Fifty Shades of Boredom

22 Dec

About 15 years ago, Capri pants were making a comeback in Italy and it seemed like every last woman on the streets was wearing a pair.  I’ve always been allergic to fads, so despite the fact that I even liked them, I waited two years – long enough for the fashion surge to recede –  before buying a pair for myself.

News about this year’s blockbuster publishing phenomenon – the erotic trilogy featuring a sadistic millionaire and a bright-eyed young virgin – has been bombarding us in Italy for months.  TV profiles, gossip pics of glamorous people on the beach reading a copy, interviews, and allusions of greater or lesser degrees of explicitness.

“It’ll pass,” I said to myself patiently.  But once I realized that the epidemic of gray, black, and red hues was going nowhere, I decided to look the beast right in its eyes.  I wanted to see what the magic recipe was that had transformed this book into a global bestseller.   And so I bought a Kindle version, at least making sure that this way there would be no trace left to posterity of my sins.  

For someone used to reading the great classics of world literature, digesting a literary style full of phrases like, “Oh God!  He’s as handsome as a Greek divinity,” and countless, “Oh yessss, you’re mine.  Oh yessss, I’m yours,” was no easy task.  And the subject matter isn”t even so original.

Despite his cultural illiteracy, my grandfather was a member of a book-of-the-month club, and the room I slept in when I stayed at his house was full of books that were not exactly educational for a girl of fifteen, at least not in the canonical sense.  The Marquis de Sade, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Dominique Aury each took on erotic-sexual themes long before E.L. James, and in epochs when sex was not seen and heard on every street corner, billboard, and computer screen.

And yet, perhaps none of these past successes – like the Delta of Venus or the Story of O – crept into the social fabric quite as deeply as the trilogy of the Fifty Shades, a fact that has very little to do with people’s predilection for bondage, whips, and sado-masochism.

In truth, many couples credit the books with rekindling desires that had long been left smoldering.  Unlike the climate surrounding erotic books from the mid-1900s, sex is on everybody’s lips today (forgive me the dubious choice of words), and can be found instantly by anyone with the slightest itch or urge: at your desk, in the kitchen, in the office bathroom, on the subway ride home.

Yet this free access to sex has not rendered contemporary man less inhibited, but much more insecure, daunted by seeing the XL models in the videos and by the marathon acrobatic sessions in bed (which are frankly impossible) that are presented to us as the norm, but which in reality only a tiny percentage of people can actually pull off.

The glut of reality shows has given new pop-cultural life to an old phrase, repeated ad nauseum as if to make us believe in a fake televised democracy: “Let the people decide!”  And so if 300 pages and a dozen erotic encounters can truly give new life to old relationships, then Long Live E.L. James

And from the rest of us, with our sincerest apologies, don’t take it badly if we don’t care how the trilogy ends.

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Behind the Smiles of Child-Models

1 Dec

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I was flipping distractedly through the pages of Vanity Fair last week when my eyes stopped on the images of a photo shoot for fashionable children’s clothing.  Despite the fact that the models were all children at the elementary school age, they were wearing clothes obviously intended for adults – leather jackets, ties, furs, docksiders, and animal prints – but what was even more remarkable was the fact that their faces were wearing adult gazes and their bodies imitating adult poses.

Draped across sofas in positions that were anything but infantile, they acted as if they had already seen it all, as if life had bored them.  Hardly a smile could be found; their faces had that cold, almost empty inexpressiveness of the most experienced adult model.

Looking at those sad-faced mannequins, I couldn’t help but ask myself what those children were feeling during the photo shoot.  Fear about not measuring up?  Desire to please their parents?  Wanting to be the best?  The parents of these child models, whenever they are interviewed on TV, always talk about how their children “are having so much fun,” and that “it’s like playing for them.”  But it’s obvious that this is the only possible answer they can give to justify a situation which might otherwise be reasonably labeled child labor.

But even if their parents are convinced that this is all one big game for their children, I’m afraid that the kids themselves might not be so thoroughly enthusiastic.  What fun is it for a 7-year-old to be taken out of his family home and thrown into an unfamiliar world so distant from his friends and toys?  To be ordered about by smiling but pushy adults saying things like “Get into your pose,” or “Come on, give us a smile,” or “Pretend like you’re playing that guitar!”

More than once have I been stopped on the street (it probably has something to do with the Italian-American combination, the Nordic features of my younger daughter, or the thick curls of my elder) by strangers asking me why I don’t send my children to a modeling agency or for a screen test.  And while there are many people like myself that find the idea of forcing their children onto a path that they themselves did not choose, there are also many others who would sell their souls to get their children into the world of media notoriety: from those who are willing to spend thousands of euros on photo shoots and modeling books, to those who simply harass their friends on Facebook to get them to vote for their children in some campaign to find the new face for Pampers.

