About Peppe Sorrentino

Giuseppe Sorrrentino is a professor of Italian language and culture in the United States.

A Black Friday in Italy

In the two or three articles I read on the issue, the reporters mentioned the Fiat strikes of the 60’s and 70’s, comparing the one that today, Friday, November 24th 2017, is taking place at the Amazon distribution plant in Piacenza to the union fights that, on a much larger scale, characterized the history of Italy during the economic boom. There is no comparison: today, only 10% of the Amazon workers in Piacenza are on strike, the warehouse is regularly functioning, and, after all, there are other two warehouses in Italy. If the unions wanted to hit the company on the day in which the most sales are expected, then we can say that this strike is a failure.


However, this small strike can be seen as both symbolic and symptomatic of the unprecedented and puzzling social/cultural/economic transformations, Italy is experiencing in these first decades of the 21st century. And the result of these changes is still hard to foresee.

Not many seem to be particularly convinced by the Italian Amazon’s workers claim that working in that warehouse is hard. More look at their fair salary (an average salary of about 1400 euros a month), the many medical benefits and insurances option they have. And while the unions say that the workers are forced to walk too much everyday in the warehouse, that there are pathologies connected to that type of work, there are also other workers who feel very lucky and safe working at Amazon (La Repubblica of today had a good number of interviews to various workers).

It is as if a new generation of workers and of Italians has a new attitude, and is willing the accept the sacrifice of labor (the sacrifice of men and women who spend most of their life in a warehouse so that people can have what they can buy and the company they work for becomes the most powerful entity/corporation in the world) as an inevitable step towards wealth and economic progress. And in a country that has always been characterized by an incredible attention to the rights of the workers (at least the Italian workers, not the thousand of immigrant/slaves exploited in agriculture), to the point that at times the workers rights have been deemed more important than the economic growth of the country (just think about the retirement system in Italy), this new attitude is as powerful as a revolution.

However, a legitimate question remains: is this the right path?


Allora: Some Ideas on Italy in Masters of None

Master of None Season 2

I always say “allora”, Dev’s (Aziz Ansari’s alter ego) favorite word in the second season of Masters of None. I use it in my English conversations each time I am about to explain something to someone. In my case, however, it is not really a favorite. Not something I am proud of. It is more an expression that my parents and teachers wanted me to avoid since first grade: “Giuseppe! Stop saying “allora” all the time!” Nonetheless, it’s still here with me. To the point that usually, after about twenty minutes in a first day of class, my students are forced to ask me what it means, for the many times I have already used it. I liked hearing Mr. Ansari pronouncing it in that funny way. And I watched with awe and joy the Italian episodes of Masters of None. The idea of selecting a non-famous touristic destination as the setting of Dev’s life in the Bel Paese; the incredible (sometimes even excessive) homage to Italian Cinema and Neorealism; and the portrait of a generation of young Italians as “citizens of the world”, with their almost impeccable English and an elegant, positive, sympathetic way of looking at life (think about how they laugh at Dev’s idea of “me time” in the first episodes). All these things pointed towards a seemingly positive effort that Mr. Ansari’s was making in going beyond a stereotypical image of Italy. But does he really do that in the end?

At the beginning, I was falling for it. But then I just needed to see him back in New York City to realize that, no matter how beautiful and intensely unique his representation of Italy and Italians was, it still left me with a bitter taste, the feeling of a lost occasion. Because what Ansari can do so masterfully in his show (describing New York City’s complexity of characters, reflecting poetically on life in the Tinder Age, fighting the “whitewashing” of American mainstream culture, and offering the perspective of immigrant families to the rest of the world, among many other things) is completely lost in his representation of Italy.

