In May this was a Tuscan landscape at sunset, an etching by the friend of a friend. Yesterday, our copy, fresh from the framing shop, had morphed into a row of blackened trees in the foreground of an inferno. In the interim, we had spent several days on the Mendocino coast, just a few hours … Continue reading
Last month I was in Italy, where summer had steamed in early and politics had moved into operatic extremes of drama and imbroglio only slightly leavened by farce. Finally running the new coalition government are the boy wonder of the Five Stars populist movement, founded by a comedian, and the head of the proto-fascist League, who is no longer a joke. The two chose as the new premier an amiable law professor with a CV padded by drive-through sojourns at prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S.
While peculiar politics also reign in my own land, in Italy we tend to see their aberrations as a familiar comedy rather than a dark threat to the survival of the planet. Hard to remember that our Yankee republic was founded almost a hundred years before the bickering regions of the Italian boot could be laced together.
At least Italy’s revolution was accompanied, if not actually orchestrated, by music—with Giuseppe Verdi as its figurehead. Verdi’s poignant chorus from Nabucco, “Va Pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” sung by homesick Hebrew slaves, has come to symbolize the patriotic fervor that led finally to Italian unification.
Waiting for Verdi is the title of a long-awaited new book by Mary Ann Smart, a music historian who writes brilliantly about opera and society. The title clearly contains an ironic reference to Samuel Beckett’s play, but also to the high anxiety shared by struggling Risorgimento patriots, artists and revolutionaries as they struggled toward Unification.
Often as Verdi’s work is linked to Italian revolution, A Masked Ball is set instead in colonial Boston, replete with an a doomed romance, an assassination, and a dusky-skinned fortune teller. Not very diligent research has revealed that the original libretto required Ulrica, the fortune teller, to be played by a “negro.”
Thus the Metropolitan Opera debut of the sublime contralto Marian Anderson, in 1955 the first African-American to sing there.
Nabucco was also playing at the Vienna State Opera when I was a student living with the family of an impoverished baron just a block from the opera house. But the concert and opera posters reminded me of periodic tables, and knowing next to nothing about opera, I went to the Richards, Wagner and Strauss, but never to Nabucco. Little did I know that it was a thrilling tale of King Nebuchednezzar, proprietor of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and featured madness, passion, betrayal, and wanton destruction of selected temples and gods.
In 2015, the Greco-Roman Temple of Bel at Palmyra, 32 CE, was destroyed by ISIS vandals soon after they had beheaded Khaled al Asaad, Palmyra’s much respected chief of antiquities. The Temple of Bel, according to another archaeologist, Khaled’s friend, had actually been a kind of a monument to religious coexistence. The main altar of the temple had been used for sacrifices to different gods, sometimes even side by side. The archaeologist also pointed out that ISIS had announced the destruction of Palmyra well in advance of the fact, but the international community had done nothing.
In any case, peaceful coexistence in Syrian lands is hardly even a memory. Now the best expectations are that some 75,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Daraa—where the so-called civil war began—can be sheltered in Jordan. Four million other Syrians are still homeless.
Meanwhile, the tragic histories of the ancient Middle East have fueled many operas besides Nabucco. How many works of art and music will commemorate the refugee flights of this century, and to what end?
For some years it has been proposed, and rejected, that Italy’s national anthem be replaced by “Va Pensiero,” the haunting Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco. Only recently it has been adopted by the far-right League, as its official hymn. Matteo Salvini and his League are committed to labeling and expelling all immigrants, including thousands of Roma who are legal citizens. Here, whatever Verdi’s politics were, we could use the intervention of the Anvil Chorus.
Through the years I had heard occasional rumors of a distant relative on my father’s side called Indian Mary. When my son the anthropologist was writing about Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, the time seemed ripe to research the rumor. On balance, and on record, there was also an ancestral Civil War general, Eugene Carr, who later fought in the American Indian wars.
More recently there was my own grandfather, reportedly a gentle man, who fought in almost every war in his lifetime. It’s a challenge to calculate how he managed to sire four boys and a girl, quite closely spaced, while on leave. An even greater challenge must have been for my small but spunky grandmother to raise them all on sporadic soldier’s allotments.
My father, late in life, chose to loathe another Civil War general who went on to slaughter Indians, George Armstrong Custer. He read everything published about Custer, who was, to be fair, loathed by many others. He and my mother travelled to various Custer sites, Gettysburg and Little Big Horn, if not to Custer’s grave at West Point. I might perhaps mention that a subsidiary interest of my father’s was the Donner Party.