Behind this egotistical parental pressure often lies some sort of latent, poorly-understood frustration that is reawakened after the birth of a child: perhaps a bitter disappointment from that past that still burns or a rejection that was never fully accepted.  And that’s when the castrated aspirations and dreams that were never fulfilled – be they artistic, athletic, or professional – reappear, stronger than ever.

But trying to convince our children that they should strive for dreams that are not their own may not be the wisest thing to do; manipulating them into trying to become professional ballet dancers, football players, or the next Gisele Bundchen does not guarantee that they will have a better life.

All parents, even the least ambitious, want to shape their children, believing all the while that they alone know the path to happiness, but in so doing, we forget that the greatest gift we can give our kids is the freedom to choose their own way.

Obtuse Italian School Bureaucrats

26 Nov

In a recent post in the Huffington Post Italy, Alex Corlazzoli brought to light the results of a study carried out by Education First on the relative levels of English in nations across the globe.  The Italians didn’t fare too well, coming in at number 24, dead last among all European Union countries.  When I lived outside of Italy, I remember coming into contact with many of my compatriots who were proud of saying that their English was at least better than that spoken by the Portuguese and Spanish, our Mediterranean brothers.  Well, those days are gone!

Just two weeks after the appearance of this article, I was privy to an insignificant Italian occurrence that nevertheless speaks volumes about this problem and its relationship to the bureaucracy and closed-mindedness of the Italian school system.

My husband Douglas, who is an American teacher and translator who has lived in Italy for over a decade, has taught English in public and private schools, at junior high, high school, and university, to children and to adults at night school.  Not long ago, he contacted the new principal of a high school in a small town to propose the continuation of an after-school English course that he had started the previous year.  The principal was in favor of the idea, so long as the course could be directed toward obtaining one of the myriad English certifications that are available.  He suggested a prep-course for the Trinity Exams, and the principal became so enthusiastic that she even came up with a free classroom, an idea that had been promptly discarded by the previous principal just a year earlier.

Just to be extra sure of the information provided online, Douglas called the Trinity Center offices in Turin to confirm that if the school were to become an official Trinity Exam Center, it would not be expected to pay any fees, nor to come up with any minimum number of students, all of which the woman on the other end of the line declared to be true.  Becoming a center is totally free, and if a given school doesn’t have enough students to warrant a full exam session, those students can take the exam in another center, still paying a reduced rate because they come from an affiliated school.

A few days later, the principal informs my husband over the telephone that the project has been rejected by the school treasurer, a powerful non-academic administrative figure in Italian schools.

When Douglas gets the treasurer on the line, the man is immediately hostile and haughty, showing zero interest in listening, and offering summary judgments about the project that clearly indicate he has not read a word about the way these exams work, nor is he willing to consult the website about it.  The conversation, as can be imagined, ends heatedly.

The choice in and of itself not to adhere to this project is not the issue here; the real problem is the a priori closed-mindedness that is so often found in bureaucratic, government offices and public services.

The older generation of government functionaries in Italy – demotivated by stagnant wages, government cutbacks, and nonexistant incentives – is not blameworthy, at least not entirely, for the simple fact of rejecting a proposal out of hand, but is certainly at fault for its lack of interest in even the smallest innovation.  New projects are seen as threatening the stability of the comfortable rhythm of decades of a repetitive job.  Better to just keep a low profile and wait for your retirement.

But preventing today’s students from rising above the sad national linguistic average will do nothing but ensure their becoming just the next generation of Italians who are forced to use hand signals and monosyllabic words to make themselves understood to foreigners, all the while believing that this “Italian way” is clever and charming.  But confusing ignorance with charm may, at some point, no longer be as enchanting as we think it is.

Becoming Famous in Modern Italy

19 Nov

A filmmaker friend of mine called me a couple weeks ago to get me involved in a project she was working on.  In order to convince me, she said, “You’re sure to become famous!”

Instead of letting out a shriek for joy and doing cartwheels, my more sober response was, “But S., I don’t want to become famous!”  

What does it mean to become famous in today’s Italy?

It certainly doesn’t mean writing for a newspaper or working for the radio; no, you have to bow down to the visual gods and get yourself some face time on the only medium that counts: television, the mecca of notoriety.

It’s of little import how ephemeral this fame may be; the important thing is to earn yourself a spot in paradise by appearing on the screen, be it through a try-out on X-factor, starving yourself on the Isola dei non-Famosi, yelling at the top of your lungs from the Maria de Filippi audience, or dancing seductively at 70 trying to win Velone.

Appearing on the “cathode-ray tube” has nothing to do with being talented or worthy; TV in Italy today is predominantly an enormous dumpster at the end of a conveyor belt of human uncertainty.  But perhaps, more than getting on television, the real key for unlocking notoriety – however brief it may be – is by becoming a media sensation on whatever kind of screen possible, and of getting yourself viewed by the greatest number of people.

All you have to do is come up with something original to make a video go viral,  getting its creator on the front page of all the online newspapers; and were not talking brilliant original ideas … all you need is a cat flushing the toilet.

The same thing goes with video clips and songs that get picked up by the wave of internet social networks and ride that wave to fame and success, like the less than memorable “Call Me Maybe,” for example.

The media and cinematic interest in the daily lives of anonymous people even made it possible for the documentary film Life in A Day to get produced and directed by none other than Ridley Scott and Kevin MacDonald, respectively.  Constructed by editing down the thousands of hours of home videos shot by YouTube users on July 24, 2012 and sent in to the production house, the final film is practically impossible to sit through unless you are particularly interested in the teeth-brushing of people you don’t know.

The quotidian activities of yawning, using the toilet, shaving, and making coffee are neither interesting, nor should a catalogue of such things be considered art.  Ownership of an iPhone does not make you a film director.

Behind this fascination with the normal and the ordinary – the regurgitated cud of the once great Italian Neorealism – there seems to be an attempt to hide the fact that the people who we entrust with making art have no more ideas to give us.

And making average people believe that they can become TV stars without studying, practicing, suffering, or slaving will do nothing but feed the mediocrity of today’s Italy with its monotheistic TV god.

The Cinque Terre Floods, redux

24 Oct

Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the floods and mudslides that hit the Cinque Terre, Val di Vara, and my hometown of Levanto, and as a way to keep the memory of it alive, hoping that the necessary steps will be taken to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again in the future, I’m reprinting my blog post from that terrible day:

In my thirty five years, I never asked God to help me get through any situation.

Today, for the first time, I prayed.

I prayed for it to stop raining.

He didn’t hear me.

Because it kept raining.  Raining.  Raining.

Then it brought down a thick river of mud and rocks.

And at that point, we decided to abandon the house.

But the story begins like this:

It was one of those mornings when the Libeccio was blowing hot air and we were saying to ourselves how nice it was to have a warm wind wake you in the morning.  My in-laws had just arrived from the States and were enjoying the Mediterranean climate change.

The sky was gray and it had rained all night, but there was no sense of imminent danger in the air.

After taking Julia to nursery school as usual, we went back home and sat down in front of the computer to work out the final details of the school trips in the Cinque Terre that we organize.

It started to rain again.  Heavy, but again, nothing particularly menacing.

We worked for a couple of hours, saved our itinerary, and started making lunch for everyone.

Everyone is in good spirits, even if the weather is lousy.

I glanced out the kitchen window and noticed a decent-sized stream of water that was coming down the natural canal formed between the stone wall terraces of our yard.  Still, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

But the rain kept coming as hard as ever, punctuated by more and more violent gusts of wind that tossed the trees to and fro.

During lunch, I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable.  Something was going wrong, even if I couldn’t explain it.

As I walked into the girls’ bedroom, I saw drops of water falling from the ceiling.  Not just one or two that fell sparsely and erratically, but ten distinct spots where constant drips were getting our furniture and floor very wet.  Doug went outside and tried to find the entry point.  He managed to shore it up well-enough, and we went back to eating lunch.

Just as a portion of eggplant was ladled onto Doug’s plate, he decided to go upstairs to check out the “annex”, a detached room of the house where we have our studio/guest room.

The eggplant would never get eaten, because with a voice that didn’t leave much room for interpretation, Douglas yelled down to me to put on a raincoat and come running.

The room is under water.

I come outside and witness a scene that was unthinkable just a few hours earlier.

The patio where was keep a small table, two green chairs, and our beloved plants, is flooded and carrying the dirty water directly onto our things.

We have to unplug everything, lift up the computer, the wooden furniture gets thrown on the bed, get everything electronic off the floor.  There is chaos everywhere and it isn’t easy to think rationally.

With Douglas, I try to brush the lake of water away from the door where it is pooling ever higher.  Lightning is flashing all around us and the thunder is deafening.  Nature has never seemed to inhospitable.

Our efforts are useless … there’s too much water.

