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.

That Sacred Closet When You Sweep

That sacred Closet when you sweep —
Entitled “Memory” —
Select a reverential Broom —
And do it silently.

‘Twill be a Labor of surprise —
Besides Identity
Of other Interlocutors
A probability —

August the Dust of that Domain —
Unchallenged — let it lie —
You cannot supersede itself
But it can silence you — (Emily Dickinson)

Every year, on the 27th of January the world observes the Holocaust Memorial Day. On that day we are called to remember how far can the folly and cruelty of man can go. We must remember; and teach our children that the privilege of being born in such a long time of peace and wealth, at least in this part of the hemisphere, is not for granted, it may not last forever as those dangers are always behind the corner. Peace must be defended by any attack ignorance and arrogance may launch.

Some students from a school in Palermo saw those dangers and on the occasion of the Holocaust Memorial day last January, they decided to put their thoughts in short video made of a few slides. The above poem by Emily Dickinson with its warnings was the elegant introduction to their work, just to say that they had actually swept that “sacred locket” with the utmost care and that in that “domain of dust” they had perceived the semblance of the same ghosts of the past still roaming in the present. Of course, they wore different clothes, their manners could seem more agreeable or even affable sometimes, but there they were. Hence, they proceeded comparing the Italian racial Laws of 1938 step by step, that is, those laws which restricted the civil rights of the Jews, to the first Security Decree of the Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini of 2018, which regulated the rights and protection of the immigrants in our country with the conclusion that they had similar traits. It wasn’t actually even a very original work, as a popular Italian magazine, “L’Espresso”, had already extensively compared the two measures a couple of months before. Nevertheless, this demonstrated that those students were at least well informed and displayed an uncommon poetical taste.

That article had no consequences of any kind, there is still freedom of expression as far as I know, but things didn’t work the same for what concerns those students in Palermo or better, their teacher: Rosa Maria Dell’Aria. The latter, in fact has been recently put off her job for two weeks. She was considered guilty of  having allowed her students to express their free point of view rather than censor it and require a disciplinary measure against them. Don’t rub your eyes, you’ ve read it right, she was requested to censor her students’ thoughts, thus ignoring the Statute of  Students, which in paragraph 4 of article 4 states very clearly that “in no case the free expression of opinions correctly manifested and not detrimental to the personality of others can be sanctioned, neither directly nor indirectly,  ” and in case somebody forgot:”The life of the school community is based on the freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion, on the mutual respect of all the people who compose it, whatever their age and condition, in the repudiation of any ideological, social barrier”. The video was clearly a free expression of opinions just like the article and the cover of the “L’ Espresso”. Hence, the teacher was punished for complying with the Students’ Statute and acting correctly.

What I find really alarming is the presence of the DIGOS (the police department dealing with political security) in a school of teenagers in Palermo. Does that mean that if a student expresses an opinion that the government dislikes, the police department that deals with political crimes or terrorism is allowed to intervene? So, am I to expect to find the police in my classroom if somebody says, that the second Security Decree, for instance, which should be approved tomorrow, goes openly against human rights, as everybody says, because it means at stopping immigration sanctioning those who go to the rescue of the immigrants at sea with fines between 3500 and 5500 euros for each migrant transported, thus condemning to death those who will try anyhow to leave their countries looking for a better future. This is but an intimidation. An attack on the freedom of students and teachers. An attack on the free and democratic school and teachers cannot be found divided or distracted this time.

At end of the video, those student asked a question: what is the point of celebrating the Holocaust Memorial Day, if we seem to forget everything, making the same errors of the past? But, they had an answer and a good one, in my opinion: commitment. Remembering is the key that should make us feel like committing ourselves more, learning from the errors of the past to create a better future, because if we choose only to be the spectators of life, we may not enjoy the show sooner or later and then it might be too late to change channel.

Let’s Make it Easy

Not long ago, while I was on a couch to the Dolomites, I was drawn in by a conversation between two sisters. As soon as the elder, who was I guess about twelve, caught a glimpse of the first snowy cliffs, she started to explain to her younger sister things like: how orogeny worked and why those mountains were so high. Since she wanted her to follow what she was saying, she tried to select her words carefully so as that even such a topic could sound appealing and be understood by a little girl of eight.Trust me, it was a formidable dissertation. The sign that she had been able not only to catch the girl’s attention – and mine – but also to involve her was that her feed-back was absolutely great: her little sister, in fact, kept on asking a lot  of questions which were actually quite pertinent. She was in. I couldn’t help but wonder if many of my much older students would have been able to reach that simple and effective clarity of thought, which is typical of those for whom studying means understanding rather than the dull repetition of something which has not gone beyond the level of dark matter yet.

