February 25, 2013

She just turned sixty this winter. She used to earn 900 euros before the crisis, working as a nurse in difficult neighborhoods of a big city. Because of the crisis she now makes 400 euros per month. Yet she pays all of her taxes and welfare contributions. She has been working since she was 17. In the work place she has often been underpaid and underappreciated and once, even sexually harassed. She recently injured herself again and she is self-employed like a lot of Italians, so when she takes a day off she makes no money. She decided her day would be best spent resting at home rather than voting, like 25 percent of Italians today. She is my mother.

He is turning seventy this summer. He has been peaking outside the window trying to decide whether to go vote, waiting for the snow to stop. In the end, he goes out. He has always voted for the Right. He wishes he could vote for a better conservative candidate, but the leader is the only man that seems to be able to hold the Right-wing coalition together. His pension was cut because of austerity. He is angry with Monti’s government, or, as he calls him, the Professor. None voted for him. So he votes for Berlusconi instead, like a quarter of Italians. This man is my father.

He sent his ballot via mail two weeks ago. He votes from abroad, where he is about to graduate from a prestigious American university. He knows there are no jobs for him back home – he has not given up on looking, but he knows. He voted for the Left-wing party. He has always voted for the Left, but never for the larger Democratic Party. He finds their leader utterly uncharismatic and spineless, their agenda bland and largely irrelevant. He voted in the primary election too, even though he knows the party is a concoction of apparatchiks, anachronistic trade unionists and bipolar Catholics who throw a tantrum whenever immigration reform or gay marriage is brought up. His biggest dream one day is to be able to move back home if he wants, or at least to be able to avoid explaining why a sexopath is again Prime Minister to all of his foreign friends. Like twenty-five percent of Italians he voted for the Left. This person is me.

This Christmas he celebrated his new job contract. For the first time in a year, instead of a one-month renewal, his contract got renewed for four months. His family celebrated with a champagne bottle. With a youth unemployment rate above 30 percent, any job that pays slightly above minimum wage is like a status-item. I don’t know whom he voted for. Maybe he did vote for Grillo’s party, a party whose stated aim is to make the political system implode from the inside. All the exit polls underestimated Grillo’s results by a margin of 5 percent. Some people are too ashamed of the party they vote for, because they are voting out of anger. No one seems to know who these people are, but they are 25 percent of us. One of them might be my brother.

We have been sleepwalking as a family, as a nation. Over the past two decades, as we were searching for the reasons of our decline we have blamed the euro, the Muslim terrorists, jobs outsourced to China, earthquakes and global warming. We have searched for our enemy among the American investment bankers, the Brussels bureaucrats, the Vatican hypocrites and the Moroccan baby escorts. But on February 25, 2013 we woke up and realized that our enemy could be found within the walls of our houses and sitting across from us in our offices. Our enemy had been there all along. We were too busy yelling and watching TV and talking past each other. On February 25, 2013 we finally met the enemy. Our enemy is us.

Sto leggendo un libro parecchio interessante, intitolato “Chissà come chiameremo questi anni” edito da Sellerio. Il libro (postumo) raccoglie le grandi indagini realizzate da Giuliana Saladino, una giornalista de “L’Ora” – quotidiano progressista pubblicato a Palermo fino all’inizio degli anni Novanta e che annoverò tra le sue firme Sciascia, Guttuso e Quasimodo (giusto per citare i nomi più famosi).

Il libro raccoglie una serie d’indagini sociali e reportage che raccontano con una voce estremamente limpida i cambiamenti sociali della Sicilia e dell’Italia tra gli anni Settanta e Novanta. Dalla speculazione edilizia, alle sperequazioni sociali e i delitti di mafia, il libro raccoglie quelle pagine di giornale che il giorno dopo sarebbero finite per incartare il pesce (come scritto nella prefazione) e che oggi sono conservate per riproporci uno spaccato di quello che eravamo in altri tempi. E come forse siamo anche oggi.

Da “Quanto spende, Signora?” (p.91)

Rivolgo la domanda alla moglie di un bigliettaio […]

Al primo del mese lei ha dunque in casa tutto il necessario [dopo la spesa allo spaccio aziendale n.d.r.] e 83 mila lire [dopo trattenute dalla busta paga n.d.r.]. Come le spende?  35 mila di casa, 30 mila la cambiale della macchina, 3.000 la rata della macchina da cucire, 10 mila di acqua luce gas, e ogni tre mesi il telefono. Faccia il conto… fanno 78 mila lire … mi restano 5 mila lire e ce ne devo aggiungere altre dieci per pagare il prestito di 100 mila che ci ha fatto una di queste casse per impiegati: su centomila se ne tengono 30 mila. Ladri. E’ stato l’anno scorso, che ho avuto un aborto: 40 mila lire. La cassa soccorso dell’azienda di mio marito mi paga solo la visita ostetrica più 5 mila lire, e abbiamo dovuto fare questo prestito a interesse.

