Friday, 14 August 2015

Notes from Rome, Christmas 2011

Italian politics and news
From the news I had heard in England I already knew Italy was in hot waters.  I had a deep-seated conviction that the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano and the Prime Minister, Mario Monti had rescued Italy from the brink of a precipice.  But I wasn’t aware of how deep the chasm was, very deep indeed.

The new government was repeatedly accused of lacking democracy because it  had not been voted in by free elections.  But Italy had desperately needed sweeping reforms and new laws, to face the crisis with which the Berlusconi government could not cope.  And I am pretty sure that if Italian people had been called to vote, the majority would have still voted in the right wing that brought Italy to such disaster.  Besides, what Giorgio Napolitano did was within the rules of the Italian Constitution as he has to vouch for the security of the Italian State in case of emergency, and the present government was voted into office by Parliament itself.
Political parties decided to not take part in the coalition because of this manoeuvre.  Cuts, pension reform and property tax would be very unpopular and would lose votes to political parties. But this was the only way to avoid ending up like Greece, or bankrupt.
Some examples: in this blog (Holiday Journal 2011, part 6) I said how cheap it was to dine at the Senate restaurant.  Not any more.  Prices have dramatically risen.  In the past senators paid only 13% of the actual cost: now they pay almost full price.  They could have dinner for a few euro in the past: now they need to pay from twenty-five to forty-five euro.  Half of the waiters and cooks have been dismissed as the customers have been reduced by 50-70%.
Pensions will be only contributory from now on, not at wage level or based on the last wage received as it was in the past.  No more ‘baby pensions’, when people could retire after having worked only twenty years and get a pension from then on ( e.g. if they decided to retire when they were forty they could do it and still get a pension).  Just think how much the State is going to pay for people who retired when they were forty or fifty, as now they will probably live to eighty or ninety years old.
Berlusconi abolished the tax on property (ICI), or Council Tax, in 2008.  Part of this had already started in 1992 when no-profit associations and churches were exempt from the tax.  Things became confused when in 2005 Berlusconi stated that even if there was a commercial activity when it was linked to charity, culture, religion or education, they were exempt from the tax as well. The main source of charity, religion and religious education in Italy is the Roman Catholic Church, and it is often linked to small but also huge profits, depending on what kind of ‘commercial activity’ is going on.  Needless to say, the Church owns large properties, especially in Rome, sometimes palaces and villas or apartments inherited from people they assisted, then hospitals, schools at different levels, and so on.  Now the new government has reintroduced the tax on properties with a different name (IMU);  there is a fifty Euro discount for each child under twenty-six who still lives at home, which is pretty common I suppose.  I wonder if the Church will be affected by this tax or will still keep its benefits.
Tax evasion: a big Italian thing.  They are tackling it in spite of avoidance and resistance. It is common in the people's mentality to cheat a state to which they feel hostile, and all abet each other.

