a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Grasshopper days: speaking of heroes

Posted on the October 26th, 2009

I am being haunted by Lord Byron. Last Saturday evening, while entering the park at Villa Borghese in Rome, a statue of the poet loomed up alongside the path. Yesterday, perched on a mossy boulder while taking a lunch break during a long walk, from high on a hill I gazed down at Lake Nemi. Entering and playing and replaying through my mind came Byron’s poetic image in “Childe Harolde”:

Lo, Nemi! …
A deep cold settled aspect nought can shake,
All coil’d into itself and round, as sleeps the snake.

A more apt description even than a photograph, I thought when I read those lines days after first seeing the lake.

And now this morning, my A.Word.A.Day newsletter served up Byronic.

It’s silly of Byron to haunt me, I think. I know next to nothing about him. It’s his contemporary Keats whose spiritual ghost I myself spent years pursuing. Years ago, during a decade long spiritual pilgrimage immersing myself in Keats’ poems, biographies, commentaries and that tremendous sadness that characterized his life experience, I managed to memorize in its entirety his 78- line ” Ode To A Nightingale.” On going to bed, I would recite the lines to myself as if they were a lullaby:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense…

One of the very first things I did after coming to Italy — on my first visit to Rome the first evening after I arrived — was to seek  out Keats’ old apartment next to the Spanish Steps. It’s now the Keats-Shelley museum. We reached the front doors just after midnight. I stared up at the darkened windows of his old rooms, hoping something would evoke his presence.

I’d made the tourist’s error of  being persuaded to buy one of those awful scentless red roses that street vendors push into the face of unwary passersby. On impulse, I tucked it under the museum’s door handle. It felt a foolish thing to do, and through my imagination came the sound of one of Keats’ sad sighs, he despairing over such a tawdry tribute.

“This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET Who on his Death Bed, in the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”

A month or so later, I insisted we go to what is  known as the Protestant Cemetery just outside Rome’s walls. I wanted to  visit Keats’ grave there. I remember that it seemed off in a corner all to itself. In morbid fashion, I hovered next to the grave for a few minutes before sitting down on a bench nearby. A black cat, behaving as if it were the grave’s proprietor,  leaped up to sit next to me. Pleased, I reached over to stroke it. It promptly scratched me, jumped down and stalked away, its tail high.

Enormously susceptible to symbolism, I felt as if Keats himself had rebuffed me. Feeling hurt and silly, I slunk away from the bench. I relinquished my long homage. Keats is refusing to tolerate my mourning of him, I thought…  and still think.

So  I gave up my own haunting of Keats, Poor fellow! But now here is Byron at my doorstep, so to speak, haunting me. Or so I imagine. What does he want, I soliloquize to myself. I grasp at this for fun, for pleasure, for learning, for life. Confronting the celebrated, celebrating, heroic Byron.

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Playing for Change: Keb’ Mo’

Posted on the October 21st, 2009

The latest video from Playing for Change features “Better Man” with Keb’Mo’.

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With wit: What feminism means to Lucy Mangan

Posted on the September 19th, 2009

Caution, don’t read this column today by Lucy Mangan unless you’re intelligent and have a sense of humor (“What feminism means to me” The Guardian, Sept 19, 2009).

Excerpt teaser:

I wish my own feminism had been a matter of careful thought and formulation, underpinned by the kind of muscular theorising that could make it stand firm against the many blows that any attempt to assert one’s belief that women are, uh, equal to men…

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In Venice. “The Ethics of Dust”

Posted on the September 17th, 2009


The Ethics of Dust: Doges Palace, Venice, 2009 by Jorge Otero-Pailos

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Wikipedia hits a new high

Posted on the August 18th, 2009

The free, online encyclopedia Wikipedia has just posted  its three millionth article. Yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor had an article citing the details, plus a little commentary on how things are going (“Wikipedia blows past 3 million English articles” by Chris Gaylord, Aug 17, 2009).

Of course, there are far more posts, if you count the site’s 270 other languages. Eleven languages have collected more than 100,000 articles, with German nearing 1 million.

Thank you, grazie and danke Wikipedia!

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Former President Jimmy Carter takes a stand for women

Posted on the July 20th, 2009

If you only read one thing today, or this week, or this year, I hope you will read this essay by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (“Losing my religion for equality” The Age, July 15, 2009).

An excerpt:

During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.

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Learning Italian: Roberto Benigni translated

Posted on the July 17th, 2009

A few days ago I came across an in-depth interview with Italian filmmaker Roberto Benigni published last August on i-Italy.org — “Benigni the Poet Makes Life Even More Beautiful.” The impressive website is by a group of academics, journalists and intellectuals, according to its About page. The website’s subhead is an Italian/American Digital Project.

Benigni’s interviewer is Grace Russo Bullaro, a City University of New York professor.  Although the interview was in Italian, Bullaro translated it into English for the i-Italy website. The original Italian version is here on the Italian-language magazine OGGI 7 website (“Benigni poeta e la vita è più bella” July 16, 2008).

I’m a fan of Benigni’s and wrote another post about him a couple of years ago (“Roberto Benigni: Speaking in Second”). That post featured a 1998  interview Benigni did with the Guardian, and on that occasion he did the whole thing in English.

By the way, if you haven’t seen Benigni’s “The Tiger and the Snow,” I think you’ve missed one of his best works. As discussed in the interview with Bullaro, the movie bombed at the box office. Who knows why exactly, but a rash of lunk-headed reviews of the film at the time certainly didn’t help.

For a more favorable and informed review, see Deborah Young’s piece in Variety (“The Tiger and the Snow”/”La Tigre e la Neve”  Oct. 12, 2005).

And as one more plug for the film, here’s the trailer.

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Learning Italian: Uffa! Those vowels!(Not to mention double consonants)

Posted on the July 5th, 2009

Carinissimo!  “Sorry…I’m still learning Italian”  at openfilm.com

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Learning Italian: emozioni

Posted on the July 4th, 2009

Lucio Battisti “Emozioni” (bio)

Seguir con gli occhi un airone sopra il fiume e poi
ritrovarsi a volare
e sdraiarsi felice sopra l’erba ad ascoltare
un sottile dispiacere
E di notte passare con lo sguardo la collina per scoprire
dove il sole va a dormire
Domandarsi perche’ quando cade la tristezza
in fondo al cuore
come la neve non fa rumore
e guidare come un pazzo a fari spenti nella notte
per vedere
se poi e’ tanto difficile morire…

Full lyrics here – lyricsmania

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Learning Italian: Weaning Venice from the bottle

Posted on the June 15th, 2009

This week Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote an informative and interesting article for the New York Times about official efforts underway in Venice to persuade the locals to drink tap water rather than bottled (“City Known for Its Water Turns to Tap to Cut Trash” June 11, 2009).

Italians are the leading consumers of bottled water in the world, drinking more than 40 gallons per person annually…

My translation

Questa settimana Elisabeth Rosenthal ha scritto un articolo molto informativo e interessante sul New York Times riguardo sforzi ufficiali in corso persuadere i veneziani bere acqua dal rubinetto invece dell’acqua in bottiglia.

“Gli italiani sono i consumatori principali nel mondo dell’acqua in bottiglia, bevendo più di 151.6 litri per persona annualmente…”

Franco’s correction of my translation

Questa settimana Elisabeth Rosenthal ha scritto un articolo molto informativo e interessante sul New York Times riguardo agli sforzi che il Comune sta facendo per persuadere i veneziani a bere acqua di rubinetto invece che dell’acqua imbottigliata.

Gli italiani sono i principali consumatori nel mondo di acqua imbottigliata, con una media annuale procapite di più di 150 litri…

Related article on Ariannaeditrice.it here (“Acqua in bottiglia: la vergogna dei canoni di concessione
by Claudia Pecoraro, April 2, 2009).  Italian only.

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Learning Italian: “Che cos’è Roma?” mused Fellini

Posted on the May 26th, 2009

Last week our Conversation class reading was an excerpt from Federico Fellini‘s 1993 book, “Fare un film“:

“‘Che cos’è Roma?’ Tutt’al più posso tentare di dire che cosa penso quando sento la parola ‘Roma’. Me lo sono spesso domandato. E più o meno lo so. Penso a un faccione rossastro che assomiglia a Sordi, Fabrizi, la Magnani. Un’espressione resa pesante e pensierosa da esigenze gastrossessuali. Penso a un terrone bruno, melmoso; a un cielo ampio, sfasciato, da fondale dell’opera, con colori viola, bagliori giallastri, neri, argento; colori funerei. Ma tutto sommato è un volto confortante. Confortante perché Roma ti permette ogni tipo di speculazione in senso verticale. Roma è una città orizzontale, di acqua e di terra, sdraiata, ed è quindi la piattaforma ideale per voli fantastici. Gli intellettuali, gli artisti, che vivono sempre in uno stato di frizione fra due dimensioni diverse — la realtà e la fantasia — trovano qui la spinta adatta e liberatoria delle loro attività mentali: con il conforto di un cordone ombelicale che li tiene saldamente attaccati alla concretezza. Giacché Roma è una madre, ed è la madre ideale, perché indifferente. E’ una madre che ha troppi figli, e quindi non può dedicarsi a te, non ti chiede nulla, non si aspetta niente.  Ti accoglie quando vieni, ti lascia andare quando vai, come il tribunale di Kafka. In questo c’è una saggezza antichissima; africana quasi; preistorica. Sappiamo che Roma è una città carica di storia, ma la sua suggestione sta proprio in un che di preistorico, di primordiale, che appare netto in certe sue prospettive sconfinate e desolate, in certi ruderi che sembrano reperti fossili, ossei, come scheletri di mammut.”

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Learning Italian: Passato Remoto, more or less

Posted on the May 20th, 2009

This week in class, we’ve spent a couple of days studying the Italian verb form Passato Remoto. The conjugation of the verb essere (to be)  in present tense, as an example, is  sono, sei, è, siamo, siete, sono. In Passato Remoto, the conjugation transforms into fui, fosti, fu, fummo, foste, furono.

When and how to use Passato Remoto?

Well, I did try and write a paraphrase of what the teacher told us today but, with only a half-formed understanding, I failed miserably.  Looking for help,  I did a quick online search for Passato Remoto (English-language websites) and discovered I had a lot of company in my confusion.

So, I decided the safest thing to do is post an excerpt from an Italian textbook I’m using: (“Grammatica avanzata della lingua italiana” Alma Edizioni – Firenze, 2007 edition )

“Il passato remoto, rispetto al passato prossima, ha la caratteristica di essere più utilizzato nella lingua scritta. Per quanto riguarda il parlato la sua diffusione é piuttosto alta nel sud, scarsa nel centro Italia (a parte la Toscana) e praticamente nulla nell’Italia del nord…

“Al di là delle sue caratteristiche stilistiche e geografiche il passato remoto rende un discorso lontano non tanto nel tempo quanto nella sua percezione psicologica: una favola, una novella, un racconto, anche il testo di una canzone o di una ballata, al passato remoto collocano la narrazione in una dimensione epica, lontana dalla realtà di tutti i giorni.”

Rough translation:

Passato Remoto, respective to passato prossimo, has the characteristic of being more utilized in written language. As regards the spoken language, its diffusion is rather high in the south of Italy, scarce in central Italia (apart from Tuscany) and practically non-existent in northern Italy…

Aside from some of its stylistic and geographic characteristics, passato remoto is used to express distance not so much in time as in a psychological perception: a fable, a novel, an account or story, also the text of a song or of a ballad, in the passato remoto place the narration in an epic dimension, far from the reality of the everyday world.

Verb humor

Our teacher also told us about the common use of passato remoto in spoken Italian in south Italy and in Tuscany. For example, if a Tuscan is talking about a trip to the beach over the past weekend, he or she likely will prefer to use passato remoto, even though in time, the trip happened only the day before.

In Napoli, our teacher said, the use of passato remoto is so favored in everyday speech, that Italians share a longstanding joke about it: In Italy when someone knocks on a front door, or rings the doorbell, the standard response from the person inside is “Chi é?” (Who is it?). But in Napoli, so the joke goes, when the knock or doorbell ring happens, the response is “Chi fu?” (Who was it?).  Because you see, it already happened… ahem… so it’s past tense.

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Playing For Change: No More Trouble

Posted on the May 19th, 2009

The musicians of Playing For Change have just released a new video. “War, No More Trouble” features a surprise guest.

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Learning Italian: dreaming in another language

Posted on the May 17th, 2009

Just before waking this morning, I had a dream during which a woman speaking to me used an Italian phrase that I myself don’t know. Doing a quick search online after I got up, I found that people often report circumstances of speaking or hearing foreign languages in dreams.

