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Genoa Now and Then

 

 

After three years in Florence, we returned to California shortly before the flood of November 1966. We watched our heroic friends in the news, cleaning oily mud from priceless paintings and manuscripts. 

We flew out of Damascus just months before Syria first began to implode in March 2011 and cannot forget the backdrop for the human and historical disasters of the past seven years.

This spring we happened to spend some time in Genoa, not entirely by choice, but that’s another story.  In fact, we had always wanted to explore this live, functioning port on the other side of the Italian boot from Venice, our alternate reality. Arriving and departing from Genoa Brignole by train, we never had reason to cross or even to view the deadly Morandi Bridge.

The tragedy of the bridge’s failure, the death and destruction, was immediately blamed on every political or institutional body extant in the past fifty years. The left chalked it up to the corrupt privatization of the Italian infrastructure. Before long the lion’s share of the blame settled on defective maintenance by Autostrade per L’Italia, a division of Atlantia SpA.  Atlantia’s owners are the Benettons, whose dossier also includes the 2013 collapse of a Bangladeshi clothing factory that killed 1,134 workers. You may remember the Benettons from a cloying ad campaign touting the putative diversity of the “United Colors of Benetton”. (A rags-to-riches family from Treviso, they might have done better to invest in local prosecco vineyards.)  

Autostrade per l’Italia’s license to manage the Italian freeway network may (or may not) be revoked. Atlantia has offered 500 million euros toward helping the victims as well as a quick reconstruction of the bridge. The Italian government is (or may be) debating nationalization of the whole highway infrastructure, which may (or may not) result in less corruption and safer roads and bridges.     

“Genoa is fragile, but nobody cares,” said native son Renzo Piano in an interview discussing the collapse of the Morandi Bridge, in a rainstorm. “I do not know what happened, but I can say that I do not believe in the fatalism that considers nature, lightning and rain uncontrollable. Nobody can come and tell us that it was an accident.”

We stayed in the eastern part of Genoa, where the old city slopes down the hill to the port. The quarter is still called the Maddalena, after the winding street where women have been marketing themselves all day and all night for several centuries. Recent municipal efforts to restore the ancient neighborhood have apparently not affected the puttane.

As early as the 1300s, the Maddalena was the financial center of the city. Now the narrow streets near the harbor are home to various mild-mannered immigrant communities. We were often lost in the web of alleys, threading our way past dark-skinned people clustering at markets and sitting in rows in doorways, all much more interested in their own pursuits than in us. There seemed to be no mendicants, perhaps because of a large police and military presence, also mild-mannered, not to mention a 75-euro fine for begging. Last year a conservative anti-immigrant city administration was elected.

(Note: Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded the populist Five-Star Movement, is from Genoa.) The new Italian government is headed by an uneasy coalition of the Five Stars and the neo-fascist League.

Five hundred years ago, there was no Italian state to be consumed by conflicting interests or rampant xenophobia.  In the vicious battles among the merchant republics of the Renaissance, Genoa’s mercenary soldiers and ships for hire brought enormous wealth to their city.  Genoa had at that time the greatest concentration of successful bankers on this planet. Their families built the outsize columned and marbled palaces along the Strada Nuova, the new street. They paid Rubens, Van Dyck and Caravaggio to paint portraits and decorate walls, and local artists imitated them quite successfully.

Of their famous shipyard (in no way a rival to the Venetian Arsenale) they have made an excellent naval museum, with myriad mythological and literary allusions to the sea, interactive historical maps, and the reconstruction of a full-size galley. In the entry is Renzo Piano’s blueprint for a new waterfront. Meanwhile, he left a large glass sphere and the Bigo panoramic lift, modeled on the old derricks for loading and unloading merchandise in the port.

 

Since the early 20th century, funiculars have run up and down the steep slopes of the city. Whether or not their cost is justified by commuting residents, tourists are happy to find pleasant restaurants at the top. However, panoramic views of the city have been cut in half by the construction of cheap public housing and a huge belt of highway above the waterfront. This is not unlike the situation in San Francisco, before they decided to demolish their Embarcadero freeway–rather than rebuild it after the Loma Prieta quake.  

Of course blue jeans originated in Genoa, not San Francisco. Denim was a twill fabric of Nîmes (de Nîmes) manufacture that was used for sailors’ trousers in Genoa (Gênes in French). Levi Strauss only added the rivets.

In the Gold Rush years and after, San Francisco and the north-central coast were settled by  Italian immigrants, the first wave largely Genoese fishermen and farmers. 

My mother grew up in the fishing town of Santa Cruz, California and went to school with the Stagnaro boys  whose fathers came from Riva Trigosa near Genoa.  When my father went overseas during World War II, she returned to her home town with her small children. Another young “war widow “with a child lived across the street, and her Italian in-laws often invited us all to Sunday lunch at their farm in Soquel.  Mrs. Conrado made delicious ravioli and memorable marinated artichoke hearts–although my mother had trouble downing the roasted uccelletti.  

Many of the Italians who came to San Francisco left the city for the suburbs as soon as they could. Among those who stayed, some entered politics, others ran popular restaurants, and still others did both.  But Little Italy in North Beach has been nearly absorbed by the growth of Chinatown, which now counts for more than 20 percent of the San Francisco population.

In 2014  Genoa’s immigrant population was 55,000 of almost 600,000.  18,000 came from Ecuador, the rest from Albania, Bangladesh, China, India, Morocco, Peru, Roumania, Russia, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine. Most recent immigrants come from North African and sub-Saharan countries.

Given that the Genoese have the lowest birth rate in Italy and the oldest population in all Europe, the fast-growing immigrant presence will play an increasingly important role in the city’s future, for better or for worse, depending on one’s political views.

Immigrants, anyway, cannot be blamed for the failure of the Morandi Bridge.   

What’s the old Chinese curse?  May you live in interesting times!

 

 

Dinner in a Time of Drought

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Given a bootless succession of balmy, deep blue evenings in drought-stricken California, we invited some friends for an al fresco dinner—two Italians, one Romanian, a Scot, a Moroccan, and three of their boys. The transcontinental jumble only occurred to me later, when I was lying awake, regretting my clumsy vinous Italian, and the surplus of food I usually prepare, especially when there are vegetarians.

S. and  I were in the kitchen sorting the berries she had brought. She said that her husband had just returned from a long stay in Fez, where he had to look after his sick mother and two eccentric sisters.  This reminded me of Abu Hani, our wise, kind driver in the months before Syria’s war; his wife and two unmarried daughters had seemed shielded and restricted in the Muslim manner. Since he had fled Safed in 1948 to settle in the Palestinian quarter of Damascus, now devastated, probably his family are now Syrian refugees.  There must be a term for repeat (recidivist?) refugees,  like the Armenians, just marking their first century of diaspora.

Nina Khatchadourian’s video, called, cunningly, “Armenities,” is a telling exploration of her parents’ layered languages learned in serial homelands. “Armenities” will be at the 2015 Venice Biennale—in the island monastery of San Lazzaro, where lepers were the original refugees.

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The bay fog had blown in while R was grilling sausages, and suddenly it was cold and damp, drought or not–the downside of our famous marine climate. Everyone helped shift all the food into the kitchen, filled their plates and reconfigured  at the dining table. Someone  sought common ground, so to speak, talking sports with the three boys.

That’s when I turned to our Moroccan friend.  F.  speaks softly with a heavy French-Moroccan accent, but I think that he told me that his father left school at age seven to help support the family, and eventually became a successful merchant who sent nine children to college—the middle one, our friend, to Harvard. Writers admired by F. include Borges, Calvino, and Marquez; he is now writing stories himself, based on centuries-old tales that he had found in the souk in Fez.  He has a shy flash of a smile, winsomely conspiratorial.

Early in this century, R and I flew to North Africa, after a conference in Florence, where R talked about the Laocoon (and I nursed a fractured wrist). We went to Morocco, which was for us entirely otherwhere.  There was a bright, almost hallucinogenic light across the sandy plain, not unlike the light we have now in drought-parched California.  Along the highway was a sparse strewing of people on foot and pieces of litter, mostly plastic. William Kentridge makes dark kinetic profiles of people who might have been moving along such a highway in South Africa.

In Rabat, after dining on a fine pastilla, with music, we wandered off in the moonlight toward a mysterious truncated tower sharing a site with hundreds of stubby marble columns. We didn’t find out what it was until the next day.

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Hassan Tower, minaret and mosque, columns left unfinished in 1199.

Sad to say, returning to our hotel, we lost our way and were maliciously re-directed in loops through the city.  Next morning, on the train to Fez we shared a compartment with a Moroccan lawyer who expressed confidence that the new boy monarch would be guided by his enlightened sister, within the limits of sharia law, of course.

When F. had mentioned the old story collections he had found in the souk, I had to tell him about our son’s graduate student, a Turkish Kurd, who was cashiered at the airport in Yerevan for stowing old books from the market in his baggage.  Our son had bought his first business suit and travelled to Armenia to spring his student.

After more wine, and the stealthy withdrawal of the kids into the living room with their pads and phones, new topics arose at the table. Nothing heavy:  for example, where had the motley couples first met?  One pair in Grenoble; another in London; another in L.A.; and (much earlier), R and I in Vienna.

