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.

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.”

Disposable Nostalgia

“Two songs, twenty minutes each, and not one chorus.” This is how Dargen D’Amico describes his last creation, Nostalgia Istantanea, probably one of the most original and intriguing things to appear in the Italian music scene, in this first half of 2012. Even if it would be an intimidating task, that of finding a clear theme in a stream of consciousness, it is possible to  say that in the oxymoronic title, Instant Nostalgia, one can find a perfect description of our time and mood.
In a society that is constantly obsessed with feeling emotions and showing this emotions to others (no matter how fake the emotions can be), that of nostalgia is a good example of how we transformed our feelings into commodities. Everything that is done on a social network nowadays, has a nostalgic impulse. The pictures we immediately post on our Facebook pages, transform something that we have just experienced five minutes earlier, into something we are already longing for. And this is how our time is used and consumed; or think about apps like Instagram, that transform our low quality photos, in low-fi photos taken years ago, giving them that aura of nostalgia we need.
D’Amico uses a powerful image when, trying to explaining his idea, he describes a contemporary Christ being filmed on a modern cross, by thousands of cellphones. And there is definitely something biblical, jeremiad-like, in his speech. Speaking of a world where “we are all tired, and we use the words of others”, the rapper tries to awaken the consciousness of an entire generation of Italians, lost not only in an economic crisis, but also in the disappearance (in the entire society) of values and ideas.
This artist does a great job, in reminding us that, as he says: “A picture of the sun will never be warm, no matter how hard it tries.”

You can listen to the first song in the album here: