a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

The Eternal City in late fall

Posted on the January 29th, 2010

November. Rome. Tiber.

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In the name of the father, the son, and Vladimir Putin

Posted on the January 29th, 2010

Russia’s communist revolution, in times past, did such a thorough job of trying to erase all traces of religion from the country that they “stamped out” the tradition of Christmas, according to Galina Stolyarova, writing for Transitions Online (“You Scratcheth My Back…” Jan 21, 2010).

To this day, Stolyarova reports, the holiday still hasn’t really made a comeback with the public.

But the old days may be returning.  Stolyarova reports on a meeting earlier this month between Prime Minister Putin and Patriarch Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. The occasion was the restoration to the church of a major piece of long ago, confiscated property. The generous gift signals a new working relationship between the Orthodox Church and the state, the reporter writes.


Patriarch Kirill is busy leading a group of authors engaged on a school textbook on the history of religion – a new subject that will be introduced in some Russian high schools as soon as this spring, and will then become part of the high school curriculum for the entire country. Furthermore, in another new departure, Orthodox priests have been assigned to the Russian army and are due to start holding religious services for the military in a few months.

What we are witnessing is apparently an attempt to incorporate the Russian Orthodox Church into the Putin-Medvedev “vertical of power” system of rule in this country. Hitherto the quest for a new Russian national idea, which has continued since the failure of Gorbachev’s perestroika, has yielded no results. But the country’s current rulers have come to realize that without a sound ideological base – meaning spiritual and ethical values shared across the nation – their vertical power system could become a colossus with feet of clay. So it appears the church has been recruited as a stonemason to shore up the base of the colossus.

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Beauty confronts violence: Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar

Posted on the January 29th, 2010

“There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander anywhere on earth,” Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar says, explaining why she uses art to challenge others to join her in acts of political provocation. From Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster.

Video intro:

Her parents were opposition politicians who were murdered in Tehran in 1998. Since then,their daughter Parastou Forouhar has used both judicial and artistic means to fight for an investigation into their murder.Her struggle has put Forouhar,an installation artist living in Germany,under increasing pressure. She is met by Iran’s secret police each time she visits her parents’ graves. Forouhar talks with ARTS.21 about recent developments in Iran,the power of the opposition movement and the future of the Islamic state.

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The f-word loses one

Posted on the January 29th, 2010

As of yesterday, it’s illegal in Italy to use the f-word to insult your neighbors, ANSA.IT reports. The country’s highest court reversed its own 2007 ruling it in which it okayed the commonly used, four-letter, English word on the basis that it was… commonly used.

In Thursday’s ruling, instead, the court banned the handy little expletive, declaring that it’s insulting to your neighbors:

“…it should not be used with people living next to you “because neighbourly relations must be marked by greater mutual respect”.

“Otherwise, it would be impossible to get along,” said the court, which found an Ancona man guilty of “offending the honour” of the neighbours he told to “F-off” in a row over parking last year.”


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When the frog says no, no, no

Posted on the January 28th, 2010

The classic fairytale of “The Princess and the Frog” has always appealed to me. In particular because I imagine myself as the frog. Nope, that’s not a ‘steem issue — it’s just that I think more highly of the life of the frog than the life of the princess.

Once, years ago while I was toying with the idea of becoming the next, great short story writer, I even began a tale similar to the Grimm’s p&f story. But, in my version, when the Princess offered to kiss the frog, he refused. He recalled a horror story of a cousin who had fallen victim to this, and had instantly been transformed into being a prince. “No, absolutely not!” my frog said, refusing all kisses. “It seems to me being a prince would be boring as heck. I much prefer the sensuous living we frogs have.”

I’m with the frog. (In fact, Italy’s own de-throned young prince can’t ever seem to figure out what exactly to do with the royal part of himself)

All this came to mind today while reading Veronica Lee’s review of Disney’s recently released film of the p&f story (“The Princess and the Frog” the arts desk.com, Jan 27, 2010).  It’s a rave. Excerpt:

The Princess and the Frog is adapted by Rob Edwards from the Brothers Grimm fairytale and E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess, and here we are transported to 1930s New Orleans. But this Big Easy is a fairytale of its own, where Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) is a hardworking waitress who holds down two jobs and dreams of opening her own restaurant (she is a gifted chef), and her best friend is spoilt little rich girl Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), who is white and lives in a mansion the other side of town. Their connection is that Charlotte’s indulgent father, Big Daddy (John Goodman), loves Tiana’s beignets and gives plenty of work to her seamstress mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey).