I often mention this episode in class as an example of how I think students should approach studying, as, only when you are able to understand a topic to such an extent to make it accessible to anybody, particularly if that anybody is not that smart, you may say to have actually learnt it. That is why when I heard about the Breakthrough Junior Challenge I was absolutely fascinated. The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is an annual competition for students from all over the world, ages 13-18, which consists in submitting a 3 minute video that explains a challenging and important concept or theory in mathematics, life sciences, or physics in a very simple way.The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, therefore, Google, YouTube, Facebook .

The final prize, which consists in a scholarship of $ 250.000 for the winner,  $ 100.000 for the school he attends and  $ 50.000 for the teacher who has inspired the project of the student, is very appealing, for sure, but what I truly encompass is the message of the Breakthrough Challenge : pushing teenagers to use their creativity, technological ability and knowledge to make complexity simple in a new way or language is just amazing. So I started to wonder how I could have made the students of my school take part in the Breakthrough challenge, considering that there would have been a major difficulty for them, that is, the language, as they are Italian. At this point my beloved husband Mr Run came to my aid and decided to put aside his running shoes and turn himself into Mr Webmaster to create a brand new website for our own parallel competition, which we called “Make it Easy Challenge”)with the aim of selecting the contestants, very likely the first Italian contestants, for the Breakthrough.

The next step was to convince the students to join the challenge, and this, trust me, was the difficult part. The admirable colleague, who has supported me in this new project, and I had tried, at first, to captivate them showing the prospects they could have: being the first Italians to take part in the challenge or even, why not, winning the scholarship and go to Los Angels and so on. They seemed genuinely attracted by the idea, but, they eventually kept on hesitating. Something had to be done, so we resolved upon using the most effective weapon teachers and parents have in their hands: threat. Magically about 100 videos came out of the blue and I can proudly say, some of them are very good. Afterwards, the  videos have been watched and voted by the same students who had made them and the 25 chosen will be judged by the other students of my school, hoping that they will join next year edition, and a panel of Maths, Physics and Life Sciences teachers. The winners will the celebrated at the end of this month. So one thing I can say for sure: Mark Zuckerberg, watch this :! We are coming!

Two Annes for the Bard

I’ve always been intrigued by the Bard’s choice of wife and in particular by their age difference, Shakespeare was, in fact, 8 years younger than Anne Hathaway. You may say 8 years is not that much, having a toy boy as partner or husband has become quite common (Mr Run is 7 months younger than me, should I call him so?) . Think about Macron’s wife, for example, a gap in years where the woman is the older one may be considered even fashionable today. Today; but 500 years ago, when the benefits of plastic surgery, Botox, hyaluronic acid, derma rolling etc. were still unknown, women were left defenseless from the first attacks of aging. The passage from being a blossoming flower to a withered rake was faster than today. So, why did he marry a woman much older than him? Was it for love?

“…….every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:” (Sonnet XVIII)

When the bard married Anne, he was only eighteen, therefore, still a minor in the eyes of the law, in fact, he required permission from Anne’s father, Richard Hathaway, to make her his spouse; permission, I guess, that the old man did not object to grant as his girl had already a baby in her way, William’s baby. A shotgun marriage, then. If it is so, was the Bard forced into this match to avoid any scandal surrounding Anne’s pregnancy? It seems that William himself sped up proceedings by applying to the Bishop’s Court in Worcester. Two documents in the diocesan archives, in fact, establish that the marriage was actually performed in November 1582, as the following entry in the Episcopal register at Worcester  states in Latin :

 “Anno Domini 1582…Novembris…27 die eiusdem mensis. Item eodem die supradicto emanavit Licentia inter Wm Shaxpere et Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton.”

Wait a minute, Annam Whateley? Who is Annam Whateley? This clearly states that a marriage licence has been issued to one William Shakespeare and one Anne Whateley to marry in the village of Temple Grafton, but  if we give a look at the next entry in the episcopal register records there is another marriage bond granted to one Wm Shakespeare:

Dat. 28 die Novem(…… )Anno regni dominae nostrae Eliz. (…) The condition of this obligation is such that if hereafter there shall not appear any lawful let or impediment by reason of any precontract, consanguinity, affinity or by any other lawful means whatsoever, but that William Shagspere on the one party and Anne Hathwey of Stratford in the diocese of Worcester, maiden, may lawfully solemnize matrimony together, and in the same afterwards remain and continue like man and wife according unto the laws in that behalf provided…

Now, we may infer that either there could have been some bureaucratic problems and that the clerk clearly suffered  from dyslexia and he misspelled the name of the lady, hence the two Annes are actually the same woman, or the woman Shakespeare loved and the woman Shakespeare finally married were two different Annes, but he was pressured into a face-saving marriage exactly the day after he had chosen to seal his happiness with the Anne from Grafton. This is how,  Anthony Burgess in “Shakespeare” , reconstructs the episode:

