The Biker and the President

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It seems that after many years another Italian biker, Vincenzo Nibali, is about to win the “Tour de France“, very likely the most important cycling race in the world.  I’m very happy for the national prestige, however, as far as I am concerned, sport recently has lost that fascination it used to have. Medicines, doping, scientific studies have despoiled the athletes of that romantic, magic aura, that gave them the traits of demigods born to test and break human limits. Nowadays when you see a record crashed, you cannot help but wonder: did he deserve it or did he have a “little” help?

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Bartali and Coppi

Gino Bartali ‘s only doping was good food and a bottle of Chianti. “Ginettaccio“, as he was called,  was born in Ponte Elma, near Florence, in 1914 and very soon developed a great passion for cycling . In the thirties, he become professional and the whole nation learnt to love him for his passion, incredible determination and spirit of sacrifice, that made him win the ” Giro d’Italia” twice and the “Tour de France”  in the years before the outbreak of the second World War. In those tragic years, when all the competitions were suspended, he used his bike to save people’s lives. Every day he cycled from Terentola-Cortona railway station to Assisi (67Km) in the midst of shootings and bombings, hiding in the crossbar of his bike the documents to help the Jew refugees leave the country. When the war was over, he was considered too old for the races and the new rising star of cycling was his antagonist and friend Fausto Coppi, five years his junior.

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Don Camillo & Peppone

After the war Italy was a disintegrated country, always at the verge of the civil war. Guareschi called it the country of Don Camillo & Peppone, that is, a nation divided between the Christian Democrat Party of Alcide de Gasperi and  Andreotti and the Communist Party of Palmiro Togliatti e Pietro Nenni. The Christian Democrats largely won the first republican election of our history in March 1948, therefore Alcide De Gasperi became head of the government. However, strong concerns continued to spread throughout the country, exploding dramatically at 11.30 on July 14, when Antonio Pallante, a young Sicilian linked to extreme right-wing, attempted to the life of Togliatti in Piazza Montecitorio, wounding him seriously. Tumults and riots exploded, radio broadcasts were interrupted, a general strike was proclaimed and the Minister Mario Scelba ordered bloody repressions against unauthorized demonstrations. Those were days of high tension, but where was Bartali?

Bartali was in France for the “Tour”. He was 34 and the leader of the Italian team. He knew that, somehow, he was a second choice as the two bright stars of cycling Coppi and Magni had remained in Italy for both political and personal reasons.Furthermore the Italian team was not actually welcomed, as the French could not forget the “great betrayal”, that is, when Italy had announced to enter the war on the side of Germany eight years before, right when the Nazis were marching to Paris. During the stages the Italian athletes were constantly insulted and Bartali himself was attacked by a spectator. After 12 stages, he had 21 minutes delay from the leader, the French Bobet.

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Alcide De Gasperi

What follows is the narration of how an athletic deed may become gloriously heroic. Bartali was concerned about his family and had desperately tried to contact them. Right before the beginning of the 13th stage he received a call. He left his bike and seized the receiver, hoping to hear his wife’s voice, but it wasn’t his wife, it was Alcide De Gasperi, the President himself. He politely inquired about the race and asked Bartali if there were any chances he might win the “Tour”. Bartali declared it almost impossible as there were too many minutes that separated him  from the leader. Therefore, the President asked him to do his best to win at least a stage, in the hope that the sport news might distract people from politics. Bartali was stupefied but many years after that event, he confessed that those words had given him the adrenaline he needed to do what it will make him a legend.

Bartali won stage 13 with a large margin, jumping to the second place and in the next stage, Bartali won again, and took over “the yellow jersey” as leader of the general classification. Bobet was now in second place, eight minutes behind. The next stage, stage 15, was also won by Bartali. Stage after stage, the Italian excitement about the Tour de France increased, and the political tensions quieted. When the 25th of July “Ginettaccio” was on the Parisian podium, the situation in Italy was totally under control. An invisible hand had pushed the saddle of the Tuscan athlete, who had succeeded in driving his bike to a legendary world where a man “too old to win a tour” may become a hero.

