Wilfrido or On the Necessity of Education

Some years ago, my husband and I had the great opportunity of joining a program of long distance adoptions in Paraguay. The idea of helping the minors of the poor countries and  their families providing them with an economical help so that they might receive the primary goods, education and the medical care they need, made us feel, I don’t know, better people, if this makes sense. Once subscribed, after few weeks, we received a letter with all the personal data of the adopted child, which, unexpectedly, turned out to be a very exciting moment, because we hadn’t been given the name of the kid yet. I still remember my husband slowly unfolding the letter, looking at the picture and saying with a big smile: “it’s a boy”.

His name was Wilfrido. In the picture a little brat of about five was doing his best to show us his gratitude with a big toothless smile, even if he seemed a kind of uncomfortable in his brand new school pinafore, maybe too large for his age. Once our adopted son had materialized in that pic, we started to be pervaded by a strange sort of excitement. We began to imagine how many things we might have done for him, as providing him with a high school education and even more if he proved to be talented, Harvard, Stanford, why not? At a closest inspection of the picture, actually, the boy didn’t really look like the student type. His eyes were so lively and that pinafore he was forced in could barely discipline his free spirit. Maybe I was wrong.

I was not. Wilfrido didn’t pass the first grade that year. We were shattered, but the following years went much better. He only needed a bit more time to get used to that pinafore. When he learnt to write he began to send his own letters. He always thanked us, of course, but he particularly enjoyed telling about his life and his family. He said that it took seven miles to reach his school from where he lived, which he did on foot or on horseback when his father allowed him. He also added that he liked studying after all, but I did not believe him very much on that point, it was a sweet lie full of gratitude.

One day, Wilfrido and his family left the village never to come back again and I have never heard from him since then. I was disappointed, I felt I could have done something more for him, as if I had not been able to fulfill my task. Few years later I would have seen the whole experience from another angle. I  was in Costa Rica and I needed some directions. One boy offered to write down the address for me. He picked a pen and slowly started to move it on a piece of paper as if he were drawing. It took him five endless minutes to write that piece of information and even if we were a little annoyed at first, somehow we felt we didn’t have to hurry him. Eventually, he handed me the note. His handwriting was incredibly neat and elegant and when I met his eyes I could clearly sees a sparkle, I saw his satisfaction, pride and dignity. He might be one of the many Wifrido that people the world. Maybe I had done something good after all.

In a week time I will be back to school and I needed to tell this story to remind myself in such distressing, absurd times why I teach, because I think education can make people conscious, stronger and free and even because I feel useful every time I can see that sparkle in the eyes of one my students.

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Stay Worried, Stay Foolish!

I have always been inspired by Steve Jobs’s famous speech at Stanford. So motivating. In particular by his use of the word “foolish”. For foolish he meant to be daring, creative and ready to explore paths unseen to the wise. You must be courageous and determined to do that of course, but above all: fool. That is why I can undoubtedly say that Rome has been in these last two years the splendid lab of that foolishness as Steve Jobs did mean it, especially for what concerns public administration, no joking. Let’s give some examples.

When roads  become for many reasons very dangerous as it is in Rome these days, I guess that organizing public procurements for road maintenance could be considered a wise plan, but this would be so for anybody else but the foolish. In Rome, in fact, it has been decided to solve the problem in a very creative way: reducing the speed limits thus saving the money for road maintenance. Amazing, isn’t it?. So it may happen to drive along large roads that seem highways trying not to exceed the maximum speed limit allowed of 50 km per hour, if you don’t want to be fined. Slow but safe. Of course, a lot of fb pages have flourished with the aim of alerting drivers when there are traffic police units in sight. After all, we citizens have to defend ourselves in some way and naturally, I may define foolish this as well in a certain way. Therefore, for our administration fixing road potholes is nothing but a waste of money, especially when only a shower is enough to make all the maintenance useless here. So this is what driving in Rome has become nowadays and you may understand it better if we compare it to another city like Los Angeles mostly inhabited by the wise:

sobrio= sober; ubriaco=drunk

Of course, in Rome the drunk is the one who keeps the straight line as he can’t see or avoid the potholes. Would you like another example? About 20 years ago the then Mayor Rutelli planned to retrain 100 squares, mostly in the suburbs, not only having them cleaned but also creating a lot of green spaces for families and children. Of course, even those squares and green spaces would have required regular maintenance, but unfortunately it did not happen. So, after 20 years they have become just what they used to be or even worse. The problem of green area maintenance regards also the big and famous parks and villas in Rome, the roads and sidewalks where weeds keep growing wildly and the trees which have not pruned for years. If you ventured to read the post that far I guess you have understood that it seems that there is not much money to spend on this project ( nor any other project), so what would you think the foolish have thought about?

