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!!

The Patience of a Fisherman

Subiaco is a charming little town on the top of a hill. The perfect place to go if you want to escape the noise and the confusion ( and the dirt) of such a big city like Rome and feel like living in the contemplation of those beautiful surroundings for a while. There is a rich, flourishing nature and amazing views, which make it fit for walks; you can also enjoy a visit  to the spectacular Abbeys of Santa Scolastica and St Benedict. It sounds like heaven, I know, but that heaven has always been the bugbear of any substitute teacher living in Rome and in its surroundings. Being very distant from the capital, it means you need to move there and live in that sort of holy hermitage for a year. And it snows heavily in winter. Apart from the distance, the point is that I am a sea creature, accustomed to the warmth of the sun and immensity of the sea, how could I have endured an entire year alone on the top of a hill, surrounded by snow?

A call came to my aid. I was offered a one year contract in a school nearby. It wasn’t exactly kind of school I was used to teaching, but one whose majority of students is not fully aware about what they ought to do and why. Literature was not of much use there, apparently. By the way, I had escaped Subiaco.The afternoon I came back after my first school day is still impressed in my mind. I went straight to my bedroom, I laid on my bed staring at ceiling wondering: ” What shall I do ?” “An entire year like this?”  I had bartered the exquisite, holy permanence in Subiaco with the chaotic, undisciplined noise of that school. I did deserve to rot in that hell. What would I do? I have to say that in that period I felt a sort of a Roman Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie “Dangerous Minds” and just like her I needed time to be familiar the overall situation and understand the primary law of teaching : never count on the support of principals.

In a school there is always a boss among students, a leader who is respected, intimidating and very popular and that student was in one my classes, let’s call him Riccardo. I guess Riccardo must have been 15 then, a plumpy boy with lots of earrings and spiky hair. He always looked at me with his black, defying eyes and often made me the target of his mockery. Of course, every time he did something annoying ( let’s say 5 times in two days if I was lucky), I wrote a disciplinary note on the school register and proudly took him to the principal, who happened to be a former English teacher. The last time I took him there, she scolded him once again and sent him back to his class. I was about to follow him, but she made me a sign to stop. When the door was closed, she said: ” Do you mean to fill the entire register with your disciplinary notes, Miss Tink?”

Since that day I knew I could not count on the principal’s support, and having learnt that disciplinary notes are a sign of weakness rather than of strength, I thought: had I made Riccardo respect me, I would have gained the respect of all the others. Maybe flattery could have worked.I started to talk to him in a more friendly way and tell him about all the marvels and the importance of learning English. I told him how his life would have changed, he would have found a good job and travelled; he could have seen the world and escape his harsh reality, he could have been, why not, a steward ( after a good diet, of course), Fiumicino airport is very close from where we live and……as I kept telling him this sort of things, he kept on looking at me with his interrogative eyes and put an end to that flood of nonsensical words with this statement: “But, Miss Tink, I will never leave Ostia!” Ostia! I was prospecting him a grand future, I was offering him the world and he had said he would have never left Ostia, as if his real world began and ended in Ostia – an area of Rome – ; he couldn’t even think of Rome or Italy. Humbled and defeated,I understood that if I wanted to survive that school year, I could only rely on my imagination, breaking the schemes, just like Michelle had done.

So, one day I came up with the idea of dividing the class into two groups, or better in two teams and give them the glorious names of universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, for example. I appointed a team leader for each group, and told them that every grade, every activity would have been turned into points to be added day after day. At the end of the school year, there would have been a big party to celebrate the winning team and the best students with cups, medals, diplomas. As soon as I turned myself into a teacher referee, I realised I had gained an immense power. Everybody wants to win and once you accept to be part of a team you are no longer responsible for yourself, but for the team as well, that was my trap. If you miss one test, for example, your team will score less and that might be decisive for the final defeat. Therefore, I soon noticed that nobody skipped tests any longer, but above all everybody wanted to take part in the competitions/tests I did every day. They could be the heroes of the day. Effort had turned into fun.

Riccardo had become a burden for his team and had lost much of his influence over his mates. He wanted to have their attention back, of course, but unfortunately (for him) by means of the most unheroic deeds. One day, for example, while their mates were working on negatives and questions, he decided to zip up his parka so that his head could not be seen and yelled: “It’s hot in here!”  Noboby said a word or attempted to laugh for fear of having points deducted. It was my triumph, but I wasn’t satisfied.

One day Riccardo arrived a little late. Before he could reach his seat, I attempted to set the bait one more time and said: “Riccardo, come here. If you can write the conjugation of “to have” on the blackboard, I’ll give you……..20 points”. It was a very generous offer for that challenge and he knew it. He took the piece of chalk, advanced to the blackboard and gazed it for a while. Nobody said a word. There was a solemn stillness in the air. It took him almost five minutes to write it down and every time he seemed to be on the point of doing wrong, I could feel the tension among his mates. He did it; eventually.The entire class burst into a loud applause. He was moved, happy, stronger in a more positive way this time.

Riccardo failed in all the subjects that year, all, but English. Today, when I think about those episodes, I cannot but thank him for having inadvertently contributed in making that school year was one of the most memorable of my entire career.