Che fate la domenica? Ce ne andiamo al mare, dalle parti di Terrasini. Ci divertiamo moltissimo, arrostiamo la carne là stesso, abbiamo l’ombrellone e la tendina per spogliarsi, i bambini impazziscono di felicità.

I bambini chiedono soldi?  Sanno che non ce ne sono e non ne chiedono. Quando usciamo li avverto: non si compra niente. E il piccolo fa tutta la strada dicendomi “mammina io sono bravo, ciliegie non ne domando” poi vede le fragole: “mammina io sono bravo, non ne voglio fragole” E così per il cono, per le banane, per le noccioline.

Forse perché mi ricorda molto mia madre, il modo in cui faceva (e adesso, a quattro anni dalla pensione continua a fare) la spesa e quello che lei ci diceva prima che uscissimo di casa, però credo che questa storia di giugno 1969 rimanga anche oggi la storia di molte famiglie italiane, come si puo’ evincere dai dati Istat rilasciati qualche giorno fa.

Da “L’imprenditore diffidente” (p.132)

I nostri interessi – dice [S.M. piccolo imprenditore n.d.r.] – sono completamente diversi da quelli della Confindustria. Noi cerchiamo alleati, certi alleati, e a noi non può stare bene il discorso di Agnelli, presidente appunto della Confindustria, oltre che della Fiat, il quale porta avanti un discorso che secondo me è molto pericoloso. Cosa dice Agnelli? Partendo dal parassitismo, dagli sprechi, dalla disamministrazione imperante, finisce per sparare a zero sulle partecipazioni statali, mira a privilegiare il privato sul pubblico e a quei livelli il privato significa soltanto monopolio”.

“Che alleanze cercate? Intanto da un po’ di tempo a questa parte, fatto abbastanza recente, cerchiamo un dialogo col movimento operaio. Anche qui troviamo delle difficoltà. Non perché non ci sia una reale volontà d’intesa, ma direi che è un’intesa su basi sbagliate. Secondo me è da respingere il discorso totalmente paternalistico del movimento operaio nei confronti della piccola e media impresa. Vengono a parlarci di “momento privilegiato” della piccola e media impresa da parte del sindacato. E che vuol dire? Che pago di meno l’operaio? Che non mi faranno le lotte sindacali? È paternalistico nei nostri confronti, è rinunciatario da parte loro. I tempi cambiano, la società cambia, oggi il discorso serio e alternativo sarebbe quello di porre l’operaio come protagonista della piccola e media impresa, di coinvolgerlo in prima persona nella partecipazione alla programmazione. Questa oggi è la via nuova, il resto è demagogia di chi si accorge solo adesso della nostra esistenza e vuole “salvarci”.

Ora, questo articolo venne pubblicato il 7 giugno 1975. Non aggiungo altro, solo un link ad un articolo del Sole 24Ore sulle diatribe recenti sull’Articolo 18.

Piccolo bonus: una foto della chiesa di San Giovanni agli Eremiti a Palermo, giusto per ricordare che a volte nel nostro paese abbiamo la bellezza sotto gli occhi ma non ce ne accorgiamo.

I am still battling with jet-lag and catching up on the sleep that grad school has deprived me of for the past 5 months. It’s good to be home. Good-ish. After dealing with reading depressing news about Italy’s imminent implosion for months, now I get to be immersed in national hysteria 24/7. Awesome!

The other day some CEO from a big supermarket chain was on TV saying how sales in supermarkets have gone down by 6% from last year, marking the worst decline in 50 years (really? I did not know our nonexistent supermarkets collected statistics back in the 1960). In particular, sales of red meat have gone down while sales of eggs and beans have gone up, or so he claimed, suggesting that either Italy is on the cusp of a vegetarian revolution or Italians are buckling up for a very lean Christmas. His voice adds to the chorus line of customers in taped in shops while lamenting the pitiful state of the nation, entrepreneurs whining that the government is not doing enough, our trade unions that are living in some Dickensian parallel industrial universe when our factories are all shutting down by the minute, homeowners impoverished by having to pay 150 euros in yearly property taxes on their first house (the horror!) and on top of all, our beloved politicians from the left and right doing what they do best: crying “Social Butchery” (Italian for “We don’t know what to do or say and would rather not do anything about this”) from the travelling shit show that is the Italian Parliament.

