunnel tragedy of 1999. In the same month Fabio Viscogliosi, French artist, musician and writer son of Italian immigrants, published a book on exactly that: it was the first book I bought once I arrived to Paris and I read it within a few days.
It is not an informative book, but a very personal one. Viscogliosi’s parents were driving to Italy on that 24th March 1999, and they died with other 37 people (or more? as with 9/11, the number does not include possible unclaimed dead, such as undocumented migrants, and the bodies disintegrated) in the middle of the tunnel, under 3,000 meters of rock, exactly at the border between their country of origin and their country of adoption. As the fire started, they managed to leave their car and walk some 500 meters towards the exit - but the smoke prevailed when they had another 8km to go.
The book is in the form of sparse intimate notes, like a diary. Only the first twenty pages describe the fire, with very human details on the victims. The book is more about a personal itinerary to come to terms with the unbelievable news of his parents burnt in the Mont Blanc, which he got that night from an estranged aunt, and to grieve the unexpected and strange loss. It also reports the trial (which ended with condemns for manslaughter), but with little detail, because the author could not concentrate during it, as well as the erratic reporting by the media (at that time, more interested in the NATO bombing of Serbia). Most entries are about the connections he keeps making whenever he hears about tunnels or about the Mont Blanc. It is a very different contribution to the literature on the Mont Blanc. And a touching reminder than when crossing the Alps, we should take our time.