Yes, sheep. So pretty soon my dear tourists, you might see sheep graze in Piazza Venezia or walk lazily along Via del Corso to reach Villa Borghese through traffic. Think about sheep manure especially at summer time, what a pastoral sight and smell! Don’ t forget that we are talking about the capital.

The point is that this foolishness is destined to cross the borders of the capital and become national as the party that runs Rome won the national elections almost three months ago and made a contract with the most reactionary and anti-European faction in Italy in order to rule the country. It is a very ambitious contract, indeed. First of all they aim at reducing the public debt. At last, you would say, as we have the third largest debt in the world, but how? Making reforms, reducing waste or combating tax evasion? Oh,no.That would be too wise. The foolish recipe is: not to pay, as they aim at negotiating with the BCE a cut of the public debt of 250 billions of euros for…..nothing.

Maybe, you may wonder, strategies will be implemented to stop the public debt, for sure. Not exactly, as they have in mind a “flat tax”, that is, two tax rates of 15% up to 80.000 euros and 22% if you exceed that income threshold.  That is the revenge of the Sheriff of Nottingham over Robin Hood, who is rolling over in his grave I am sure by now, as that would mean that the poorer classes will be damaged more and pay for the rich. How can it be that a footballer, for example, and a teacher are subjected to a similar tax rate?

And the poor? Don’t you worry, they will be given a sort of “basic income” of about 1.000 euros or more to stay at home. I forgot to mention that those who are holding the reins of the destiny of this country have little working experience. I don’t mean political experience, bur really working experience. One of them before becoming deputy and now candidate Prime Minister, was a steward at San Paolo football stadium and webmaster. Nothing more can be found in that C.V., but maybe I am not fool enough to understand all this.

 

 

A Bowler Hat

At the dawn of the golden era of cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century one of the most popular on-screen character was: “the tramp”. Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy and also the Italian comedianTotò, who often played  this role ( he was actually a Neapolitan nobleman: Prince Antonio De Curtis), were those who gave life to the most memorable ones. Being no longer part of the productive system of society “the tramp” endeavours to survive taking whatever paying work is available or using cunning either to get what he needs or to escape the authority figures who wouldn’t tolerate his behaviour. Somehow, he is modelled on the Spanish pícaro, a roguish character whose travels and adventures are used as a vehicle for social satire, but “the tramp” is a more clumsy, generally a good-hearted sort of man, who looks at the world with the innocent eyes of a child. Even if he has been relegated to the margin of society he endeavors to behave as much as possible with the manners and dignity of a gentleman.

The clothes he wears are the sign of his marginalization. They never fit properly as to symbolize that tramps are no longer fit to be part of the system. The jackets may be too loose or too tight, the  trousers too long or too short and the shoes are often clownish. However, there is an accessory it seems they cannot do without: the bowler hat. It is that hat that makes those characters comic and tragic at the same time. The bowler had become one of the most popular hats in the early 20th century as it was more informal and practical than the top hat, thus becoming a distinctive symbol of the middle upper class of the time. The Belgian painter Magritte, who had made bowlers the protagonists of many of his paintings said:

“It is a headdress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just middle-class man in his anonymity.”

On the head of those outsiders bowlers represented the memory of a more dignified past, what they used to be: middle class men, that is, part of that “anonymity” that now rejects them. Uprooted and hopeless they are doomed to try and survive in an inhospitable world. This kind of humanity thus represented fitted perfectly Beckett’s idea of the Absurd of living, that’s why he chose to model Vladimir and Estragon, the main characters of ” Waiting for Godot”, on Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy .

Beckett was an enthusiast of cinema, silent films and of Stan and Ollie, in particular. He borrows, in fact, many distinctive elements of the two comedians, along with their gags and routines. Apart from wearing bowler hats, Vladimir and Estragon are known by their Christian names, just like Stanley and Oliver, and use their nicknames Didi and Gogo as Stan and Ollie. We also understand from Vladimir’s statement to Estragon: “I’m lighter than you” that Beckett intended a noticeable difference in weight between the characters playing his lead roles, just like Laurel and Hardy. Many of the play’s stage directions and the slapstick routines concerning their hats or boots sound as though Beckett is quoting from a Laurel and Hardy shooting script. Even the theme of suicide by hanging  which appears at the end of each act echoes a similar scene from Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 motion picture: The Flying Deuces. Hardy is heartbroken because the woman he loves has rejected his marriage proposal, so he decides to drown himself, and expects that Laurel to do the same :

LAUREL: What do I have to jump in there for? I’m not in love!

HARDY: So that’s the kind of a guy you are? After all I’ve done for you, you’d let me jump in there alone! Do you realise that after I’m gone that you’d just go on living by yourself? People would stare at you and wonder what you are, and I wouldn’t be here to tell them. There’d be no one to protect you! Do you want that to happen to you?

LAUREL: I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, Ollie. I didn’t mean to be so dis-polite.

HARDY: There, there, Stanley. Let bygones be bygones. This is going to be easier than you think.

Just like in Waiting for Godot, the two fear that one of them may live while the other dies. In this tragicomic vision Laurel and Hardy provided Beckett the key to express on stage the fear of remaining lonely in an absurd world where the presence of a companion is the only real comfort and certainty that can give you the impression of being rooted somehow. With a laughter they could exorcise for a moment the fears and the doubts of those post war generations who felt marginalized just like them and were unable to find meaning in the world they lived. Without a real prospect of a future but the illusion that a Godot one day may show up, they could not but long for that “anonymity” represented by the bowler hat they don’t want to part with.

 

 

 

 

El Diablo

Just at the end of winter, when I thought I had escaped for once the
fatal meeting with the haunting ghost of flu, there it came with its infected touch. Of course, since it was the end of the season and I was very likely one of the very last left with whom it could have a little more fun, it arrived with its best repertoire of symptoms, whatever it was necessary to make me yield. And I did yield. Therefore, in such a state, unable to do anything but lying lazily on my couch, with nothing to do but waiting for my husband Mr Run to attend me, I attempted to find entertainment watching some series on my iPad. By the way, Mr Algorithm seemed a little annoyed at my request this time, as he was too well aware that I enjoy watching the series set in the nineteenth century England, but I had practically seen them all very likely. Then, he made a try anyway: let’s keep the century and change the country. What about Mexico this time? So big brother You Tube came up with this shot saying: “We think you may like this“:

How do you know? Well, I do or better I did. It was 1993 and this picture reminds me of  my mother and my aunt eagerly looking forward to the evenings when, Corazon Salvaje, a telenovela produced by José Rendón for Televisa was on tv. This third adaptation of the novel written by the Mexican authoress Caridad Bravo Adams was an absolute hit world-wide and the very first one to be aired in prime time in Italy. Those were the happy evenings when men could safely go and play five-a-side and have a beer with their friends, as no woman entrapped in this “novela” would have ever noticed their absence. I was not one of them at first and I remember how I enjoyed mocking my mother and my aunt any time I could, till, I don’t even know how, I fell under the spell. I had watched only the last episodes of the saga, by the way, and now I had the chance and the time to view them all. And this is what I did. I watched 80 episodes for almost 70 hours in six days and then I started from the beginning again when I found the “novela” in the orignal language on DailyMotion. Now I can confess it, I am addicted.