Even though the following day Doug won’t remember how he managed to do it, he drags and 8 by 10 wooden beam about 10 feet long across the yard and lays it in front of the door to dam up the water.

It works.  With the help of some sheets and towels, the water isn’t coming in any more.

And now a thought sneaks into my head.  How is Julia?  Is her school safe?

In the meanwhile, I call the landlord who with great blasé tell me that when they lived in the house, it never rained indoors and the annex never flooded.

The sound of rushing and falling water all around us continues to increase … there is no other sound that you can hear.

I try to call the nursery school and after a few busy signals they answer and tell me to come and pick Julia up immediately.  I look at the road, but it doesn’t look passable.

The landlord, who had gotten in his car to come check on the situation, calls to say that the road is blocked by the police, who aren’t letting anyone through.  They can’t get to us, and don’t even know if they will be able to get back home themselves.

The school calls me: the children are being evacuated to City Hall as a precaution.

I feel an intense need to hug my daughter, but I don’t know when it will happen.

I call our neighbor, the one who runs the B&B just down the road.  He lives downtown and says that it’s a bad moment to get in a car, but he’ll call me back to let me know when it’s better.

After thirty minutes he is here.  He rings our bell and can’t believe his eyes.  As we yell at each other over the soung of water, I ask if it is normal to have all this water coming down our terraces.  He shakes his head.

But if he managed to get up here from town, then we can get down.

It’s time to get Julia, there isn’t a moment to lose.

Bagheera is hiding under our car, she’s soaking wet and with the car gone has nowhere to go.  There’s no way for her to get up to the house, there’s too much water for her to get through. I see her running frantically from one side to the other, and my heart goes out.  I’d like to do something but I can’t worry about her.

The river is high.  Too high.  I pray for it to stop raining.

We get to City Hall and the faces of the other parents, all of them Ligurians who were born here, say everything.  They are worried, tired, the faces of those who don’t know whether ot not they’ll get back home.

I find the right room in City Hall and see Julia there, wearing her raincoat and drawing as she always does. She’s the last kid there.  I find the energy to make one last joke to the teachers, who laugh along, but no one really feels like laughing.

We get in the car.  The situation is critical.  It’s raining harder than ever.  The closer we get to the house, the less we can see.  Doug unbuckles Julia and I instinctively do the same.  There’s no need to ask why … we’re getting close to the bridge.

I hold my breath.  We get across the bridge along with two other cars that are driving way too slowly.  Thank God, we’re home.

I pick up Julia and we walk up the steps to the house past a wall of falling water that is deafening and which has started to wash away our plants, the same plants that we carefully moved here 6 weeks ago.  I try to stay calm, I don’t want her to be afraid, but the smile on my face looks more like a grimace.

The electricity is out at home.  My in-laws have put Sofia to bed for a nap, and she is sleeping peacefully.  Their faces look tense even if they obstinately keep telling me that everything is going to be fine.

But nothing is fine.

The river of water has now branched off in multiple directions, and there’s another thing too.  It’s no longer water.

It’s mud.

No more than ten minutes later and I hear Douglas yelling desperately, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.  And I mean now!”

There’s no question of the seriousness in his voice.  I take Sofia and her beloved Lamb from the bed, leave the house and see the waterfall of mud coming down the hill.  Soaked through, I hug my daughter tightly.  I’m wearing flip-flops, carrying a purse that I have no idea why I grabbed, amd start to go down the stairs that have become a stream of mud and debris.

Everywhere you look, there are signs that the whole mountainside could come down at any moment.

I am thinking only not to fall, just put one foot in front of the other.  I don’t look back.  I leave our home, my things.  None of it has any importance.  I know that Doug is behind me and that Julia is with him.  No matter what happens, he will never leave her.

We’ll go to Vittorio’s B&B for safe haven.  We know he’s still there.  I start walking down the street and see the girls’ beach toys being washed down the hill, but we have the girls, it is the only thing that counts.

The rain is stinging, we ring the bell at the gate but no one answers.  Doug climbs it, and we pass first one, then the other girl over.  I follow immediately after.

My in-laws must still be in the house, I haven’t seen them coming yet.  Five good minutes go by and still nothing.

Finally, there they are, holding on to one another, they seem so small, and they too have abandoned ship.

Vittorio opens the door and offers shelter.  We’re safe here, he says, there’s nothing to worry about, because he and his father built the house with their own two hands.

He gives us towels, the girls are trembling from cold, and he sets us up in two guest rooms.  He doesn’t want any money, if you don’t help out neighbors in a situation like this one, when do you?  We haven’t even known each other for a month.