I say this because once I decided to peek beyond the cinematographic references, the pasta eating and making, the wonderful piazzas, the hills of Tuscany and the comical sketches in narrow alleys, I saw a blank page. And now, after a couple of days of watching the show (I am only at episode 5), I really wish that somebody had filled that page with something else. With what, you might ask. Well, with the complexity of characters, and the many layers of life in Italy; with the many immigrants that live everywhere in Italy and whose voice is always silenced; with Italians who not only like sauce and export tiles or wine, but publish great literature (beyond Elena Ferrante), produce incredible electronica (Populous and Clap! Clap!), and still make great cinema (beyond Neorealism and Paolo Sorrentino). Even Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, the perfect symbol of an Italy that transcends tradition, climbing new peaks of creativity and innovation, is not properly “narrated”, as, I believe, it just comes out as any other Italian restaurant in the show. At a closer look, aside from Francesca, no other Italian character is developed, and in other situations that could have totally felt like some form of cultural appropriation and silencing.

One of the problems of contemporary Italy is that in a globalized world, somebody (too many!) decided to make a postcard out of it. And this has been happening for about fifty years or more. Italians conveniently enjoyed the comfort of that postcard and now struggle (as they always did) in finding an identity that goes beyond a list of stereotypes that have been always used to describe them.

Mr. Ansari seems to have the intention of ripping the postcard apart, but surprisingly designs a new one, leaving me, an Italian who spent most of his life trying to escape those postcards, trapped in them again. Let me make this clear: I don’t think Aziz Ansari is at fault of anything. I don’t think it was his job or his responsibility to save Italy from its stereotypes. Ultimately, I think that Master of None is a masterpiece that we should all look at as a model that is part of a new tradition of American film making (we can include Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham in this tradition) that is and is going to be influential for a long period of time.

No. I am not accusing Mr. Ansari of anything, and, to be completely honest, I don’t really know who to blame. Maybe I am mad at the “disneyzation” of the world (from which no one is immune), or maybe, again, we Italians enjoy being put in a postcard. Or there is a major effort that we Italians need to make to forget our traditions or look at them from thousands of miles away, in order to reinvent ourselves and our country. I just know that, to escape this other postcard, I had to go back to Nanni Moretti’s 1980s movies, like Bianca (I wonder if Ansari and Dunham ever watched them, given the striking similarities) or to that scene in Io sono un autarchico when Moretti vomits green blob as he learns that Lina Wertmuller is seen as a true representative of Italian cinema in the US (here is the video). And I’ll always walk around the world with Massimo Troisi in my heart, who, in Ricomincio da Tre, constantly had to re-assert his status of a Neapolitan who did not consider himself an immigrant, and had to convince the world around him that yes, he was Neapolitan, but he did not really need to migrate, it’s just that he really wanted to see the world. Again, trying to escape a stereotype that had been imposed on him.

A Venice Diary – Part 1

VeniceThere is no light like the light of Venice. The city welcomes us with a line of tourists buying tickets for the ferry in Piazzale Roma and it definitely feels like entering a theme park. Who to blame? Usually one accuses those who wanted the city in this way, the administrations who organized it around tourists. But the reality is that you cannot be but a tourist in Venice. No matter how hard you try to be a traveller.
The city resists any attempt of integration and metamorphosis into its space. It’s an extraneous place; a radical expression of discontinuity with the present, that forces each visitor to find a way of adapting to its otherworldy beauty.
It might be the pigeons who come sit on your table when you are outside having a coffee, reminding you that you are not from here, that you are not going to be comfortable, because it’s August and it’s going to be hot when you’ll walk from the Arsenale to San Marco, dribbling the tourists who take pictures of tourists taking pictures of the Ponte dei Sospiri.

It’s Monday and the Biennale, the reason for our trip here, is closed. The line to the church of San Marco is too much for us. We can only walk under the colonnades drinking two euros water and sitting for a while in the shade. Where can we go out tonight? Definitely not in this square. I check online and I find out that many people hang out in Campo Santa Margherita. Each of us goes back to his and her own hotel. Y. has a room at the Accademia, I have one at Giardini.

Some hours later we discover that it’s at night that this city welcomes you. Tourists disappear. Confounded at the restaurants, they seem veterans of a war that no one wants to fight. And some of them, sitting in an empty and hidden square can even give you good directions. I get lost when I go pick up Y. at her hotel. I make a mistake with the vaporetto stop and I have a hard time finding out how to go back to the previous one. It’s only probably ten minutes that I walk around in complete unawareness, and I am suprised and, at the same time, dangerously attracted by the narrow alleys, by the weak lights, like Robert Frost in a snowy evening. I ask a girl and her dog for the Accademia and she lets me follow her for while. Once I manage to keep my promise, I realize: there is no darkness like the darkness of Venice.

Wine tasting in Guardia Sanframondi

20130807-130702.jpgVinalia is 20 years old. The event dedicated to wine and food, taking place every summer in Guardia Sanframondi, in the province of Benevento, has now reached the maturity of an international fair, still keeping the flavor and charm of a local gathering.
Guardia Sanframondi is an old medieval town located in an area of Campania, named Sannio, which swarms with wineries and vine varieties. Guardia is very popular for the penitential rites that are held there every seven years, but it is also, like many other similar medieval towns in the region, mostly a ghost town, that lives again thanks to events like Vinalia or to weekend tourists coming from other cities of Campania.

I picked a Tuesday night to visit Vinalia. Not a bad choice, since the fair was definitely less crowded than usual and this allowed me to enjoy all the peace and cool air of the village.
For just 8 euros I could buy a pass to the two tasting options offered at the event this year: a wine tasting (four wines) and a food tasting (a plate of local cheese and cold cuts, plus three wines).

The wines I tasted weren’t really all that good, and they are not worth men20130807-132744.jpgtioning. With the exceptions of a Fiano produced by the winery Fosso degli Angeli, called Dulcis and a Falanghina produced by Torre Venere, called Sannio Falanghina.
It was hard to find any enjoyment in drinking the reds, but the town of Guardia Sanframondi helps in forgetting bad wines. Walking among the narrow alleys, up and down the stairs of the village is a constant discovery, as exciting as a journey in the past.
But the journey is characterized by cultural interactions and mixtures. There is no other way of defining indeed, the music offered that night at the event: a jazz trio with the vocalist Lady Laura playing swing and the French-Italian artist Sandro Joyeux, with his repertory of West African music mixed with reggae and a sort of “chansonnier” vibe.


Guardia Sanframondi remains a hidden gem to discover and Vinalia is still the perfect excuse to visit this remote village on a hill.

A supposedly not-fun thing that I should do more often

In 1973, the year oDancing on the beachf cholera, the sea surrounding the cities of Torre Annunziata and Torre del Greco, in the Gulf of Naples, was officially declared highly polluted, and therefore bathing was prohibited.
It remained prohibited for forty years, until a little bit more than a month ago when, on June 21st 2013, the mayor of Torre Annunziata has received a communication from the local Health Admistration Office, stating that it was now possible to bathe again in that sea. The communication arrived after the Arpac, the Campania Regional Agency for Environmental Protection, had run a series of tests in the waters of that sea, and found out that the levels of pollution were fairly below any risk.

Therefore “tutti al mare!”, “let’s all go to the beach”, as an old Roman song sung by Gabriella Ferri in 1973 (coincidently enough) would say.
Growing up I learned that going to the beach in Torre (whether it was Torre Annunziata or Torre del Greco) was synonymous of going to a very trashy place, both because of the environment and because of the people who would usually go there. And it could be used in a conversation either to make fun of somebody (“What a face! Where did you go to the beach? To Torre?!?!”) or to say something fun (if you are with a group of people and you suddenly say: “Let’s go to Torre tomorrow!”, everybody would laugh).

It’s in this cultural scenario that me and two friends decided to go to Torre Annunziata last Sunday, in order to spend the day at the beach.
In the 1960s, Torre Annunziata was a very popular beach. People would come from all over the region to get access to its dark volcanic sand and take advantage of the healthy properties of its mud baths. My grandparents used to go there, and always had good memories.
But with the cholera and the pollution, this golden age quickly faded, and what remained was just a bad name. I don’t know exactly where this bad reputation came from, but it definitely had to do with the organized crime that spread in the area during the 1980s. It is, in reality, a city with a rich history, one of the most important port areas of Italy and Europe.