Vienna in 1958 was still what you may remember as the shadowy postwar background of “The Third Man”.  I lived with the family of an impoverished old baron in a palace on a corner near the Opera.  Each morning, the baron’s young frau measured out very carefully the butter and jam for our breakfast kaiser rolls. My roommate, who befriended her, said that the frau’s true love had been killed in the war.  One day the baron called me quite literally on the carpet, in the dark, high-ceilinged hall, to scold me for blocking the street entrance late at night while necking with R.

Italy was also  grimly postwar when we first saw it.  On the other hand, our caro amico M. says that he doesn’t want to live in today’s Italy, which is not the country that he knew growing up. I lived in Florence during some of those years, but Italy seems to me still much like itself, each region colorful and/or and corrupt in its own way, Florence possibly less than most. (Matteo Renzi, the youngest prime minister ever, was mayor of Florence and advocates reforms that  alienate both the left and the right.) As for me, I am now immersed, so to speak, in Venice, where corruption is endemic and close to entertaining.

What M. loves is California. After a detour of a few years on the East Coast, he returned to California just in time for the drought. While the rest of us were saving shower water to dribble on our flowerbeds, M. planted exotic succulents in large pots–also a very good plan since he needs to spend a great deal of time elsewhere, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Reno, Nevada, for example.

M. had brought a big raspberry tart, which I put on the table, with S’s berries.  Having just finished one of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I wondered what S. thought of her.  She didn’t know her work, which surprised me, although her own field is Middle Eastern culture. I thought that she had said earlier that she was from Rome, but when I brought out my copy of L’Amica Geniale, she pointed out, in the cover photograph of the bay of Naples, the very school she had attended as a girl.

Why isn’t S. considered a refugee, from Naples (or Rome)?   Is  M. a Tuscan exile?  It’s all in the element of choice, I suppose, which usually comes with education and a dependable income.

The Armenian genocide was the first of the twentieth century. In 1915  Dr. Clarence Ussher, a medical missionary.working in  the Van Province, bore witness to the massacres of the Ottoman Turks. Dr. Ussher was ancestor of a valued friend, the remarkable writer Nicholson Baker, a committed pacifist and author of the revisionist war history, Human Smoke.

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An important center of Armenian culture is the Venetian island of San Lazzaro, which was resettled in 1717 by a dozen Armenian Catholic monks who arrived in Venice from Morea in the Peloponnesus, following the Ottoman invasion. They renovated the church of St. Lazarus and constructed gardens, a seminary, and other buildings. Napoleon left them alone after he conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797.  Some say this was because of an important Armenian member of Napoleon’s staff.

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Little-known fact: Lord Byron lived on San Lazzaro from late 1816 to early 1817. In short order, he seems to have learned enough Armenian to translate passages from classical Armenian into English, and even to co-author grammars of English and Armenian.

Aside from tending their huge library, the Armenian monks produce 5,000 jars of rose petal jam per annum,  a number of them eaten by the monks themselves, and the others sold in the San Lazzaro gift shoppe.

In the world outside the island, the questions of Armenian genocide and property restitution continue fraught. Solutions have been suggested:  Armenian churches and monasteries currently used as storage facilities by the armed forces could be handed back to the Armenians. Beyond that, collective compensation might be modeled on German compensation to Jews. Turkey could also take in Armenian refugees from Syria and Iraq, could offer Turkish citizenship to Armenians who want it, could remove the names of perpetrators of the genocide from Turkish streets signs and places.

Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian, famous for being famous, and by far the best known Armenian in the world, says, “I am saddened that still 100 years later not everyone has recognized that 1.5 million people were murdered.  But proud of the fact that I see change and am happy many people have started to recognize this genocide!”

Here she is with her husband, rapper Kanye West, one of Time‘s 100 most influential men in the world.

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In Syria as well, one of the main rebel groups is welcoming the attention from Kardashian.“We are glad Kim Kardashian is taking an interest in this issue, as we too are concerned about extremist groups’ persecution of minorities,” Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast. “The Free Syrian Army has put out a statement committed to protecting of citizens of Armenian descent and to maintaining the integrity of their religious sites…”

Question:  shouldn’t Kardashian be coordinating with Angelina Jolie, who has been earnestly trying to raise international consciousness about the Syrian crisis for several years?

Some doubt that Kardashian could find Armenia or Syria on a map, but this is petty carping. How often can beauty could speak to power and be heard?  If only I had brought this question to the dinner table.

 

Dinner in the last Armenian village in Turkey today

Dinner in the last Armenian village in Turkey today

 

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