What’s in a Name?

“What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title..” (Romeo and Juliet. Act 2, Scene 2)

Dazzled by the darts of love, Juliet speculates on the nature of names. Names are immaterial, yet, they can become insurmountable obstacles. They cannot be touched or seen, yet, they belong to a man and may mark his fate, even if, of course, they cannot change his essence, whatever it may be. Therefore, names matter. If if weren’t so, my mother wouldn’t have opposed so strongly to the one which was destined to me: Rosaria. I should have been named after my grandfather Rosario, and even if the its origin, Rose, may sound evocative and sweet, here it connotes the typical woman of the South of past tradition and my mother, a modern woman of the North, would have never accepted it. That name did not fit the image she had of her daughter, that’s why she chose Stefania. Fortunately, my grandfather, a mild, sensible man, didn’t mind, after all, I was the last of his many grandchildren and some of them had already been named after him.

Names are clearly evocative, they give an impression, often deceptive, of a person. That is why writers have always chosen carefully the names of their most important heroes or heroines. Think about Heathcliff, for example. It is a name that reflects its complex nature. He is heat, that is passionate, hot, but also destructive and dangerous. He is the fire that attracts you like a magnet, but if you touch it, you’ll get burnt. As for that cliff, it evokes harshness and danger again, in fact, waves move naturally towards cliffs and inevitably break. It is their fate. Would that character have worked likewise, had he been called, Jack, for instance?

I’ll leave Gwendolen to give the answer to this question in the “Importance of Being Earnest”:

“Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.”

It is a no. Gwendolen believes that names reflect the essence of men, and she wishes that the appropriate title for her future husband should be Earnest:

“…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”

Of course he is a liar, with a charming name, of course.

Even Walter Shandy, in Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy”, believes that names are as important to a person’s character as noses are to a person’s appearance. As Dr Slop had flattened his child’s nose in performing a forceps delivery, Walter Shandy believes that a solution to compensate him from what he believes to be a clear mark of loss of masculinity, would be to give him a grand name like Hermes Trismegistus, that is, “Hermes the thrice-greatest”. So, he needs a name “three times the greatest” to make things even. Trismegistus was also the name a legendary character: the greatest king, lawgiver, philosopher, priest and engineer ever. After all, isn’t this what all parents dream for their children? A grand, successful future and a good name may be a good start. Unfortunately, Mr Shandy’s hopes are definitively crushed, as his child is accidentally christened Tristram, which comes from the French “triste”  and from the Latin “tristis,” that is “sad” in English, with a final effect which is not exactly what Walter Shandy had hoped, but, quite the reverse. Tristram himself believes that this event has radically changed the course of his fate. So, what’s in a name?

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”(L.M.Montgomery)

 

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Prudence and Obedience

Was parenting much simpler once? Who knows? But one thing I can say for sure, roles were more defined.Letter XVI from Richardson’s Clarissa is a proof of what I am saying. Clarissa has understood to be promised to old and odious Mr Solmes, a rich man, whose marriage with the girl would satisfy the social ambitions of Clarissa’s father. When the girl understands that everything has been settled, she tries  to do whatever is in her power to avoid her sad fate and decides to speak to whom she believes to be the weaker of her two parents, that is her mother, as she had found her particularly condescending at breakfast, while her father had left the house early with a “positive, angry disposition“. So much the better. Clarissa sends quickly a note to her mother to inform her that she needs to talk to her:

“I had but just got into my own apartment, and began to think of sending Hannah to beg an audience of my mother (the more encouraged by her condescending goodness at breakfast) when Shorey, her woman, brought me her commands to attend me in her closet. ( Clarissa Lett. XVI Vol. 1)

Nothing more should be said.The verbs in bold, in fact, sum up perfectly the roles and the psychological attitudes of the two characters. Clarissa’s mother is the one who commands, while the girl is expected to be submitted and humble.The meeting, which follows, in fact, respects  this pattern. Clarissa’s father had previously charged his wife to make his daughter accept the idea of marrying Mr Solmes, therefore, she approaches the meeting with the disposition of one who has to impart orders. Therefore, she mostly stands up and breaks the barrier of the roles sitting near her daughter and lowering to her level only to weak her resistance, trying to make her feel her true motherly affection with that more intimate approach, but she is ready to rise again as soon as she herself fears to yield, she is a mother after all. Clarissa, on the other side, keeps an imploring posture. She bows, kneels and eventually faints, when her mother tells her that the family, actually her father, expects her to perform her duty and that she would have soon received the visit of the head of the family whose disposition cannot certainly be defined gentle.

For a great deal of this meeting Clarissa’s mother is the only one to speak, while the girl is able to utter only few syllables, besides, whenever she essays to say something her mother doesn’t mean to be interrupted. Eventually, she lets her speak, but unheard. He is to marry Mr Solmes.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since those were the patterns of family relationships. But, how much water? What would such a meeting be like nowadays ? Well, I have no children and I cannot say, so I asked my students to give that dialogue a fresher look and these a couple of “gems” I picked:

Clarissa wants to talk with her mother about her obligation to marry a man of an important family that she doesn’t like, but the mother approaches her first.

* Clarissa, what’s the matter?

* I guess you already know what’s wrong, mom.

* Tell me.

* Mom! You know I’m so disappointed for your will to make me marry that Solmes. He’s such a creepy moron.

* Clarissa! You know it is your dad’s will, and I can’t disappoint him. And don’t use these words to describe him.

* He’s too old for me. There are many cool guys with big money in my school… and I also chat with a lot of them.

* I don’t mind.

* You can’t say that I must not marry him. It’s my life. I want to choose the man who will stay with me for the rest of my damned life.

* Clarissa, you know how it works for people like us. We can’t choose what to do about our life. It’s all about a big project for our family.

* But mom I…

* Clarissa, you are to marry him. There are no other choices.

* Go to hell mom.

Somebody shuts the door. ( Andrea T.)

You soon realize that, apart from the choice of words, this modern Clarissa is allowed to speak more than her mother and in Andrea’s imagination she cannot but have the last word. The following interpretation is more “sociopolitical” in its way, but in this case the mother prevails:

*Muuum, I have a problem, would you please come here and talk with me?

*What do you need, Clarissa? I hope it is important as  I am tidying you room!

*You already know what I want… you know… he is old and ugly… please I have a lot of suitors on Instagram!

*Yes I know but your father wants you to marry him and you are to respect and follow his will.

*I know mum but….but my friends can decide for themselves…. why can’ t I??

*Because you are different from your friends… you know… you are muslim and you are to obey or you will pay the consequences.  (Vittorio F.)

Definitely there has been a lot of water under the bridge.

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

Do people still go to the cinema?” I thought, as I was so surprised to see the cineplex  so crowded. I have to say that since the advent of pay-Tv, Netflix etc. for me cinemas smell of Middle Age.  My sitting-room, in fact, has been transformed into a cozy movie theatre: a wide big screen, a comfortable, reclining sofa and for what concerns snacks, well, my husband  is usually in charge of food, he is such a great cook; that is why I got out of the habit of going out to see a movie and I thought that most people did likewise. I was wrong. Actually, I’m wondering if this is nothing but the first symptom of the approaching old age! By the way, let’s not think about it, for “Bohemian Rhapsody” I made an exception and I am glad I did it.

I don’t know about you, but for me “Bohemian  Rhapsody” is one of the 3 pop rock music gems along with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish you Were Here”; it evokes the sounds and the colour of my youth. If one decides to watch the film having in mind to live those emotions again, well, he won’t be disappointed as from the very first shots, you are catapulted into the atmosphere of the time, which for us who did live it, let me say , “is a kind of magic“.The movie focuses on the first fifteen years of the rock group the Queen and their frontman Freddy Mercury, from the birth of the band in 1970 to the Live Aid concert of 1985.The reconstruction of places, people, clothes is absolutely amazing, while the narration is not always faithful to facts as it is clear the intent to consecrate on the screen a legend. Rami Malek is a convincing Freddie Mercury, even if sometimes he is a little over the top and seems having trouble in controlling the Mick Jagger hidden inside him, yet, despite my words, his interpretation has been worthy of an award nomination, so: chapeau !

The narration of the beginnings, the worldwide success, Freddie’s vicissitudes and illness are engaging, but the climax of the movie is at the end, with the Queen’s epic performance at the Live Aid. The power of music along with the memories that bring about make the final 15 minutes absolutely amazing and you find yourself there, back to 1985. I started to notice that the people around me couldn’t refrain from singing the songs, following the beat and even dancing. The atmosphere had become joyous and with the help of the darkness of the theatre, it was easy to imagine ourselves for a while the boys and the girls we used to be. When the lights were on, I could see mostly men and women in their fifties or sixties with the sparkling eyes of youth again. A spontaneous, long clap sealed the end of the movie.