It is reasonable to believe that Will wished to marry a girl named Anne Whateley. The name is common enough in the Midlands and is even attached to a four-star hotel in Horse Fair, Banbury. Her father may have been a friend of John Shakespeare’s, he may have sold kidskin cheap, there are various reasons why the Shakespeares and the Whateleys, or their nubile children, might become friendly. Sent on skin-buying errands to Temple Grafton, Will could have fallen for a comely daughter, sweet as May and shy as a fawn. He was eighteen and highly susceptible. Knowing something about girls, he would know that this was the real thing. Something, perhaps, quite different from what he felt about Mistress Hathaway of Shottery. But why, attempting to marry Anne Whateley, had he put himself in the position of having to marry the other Anne? I suggest that, to use the crude but convenient properties of the old women’s-magazine morality-stories, he was exercised by love for the one and lust for the other. I find it convenient to imagine that he knew Anne Hathaway carnally, for the first time, in the spring of 1582… (57)

Whatever the option may be, the bard did marry Anne Hathaway, eventually, and they had three children, but I like to imagine that the Bard’s pangs of love for the lovely Anne Whateley from Grafton were the sparks which lighted up the fervid imagination and creativity of the poet. After all, isn’t it sorrow the best nourishment of art?

The Parable of the Iguana

ig2I’m a shopaholic. I’ve learnt I suffered from this disease, when I first read the whole Kinsella’s saga about shopping. Whoever thinks it is all about fashion addiction, he may prove wrong, as, actually, it’s all about the thrill. The thrill of finding and owing the perfect pair of shoes or bag, which matches wonderfully with the perfect outfit. It is that thrill. And for the sake of that emotion we lie first of all to ourselves and to the people we interact daily, saying that we do need it, that we cannot do without it and, of course, it will be just the last time. I will not be so. The psychological traits of Becky, Sophie Kinsella’s heroine, may seem absurd and comic at the same time, but they are actually real, so real that when my mother read “I Love Shopping”, she commented reproachfully :” it seems she knows you”.

ig4However, in the opulent western societies the word “need” is not exactly what it meant years ago, as the powerful messages and stereotypes, we are bombarded with through medias every day, confound us to such a degree, that we find hard to distinguish the difference between what we want and what we need. Do I really need that brand new pair of shoes, the 85th pair in fact, or do I want it? Can I truly live well without the last technical gadget? Do I really need it? We slowly become addicted to that intense but short emotion of possessing the thing of our dreams and as soon as that moment of pleasure and satisfaction burns out, we need to replace it quickly with another one even stronger that might fill the emptied space of our soul and on, and on, and on. Till nothing will be able to satisfy us one day. Just like that iguana.

ig1Which iguana? I guess you would say, in case you ventured to read this post this far. Well, few years ago I made a fantastic trip down to Costa Rica. We drove along the Pacific coast, till we reached the most renowned national park of the country: Manuel Antonio. The scenery was breath-taking: tropical white sandy beaches surrounded by a luxuriant, wild nature. We decided to explore it all in the quest of the most beautiful beach. It was August, so after an hour of walking under the heat of the sun of those latitudes, we were so sweaty and worn out that we decided to stop. The nearest beach was named “Puerto Escondido”, well, it wasn’t actually the most dazzling one we had seen, furthermore, the sea bank was mostly inhabited by hundreds of huge colorful crabs and iguanas, but we were so tired that we resolved upon stopping anyway. When the crabs sensed our approaching steps, they instantly disappeared in the sand, leaving large holes in the shore, but the iguanas didn’t move. They stood there not at all intimidated by our presence.

ig5After a refreshing swim, we lay down on the beach to rest and sunbathe. The iguanas had kept on observing us motionless like greenish prehistoric statues. After a while, I decided it was high time to fraternize with the hosts of that secluded place using the universal language of food. As I had some Pringles with me, I approached the nearest iguana and I handed delicately one crisp. After some long seconds of immobility, the inanimate creature attempted a move, craned its neck, smelt the Pringle and gave a small bite. I regarded it a great success.The iguana devoured the first, the second, the third crisp and seemed to be wanting for more. I was very proud of my experiment, but a French tourist, who had seen the whole scene, came by and told me, well….he actually lectured me, that iguanas are vegetarian, that they are not used to salt and that with my “feat” I was destroying their sense of taste. Once tried those strong artificial flavors, they wouldn’t have gone back any longer to their usual, now tasteless, food. I was mortified and instinctively hid the body of crime behind my back. He, then, went away and, of course, I didn’t dare give another Pringle to the poor iguana, which kept on imploring me with its eyes for some more. However, every now and then the words of the French tourist echo in my mind and I have come to the following conclusion: we are nothing but the iguanas of a society that feeds us with artificial emotions, thus creating addiction for the sake of profit. And you know what? Even if now I am fully aware of it, well, it won’t be enough to cure my addiction. No, it won’t, that’s the problem.

