Happy Italian Liberation Day! Long live a united, free, and anti-fascist Italy!

“My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds of which in your lovely body I see so many, I wish at least my sighs to be such as Tiber and Arno hope for, and Po where I now sit sorrowful and sad” (Francis Petrarch; translation by Robert Durling).

Above: Italian resistance fighters in Piazza San Marco, Venice in 1945 (images via the Archivio Luce).

Today is Italian Liberation Day: Festa della Liberazione, April 25. Established in 1946, it commemorates the end of Nazi and Fascist rule in Italy.

It’s a national holiday in Italy and most Italians are taking today and tomorrow off (an Italian ponte or bridge, as it’s called, a long weekend).

But one of my colleagues, a young man from Tuscany, took time out to write me this morning.

“Viva l’Italia,” he wrote, “unita, libera e antifascista.”

“Long live Italy, united, free, and anti-fascist.”

It’s incredible to think that in 2019 the Italian government is being run by Matteo Salvini, a strongman, would-be autocrat whose political origins are murky with traces of racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. He came to power (and continues to run) on a virulent nationalist and anti-immigrant platform. He’s pals with Putin and Orbán. Sound familiar? He’s one of Steve Bannon’s pet projects.

Just last week, the Washington Post ran this story on Mussolini’s grandson and his run for a seat in the EU Parliament. Neo-Fascism is no longer a taboo in Italian political and social circles, notes the author.

Salvini, for example, often cites the “golden years” of Mussolini and the Fascist regime. He forgets that those years weren’t golden for everyone.

Check out this slide show by the Archivio Luce. It features images from Italy after Mussolini’s fall.

Happy Italian Liberation Day! Long live a united, free, and anti-fascist Italy!

The priest the Mafia killed: the story of Padre Pino Puglisi, fictionalized by one of his students in a novel I translated

It was just a year after the world had collectively gasped at the Mafia’s brutal 1992 car bomb killings of magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

A dark moment in Italian contemporary history, it was a year after Italy’s ruling political class had been implicated in the infamous “Bribesville” scandal.

It was a year after Italians had begun to lose faith in their political system and social fabric. The dream of Italy’s economic miracle, with a “Benetton on every corner in Manhattan” (as one of my professors marveled a few years earlier), was coming to an end.

In 1993, the Mafia did something that seemed to break with its own “code of conduct,” however abominable it were: members of Cosa Nostra killed a priest in Palermo — something unthinkable at the time.

Padre Pino Puglisi (known affectionately as “3P”) had openly defied the Mafia in an economically challenged Palermo neighborhood where it recruited and trafficked kids from the streets: Brancaccio, a proletariat community where youth prospects dwindled in step with Italy’s fading promise of prosperity.

Read the English-language Wikipedia entry on Padre Pino here. And read this wonderful blog devoted to his life and times, with English translation, here.

Today he is remembered as “the priest who smiled at his killers.”

Father Pino ran a community youth outreach program in Brancaccio and he lobbied and spoke out aggressively against the Mafia’s unyielding grip on the neighborhood.

Educator, television personality, and screenwriter Alessandro D’Avenia was one of his theology students. His 2014 novel, Ciò che inferno non è, a fictionalized account of Padre Pino’s story, was a best seller in Italy.

My translation of his book, What Hell Isn’t, has just been published in England by One World.

As wine lovers, we spend so much energy hawing and humming about this natural wine from Sicily or that, but we hardly take time out to examine the immense and often insurmountable difficulties of growing up poor in Sicily’s cities.

I highly recommend it to you. Not because I translated it but because it offers perspective into the human tragedy that plays out in Sicily’s urban streets every day.

Top image: screenshot via the blog Tra il cuore e la mente.

“Shock, terror, pain, dread” (@Miti_Vigliero): the Morandi bridge tragedy in Genoa

“My connection is slowly coming back but not my strength or my will to write. Just shock, terror, pain, dread, and a sense of frustration and interminable nausea caused by rage, indignation, and contempt. It’s better if I don’t say anything, at least for the moment. Silence is better. #genoa #Morandibridge” (translation mine)

Mitì Vilgiero, one of my favorite contemporary Italian writers and a chronicler of life in Genoa, posted the above tweet yesterday following the tragic collapse of the city’s Morandi Bridge.

According to the New York Times, at least 39 people have died as a result of the disaster.

Although we didn’t pass through Genoa, Tracie and I recently drove along the A10 freeway just north of the port city and capital of Liguria in Italy’s northwest. The Morandi bridge connected Genoa to the rest of the continent along that corridor.

Not only is that road one of the country’s major arteries but it is also one of Europe’s most important transportation routes, connecting Italy and France.

The collapse of the bridge will continue to impact lives in Genoa, Italy, and Europe for the unforeseeable future.

Our hearts and prayers go out this morning to the victims and their families.

Italian bacon and eggs: Italy’s obsession with American food (no, this isn’t a joke)

Above: when I first started coming to Italy 30 years ago, bacon was still called pancetta. Now it’s called “bacon” in Italian.

Tracie and I landed in Italy yesterday with our daughters, ages 4 and 6. It’s their first real trip to Europe (since our oldest doesn’t have any recollection of our visits here when she was just one year old; and our youngest only made it here previously in utero).

When we told them about our summer trip this spring, they were concerned — gastronomically speaking.

“Daddy, daddy, we can’t go to Italy!” they protested vehemently. “They won’t have the things we like to eat there!”

“They have LOTS of good things to eat in Italy!” Tracie and I laughed and smiled.

“Do they have pizza in Italy?”

“Yes, of course they do,” I told them. “In fact, the Italians invented pizza! They have the best pizza in the world.”

They seemed genuinely impressed by this historical tidbit but then came the culinary litmus test that would determine their willingness to join their parents in the Garden of Europe:

“But daddy, do they have bacon in Italy?”

Above: bacon and eggs is now commonly found on menus in northern Italy.

It must have been seven or so years ago when my Italian bromance Giovanni took me out for (truly excellent) hamburgers and I noticed that the cured pork belly was cut and smoked not like traditional Italian pancetta but like American bacon.

In the time since, “bacon” — as it is now called in Italian — has become ubiquitous in northern Italy.

Above: a hamburger I ate last month in Franciacorta. Note the bacon.

Italians love LOVE hamburgers. They love them so much that they don’t use butcher scraps to form the patties. They use the highest quality beef they can find. And beyond the myriad fast food restaurants that now sadly dot the northern Italian countryside, the omni-present amburgheria (hamburger house) never uses the hydrogenated-oil buns that we adore in America. Instead, they use artisanal buns.

I’ve had some of the best hamburgers of my life in Italy in recent years. And that’s coming from an all-American, huge bacon-cheeseburger fan.

Bacon and scrambled eggs are also immensely popular now in northern Italy. Two years ago, I snapped the above photo of the dish in a run-of-the-mill trattoria in downtown Milan, ordered at lunch à la carte.

Above: bacon fries with Pecorino sauce (no joke) at the same amburgheria in Franciacorta.

Giovanni is graciously hosting our family this month at his place in Franciacorta. And being the generous and thoughtful friend that he is, he went grocery shopping for us before we arrived. The bacon in the top photo is awaiting our girls in his fridge as they slumber.

Back at home, we spend SO MUCH money on high-quality, wholesome bacon. Here in Italy, even when they cut the bacon from top hogs, the price is still very reasonable.

Leave it to the Italians to “misunderstand” American cuisine and make it all the better along the way. My only worry is: will our children ever want American bacon again?

We arrived safely and soundly yesterday afternoon in Milan and made our way to Franciacorta before the heavy rain began to fall. The girls have already spotted their first bunnies outside of Giovanni’s apartment and they loved the fresh fruit that Giovanni’s mom had prepared for them. Aside from a lost bag (mine, thank goodness, not Tracie’s with all the girls’ things), we’re already having a great time. Thanks for reading and buon weekend a tutti!

