All 18 entries tagged Italy

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December 02, 2011

Mont Blanc, by Fabio Viscogliosi

Follow-up to Geneva, Mt Blanc and European borders from Around Europe 2010-12

Mont Blanc

Review of: Fabio Viscogliosi, Mont Blanc, Paris: Stock, 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.

November 13, 2011


Follow-up to Berlusconi's decay and the rise of debtocracy from Around Europe 2010-12

Italian people could not restrain from celebrating despite the not-so-rosy prospects. And in the occasion they confirmed some national stereotypes: musical creativity through a performance of Händel's Hallelujah in front of the presidential palace, and not so much sportmanship towards the defeated...

It is worth watching a full Hallelujah performance:

...although it is the last words of a very different Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen's, from a different but not totally off the topic context (sex), that come to my mind:

And even though it all went wrong

I will stand before the Lord of Songs

With nothing on my tongue than Hallelujah

November 08, 2011

Berlusconi's decay and the rise of debtocracy

Sixteen months ago, with the majority of Italians, I celebrated Berlusconi’s loss of control over a parliamentary majority - but with a bitter aftertaste. Since then, he has further weakened by more scandals, more economic difficulties, more international pressure, more electoral defeats and more defections. Yet he managed to scramble through a number of confidence votes and instead of his end we have witnessed a long agony, a revolting process of rotting and regurgitating parliamentary defectors on either side.

Today he has finally announced his intention to resign soon, immediately after the new budget law. It cannot be excluded that, after having survived all possible political near-death one can imagine, he might survive again. Over the next weeks he will certainly not spare efforts or money in order to re-buy some MPs, for a further extension of his rotting process in government, whether still as prime minister personally, or (no substantial difference) through his formal replacement by the loyal Angelino Alfano.

But whether he ends within weeks or a bit later, the bitter aftertaste of last year has become stronger, and nobody really is celebrating in Italy today – despite a multitude having waited for years for this day. The end of Berlusconi is not necessarily a move to something better, even if it is difficult to imagine something worse. It looks more and more, in Italian history’s terms, like a 25th of July rather than a 25th April. The reference is to the 25th of July 1943, when Mussolini was forced to resign by his own party’s Council and was arrested – but while millions of Italians celebrated the apparent end of the war and fascism, there were more almost two years of further, and more horrific, war, fascism and Nazi occupation, and Mussolini, having been liberated by the Germans, only ended on the 25th April 1945 (the Italian national day, which part of the Right wants to cancel).

Just as fascism could go on after the 25th of July, thanks to German troops, it looks like Berlusconi might be replaced not by a democratic turn, but by a technical government supported by large part of his party and of the opposition, under direct control from EU institutions, and possibly led by Mario Monti, former Internal Market Commissioner. I listened to Monti at a Conference in Warsaw three weeks ago, when he said that, ‘in a way’ what is happening to Greece and Italy is actually ‘the biggest success of the Euro’. By this point the Polish audience was checking whether their simultaneous translation headphones were working properly, but Monti went on explaining his original idea of ‘success’: without Euro, it could not be imagined that Greece and Italy would ever undertake the difficult, long-needed reforms they are undertaking now...

After many governments (starting from Bush, and until Slovenian Pahor last September, but still counting) have been taken down by the crisis, Berlusconi’s would be the third taken down specifically by the Euro crisis, in just a month. The Slovak government fell on the Euro-rescue, but as Slovakia is not itself in a debt crisis, Slovak democracy is proceeding on its course and Radičová will be likely replaced by Fico, who with all his limits is probably the best the weak Central Eastern European left has produced in many years. The problem is what is happening to Greece and Italy, and to a lesser extent Spain.

The fact that the ‘markets’ and the EU could not accept the idea of a referendum in Greece and forced, after the approval of new austerity measures, a new coalition government to be led by, surprise, the former deputy president of the European Central Bank says it all about the degree of democratic governance. Sure, a referendum on fiscal issues is inherently absurd (because taxes are not a binary matter of YES-NO) and it is even unconstitutional in Greece (and in Italy), but a general address referendum on the Euro is useful if reforms are to be carried out with the people and not against them. As Chatzistefanou and Kitidi have put it, the birth country of democracy has now shifted to debtocracy. Politically, Italy is following exactly the same path, even if economically it is still not in the same mess.