We decide to go to the Lido Azzurro, one of the most important “lidi” on the shore, but once there we opt for the Lido Nettuno, beside the Lido Azzurro.
A Lido is a section of a beach that is privately managed by a company that provides various facilities (mainly beacBeach Umbrellah umbrellas and chairs) to those who want to stay in that part of the beach.
We could quickly notice that the Lido Nettuno is very old and probably it never was renovated. Our beach umbrella has holes in it (maybe for the wind?) and the beach is not really well maintained.
But most of all, as soon as we get there, we understand that we have been in some way trapped in a situation from which it will be hard to escape, as we had already paid our entrance fee: we discover that the main service offered at the Lido Nettuno is entertainment, with dance music played non stop throughout the day.
The Nettuno occupies a very narrow section of the shore and we are all very close to one another, with this incredibly loud speakers accompanying our stay.
Yet, one could not be but touched by the spectacle of humanity offered at this beach. Mainly working class people from Torre who seemed to find a lot of enjoyment in the music played. And it is thanks to them that I could look at all the experience from a different perspective and appreciate the place more.

The water was not really clean. As soon as we got there I couldn’t but notice a little child peeing in it. He was holding his father by the hand and they both seemed to think that they were doing the most normal of things. No, the water was not really clean. But it was fascinating. The black sand makes it darker of course, and there are bubbles rising from the ground, because of the volcanic activity. I was not so excited to get into it, though.

I would have never imagined to go to Torre Annunziata. Even though I was curious about it, I had always seen it as something improbable to do. There are so many beautiful places in Campania, why bother going there? Still it was a choice. An improvised choice, and maybe because of its improvisation it made a lot more sense. The debate in my group of friends is now whether we should go back or not. I don’t think I want to. It was not really fun, but still it was very different and demanding. It demanded the audacity of confronting something you would always avoid. And from that point of view it was very healthy. It’s possible that, in the next years, if the water situation keeps improving, Torre Annunziata will be again a beautiful beach.

For the moment it remains a good way to discover a reality in the South of Italy, that it’s usually hidden from mainstream culture.

Or maybe it’s the contrary: another way of looking at how mainstream culture impacts this country.


On falling from a Highway

That night I wanIncidente Irpiniated to get pizza with two friends. One of them had found good reviews for a place in Baiano. As we drove and got lost (it would have taken us a long time to find the “pizzeria”) we noticed unusual intense traffic on the road that from Nola goes to Baiano, and from which you can take the highway to Avellino.
That’s it. That’s how close I got to the tragic bus accident that last Sunday killed 38 people who were returning home in Pozzuoli, Naples, after a weekend trip to Telese Terme.
But when the morning after I woke up, and my mother told me about it, the first thing that came to my mind was how close I had been to the accident.
Not because I could have been part of it. No. Probably because my life had gotten close to that event, so terrible, that every one was talking about now on tv.

I always had this fear. I have definitely dreamed about it a couple of times. Falling off a bridge, a cliff, a viaduct, in a car. If I am not mistaken, in these dreams I am usually falling with my dad.
And it feels like something suddenly disappears in your stomach. No tragic ending in my dreams, though. The vehicle keeps falling for a long time, but never crashes on the ground.

After what happened last Sunday, I don’t think I am going to have these dreams anymore. It feels as if this televised tragedy has penetrated the collective imagery to the point that it can no more be part of the stuff of which dreams are made.
Maybe this is really what we mourn the most, when something like this happens: the collapse of fantasy, the disappearance of certain events from the realm of the imagination.

One of the strongest moments in the airing of the tragedy on television, has been the first interview to one of the survivors on television, a woman.
Her account of the tragedy was related in a state of complete shock, which could also be very similar to the liminal state between wake and sleep.

I transformed it into a poem:

Everything was ok
and beautiful
and fine
until we got to that road
I don’t know where.

We had to leave the hotel
and so we went to Pietralcina
for mass

and we were going back home
when I heard somebody say
we have a flat tire
well, the driver will stop and change it
I said

but it never stopped
and there were fires in the bus
it went faster and then we fell

me and my husband held
each other tight.
That’s the last thing I remember.