Can’t wait to see it!

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Today’s opinion pick: A Contrarian Musing on Obama’s State of the Union, 2010

Posted on the January 28th, 2010

In my  mailbox this morning from A Contrarian Musing:

Whatever one liked or disliked about President Obama at the end of his campaign for election to the Presidency, you will like or dislike about his State of the Union speech last night.  The message was, for the most part, just onward we go.

As to whether or not he won any wobblers back, any new support, or shoved others away, well, I doubt it.  All he did was just re-affirm, just reaffirmed his determination to move on down the road he advocated in his election campaign, for those who listened carefully back then.

The President made it clear that he is pressing on with his agenda, that he is sticking to his guns, so to speak, that he is not changing directions from what he campaigned on for election in the first place, within the boundaries of “politics as the art of the possible.”  He is not deterred, just all the more focused.

It is important, in all of this, to take note that Obama is not a lefty — but not quite the standard moderate either — and neither of these things can be said across-the-board of his staff and closest political confidants. What Obama is, to put it in common terms, is a do-gooder who is willing to use whatever tools, right or left, within the confines of Constitutional principles and American middle class humanitarian values, that will get the job done of doing good.  I would call this a levelheaded, good-hearted man of historical insight, humanitarian energy, and moral and practical determination to make the world a better place, in a workmanship-like way.

The interesting thing — aside from the specific policies he spoke in support of — is the tonality and staging of the speech. In the beginning, Obama assumed a regular guy manner, purposefully speaking in the vernacular, just a good guy from the neighborhood, putting on no superior airs, who has come to give a little, plain enough talk.

Then, here and there, he entered the professorial mode, the intellectual mode, the CEO mode — something the middle class and the SES elites think of as their true, lifestyle demeanor (the “in charge” class). Then he moved on toward the conventional, political speech style.

But it was in the end that he came to himself, to his true self, I believe.  The tonality in the last segment of Obama’s State of the Union speech is singularly fascinating, for it had none of the performance intent in it.  It was somberly intense. It was quiet, and it was from the heart of hearts of the man, so to speak. It was almost a private conversation moment. One could have heard a pin drop in the House chamber as he did this part of his speech, this was a ministerial moment of the true believer.

It was Obama at his most passionate, for (and this is so ironic), his most genuine passion is a deep and quiet passion. This was his personal passion, and it is so much different than his performance passion. If you want to better understand the passionate Obama, listen to the tonality of this part of his speech.  Here is a man being true to himself.

Watch State of the Union 2010 speech here.

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When Grandma was green

Posted on the January 28th, 2010

I don’t know about you, but the Martians are a favorite point of reference when I’m completely dumbfounded by something. Say, I’ve just read about one of the latest, particularly appalling, acts by humanity as a whole, I take refuge in the indignant “What would the Martians say about that?” or a more mournful, “I really want to go live on Mars!”

Then around 2000 came some new scientific evidence that led to some theorizing and writing that, in fact, we earthlings may just have Martian ancestry. Interessante!

This month HiRise (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) from the University of Arizona, posted some recent, strangely colorful photos of the old home place (one above).

Have to say, though, the little guys themselves seem to be keeping a pretty low profile.

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A Q&A with Sarah

Posted on the January 27th, 2010

One of the youngest guests at the World Economic Forum this week is 18-year-old Sarah, from Sri Lanka. Sarah is one of  six young community activists chosen to go to Davos as part of the program, British Council Global Changemakers.

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Just who’s talking about threats to the Euro?

Posted on the January 27th, 2010

After I found the Der Spiegel article today, describing the migraine that Greece and its money woes are giving to the European Union leadership (previous post), I scanned more headlines at the newspaper’s website. I found this from earlier this week: “European Union Sees Threats to the Euro.”

The brief article paints an ominous future ahead this year for the Euro monetary system, predicting that the currency may continue its recent several-weeks slide downward against the dollar:

“…the euro stands at $1.41 and many analysts are now warning that it may be in for a long slide. Some are even concerned that the cohesiveness of the euro zone might be endangered altogether — with the European Union itself chief among the worry-warts.”