Over the Summer, the European Central Bank sent two confidential letters to the Spanish and Italian governments, stating the conditions for its intervention in defence of their sovereign bonds. Now, creditors do have the right to set conditions, but those letters went much further than anything creditors can ask. They even included the requirement of constitutional reforms, violating this core of democratic sovereignty. And they included labour market liberalisation measures with no link to public debt and with no evidence of economic benefits – in fact, if Italy liberalises dismissals, Fiat will save a lot of money when shutting its factories down, but unemployment and public expenditure will go up. In Bruno Amable’s words in today’s Libération, this is new European absolutism: replacing elected democracy with neoliberal bureaucracy.

Last Friday, it was the round of the European Commission to send a letter to the Italian government, setting up, with an insultingly arrogant tone that I would never be allowed in my feedback to even the worst students, 39 corrections or additions to the plan Berlusconi presented in Brussels last week. I am not defending Berlusconi: he really made a fool of himself denying that Italy is in any crisis (given that ‘restaurants are full’) and even recycling measures already passed or promised in the past. I am not defending any national honour – that has been destroyed by Berlusconi before the EU. But the tone of the letter, asking for full responses within a week (!) and thereby factually keeping him in power for longer shows who has the power now. It is not Berlusconi, in advanced state of decomposition. The Italian centre-left, which is pleased by the EU’s and the markets’ treatment of Berlusconi, has nothing to be pleased about. It may have to deal, soon, with a much more difficult opponent than Silvio – maybe, we will miss the times when we had such an easy opponent as him.

Not all is lost. As Philippe Schmitter said at last week’s conference on the public realm in honour of Colin Crouch, there are still elections, and governments still lose them. Italy and Greece (and Slovakia) will have elections soon. But unless we rebalance, globally, the powers between creditors and debtors (in the old language, between rich and poor), and European institutions remain unelected, those elections will not matter much.

September 25, 2011

Geneva, Mt Blanc and European borders

Chamonix Valley

The European Sociological Conference took me to Geneva, on the week the Swiss central bank, to stop the over-valuation of the Franc, committed itself to a minimum exchange rate of 1.20 CHF per Euro. This made my stay some 8% cheaper, or, better, 8% less horribly dear. Let’s see if the Swiss Central bank has the power to do what nobody apart from the Chinese seem able to: commit to fixed exchange rates in a time of wild international speculative flows.

The price of my stay was slightly moderated by other two things. First, Switzerland entered Schengen two years ago, and the public transport is largely integrated with surrounding France, so one can just take the bus to escape to the Eurozone – the problem is that there isn’t much on the French sides. Secondly, I was staying in the Paquis, the multi-ethnic inner-city cum-red light district stacked in between rail station, UN & international district, and lake. As with many of such inner cities in Central and Northern Europe, it is livelier than the other aseptic neighbourhoods, very practical logistically, and cheaper. Switzerland has the highest share of immigrants in Europe, and it in quite a schizophrenic combination of openness and withdrawal. In successive referenda the Swiss have voted to open the labour market to the Poles (not sure the Brits would have done it, even before the crisis), and to ban minarets (notoriously dangerous weapons of mass destruction). We Italians tend to be hypersensitive of how Italian immigrants used to be treated, but Geneva at least looks to me rather welcoming. As long as you are not too poor: if you dare sleep rough or beg on the streets, Schengen or not Schengen, you are immediately arrested or repatriated.

A side-reflection for the UK: the populist press argues that it cannot enter Schengen or it will be flooded with immigrants from the rest of Europe. Well, look at Switzerland, which is much more attractive to immigrants: higher wages, more jobs (unemployment around 3%), large immigrant communities, and well, just prettier views. No flood has occurred since entering Schengen.

After the conference I was free to flee Geneva for the Mt Blanc. It’s just two hours by French train, which you catch in the extra-territorial SNCF (French railways) station of Genève Eaux Vives. There is no ticket office, nor ticket machine, nor nothing in the boarded station: it was vandalised last year and the French and Swiss cannot agree on who has to pay up, or even on how payments should be treated from a French ticket machine on Swiss soil... oh, financial globalisation can’t cope with such complex issues even in its own cradle.

Mid-September, weekdays, is the best, and nearly only window of opportunity to enjoy the famous high walks of Chamonix Valley. Until early-July there is too much snow, then too many people; and later, it will be too cold and days will be too short. In September weather can be as changeable as ever, and I was very lucky. One big storm the first night, which the my Northern Face tent, with declining waterproofness after surviving mountain storms on three continents, struggled to survive – but four glorious days to follow, with just the condensation clouds from the valley making views more interesting.

