Leap years, ill-Fated Years?

2020 is a leap year, but I don’t like that confident about it and do you know why? Because I am Italian and in these latitudes leap years are believed to be bad luck. Of course, there must be a reson that gave origin to this common belief and we have to go back to Roman times to find it .

A year is said to be a leap year, when instead of lasting 365 days, it has one more day, exactly in February, which therefore counts 29 days in all. The reason for this change is to be found in the exact duration of the solar year, that is, the time taken by the Earth to make a complete tour around the sun. History traces the origin of this ancient practice to the time of the Ancient Romans: Julius Caesar in 46 BC already knew that the calendar year actually lasted 365 days and 6 hours. So every 4 years in his calendar, he had added one more day immediately after February 24, a date that was pronounced in Latin “sexto die ante Calendas Martias“, that is ” six days before the first day of March”. The extra day was called “bis sexto die“, that is ” the sixth day for the second time”, that is why the Italian word for leap year is “bisestile” (bis-sexto).

But, why is a leap year associated to bad luck? Well, in Ancient Rome February was the month dedicated to funeral rites, the commemoration of the dead and penance. The 21th of February was also the day of “Feralia” which means “bringing” (in Latin: fero) gifts to the dead.  Roman citizens brought offerings to the tombs of their deceased ancestors, which consisted in the delivery, over a clay pot, of flower garlands, ears of corn, a pinch of salt, bread soaked in wine and loose violets. Even if additional offerings were allowed it seems that the dead were appeased only with ritual offerings. These simple offerings for the dead had been introduced in Lazio perhaps by Aeneas, who had poured wine and violets on the tomb of Anchise. Ovid narrates that once the Romans had neglected to celebrate Feralia, because they were engaged in a war, so,  the spirits of the dead had come out of the tombs, screaming and wandering the streets angrily. After this episode, reparatory ceremonies had been prescribed and the horrible manifestations ceased.

February was therefore commonly considered a bleak and fatal month and the extra day of a leap year made it ever more so. Another hypothesis is that for the ancients, everything that was anomalous and not rational, was to be considered a bad omen, therefore, also a year with an extra day. That is why after many centuries we keep believing that a leap year is not a good thing and how could I think it otherwise, since I woke up the 1st of January with a cold? And if this is just the beginning and 365 more will have to come like this, oh my!!

Happy New Year!!!

The whole Christmas period is all about lights and celebrations which are linked to the winter solstice and date back to ancient Rome traditions and even before. Both the Romans and the Egyptians worshipped Mithras (originally a Persian deity who was said to be either the son of the sun or the companion of the sun) , a very popular deity indeed, whose birth was celebrated by the Romans on the 25th of December, and by the ancient Egyptians on January 6th. Since then, this phase of the year represents the renaissance of the sun and is greeted with various rites, which highlight the new beginning.

January, in fact, whose name comes from the god Janus, is portrayed with two faces: that of a young man and that of an old man with a beard, so that he can look back and forth at the end of the past year and at the beginning of the next. The Egyptians represented Mithras, the new-born sun, by the image of an infant, which they used to bring forth and exhibit to his worshippers on his birthday and kindle lights in token of festivity, so we may understand where the tradition of lighting our towns and houses for Christmas time comes from, but what about the New Year’s fireworks?

Well, New Year’s fireworks had to ward off the forces of evil and the evil spirits that are unleashed, in a moment of transition from the old to the new year, as evil spirits don’t seem to enjoy loud noises. Even the cork of the sparkling wine shot to celebrate midnight is excellent for warding off the evil eyes. The throwing of the shards (on the streets from the windows), which used to be very common in Italy years ago, particularly in Naples, at the midnight of the end of the year,  represents the physical and moral evils that have been accumulated over the year everybody wishes to chase away.
Hence, the noise, the crowd, the fire, the shouts symbolize the new that comes from chaos, the season that changes, the earth that sprouts. For centuries, the men of every civilization have been celebrating the rites of passage, the changing of the seasons, the end of a year and the beginning of a new time, with fire and noise. Bonfires and lit lamps, on the other hand, had the function of illuminating the path of the year that entered.
Therefore, I wish you all that your own path this year may be sparkling, but serene and positive at the same time.