Mario Monti has eighteen months before elections.  After the political, economic and moral crisis of the Berlusconi era new perspectives and solutions are needed.  Of paramount importance is the reformation of politics and political parties, where an ethical attitude and the aim to serve the country should be central.  I also read about a proposal to give more powers and funds  to the European Parliament, maybe because they don’t trust the Italian one. Exactly the contrary of what the majority of British people think.  I feel this is a traditional mistake made by Italian people, to allow foreigners to rule for them because they are not able to do it or don’t want the responsibility themselves.  It is a shame.
A great Italian journalist, Giorgio Bocca, died on 25th December, aged ninety-one.  He had been a partisan in WW II with Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom); he reported and commented on all the main Italian social and political events from the end of the war until now, mainly from the pages of la Repubblica and L’Espresso.  He was quite a free thinker, a tough, open-minded  man coming from the north west of Italy.  He dreamed and believed in a different Italy, and fought for it till the end.
Other news: ordinary shops were almost empty with a drop in sales of 15-20%, but designers and luxury shops had people queuing outside.  It means that rich people are still rich, while middle class and poor people are even poorer. Corriere della Sera reports that ten thousand euro coats in via Condotti sold in the blink of an eye. How can you pay ten thousand euro (£8,230) for a coat? I don’t even earn as much in a year.
Books still sell though, maybe because they aren’t so expensive and are a good present anyway, as well as high-tech items and CDs.  A reprint of a cooking book published in 1942 by Lunella De Seta about cooking in war time had a great success.  It teaches how to avoid wasting food, and re-use leftovers and stale bread.
And what do some Italian people do when they can’t afford Christmas presents?  They steal them.  Several newspaper articles report ordinary people caught red-handed with teddy bears, video games and dolls hidden in their bags and under their coats. The credit crunch makes the thief.
There was even a 15% drop in the sales of Lotteria Italia tickets, the annual popular lottery whose draw day is on 6th January.
The traditional Christmas film series, called Cinepanettone (panettone is the traditional Christmas cake) Vacanze di Natale a Cortina (Christmas holidays in Cortina) with Christian De Sica, was a bit of a flop this time after twenty years of popularity. The stories deal with rich, rude Italians always on holiday, selfish, farting people chasing girls and money, with no morality and no standards, except for a vague attachment to the family.  But the world has changed and they don’t make people laugh any more.
Maybe we are finally less gullible, fed up of easy dreams.  And Christian De Sica looks like he really is: too old and outdated under the suntan.  Like Berlusconi.
At Termini railway station a gigantic Christmas tree had hundreds of letters to Father Christmas where people asked to have the opportunity to retire before dying or enclosed the photocopy of their pay slip pleading for help.

Immigrants seem to offer lower prices in this economic crisis. Greengrocers' shops run by north Africans are everywhere.  They have cheaper prices and long opening hours.  In Chinese shops you can buy a watch, a toy or a jumper for a few Euros.  Beautiful, fake fashionable bags are sold by Africans in the city centre streets.  And are you fed up of queuing in public offices?  You can choose to employ an immigrant, whose job is to just pick up the queue number and wait for the client who needs it.  For a few euro he can even hand in your documents if you are busy.  He can save your day.
There were more tourists in Rome in 2011, an increase of 10% compared to 2010.  I believe it: look at the weather!

We left England with our suitcases full of Christmas presents.  I usually organise most of my presents in Lancaster because I haven’t got much time to go shopping when I am in Rome.  This year, I bought a lot of different kinds of biscuits, which were very much appreciated, and I was mainly inspired by my own handmade work for the presents.  I made scarves, bags, pot holders, make- up bags, all hand-decorated with fabric paints (you can see some examples on my website section Carla painter, fabric painting).  Besides, my daughter had the idea of making ties for the boys and men of the family and of course I gave a hand.  It was a lot of hard work, cutting and sewing till late at night, but we finally managed to have everything finished  just two hours before leaving to catch the 6:30 am flight from Manchester airport.  Just in time!  But it was rewarding.  Everybody liked our gifts, or so they said, and used them while we were there.
As for me, I received mainly books as presents this year, mostly religious books.  Do I inspire religious feelings?  Or maybe it was a hint that I should improve my knowledge in this field.  Anyway, I enjoyed the presents and I broke my personal record: I read all of them during my stay.
My parents gave me two books by Don Andrea Gallo: Le preghiere di un utopista (prayers of a utopian) and Il Vangelo di un utopista (The Gospel of a utopian).  From my sister I received La speranza non è in vendita (Hope is not on sale) by Don Luigi Ciotti.  From two different friends I received a book about the woman in the Jewish law by Haim F. Cipriani and Non giudicate e non sarete giudicati (don’t judge and you won’t be judged) by Stefano Racheli.  I  dived straight in..
I read my parents' books first.  I liked the picture of Don Andrea Gallo on the covers, the priest with white collar, straw hat, glasses and a stump of cigar between his lips.  He is eighty-three now and years ago he founded a community on Genoa dockside to help people in need.  Most of them are homeless, drug addicted, alcoholic or disabled.  He considers himself a type of anarchist, walking with the least regarded.  He can be seen as one of the so called left wing or ‘communist’ priests, like Don Primo Mazzolari, Don Lorenzo Milani, don Luigi Ciotti, and even St Francis. They share their lives with people regarded as outcasts (the disabled, those sexually discriminated against, immigrants) and with the poor because this is what they think the Good News of Jesus Christ is about.