Glacier BossonsLac BlancThe Mt Blanc is at the intersection of three countries. I have walked and skied the Italian side many times, but only rarely ventures on the others. There is no doubt that the views are best from the Chamonix side. The summits are closer, and the North side has fourteen glaciers – even if some of them now reduced to little more than ice bucket. The best walks in the Chamonix Valley are those on its North side, i.e. not on the Mt Blanc itself, but in front of it. However, I realised, the French side is also much less natural: too many ski lifts and cableways, too many woods vandalised by ski slopes, water cannons looking at you from all corners. And now, even the little footpaths that avoided the ski slopes are taken over by Mountain bike tracks. In terms of wilderness, then, the Italian side is still a bit better: civilisation is concentrated in Courmayeur, and the ski slopes are bit further away. Under the mountain, the two valleys of Veny and Ferret are still very sparcely populated, and left to walkers and crosscountry skiers. And also, as I am at it, there is more wildlife than on the North side, and the mountain architecture is prettier. Mind you: I like skiing and I appreciate mountain bikes, but there is a limit to everything. In particular, I do not like summits to be violated by cableways. It is always a bit depressing walking and climbing up a mountain (like Mt Brevent, which also involves a small bit of Via Ferrata), just to find a cableway arrival station and a restaurant.

Rampons and axe needed!This is also the case of Aiguille de Midi (3842m) and its spectacular cableway. It originally arrived to the avant-cime (lower summit), but recently an internal lift allows to reach the real summit, just some 30mt above. A good way to make money, sure (the lift cost 3 Euro per person, and on the top there is a restaurant), but the views are exactly the same as from the lower balconies. And more, major building works are ongoing at all cable stations... I refused to take that lift, but for the first time, profiting of a cloud-free day, I splashed out (98€!) for the whole cableway crossing from Chamonix to Italy, and returned by bus. It is the most spectacular cableway in the world, made of three main segments: Chamonix-Aiguille de Midi; crossing over the glaciers to Punta Helbronner (Italian border); and on the Italian side Punta Helbronner – La Palud, with intermediate stops at two refugi. It was build just after the war, by an Italian-French consortium. No use of helicopter at that time: the cables were carried and unrolled by climbers. Which is striking not only physically but also politically: only few years earlier, winter 1944-45, the Mt Blanc was the site of the highest-level battle of World War II (a small one, but with its life toll nonetheless). The most interesting part is the middle one, the only way you will be on a glacier without needing rampons, while if (unlike me) have no reason to over to Italy for a couple of years, the descent on the Italian side is not that interesting: it is cheaper and nicer to just return from Punta Helbronner to Chamonix with a cableway return ticket.

TFlowers under the Mt Blanche Mt Blanc summit has been long disputed between French and Italians (compare Italian and French maps and the border is not in the same place!) but the whole cableway remains an interesting case of Italian-French collaboration. Nonetheless I could not miss that instructions and exhibition information are bilingual (Italian and French) on the Italian side, but in French only on the other... which is only partly justified by the fact that the Valle d’Aosta region on the Italian side is an autonomous, bilingual one. The Savoy region on the French side is also historically peculiar, annexed to France only in 1860 and with a more Catholic presence (in Chamonix even a huge statue of Christ King – the least républicain monument you can imagine), but it does not enjoy any administrative autonomy.

cableway allowed going from Chamonix to Courmayeur at a time when the road tunnel still did not yet exist. Although there have been accident at the cableway, the 11km tunnel built in 1965 has a worse history. In 1999, a lorry took fire causing the death of 39 people: the temperature reached 1000C and cars melt into the asphalt. The tunnel was then closed for three years for works. I remember visiting Courmayeur at that time and finding the whole valley magical: it was silent. The continuous river of lorries on the motorway, filling the valley with smog that can’t blow away, wasn’t there. Locals hoped the tunnel would never open again... The transport issue on the Alps is a very sensitive one, with currently mass violent protest against the high-speed train through Val Susa between Turin and Lyon. But surely road transport is the worse one, even if trains could well slow down over here.

Mt Blanc at sunset

July 18, 2011

A 'classic' and 'classist' novel on an odd corner of Tuscany

4 out of 5 stars

It hurts me when I hear Piombino defined as the ugliest corner of Tuscany – even if being the ugliest corner of Tuscany might well be compatible with being quite a beautiful place for other countries’ or regions’ standards. But indeed it is the contrast with the immediate surroundings that harms Piombino. Right in front, just 10 minutes of ferry away, is the splendid Elba Island, with its beaches, its picturesque villages, its mountain and Napoleonic residence. At the back, the calendar Tuscan hills, with the Sasiccaia wine, the woods and the wild boars. To the North, just behind the hill, the idyllic Baratti beach with its Etruscan ruins. When you arrive by train from the North, you see in rapid succession the beaches, the pine forest, the hills... and then suddenly, unexpected, completely ill-suited, Piombino. With its gigantic steelworks, its four blast furnaces (only one still active), its noise and pollution, its blocks of flats for workers. The Welsh know the same contrast between the Gower peninsula and its spectacular beaches and Port Talbot – but Piombino and Baratti are just one behind the other, separated by only a green promontory of 4km, instead of a 15km gulf.

