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May 19, 2012

Aiming high: occupy in Milan

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

April 03, 2011

Milan–Inter 3–0: when it matters…

Milan’s derby is the most important match in the season, regardless of the table and the stake. But yesterday’s was the first one in a generation with an Italian title at stake, with Inter behind Milan by only 2 points. In fact the only derbies I remember with an important stake were in Champions League, the semifinals 2003 and quarterfinals 2005, both obviously won by Milan - as again yesterday. In Milan, a productive, non-nonsense city, you can tell who is best when it really matters. Milan literally dominated the match from the first minute (Pato’s goal) to the last (Cassano’s goal). Inter, on paper the Italian, European and World’s champions in charge, were lost in the fog and their ugly version of football was obscured by Milan’s spectacular lights.

Both teams express the nature of the city, the only cosmopolitan one in Italy. Milan has an English name, from its founders, and Inter stands for Internazionale – an appropriate name given that hardly any Italian has played for them recently. Both teams were forced to change their unpatriotic names under fascism, respectively to Italian “Milano” and to “Ambrosiana” (from Milan’s own version of the Catholic Chruch). Inter was the team of the Church, and the only one allowed to win under Fascism, together with Roma and the royal family’s Juventus. It’s a matter of pride for Milan not to have won titles in that period. Milan was the bourgeoisie’s team, but after the war it was embraced by the masses of immigrants from the South, especially Sicily: I have inherited Milan’s faith from my mother side. As a result of demographic change it became a much more popular team, and in the 1970s and 1980s this was also reflected in a political divide, with Milan’s “ultras” of the South End waving Che Guevara flags and Inter’s preferring neofascist symbols on their North End. Red and black are by far more popular than black-and-blue. The downside of popular support, however, is to be easy prey of populist politics...

Milanese supporters (especially Milan’s – Inter’s are more pragmatic and prefer German players to Dutch and Brazilian ones) have a unique taste for the technical, stylistic act, the opposite of the attitude of British fans. The best personification of Milanese styles were Rivera and Van Basten, players who would often choose form over substance, and a more difficult way to score a goal as long as it was more beautiful.

Art is even endorsed by the fans. Milanese fans, who years ago had won an award for a reproduction of Munch’s scream to mock Inter fans despair, yesterday produced a reproduction of that most famous piece of Milanese painting, Leonardo’s Last Supper, where Judah was the only back and blue figure in a red-and-black, in reference to another Leonardo, who after being a Milanese hero has just ‘defected’ to the other side. The paradox is that Leonardo, both as player and manager’ was an excellent personification of the classy Milanese spirit, and that he left Milan in protest against Berlusconi’s style.


It was nice to see the San Siro stadium (aka La Scala del Calcio) so full and ‘warm’ again, as it always was in the 1980s and 1990s, even when Milan played in the second league. However, in recent times it is mostly half-empty, killed by TV football, ultras’ sectarian violence and excessive rotation of players. Football is a team sport and changing five players every six months kills its nature. Fortunately Milan still has its good ‘old guard’ (Seedorf and Nesta were impressive again yesterday), but the majority of players have a job tenure of a year of two. Which, as an employment policy, is always bad, whether by football clubs aiming to win sponsors at all cost, or university departments aiming to maximise REF results – at the cost of everybody else.

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