It gave us both considerable satisfaction for me to assign my father to review a psycho-biography of Custer for the Berkeley Gazette, where most, but not all reviewers were my more literate friends and relatives. Alas, Evan Connell’s fine book on Custer, Son of the Morning Star, did not appear before the Gazette and its nepotistic book section folded in 1984.
The latest grand entry in the long, defiant tradition of nepotism is of course Potus 45. Whom to cite first? British journalist Matthew Norman predicts much nepotistic merriment to come: Ivanka will win the $600 million contract to supply new U.S. Army uniforms, Donald Trump Jr. will replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 dollar bill, & eleven year-old Barron & two of his teddy bears will be appointed to replace the National Security Adviser and two four-star generals in the Situation Room.
Another American general loathed by my father was Douglas MacArthur. Here the dislike was more grounded; he had served under MacArthur’s command in the Philippines and in the occupation of Japan. But it wasn’t until the Korean conflict that MacArthur’s megalomania came close to igniting a third world war. Luckily, President Truman had the courage to remove him from command before he could bomb China. (In our time the closest analogy might be some responsible general removing a president.)
It comes as no surprise to learn that P-45, as one world-class narcissist to another, has expressed his admiration for the doughty General MacArthur. He would have been a bit young to have watched the Congressional hearings that determined beyond doubt that Truman was justified in firing the general, and it’s hard to imagine Trump Sr. backing the Missouri haberdasher.
George Armstrong Custer was ranked last in his West Point graduating class, and Douglas MacArthur was first in his. But they were equals in egotism, flamboyance, and blinding self-righteousness. Custer’s oblivious bravado ended his and many hundreds of others’ lives at Little Bighorn. MacArthur was booted before he could make the fatal decision to bomb China. Like other self-promoting egotists, MacArthur later considered running for president, but had the brains to decide against it in the end.
Shortly before my father shipped out to the Pacific, I remember awakening, wailing, from a dream of a tractor, or a tank—ratcheting up the screen of my bedroom window. And one morning as I was playing alone in the courtyard of our apartment building, a moving van began to back slowly toward the wall behind me. In each case, I waited anxiously to be crushed by a large machine. This would have been wartime San Francisco.
My baby brother was still nursing after Pearl Harbor, when my father enlisted. Even in her nineties, my mother’s eyes would turn hard as she repeated that she could never forgive him for leaving. At thirty, with two children, he might have been deferred. In fact, the war did mark him and us for the rest of our lives.
Early on, even before he was first posted to Alaska, he stopped eating. My mother was summoned, and we went to to visit him in a Vancouver hospital. In some gloomy Kodak prints, we are sitting on a porch, my father rail-thin in his dark uniform, and my mother, also thin, clearly trying to look cheerful. She did get him to eat again, so that he could be sent back to the war, in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines, where he contracted malaria.
Meanwhile, behind our cottage in Santa Cruz, California, my mother planted a victory garden full of zucchini, chard, beans, and tomatoes. Neighbors to the west sometimes sent my dimpled little brother home with his overalls stuffed with fresh corn and secured around his ankles, while I steamed with jealousy. The other neighbors were friendly but a bit odd. Mrs. Fertig was a health food convert and often suggested to my dubious mother common weeds that would be nourishing and delicious in a salad.
My mother had taped a large pastel map to the living room wall, moving a colored pin to show where our father was stationed. During the years he was overseas, what I could remember of him mainly was the harsh wool of his uniform, its smell and feel.
One balmy Santa Cruz night, we were allowed to stay up late. Our father was coming home. Finally the screen door creaked, and there he was, hugging us all tight against his scratchy wool uniform. He’d brought us two glass animals filled with tiny candies. Of course I immediately coveted Bill’s puppy and despised my kitten.
Eventually he opened his foot locker and pulled out, well, booty, from Japan—silk kimonos, platform sandals, inlaid chopsticks, and, I think, a sword.
In the months just after his return, we spent day after day at the beach. Every day after school, he would read to me tirelessly, mostly from the Oz books, as if making up for the years lost in the war.
After the war, when my father found a job as a resident engineer with the state highway department, we moved back to Santa Cruz, where much post-war construction was underway, asphalt beginning to cover the state. Occasionally we stopped by to see him on a site, where he usually worked out of a trailer on a hot and dusty roadbed carved out of a slope by big orange machines.