It makes me particularly angry when I hear tourists, who cross the city as fast as possible to get to the port and escape to the Elba, make the most stupid of comments on the factories: ‘but why did they build that here?’. It’s like the American tourists asking why the queen built Windsor castle so close to the airport. Because metal production in Piombino is two thousand year older than tourism, thanks to the local iron mine. The steelworks themselves are one hundred year old. Indeed, they were destroyed, together with the whole town, by the withdrawing German army at the end of the war. But the local population, immediately, spontaneously, rebuilt them, and took control of them. Piombino became then one of the main sites of Italian state industry, until it was privatised to Lucchini in 1992, not before a tough two-month strike that marked the town.

I spent a few pleasant weeks in Piombino in 1998, mostly in the Fiom (metalworker union) offices, for my doctoral research comparing the Lucchini steelworks in Piombino with those in Warsaw – the local union officer started to call me ‘the Pole’, something exotic for the local community. Few years later, Lucchini was taken over by the Russian Severstal.

It is with mixed feelings, then, that I have read this successful Italian novel dedicated to this most unsung of Tuscan towns and its 35,000 inhabitants. There is some tradition of Italian novels on the working class, but this stands out. It is about the provincial, peripheral working class, not the classic one of Turin, Milan or Naples. And it is written from a different gender and generation perspective. Silvia Avallone is only 26.

The novel tells the story of the families of two steelworkers, neighbours in the ugly council blocks of Via Stalingrado, in front of the local, dirty and crowded beach. However, the heroes are not the steelworkers, but their fourteen-year old daughters, who spend the summer on the beach, despite their fathers controlling behaviour and monitoring from the balcony. Anna and Francesca are classmates; one is doing well at school, the other is not, but they are best mates and share, among others, a strong resentment against their fathers. Anna’s is dismissed by Lucchini for stealing, while her mother is politically militant and her older brother, equally steelworker, is the most popular bloke among local girls. Francesca’s one is semi-illiterate and violent, her mother is a completely submissive Southern immigrant. In the summer of 2001, they dream to get a scooter and escape, swearing loyalty to each other.

But there comes September 2001. Not so much 9/11, which the local youth watches on a bar TV wondering if it is a movie and getting bored very soon when they realise it is just the news on a far away place. But the fact that Anna and Francesca will go to different secondary schools, given their different academic results, and will grow apart because of diverging interests, loves and sexual orientations. Although their parallel personal wars with their respective fathers continue...

If on one level this seems just another teenager story, with the usual ingredients of generational conflict, sexual discovery, drugs experimentation and irresponsible behaviour, there is more to this book. It is a sharp portrayal of a disappearing world, the compact steel working class of Piombino, once united by a 70% union membership and 70% vote for the communists, immortalised by Gramsci monuments. Anna’s brother Alessio at the 2001 elections voted for Berlusconi, because 'at least he is not a loser like the Fiom unionists', and finds individual ways to find the necessary money for Saturday night and for a new car. The moral conservatism of their parents is contrasted with the sexual liberation of teen-agers – which however, in this isolated setting, takes the form of miming TV showgirls and the appeal of the strippers clubs in the hinterland. Avallone manages to provide an intimate portrait of both generations, with respect but without any sentimentalism and glorification of either the young or the old. In particular, there is no discount for the traditional machismo and for domestic violence. I imagine the Fiom comrades to be a bit angry about the book, but in fact I remember that when twenty years ago the experiment was made to appoint a few dozen women as manual workers in the steelworks, they all quickly resigned, not so much because of the working conditions, but because of the intolerable sexist culture.

In fact both old and new suffer from social isolation. The council houses, the pollution, the separation from the nearby touristic spots are physical, symbolic and cultural. One wonders why the youth spend the time on the dirty Piombino’s beach with the view of chimneys, instead of moving just 4km North to Baratti beach (one of the most beautiful in Italy), or take the ferry to the Elba – where most of them have never been. But then one of the boys suggests to go to Baratti – to nick valuables from posh tourists. Even more, one wonders why the internet is never mentioned – in 2001-02!. But while mobile phones’ use has become widespread in Italy sooner than elsewhere, internet access has long remained limited to certain social groups. Overall, Piombino’s working class experiences are made of social rejection on one side, and of political or media paternalism – as symbolised by the impossible relationship between Alessio and Elena, the middle-class girl becoming factory’s human resource manager. A rejection that in Italy may be less violent then the one lived by the English working class described by Own Jones in ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’ or by Shaw's Tile Hill paintings– but that it is true nonetheless.

There is a good deal of exaggeration in all this, and, in a way, of additional, unnecessary demonisation. Avallone is not from Piombino and has never lived there. Via Stalingrado in Piombino does not exist (although there are still a few Vie Stalingrado in Italy), nor a beach like that. While there is deprivation in Piombino, I can say from experience that it still is much better than, say, Port Talbot; that it is clean and not that smelly; that Fiom members are not that losers; and that steelworkers' pay is not that bad nor employment prospects so restricted to steel. In the novel there is basically no positive figure, except maybe Anna’s mother, but most people I met in Piombino were actually positive. No mention in the book of the 'heroic defeat' of the 1992 2-month strike. Accidents in the huge plant do occur a lot (I remember the day a worker died in the steelworks during my research and the immediate strike and demonstration that were called), but the one told in Acciaio sounds implausible.

These may be forgivable licences in a novel. The descriptions, whether of the plant, of the desolated country roads around it, of the council houses and the humble city centre are spot on. The dialogue is very fresh, without indulging in artificial slang as many young Italian authors do, although the author also avoids any Tuscan speak, whether for her ignorance or for a clear choice of depicting the Italian province rather than simply an Italian province. The social crisis in the background of two girls’ crisis is vividly accounted within an orderly, 'classic' novel: industrial restructuring is painful, just like growing up for two girls in a very sexist environment. In a way, Italy has found, with this book on generations, class identity and gender identity, its sourer sort of Billy Elliott – and a female one to it. In 2010 it achieved the second place in the main Italian contest, the Premio Strega, and it is already translated into German and French – a healthy balance to all the various disgustingly soppy ‘Houses in the Tuscan sun’.

July 04, 2011

Spain vs Italy, gender relations

A couple of years ago Spain overtook Italy in the GDP per head – something unthinkable 30 or even 20 years ago. In fact, when I first visited Spain in 1994 I could not avoid the unconfessable impression that the Spanish were our poorer cousins: very similar, but a bit old-fashion or run-down, simpler, less smart, in dirtier cities and with more provincial attitudes. Well, now it’s better not to compare Naples with any Spanish city...

But the field were the Spanish have overtaken the Italians at fasted speed is not the economy, fashion, cuisine, football or urban management. It is gender relations. Spain, with until just 35 years ago the most retrograde regime and Church in Europe, has gender parity in the government, fast growing female employment rate, gay marriages. In Italy, 35 years ago at the forefront of women movements, machismo has been elevated to a government ideology, female employment is stagnating as the lowest in the EU, and just forget about civic marriages or gay marriages: hate violence against gays is on the increase and there is no regulation against homophobia. As Teresa Jurado and Manuela Naldini have shown in a recent joint Italo-Spanish paper (“Towards a Dual-Earner Family Model: Italy and Spain in Comparison”, SASE Conference 2011), for a complex set of reasons gender arrangements are much more ‘modern’ in Spain than in Italy.

That calls into question Italian men. They are an easy target for any sort of jokes, stereotypes and denigration. When these come from Northern Europeans, an Italian man can just smile and perseverate in the secret belief that such denigration only betrays protestant repression, industrial-society frustration or just simple envy of ‘our’ (supposed) capacity to enjoy food, music, flirts, sensuality. But when it comes from Spanish cousins, the criticism cuts much deeper.

Take the brilliant article by Elvira Lindo in yesterday’s El País, ‘Berlusconeando’. She describes the Italian men she sees in Rome (of course, in Milan it would be different!) and she sees many Belusconis: ‘I must say that they are extremely likeable to the sight, that included the ugly are handsome, even more, I’d say the ugliest are the most handsome (...); but that beauty does not blinds me I often meet a male self-esteem that is very Berlusconian’. On an honest note, Lindo concludes that she also sees many Rajoys and Camps in Spain, but that is not as demeaning on Spanish men than the Berlusconi charge on the Italian.