What Don Gallo writes is astonishing considering the official position of the Vatican.  In one of his books the first prayer is a long list of exploited and persecuted people, such as mentally disabled people, African prostitutes, transsexuals, Romany gypsies, homosexuals and street children.  He feels they are God’s favourites.  There are no uses of birth control, abortions, sexual proclivities or ethnic differences that can stop him: nothing should be enforced and everything should be tolerated.  His favourite song is Bella Ciao, a WW II partisan song.  One of his favourite prayers is the Constitution of the Italian Republic, where a lot of good, egalitarian things are said, like no discrimination, solidarity, work for all, etc., similar to all democratic countries' constitutions, but difficult to apply.  His favourite Pope is Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (Pope John XXIII).  His picture is the only picture of a Pope he keeps.
His final appeal is a poem:
My Lord remember the servants who didn’t observe
the herd rules,
don’t forget their faces,
after so much veering
fortune should help them,
like a slip
like an abnormality
like an inattention
like a duty.

He believes the Gospel is still relevant and an ideal at the same time, but in a positive way.  According to him utopia is a way in which to walk, to improve again and again.  You never attain it completely but you can achieve on the way.  A pretty different point of view from the powerful, rich, secular and conservative Vatican, which always lurks behind the church and has the final say.
Don Luigi Ciotti’s book says similar things but in a more structured, documented way.  Another ‘communist’ priest.
Once I watched a series of TV programs about Christian religious groups.  One of them was about a group in the Far East dedicated to working hard and making money.  They said richness is allowed by the Gospel.  I am not so sure about it (just think about the camel and the eye of the needle thing) and anyway in the Scriptures the stress is always on sharing with the poor and the needy and not on exploiting and using others, which is rather hard to avoid when big money is at stake.
The book about ‘don’t judge and you won’t be judged’ sounded intriguing.  The author is a magistrate who in his career faced sad, hopeless stories of young people who ended their lives in drugs, prostitution or beaten to death.  Impossible to judge them, so little is their personal responsibility for the actual facts or in their offences.  They happened to be there and most of the time they had no alternative and no help.  It was their world.  Who can judge them?  But I judge the people who didn’t help when they could, the people who exploited them and used them.
Unfortunately the most interesting parts of the book – the stories of the abused children and young people – are always quickly summarized, while I would have liked to know much more about them.  Most of the pages are filled with clever learned quotations from the Bible, classics, philosophers and ancient authors, which honestly doesn’t help to understand any better why all this happens and what can be done to stop such a massacre.  The author is without doubt a good Christian: he always has a good word for these youngsters, sometimes a little gift, and he shows mercy.  But good little deeds aren’t enough when they go back to their usual life, to their crooked world.
The book about the woman in Jewish law is an attempt to find, in the Scriptures and Torah, some text that supports a greater participation of women in spiritual life without their being considered inferior or unworthy.    Not an easy task, because after a supposed initial equality between man and woman in Genesis, someone filled the Jewish law with highly discriminating and offending rules against women, hardly acceptable today.  Hopefully there is a way out of the dilemma, according to some interpretations, and it just need to be found.
During our endless Christmas dinners at my parents’ house we had pleasant discussions about the Italian political situation and about religion – considering the presents they gave me – with my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law.  My parents had been shocked and ashamed by the Berlusconi government and welcomed Mario Monti in spite of the fact they have to pay more taxes.  About religion we concluded that though it is ‘the opium of people’, we may need a bit of draw from time to time.
Then we went to church on Christmas Eve, my parents-in-law’s parish church.  An Italian priest was celebrating: strangely there had been only Indian and Philippine priests in the past few years, as the previous Italian priests were womanizers or gamblers who had run away with the church funds.  I hope this priest lasts.  We enjoyed the songs and found that the most popular one this year was Happy Xmas (war is over), the popular hit by John Lennon.  It was not only sung in church, we heard it everywhere: on television, in shopping centres, sung by buskers in the street.  Is it time to think where we are?