 

A Certain Something

Teaching is a profession of a peculiar kind. It is not only about the transmigration of data from one mind to another, but rather about educating new generations, moulding personalities, thus giving them the basis for future opportunities. If this is the delicate goal to be achieved, upon which criteria teachers ought to be selected? 

Here in Italy, for example, it is enough to have a university degree and pass a competitive  exam, where mostly the knowledge of the subject you mean to teach is tested. Then, after a probation year, during which apparently your teaching skills should be carefully verified, but practically nobody cares  – unless one day you screw everything up and yield to the impulse of strangling Pietro, who has kept annoying you for an entire semester, thus clearly demonstrating your inaptitude – you become a licensed teacher at last. But is this selecting procedure adequate?

Best education, best grades, don’t necessarily make you the the best of teachers, and even training courses, refresh courses, developing courses are of no use, unless you possess that something which truly makes a teacher, which is  a natural disposition you’ve been born with and that cannot be apprehended on books. Somebody might object that this could be the same for any job, but, of course,  I disagree. If you don’t search that sense of gratification that you achieve when you arouse the pleasure of understanding in others’ minds and if you cannot communicate your passion and the genuine intent to involve them, teaching will make you miserable for the rest of your life.The necessary effort of understanding those minds means being aware of the fact that, as students grow you must grow with them, thus accepting to re-invent yourself, your style, update your  language and ready to put aside what once was useful, as generations change and quickly. All this should not be felt as frustrating, as it often happens, but rather, challenging. But still, it is not on books that you learn it.

Teachers should be above all charming people, let’s use a more trendy word: sort of “influencers” and this is incontrovertible to me. Enchanters, mentors and leaders at the same time with the great ambition of making students enjoy what they learn rather than just do it. I dislike those pages on the web run by the same  teachers, where we are mostly described as ill treated, underpaid miserable bunch of people, in a form of a joke. I don’t mean they are telling lies, of course, a lot ought to be done and spent on education, but reinforcing the common idea that teachers are losers doesn’t make really any sense as nobody wishes to emulate a loser. We should set the example, but a successful one. 

We won’ t be considered more just saying we wish to be so, we must act, create another story telling, which is the truth for most of us actually, that is : even if there is neither big money or success, teaching is a privilege and a great one. And when we are attacked on our few prerogatives like, for example, having two months of holidays every year, rather than feeling guilty and be on the defensive, acting like losers in the effort of explaining how much time we spend on extra work, grading, burnout danger and so on, take my example and reply : ” I am sorry, but you are wrong, I have THREE months of holidays and even more, since our mayor has taken the habit of closing schools, when it is likely to rain!” This kind of explanation allows me also to kill two birds with one stone, as it could be for many a very good reason to choose another mayor next time; after all being a little subtle constitutes an essential part of being a teacher.

Hence, if you keep complaining and truly believe that what I have said so far is not required or essential, trust me, choose another profession,  if you don’t want to make yourself miserable for the rest of your life; if you feel underestimated, please change, you are still in time ; if you are hungry for money and success, go away, especially if you are young, the school is not the right place for you, if you are looking for popularity, why choosing the classroom as stage, when there is the vastness of the web; if you have all or only some of these ambitions and you still want to be teacher, your working life will be like hell.

So long the selection procedures of teachers will be focused mostly on knowledge rather than personality or attitudes, so long you believe that attending training courses may be a remedy to deficiencies in character, thus making a good teacher, I am afraid, you’ll only have a teacher. Schooling needs new life blood that only strongly motivated, passionate, brave educators can give, but those ingredients can’t be found on books, but in their hearts.

Austenland

I have to confess that I am in love with Mr Algorithm. I am fully aware of the fact that he is a sort of nosy, intrusive guy, irrespective of my privacy, but things are not always for the worst. As he knows me well, I dare say, more that I suspect, he often introduces me to new places or better, pages, I would never think of going myself. Not long ago, for example, while I was lazily scrolling some posts on fb, he gently caught my attention and said: “Maybe you may enjoy this”.

“This” was a page named ” Fans of Pride and Prejudice”. Well, I thought, I love Jane Austen in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular, if this makes me a fan, well, let’s take Mr Algorithm’s advice. As soos as I joined in, I understood that very likely the page I dropped by was addressed to a bit younger public, as the recurrent discussion was about who was the best actor for the role Mr Darcy and their choice fell incomprehensibly on Matthew Mcfaiden, which is a sort of heresy to me, as Mr Darcy is and will ever be Colin Firth. So, as I didn’t want to discuss the matter any longer, even because there was nothing else to discuss about, I soon quitted the group.