I will postpone in-depth observations of Italy to the time I go there later this year. But it needs to be added that the incredibly fast women emancipation and cultural change in Spain have also produced what seems a strong case of what feminism calls ‘male backlash’. Women are getting their way in the economy and in politics, but at the margins some men are escaping in the worst ways. Spain has been described, for instance by The Independent, as the ‘world’s capital of prostitution’, and even if statistics on this topic are by nature unreliable, what anybody can observe is how prostitution is pervades Spanish life. Even a serious and progressive paper like El País has pages of sex services classified ads every day: I can’t imagine not just The Independent, die FAZ, Gazeta Wyborcza or Le Monde doing the same – even for Repubblica or Corriere della Sera it is unthinkable. Even worse, Spain has bas records for domestic violence. And when the fight in the Socialist Party for Zapatero succession came to the tie between Carme Chacón and Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, it also took a strong traditional-gendered tone, with her in tears and him boasting his sporting career. But then again, at least the Spanish government takes domestic violence seriously, and hgh number may reflect higher reporting; Carme Chacón has been a strong minister of defence; and indeed the Spanish prime minister is unlikely to invite underage prostitutes to his home.

July 03, 2011

AVE, high speed trains?

AVE 'flying' through AragonOver the last month I took the new AVE train between Madrid and Barcelona, or vice versa, five times. 2h38’ for 621km, and never one minute delay – very much unlike my recent flights. It’s the same distance as between London and Edinburgh, which requires 4h22’, delays not included, making it impossible as a day return trip and forcing people on the plane.

Spanish high-speed railways are the best in Europe in all regards: faster, longer, more comfortable, more punctual. Until May they were also cheaper, but crisis is striking hard and the many generous advance economic fares have been tacitly removed – a cheeky way to increase prices without saying it. The AVE has more legroom than in the countries of supposedly taller races, headphones and on-carriage movie, quick unobstructive security checks (the Atocha station bombs are not easily forgotten), and a display tells you all information you need (next station, outside temperature 42C, speed 305km/h...), while the arid Castellan and Aragonese landscapes gives quickly way to the green Catalan one.

2,655kms of high speed rail (only China has more) have not come cheap or without controversies. The first lines, in the early 1990s, to Andalusia were criticised as clientelism by the Andaluz Felipe González. The total bill for the infrastructure so far is 100,000m Euros, i.e. some 2,200€ per head, if the EU hadn't taken up a part of the bill. It is legitimate to ask if the money couldn’t have been spent better differently. The Toledo-Albacete high-speed service connecting all Castilla-La Mancha capitals, has just been closed, after only six months in operation, after realising only 18 passengers used it on average...

Yet in such a large country with such strong centrifugal forces, the under-three hours connections between most main cities do have sense and provide excellent alternatives to internal flights. The Spanish mistake, rather, is to have simultaneously invested similar amounts on motorways and airports – as if any provincial city had the right to be connected to Madrid by all options: plane, high-speed train and motorway. Spain has now 48 airports, of which only 11 are profitable, according to a reportage by El País (Aeropuertos para todos). The main ones, Madrid’s and Barcelona’s, have seen pharaonic new terminals built - indeed, Barcelona’s is the only European one to compete with the big Asian ones in terms of comfort and posh (it even has, quite uniquely, a large courtyard), but it is not particularly crowded. Worse with the small airports built over the last ten years in a ‘Ryanair rush’: every town believed that it only needed an airport to attract crowds of heavy-spending tourists. Take Burgos: it had five airports within 125 km, but it still needed its own. Or Castellón, inaugurated with great pump, but with no plane yet. Or Huesca, with more flights than passengers in 2009. The crisis has hit, and Ryanair is engaging in threats to local authorities: in Catalunya, after withdrawing from Reus airport, it is threatening to leave Girona too if the local council does not contribute with 5 Euros per passengers. Apart that Catalunya is the most indebted region of Spain, and that state aids are banned by the EU, if Girona really wanted to promote tourism it could spend the money much more cleverly than sponsoring one, controversial company. In fact, the fascination with cheap airlines has made no favours to Spain, contributing to the construction bubble and to a cheap-tourism industry that damages the environment and creates no good jobs – in fact, most jobs it creates are so bad that only impoverished immigrants take them up.

So, compared to airports and motorways, high-speed trains look like the least evil in Spain – but they still have a hard time around Europe. The new Portuguese government, given the notorious financial situation, has just suddenly withdrawn from the planned Lisbon-Madrid line – for the anger of the Spaniards who had already started work on their side. In the UK, the plan for a high-speed line from London to Birmingham and Manchester has so far survived the public spending cuts, but reactionary planning laws make the project extremely arduous. But the biggest disruptions are in Italy, where already the Milan-Roma (2h59’ for 517km, but the Apennines in between) was controversial, and now the planned Turin-Lyon line through the Alps is causing civic resistance and violent protests – also today.