The night is still long, but the worst is over.

Doug goes back to look for Bagheera, and manages to lock her in the car.

She’s survived it too.

The following morning, we survey the damage.

There are those who have lost everything, they are saying that Monterosso has disappeared.  Houses, shops, businesses, dreams and lives swept away by the fury of the muddy water.

Our house is surrounded by mud, but inside things aren’t so bad.

I walked dazed along the street to town, everywhere you look is a mountain of mud.  People hold on to each other as they walk and work with their heads down.  We look at each other but there isn’t much to saw.  We dig, in order to get back to normal.

It’s a nice day, the sky is clear and the sun is high in the sky and warm.  But just twenty-four hours ago, this nature, which seems so sweet, was terrifying.

Never in my life had I felt so small.

The Death of Communication

31 Dec

They told us that technology would shorten distances.

They told us that technology would streamline bureaucracy.

They told us that without technology we would fall behind.

They told us that this time around, the revolution would be digitalized.

They didn’t tell us that technology would kill communication.

The only surprise is that it has killed communication even in the work world, and the proof of this lies in the hundreds of emails that I sent out over the past three months and which never got a single response, not even a cold, formal, old-fashioned, “No thank you.”

It’s discouraging enough to have your business proposal refused, but when from across the cybersphere you receive nothing but silence and the most antiseptic indifference, things feel even worse.  When things get this gray, a “No thank you” starts to feel like an accomplishment, a ray of light, something to be celebrated with champagne and oysters.

Not that the death of communication has left the private sphere untouched, even though in the age of the so-called social networks, when everyone is connected to everyone else, this may seem to be a contradiction.

But once the ephemeral and imperceptible movement of an index finger over the “Like” button has come and gone, I don’t see or read any great discourses.

I understood that communication was officially dead when, during a hyper-technological business call with an up-and-coming travel corporation organized through tumble and carried out on skype, I heard my husband speak with a man whose embarrassing shortage of vocabulary made me cringe from behind the monitor.  Disconnected sentences and incomplete phrases, all interspersed with waves of like and you know, made you pray for multisyllabic words that just didn’t come.  My not-yet-four-year-old daughter is more eloquent.

And that young man, fresh off his university degree and full of energy and enthusiasm, is no exception.  He is a member of that part of the world that neither writes nor reads, but tweets.

But this is not an anti-technology post, which would be both oxymoronic and in bad faith, given that I too use Fb and Twitter.  There are limitations to technology, but there are remedies too.

To avoid turning into one of those half-wits who speak in three-word sentences that hang rather tenuously to any logical meaning, we should use all of the tools that social networks and other technological advances place at our disposal, but in such a way as to cultivate The Word, with all of its magical powers.

We must continue to communicate as human beings.

That indeed would be a revolution.

Smile, It’s Christmas!

28 Dec

Complaining about Christmas is a bit like shooting at the Red Cross.

It’s simply not done.

And yet everyone does it, if for nothing more than to feel like they are above the glitzy, schnitzy media and shopping frenzy that appears to have taken mind-control of everyone else.

But in the end, no one is truly able to keep the oppressive Christmas cheer fully at arm’s length.

Christmas is the shadow of its own reputation, like an aging woman who clings desperately to her faded beauty that will never return.

When my grandfather fell ill, one of the pressing thoughts in my mother’s mind was to celebrate Christmas the same way as always, even if the boat was taking on water from a thousand holes.

There’s no room for sadness at Christmas, and anyone who isn’t up to snuff is criticized as being a bad omen.

Lights must twinkle, wrapping paper must crinkle, eyes sparkle, and pure white snow fall from the sky.

This summer in America, my mother-in-law told me the story of a Christmas dinner thrown by family friends.  While the guests oohed and aahed over the procession of gorgeous plates dancing past them, the hostess recounted with total nonchalance how she had cooked each and every one of them.  She left out the detail that in fact, each and every one had been brought there by a discreet caterer, discovered only after some sleuthing by my incredulous in-laws.

Lying in order to look better is one of the oddities of American culture, but in its own way, it fits in with the parade of Christmas greetings, good cheer, blogs on how to have the merriest of Christmases, and the ubiquitous nasal voice of John Lennon singing “Happy Christmas” until you can’t take another verse of it.

And so, let’s lie to ourselves about not having enough money in our wallets for expensive gifts, about the fact that things aren’t the way the Chirstmas-happy media wants us to believe, about the problems that inconvenient people remind us of.

Let’s all smile … it’s Christmas.

And if we’re all good boys and girls, we’ll make it through yet another Holiday Season.

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