It appears to me that Italians firmly believe that if we are deep in the shit it is either none’s fault or someone else’s fault. Some enlightened citizens have been all too quick to blame the political class for the mess we’re in, as if those got where they are by self-appointment. None seems to have voted for these politicians (although, truth be told, we actually did not pick candidates but had to vote for a list in the last election thanks to our new electoral law, called ‘the pigsty‘ by the same MP that sponsored it). Some other enlightened citizens like to say Berlusconi is the cause of all of this, and while I tend to agree to some extent, I cannot ignore that Mr B. is the toxic by-product of our dis-functional politics (this in and of itself could be the subject of a longer post, some background). I am also not deluded enough to think that if our left-wing politicians could not win an election and keep a government together for more than 15 months when the alternative was a philandering clown marred in sexual and corruption scandals, it must be that they are also not very capable. Everyone seems to agree, however, that the Euro must be the cause of all this, to which I like to point out that if we still had our own currency it would probably be worth less than toilet paper right now. In fact, we had a major speculative crisis in 1992. Let me fish out some news article from those days (11/09/1992):

Global recession apart, Italy has two major problems: a massive public debt (much higher than that allowed by the Maastricht treaty) and uncompetitive labour costs. Source: here

It seems that twenty years have passed and nothing has changed. Our political class supposedly went through some major regeneration (on paper) but still nothing has changed.

I was slightly irked by all of this. It seems that a large portion of the Italian population is engaging in a national competition to stick their head into the sand while also waxing lyrical about how someone else is the cause of their misfortune. If this crisis has done anything is to hold a mirror to our faces and revealed us for what we have become: a nation that is morally and financially bankrupt.

To have a proof that we are morally bankrupt, it is enough to watch this video shot the day after some model citizens torched a whole Roma camp, after a rumor (later revealed to be false) was spread that a local teenager was raped by two Roma men. Pogrom,  Italian style. Condemnation flew in from all sides (minus those scumbags that sit on the right-hand side of our Parliament and their sycophants) and this was archived as an anomalous episode. Until a couple of days later a neo-nazi shot two Senegalese street vendors dead in Florence. Clearly we seem to have found that someone else who is the cause for our problems.

It seems to me that we have become a society where none is ever at fault for things that go wrong, none is ever responsible, none ever wants to pick up the tab for fixing things, because our country is, in the end, not ours: it is some bottomless pit we can keep taking without putting things in. Suffice to say that Italy has the highest tax evasion rate in all of Western Europe, after Greece (YAY for Greece, for not making us look bad!):

Tax fraud is estimated to equal more than 20 percent of Italy’s annual economic output. From more than 41 million tax returns filed in 2010, fewer than 1 percent of Italians reported income greater than $135,000 (Washington Post)

According to the book “Soldi Rubati” taxes have gone up by 12.5 % in the past 30 years. If everyone paid taxes and we could cut payroll taxes, each salaried worker would get 275 euros per month (3300 euros in a year approx). Meanwhile:

There are 200,000 Italians who own luxury cars, but they’re telling the taxman that they have an annual income of between €20,000 and €50,000. One Italian claimed to have an income of €500 a year, but managed to run five Ferraris (source)

So where am I going with this? This debt crisis is not only a problem of economics and fiscal rigor, but a chance to turn ourselves around. We are either at the lowest point but looking up, or we are on an irreversible path towards global irrelevance and moral and financial impoverishment. Italian debt exploded in the 80s partly because of high global interest rates because of the various oil and global economic crises, partly because our political machine kept banking on macroeconomic tricks (currency devaluations etc…) to keep us going and beautify our deficit problems without having to come up with political solutions (for a more in-depth analysis, you can read here).

This crisis can be our way out of this vicious circle. If we got everyone to pay taxes (and apparently they have a game plan to do this) we might have a GDP that is 20% higher.  There is clearly a way out. Now that we are done with the economic austerity, we need moral austerity. The economic and moral case is clear and the solutions are all there, all it takes is responsible politics.

(Bonus track: advert on tax evasion currently running on national TV. Hint if you do not speak Italian: it shows different kind of animal/plant parasites and ends with a social parasite.)

While trying to make progress on my policy memo yesterday, I went out for a walk to get food from one of New Jersey’s prime gourmet retailers: Wawa market. On my way, a coursemate alerted me that there was some raucous action going on at the Seminary down the road. It turned out to be true. Much to my bemusement, they were dancing the night away to the tune of “Single Ladies”. I don’t know much about Presbyterians, but that is definitely not what I thought Scottish Protestants do at night.