Fettuccine, Lasagne and Alfredo

Whenever I travel abroad, I never go for Italian restaurants. Not any more. First of all because I enjoy tasting the typical flavours of the countries I visit, those surprising combinations of food I would never think of at home, secondly because I have never been able to find a decent one, only bad copies and so I gave up. What lacks in the majority of Italian restaurants abroad is the real Italian thing. Even something elementary like an espresso is never like what it tastes at home – not even the five-pound Lavazza cup of coffee at Harrods was close to the original one –  it is not a matter of water or the quality of coffee, but rather it is a matter culture. Yes, culture, because food is an expression of cultures. Every dish is the final product of cooking rituals transmitted from generations to generations, gestures that date back in time. That is why it is difficult to reproduce a recipe of another country faithfully, even a good cup of tea, unless you understand it fully and you become sensitive enough to perceive its many nuances.That is culture. I still remember the dexterity my mother prepared home-made tagliatelle, those precious movements that she had learnt from her mother and grandmother. I have seen her so many times, that if I would venture to make them myself, I would know what to do: the doses, the correct thickness of pasta layer ect., as it is part of my culture.

I remember once I gave an intensive class to some English friends of mine who were very fond of Italian cooking, on how to prepare a true Italian lasagna properly : ragout, cheese, the right  numbers of pasta layers, cream sauce…. I told them everything so that they eventually had all the necessary information and secrets to prepare a marvellous one. So after practicing a while, one day they decided they had become good enough to invite me for dinner and try their lasagna. Indeed I was surprised. About 300 meters before reaching the gate of their house, I started to smell something pungent in the air, something like….onion! Onion? I had never mentioned the word onion, but they thought that in my recipe there was something lacking and  that something for them was onion, actually, tons of onion! I might have turned my back, but I did not. I politely ate it all, with some effort, could I have acted otherwise? The enormous quantity of onion used to prepare the ragout had made it indigestible, at least for me. When I eventually finished my portion they asked: ” Did you enjoy it?”  What could I say?” Of course” was my answer . “It seems truly Italian, doesn’t it” “Truly” I couldn’t but reply. ” Some more?” “ NO!

The point is that the majority of those restaurants, which pretend to be Italian, keep in their menus recipes which are not Italian at all or have contaminated the original ones with the more familiar flavours of the countries they have their business, just to please and attract new customers. For example, only abroad I have learnt about the existence of an Italian recipe called “Tagliatelle Bolognese”, that is tagliatelle with a thick ragout, but actually no Italian would associate the wordBolognese” to that dish. And what about the famous “Fettuccine(i) Alfredo?” Fist of all, who is Alfredo? This “Italian” recipe is well-known mostly in the States, but completely unknown here. It actually reminds those typical dishes in fashion in the late eighties: pasta, 3/4 types of cheese and cream – in the eighties cream was very fashionable – . As far as I can imagine, as I have never dared experience such a delicacy, if you don’t eat it quickly, it might turn into concrete in a few seconds. So if you come here having in mind  to order a good portion of “Fettuccine Alfredo”, this is the wrong country, you have to go back from where you started very likely.

Another point to be discussed is pasta cooking time. Here in Italy we enjoy it “al dente” that is a minute less that the indicated cooking time, even two if you come from the South, but whenever I used to order it abroad, it was always overcooked if not creamy. Just disgusting. Yet, cooking pasta Italian style shouldn’t be that difficult: when the water boils, add some salt, put the pasta in the pot, wait for the indicated time, better a little less and that’s it. And would you like to know what is tastiest truly Italian pasta recipe ? The simplest one. Just few steps. Blanch some fresh plum tomatoes to remove their skins and then cut them in half lengthwise to scoop out the seeds. Afterwards chop them and set them aside in a bowl. Heat some good olive oil in a skillet pan, add a couple of cloves of garlic and let them brown slowly. Then add the tomatoes you had prepared beforehand, a pinch of salt and take the garlic out. While the sauce simmers, heat the water for the pasta. Cook the spaghetti and drain them, when it is time. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat until all the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is al dente. You may add the pasta cooking liquid if necessary. As last step, remove the pan from the heat; add some extra-virgin olive oil, few leaves of basil, parmisan or pecorino cheese. Just delicious and Italian. And remember, less is more !!