Before the war he had been studying journalism at San Jose State, but the Depression—and probably drink—had driven him out of school and into a job as a surveyor for the highway department. After the war, he needed to support his family, and a civil engineering degree had seemed a safe choice. California highways and car ownership were expanding virally. Through the years he never seemed to take any pleasure or pride in his work, and I could see why.
On our last birthdays our daughter gifted me and her father with DNA test kits. This seemed an opportunity to confirm or deny the existence of my father’s Indian ancestry —and on my mother’s side, there was a mysterious Hungarian great-grandfather who might have been a gypsy or a Jew.
The disappointing results had only one, to me rather surprising ramification. The test showed it to be extremely likely that I had ancestors among the first colonial settlers of New England. Thus I could probably qualify for membership in the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) a historically racist group that has spent many decades trying to improve its image.
At least the colonial New England connection fits with General Eugene Carr’s forbears. And I suppose it was obvious why his military nickname was the Black-bearded Cossack.
By now, you too may have concluded that Wells Fargo—or another unscrupulous megabank— should not be left alone with your money. Wells Fargo’s latest scandal involves some 570,000 customers with car loans. The poor souls were saddled with insurance that they neither needed nor in some cases even knew about. The extra costs meant borrowers fell behind in their payments and in some 20,000 cases, their cars were repossessed. Yes, lawsuits are underway, damages will be paid, and Wells Fargo shares are down. But have you checked your own megabank’s sales practices, its stakes in oil and gas versus renewable energy, its board members’ and CEO salaries? Try it.
So you have decided, reluctantly, that enough is enough? You agree that controlling the use of our money is one of the few positive actions we can take in this deranged world?
The doldrums of August are not a bad time to act, or at least to contemplate the prospect. And here are a few suggestions for making the break, from my own experience and of course from the internet.
1– Locate a new bank or credit union, one that does not invest your money in fossil fuels or engage in sleazy, not to mention criminal business practices, but does offer the basic banking services you need.
You can get information on ethical, community-oriented U.S. banks and credit unions here: https//www.greenamerica.org/break-up-with-your-mega-bank
Ethics aside, U.S. banks’ financial soundness can be checked at http://www.bankrate.com/rates/safe-sound/bank-ratings-search.as
In California, we can recommend Beneficial State Bank and Mechanics Bank.
2–Moving to a smaller bank or credit union may require some sacrifices.There may not be a branch in your neighborhood. If there is, there may not be a bright-eyed, sharply-dressed young person to greet you at the entrance and help you to find your way, somehow, to a teller or the ATM.
With minimal overhead, smaller banks and credit unions can often offer lower fees and higher interest rates for savings. And if you decide to join a credit union, you will also become a voting member, with shares, not a customer.
Every bank, regardless of size, is insured through FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.) Credit unions have the same backing, ($250,000) through the NCUA (National Credit Union Association).
3–Open a new account in the institution you have chosen, with a deposit well above your new bank’s minimum, to avoid service charges.
4–Cease activity involving your old mega-bank. Stop writing checks; don’t use your debit card. Use cash and checks from your new account.
5– Re-setting all your automatic payments is really a drag, but it’s well worth the long-term peace of mind. Figure out which ones were set up through the company you’re paying, and which were set up through your old bank’s Bill Pay system. Make a list of all payments that are automatically debited from your account–utilities, mortgage, credit card payments, monthly donations.
Be sure to set up the proper online payments through your new bank, and change the account information for payments automatically debited by companies. Last, but not least, change your banking information in any other online payment systems you have set up, from Paypal to newspaper subscriptions.
6–Reroute your direct deposits, from paychecks, pensions, and Social Security. This is surprisingly simple and swifter than might be expected. You will need to have ready your new bank account’s routing number (you know, on the bottom left side of a check) and your account number (just to the right of the routing number.)
Your employer should have an easy form you can fill out to change your direct deposit information. This usually can be done by the next pay cycle, but make sure to ask how long it will take to process. For Social Security changes, go to https://www.ssa.gov/deposit where, if you are already receiving benefits, you can open a Social Security account and start or change Direct Deposit online.
7–Take one last look to make sure everything in your old bank account has cleared. If you have no outstanding payments or credits, make a trip to the bank and close your account. Call the bank ahead of time to set up a meeting with a banker. Explain why you are leaving his/her bank, and, for maximum impact, bring a letter that can be passed up to higher management.
