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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.
Finally we are getting serious about conserving water around here. If you see water dripping unattended from one of the hanging pots of pink and purple petunias installed by the Downtown Berkeley Association, there’s a number you can dial. Water running across a sidewalk from university landscaping can—and surely will–be reported by concerned citizens.
Local response to the drought emergency is merely the latest link in a long chain of responsible civic activism. For decades now, we have staunchly declared Berkeley, California a Nuclear-free Zone, ignoring the japes of those who point out that the atomic bomb was conceived, if not born, in our very city. Moreover, the brilliant composer, John Adams, of “Doctor Atomic,” the opera, still lives in our zipcode, or in one very near it.
The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab still sits on the slope above campus, on Cyclotron Road. Their recently published research includes the comforting news that Pacific coastal areas contain no dangerous radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown of March 2011, despite various scare stories in the less responsible media. Research methods included collection by students of rainfall samples around the campus, and measurement of toxicity in the weeds of the principal investigator’s backyard. Nothing you would think would require a cyclotron, or that you would write an opera about.
The lab (LBNL) is also currently involved in a study of the impact of fracking on California land. Fracking could, according to more, or less, responsible media, result in pollution of ground water as well as seismic events such as earthquakes. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is hovering impatiently for a go-ahead so that they can begin to issue fracking permits to all the energy companies champing at the bit to get at the oil in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Less responsible media say that the BLM has become the tool of energy interests rather than the guardian of the public interest. But no opera there, I think.
The research into Fukushima’s radiation began as a result of the concern over the Chernobyl nuclear reactor’s fallout in 1986, in the Ukraine. Drought also plays a role in the escalating conflict between eastern Ukraine and Russia. Given the prospect of world war in the region, international investors may very well hesitate to enter into new contracts for Ukrainian wheat. Still, dicey as the political and military situation is, the real concern for the new wheat crop in Ukraine and southern Russia, as in the U.S., drought.
In the California drought of 1977, we saved our gray water by opening all the drainpipes under basins and sinks and letting them empty into big pails that we lugged into the garden. A friend visiting from London looked around at our Edwardian wainscoting and hydraulic innovations. “How long do these wooden houses generally last?” she asked. Of course the English on their soggy green island cannot be expected to conceive of drought.
California has the world’s eighth largest economy and produces nearly half of the country’s fruits and vegetables, including 95 percent of the broccoli, 81 percent of its carrots, 92 percent of its lemons, and 99 percent of its artichokes, almonds, and walnuts. The drought will dry up thousands of agricultural jobs and will probably push U.S. food prices higher, as with the short-grained California rice preferred in some Japanese sushi and Korean dishes.
While California rules in lemon production, Florida accounts for about 70 percent of total U.S. production of oranges, and naturally Florida growers will happily fill in for California’s drought losses in all citrus categories. Although the California drought may not be Florida’s fault, let’s not forget which state’s votes helped elect the man who brought us Iraq, if not Syria. And what state his younger brother governed for eight years. And how their father single-handedly handicapped broccoli futures. Anyway, Florida runs more to hurricanes than droughts.
One of the more famous California droughts was the fictitious one in the 1974 film “Chinatown,” directed by Roman Polanski (yes, still alive and living in France). The film evokes unforgettably the power of water to those who can manipulate its supply. A brilliant movie, it ends, of course, badly.
In Berkeley we fill empty Florida orange juice bottles with water and sink them in our toilet reservoirs to conserve a half gallon per flush. In 1977 we used bricks to displace water, but they produced undesirable sediment. Then and now, there remains the “mellow yellow” strategy of not flushing liquid waste at all; this makes some of us feel quite daring.
The California drought in 2014 looks far and away the worst on some of those comparative infographic maps. However, in Syria during the five years before 2011, when the country exploded into civil war, the worst drought in modern history struck more than 60 percent of the land. Not only was there no rainfall, but Assad’s government had been subsidizing water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton, and using antediluvian irrigation technology to boot. Perhaps Assad had spent too much time in England. In any case, farmers and herders in northeastern Syria lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere—in already blighted urban areas like Dara’a, where the civil war began.
So, Syrian pistachios, not to mention olives and dates, will probably become black market items. Other Syrian exports such as crude oil were not coming to the U.S. even before ISIS ruled the northeastern desert plains. An Al-Monitor news feature, fairly recent, described ISIS’s less violent pacification efforts, highlighting the efficient production and distribution of bread to hungry Syrians. This story has probably been withdrawn, along with Vogue magazine’s glamorous profile of Asma Assad.
A little-known export of the Syrian desert is the golden Syrian hamster (mesocricetus auratus) first identified scientifically in 1839. But already in 1774, Friedrich Gabriel Sulzer, a boon companion of Goethe, had penned a whole academic monograph on hamsters. In it he used the hamster to document the equal rights of all beings, including Homo sapiens. (Due to the daunting array of resources on mesocricetus auratus I have been unable to follow that link.)
In any event, one single brother-sister pairing of the Syrian hamster produced the entire population of pets and laboratory animals we know today. The incestuous forebears were captured and imported in 1930 from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, by a zoologist from the University of Jerusalem. Decades later, Syrian hamsters have become one of the most popular pets and laboratory animals in the U.S.
Although hamsters and guinea pigs would seem similar in many ways, they should never share a cage. Hamsters are fiercer and more territorial. How else would they survive in the Syrian desert, especially during a drought? Our family had an amiable guinea pig named Toby who may have succumbed from dehydration in a California bedroom. Or it could have been old age: he was getting on.
In Peru, guinea pigs, plumper and more tractable than hamsters, are not pets but protein. Sixty-five million of them are consumed every year. In a pretty courtyard restaurant in Cuzco, I dutifully ordered cuy (coo-ee) which tasted (pace Toby) a bit like rabbit. A reproduction in a Cuzco church of da Vinci’s Last Supper shows Jesus and the twelve apostles sitting around a platter of cuy.
Peru, too, has water shortages. My son did field work years ago in an Andean village named Tunnel Six, named for the irrigation ditch that ran along the mountain above it. The family that he knew best in Tunnel Six was eventually able to move to a favela in a coastal city where running water and some education could be had. My son’s godson, born in Tunnel Six but schooled in Piura, recently friended me on Facebook.
Peru has had many water wars. Five thousand acres of asparagus require more water than is usually available without a pipeline to the Amazon. Nations go to war over water less often than they do over oil and gas supplies. Where water is the issue, they are more likely to cooperate, however reluctantly, on some plan.
Hungary and Slovakia were getting fairly shirty over damming the Danube some years ago, but they left judgment to the International Court of Justice. Some fifteen years later, the court finally ruled, but the real result was based on attrition. Slovakia completed their part of the Gabickova waterworks because it was in their interest, while Hungary has thus far successfully delayed building their part downstream for the same reason.
Berkeley citizens confronting the California drought with little more than their wits and an empty bottle of Florida orange juice, might, as so often happens, take a leaf from Walt Whitman: