The fashion week party, or rather, pre-party drink like one of those early punk shows I went to when I was a boy: you feel you have total freedom to do whatever because everyone is doing anything. A man is a fluorescent toga-like dress with his whole head shaved except for a little random-seeming tuft on the side with a long lock sticking out of it attracts no attention, and his example was only the most egregious. There were weird Americans with platinum hair and bangs eating cherries that the bartender popped into their waiting open mouths, strange Milanesi discussing the best clubs in (actually outside) the city in English to each other and telling me the ones in town were filled with ‘rednecks, politicians and mafiosi,’ a hyper-active, hyper-competent bartender who fulfilled my request for ‘un negroni – FORTE,’ Germans dressed for a soccer game, and a tortured electronic version of ‘Killing an Arab’ blasting from the DJ booth. As I was waiting for my drink, which was suitably strong, one thought went through my head: “Men from Kentucky and Italy are dying in Afghanistan to preserve this way of life.” I didn’t see the picture of Hemingway hanging up on the wall which, until I got there, was the only thing I knew about the place.
In the middle of the throng on the street was our humble little Meet-Up group of mainly Italians looking to practice English: the mag ed dapper in his blazer, drinking a beer from a bottle and wondering why he didn’t check that it was fashion week before, and above us, the mass of the Duomo, stained glass ablaze for the third time this year, watching over us all, the gold eye of the Madonnina peering down to via san Raffaele of a Thursday night in September.
A trip to Lugano reminds one of what Italy is missing, and what would make it better — courteous drivers, spotlessly clean streets, apartments and offices free of the suspicious layers of security ones finds in Italy. But in contrast, a trip to the Cenacolo, aside from being a moving experience in itself that should inspire all kinds of questions about permanence and meaning, also reminds one that Italians, diabolical intentions aside, are wonderful at creating a sense of mystery.
You show your ticket, and then everyone is hurried down a short hallway where the temperature drops noticeable. Then everyone crams into an airlock-like chamber, huddled in front of the door to the refractory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The attendents let the tension build. The chatter dies down to silence. Looking at our reflections in the one-way glass, I counted thirteen of us. One can see, at the bottom, a few feet marching somewhere. Then, the curtain — in the form of noiseless, remotely-controlled doors, pulls back, revealing — darkness. Empty space. On a sunny August morning, it takes some time for the eyes to adjust. You look left, but that’s not the right mural, then right, and there it is. The moths are drawn to the flame, and it’s well worth it.
Italian Switzerland is well-worth one’s time, but the Italian arts of surprise and showing off have their moments to shine as well.
The financial news has been so intense this week that I’ve all but given up on trying to blog it. Twitter‘s where you’ll find most of my comments on the tumult in Europe and the US.
Amid markets falling and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic flailing, one bit of rather shocking news did stand out: Standard and Poor’s Milan offices were raided on the orders of a prosecutor’s office in the small Pugliese town of Trani, ostensibly on the behalf of a consumer right’s group.There is little doubt that the raid was politically motivated.
There will be strong pressure on credit rating agencies, and the demand for transparency, and further regulation. After Italian police have raided the offices of S&P and Moody`s in Milan, there have been reports on the credit rating agencies` compliance with regulative issues.
True, but I should note that the ratings agencies are seen with extreme suspicion in Italy, as are currency speculators (despite the fact that most of them work to improve the holdings of pension, not hedge, funds). Thanks in part to a general lack of economic education in Italy, ratings agencies and currency traders are routinely blamed for all of Italy’s economic woes, when in fact it is loss of competitiveness, exports and a decade of almost zero growth that, when combined with Italy’s historically high debt-to-GDP ratio, creates a very unpleasant environment for investors. (Not to mention political incoherence/impotence and terrible bureaucracy.)
Simply put, all these factors far outweigh whatever infelicities the ratings agencies may have committed. The raiding of the Milan offices this week is widely seen as a political move designed to discredit the agencies to outside investors. Sowing distrust and confusion is, sadly, a time-tested way of doing politics and business in Italy. Ratings agencies can make mistakes, they too can be political, and they probably need better oversight — but not all of Italy’s problems can be laid at their doorstep and that of the speculators.
May ended up being a very bad month for the intolerant: first Osama bin Laden, then Ratko Mladic, and now Silvio Berlusconi, whose coalition was dealt a serious blow in run-off mayoral elections all over Italy this past week. Of course, Berlusconi’s crimes of philandering and corruption are much less grave than terrorism and mass murder, but the effect he’s had on democracy in a country struggling with economic stagnation has not been healthy for western values.