My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds: the Italian Republic’s populist tide

Above: the Euganean Hills where the Italian poet Francis Petrarch (1304-1374) spent his last years transcribing his life’s work.

“My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds of which in your lovely body I see so many, I wish at least my sighs to be such as Tiber and Arno hope for, and Po where I now sit sorrowful and sad” (translation by Robert Durling).

The above passage, the opening of the most famous of Francis Petrarch’s political poems in Italian, came to mind last week when I read the news that Italy would have a new governing coalition formed by racists and nationalists.

The news also made me think of my dissertation advisor, the Italian poet Luigi Ballerini, whom I recently saw in Milan where he was born in 1940. His earliest memories, he has often told me, are of Nazi soldiers retreating from the city atop their tanks, bare-chested in the heart of winter. Luigi never knew his father, who was killed by fascists on a Greek island.

Today, Matteo Salvini — an avowed racist, nationalist, and Euroskeptic (not to mention a confidant of Steve Bannon, who now resides in Rome) — has come to power in Italy (see this Fox news account of one of Salvini’s campaign rallies from earlier this year).

The Italian papers reported yesterday and the English news media is just beginning to file its reports on Salvini’s freshly forged alliance with Viktor Orbán, the hardline anti-immigrant and openly anti-Semitic prime minister of Hungary. Together, they plan to re-write the EU’s rules on immigration — Salvini and Orbán’s shared cause célèbre.

Before he cleaned up his act and tried to affect an air of respectability, Salvini was renowned in Italy for his overtly racist rhetoric. In 2009, he proposed (as a joke, he later claimed) that foreigners riding the subway in Milan be forced to wear stars on their clothing to denote their immigration status.

Even when I’m Italy teaching for an Italian university, I’m technically an extracomunitario, an alien. Will he require that I wear a star when I take the train?

Tomorrow, I’ll head off again to Italy for another two weeks of teaching at a university there. This time, I’m taking my wife and our two young daughters with me. We took our oldest daughter to visit the country when she was just a baby. She has no memories of our time there. So this trip, which we’ve been planning and talking about for weeks, is their “first trip to Italy.”

It makes me think of my first trip to Italy, in 1987 when I studied the history of Italian language at the University of Padua. I’ll never forget meeting and interacting with other foreign students from the Middle East and Africa then. I can only imagine, with dread, how they perceive Italy’s current political climate. I can hardly fathom their concern for their children’s futures.

When I saw Luigi last month in Milan, where he is living permanently now, he told me that he doesn’t recognize the Italy of his adolescence, a time when economic prosperity and liberal attitudes locked arms to create a culture of hope, tolerance, and humanism there.

Machiavelli famously closed The Prince with these lines from the same poem by Petrarch:

“If only you would show some sign of piety, then virtue against rage will take up arms, and battle will be short, for all that ancient valor in the Italian heart is not dead” (translation by Mark Musa).

Hope still shines in the distant future, dimmed and diminished but still flickering. Let us pray that the not-so ancient valor in the Italian heart is not dead.

In memoriam: Pietro Cheli (1965-2017)

Photo by Giovanni Arcari.

Who Was Pietro Cheli
by Giacomo Papi
Il Post Libri
November 6, 2017
(translation mine)

At dawn on Monday, November 5, 2017, Pietro Cheli died in his bed as the rain fell over Milan.

“I’m fine,” he had told his wife Alba Solaro shortly before the moment arrived. He may not have realized that it wasn’t true.

He was born in Genoa in 1965. He was 52 years old. He often said he would pass soon. Genoa was his favorite soccer team. He was a cultural journalist, meaning that for his entire life, he had worked in publishing, reading and publishing books, appearing at presentations, speaking on the radio, on television, and editing culture columns at the newspapers where he worked.

First at Il Giornale and La Voce with Indro Montanelli; then at Glamour and Diario with Enrico Deaglio; and finally at Amica where he was the magazine’s deputy editor. He was one of the great “men-machines”: When it came time to close an edition, he had an incredible capacity to edit its pages with a level of concentration and attention that made it appear seamless and almost easy.