Finally some unusual ideas for presents I found in shops, good tips for next Christmas:
·        a hand espresso, a battery-run espresso machine to make coffee while travelling, 99
·        a picnic trolley, no bigger than a dictionary and much lighter, with plates, cutlery, etc., 79
·        a canvas stool with pockets for tools (including gardening tools) all around 34
·        Guan fountain, a few inches tall, 99
·        Zen garden, a few inches wide, 39.50
·        plates, vases, place mats, all made with magazine paper,
from 3.50 to 9.50
·        a wallet made with one tyvek sheet (a waterproof synthetic material), 18
·        a gecko toy to massage your hand, 9
Plenty of time till next December.

Sightseeing and getting busy
The weather was fine this year so we could go sightseeing or just walk in the centre: Piazza Venezia, Via del Corso, Piazza Navona.  Crowds of people had  the same idea, apparently, at all times of the day and night.  I am sure some of them were tourists, like us.
Piazza Navona is always my favourite with its Christmas market, large and small Befanas hanging everywhere (this is a good witch who according to  tradition brings sweets to the children on 6th January), buskers performing their gigs and painters selling their work.

Some pedlars sold an odd kind of jelly ball with eyes.  They threw it onto a board, where it lay squashed for a few seconds but then regained its shape.  At night in Piazza di Pietra were sold small wheels which lit up when thrown up in the air.  They created such an atmosphere in the dark square with the ruins of the columns of the Hadrian temple on one side, now part of a building.
We also went up to the Capitol and from there to the terrace of the Altare della Patria (a bulky, ugly, white monument built in honour of the unification of Italy at the end of 19th  Century), from which you can see a breathtaking view of Rome.  There is also a lift for the very brave, taking you right to the top of the building.  It was a bright, warm day and even the unappealing bronze quadrigae looked impressive against the clear blue sky.

All along via del Corso there was a long strip of green, white and red lights on the top to celebrate thee hundred and fifty years' anniversary of the unification of Italy.  It was full of atmosphere, especially at night.
We didn’t visit museums this time but attended an exhibition: Georgia O’Keeffe’s fantastic work was on display at Palazzo Cipolla.  It was a remarkable exhibition where you could follow the major stages of her life and inspiration from room to room.  There were two videos as well, explaining her artistic development and showing the house where she lived in New Mexico.  Part of the exhibition recreated the atmosphere of the landscape of New Mexico, so you could understand and better relate to the influence of the environment on her paintings and how her creativity developed.  My favourite were the flowers, detailed, skilled paintings where the artist gives a vision, her interpretation of the subject and shows a masterly grasp of painting in oils.  All this makes her work vibrant and unique.  Some of the landscapes were also striking, again the contrasts of colours, her visions, and the way she used oil make the difference.  Art critics of her time particularly stressed a sensual interpretation in her pictures, which is probably true, but it is not only this.  I think her breadth of view is all-encompassing.  She knew her subjects so well, she could work out her personal, original insights from them.  Her exploration is constant and astonishing for its depth and sincere passion.  Her paintings are always full of life: they transmit the untameable spirit of the artist.
My daughter and I also went to see my sister in the little town near Rome where she lives.  There is a big market there every Friday morning, which I had never seen before.  We saw heaps of fashionable, not-so-expensive clothes but unfortunately we couldn’t buy much because I already assumed we didn’t have space left in the luggage.  However, we made a vow: next year at Christmas we would go to the market in the first place and buy whatever we liked.
Whenever we met our family we had plenty of free time after the big dinners, playing tombola or cards and watching old videos where I was younger and thinner, and the children were adorable, plump little kids.  My daughter wanted to learn crocheting and as my mother had been my teacher, I suggested she ask her grandmother.  She not only taught her crochet but also came up with four books dating back to 1964 full of stitches at all levels and several models for jumpers, dresses, skirts, cardigans, stockings, hats and scarves.  My daughter fell in love with them and made my mother promise to leave her the books in her will.  She took pictures of most of them and made me copy some of the instructions.  I also had to make a few samples so we could see the patterns when we looked at them.  She said she would make all these wonderful things by herself, then she looked at me.  Did she expect me to make her something one of these days?  I am too busy at the moment but maybe in summer time.  I remember my mother used to knit or crochet jumpers for me up to my university days.  The problem is that now it is cheaper to buy a readymade jumper in a shop than buy the wool or the cotton and make it.