However, Mr Algorithm didn’t lose heart and after few days got back in with another option : “Fans de Orgullo y Prejuicio”, a page in Spanish. I have to say that beyond being nosy, intrusive and irrespective, this Mr Algorithm is by no means stubborn. I just meant to give a quick look, but unexpectedly, I found this page quite interesting and I lingered on for a while. Still the Darcy mania was the main theme, but this group was not only about pictures of the best profile, or the most romantic moments of the many movies of Pride and Prejudice, but whatever had been shot about any novel of Jane Austen, in any language, in any part of the world could be found here: an immense romantic filmography to be fully enjoyed. I quickly subscribed. So, I left for a sort of Austen world tour.  I learnt that there are movies about Pride Prejudice set in Atlanta, Seattle, Botswana, Zombieland, the jungle of Tanzania and the North Pole too. I could comfortably watch ITV ‘s adaptation of Sanditon right after the day the episode was aired and lots more, till one day, I found myself in Brazil.

One of the girl of the group was thrilled, because she had found this: “Orgulho e Paixão”, a Brazilian telenovela of Globo TV, which is the dream made reality of any Austen’s fan . It is the story of the Benedicto family,  the equivalent of the Bennets: 5 unmarried daughters and an over anxious mother, but, and this is the surprise, it is not only the Brazilian version of Pride and Prejudice, but rather the tale of some heroines of Jane Austen’s novels all together. Jane and Elizabeth are the same but the other three sisters have the traits the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility, Caroline Morland from Northanger Abbey and, this was a stroke of genius in my opinion, Emma is Elizabeth’s best friend, a rich match maker just like in the original novel. The love stories interweave in the beautiful natural setting of the imaginary “Coffee Valley” and San Paulo of Brazil at the beginning of the twentieth century.

For a fan of Jane Austen, you may well understand, that such a production couldn’t but cause severe addiction. The rhythm of publication of one episode per day became soon unbearably slow for me, so, as I was hungry for more, I desperately started to search the web, till I got to Russia, where a certain Lucas had issued them all. A real lucky break. Do you want to know how many? Well, one hundred. I watched 100 episodes of one hour each in, let’s say, less that a month. Of course, my Spanish has greatly improved, my social life a little less. However, I found the “novela” really enjoyable and I have been even an enthusiast for the first 50 episodes, but unfortunately when the screenwriters left the path of Jane Austen’s narration to explore other solutions, the characters have become less plausible with the outcome of turning the final episodes into a farce.

The truth is that after more than 200 years Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines still charm the new generations of readers just like the old ones;and this makes me think that “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see”, the world will always be Austenland.

 

 

Sardines in the Ocean

Mala tempora currunt. These are desperate times and it has been so for quite a while. Too much. The outcomes of global politics of these last years has been so far only division, hatred, selfishness and it seems that perspective of erecting barriers, thus protecting our little world, makes everybody happy. Those who don’t find themselves in all this have been left alone, as that disruptive wave of populism with its simple but effective language has found the political antagonist forces unprepared and weakened, if not ridiculed, by the power of  their slogans and tones. So, we have become hopeless spectators of what to me is a cultural disaster, waiting fora someboby” that when the time comes takes us out of this mess. But, what if we imagined ouselves to be that somebody?

Mattia Sartori

Only a month ago Mattia Santori, 32, from Bologna, felt the urge of doing something. A couple of days before Salvini and his coalition partners, the smaller far-right party Brothers of Italy, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, were due to launch their campaign for the Emilia-Romagna regional election at an indoor sports arena in Bologna. Emilia-Romagna has been since ever the stronghold of Italian left wing and there is a real danger that Salvini might win the election. He sent an urgent message to three friends late at night telling them to meet the next day. Over lunch, the four friends hatched a plan to Salvini’s boasts about filling Italy’s squares with supporters. The sports arena had a capacity for 5,700 people, and so, via an announcement on Santori’s private Facebook page, the group invited people to a counter-rally at Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, with the aim of attracting 6,000 people. 15,000 people filled the Bologna square.