 

 

 

 

 

Just about

cupid 1What did the good Pharrel Williams say ?”Clap along if you know what happiness is to you“, well I guess he has done a lot clapping this year considering the immense success of his worldwide hit ” Happy“, however, do you know what happiness is to you, or better when? Metaphorically speaking when is the most intense moment of bliss: when you cross the finish line or the moment just before, when you are overwhelmed by that powerful combination of excitement and pain, in short, when you are “just about”?

cupid 3Just about” would have been Keats‘s prompt answer. In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, the poet is charmed by ” the leaf fringed legend ” that “haunts” the shape of an urn and focuses on the images which are depicted on its frieze . He is attracted by one scene in particular: there is a “bold lover” who is “winning near his goal “, that is, a beautiful young girl. He is just about to reach her, but unfortunately he is destined to live that frustrating condition forever, as art has stopped that moment and made it eternal.

That moment does not mean grief for the poet, but quite the contrary, for him it is the highest moment of happiness man can experience . The young boy’s love will be “for ever warm” as it is “still to be enjoyed“, and he will be ” for ever panting” for a girl whose youth and beauty will never fade away. Unfortunately time cannot be stopped, as once you eventually achieve your goal, your feelings are so overwhelming to devour that moment of bliss to leave you with “a heart high sorrowful and cloy’d, a burning forehead, and a parching tongue” looking at the ashes of what now is past.

cupid 2Canova ‘s “just about” can be admired in his magnificent statue of ” Cupid and Psyche“. “Cupid and Psyche” is a tale written by Apuleius a Latin-language prose writer. It narrates about the adventures of a young girl Psyche, who is uncommonly beautiful. Cupid, the son of Venus, desperately falls in love with Psyche and carries her to an enchanted, magnificent palace where they can secretly consume their passion, but he prohibits her to know his identity. The happiness of the young couple is threatened both by the envy of Psyche’s sisters, and by the hostility of Venus, who wouldn’t want her son to marry a mortal, whose beauty could be compared to her own, a goddess. Psyche follows the perfidious suggestions of her sisters thus disobeying Cupid, who consequently abandons her. She desperately seeks her lover, but she falls into the hands of her mother-in-law, Venus, who forces her to undergo insurmountable trials, which eventually she passes thanks to a series of extraordinary helps. A happy end follows: Jove himself will celebrate the wedding between Cupid and Psyche and will turn her into a goddess, making her immortal.

Canova represented in his statue the instant of the story, when he imagined intensity was at its pitch, that is when Cupid is “just about” to kiss Psyche. There is a slight, refined eroticism, while Cupid tenderly contemplates the face of the girl he loves, while Psyche reciprocates him with equal warmth and sweetness. You can feel that tension, before it bursts into passion. Psyche’s arms form a circle around the faces of the two lovers, which seems to frame the focal point of the statue. It’s inside that circle that the emotional tension swells and Cupid’s endless craving is close to be satisfied.He is just about.

However, experiencing that tension forever is impossible for both mortals or deities, only art can fix that moment. What comes next, then? Well, Cupid and Psyche had soon a beautiful daughter whose name was Voluptas, that is Pleasure. ;)

 

 

 

 

 

The Monastic Run

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Hello, has anybody seen the summer? Where are the heat, the sunshine, the blue skies and that longed laziness on sandy beaches? We are all here, ready in our flip-flops, towels and bikinis but, actually, this July looks like more a rainy April. It’s really unfair for those who are on vacation and for one person in particular: ME.  That’s why this week-end we have decided to go somewhere else and drive to Simbruini mountains, about 100 km far from Rome, to reach Subiaco. Why? To run, of course.

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The monastery of St.Benedict

Subiaco is particularly renowned as a tourist and religious resort for its sacred grotto (Sacro Speco), in the medieval St. Benedict’s Abbey, and for the Abbey of St. Scholastica. In July there is a very picturesque race called “la Jennesina” . The route is enchanting as the race starts at the monastery of St.Benedict, then you run through the sacred places where the Saint lived and dictated the “Rule of Saint Benedict“,  which contains the precepts for his monks ( the most famous is “Ora et Labora“, that is “Pray and Work” as you may see it chiseled at the entrance of the monastery), to reach the fascinating medieval hamlet of Jenne. 10 kilometers of history, natural beauties and all uphill!!!

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A view of Simbruini mountains

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Mr Run’s concern

When Mr Run and I reached Subiaco, we soon realized that we had left spring behind to be welcomed by a gloomy, rainy, autumn day. We had to stay in our car for more than half an hour, because of a heavy, endless shower. What does that motto say?”Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know“, in fact, I started to wonder, that maybe we’d better stay at home, as I was picturing myself waiting for him under the rain at the finish line, or in the car for a couple of hours. I didn’t even have my iPad or a book with me!

Magically the rain ended and the air was clear and fresh. Mr Run soon put on his running shoes and with some friends of his team rushed to get to bus to reach the start at the monastery, while I would wait for him in Jenne.

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The four musketeers

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Alleys in Jenne

Well, I had all the time to visit the place. Jenne is actually  really quaint. You can feel that atmosphere of the middle age, typical in central Italy, in the stony alleys, little colorful houses and churches. In the late 12th century, it was the birthplace of Pope Alexander IV.

 

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Belvedere

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The statue of Pope Alexander IV

When I came back to the finish line, the runners were just about to end their fatigue. The winner took a little more than 36 minutes to run 10 kilometers uphill. Only when the last 500 meters are dangerously downhill as you can see :

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Mr Run’s arrival

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Few meters to the end

Running uphill is not exactly what Mr Run loves the most, in fact he confessed he had even pondered to leave the race at the third kilometer. But Mr Run is not a quitter, particularly in the land of “Ora et Labora” so after that short crisis, he rolled up his sleeves and managed to end the competition in 51 minutes. He was disappointed of course, but his discontent didn’t last long, as after the race, the inhabitants of the village had organized a feast for the runners and their families, based on the local culinary delights as pasta with mutton tomato sauce, roasted mutton etc.

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Ladies serving mutton tomato sauce pasta

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Final toast

After all this “orare” and “laborare”, “manducare” (to eat) well, is the right reward, isn’t it? :)

Threatened and humbled

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Let’s admit it, we are scared. Teaching has become such a risky occupation nowadays, that our most urgent concern, believe me, has nothing to with education at all, but rather with our professional and physical safeguard. Why? There are two main reasons : there has been a shift of responsibilities from family to school for what concerns the care of the child, but at the same time parents find harder and harder to accept teachers’ judgements. Cooperation has become critical, that’s why nowadays everything is focused on communication, which unfortunately has turned out to be a major weapon to be used against teachers.

hit2Families must be accurately informed about school performances, truancy, behaviour (please pay attention to the passive voice), therefore it is our duty to inform them and not THEIR duty to come to school and inquire after their child. Even if we have parents/teacher meetings one hour a week in the morning with every single teacher and twice a year in the afternoon with all, plus informal communication via email, two report cards, well, this never seems to be enough.That’s why towards the end of the school year every teacher leaves everything off to provide the families with the most recent updating in order to avoid the drama, which despite all the effort is always inevitable, but above all the risk that the school might be sued for not having informed in due time.

The problem is that this tiring, bulky system does not work, because all these meetings are mostly attended by those families whose children have no real problems, while those who really have, rarely show up. They probably want to avoid the mortification of listening about their child’s (temporary) insuccess, which is felt either like their own or more often like the teachers’. It seems absurd, but it has happened that somebody deliberately left wrong telephone numbers in order not to be contacted. So when the end of the school year approaches, we start to feel that certain agitation that makes us worry more about form than contents. What really matters nowadays is whether we have diligently compiled, informed, signed , registered; everything but educating and forming the new generations. The truth is that we are missing the real object of our profession: the student.

hit 1When school is about to end, drama is always behind the corner. Those families that you haven’t seen for a whole year, suddenly materialize when they read that their child has failed. What you meet, then, is anger, rancor, bitterness that can become violence sometimes as it happened in Cosenza (south of Italy) only few days ago. The parents of a sixteen year old girl are summoned by the deputy head-mistress of a high school to inform them of the reason of their girl’s failure and to discuss learning strategies for the future. A normal procedure, in fact. At first it seems an ordinary teacher/parents conference but all of a sudden something changes. The atmosphere becomes more agitated so that the deputy head-mistress grows alarmed and invites the two to leave the room. The father, then, rushes to the door to bar the entrance and while the teacher struggles to find a way out, the mother attacks her from behind, makes her fall and once on the floor, grabs her by her neck and twist it with the intent of breaking her neck bone, while her husband is on watch at the door.The teacher attempts a reaction, but the father starts to kick her in her breast and stomach repeatedly till she faints. Then they manage to slip outside the room and leave the school unseen from a secondary entrance. When the teacher awakes, she has to be carried to the hospital and afterwards she sues the two. The girl has declared to be very proud of her parents’ doing as justice has been done.