Today it was the day of lawn parties, a local tradition whereby all the undergrads get dressed up, start drinking at 1 pm and invite some cool bands to play on campus. I decided to tag along, partly because I have not been to a drunken lawn party since 2005 and partly for the ethnographic value of witnessing the mis-education of America’s privileged youth first-hand.

After getting dolled up for the privilege of seeing drunk teenagers produce seizure-like body movements, I showed up with a group of friends after the main act had played. We were sober and five years older than the average. It was kinda anti-climatic so we ended up going back after a little bit.

On the way back, a Mexican friend and I followed the sound of salsa music to find out that the Seminary next-door was having a lawn party of their own, possibly to kick off the academic year. Said Mexican friend is a salsa pro and I am determined to get enough sunshine before the East Coast gives me a taste of the glacial era, so we decided to stay. It looked like a family event, so it was a very diverse crowd: babies, ethnic minorities (is this a PC thing to notice?), good dancers. There were booths of various student associations, including a LGBT society (where a clown made balloon animals for children. This would have not gone down well in a Catholic seminary). There was a BBQ and a popcorn machine, just in case I needed to be reminded I was in America.

I find many things in America odd in a European judgmental-kind-of-way, but one must give America credit for doing diversity very well.

Being raised a Catholic in a country where the Vatican talebans have a say in our internal politics and after living for 4.5 years in the Middle East I have come to realise the following:

clergy ≠ fun

Besides, the only free food I ever got out of the Catholic Church was tasteless wafers and a sip of wine (and that only if you did not misbehave since your last confession).

At some point two men pushing a stroller stopped to get some fliers by the LGBT booth. I felt like I was hallucinating. Someone has slipped a roofie in my Pepsi Diet, I remember thinking.

Not only the Presbyterians are fun and open-minded, they are also very friendly. We outed ourselves as party crashers to the people sitting at our table (as we were eating their BBQ food) only to be met by smiles and encouragement. It turned out our fellow burger-eaters were the Reverend and the Head of Admissions. Ooops! They seemed very pleased that we had stopped by. The Reverend produced a business card. The live salsa band had announced they’ll be playing a round of merengue. My Mexican friend was asked if I was her husband. I don’t know what she replied, I was gone for seconds of food. We both rejoiced that we had dressed up, so at least we didn’t feel like total party crashers. Occasionally we would look at each other with a puzzled look and say: “This is surreal”.

As we were leaving I noticed a very hot man, manning a booth calling for more missionary spirit and such things. I’ll spare you the obvious crass joke, but I still have a question: in America, is it politically correct to say a seminary student is a DILF?

PS: Totally irrelevant, but you should not miss this video. Do not try this at home.

I went to watch the movie “The Help” with some other people in my programme yesterday. The movie is very good, but one scene made my mind wander and would eventually result in this insomnia-induced blog post. The main character’s family (and domestic help) all gathered in the living room to watch the news of JFK’s death.

Being in the States on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 prompted a similar reaction in my head, as I tried to piece together the last ten years of my life in relation to the various events of History I have had the fortune to witnessed.

Italy, 11 September 2001

I am putting on my boy scout uniform (ha, now you know my dirty secret!). In my town the boy scouts are responsible for providing a human cordon for a religious procession that takes place every year. It’s a sticky late summer afternoon and at 3 pm I am watching Ally McBeal on TV. I am already indifferent to the Catholic Church and its obsolete rituals, but for the sake of tradition I just put that uniform on. It is around 15:45 pm and we are late. The Ally McBeal episode is interrupted by news footage of planes flying into the twin towers. I do not think much of it, it all seems distant and surreal to me so I just hurry up and leave the house.

London, 15 February 2003

I was studying in Wales and kids in my (very liberal, tree-hugging, fantastic) school organised buses to join the anti-Iraq war protest in London. The other students are all more politically aware than me and more outspoken against the Blair-Bush decision to invade Iraq. I am really puzzled and do not know what to think. Having grown up in a politically-conservative family, my political journey towards the left had been one of self-questioning a lot of what I had been taught and exercise critical thinking. I was jealous of my friends for their unshaken beliefs. On 15 February approximately one million people went down to protest in London, the biggest protest ever recorded in the history of the city. On that day, it is estimated that between six and ten million people around the world protested against the decision to invade Iraq. I was one of them.

Cairo, July 2007

I finally  managed to get an internship in an international organization. It is my first day and my supervisor is showing me the ropes. As I sit at my desk doing a press review of regional newspapers, I can see the waiting room where five/six families of Iraqi refugees are waiting for their resettlement interview to go to the United States. I suddenly feel like history is not something you just witness on TV. I remember all the doubts I had when I marched in London four years before. I was right, but I did not know it back then.