8–Transfer remaining funds from your old checking account into your new account. You can do this electronically or with a cashier’s check. We did it with personal checks, which is easier and cheaper, but not as immediate. Once the transfer clears your new account, close the old one. Get written confirmation that the account has been closed.
*** Once you’ve left your greedy megabank, do consider replacing your credit card, issued by some other big bank such as Citi, Bank of America–or Wells Fargo. With each charge you are helping finance destructive pipelines, fracking, tar sands, predatory lending, fraudulent foreclosure practices, and famously outrageous CEO bonuses. Why not instead support investment in a clean environment, local and green businesses, fair housing loans, and more, by using a green credit card http://www.greenhttps://america.org/take-charge-your-card.
They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it they die… It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
“Elizabeth Warren was not nearly as polite as I was…”
In February I posted an open letter to Timothy Sloan, the avowedly reformist CEO at Wells Fargo, regarding his company’s regrettable sales practices and its retrograde investments in fossil fuels, and our plan to divest ourselves of ties with his bank.
In April, Mr. Sloan himself published an open letter, listing the many ways in which Wells Fargo had been “ acting to regain its customers’ trust” after last year’s nasty scandals. No, of course he didn’t mention my letter, or many others he must have received. ( Nor did he mention his good works with the Boy Scouts of America, who have had their own image difficulties in recent years.)
My letter had circulated in the social media, while Mr. Sloan’s was a full-page ad in national newspapers. At the time, Mr. Sloan and the head of the Wells Fargo board purchased a total of $5 million of their company’s stock in a handsome display of good faith.
Meanwhile, lacking this good faith, my husband and I began laboriously to transfer our accounts out of Wells Fargo to more socially responsible banks. At least a few of my readers and friends said they were doing the same.
When the Wells Fargo fake- accounts scandal first erupted in 2016, it had mattered less to us than the bank’s short-sighted investments in oil pipelines and other destructive fossil fuel projects.
Later, in October 2016, the New York Times reported at some length how employees at various Wells Fargo branches had preyed upon the most vulnerable individuals—immigrants with little English, older adults with failing memories, students opening their first accounts.
According to Kevin Pham, a former Wells Fargo employee in San Jose, California, “It was like lions hunting zebras.” Pham mounted a Facebook campaign to hold Wells Fargo accountable. He scored 50,000 “shares”.
While there had reportedly been no systematic targeting of vulnerable groups, demographic patterns sometimes emerged, such as Native Americans near Phoenix, looking for a safe place to stow their quarterly distribution checks and being set up with several unnecessary accounts per capita. There were other cases, and dispiriting details.
The bank has been trying to channel new lawsuits away from the two million fake-accounts scandal, by moving them into private arbitration. We just received such a mediation offer and ignored it, having already closed the gratuitous account and shredded the card. Other customers, however, are indeed pursuing litigation.
Meanwhile, the revelations continue. Recently several plaintiffs have claimed that Wells Fargo changed the mortgage terms of bankrupt borrowers without their knowledge, much less their consent. Generally the changes meant smaller payments over longer time periods—but with immense finance charges accruing to the bank. As the New York Times reported in June, in its best imitation-tabloid style, “Wells Fargo, the $270 billion California- based lender, is driving its stagecoach further into the mud.”
Also in June, Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter, this one to Federal Reserve Board chair Janet Yellen, demanding the removal of twelve Wells Fargo board members who had been present and passive during the years when bank employees were setting up the infamous two million fake accounts. While 5300 lower-level employees were fired as a result of the scandal, $185 million fines had been paid, and the CEO sacked, the original Wells Fargo board members had remained in place, drawing their annual average base salary of $187,000— with bonus and additional compensation, $319,000. (An average Wells Fargo “personal banker” makes $37,000, a teller, $25,000. Why would one use “K” to signify all those thousands?)
Wells Fargo had been cited earlier for poor loan-servicing and foreclosure practices. In 2012 it was among the five lenders agreeing to a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and 49 states, to rectify these “poor” practices. In 2015 it settled $1.2 billion against claims of reckless lending under a Federal Housing Administration program.
Elizabeth Warren’s letter was not nearly as polite as mine, which may be why a super-pac has promised $10 million to “Deal Her Out” of re-election in 2018.
Meanwhile, it’s taken months to find what we hope are ethically (and fiscally) sound financial institutions, and to complete the tedious maneuvers of rerouting into new accounts our network of monthly payments to utilities, college funds, subscriptions, charities. Rerouting our monthly deposits was the easy part.