I won’t attempt to draw a plot as there are too many twists and turns, but I can say that this is legendary story of a love triangle between two young countesses, Monica and Aimée de Altamira with the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner, named Juan del Diablo. The character of Juan del Diablo is actually the reason of the heartbeats and sighs of all the female viewers of this saga. Caridad Bravo Adams succeeded, in fact, in giving life to the most amazing Alpha male of the Alpha males we have met on books or movies. He is a living oxymoron. He is a smuggler, womanizer, wild, impulsive,rude, a devil as his name suggests and the name of his ship too: Satan. But on the other side, we discover he is noble, good-hearted, a gentleman (if he wishes), terribly handsome and ready to put on slippers and make a family. He is a sort Heathcliff, Othello, Mr Rochester, Mr Thornton and even Mr Darcy in one character alone. Incredibly indeed, the fortunate lady, Monica, who eventually wins his heart, won’t use any seduction technique but true love and a rosary (never underestimate the power of the Almighty).

Good plots are never enough to make a series a hit, if there is not a great cast of actors and I have to say that, having also been able to enjoy it in the original language, they were all amazing. Eduardo Palomo as Juan and Edith Gonzales as Monica gave a super intense interpretation, that made us all dream, but also Enrique Lizalde with his awesome  baritone voice, who is Noel Mancera, the father figure who helps Juan grow and control his impulses, stands out. It is interesting to know that Enrique Lizalde acted as Juan del Diablo in the first adaptation of this “novela” in 1957.The sudden death of Eduardo Palomo only few years after Corazon Salvaje had become a global success, turned the series into myth. After 25 years there are still thousands of pages dedicated to him and to the series, that keep his memory well alive.

While I am writing this, my good friend Oscar Wilde mockingly cames to mind and keeps  whispering in my ear “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” You are right, this is what I have become after 25 years, like my mother, but, is this really a tragedy, my friend?

 

Giving a Helping Hand to Allah

A little raft with three shadows in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. No more
fuel, nothing to drink, no land in sight, only cold and fear. The outline of their
homeland is now too far; the only noise: the beating of their young hearts. Till a
light, a ship, a helping hand and the warmth of a friendly voice: “Està bien chicos?” They soon find themselves on board in one of those NGO ships which patrol the sea to rescue those desperate who seek their fortune in foreign lands venturing into dreadful journeys.

They are three siblings and the youngest is only 14. It is for him that they have left
their country and risked their lives, because he is sick. He suffers from leukemia
and there are no chances to be cured from where he comes from: Libya. His name is
Allah and when he was rescued, he still had the drip attached to his arm.

It is the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms that intercepted the small boat off Libya at dawn. “Happy night in the Mediterranean,” says Oscar Camps, “three brothers with a lot of love and 200 liters of gasoline have gone to sea to have the chance to give their brother who has leukemia, the hope of reaching a European hospital. True heroes “. And the same NGO tweeted: “ What a hell Libya must be and how one must live if the only hope of a sick child is to escape to the sea? And Europe continues to feed that hell … We must react! Now Allah is taken care in a hospital in Siracusa. It would be heartwarming to believe that “all’s well that ends well”, that he will be fine, but this is the third disease recurrence, and I think everybody knows what that means at such young an age.

This is an age of fear. The fear of losing our comforts, identities, certainties and it is rather weird, considering that we are in times of peace and a very long one if we have studied our recent history well. That’s why we plan to build walls, either material or political, in order to secure our little spot. However, if you read that history book well, you will find out that peoples have always moved from one place to another, and their drives have always been the same: hunger and desperation. These drives are so strong that no wall will ever keep those people out. They have nothing to lose, while we do have a lot to lose. A helping hand might do far more.

 

Foolocracy Made Real

I voted, eventually. No need to say I am not happy about the outcome of these elections and no need to say I was not surprised about it. I will leave my comment, in fact, to a post published on this blog (with a little editing) 5 years ago. It was my very first timid attempt of writing about politics and I did it under the mask of what I am: a teacher of literature. After all I firmly believe that “all world is a stage“.