Sardines in Bologna

As Salvini’s far-right electoral alliance pursued its campaign, the Sardines converged in other Emilia-Romagna cities before spreading across   Italy, Turin, Florence, Naples and  yesterday they arrived in Rome. They call themselves “Sardines”, as they aim at filling squares packed together like sardines in a tin box, so sardines are the thousands of people who spontaneously gather to manifest their discontent towards the language of populism embodied  by former minister Matteo Salvini and his party.

Sardines in Rome

Yesterday’s square, Piazza San Giovanni in Rome, was not a tight space, it was enormous, an ocean.  Nonetheless, and immense crowd of sardines, young and old succeeded in filling a landmark which has hosted memorable rallies. All of them demanded another way of doing politics, a different storytelling, which is not only a never ending political campaign on twitter or fb, which feeds itself with fears and the rethoric of hatred. The only way which leads to a future of peace is that of anti-fascism, anti-racism and solidarity.The full squares are a clear message to politicians, both left and right.

Sardines in Rome

Very interesting so far, but what comes next? This is a movement, and movements only dent the so called political system or they may end up being swallowed by it, if they just aim at agitating waters. As after a while, sediments, having recovered from the unexpected tides, settle comfortably again, so nothing changes. Our recent history has already undergone the effects of another movement, the so called “five star movement”. They believed they embodied the revolution in politics and would have opened parliament just like a can of  tuna –  fish metaphors seem to be very en vogue and effective here – , but when they turned into a party and got the majority of votes with an incredible 34%, they actually upset the political balances of parliament, only, they didn’t understand that that was the easy part. Once elected and comfortably seated in the can, the destructive phase was now over and  should have been replaced by the constructive one. Their effective slogans crashed against reality and furthermore, being totally inexperienced, they paved the way to a much more skilled shark named Matteo Salvini.

Sardines in Naples

So I ask again: what comes next? Pietro Nenni, an Italian politician, long time ago warned that full squares don’t fill ballot boxes, as the recent history of Brexit demonstrates, so we cannot hope that the “sardines” will stop Matteo Salvini and friends, for sure. However, the people in  these squares showed us that we are not alone, we are many and in our small way we can react to the populist wave.  It is good to talk about politics rather than empty slogan again, it is good to see anti-fascist and anti-racist squares, it is good to see a positive attitude in all the people who joined the rallies and this gives me hope. From Piazza San Giovanni, together, we may start to make a better future.

The Sisyphean method

The last runner in a relay is the one who takes on him a great deal of responsabilities about the success or failure of a race. No matter how good or bad his mates have been; when he catches the baton, he knows that it is his face that the everybody will remember, when he  eventually crosses the line. It might be a moment of glory, of course, but of  bitter disappointment too, as he has not been able to give his contribution to take the team to success. This truth concerns not only relays or sport in general, but also many episodes of our lives. Whenever we find ourselves in the uncomfortable situation of being the “last runners”, we are often ovewhelmed by the weight of the new responsabilities and tasks, which we do not completely feel as our own. That’s why I always try not to find myself in this position, but this year, as I haven’t been smart enough to avoid the dart, here I am, holding a baton.

I actually have “inherited ” a class, a bunch of nice people, in truth, but I have to say that after a couple of months I feel like a “last runner”, who has not started to run the last part of the relay yet. I am just holding a baton at moment going nowhere. The point is that apparently  the great majority of these students, average age 17, seems to have learnt one, only one, I swear, learning method: Sisyphus’s method. In case you don’t know, Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades for his general trickery, by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit. This for eternity.

So, the “Sisyphean way” consists in making the effort of studying and forgetting the second after a test or an activity has been accomplished. Hence, the next time they need those rules or concepts to understand another topic, they start afresh, and on and on and on. In this “rolling up” process, apparently, the thought of developing and risking another learning strategy has not crossed their minds yet. The greatest danger of  this method, in my opinion, is: boredom. Even if Camus imagined Sisyphus smiling and happy too, while pushing up the stone, as he assumed he had accepted the punishment assigned to him, I am sure he was bored to death, as nobody is able to love any subject in this state of frustration.