If I’d read this in a USA newspaper rather than an European one, I might take it with a grain or two of salt. Why? Because, having now inhabited both the two continents, and regularly followed the major news media of each, I’ve come to expect a predictable dose of media bias when one is reporting on the other. It’s been quite a slap to my rosy idealism of all fair and balanced, etc.

But this Euro gloom and doom is coming from a major German newspaper. Not to mention that the article is sourcing a recent report from the internal EU agency, Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs. So these baleful sounds have substance. Such as:

The report… went on to voice concern that differences among euro zone countries “jeopardize confidence in the euro and threatens the cohesiveness of the euro area.”

Financial turmoil in Greece is of particular concern, with the country running a public sector deficit of 12.7 percent in 2009, more than four times higher than the three percent target called for by European Union rules. But there are several other problem children within the 16-member euro zone, including Spain, Ireland and Portugal, with Italy also raising eyebrows.

Worrisome, definitely.

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It seems Greece owes a little money

Posted on the January 27th, 2010

Greece is bankrupt, Nouriel Roubini said today, speaking during an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos (“Roubini At Davos: Greece Is Obviously Bankrupt” Jan 27, 2010). He advised the country to ask China to rescue it, and added that the European Union may also be forced to help in order to hold off a threat to the Euro monetary system itself.

None of this is news to the leaders of the European Union who have been stewing over what to do about an economically wobbling Greece for some time, according to an analysis in Der Spiegel last month, “Should the EU Save Athens from Bankruptcy?” (by Wolfgang Reuter, Dec 14, 2009).

Reuter explores how the situation presents the EU and its leaders with an urgent new governance question.  He reports in detail on some of the high-level discussions. Central theme:

“…Everyone was asking the same question: What happens when a country, even a member of the European monetary Union, goes bankrupt? Can the EU allow this?…”

Another very interesting money pot to watch boil, as if there aren’t enough already.

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Italian moviegoers break record with Avatar

Posted on the January 27th, 2010

Opening later in Italy than in much of the world (here),  “Avatar” has broken an Italian box office record, according to CINEUROPA:

No film has ever grossed so much in its opening weekend in Italy: after Friday’s release, with figures at over €2m, Avatar earned almost €4m on Saturday to reach just over €9.6m in three days…

That was as of January 18. As of last weekend, the futuristic film was still number one, see here.

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Love flowers? Museums? Italy?

Posted on the January 26th, 2010

Monet, Waterlilies

If you love flowers, and Italy, and you’re so inclined, you might want to plan a trip to a small museum in a small town in Emilia-Romagna that is mounting quite a big show. From ANSA.IT (“Floral magic over centuries of art” Jan 22, 2010):

The San Domenico Museum in Forli is staging an entire show devoted to depictions of blossoms and blooms, including paintings by a host of masters from the 1500s to the early 20th century.

Work by Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, Caravaggio, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Giovanni Boldini and Giuseppe De Nittis will be among those featured. ”This exhibition charts the history of still life paintings, specifically a history starring flowers,” explained curator Antonio Paolucci.

The San Domenico exhibition titled “Fiori. Natura e simbolo dal Seicento a Van Gogh” opened last Sunday and will continue through June 10th. The guiding idea for the exhibit is to feature works by great painters who occasionally chose to paint flowers, rather than the “niche artist” who specialized in floral works only, according to the ANSA.IT article.

As it happens, we’re going to be in the general area of Forli this weekend, so we may just drop by. If so, watch this space for more to come on the exhibition.

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As he says, Yemen is in the spotlight

Posted on the January 26th, 2010

Last week, counterterrorism and Middle East security expert Daniel Byman discussed how and why Yemen is in the spotlight. He was one of the speakers on a Brookings Institution panel discussion, “al-Qaeda in Yemen”  (excerpt below). Other guests included Gregory Johnsen and Bruce Riedel.

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Trying to understand Afghanistan: Rory Stewart

Posted on the January 25th, 2010

Who understands what’s happening in Afghanistan-Pakistan, the two countries that have become one word now, apparently, in U.S. foreign policy? Former British diplomat Rory Stewart insists that he does. And considering his credentials, it seems a good idea to listen to him.