Every time it was the Fool’s turn to go on stage there was a great expectation in the audience. The most important actors wanted to play that role in fact, because he was not only one who juggled or made you laugh with trivial jokes or puns but he was also charismatic, witty, shrewd and, above all, the fool was the only character who was allowed the privilege to say whatever he liked. He was a fool after all. He could target whoever he considered worthy of contempt exposing him to ridicule, king included (with a certain prudence obviously). People laughed with him, people were with him because after all he was one of them, one who could understand their frustrations, misery, rage, disappointed hopes. With a laugh he could exorcise all that. It was a great power indeed and he knew it, but I’m sure that not even in his wildest dreams he would have ever imagined one day to use this power to become a politician and, why not, rule a country. People would have died from laughing. Yes, but it was the Middle Age, the dark age. Nowadays, in the modern age, we have smashed these prejudices and we have allowed fools of any kind to be part of the active political life. Even those who were not really born fool try clumsily to imitate them, because this seems to be what people want.

However, when fools leave the familiar setting of a theatre to seek a better fortune, they seem to suffer from a curious disease: the “all world is a stage” syndrome. Its symptoms are easily recognizable: they keep on acting or speaking  freely without realizing that in the real world acts and words have consequences on people. This happens because they can’t perceive the difference between the fictitious and real life. Problems arise when one of these fools happens to have received the responsibility of ruling a country or anyhow making or sharing a political project with the elected non-fools. He will inevitably have to face an identity crisis, because his job has been for years that of ridiculing, attacking those he is supposed to work with. A fool is very good at destroying, but once he is demanded to reconstruct,his mocking laugh fades away and he starts to display a certain agitation and becomes even aggressive, because all of a sudden he realizes that he just cannot keep on playing his favourite game off the stage. But the question is: can we expect a fool to be responsible and decide the destiny of a country? If the answer is: “Well, yes, why not?”, just follow Italy’s next political vicissitudes and we will see.

The Sorrows of a Disenchanted Voter

Exactly in a week time, new elections will be held here in Italy and I have to say that
maybe for the first time in my life I feel a kind of unwilling to perform my duty of
citizen going to vote. Almost I year ago I confessed all my doubts in a post
about the effectiveness of the democratic system of representation and still the same issue keeps troubling my mind. It is a fact that only on the occasion of elections we are really equal despite, census, education etc. : is this really one of the greatest modern conquests? In that post I asked Socrates’s help to make my point clear and particularly I liked a passage when he affirms that “ voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. And like any other skill, it needs to be taught methodically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education is…. irresponsible“, only education may prove the best antidote to demagoguery (dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading).

However, what happens if those who do not possess that skill represent the majority of a country?  The percentage of those who have relapsed into illiteracy,
that is, those who may not completely understand meanings and concepts, is
increasing in any country and in Italy has reached the 80%, hence, who do you
think propaganda will be addressed to? Modern political speeches have lost their power of seduction, as their message doesn’t aim any longer at being thought-provoking , constructive, but rather, at being catchy, therefore: simple, short and quick. It must stick on you, avoiding the usage of reason if possible.

In my opinion, the most effective slogan I can remember belongs to Berlusconi’s era; as pioneer of Italian Private Television he was a champion of communication : “We won’t put our hands in the pockets of the Italians“. A simple image which doesn’t require to be decoded, as it is extremely effective but dangerous at the same time. In those few words the very first powerful message is that his party won’t levy taxes, which is ok, but the subtle one means that taxes are nothing but robbery, thus mining the faith in that system he would have ruled for almost 20 years ( a maybe more).

Propaganda addresses our fears – real or perceived -, impossible solutions, social envy. There is new-born party here, the so-called five-star party, which has based the entire political campaign on one word only: honesty. Effective and simple, isn’t it? However, 90% of the candidates who have been recruited are completely unexperienced in matters of political administration (and more). May I ask you a question? Would you still trust you doctor if he confessed you that he has never studied medicine, but, don’t worry : he is so honest. I guess you would immediately tear his prescription and find your way out as fast as possible. Well, you wouldn’t believe it , but it seems that one-fourth of the voters of this country is ready to rely on them only because they wave the flag of honesty. I can see Socrates turning in his grave.Rather than a political campaign we have been the witnesses here of a competition among those who rant the loudest and I fear that the winner we’ll be put in charge of the country with the consequences you may well imagine.

I have no other solution to offer than enhancing education, but I understand it is a slow process, very slow, considering the ways education policies are taking, that it seems to me more and more utopian day by day. Will I take to trouble to go to vote, then? I don’t know, yet. I’ve got a nice book to read.