He was a voluminous man whose enthusiasms and aversions often overflowed. He was a generous and contrarian man who sometimes used his body — his belly mostly but also his hands — as his own language. He could use it to spark the interest of strangers, intimidate his adversaries, and embrace his friends. Going by appearances, he seemed a man unafraid of the world and a singular voice of culture. In fact, he struggled with his doubts as to whether he should join in or keep his distance.

He hid but also rallied behind the character he had created. His way of hiding was by taking up all available space.

After they met, Luis Sepúlveda put him in one of his books. He called Cheli “a portly detective nicknamed ‘the Brooklyn Bambino’ by the homicide squad.”

Even when he spoke ill or gossiped about some one — as he often did, especially when it came to those he felt had usurped a position of power they didn’t deserve — his perspective was shaped by his disappointment and his amusement at the human comedy. But he never grew angry. He wasn’t ever able to avoid fools and hangers-on because he knew that fools and hangers-on nearly always had stories to share. And I believe it was also because he didn’t want to hurt them.

He was an elegant man (years later, he still laughed about an article that appeared in a Genoa newspaper wherein the author wrote he had “the elegance of a Finollo,” an old men’s store that catered to Genoa’s upper classes). He was a man full of wit. He could lash out but he also knew how to protect.

When he liked someone, he always knew how to identify the perfect anecdote or mannerism to describe him. He would reveal it for everyone to see, whether he intended to screw that person over or make him a legend.

As he lay dead in his room, he was elegant and rotund, surrounded by his books. He was cherubic, like a peacefully slumbering adolescent’s big baby doll.

*****

See this video of Pietro speaking (in Italian) about his recent book I’m A Racist But I’m Trying To Quit.

We’ll miss you dearly, Pietro.

Italy’s “no” vote and Italians’ certain uncertainty

roman-ruins-italyA lot of people have asked me to share my insights into Sunday’s referendum on political reform in Italy and the implications of the Italians’ resounding “no” vote. (In case you’re not following the New York Times, check out this recent coverage of the fallout from this week’s vote, an overview of why it could prove to be a pivotal moment in Italy’s new future and the stability of the European Union and its currency.)

On my last visit to Italy, the first night I was in the country in early November, I was invited to a dinner party at the home of a successful hairdresser. The 8 or so guests (give or take a few that stopped by to say hello) were all progressive middle-aged professionals, people more or less my age and like me. Naturally, they grilled me not for dinner but on my thoughts about Donald Trump and could he possibly be elected president?

As in many Italian homes during dinner, the television was on full-blast throughout our repast. There was a lot of coverage of earthquake relief (central Italy has been struck by a series of major earthquakes this year and many ill-prepared hilltop towns there have been devastated by the powerful seismic activity). Art historian Salvatore Settis (whom I knew during my Scuola Normale and Getty days during grad school) was on, talking about his new book, If Venice Dies. And of course, there was coverage of the December referendum on constitutional overhaul.

When I shifted the conversation from Trump to the referendum, the table fell silent. Not one guest at the dinner party wanted to break the brio of the evening by unleashing polarizing, divisive thoughts and feelings on the subject. Amen. And so it was.

According to most accounts, youth unemployment in Italy continues to hover at 40 percent. When we complain about the lack of job opportunities for young people in the U.S., we often don’t realize that our outlook is much rosier than for nearly all of our European counterparts. And Italy, where economic recovery from the years of the financial crisis has yet to take hold, is facing challenging times ahead.

I work in and write about Italian wine, but my life in Italy brings me into contact with people there from all walks of life (thanks to the many years I lived, studied, and worked there). Among my peers, the only people I see who are thriving are those who have created their own small businesses. Most of the people I went to school with enjoy job security (mostly in publishing and marketing) but many are deeply disheartened by their inability to change their economic status or provide greater economic mobility for their children.

I even have a few friends who are postermen for Italian mammismo. The only difference is that, at 50 years old (like me), living with your mother is no longer cute.