It was a clap to the band, to Freddie but also to an age when we were still able to dream a better world. Thanks to the great intuition of Bob Geldof, the billion people, who watched the concert all over the world and united by the enchant of music, truly believed that all together could fight starvation in Africa. In was an age when walls were crashed rather than erected. In little more than thirty years “things have changed, changed utterly”, how was that possible? I thought. We have been defeated, that is the truth.  Yet, while I  was absorbed in these thoughts, I could hear a little voice inside me, a young voice which had been dormant for too long, which told me not to give in and kept on singing that eventually “we will, we will rock you!”💪

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs Tink Did Not Win The Big Apple

We are going to New York. This is what my husband Mr Run texted me about three months ago. Why? When? I thought. It sounded all so strange, as we had never talked about it before and he is not the kind of man of sudden decisions, unless he has got everything under control. In fact, the text ended with a link. Ah, there it was. Again. It was a link to a brand new contest named “Italian Teacher Award” organized by Model United Nations and one of the major Italian newspapers: La Repubblica. One of my colleagues had already sent me that link a week before and I had promptly put it aside after a quick glance. It was about describing in a text of about three thousand  words characters one’s own educational project, or even more than one, afterwards, the projects of all the participants would have been examined by a Judging Commission, made up of personalities from the Italian culture and school, according to the parameters of didactic innovation, originality, impact on students, integration of disadvantaged students and repeatability. The chosen six would have won a didactic trip to New York.

Didactic trip to New York? It sounded like a sort of oxymoron to me. Didactic is not exactly the word that I usually associate to New York. The prize consisted in a tour of those schools which are renowned for fighting school drop-out, promoting integration among students or those which are active in terms of technological innovation. As for the accommodation, I had full board guaranteed in a SINGLE bedroom –so, WE I would have gone to New York. Now, let’s speak plainly, I belong to the Sex and the City generation! Had I been awarded with such a prize, I would have expected to enjoy whatever New York could offer in terms of trendy restaurants,clubs, shops  etc. and, as a winner of such a contest, to lodge at the Four Seasons. At least. Should I go New York to visit schools? It sounded more like a punishment than a real prize to me.Yet, how could I disappoint a husband for whom I am not a teacher, but THE teacher? So, I did take part to the contest, eventually, with the only aim of…. winning it. I am quite a competitive sort of person and I would have felt more than satisfied just winning it. But I did not.

I set to work and wrote a passionate text where I described my project, which was more or less a synthesis of some of the themes and episodes I have already dealt with in this blog. “What do you think about it? Can it work?” I asked Mr Run. After a while, he proudly replied: “Now there are just five prizes left…..only, it seems a bit too long!” “Too long? They said 3.000 words and I have not even reached 2.000” He was right. It should have been 3.000 characters long, spacing between characters and punctuations marks included. Certainly, describing an extensive and integrated project in 400 words rather than 2.000 and keeping the same effect, well, it is not such an easy task. After the resizing it sounded poorer – having, of course, the original in mind – so we decided to add an explanatory slide. As I couldn’t find a way to make it any better, I submitted the project and kept my finger crossed. It was November 30th 2018.

Tomorrow, January 14th 2019 the award ceremony will take place at Auditorium della Conciliazione in Rome  and we don’t even know when/if it starts and the names of the winners. Actually, the other 715 participants and I have understood to be among the losers, as nothing has been communicated to us so far. Nothing has appeared on the web page of the contest, which has been dead since December 7th, nor have we received an informative mail. I guess it shouldn’t have been that difficult – if we consider that we are talking about United Nations and La Repubblica – to write a mail, the same mail, to the other 716 teachers, kindly informing them on the result of the contest: “Thanks for joining in. Try again” would have been enough, if you really didn’t know what to write. We have not even been invited to the ceremony, but surfing the internet I have found an invitation card directed to the Italian association of principals, thanks to which I could be acquainted of the fact that everything will start at 5:00 p.m., while originally we were told that it was at 8:00 p.m.. As I live in Rome, had I decided to go the ball, like Cinderella, I wouldn’t have found anybody in.

Teachers matters, recited the contest notice, but as always, the devil is in the details. If we mattered, we would be treated with the respect we deserve. I prefer facts to empty words. Yet, who is to blame for all this? My husband, of course. That’s why I told him that I will never recover from such bitter disappointment till he takes me to New York himself. Next summer would do. In the meanwhile let me see, if I can book a room for two at the Four Seasons!

