Che due marroni! and more thoughts on the Berlusconi gaffe

Above: this morning, my college friend Steve Muench sent this pic of chestnuts roasting in Piazza della frutta in Padua, where he and I attended university in 1987-88 (my first year in Italy). I played my first Italian gig in that square, at Bar Margherita.

There’s a saying in Italian, che due marroni!, literally, what two chestnuts! I’ll spare you the figurative meaning and its reference to the male anatomy: it can be translated as what a pain in the butt!

I spent the better part of the morning getting my gmail back online. I know a lot of people had email bounce back but it seems to be working properly now. Sorry for the hassle.

In other news…

Today, Cristiano left this insightful and thoughtful comment on my Berlusconi gaffe post:

    The fact is that Berlusconi, and a lot of people in Italy for that matter, don’t seem to be able to see the fact that the pun is indeed a racist one and feel offended if this is pointed out to them.

    I really wonder how Berlusconi really is viewed by people out of Italy.

It reminded me of a passage in a book that I read over and over again as a teenager, The Big Sea by Langston Hughes (btw, I referenced a Langston Hughes poem in my post-election Harlem post from last Wednesday). In the 1920s, the young Hughes traveled to Italy and visited his friend Romeo in Desenzano in Lombardy. Note that in Italian, vino rosso can be referred to as vino nero or black wine:

    The night we arrived was Sunday and the whole village had gone to the movies. There was no one home at Romeo’s house and he had no key, so we left our baggage piled in the doorway and went to the movies, too. It was one of those theaters where the screen is at the front of the house beside the front door, so you come in facing the audience Just as we came in, the house lights went on between reels, as they were changing the film. The place was crowded, but as we entered and the people saw us, the whole crowd arose and began to make for the doorway. Soon they became a shouting, pushing mass. I didn’t know what they were saying, for they were speaking Italian, of course, and I didn’t understand Italian. But Romeo and I were swept into the street and surrounded by curious but amiable men, women, and children. Finally, Romeo’s mother got him through the crowd and threw her arms about his neck. I gather that almost all of the people of the village were Romeo’s friends, but I didn’t know why so many of them clung to me and shook my hands, while a crowd of young boys and men pulled and pushed until they had me in the midst of them in a wine shop, with a dozen big glasses of wine in front of me.

    Later that night Romeo explained to me that never in Desenzano, so far as he knew, had there been a Negro before, so naturally everybody wanted to look at me at close hand, and touch me, and treat me to a glass of vino nero. Romeo said they were all his friends, but hardly would the whole theater have rushed into the street between reels had it not been for me, a Negro, being with him.

I’ll leave the exegesis of this passage up to you…

Le monde entier est un cactus: the Berlusconi gaffe

The whole world is a cactus and it’s impossible to sit down…

Photo courtesy Scribbles of a Dutch/Polishman.

Do Bianchi’s habitual albeit well-meaning detractor often chides me for including geo-political commentary and notes on Japanese food on the blog. And he’s right: I really don’t have any business posting on either topic. But I do feel the recent Berlusconi gaffe merits a word or two since I do know something about Italian politics: when I worked as an interpreter for the Italian Mission to the United Nations during Italy’s EU presidency, among my other responsibilities, I was foreign minister Franco Frattini’s personal interpreter and I viewed the Italian political world from the inside out.

A lot has been written about Berlusconi’s recent and past off-color remarks. (My personal favorite is “Mussolini sent people on holiday.”) But, as far as I can see, no one has pointed out that his words were doubly offensive to the many Africans who live in Italy, a country whose citizens are only now beginning to address issues of race and identity. According to The New York Times, the gaffe was not mentioned in a “long, cordial” talk between Obama and Berlusconi and I think Obama was right to ignore the imbecilic wisecrack. But I also feel it’s important to note that in a country like Italy, a former colonial power in Africa and now one of the biggest stakeholders in Africa’s future (in both its commercial and humanitarian enterprises there), such racist slurs are doubly obscene.

Berlsuconi is a cactus lover and his Villa Certosa in Sardinia is famous for its extravagant garden of cacti (more than 500 species, according to some). As the song goes, Dans leurs cactus, il y a des cactus, even in their cactus there are cacti.


Le monde entier est un cactus
Il est impossible de s’assoir
Dans la vie, il y a qu’des cactus
Moi je me pique de le savoir
Aïe aïe aïe, ouille, aïe aïe aïe

Dans leurs coeurs, il y a des cactus
Dans leurs porte-feuilles, il y a des cactus
Sous leurs pieds, il y a des cactus
Dans leurs gilets, il y a des cactus
Aïe aïe aïe, ouille ouille ouille, aïe

Pour me défendre de leurs cactus
A mon tour j’ai mis des cactus
Dans mon lit, j’ai mis des cactus
Dans mon slip, j’ai mis des cactus
Aïe aïe aïe, ouille, aïe aïe aïe

Dans leurs sourires, il y a des cactus
Dans leurs ventres, il y a des cactus
Dans leurs bonjours, il y a des cactus
Dans leurs cactus, il y a des cactus
Aïe aïe aïe, ouille, aïe

Le monde entier est un cactus
Il est impossible de s’assoir
Dans la vie, il y a qu’des cactus
Moi je me pique de le savoir
Aïe aïe aïe, ouille, aïe aïe aïe

— Jacques Dutronc

Berlusconi and Brunello

To read my translation and commentary of Emilio Giannelli’s political cartoon above, click on the image.

Italy’s controversial prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, probably appears in at least one political cartoon every day, but Saturday’s vignette in the Corriere della Sera was different: Brunello di Montalcino, it seems, has become a political metaphor (click the image above to read my translation and commentary at

Berlusconi and the Bush administration made the English-language newswire (and headlines in Italy) a few weeks ago. On the occasion of the G8 Summit in Japan, someone at the U.S. State Dept. plagiarized an unflattering profile of Berlusconi word-for-word and printed it in the U.S. government’s “background” briefing materials for press.

According to the bio and our government, Berlusconi is “one of the most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for governmental corruption and vice… regarded by many as a political dilettante who gained his high office only through use of his considerable influence on the national media until he was forced out of office in 2006.”

The Bush administration promptly apologized for the gaffe. Bush and Berlusconi consider themselves “good friends” and Berlusconi was a vocal supporter of Bush’s war in Iraq.

In case you’ve never seen Mascarello’s famous “No Berlusconi, No Barrique” label, check out Wolfgang’s post over at Spume.