Dreaming of Kotor

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Am I in paradise or on the moon?” I wondered, while I was gazing outside my cabin as the ship was languidly slipping into the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, Europe’s southernmost fjord. Actually, those words were not so original as it was exactly what George Bernard Shaw quipped when he first visited these places and before him, a worshipper of nature like Lord Byron had fallen into the spell of such an enchanted spot.

A year ago I had complained so much about the extraordinary cool and rainy Italian summer, that I am sure that the gods that govern the climate and the winds had decided to punish me with the hottest and most infernal summer ever this year.  Mr Run and I had tried to reverse our fate, escaping from that tremendous oven Rome had become, to go to Venice and sail for a cruise to the Adriatic sea. But gods are not easily cheated, so a nasty demon called Charon kept on pursuing us everywhere we went : Venice, Trieste, Split, Dubrovnik;  till one early morning we thought we had finally made him lose our tracks, when we saw this like in a dream :

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As the sun was rising, we could see distinctly the silhouettes the mountains that surrounded us. A sense of euphoria pervaded us, as we imagined the feeling of the fresh breeze on our skin. While we were magically floating on the waters of the inlets, sleepy villages mirrored in the sea and even our huge cruise ship seemed to sail more silently than ever so as not to disturb the beatitude of their rest.

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The steep hillsides of the Bay of Kotor are littered with Greek, Roman, and Illyrian ruins and dilapidated Venetian Gothic buildings, signs of  the Venetians domination that lasted more than four centuries from 1420 to 1797.IMG_0718

Once arrived at the port of Kotor all our illusions instantly faded away in a blink: Charon was already there sneering at us. The melting heat of that late July was just unbearable.

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The walled city of Kotor has been an important Mediterranean port since Roman times. In the heat of the day, when every sensible person was enjoying a siesta or diving in the clear waters of the bay, we dragged ourselves to the old town to visit its architectural riches: the Pima and Drago palaces, the clock tower, and the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, a twin-towered Romanesque beauty consecrated in 1166.

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Behind the cathedral, the Venetian defensive walls—almost three miles long —snaked up the steep rocky hillside to the ruined 14th-century fortress of St. Ivan. Earthquakes have struck here with devastating effect, but the walls somehow always survived. Kotor also prides itself on never having been taken by force. The Outstanding Universal Value of the Cultural-Historical Region of Kotor made it a UNESCO world heritage site

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Around the central Square of Weapons (Trg od Oruzja) you may find shops, boutiques but for once in my life I was more interested in any place where I could sit and and have something to drink.

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Unfortunately, being on a cruise, we didn’t have more time to visit all the other precious spots that region may offer, but at that moment we really didn’t mind, as we couldn’t but think about the bliss of the air conditioning on the ship.

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Charon decided to remain there; and now that summer is becoming autumn and school is about to start, well, maybe I miss him a bit.

The Prophecy of Rapanui

 

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ea1When the first Polynesian settlers arrived in Easter Island  with their large canoes more than a thousand years ago, they found a luxuriant, heaven like land covered with palm trees.The place was actually less hospitable than it seemed. The island was volcanic in origin, but its three volcanoes were dormant. Both temperatures and humidity were high and the only fresh water available was from the lakes inside the extinct volcanoes. Only a few species of plants and animals inhabited the land: there were no mammals, only few insects and two types of small lizards. Furthermore, as the waters that surrounded the island weren’t very fishy, the first inhabitants had to learn to live basically mainly on sweet potatoes and chickens.

ea6The islanders heavily depended on its native plants: giant palms, toronimo trees and basswood (hau).The woods from the giant palm trees were used for shelters and in particular for big canoes which enabled the settlers to fish in richer waters and catch dolphins. The basswood was used as fuel to cook or to keep warm and its fibers were used to make ropes or fishing nets. However, the forests were slowly cleared to improve farming and grow sweet potatoes. All this brought to a rapid increase in population (more than 15.000 inhabitants), but as the island was very small, its natural resources declined rapidly.

ea2Instead of taking measures of life sustainably, the clan leaders started to build large stone platforms, known as Ahu, which were used as burials, ancestor worships and to commemorate past clan chiefs. The majority of these constructions were built near the coast, around the island’s perimeter. One day they stated to erect huge monolithic stone statues (Moai) on these platforms, which took up immense amounts of  labour. Almost all the Moai have overly large heads three-eighths the size of the whole statue, which seemed to represent their deified ancestors. More than the carving, the greatest problem was the transport of the massive statues from the quarry to the Ahu and as they lack any draught animals, they had to rely on the effort of men who could only drag the statues across the island using tree trunks as wheels.