Benghazi, April 2011

I have always thought of myself as a pacifist. It seemed a pretty obvious thing to me. Whenever asked, I would just say that war is wrong in that it violates the sanctity of human life. It had all been a purely intellectual exercise, that pacifism of mine. I am working in a transit centre for displaced people in Libya. It’s Easter Sunday and we have a bit of a management crisis. The camp is full to over twice its capacity and people are getting edgy. I call my family to wish them a Happy Easter and to tell them that everything is ok. I ask them what they are having for lunch and I secretly wish I could be there. I feel bad my parents are worried about me. A few minutes later my colleague and I are sandwiched in between one hundred angry people and a security man armed to its teeth. We try to talk to the people to diffuse the tension and avoid that the security man starts shooting his machine gun into the air, just like he did a few minutes ago. I am standing right in between them and this man, his machine gun twenty cm away from my face. Unarmed people keep pushing me towards the machine gun. I finally know why I am a pacifist. You put a weapon in a person’s hand and he/she thinks they are God’s gift to the planet.

New Jersey, 11 September 2011

It is the ten-year anniversary of September 11. It’s all over the news. The day goes by in a haze because I have one of the worst hangovers of my life. I am barely able to process things. I quickly look at the walls of my Facebook friends, people I have met in the past ten years. For some of them 9/11 was the day America lost its innocence, they mostly leave in the West. For others it was the trigger of a spiral of death and hate, they mostly leave in the Middle East. My friend C says “Number of people killed on all sides during or as a consequence of 9/11: 131,000 (low estimate). If I had to go in front of God or a Galactic Council as a representative of humankind and justify this, I’d be ashamed“. For me, 9/11 marks the tenth anniversary of the day I became a pacifist.

I have enrolled in a graduate programme in public administration and, as a reward for having made the cut, I was invited (with the remaining 70 other admitted students) to a pre-course, also known as Math Camp, much to the amusement of my friends who now consider me irredeemably lost in the twilight zone between New Jersey and Nerd-land.

By day two of math camp, the daunting fear that the overachiever within me had made me pick too hard a math pre-course finally evolved into a fully fledged epiphany. Twenty minutes into the class the only intelligible thing on the blackboard was the acronym WLOG. Now, the fact that the acronym for the phrase ‘without loss of generality’ has already become part of my vocabulary should let you imagine what was on the rest of the board (it was a class on ‘real numbers’ yet there wasn’t a single figure on the board, just greek letters and other doodles).

The remaining two and half hours of the class had become a futile exercise of copying notation, as I had resolved to cut my losses and ask to be moved to the intermediate course the next day. In a sense it could have been a class on Urdu calligraphy in that what I was copying was totally unintelligible to me. My pride was not particularly hurt, as the PhD candidate (with an engineering degree) sitting next to me had the same facial expression as me, i.e. that of mild physical and mental discomfort just like a child with food poisoning sitting on a dentist chair.

My mind started wandering and flash backs of moments in my work life appeared. My work life usually revolved around managing personalities of colleagues, bosses and counterparts and the hardest conceptual part of my workday was keeping up with the ever-growing editing requests for my boss’ power point presentation.

I tried to think about the role of cartesian geometry and its elegant rationality in public policy, and struggled to find a real-life example.

I thought about the current US budget problem and how it could be (relatively) easily solved in an econ class, but how it has become a messy, byzantine turf war. Congress has access to the best economists in the world, yet the tone of discussion about the budget would fit right in an episode of Housewives of New Jersey.

And then I thought about how putting myself through the pain of math and econ course will make me a better professional bureaucrat at the service of the nation one day. I remembered a classmate from my undergrad days who made the most out of her uni degree and had a visible and sizeable impact on the welfare of the Italian population. After graduation, she became the poster girl for a famous lingerie company (see below – I am not making this up), thus doing more for the nation (oh well, at least half of the nation) than the whole of our Parliament’s Economic Commission put together.

My American friends in Cairo have been hard pressed to provide some New Jersey pre-departure orientation to better prepare me for my upcoming move to the US of A.

The first step requires a sociolinguistic full-immersion into Jersey vernacular. Therefore, I have started practicing twice per day by repeating the dialogue from this South Park episode in front of the mirror, so that I can call someone a ‘Twashy Whore‘ without people noticing my foreign-ness (click on the picture to see the video).

Step two involved the creation of a list of all things American to do/see/eat, which was developed in a moment of intoxication a few months ago. Here’s the result – a selection of items from the bucket list is included after the photo.

  • Olive Garden
  • In & Out
  • Costco
  • Taco Bell
  • Holidaying in Tijuana
  • Attend a Bar Mitzvah
  • Korean Karaoke
  • Eat at Denny’s at 2 am
  • Mariachi band at mexican restaurant
  • Vegas (eat buffet)
  • Mall of America in MN
  • Have a threesome
  • Get a manicure at a gay bar ( we were, after all, intoxicated)
  • Roller blading
  • Miami beach (with speedo)
  • Road trip across America
  • Bondage hotel
  • Grand Canyon
  • Football game
  • Mardi Gras
  • African-American Indians

Pyongyang’s Pizza Connection

The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il apparently is so fond of pizza that he decided, in his vast magnanimity, to ensure that the North Korean populace could also enjoy the privilege of having a pizza while in Pyongyang. He thus provided for the establishment of not one but two pizza restaurants in Pyongyang. We visited one and we learned that once a year two Italian chefs are flown in for refresher training for the staff. The restaurant we visited had a totally legitimate Italian feel with limoncello bottles for sale at 17 US$ and a margherita around 5 US$. I worked out that in comparison to the purchasing power of local salaries, a pizza and a beer cost the equivalent of 30 or 40 US$ in terms of European prices, so pizza is pretty much a luxury (shocker for a country with chronic food shortages), more or less like a sushi dinner in a fancy place is in Europe.

One of the guides asked about my opinion about the unfolding fiscal melt-down in Italy. I had caught the news on the BBC the night before so I explained the various measures that my beloved government has been taking to avert fiscal implosion. Leaving aside the slightly disconcerting fact that news of the Italian debt crisis had reached North Korea basically in real time, I will never forget the worried looks of our guide who, while living in the second happiest country in the world (according to Korean sources), seemed genuinely preoccupied with the prosperity of Italy and genuinely wished my country a speedy recovery from insolvency.

Revolutionary Art

Out of body experience. Feat. The Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung
As instructed by our travel company, we wore our best clothes for the visit to the Mausoleum where the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung lies in state in Pyongyang. The dress code requires a shirt, tie and smart-ish shoes for the gents and a long skirts for the ladies. I had to purchase a shirt in China before leaving for the DPRK, which has now become my Kim Il Sung shirt. We were slightly disappointed to find out that the rigid rules did not seem to apply to two Russian tourists who showed up in their blue batik shirts and sandals. The horror, the horror. When we pointed out the fashion faux pas, our guide shrugged and mumbled something along the lines of ‘Russians, they are like that’.

You leave cameras and all other belongings at the cloak room of the mausoleum, before walking the one kilometre that separates you from the glass coffin of the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Like tin soldiers we march with other visitors, mostly Koreans brought in by their collective farms and factories to pay tribute to the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader, Comrade Kim il Sung. We enter a big room with a marble (or is it plaster?) larger-than-life statue of the Great Leader, Sun and Father of Our Nation, Comrade Kim Il Sung against a pink and sky-blue background (recreating sunset, we gathered). The faux-plaster/faux-marble statue is lit with a light coming from above and a celestial sound is spat out by the speakers in the room. As told, we march in groups of four, get to a line marked on the floor, where we bow in front of the statue of the Great Leader etc. etc. Kim Il Sung. Thus we proceeded towards the Hall of Lamentation, where we are handed Sony MP3 players (made by the Imperialist Swines in Japan) whereby we can hear the mourning sounds (translated in English) of crowds of Korean lamenting the death of the Leader Maximo. The Koreans are luckier than us because they get a live rendition of the sorrows of the Korean people, courtesy of one of the guides of the mausoleum with indefatigable performance skills (As an aside, imagine having a business card that reads “So and So, Live Performer at the Hall of Lamentations of the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum. Just a thought for your next high school reunion). We are then showed a big collection of honours and awards received by Our Great Leader Father of the … you get the idea Kim Il Sung. These include, inter alia, certificates of honorary citizenships from Italy, France, Belgium and various other Western nations. We learn that those have been bestowed in acknowledgment of the Great Leader’s contribution to modern tought through his Juche idea (in case you haven’t yet, you can educate yourself about Juche here).