Another pastime we found was collecting vintage clothes.  My mother, mother-in-law and sister all responded enthusiastically to our appeal to offer (or get rid of) clothes they don’t wear any more, most of them dating back to twenty years ago (or even older) and all in good condition.  My daughter was flooded with new jackets, coats, dresses: a gold mine.  They also added some  artificial jewels and scarves.  We managed to fit almost everything in the luggage eventually, but when we left my daughter was wearing two jumpers, a jacket and two coats.  And it wasn’t even cold, but quite warm inside the airport to be honest.
We love clothes.  And they don’t need to be new, just smart, stylish, and something different from the usual stuff.

 Window shopping and New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve we walked round the city centre again, before dropping our children to their different parties.  We only window-shopped, I’m afraid, in the most elegant and expensive streets in the centre, near Via del Corso.  We were curious about what was on show: we didn’t even look at the prices.  We couldn’t afford anything anyway, except for my daughter who managed to spot a glove shop where the cheapest gloves were nineteen euro, green leather gloves with brown, red and yellow stripes at the sides of each finger. She looked as if she had frog hands.  I took a lot of pictures though, to feel busy in some way.

The newspapers announced that 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, according to the Chinese calendar.  It should bring luck, strength and good health, ideal for having children (no, thank you, four are enough).  Maybe it is intended for the Chinese people only, whose economy is going up and up.  I wonder if the credit crunch, pay cuts and rises in taxes can be considered positive.  It always depends on the way you look at things.  Upside down could be a good way for 2012.
On this theme, in Naples they made a special cracker for the new year, called o’ spread (the spread).  It seemed to be terribly noisy and rather dangerous.  It was forbidden by the police.
But it is not so bad as it seems: we just need to get busy, to move on.  Things can’t get worse.  And we have the Olympic Games to look forward to.

In the evening we were at my parents-in-law’s house.  I particularly liked the speech by the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, this year.  It was simple and very clear.  He started thanking Italian people for the way they welcomed him in all the celebrations for the unification of Italy.  Then he made an appeal to trust in the future, in the Italian and European politics and be aware of the economic crisis at the same time.  It is time to roll up sleeves but also to be sure that sacrifices will be rewarded.  He spoke against corruption and speculation that stop Italy getting out of the crisis.  A new coherent commitment of honest working people can save the country and make Italy more stable and achieve European standards.  He stated that the reforms the present government is providing are absolutely necessary, and ended by asking for joint efforts from political parties, community associations and all Italian people for a better 2012.

At night the moon looked like a segment of orange.  The fireworks we could see in the distance from my parents-in-law’s balcony reminded me of Guy Fawkes night.
We felt it was time to go home, back to our life and customs.  Valentina, my autistic daughter, had been signing ‘home’ for several days, though she would rather drive instead of flying.  Also the other children were looking forward to going back to England, especially my third one, who never wants to leave Lancaster.
We knew the weather we would find in England couldn’t be as gorgeous as that we had experienced in Rome, but we were so happy to finally arrive in Manchester that we didn’t mind the sky being grey.  Driving up the M6 a splendid purple sunset welcomed us.

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