The economic challenges of middle-class life in Italy have been weighing on my peers and counterparts for more than a decade (the seeds of the current status quo go back to the demise of the corrupt socialist coalition in the 1990s). This seemingly unsurmountable intractability was likely what prompted the silence that fell over the table when I asked my dinner companions to share their thoughts about the referendum. Better to embrace the brio of the moment than to bust open the fears and insecurities that brimmed beneath.

On Sunday night, after the results of the referendum were clear, a good friend of mine wrote the following on his Facebook. He’s a successful winemaker who also works in a political lobby for farmers and grape growers.

Listening to [Massmo] D’Alema laughing on the radio, saying that today was a great day, with the Elio e Le Storie Tese song “Land of Persimmons” in the background, makes me realize that we are definitively SCREWED [sic] as a nation.

Happy Monday to all the people who will continue to break their backs to make their businesses succeed, to all the people who are creating jobs as they try to show foreigners that we are something more than the “Picturesque Country” in [actor and comic] Enrico Montesano’s “English Lady” [skit].

I’ve embedded the videos of the song and the skit below. His mood, I believe, is representative of many successful middle-aged Italians who view the EU and constitutional reform as vital to Italy’s future.

The populist movements, on both the far right and far left in Italy, see the outcome of this week’s vote as an opening for their agenda (although a streamlining of the Italian parliament, which would have been set into motion had the result been “yes,” would have also opened political channels for Italy’s rising populist parties).

To understand the implications of the vote and its probable legacy, see this New York Times piece, “A New Wave of Popular Fury Could Hit Europe in 2017.” In it, Alissa Rubin writes:

“The political demise of Mr. Renzi, the Italian prime minister, and his reform agenda removes an unabashedly pro-European leader who had hoped to ignite economic growth by ending an era of crippling budget austerity. Instead, he may be remembered for creating an opening for politicians who are openly hostile to Europe and the euro.”

Renzi’s fall could very well usher in an era when Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement enters into the mainstream of Italian politics (again, see the Rubin’s piece for the Times). It’s probable that Grillo will call for a referendum on leaving the Eurozone (the first step in leaving the EU). If Italy, a founding member, were to leave the EU, it’s likely that the union would collapse.

It’s hard for me to believe there would be a moment in my lifetime, let alone my children’s lifetime, when the future of the EU could be in question. But then again, I never thought it possible that a populist candidate like Donald Trump could be delivered to the White House on a fundamentally bigoted platform.

The one thing that is certain about the results of Sunday’s vote in Italy is uncertainty. So many Italian wine bloggers love to quote the famous line from The Leopard: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.” Scarcely do they know the portent of this utterance in the historical context in which it was first spoken and its deep-reaching relevance today.

In the wake of this week’s vote, maybe it’s more fitting to say: everything needs to stay the same so everything can change.

Amatriciana for Amatrice: Slow Food founder calls for restaurateurs and diners across the world to support Amatrice in year-long campaign

best amatriciana recipeAbove: my friend and client Tony Vallone’s Amatriciana here in Houston.

In Italy yesterday, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini proposed that “every restaurant in the world” serve Amatriciana for the next 12 months and donate €2 for every dish served directly to the Amatrice municipal government (see bank info below).

The village of Amatrice (AH-mah-TREE-cheh), known for its production of salumi and its celebrated Pasta all’Amatriciana (ah-MAH-tree-CHEE’AH-nah, long noodles dressed with tomato sauce and sautéed guanciale, cured pig’s jowl), was virtually destroyed in this week’s devastating earthquake in central Italy.

Petrini’s proposal, “A Future for Amatrice,” is a long-term fundraising initiative intended to provide sustained aid to Amatrice and its residents even after the “emotional wave of the moment has passed,” he wrote in a statement released to mainstream and social media.

Here in Houston, my friend and client Tony Vallone was already a step ahead of Petrini: yesterday, he began setting aside $2 for every dish of Amatriciana he serves (above) to be donated to Italian Red Cross relief efforts.

Ammado is the official micro-donation for the Italian Red Cross: here’s the link to donate.