Now, this is the end of the school year and maybe I am tired, but I cannot help but wonder how my life would be much easier if I gave high grades indistinctly to everybody. Wow. Everybody would be happy and relaxed. After all, if many parents don’t understand the importance of evaluation and don’t care about their children’s education, why should I? ;)

 

The Beach

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A dream of beauty and happiness and the hopeless effort of making it last forever is the subject of the movie “The Beach” based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Alex Garland, which was adapted for the film by John Hodge. Making a moment of happiness last forever is everybody’s dream, yet we can understand the value of happiness only if you have intensely suffered as Seneca said and somehow, I agree.

The dream beach is Koh Phi Phi,Thailand, where a group of people coming from every part world have built a community, a new sort of heaven, which they wish to make it resistant to time and sorrow. They want to enjoy the incredible beauty nature that surrounds them, dope, grasp the pure heart of life, leaving the ugliness of the materialistic, competitive society outside. Far away, isolated, happy. Forever.

beach 2This idyllic state will be broken by the villain of the story: Richard  (Leo Di Caprio) an American college student. Shrewd, smart, liar, extremely good-looking, just like a modern Satan, Richard breaks in that community upsetting their hard gained balance and contaminating that “innocent” state. Being attractive, he easily seduces Françoise a French mate and becomes at the same time the prey of Sal (Tilda Swinton) the leader of the community. He will lie to both. He won’t tell Sal that he had copied the map of the island and given it to some surfers, thus breaking the vow of secrecy of the place and exposing the community to the risk of a tourist invasion and he won’t confess Françoise that he had sex with Sal. Hence the seeds of jealousy, suspicion, envy  begin to sprout. However, Richard manages to become a sort of hero, when he escapes a shark attack mysteriously succeeding in killing it.

the beach 3The perfect heaven cracks when sorrow and death intrude, thus upsetting the perception of time of the inhabitants of the island. What before seemed to be beautifully static turns into a natural, painful flow. The “eternal beauty” of their world will be thus gradually  “wasted” leading to the final collapse of the community. The occasion is given by another shark, which attacks three Swedish mates, mortally wounding two of them. It is particularly meaningful how the perfect community reacts.They don’t want their dream to be disturbed, therefore they try to remove any interference, even if it is a man’s life at stake.

beach8It may seem cruel, but the death of one of the two men is not an obstacle to their dream. After the burial and when all the prayers are said, life can go on. Sorrow, sooner or later, will fade away and you can gradually go back to your routine.But if the other man doesn’t  die, and he is there, wounded, screaming with pain, you cannot move on. You have to face daily the fragility of human life, you cannot turn the page and you are stuck there, always reading the same tragic lines. At this point, it is necessary to act, removing the problem. The Swedish guy will be carried away so that all the other members of the community are not disturbed by his sight and cries. This is the action that will make their heaven similar to the world the wanted to escape, a world that prefers to throw a sheet on its defects and aberrations to gaze its artificial beauty, like Dorian Gray.

the beach7Along with this process of dissolution from the inside, the world outside knocks on their door and it is brutal, violent, unbearable. The surfers Richard had met, manage to reach the island, but they are murdered by the same farmers, who had allowed Sal and her mates to stay there. The lead farmer understands that only with a good dose of realism he could get rid of those intruders, therefore he hands Sal a gun with a single bullet, a bullet destined to Richard; this is the price to stay there. Sal can’t see the trap. Sal can’t see that her friends are horrified . Sal would do everything to defend her dream and can see no way out. The very moment she pulls that trigger, even if the misses Richard, she disintegrates everything she had built. Her mates are overwhelmed by terror and flee en mass in hysterics to get away from the island as soon as possible, leaving her alone.

Once back to normal life, after some time Richard finds in his e-mail a message from Françoise entitled “beach life” which contains a photograph of the beach community and an animated handwritten inscription over the image: ‘Parallel Universe”. They were all together, smiling, happy on that amazing beach. The photograph had stopped that moment of incredible bliss and perfection, the moment that they had hoped to make it last forever in an unnatural effort that had brought them to ruin.