Even if enjoying the Madrid-Barcelona train, and dreaming of a fast connection between England and Scotland, I’d say that the Alps are an exception. Such a delicate and unique environment requires slowness and respect, rather than being violated by long tunnels, mountains of excavated soil and noise. Indeed, in the Alps even more than elsewhere trains are better than planes and cars (motorway valleys have record incidences of cancers, as the exhaust pipes stick there). But the existing lines have enough capacity, and they only require an hour or so of calm – rewarded by the views.

June 13, 2011

Landslide effect

currentcovereu.jpgTwo weeks ago I commented, in rather enthusiastic tones, about my participation in Milan's rejection of Berlusconi. But that was still by just about 35% of the electorate (55% of 66% turn out). For today's referendum against water privatisation, nuclear power (which Italy had already rejected by 70-30% in a referendum in 1987 - my first vote, unforgettable) and against Berlusconi's right to delay trials, 50%+1 of the whole adult population including Italians abroads was required. Impressively, 57% (early estimate) did go to vote, and 95% voted YES. That's more than 25 million people - the maximum Berlusconi and his allied ever got in an election was 17 millions.

Beside the merit of the specific referenda, this had become a plebiscit against one man and the result is overwhelming by the standards of modern political participation. That man can now go do to himself what an influential newspaper, this week, alleges he did to his country.

May 31, 2011

Veni Voti Vici – 24h of a Milanese

May the 30th 2011.

3:40am. Puerta del Sol, Madrid, Monday. The #spanishrevolution sleeps.

Sol, 3:40 am

I don’t. I am walking past fast, on the way to Plaza de Cibeles, to catch the airport bus and the 6:00 Ryanair flight to Milan. I don’t like Ryanair but, two weeks ago, it offered a day return for 39 Euros. Ooops, plus 12 Euros card fee (31%).

8:30am. I land in Bergamo and one hour bus later I am in Milan. A short bar stop for what an Italian needs first when repatriating: a proper coffee. Plus a very unmilanese cannolo siciliano(my other half) and a look at the morning papers, focussing on the reason of my very quick visit: the local elections.


10am. I am in my polling station (no picture, sorry – in Italian polling stations cameras are banned because, unlike in the UK where ballot papers are numbered, vote secrecy is a serious affair). Well ahead of the time limit of 3pm. Spare time for a few flying coffees and aperitivos with friends and for a family lunch.

Italians registered abroad keep the right to vote in the local elections of their place of origin. This time in Milan the stake is special and there has been an internet campaign to mobilise the thousands Milanese on exile like me (see the youtube video – jump the first 1'20" of speech if political Italian is not your thing).

Milan has always been the main Italian political laboratory, for good (Turati’s socialist reformism in the early XX Century, the 1968 movement, feminism, the New Left...) and for evil (fascism in 1919, integralist catholicism, Craxi’s corrupt socialism in the 1980s, the Northern League, Berlusconi). Back in my childhood it was a leftwing industrial city with a progressive cultural scene: Italy's main theatres, newspapers and publishers are all based here. Then the factories closed, replaced by such ‘bullshit economy’ to shame Dubai and London. The popular quarters were gentrified and the poor were forced into the suburbs. Milan became the fiefdom of Berlusconi: he built the new residential quarters, started the TVs, dominates the insurance and advertising industries and bought publishers, football clubs and theatres. Since the early 1990s the Right won all elections in Milan by very large margins.

Two weeks ago, in the first round, the surprise: the leftwing candidate Pisapia was ahead with 48%, the rightwing incumbent behind with 41%. Today, it’s the second round.

3:30pm. Piazza del Duomo. The first projections arrive. Pisapia is well ahead. Within an hour, the margin is clear: 55%-45%. Not only: the Left gains large majorities across the country: Naples (65%-35%!), Cagliari (never ruled by the Left before!), Trieste, even small northern towns usually dominated by the Northern League.

6:15pm. Pisapia arrives to the crowded central square for his first speech as mayor.

6:15: Pisapia appears as new Milanese Mayor

I had written Milan off: the dominant social bloc seemed only interested in paying as little tax as possible, being free to drive their cars around, and blaming immigrants. Due to extreme privatisation, they seemed not to care about the quality of the city or any public service. Milan at week-ends is telling: while all other Italian cities are crowded with passeggiata rituals, the Milanese escape to nearby lakes, mountains and sea. Only poor and immigrants stay behind.

However, deep inside, some traditional Milanese decency has survived and finally there is a reaction. This has little to do with the main opposition Democratic Party: Pisapia is an independent, leftist candidate that defeated the PD one in the primaries (a bit like Ken Livingstone in London's 2000 elections). The same happened in Cagliari, and in Naples the PD candidate was defeated in the first round by anti-corruption judge De Magistris. Like elsewhere in Europe, progressive developments happen outside the traditional parties and in new forms, with new languages. After 20 years of pointless chasing an imaginary 'centre' with moderate, ever blander candidates, the Italian Left has found new radical voices able to inspire and mobilise - and proving that you can proclaim solidarity with Gypsies and Muslims AND still win the elections. Pisapia won with an unprecedented mix of values, irony, calm, against a horrible Milanese Right spending ten times more money and using racism, fear, threat and calumny. The peak was reached in the last televised debate, when the rightwing incumbent at the last minute, knowing that Pisapia had no time for reply left, accused the opponent of being a car thief and a terrorist. It spectacularly backfired: Milanese culture and intellect, even if asleep for 20 years, had not died completely.

The result is not important just for Milan. Milan was the symbol of Berlusconism: the dream he sold to Italians was making all of Italy as rich and flashy as Milan. In reality, Berlusconi was, like a monstrous parasite, asphyxiating Milan by using up all its resources: culture, work, nature. Now that, in a last survival instinct, the Milanese spectacularly rejected him, the dream evaporates. The bluff has been read.

6:25pm. As soon as Pisapia finishes his speech I run back to Central Station (that fascist monument so incongruent with the city today) to catch the bus back to the airport: I will miss the huge evening fest.

9pm. The Ryanair flight to Madrid is due to take off. But it is delayed by 2 hours. One more glass of celebratory prosecco to kill the wait. The waitress asks: 'Why is everybody drinking prosecco today?'

2:15am. I cross Puerta del Sol again. The #spanishrevolution is awake.


April 11, 2011

Libya: A New Kosovo???

The intervention in Libya is increasingly complicated and it is also highlighting European divisions, not just on military and foreign policy (nothing new) but also on Schengen. The Schengen Treaty is naked, unable to decide who should host the couple of thousands of boat people and insisting that they should be sent off: a few hundreds have already died, and the Italian government is even threatening to leave the EU - as if Italy had ever done anything for a European policy on refugees, especially when it was Germany, still under Kohl, to propose to 'share the burden' (horrible wording).

But while the issue is very complex, an argument keeps being made that leaves me astonished: a supposed 'succesful precedent' of Kosovo, 1999. Succesful precedent? Kosovo?? Two months of bombing and a huge wave of refugees (after, not before the bombing started), a failed state based on ethnic cleansing, and an enduring military and civil engagement, with no prospect of end in sight. The majority of the UN countries - including, for obvious local reasons, the Spain where I am right now - still does not recognise Kosovo, and the failure of the EU Mission was well described on the Guardian website, a couple of days ago, by a friend who knows the place well.

Describing Kosovo as a success of 'humanitarian intervention is not just setting the benchmark for success extremely low, but it is also dihonest: the intervention is described as a quick, painless solution - shouldn't governments be explicit, then, on the risk of really repeating Kosovo, that is of a military and civilian intervention protracting for another twelve years or more?

Celebrating the bombing of Libya 100 years earlier

Of course the situations are so different that comparing them or talking of precedents is nearly meaningless. On the positive, on Libya there is at least a UN Resolution and a facade of legality. It is an unusual issue displacing traditional war or peace divides: most pacifists are either silent or supportive of the intervention, while to oppose it there are, besides the inconclusive Germans, the racists of the Italian Northern League, who would also like to withdraw Italian troups from Lebanon - the only undisputably positive peace-keeping mission around the world.

Last week I was, as an old Pink Floyd fan, at Roger Waters' The Wall concert in Milan. The concert, by an artist who is an orphan of war, has a very strong antimilitaristic message, which goes down well with the public. The strongest cheers, beside for the initial poignant "Mother loves you baby - dad loves you too" and a strong "No" to "Mother should I trust the government?" were indeed for "BRING THE BOYS BACK HOME" but none, least of all Waters, seemed to mean from the Libyan skies. Even in Italy, which exactly 100 years ago bombed Libya (first ever plane bombing - if of course ineffective...) and, after a year of war, occupied it in a very unpleasant precedent glorified only by protoFascist futurist poets. Let's hope that Libya does not repeat Kosovo - and does not repeat Libya.

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