You can also donate through the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (another client of mine). The Chamber is taking donations through PayPal and will donate funds collected to Italian Government relief efforts.

And if you want to send money directly to the Amatrice municipal government, here’s the bank code provided by Petrini in his statement: IT28M0832773470000000006000.

The destruction of Amatrice and a string of picturesque hilltop villages in this week’s catastrophe is a tragic loss for the Italian people and the world at large.

See the op-ed published this week by political commentator Beppe Severgnini in the New York Times.

“And in the space of just one summer’s night,” he writes, “Amatrice is all but gone.”

A FANTASTIC trattoria in Trastevere (Rome) and a Befana to burn

Notes from the eternal city…

best trattoria trastevere romePosting in a hurry this morning for Rome before our group of writers heads to Salento for wine tasting, eating, and touring for three days.

But just had to share the tip: dinner at Tavernaccia in Trastevere last night was phenomenally good. No website but here’s the Google place page.

Not only did we eat one of the best spaghetti alla gricia I’ve ever had but we also had what we unanimously declared the best roast suckling pig in history.

Excellent wine list with lots of natty Friulian.

Thank you to Hande and Theo for turning us on to this amazing place. Some of us cried… it was that good. And the price was ridiculously affordable.

befana italy burnThis morning, my college-days buddy Steve shared this photo from Prato della Valle in Padua (my old stomping ground).

That’s the Befana, the witch who comes on the night of January 5 each year to bring children presents or lumps of coal. She will be burned later today, sweeping out the old and welcoming the new year.

Here’s the Wiki entry to learn more (really interesting to read up on the tradition’s origins, btw).

That’s all I have time to post this morning. Stay tuned!

How much does an Italian speeding ticket cost?

speedy ticket italy costIt finally happened to me: yesterday I received a snail mail from a rental car agency in Italy informing me of an administrative fee ($50!) they had charged me for a forthcoming speeding ticket from the Italian police.

They sent me a copy of the ticket but not the final fee. I’ve surmised that I will be charged a penalty for paying late (if you pay after 60 days from when the citation was issued, you are assessed a fine; you get a 30 percent discount if you pay with five days, it says).

I’ve done a lot of driving in my life. Between touring with bands and traveling for wine work, I’ve clocked a lot of miles over the years.

I’m an extremely cautious and defensive driver and I make a point of never speeding — even in Italy (just ask Giovanni or Paolo). The last time I got a speeding ticket I was 19 years old (nearly thirty years ago!).

But back in May of this year, a speed camera captured me over the limit in a little town in Tuscany. I must not have noticed that I had entered a 50 km per hour zone.

In looking around the internets this morning for information on Italian speeding tickets and fines, I found this page of the Italian State police site (those are the police who drive blue cars and where blue shirts as part of their uniforms).

But the information hasn’t been updated since new (higher) fines went into effect in January of this year.

The best and most recently updated page I could find was this one on an Italian legal blog.

Here’s my English summary of the fines relative to the speed over the limit.

Up to 10 km/h over the speed limit: €41 with a 30 percent increase if the infraction is committed between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Between 11-40 km/h: €169 (and three points “subtracted” from your driving record; although I don’t how this affects foreigners).

Between 40-60 km/h: €531 (and six points subtracted; your license is suspended if the infraction is committed between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.).

More than 60 km/h: €828 (and ten points subtracted as well as suspension of your license for six to twelve months).

My ticket is in the 11-40 km/h range.

Until this time, I’ve never been issued any kind of traffic ticket in Italy. But I know that in the past, Americans often ignored the tickets.

Since Italy implemented its speeding camera network, the fines are unavoidable. Even in the case of a rental car, the ticket will reach you (as it did me).

The good news is that you can pay by wire transfer, which is actually really easy to do.

I’ll report more when I receive the actual ticket.

Hopefully, people who receive a similar notice from their rental car company will find this post useful (and helpful in reducing anxiety about having to pay a fine).

And for the record, I wasn’t driving that cute red 500 in the photo above. But it was the only image of an Italian car I could find in my archive to go with this post!