Why are we doing this, when we could be using more time to address climate change or health care, or at least to haranguing our legislators? Here’s the thing: our votes and our protests often seem more self-righteous than effective because they originate in the bright blue state of California. Our state is viewed quite negatively, it is clear, by the present Potus and his cronies—and with good reason, we hope.
Choosing not only where we spend our money, but where we keep it and who uses it, seems valuable leverage just now, in this thoroughly unhinged capitalist democracy.
To be continued, for better and for worse.
THE GOOD NEWS!! Where to begin? Simply typing that unlikely heading suddenly turned my screen deeply black—tracked with tiny white letters like tearstains. Anna, a Google emergency chatter, rescued me. I decided to persevere. Anna had promised to stand by in case the Dark Side returned. Though the Comey imbroglio doesn’t qualify as Good News … Continue reading
Originally posted on frances smith starn:
January 2015 ? The Doomsday Clock, a simplistic concept created by a posse of guilt-riddled scientists, now allows just three minutes until midnight and the end of the world as we know it. The apocalyptic clock first appeared on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, established by…
I was in the “wait and see” camp, and now we have seen.
Closest to home, the helicopters were back above Berkeley this week, along with the police from nine campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The latest techniques in protest enhancement include dramatic use of fireworks and safely contained fires.
Potus, always alert, tweeted a pre-dawn threat to defund Berkeley, for allowing and then cancelling, in the face of violent protest, the appearance of a truly scary young right-wing provocateur invited by the College Republicans. Nobody gained from the hullabaloo but the anarchist Black Bloc, of whom we’ll no doubt hear more.
Meanwhile we await Potus’s promised actions against the ongoing carnage in Syria and the globalizing terror of ISIS. Bombing ISIS does involve continued slaughter of civilians. The proposed Syrian safe zones for refugees would have to be defended. One thing he has already clarified: there’s no haven for Syrian refugees in the U.S.
In the early years of the rebellion, foreign journalists were variously expelled by the Assad regime or beheaded by the rebels. The major news organizations retreated to report on Syria from desks in Beirut or Istanbul. Only very lately have we had lucid analyses of events in Syria and the Levant. ( See Joshua Landis in TPR and Rania Khalek in FAIR.) Recent accounts explain how incoherent U.S.and U.N. interventions have only served to lengthen the conflict. There have never been “moderate” rebels to “support” with arms.
Meanwhile, no new road to peace has emerged amid the ruins of ancient cities and hardscrabble desert. But given Potus’s apparent bond with Putin, what seems likely is the restoration of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. For the ten years prior to the serial eruptions of the Arab revolution in 2010, Assad managed to keep the peace in Syria. Sunnis and Shiites, Alawites and Druze, Iraqi Christians and Kurds, and Saudi versus Iranian oil interests–all were prevented from annihilating each other. Assad and his wife were popular enough to be able to appear in public without bodyguards.
Early on, Assad had outspokenly condemned the West’s war in Iraq as illegal, and even Obama never forgave him. (Two tall, slender, intelligent, somewhat arrogant men with attractive, charismatic wives…) Oil makes strange allies, but when the U.S. partners with such murderous regimes as that in Saudi Arabia, condemning the heavy-handed security measures of Assad’s generals could be seen as somewhat hypocritical.
Last week Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the capital of Kazakhstan, in the Astana Rixos President Hotel. For only $1,913, including flight and hotel, I could have provided first-hand news of the conference. As it is, we had to rely on the New York Times.
“Palm trees planted indoors belied the subzero temperatures and blowing snow outside, as a flute-and-piano duo wearing evening gowns played “Strangers in the Night” and the theme from “Titanic.” Western diplomats, largely sidelined, huddled in the hotel’s Irish pub, and the United States ambassador to Kazakhstan, who was invited over Iran’s objections and attended only as an observer, avoided reporters..”
While the diplomats dance and drink in Astana, Syrian rebels amass in Idlib province in the northwest, where the Syrian government’s Minister of Reconciliation has been relocating rebels from Aleppo and Daraa.
Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus for a thousand years or so. When we stopped there for water on a hot October day in 2010, the dusty square was filled with what I gathered later were refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, Others had moved across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.
Not surprising that this place would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings. A few months later, some bored Daraa boys posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested. The locals massed to protest, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones, not unlike the chroniclers in Berkeley this week. When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out across the country and were brutally repressed.
Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a dreary town on the Euphrates that was once an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India. In October 2010, we Americans were welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.
Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.
Note: Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syrian lands: Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.