Finally we reach the Sancta Sanctorum of the Mausoleum. We pass a door that is like a mini car wash booth, where the soles of our shoes are brushed and we are sprayed some air (containing disinfectant? or perhaps it is communist holy water from Leningrad?). Ahead of us, lies the mummified body of Our Great Leader, perfectly preserved in a glass coffin. We march in rows of four, like little toy soldiers, in what is a spectacle of choreographed mourning. After forty minutes of interminable corridors, halls of lamentations, celestial visions of plaster statues the propaganda machine starts to work its magic. As we bow four times (one time for each of the sides of the coffin), I am only one step away from thinking to myself  “Thank you Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung, Sun of Our Nation. Thank you for being the  Liberator and Father of the Second-Happiest Country in the World. Our Glorious Nation. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”

Outside the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, Pyongyang

Customs of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea

Upon going back to my seat after lunch on the Pyongyang-Beijing train I found that my fellow travellers had indulged in a weird sort of packed lunch which included clams, bananas and pumpkin seeds. Pretending to find the crustacean lunch explosion and the remains thereof absolutely in tune with my expectations of what a Chinese packed lunch on a train might entail, I sat on my seat while filling the exit card and the custom declaration form of the DPRK.

I prepared myself for the two hours it would take to complete formalities. First an officer came, took all of our passports and walked away. As he left, I realised that my passport was now entrusted in the tender loving care of Korean authorities, much like it had been for most of my time in Korea. I had become again member of the international brotherhood and sisterhood of people whose passports are taken away from them and who are thus at the mercy of their sponsors or guardians such as minors and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

A second official came and our compartment began the hectic process of luggage inspection that had already caused considerable chaos all over our carriage. The process started shortly after the officer  expressed some mild disgust at the manner with which the lunch leftovers had taken over most of the space on the table where the paperwork would have to take place. Perhaps hoping to get over the painful bit first the officer started with me. I opened both of my bags for the officer to have a look while also fishing out the electronic items I had declared on my form. The officer took my camera and tried to place it in the narrow empty space between the gaping carcasses of clams and the carpet of spat-out pumpkin seeds and banana peals. Then he proceeded to unwrap my phone which had been sealed in a paper envelope, stamped across the seal and wrapped in tape before being entrusted to my guide upon arrival at Pyongyang airport. Upon seeing a keyboard-less mobile not bigger than 5×7 cm the officer made a perplexed face and called a colleague over to show how Sony had managed to produce a Lego toy that can handle internet browsing and international roaming.

After that, the other passengers went through their customs checks. The numerous suitcases of the two Chinese business men were opened while the rest of us watched the process for its sheer entertainment value (incidentally, based on a nationally-representative sample of two people, I have decided that all Chinese traders are messy packers). Everything went smoothly until an undeclared phone was found in one of the bags. Some commotion ensued as the real owner of the suitcase was brought in from the other compartment. A calm exchange ensued via a Chinese passenger who was also fluent in Korean. More officers were summoned and a thorough search of the compartment took place as the mobile phone smuggler was sweating profusely. While I was wondering if we would be regaled with a body cavity search performed live on the train, the officer found some souvenir posters of mine which I was asked to unpack. Those were replicas of propaganda posters that we were told not to parade around customs. A perplexed look later the officer carefully packed the posters away and dished out my camera from the food-ocean and handed it over to a colleague who would go through all my photos to ensure they were all kosher. As the officer went through my holiday artsy fartsy pictures absent-mindedly some kind of solution had been found to the sino-korean mobile phone debacle, although what exactly happened is unclear to me. I noticed that the officer suddenly a 100 Chinese yuan (10 euro) note had appeared inside the pocket of the officer.

Eventually the customs inspection process came to an end and we received our passports back as well. We thus completed the 10 minute journey to  Dandong, China where a life of free mobile phone usage and a bright future of clam lunches awaited us.

Get your vote out. It’s the DEMOCRATIC People’s Republic after all…

For more photos from the DPRK, check my Flickr account

In addition to the amazing sights and various intangible cultural experiences, travelling in China provides with many other pleasures. For instance, realising that the picture you pointed to on the Chinese-only menu turned out to be a succulent Sichuan-style fish with a thick, spicy gravy and not pig’s intestines and gall bladder cold noodle soup. Or going on a street food eating binge and not getting food poisoning (to understand the deeper significance of this, you may wish to refer to my previous post about public toilets in China).

But finally, travelling in China exposes you to some of the most beautiful examples of creation, wait for it, a “stuff white people like” moment is about to hit you: Chinese babies. The only thing that is better than seeing a free range Chinese baby (and there are hundreds of millions of those roaming about out there) is seeing a fat Chinese baby or Chinese twins. Seen in the context of China’s one child policy, twins are like an almost-legitimate way of cheating, they are the Enron of the one child policy. If ever there will be a day when I come across fat Chinese triplets, I might not be able to control the Brangelina within me and will for sure snap one or two for the house in Malibu.