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Running in the night

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There is an unusual, evocative, romantic way to enjoy the breathtaking beauties of the “eternal city” : running through its most famous streets at night. Yes, at night , because “Corriroma“, the competition that somehow seals the end of the running season here, usually takes place at 10.00 p.m. The ten kilometer race starts at Piazza del Popolo, then the athletes pass on  Via del Corso, Via del Tritone, Via Sistina Piazza Trinità dei Monti till they go through the splendid Villa Borghese, lit by hundreds of torches,to reach Piazza Augusto Imperatore and again via del Corso and back to Piazza del Popolo. Amazing, isn’t it?

Mr Run and I couldn’t certainly miss such a happening as it was also an occasion to have a walk and go shopping in the centre. When we arrived at Piazza del Popolo, it was crowded as usual and peopled mostly by tourists and tourist attractions.

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But at dusk the magic started. corri9

The tourists were slowly replaced by thousands of colorful runners who started their warming-up running around the square in a never-ending joyous carousel.Immagine 085

Some of them even staged a Maori dance, traditional war cry included.

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Lights, happy faces, the atmosphere was merry and warm and at 10:00 about 3 thousand runners gathered at the start line.

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In less than half an hour the fastest had reached Villa Borghese.

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Here is the winner Jaouad Zain from Morocco (31:35).

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Many others were still far from the finish line but they were enjoying the beautiful race.

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And when everything was over, the magic disappeared. The lights went off and little by little the sweated and tired athletes left the square with their supportive friends and families, maybe in search of something to drink or a place where to get some warm croissants and reach the Pincio Terrace to wait for the dawn.pincio1

 

 

The Mythical Method

painting-penelopeWhen you are child, you look forward to growing up and time never goes by. The future adult life is seen with the eyes of innocence: a wonderful, festive, harmless carousel, whose protagonists can enjoy their hard gained independence at last. However, once you eventually  find yourself in the world of maturity, that initial thrill that usually freedom gives, gradually fades away as your perception of time changes. What was formerly felt eternally slow starts to accelerate, till you realize that all that time that could be joyfully wasted once is actually finite and you start to look at the world that surrounds you with the alarmed eyes of “experience”, as Blake would say. Your certainties gradually crumble, and the future becomes less appealing than it used to be and if you look back, you cannot but have the impression that the past was ,after all, something warm, tranquilizing, bright;in a word: happy.

JoyceUlysses2This comforting vision of the past, can be found in many writers and poets, particularly  at the beginning of the twentieth century. Two world wars had brought death and destruction, the present was just like a “heap of broken images” (The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot) which left no room for hope.  Modern artists tried to express the consequent sense of loss, fear and paralysis that had pervaded those tragic decades in their works stressing this fragmentation and the impossibility of a future rebirth. Hence, they manifested a certain nostalgia for a past, which was seen as glorious, because it was vital and expression of universal values, while the present was fragmented and sterile.

ulyssesThe mythical method allowed those artists to show that gap between present and past. In Ulysses, for example, Joyce employs Homer’s myth of the legendary Greek king of Ithaca Odysseus, as the principle of unity of his novel. The three main characters of his novel are supposed to be the modern counterpart of Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope, except that these great figures have lost the power of their symbolic value. Telemachus was the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who fought to have his family back. He stood up to his mother’s suitors during the long absence of his father, he sailed to inquire after his fate and he was by his side when he eventually came back to win his kingdom back. His equivalent Stephen Dedalus is the artist who has actually rejected his family. Molly Bloom , differently from  Penelope has put away her loom and is unfaithful, in fact she is having an affair after ten years of celibacy within the marriage. Odysseus is her husband Leopold Bloom, a middle-age Jewish advertising canvasser, who wanders around Dublin as Ulysses wandered around the Mediterranean sea on a series of inconclusive errands during which he meets the young writer Stephen Dedalus.

Once emptied of their symbolic meaning, the three characters show all their complexity and fragility. The fragments of their thoughts and experiences are included in the 18 chapters, which represent the 18  hours of the day the novel is set (16 th June 1904)  and 18 episodes of the Odyssey. Once again the myth helps the writer to give order to the chaos of thought. Each episode, in fact, seems like a drawer whose function is to keep together all the pieces of the characters’ soul. Hence, the past provides a semblance of unity but it cannot cure the wounds of the present, leaving those souls desperately broken.