ea7The enigmatic faces of the Moai rapidly spread all over the island and they were always more and more enormous, in fact the bigger was the statue the stronger was supposed to be the clan which had made it, therefore a never-ending, competition among clans started; a devastating contest which required amazing quantities of timber. By 1600 as the island was almost completely deforested, the statue erection had to be stopped leaving many of them stranded and incompleted at the quarry. But, when did they exactly stop? When it was too late.

ea5The shortage of trees had already made people stop building houses from timber and find shelter in caves. Canoes couldn’t be built any longer, so it was now impossible to go fishing or even abandon the island. It had also become impossible to make nets for fishing. Furthemore the early deforestation had brought the island to a rapid desertification.The only source of food on the island was the chickens which became precious and primary object of theft. The lack of proteins available brought to cannibalism.The islanders were now trapped in their insane world and they  couldn’t escape the consequences of their self-inflicted, environmental collapse.

ea8Moreover the drop of the resources resulted in a state of almost permanent warfare. One of the main aims of warfare was to destroy the Ahu of opposing clans, therefore only a few burial places remained and many of the magnificent stone statues – which had cost so much – were pulled down. Only few remained standing.When the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen visited Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday 1722, the island had now become a barren wasteland, whose 3,000 inhabitants lived in a primitive state in squalid reed huts or caves, had resorted to cannibalism in order to escape famine and were still engaged in perpetual warfare.

 

The question is, how can it be that they didn’t realize what they were doing to their environment? Why didn’t they stop in time? Or better, will we be able to stop in time?

The parable of the iguana

ig2I’m a shopaholic. I’ve learnt I suffered from this disease, when I read the whole Kinsella’s saga about shopping. Whoever thinks it is all about the love for fashion, he may prove wrong, as it’s about the thrill. The thrill of finding and owing the perfect thing, which matches wonderfully with the perfect outfit, shoes or bags. It is the thrill. And for 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 in 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 satisfy us. Just like the iguana.

ig1Which iguana? I guess you would say, if 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, and after an hour of walk 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. However, we were too tired that we resolved upon stopping anyway. All the crabs instantly disappeared in the sand, leaving large holes in the shore, but the iguanas didn’t move and 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, till I decided it was high time to fraternize with the hosts of that secluded place using the 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. It was a great success. The iguana devoured the first, the second, the third crisp and seemed to be wanting for more. I was so proud of my experiment till 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 learned the lesson and I kept on thinking about those words. We are the iguanas of a society that feeds us with artificial emotions, thus creating addiction for the sake of profit. And you know what? I don’t think this will cure my “little” compulsive problem. 🙂ig3

Christmas Devils

 

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It’s almost Christmas time, but if you are looking forward to enjoying that magical atmosphere and you don’t feel like waiting a couple of weeks more, well, there is a place in Italy which has already put on the festive attire of the most enchanting celebration of the year: Trentino Alto Adige. My last experience in Trentino Alto Adige last summer had not actually been the most enjoyable one, I know, but I think anybody must be given a second chance, therefore my husband and I took advantage of a four-day holiday to visit the famous Christmas markets in Bressanone, Bolzano and Merano.

imageChristmas markets are very renowned here and are a major touristic attraction. We arrived in Bressanone at sunset and the town was all a glow of lights, Christmas trees and ornaments. Once arrived at the cathedral square, I could see the classical stands which displayed the typical products of the land, hand-made decorations, cribs, carved wooden figures, candles etc. I was looking for one stand in particular, the “strauben”stand. Strauben is a typical sweet fritter, coiled and twisted, flavored with grappa, served with ice sugar on top, plus cranberry sauce or chocolate.

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I devoured it in few secs without even blotting my winter coat. My white winter coat. By the way, I noticed that the lady who had served me the strauben was looking at me with a certain concern. She informed me, in fact, that in short, hundreds of young boys would have reached the square, dressed up as devils with the intent of frightening with their whips, rusty chains and bells the people they would meet and smear them with black grease. Whaaaat??? I had the unfittest outfit on, for sure. In few minutes the fairy place turned out into one of Dante’s circles of hell. When I saw “Caron dimonio ” and his fellow devils rush into the square, I immediately ran away to seek shelter in one of the shops around, while I sent my husband to take some pictures for the sake of the post. But what was all that mess about?