The net effect of these three incredible events has been to clog Premesso’s news-gathering apparatus with an overload, so apologies for the lack of updates.
The campaign in Milan reached histrionic levels of fear and xenophobia, most of it coming directly from the premiere’s own party. The tactic backfired, and John Hooper, writing in the Guardian, quoted Professor James Walston of the American University of Rome, who made an excellent point mirroring my own in the case of Magdi Allam a few weeks ago:
Watson said he feared Berlusconi’s tactics could have a lasting impact on interracial and interfaith relations in Italy. “This type of language has been used by the prime minister, not some neo-fascist maniac on the fringes,” he said. “It will be difficult to bring Italian political language back to acceptable European levels.”
Seeing this tactic lose out was refreshing, and often funny to boot. (Read more of Walston’s excellent analysis, included a piece from which the above quote was taken, on his blog, or watch at interview with him shortly before the eight minute-mark here.) Young Italians may not be taking to the piazze the way their Spanish compatriots are, but they are taking to web and producing hilarious results. Web-savvy Milanesi hilariously parodied the brutish xenophobia online; check out pages on Facebook encouraging people to vote for the mayor today (June 2), a national holiday celebrating the birth of the first republic, or supporting a fictional Muslim district of Milan called Sucate.
The blog has been on hold recently due to my moving to the area around via Paolo Sarpi – Milan’s “Chinatown.” This is a fascinating neighborhood that has exploded in the past decade or so with Chinese wholesalers. It is an ideal place to see how immigration, trade and globalization effect modern Europe. The small streets brim with outlets selling cheap clothes, costume jewels and watches, plastic toys, electronics, industrial items, and every other type of mass produced good imaginable.
(Although I’ve yet to find an outlet for cheap kitchen goods as serviceable as Ma Cosa?! in my old neighborhood on via Farini.) The Chinese food on offer looks to be much more adventurous than what you typically find in the West, and the density of the old streets, full of purposeful activity, lends the place a vibrant air that is at once familiar and alien – that couldn’t be more different from the Chinatown in my last place of residence, which was based more on tourist’s eating habits and less on trade and commerce. Along via Rosmini and via Bruno, most of the shops appear to be tiny storefronts. A proprietor stands guard outside in the mild fall weather, and at various points during the day men rush masses of boxes into the store.
A less cursory look reveals that many that many storefronts are essentially warehouses that sell only to wholesalers. Many of the shops adjoin large ring-shaped apartment buildings ringed around a central courtyard. More boxes arrive via van, truck or in the case of smaller streets, the ubiquitous bike outfitted with sturdy wooden shelves above both wheels.
Yet it’s hardly monoethnic: I hear Italian spoken as often as Chinese, and in the mass of overwhelmingly Chinese storefronts one spies the typical Italian bar, trattoria or even a highly-vaunted vintage shop. (I’m told Milanesi come from far and near to shop at Grani e Vaghi.)
In perhaps a sign of the shape of things to come, these trattorie that make risotto alla milanese or osso buco have Chinese cooks or managers; I struck up a conversation with a Chinese butcher working at the deli counter of a decidedly Italian grocery as he cut me prosciutto, immeasurably thin just like most Italians like it.
These experiences are, or should be, commonplace to any resident of northern Italy – Corriere della Sera publishes a Chinese edition, the Duomo’s tourist office has signs written prominently in both languages, and even tiny Veneto hamlets like Villanova del Ghebbo have burgeoning Chinese communities – but might come as a surprise to the non-resident, who might’ve read news of the 2007 ‘riots’ in Chinatown with a hint of surprise that such a place even exists.
This post, in addition to being an update, should serve to remind the reader on the other side of the Atlantic that the Chinese influence is being felt in a myriad of ways, across both sectors and geography. No matter what the area of competitive advantage, China cannot escape notice.
So, in New York talk may center on the (under)valuation of the renminbi; down in DC, Congress and the Pentagon publish volumes guessing as to China’s military capability; but here in Italy the focus is, of course, on clothing, shoes and leather – Italy’s historic areas of advantage.
The Northern League often proclaims Milan as its Padanian, and presumably monoethnic, capital. The most cursory visit to Milan’s via Sarpi should reveal the folly of this. The Chinese are here to stay, and I look forward to updating readers on the goings-on in this nexus of cultures and economics.