What she said

20120629-181152.jpgHere is, exactly, what she said: “This reform is a wager in behavior changing in many ways. My big fear is that we don’t overcome this challenge. Everyone, not just workers, have to understand and change. That includes youth, who need to know a job isn’t something you obtain by right but something you conquer, struggle for and for which you may even have to make sacrifices”.
She is Elsa Fornero, the Italian Labor Minister, who was two days ago (the day in which the Italian Parliament passed a new Labor Reform) interviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Fornero is definitely an expert in the field: a professor of economics in Turin, she wrote extensively on pension systems, welfare, and many other topics, which are nowadays on everybody’s mouth in Italy. Yes, she is an expert, like many others in the “technical” government of Italy; still, her last remark has shocked many Italians. It was in some way very similar, especially in the accusation made to the “youth,” in a statement given by a former Minister of the Economy, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, who, in 2007, called young Italians “bamboccioni” (mama’s boys), for their tendency to live home with their parents for a long period of time. Without really considering the option that they stay home because it’s hard to find jobs.
Fornero’s statement is weirdly in contrast with the tears she cried during a press conference, at the end of 2011, when the Pension reform, she felt forced to write, was just passed. And even stranger is the fact that in that occasion the tears start to fell when she was about to say the word “sacrifices”. It does not seem that this word had the same effect on her this time.
We are starting to get used, in Italy, to these Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figures in our ruling class: Sergio Marchionne, FIAT CEO, before destroying, in a few months, years of rights conquered by the workers, with his imposition of new labor rules in his factories, had nicely declared, that the cost of a worker doesn’t affect the total cost of a car for more than the 6%. If it is not such a big deal, why do you have to destroy their rights?

A friend sent me an email two days ago. It was a link to an article on the Italian website of the newspaper L’Unità, it said something like “Elsa Fornero says ‘a job is not a right'”. And in the past hours I have been reflecting. You know, the press. If you take a title like that, and you don’t contextualize it, it doesn’t make sense. Maybe it is not what she meant. And then I said, let me look for the original article. And then after reading it, I said, well, maybe it is not exactly what she said, if you look at it in the context….but still I realized that I was just trying to justify a person for something she should have not said. Especially because she is a Labor Minister. A Labor Minister cannot say that a job is not a right, because – I believe – that among her main duties, there is the one of giving everybody the right to have a job. And she is the Labor Minister of a country where the first article of the Constitution (a text on which that Labor Minister swore), says “Italy is a republic founded on work”. Which also means that, without work, Italy would not exist.
Yes, a job is a right. Because in the society in which we live today, if you don’t work (apart some rare cases), you don’t have money. And if you don’t have money, you don’t eat. And if you don’t eat, you don’t live. So a job is a part of everybody’s right to a life.

Yet, there is another aspect of Fornero’s words that needs to be discussed. She talks, indeed, about the need of a behavioral change. What is this exactly? Well, I really think there there is a mixture of populism, stereotypes, and truth at work in this idea.
It is common knowledge in Italy and abroad, that Italians “do not want to work”, and “they steal (!) salaries”. The worst part is that while once these were critiques coming from the outside, now the Italians themselves accuse each other. It is this idea of a lack of ethics among Italians, that creates confusion, in my opinion. It is one of those things that definitely has a truth in it, but that truth quickly becomes a myth. And you cannot build politics on a myth.

My mother, a just-retired high school teacher, today told me the story of one of her students who, having being told: “studying is important, if you don’t study it will be hard for you to get a job and finding a position in life”, answered: “professor, who cares? I will always be able to find a job as a gym teacher”. First of all, my apologies to all those Italian gym teacher who work hard everyday of their lives, but the gym teacher is usually considered in Italy as the do-nothing job and it is in that sense that my mother’s student was hoping in that job. One can easily say that his ethics are shared by many Italian kids and summarized in this statement: “I have to do my best in order to make a lot of money.”
Work ethic and democratic values are at stake here. They are polluted by a general disaffection towards hard work and the belonging to a nation, to a community. Italy is affected by an individualism, which is all but romantic. It’s a selfish perception of things and of the world, based on the idea that if things are bad, one should not be the one to change it, but the one to survive. No matter what happens to the others.

But it is not trough the cancellation of workers’ rights that a government can resolve this problem. If we don’t understand this, we will never “overcome this challenge.”