So imagine my surprise when on the plane from Lijiang to Beijing I was seated next to a Chinese family of three and, more precisely, seated next to the Child. Making sure not to appear too creepily excited, lest the family think I am a child molester, I looked around the plane to see who I will be sharing the honour of a three-hour Eastern China airline (member of Sky Team alliance, F Y I) flight with: an extended Chinese family of eight (no fat children) who seemed quite surprised to realise that there was no point in elbowing their way onto the plane since the seats were assigned (ironically, they were seated in eight different rows and during the flight they kept calling each other over to look from the window, much to the chagrin of their fellow Chinese passengers). Save for a delegation of 30 West Africans and Burmese Red Cross volunteers (don’t ask) on some kind of training trip or teambuilding retreat, there wasn’t much in the way of people watching in-flight entertainment to be had. So it HAD to be Chinese kid time.

Meeting halfway in the twilight zone where Chinese and Italian non-verbal communication intersect, the family and I kept gently nodding our respective heads and smiling whenever the eight-year old baby girl did something slightly out of line the way bored kids in closed spaces tend to do. Them non-verbally apologising for the inconvenience, me non-verbally saying it was no inconvenience at all. The moment the fasten-your-seatbelt sign went off, the mother pulled out a sheet of paper from a hotel notepad and gave it to the girl. On the slip of paper there was a list of English words with Chinese translation of items that are typically featured in a continental breakfast. For a people that is used to minimalist and sugary breakfast, Italians generally find continental breakfasts to be a bit of an extravagant concept; like bungee jumping, something that ought to be tried when given a chance, but also something you would not wish upon yourself everyday. So I could barely fathom what an obscure intercultural experience it must have been for the girl to toil away at the task of copying a list of items over and over: toast and butter, bread and jam, water melon and three slices of tomato, orange juice, milk tea, pancakes, omelette.

Whenever the girl got distracted the mother’s face would produce a highly disapproving frown that would guilt-trip the girl into some more copying. According to some English teachers I had met, Chinese schools had just started their summer holidays, yet a Chinese mother’s task to ensure that every second of a child’s free time is spent having a go at the “One Million Step Journey Towards Success” never ends. Even for someone like me coming from a mother-centred culture, Chinese mothers are a force to be reckoned with. Suffice to say that Chairman Mao himself was brought up by a Chinese mother.

In a country were success means being in the top percentile of a population of one billion, this psychosis about nurturing the Solitary Jewel of the Chinese Family into success is understandable. To be in the top ten percent of your class in Italy (average size 30), you need to be better than 27 kids. In China (average class size 60) you need to be better than 54 kids or else you can say goodbye to a place in a decent university. My mother’s aspirations for us was to raise well-mannered and curious young men who would go vote regularly, obtain a university education without impregnating anyone (if straight) or contracting a venereal disease (if gay) and hopefully be gainfully employed and live above the poverty line. Mrs Montessori was, after all, Italian. I wonder what she would have to say about the Chinese collective psychosis that takes shape in various forms of which violin lessons and weekend English classes are just a common example and whereby the future generations of Chinese citizens is formed, ensuring both the country’s ascent into success and the survival of the western luxury items’ industry and the financial solvency of the British higher education system.

The kid kept going back and forth between doing her homework and being mischievous and I just imagined myself as a nine year-old on an Alitalia flight, writing a list of Chinese breakfast items because Chinese is the language of tomorrow. A list far enough from my cultural bearing points to make the exercise monotonous and entirely futile: rice congee with preserved egg, steamed buns with bean paste, wanton soup, white rice etc …

Whenever people ask me what it is like to live in Cairo, I always say that Cairo is like an abusive lover: you have every reason to leave, yet you don’t.

On a personal level the four and a half years I have spent in Egypt coincided with a happy and exciting transition into adulthood. I always joked about my very bourgeois lifestyle in Cairo: brunch with friends on Friday morning, trips to Sinai at the end of each month of Ramadan, improvised karaoke sessions and various forms of drama exclusive to Cairo such as walking in on your cleaning lady having sex in your house to Delta airlines and Cairo airport misplacing and eventually “losing” your cat. I don’t think you can meet so many interesting people in such a stimulating (over stimulating perhaps?) environment and the people you meet are the main reason you survive Cairo’s relentless abuse.

I cannot explain where Cairo gets its charm from. But I will forever remember the buzz of racing in a cab over one of the bridges on a summer night and feeling like the city is a living being, cars moving in the streets like blood flowing through a person’s veins, the constant throbbing of life and chaos as you negotiate a pedestrian traffic jam. Looking at the motorboats on the Nile and the glittering lights of the buildings reflecting on the Nile, you have the impression that the city is making love to you. In a somewhat sloppy and abusive yet charming way.

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