The Importance of a Good Mattress

This morning was scrolling down my reader, when my attention was caught by an article of a blog “romandispatches” (whoever would like to venture to Rome even in such “desperate” times I heartily recommend it). The blogger, I guess his name is Peter, had exhumed a post about recycling that dated back to five years ago to strike the actual situation in Rome for what concerns garbage collection. To his eyes, at that time we Romans looked very attentive to recycling, he had actually used the word: “obsessed“. “Obsessed?” Had we been truly obsessed with recycling there would have never been such environmental degradation in spite of the manifested incompetence the administrators who have been sitting in Campidoglio in recent years.

The truth is that about six, seven years ago each Roman family received a recycling kit made of a pretty bin for wet waste and four of five bags, I can’t remember now, where  paper, glass, plastic had to be properly sorted. The bags were so popular, actually, that one of my colleagues, who clearly doesn’t suffer from shopping addiction like myself, loved them so much that decided to use the entire set even to go to work…… to school😳. One day she came with the bag for glass and the next with the bag for paper. I am sure she had never experienced such extravagance of habit in her entire life.

There was also a booklet included in the kit with all the instructions so that everybody could have his chance to become a good, caring citizen. I may say that it worked at the beginning. Even those who lived in small flats like myself of about 60 square meters were proud to sacrifice almost five of them to the 5 big bags destined to garbage. So all the Romans started the recycling adventure. Everybody went to the dumpsters and diligently emptied those bags in the way they had learnt from the booklet, it was good after all to have 60 square meters back for a while.

Problems turned up when we, diligent citizens, started to find the dumpsters full as they had not been emptied. At first we didn’t mean to give in and walked till we came upon one empty and this soon became part of a fitness routine for many of us I dare say, but if it rained or you were just too fatigued, you couldn’t but carry your full bags back home. Till one day, since the dumpsters were constantly full, I guess somebody, fed up with sorting uselessly garbage every day, must have chosen to follow a shortcut, that is, putting the paper, for example, in the first empty dumpster he found, while somebody else started to think that it was high time to exhume the old polluting plastic bags, so that, if necessary, they could be placed next the dumpster and the redirect the usage of the other bags to other purposes. I guess my colleague was one of them.

Sooner or later all of us have fully or partially followed these shortcuts.So this is how everything started and it cannot but getting worse as there is not a plan, any realistic plan for what concerns separating collection of waste. Administrators cannot be of any help and this can be easily understood  just reading this tweet of Virginia Raggi, who has been Mayor of Rome, the capital I would like her to remember, for more than two years now:

This morning the mattress, which had been abandoned in Viale Filarete in Tor Pignattara  by a couple caught red-handed thanks to a videotape made  by a citizen who, like most Romans, cares about the city’s decorum, has been removed.

 

Wow, I feel much better now and more hopeful for the future. The wind is changing.

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.

 

 

On Witches and Socks

According to a Christian legend, while the Three Wise Men were on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Infant Jesus, they bumped into a very old woman and asked her if she knew were the Son of God was, as they seemed to be quite disoriented. Unfortunately she didn’t know. Nevertheless, she offered them accommodation for a night, after all, she was the best housekeeper in the village, with the most comfortable home. The following day, the Three Magi tried to convince the old lady to join them to the visit to the baby Jesus, but despite their insistence, she refused, as did not feel like leaving the house, she was too busy with her housework after all.

Yet, very soon she repented for not having gone with them. She quickly prepared a basket of sweets and left the house in search for the Three Wise Men, but in vain. She stopped at every house she found along the way, giving candies to the children she met, in the hope that one of them was the baby Jesus. Since then, she goes around the world, giving presents to all children, so that she might be forgiven.The good ones will have toys, candies or fruit, while the bad ones get only coal, onions or garlic. That’s why it is tradition here in Italy to leave empty socks next to beds of children the night of the Epiphany, so that the old lady, that is actually called Befana, may fill them with presents. Befana’s iconography is a little scary, however, as she wears a dark and wide skirt, an apron with pockets, a shawl, a handkerchief or broad black hat on his head, a pair of worn slippers, all enlivened by numerous colored patches and she travels around the world flying on a broom.

🤔🤔🤔

Wait, wait, wait, but if Jesus was not born on Christmas day, even the date of his revelation to the Magi cannot be that certain. Why was it fixed on the 6th of January? Even in this case a Christian tradition actually overlapped a pagan one. We have go back to Roman Mithraic rites, again. If you remember, we have already stated that originally on the 25 th of December the winter solstice was celebrated along with Mithras, the Sol Invictus. On the twelfth night after the winter solstice, that is the day of the Epiphany, the death and rebirth of nature through Mother Nature was solemnized. But why after 12 days? Because the twelve days represented the twelve months of the years, therefore, the entire natural cycle. It seems that on those days, female figures flew over the cultivated fields, to propitiate the fertility of future crops, hence the myth of the “flying” figure, the so-called Befana.

Now, I cannot but go and look for a capacious sock, and advice you to do the same, you’ll never know.😜

“The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live the Befana!”

 

 

“Spelacchio”, a Farewell.

It is now official: “Spelacchio” is dead. He couldn’t make it for Christmas, and now it has become a long, slender, bare, dry , lifeless tree dressed up with lights and balls which, let me say,  make  “Spelacchio” even more pathetic, if possible. What did it kill it ? Well, it seems it was the cool wind from the North which has blown over the capital for a couple of days – I have to say that it has been unusually cold these days here – that stroke the last mortal blow. Strange indeed, however, as firs don’t grow at tropical latitudes as far as I know, unless this one was of a peculiar kind.

However, if “Spelacchio” aimed at becoming a celeb, somehow it did it, even if for the wrong reasons. Lots of articles from all over the world have narrated its slow agony, and if “Spelacchio” (mangy) has sounded so pejorative, a newspaper from Moscow , Russia Today, has even been less genteel defining it “toiled brush“. Even the “Ghana News Agency” had something to say about it with an article entitled: “No Christmas Joy in Rome“.

However, the reason why this story has enraged all Roman citizens lies in its symbolism. “Spelacchio” represents, in fact, “the eternal city’s eternal decay” as The Guardian defined it. And there is no sign of any improvement. The capital has been in a state of chronic stagnation since Virginia Raggi, the bright star of the anti-establishment 5-star movement, has become Mayor of Rome. The streets are full of pot holes, there are piles of garbage everywhere, public gardens are often unkempt with weeds that grow as tall as a person. Even the Pope himself has decried the state of the city in a public celebration before the Mayor. Words unheard, of course.

So, farewell “Spelacchio”. I am sorry we have not been more welcoming with you, but try to understand us if you can. You were to be that ephemeral beauty, that sparkling illusion that lasts only few weeks . A childish illusion, indeed, which would have made us forget for a while the ugliness that surrounds us every day, giving a little hope. Maybe next year? Maybe.

“Spelacchio”: A Christmas Story


Once upon a time a beauty contest was held among the snowy valleys of Trentino Alto
Adige in order to spot the most, luxurious, beautiful fir worthy to represent the
Christmas spirit in the capital: Rome. The prize was very high: the fir would have
been placed in the middle of Piazza Venezia and would have been adorned with
hundreds of fabulous silver balls and kilometers of lights bulbs. For almost a month
it would have reigned over that ancient city, close to the Coliseum and the majestic
Roman Forum . It would have been admired by millions of people, thus
becoming a celeb. The administrators of the city had in mind to create something
memorable that year, hoping people would forget the shabby organization of the previous Christmas setup. They were so confident that they didn’t even look for a sponsor
to share the expense, as it should have been crystal clear that the merits were to be all
their own .

The winner was a tall, elegant, rich sort of fir and as it had always been very admired and envied in the entire valley, nobody objected that choice. A party to celebrate the victory was given, then, band and scepter in hand, the Fir was accurately prepared and delicately placed on a lorry on a bed of cushions and tied, so that the 700 and more kilometers to the capital might be not too tiring. It should have been at its best once in the capital. However, when the snowy cliffs of Trentino Alto Adige were no longer in sight, a sort of melancholy took possession of its heart. The air was no longer clear and sparkling, but humid and polluted. It seemed as if it could not breathe.
Furthermore, it had started to notice in horror that some pine needles were falling
off prematurely. Surely, it was the stress of the long journey, but fortunately they were very close to the final destination. Nobody would have noticed few pine needles missing, the Fir was sure.

Only when it was eventually crucified in the middle of Piazza Venezia, the most deserving of all firs understood the tragedy that was about to overwthelm it. It was not only for the few
needles that had fallen off, but it had lost almost a half of his green coat. It
stood there, defenceless, tired, mortified at its own ugly nakedness. Was really this tall
and huge scarecrow the “elegant”, “sober” tree promised by the administrators? When the children gathered around the tree they were, of course, disappointed and soon named it sneeringly: “Spelacchio“( the closest word in English I might think about  is “mangy”) The tons of lights that weighted on its humbled spirit and the hundreds of silver
balls that wounded its bare branches were not enough to hide the shabbiness of the
entire effect. Giving a look around from where it had been placed,  however, the Fir felt just a little relieved: that capital was not exactly what it had imagined. Dirt and garbage could be seen almost everywhere, the city seemed chaotic and noisy. Somehow, its presence perfectly fitted that place, it thought bitterly.

Sunset was the happiest moment of the day. The lights were turned on, so the Fir felt safely hidden behind the magic wonder that covered it all and imagined to be admired as it used to be, but the mornings were hideous and the Fir couldn’t bear to read in the disappointed eyes of passers-by its own failure any longer. So there it stands now, barer and barer day after day, waiting for Christmas to come, hoping  to be set free as soon as possible from its misery and humiliation . Much better to end up as a log in some warm fireplace that exposed in that cold square.

The moral of the story? Well, if your city administrators cannot even make a decent Christmas tree, it is very unlikely they will be able to bring the place you live to the standards it deserves. Think twice before giving your vote next time.

In the meanwhile, Merry Christmas everyone!