Of course, they delude themselves remarking that the “hill” is too high, the “stone” too heavy or that they have not properly been trained in “stone rolling” and that is why they are so fatigued and would like somebody to share the effort with (parents, teachers, private tutoring). The fact is they don’t realize that, while Sisyphus was punished by Zeus to repeat the action for eternity, they are free, they can choose how to roll up the stone and even how to prevent it from rolling down again. They could break the stone in smaller pieces, for example, or try to flatten the top of the hill or even find a simpler path. Of course, in all those other activities they would find a teacher ready to help them, because that means they are struggling to find a way, their way. At end of this new effort, I am sure they would be even surprised to find out that they could like, after all, “rolling stones” and it is also fun.

The risks of Tourists’s Misbehaviour in Italy (According to Lonely Planet)

Barcaccia Fountain. Rome

If there one thing I’ve learnt in all my years travelling and long permanence abroad is to see myself through somebody else’s eyes. I mean, what you regard normal in your country in terms of habit and behaviour, becomes peculiar in another place. Somehow you get conscious that there is some kind of truth in all those prejudices and commonplaces about one’s country. Travelling makes you understand who you are and the degree of influence of the cultural environment of the country you come from, even if you truly believe there is none.

I remember my very first day in London, I guess I was at Piccadilly Circus, map in my hands, wondering where Oxford Street might be, when a man came by, offering to help, but as soon as he realized I was Italian, he started to rattle off everything he knew about Italy: “mamma, pappa, pizza, pasta, mafia, Papa, la famiglia……. ” and sang a tune of a commercial of some Italian product popular at that time. Ah, he also added that I didn’t look Italian. I wondered, was that a compliment? As it seemed so from the tone of his voice. What do Italians look like?

More than looks, I think we can or could be easily spotted for our behaviour or misbehaviour. We are a sort of colourful, noisy people, who don’t need a good pint of beer to give way to our natural extroversion and particularly disinclined to follow rules, any rules. But we have improved in time, slowly, I admit, but we have. I myself  have learnt to tame my natural unruly spirit ( it doesn’t mean I have changed, it is there, ready to surface when least expected), but the habit of travelling and the constant exposure to other cultures through media has made us get closer to what I may define “European standards”.

The point is that when tourists arrive in Italy, we have the feeling that most of them have left their book of rules and proper behaviour at home. It is as if they truly believed Italy were a sort of pleasure island where everything is allowed, so most of them think they can enjoy here what they can’t or wouldn’t dare do anywhere else. And it is not only our perception. In fact, I came across an article from Lonely Planet about this topic: tourists’ misbehaviour in Italy and 21 tips to avoid any trouble. This is in short the state of things according to Lonely Planet.

“Italian authorities have introduced a slew of new rules aimed at curbing unacceptable behaviour, many of which are in response to issues with overtourism. Some have been introduced with a zero-tolerance approach. In June, a Canadian tourist was fined €250 ($278) for sunbathing in her bikini in Venice’s Giardini Papadopoli. While in July, two German tourists were fined €950 ($1058) and immediately asked to leave the city after they were found making coffee on a portable stove beneath the historic Rialto Bridge.  Two French tourists were caught allegedly taking sand from a beach in Sardinia this month and could face up to six years in prison. And in Rome, police have been encouraging lounging tourists to move from the Spanish Steps as sitting on them is now subject to a fine of about €400 ($450). At first glance the rules may seem HARSH but residents in Italy are really starting to feel the strain of overtourism. “

I am sorry to contradict, but we are not starting to feel the strain of overtourism, but rather the strain of mass misbehaviour. If the writer thinks those measures “harsh”, somehow he seems to mean that those behaviours are actually ordinary in your countries, so they wouldn’t be subjected to a fine. I don’t think so. Among the 21 tips there are two or three which are really puzzling. The writer suggests to refrain from:

“Jumping into fountains or otherwise damage or climb on them,

Setting up picnics in public spaces….,

Walking around shirtless or in your swimwear in any metropolitan area.”

If there is the need to stigmatize these behaviours as unacceptable in Italy, does it mean that I can jump into your fountains, set up picnics in public spaces or walk around shirtless when I come to visit your country? I bet, I could not. The only explanation I can give is that, after all, behind your masks of proper behaviour an Italian heart beats, a heart which wishes to give way to its impulses freely, but thanks to you, we have learnt to improve our standards at last, therefore if you get fined, well, it is all your fault.