 

 

Musings on Boxing Day

When you are a child, Christmas time is fabulous. When you are a child born on the third of December, named Stefania, Christmas time is a long Dionysiac festival, a bacchanal, which starts exactly the day of your birthday and whose wild dances die out the day of the Epiphany. Well, when I was a child. I should have realized that something was about to change the moment when accidentally I was told that, from then on, the name-day present was part of the Christmas present, implying that I would have received only one gift but, of course, a more expensive one. Was it really so? I don’t know. Actually, I didn’t give much consequence to that slight change of plan, after all, the name-day present was usually really a small thing, just the emotion of unwrapping the little surprise. That was all.

By the way, after few years, I started to suspect that something was going the wrong way, when I was told that I was too old to expect the usual sock full of candies, coins and that delicious sugar in the form and colour of charcoal, which was usually given to all the bad children in the world -and I was happily one if them – along with a present by the old and scary Befana witch. Old? Old at thirty!I couldn’t believe it.

As the time went by, I realized that December had become a “problem” for all my relatives and friends, as very likely, when you are no longer a child, it is less obvious to find a present that you really need or wish, let alone 4 in a month, so, before I knew it, the four presents had become one. Now I can candidly say that being born and having my name-day celebrated in December is a bummer. Furthermore, my beloved husband Mr Run and I (?) have decided that this year we would have waited for the sale season to buy and exchange our presents. Of course, mine will be something invaluable he said, but I suspect another….bummer?

A Christmas Fairy Tale

Even that year a beauty contest was held among the firs of the snowy valleys of the North of Italy in order to spot the most luxurious, majestic tree worthy to represent the Christmas spirit in the capital; yet, something really extraordinary happened for the first time: the contest got deserted. The sad story of the winner of the previous year, which was of a stunning beauty, as far as everybody could remember, had been the talk of the those valleys for months and months. How could it be that such a magnificent tree had become the object of worldwide derision so that to be named: “Spelacchio”(Mangy)? Nobody could explain it. There were also rumors about its having been turned into lumber to build a wooden house, where, it seemed, mothers could change and breastfeed their children. “Mothers in Rome don’t have proper places to perform those operations?” they murmured. “Strange, indeed.” “How had they called it?” “Oh, I know it: “Baby Little Home“.Those stories were too scary to remain indifferent. That was not exactly the destiny that a winner of a beauty contest deserved, everybody believed. “Turned into logs to make a hut?” “No way!”

So, when Christmas time approached, all the firs made their best to look as shabby as possible in order to avoid to be chosen. Those which were easily affected by these tales, turned soon grey with fear, while others thought about asking the help of some birds which hovered nearby for : ” Could you pluck some of my pine needles, please?” the fir asked some finches, which had just comfortably perched on one of its branches. “But, isn’t it going to be too painful?” “Don’t worry. You would save my life!” “Pluck as many as you can, please!” The finches were so touched by the imploring tone of its voice, that they demanded no more explanations and promptly set to work. They knew the poor fir was suffering, even if they endeavoured to be as delicate as possible. The brave tree bore it, without saying a word.

“What’s happened here?” said one the organizers of the contest. It seemed as if some sort of virus had spread among the firs of the Alps. “So weird! It has infected only the firs, as the pines, the larches and even those chestnuts look perfectly well !” “What shall we sent to Rome?” “Oh, they might use an artificial tree!” said another one. “An artificial tree! After what happened last year! Nonsense!” While they were walking through that desolation,wondering about what was the best option they had, they couldn’t believe their eyes! What a stroke of luck ! Before them stood a strong, healthy, fabulous tree. “Quick, pull it down!” said one of the organizer, as they were already late in delivery and after a few hours they left the place. It was only when all the men and the unfortunate tree were far enough that the firs recovered their bloom,vigor and serenity. At least for a year.

The winner had recently emigrated from a Southern valley of the Apennines and knew nothing of the sad story of Spelacchio. He had been fully informed by the trees nearby too late to put in place the strategies of its neighbors and now, there it was. Just like the previous year, the fir was accurately prepared and delicately placed on a lorry on a bed of cushions and tied, but this time, as it was too long and big for that lorry, many of its branches were cut. The tree heard some men saying that those branches would have been nailed to the stem once arrived at “Piazza Venezia” in Rome. “What a barbarous treatment!” he thought , “Being crucified at Christmas! That’s intolerable!” But nothing could be done, it was decided.

When it eventually arrived in the capital, it was so tired and looked so ruffled and poor after having been mutilated that not even in its wildest dreams the fir believed it might become that Christmas tree the capital deserved and had been waiting for years. A group of people were made curious by that scene, gathered around it and started frantically to take pictures: “This is even worse than Spelacchio” they sneered “at least, it had its branches on. Let’s call it Spezzacchio (from to cut= spezzare)” and went away laughing. It was mortified.