The most interesting, and authoritative, information I found is  a moderated page on linguistlist.org –” Foreign languages in dreams” (1996).

Another page of comments related to the topic is on answerbag.com — “Do multilingual people think in different languages all the time?” (2006).

I’m sure there’s a lot more — will try and find more later.

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Learning Italian and blogging about it

Posted on the May 12th, 2009

No one is going to shoot me because I don’t understand how to use the Italian imperfect verb form.

This was my comment to the worried face looking back at me from the bathroom mirror a couple of weeks ago, as I tried to ease a minor anxiety attack after laboring through a homework assignment.

But today in class, grazie a Dio, we’re enjoying a brief respite from wrestling with the criminally high number of verb forms in the Italian language. Today we’re being pummeled by the pronouns. As I sit around a conference-size table with a half dozen other students from various countries across the globe, I’m feeling more or less relaxed. Finally, it seems to me, I’m making some headway with the usually vertigo-inducing  pronouns.

Not so, however, for a couple of my co-students. They’re struggling and I recognize the symptoms — a kind of numbed mumbling coming from their dry lips as all they think they’ve learned about Italian to this point now whirls bumper-car crazy in their brains. Oh, I know this condition well. I’ve been there myself. And I’ve not a doubt in the world I’ll be there again.

So today for these two unfortunates, no matter how many times our teacher repeats the grammatical admonition that the second person singular (tu) in the imperative negative always is formed by placing non before the infinitive, they stare back at him through glazed eyes. And they repeat, ever again, the wrong conjugation. Eventually, they will get it, eventually it will click. But not today.

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Today’s opinion pick: “We the People” to “King of the World”: “YOU’RE FIRED!” …a letter from Michael Moore

Posted on the April 1st, 2009

Academy-award winning filmmaker Michael Moore is astounded and elated by President Obama’s firing earlier this week of the chairman of the giant U.S. automaker General Motors. In a blog post on his website today, Moore wrote that Obama’s stunning, unprecedented action has left me speechless for the past two days.

Two excerpts:

Nothing like it has ever happened. The president of the United States, the elected representative of the people, has just told the head of General Motors—a company that’s spent more years at #1 on the Fortune 500 list than anyone else—”You’re fired!”…

This bold move has sent the heads of corporate America spinning and spewing pea soup. Obama has issued this edict: The government of, by, and for the people is in charge here, not big business.

Read the full post here.

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Alice Waters: USA’s mother of Slow Food

Posted on the March 20th, 2009

Last Sunday,  renown chef Alice Waters was featured in an interview on 60 Minutes. She talked about why fresh, organically-grown food is so important for human beings and the planet they call home.

Waters is on the advisory board for Slow Food USA, which is part of Slow Food International (see post here) founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini.

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Today’s opinion pick: “The Power of Play”

Posted on the March 6th, 2009

What do smart, successful, creative people do that mass murderers, felony drunk drivers, starving children, head banging caged laboratory animals, anxious overworked students, and most reptiles don’t do? They play, according to Stuart Brown, M.D., writing on a blog post yesterday on Penguin.com.

Brown is the founder of The National Institute for Play.  He has a new book just out this week, ” Play/How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.”

Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:

So, where does play fit into the big scheme of things? An evolutionary look shows that as it has developed over the eons, it closely accompanies the establishment of a large brain and the shift in metabolism from cold to warm bloodedness. The smarter, more flexible and adaptive the creature, the more they play.

Snow leopards box, kelp-laden sea lions play tug of war, otters do most anything in order to play; bats dabble with their sonar, killer whales tease sea gulls, ravens slide down snow banks on their backs, and given the chance wild wolves and grizzly bears play with each other despite their dissimilarity in size and long carnivorous heritage. And humans – they are the champions of play!

Read more here.

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Words from Nancy Pelosi, USA’s most powerful woman

Posted on the February 26th, 2009

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The glorious Stump

Posted on the February 11th, 2009

Last year the winner was a lowly beagle, this year it’s an aging spaniel. Whatever’s happening to the judges at the Westminster Kennel Club Show, I like it.

Yesterday, a spaniel named Stump won the top prize at Westminster’s 133rd annual competition in New York. Ten-year-old Stump, who almost died a few years ago, is also the oldest dog ever to win “Best in Show” at the event.

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