Syria’s latest conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and forced 4.8 million to flee. Turkey has taken in more than 2.7 million of them, according to the UNHCR, followed by Lebanon with more than a million, and Jordan with disputed figures, some 228,000 to Iraq, 115,000 to Egypt.
Some 6.6 million have been internally displaced, driven from their homes. These would be the inhabitants of Potus’s projected Safe Zones.
A million ambitious Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe, and we read in the news just how few of them are welcomed.
The U.S., that nation founded by immigrants on the backs of its natives, has found room for some 14,000. But no more. Potus and his advisor, the Cromwell of Breitbart Manor, have closed the gates after the Syrian forbears of the likes of Steve Jobs, Paula Abdul, and Jerry Seinfeld. According to an Ellis Island Record, Selim Hosni, Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandfather. arrived in 1909 from Aleppo, Syria, aboard the S.S. Hudson with his wife and infant daughter.
In any event, this is no time for comedy. Or is it?
Italian friends have been most sympathetic about our recent election. After all, they say, we survived Berlusconi. It’s not the end of the world.
They offer us political asylum, but then say that of course we are needed in our own country. Meanwhile, we are still here to see them through their coming referendum vote on the so-called “Italicum” reform of their electoral system.
The dynamic young Italian leader, Matteo Renzi, has pushed for a “Si” on the referendum, but is canny enough to have backed off as “No” rises in the polls
Renzi has been intrepid in many ways, not least in defending the rescue and accommodation of many thousands of profughi, refugees, arriving in Italy during the current migration crisis. Renzi points out that while Italy pays hundreds of millions of euros in this humanitarian mission, most other European governments have used their euros to build walls.
At a pizzeria on the Strada Nova the guy behind the counter couldn’t decide whether to use English or Italian. I suggested Cinese and we both laughed. I asked where he was born and he said Romania. He has been in Italy for fourteen years and lives in Mestre, twenty minutes away by bus on the mainland. We talked about the high rents and long commutes in Venice and California. He said he could give my husband and me one room and shared use of his Mestre apartment for 350 euros a month. I said that unfortunately we already had a rental contract through December. He said that he really wanted to learn more English so that he could get a better job, and I said that I could give him lessons if I was staying longer.
I only had a 50-euro bill to pay for my pizza. He smiled and ran off with it to get change. I wasn’t really worried when he didn’t reappear for ten minutes, but it did occur to me that 50 euros was probably more than a couple of days’ take-home pay. He said his name was Nikolai, Nicola in Italian, he added. I said mine was Frances, Francesca in Italian. See you tomorrow? he said.
A hundred yards on, I stopped to let a herd of school children go ahead of me across a narrow bridge. Meanwhile I went to a kiosk to get a paper with news about the latest earthquake in the Marche, and about the crises with the new refugees. The earthquake had definitely won that news cycle; there was not a word about the town in the Veneto that had barricaded its streets against the arrival of a dozen refugee women and children to be billeted in an empty hotel.
The vendor gave me two papers even after I had said, conversationally, that my husband usually bought the Gazzettino so I would only take La Repubblica. I said that I was sorry my Italian was so bad. He said, no, MY Italian is bad. I asked where he was born, and he said Bangladesh. He had only been in Italy for six months, he said in English. Before that, he had lived in London for six years, but it was too expensive. His brother, who had been in Italy for a long time, owned the kiosk. He lived with the brother nearby, and planned to go to school to learn Italian so that he could get a better job. My name is Francesca, said I. His is Nabis. See you tomorrow, I said. La Repubblica is running a series on changes in the Italian language, so I will be back. (I wish that Nicola’s pizza had been better.)
Of course it was only an idle thought that Nicola and Nabis could exchange language lessons. But maybe with ingenious use of cellphones and social media…some kind of networking?
I had been hoping to make myself useful in the refugee crisis, perhaps teaching or translating, during our Italian stay, but that too was an idle thought. The needy refugees were not in la Serenissima, but in Mestre and smaller inland towns, Veneto, where, unfortunately, the locals are not always welcoming. In Venice the neediest refugees only come for the day trade, foreigners passing from Rialto to San Marco from cruise ship to gondola, who might need an umbrella or a carnival mask, or will drop a euro into an outstretched hand.
Many constructive responses to the migrant crisis are to be found in the 2016 Architectural Biennale in Venice, too soon closing. And note that funds for housing the homeless were voted in by healthy margins–at least in California. As Italian friends tell us, we’ll get through this somehow.