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imageThose beast-like creatures are called Krampus and belong to the folklore of Alpine countries. It was thought that they appeared during Christmas season to punish those naughty children who misbehaved to carry them away to their lairs. Traditionally men dress up as Krampus during the first week of December, particularly on the evening of the fifth of December, the eve of Saint Nicholas day. This tradition is, in fact, linked to the figure of Saint Nicholas. It seems that long, long time ago, in times of famine, the young men little mountain villages used to wear furs made up with feathers, animal skins and horns. In this way nobody could recognize them and they were free to terrify, rob and sack the inhabitants of nearby villages. After a while the young men realized that there was an impostor among them as his feet seemed to be goat hooves: he was the devil himself.

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The bishop Nicholas was called to exorcise that disturbing presence and once the devil was beaten, from then on, young men from those valleys parade along the streets of the villages dressed up like devils, following the image of the bishop who had succeded in defeating evil. They no longer frighten the villagers, but bring gifts (they usually throw nuts or sweets) or hit naughty boys. But as soon as the sun sets, Saint Nicholas disappears from the scene, so without the control of the Saint, the Krampus are once again free to spread terror hitting whoever crosses their way.
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And in case you met one of them, this is what might happen to you .image
My hero !!!! 😀

The Romantic snapshot

pic2I have got mixed feelings towards snapshooting, I mean, I do enjoy the language of pictures, I also follow a lot of amazing blogs about photography, however, whenever I have the opportunity of seeing something worthy of being captured in a shot, well, I always feel strangely reluctant to pick the camera and  take that picture. I still remember the overwhelming emotions I felt, when I saw my first Maldivian atoll. It was the first stop of an adventurous cruise on the Indian Ocean ( local ship and crew and just a bunch of tourists that barely knew one another). I wasn’t actually an atoll, but rather a white, sparkling sandy beach that surfaced in the middle or the most crystalline water I had ever seen.The sea had all the nuances of the blue and became whiter and whiter near the shore. Being a sea lover and beach hunter, I was dazzled. It was my dream that came true. I stood there, gazing speechless the magnificent colours for a long time and even if perfectly equipped, I completely forgot about taking pictures. The only photos I have of that trip belong to my husband, as I met him there.

pic4If I want to psychoanalyze myself to explain my idiosyncrasy about snapshooting, I could get to the conclusion that, very likely, it is grounded on my perception that it is all about catching the perfect instant rather than living it. For me it is as if I were missing the flow of the emotions in the effort of fixing them on a pic. Maybe this is my “romantic” vision of life, as I am pretty sure that Mr William Wordsworth would certainly agree with my point of view, if only he could. He was all about the ”  spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”  that arouse from the sight of amazing and unexpectedly beautiful natural landscapes. Wordsworth didn’t have cameras for sure, so he used the language of poetry to fix them. But how and when? Well, he believed in “solitude” and “tranquillity“.

pic 3Solitude” for Wordsworth is the privileged condition that allows you to see and feel in a unique, powerful way. If you are not distracted by words and noises, your self is more likely to enjoy the spiritual force of nature and be part of it. In  “Daffodils”, the poets tells us the sight of the beautiful flowers filled his mind leaving no room for anything  else ” I gazed, I gazed, but little thought” and in that moment he was overwhelmed by and incredible joy, a beatitude that you feel once you feel in harmony with the whole universe. Could he feel this way, if he had to bother about the perfect light to capture those daffodils?

For Wordsworth, in fact, poetry takes its origin from those emotions, but “recollected in tranquillity”, that is, from memory. Hence, both a poem and a picture have the same function: recreating a kindred emotion in order to be enjoyed (“My heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils“), but who has experienced the greatest bliss: the poet or the photographer?