Perhaps highest among Stewart’s achievements, relative to discussing Afghanistan, is that he actually lived in Kabul from 2006-2008. Prior to that, 2000-2002, amazingly he walked on foot across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal (6000 miles). And, beginning in 2003, he served for a time as coalition Deputy Governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq. In 2009 he became a professor at Harvard University, and at present he also is a Conservative Party candidate for Parliament back home.

In “Afghanistan: What Could Work,” an essay Stewart wrote for this month’s New York Review of Books, he brings his knowledge of the area to serve in analyzing the situation, and in assessing President Obama’s past and present policies there. Stewart has some praise for Obama, as well as some criticism.

One bit of praise is that the President did not take some of the advice that was showered on him by all his expert advisers:

Little wonder that some called (in the President’s words) “for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade.” How could they ask for any other course when they argued from within a conceptual prison, founded on fears, boxed in by domestic political calculations, restricted by misleading definitions, buttressed by syllogisms, endorsed by generals, and crowned with historical analogies? Yet this is what the President said about full-scale escalation:

I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don’t have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who—in discussing our national security—said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.

I felt as though I had come to hear a fifteenth-century scholastic and found myself suddenly encountering Erasmus: someone not quite free of the peculiarities of the old way, and therefore haunted by its elisions, omissions, and contradictions; but already anticipating a reformation…

I came away from reading Stewart’s analysis feeling confirmed in my sense of the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation as a many-headed hydra. It was a tiny bit encouraging, though, to read Stewart’s conclusion, based on various policy recommendations, suggesting some optimism for a brighter future there. Eventually.

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How’s Fiat doing?

Posted on the January 25th, 2010

Considering that Fiat now owns a big chunk of Chrysler, and also runs the show there management wise, this Bloomberg.com piece today on Fiat’s last quarter 2009 earnings report may be of interest (“Fiat Beats Quarterly Earnings Estimates, Plans Dividend Payment” Jan 25, 2010)

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Who needs money, anyway! Mark Boyle

Posted on the January 25th, 2010

Using words that strike terror in the heart of all bankers, British economics graduate Mark Boyle says, “I live without cash — and I manage just fine.”

Today’s Guardian features a video interview with Boyle on his decision more than a year ago to launch his own personal experiment of literally living without money for a while. Or to use his more scholarly description in an essay he wrote for the UK newspaper last October, “to investigate the root causes of these symptoms” of why the world has the great problems it has today.

In the essay, Boyle retraces the thought process that led him to his challenging experiment. Excerpt:

One of the critical causes of those symptoms is the fact we no longer have to see the direct repercussions our purchases have on the people, environment and animals they affect. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that we’re completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering embodied in the stuff we buy. The tool that has enabled this separation is money.

If we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today. If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior decor. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t contaminate it.

To invite other people to share in his ideas, Boyle has founded The Freeconomy Community.

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Sunday serenade: Hope Waits

Posted on the January 24th, 2010

Jazz singer Hope Waits — “I’ll Be Satisfied”

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Good advice and why it’s being ignored: Stiglitz and Lessig

Posted on the January 23rd, 2010

In a seven-minute interview on Thursday for The Washington Note, Nobel Economics winner Joseph Stiglitz prescribes good sense remedies for the USA economy:

And in a two-minute talk to the public this week, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig explains why  Congress isn’t listening:

Learn more about the work of Change Congress here.

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More women in French boardrooms

Posted on the January 22nd, 2010

This month the French Parliament is debating a bill that would mandate that at least 40 percent of corporate board members are women. Deadline for compliance would be 2016 (“Shaking up the corporate world” France 24, Jan 20, 2010).

France is playing catch up. It now lags far behind some of its European neighbors in regard to more gender balanced board rooms, according to the news video below.

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Poet Stephen Burt explains the Massachusetts heartbreak

Posted on the January 22nd, 2010

If you’re up to one more post-mortem on the Democrats losing the Senate race last Tuesday in Massachusetts, there’s a good one by Stephen Burt, a local resident himself, in the London Review of Books (“The People’s Seat” Jan 20, 2010):

National and international analysts will tell you that Massachusetts rejected Obama, and there’s something in that: according to one pollster almost 20 per cent of Brown’s support came from people who voted for the president but disapprove of him today…

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