But that night, after the workers had reassembled its branches, something extraordinary happened. While it was sleeping as it was too worn out, a fairy, named Netflix, came by moved to pity and sprinkled some of her magic dust all over the fir. In a bit the tree found itself covered with Christmas ornaments, thousands colorful balls and a myriad of lights. When it opened its eyes, the fir could see only happy faces that looked on it in admiration. It could even feel a warm touch. It was a child who was petting its left branch tenderly and exclaimed: “Look mum, what a wonderful Christmas tree!”

This story has a moral: there is always hope. After almost three years of this adminstration we have eventually succeeded in having a decent Christmas tree, maybe in 20 years pot-holes and garbage won’t be a problem any longer of this city. We must learn to be patient and believe that a fairy one day will make things right. You’ve got to believe it, at least at Christmas time.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas everyone!!

On the Importance of Storytelling

Alexander III of Macedonia, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was 22, when he landed in Asia Minor with an army of 50.000 soldiers. Once he put his foot on shore, he symbolically stuck his spear on what for him was Asian ground and said: this land is mine”. This is the incipit of one Alessandro Baricco’s memorable lectures on the vital importance of storytelling and, of course, he chose a great story to tell in order to get his point, so let’s keep on with the narration.

First of all: why did a Macedonian king claim those vast Asian territories named Persia, the greatest empire of the time? It could seem like madness at first glance, but he had a powerful reason: to save the honour of the Greeks. Long time before, the Persians had invaded Macedonia and Greece, a war which was won eventually by the Greeks, but at great expense for the people. Everything had been destroyed: villages, houses, temples. As the Persians had come there and burnt their temples, hence it was his right to conquer their land and burn theirs. Alexander had inherited this pan-Hellenic project from his father, who had hired Aristotle himself for his education. When his father died and he was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch the campaign for the conquest of Persia.

By the way, it was a crazy enterprise. He arrived with “only” 50.000 soldiers, a small bunch of men if we consider that the Persian empire was inhabited by millions of people who could be recruited any time by Darius, the King of Kings. Wherever he went, the Persians could have put together an army three times his. Something more had to be done, that’s why Alexander’s story of conquest and revenge took necessarily the form of legend. He wanted his people to see him more like a God than a king. That is why he started his conquest of Persia with three symbolical actions. First of all, he went to pay homage to the tomb of Protesilaus, who was the first  to leap ashore at Troy, and thus the first to die in the war. That was the destiny of any “first” man who put his foot on Persian land according to a prophecy. Alexander, wanted to be the first to touch the ground, but he didn’t die, thus proving that predictions didn’t work on him as he was a God.

Then he went to visit the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus along with Hephaestion, his life mate. Achilles was among those legendary figures of the war of Troy, the one and whose values he identified himself the most and he was a demigod, after all. Finally, he felt the urge to do something apparently nonsensical. He risked his life and that of the comrades who followed him to reach the Libyan desert to ask the oracle of God Amon  the following question: ” Am I Amon’s son”? Alexander must have had a monumental ego, this is a matter of fact, but all this was to make his story more appealing. They were about to fight a war, which would subdue Persia under the Greek dominion and the only one who could lead them to victory couldn’t but be a God. Gods are no losers.

Well, they won. Alexander won because he had an appealing story to tell, made of dreams, legend, conquest and his people followed him to victory. He had understood the immense power of storytelling. Can we give a definition of storytelling to make all this clear? Of course. Reality = facts + storytelling, namely, it is the reality devoid of facts and a fact without a storytelling does not exist, it is not real. Only those facts which are part of a narration are true.

At this point of Baricco’s lecture, I understood. Those large movements, which are growing worldwide, are fed with storytelling and they will never be stopped by facts. The facts of the unattainability of electoral promises or the evident incapability of this or that politician, these are facts, but they can’t be a barrier to what is mostly irrational and emotional. It is a sort of collective automatic response, an indomitable stream. It follows man’s animal instinct, the one which makes you believe to absurd things. Alexander wanted to conquer Persia, as they had destroyed the Greek temples 150 years before. Never mind if they were not exactly your temples, as Alexander was Macedonian, it is a meaningless detail compared to the power of the storytelling.

That is why, as long as we want to oppose those movements taking the evidence of the ineptitude of leaders or the folly of some election programmes, with facts, we are in the wrong. Facts do not appeal masses. We need to find a new storytelling; and soon.