Grand Tour

grand 1Year after year always more and more many students of my school decide to experience a student exchange programme in order to improve their knowledge of a foreign language. The destinations may range from the English-speaking countries like the U.S.A., Ireland, England, Australia  to the more exotic ones like Japan, China or Taiwan. At first they are convinced it will be only a matter of studying in a new school, changing habits for a while and why not, enjoying the exciting flavour of independence, to understand very soon that they have been involved in something more complex than simply learning a language. I want to use the words of one of my students to explain it, who, once invited to report about her one year experience in Taiwan, was happy to say with such eager eyes that she felt like having lived a whole life in that year and even more.

grand 3Sterne would have called it a “Sentimental Journey“, where sentimental refers to those emotions that arise from both the vision of a new landscape and the confrontation with completely different habits and cultures. The belief that travelling was a fundamental step for the “Bildung” of an adolescent is not something new, but it was rooted more or less in the seventeenth century, when it became fashionable among the young offspring of European aristocracy, artists and cultivated men to undertake a travel to Italy or better a “Tour“. The term “tour” replaced “travel” or “journey” as it marked the peculiar nature of this kind of voyaging, which was particularly long and broad, with start and finish in the same place. Many countries were visited but the dream destination was Italy.

grand 4In 1670, Richard Lassels coined in his “Italian Voyage” the expression “Grand Tour” a neologism that would have been universally adopted since then. For the “grandtourists” Italy was a mythical place, an open-air museum where the climate was always sunny and bright and nature wild, uncontaminated. The wealth of its archaeological sites, the legacy of Renaissance, the extraordinary musical vein were powerful appeals, but that was the myth as the reality these travelers found was very often quite disappointing.Impoverished countryisde, lifeless ports  and towns, dusty cultural activities and political institutions that seemed so rusted if compared to the more advanced European models, especially those in England. Goethe, who  had toured Italy for a couple of years, marked the contradictions of the country in his “Italianishe Reisen”  and in a second trip to Italy 1790 he sentenced: “Italy is still as I left it, still dust on the roads, still cheating habit. If you look for German honesty, you will look in vain.There is liveliness here, but no order and discipline. everybody thinks only of itself,  politicians included…..” uhmmm, if he could see Italy today, I think he would use more or less the same words. However, despite some bad reviews, the Italian seduction still worked.

grand 5The phenomenon, in fact, became wider and rich travelers had the habit of touring in the company of valets, doctors, musicians, painters. The Earl of Burlington , Richard Boyle, arrived in Italy with fifteen people besides his  gardener and accountant, Lady Marguerite Blessington used to travel on double spring carriages provided with mattresses and pillows and William Beckford, the son of a wealthy London merchant, was accompanied in his second trip to Italy by the artist JR Cozens, the Rev. John Lettice, his guardian and factotum, the doctor  Projectus Errhardt, the harpsichordist John Burton and by such a large party of friends that once in  Augusta he was mistaken for the Emperor of Austria. An anonymous traveler wrote: “this travel mania is so widespread, that there is not one wealthy citizen that doesn’t  wish to enjoy the beauties of Germany, France and Italy”. Furthermore the new extraordinary archaeological discoveries of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompei (1748) had enriched the itineraries of the “grandtourists”.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the modernization of society (new roads and railways, industrialization) the new generations of “grandtourists” seemed to have less time and money at their disposal. The length of the “tours” started to shorten and the new travelling rhythms  were signs of  the impoverishment of those cultural aspirations which had characterized them for more than a century. Travelling became less “sentimental” and more diversion, a sequence of organized information rather than a personal discovery. Hence these students, who have had the chance to experience the world just like the “grand tourists” used to do, are the last, fortunate “romantics”.

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Wilfrido

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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 may receive the primary goods, education and the medical care they need, made us feel, I don’t know, better people if possible. However, 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 had 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 the age. Once our adopted son had materialized in that picture, we started to be pervaded by a strange sort excitement. We began  to think that we might do many things for him, for example providing him with a high school education and even more, Harvard, Stanford, why not? At a closest inspection of the picture, the boy didn’t really look like the student type, but maybe I was wrong. Wilfrido didn’t pass the first grade that year. We were shattered. The following years went much better. He learnt to read and write, even Maths. One day he wrote to me, telling that he reached school on foot – seven miles!!!- or sometimes on horseback and that he liked studying after all.  But one day,Wilfrido and his family left the village and I have never heard from him since then. I was disappointed , maybe I could have done more to give him the opportunity of having a better future, maybe. 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, but somehow we didn’t dare 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. I had done something good after all.That’s why I teach. Because I think education can make people conscious, stronger and free and even because I feel useful every time I see that sparkle in the eyes of my students. Wish you a great new school year. 🙂