Ghosts, queens and the flow of everyday life


Image by construction worker in the renovation of the Cairate monastery

The local Varese edition of Il Giorno, the newspaper of Milan, has reported about a ghost noticed in the old monastery of Cairate, a small town northwest of the City of Fashion. The monastery is currently under reconstruction and slated to open as one of the sites protected by UNESCO in the region, which was a historic Longobard outpost.

The ghost sighting has been captured by the cellphone of a construction worker and was of such importance that it was reported in several local news outlets. It has also merited the official intervention of the mayor of Cairate and several local authorities, who speculate whose ghost it actually is. Most of them conclude it must be the ghost of Queen Manigonda, the Longobard foundress who built the monastery back in 737. There are also different speculations of why she still inhabits the place as a ghost, and most of them have to do with Frederick Barbarossa who spent the night there before his battle of Legnano (also nearby).

This could happen only in Italy. Continue reading

The only way to have public safety is to arm everyone? No, it won’t work. I should know, because I’ve been there

You see, guns won’t help you in self defense unless you are willing to live like a soldier at war, 24/7 and employ war tactics in your everyday life. I’ll tell you why.

As some of you know, for a while I lived in a country where petty theft and robbery was common (no, not Bulgaria, that was a pretty safe place).

So many women and some men carried pepper spray and mace. Me too.  Continue reading

The village culture reports: death

Every year in mid-autumn, local galleries here invite submission of art related to the Day of the Dead. At least in Texas, where Mexican culture has become so mainstream that its symbolism is part of everyday life, this celebration is really ubiquitous.

However, there is something to be noted: said galleries feel the need to warn artists not to submit any Halloweeny content, like zombies and other gore. The Day of the Dead is nothing like Halloween, they insist to explain; it’s not about fear or disguise but about respect and connection with death.

And there is something very telling in our confusion and replacement of a day of commemoration of the dead with an (optionally scary) dress up party that Halloween has become. I agree, dress up is good and it used to have its own time for that (Carnival), but today I’d like to argue that we need more of what the Day of the Dead is: an opportunity to connect with death and our own departed to help us better make sense of their departure and our life. And I believe that village culture does that very well. Continue reading

The village culture reports: hoarding

A friend of mine was asked to bring an iPad to a friend in Italy. He obliged: he packed the device in his carry-on, with all the documentation but sans the bulky box. His friend’s reaction? Thank you, but could you also send me the box when you can, please?

My friend laughed away this quirkiness when he told me the story. His friend was raised in a village culture, he said, and so he felt the urge to keep everything he is entitled to own.  Continue reading

The perfect gift for Christmas (and other holidays)

When I was growing up, gifts were few and far between. This probably contributed to their high appreciation index rating. We loved looking at them for a while before actually taking them out of the box and trying them out. We built stories and even myths about their future role in our lives. In sum, we absolutely cherished them.

But with the material deluge we as society have experienced in recent decades, the value of gifts has somehow depreciated. How can they ever be special if we can afford to buy the very same things during the whole year, by whim or necessity? We have more things, we obtain them according to no specific season, we get them ourselves. So in this context, how do you make a gift special at all?

Here are the choices for gift-givers to make their gift stands out as special, cherished and one that affirms the relationship between giver and recipient. And is also easy on the environment. Continue reading

Good causes, good will, good work. And volunteering

Volunteering may be the new black – ever since President Obama started the “Renew America Together” volunteering promotion program in 2009. But somehow the issue has faded away. I just learned that volunteer turnover is many, many times higher than regular paid worker turnover. You’d think that people who do something for free, just because they believe in it, would be more motivated to stick around than if they are paid to do it. But in reality the burnout is much more severe and the reason for that is conceptual.  In brief, many organizations misunderstand the role of their volunteers and treat them the wrong way.

Since I’ve been involved in many projects made possible only through the help of people who have generously donated their time and skill, in many capacities and different sides, here’s what I think most organizations misunderstand – and lose volunteers’ good will. Continue reading

Planning in a culture clash

I am convinced that one of the most frustrating culture-clash experiences are cross-cultural planning experiences. I bet most people have had the chance to plan something together with someone from another culture and have ascertained how the differing concepts of time and negotiation strategies make it impossible to take joint steps together. The divergent worldviews result in mismatched philosophies of prediction of future, deliberately arranged events. A nightmare.

Planning is a quintessential human behavior. True, animals also take purposeful actions and so maybe plan for things to happen. But planning is mental enmeshing – you expect certain things to happen based on your own actions as well as other people’s presumed cooperation. And that’s where it gets tricky. Continue reading

Codex Calixtinus, or the tourist guide for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela

Codex Calixtinus, the precious 12th century guide for pilgrims heading towards Santiago de Compostela,  was stolen yesterday from the Cathedral of that Spanish town. Since Santiago (Saint James) had a very influential cult in the Middle Ages, his alleged tomb in Compostela became an extremely popular pilgrimage site for people from all over Europe – in fact, the third most important one after Jerusalem and Rome. Streams of devout people came walking (there were no cars or bikes back then!) the Way of Saint James  all the way from France, Italy, Poland,  Hungary to ask the Saint for a favor or as a penance. Quite a feat. Continue reading

La Bella Lingua: the memoir vs. the manual

What’s the best way for you to learn another language? Live in a country where it is spoken? Get a well-explained grammar book? Some people learn better by doing, others by getting a detailed map of the knowledge they are about to acquire. Then there’s also a third way.

When I first glanced at Dianne Hales’s La Bella Lingua, in which she tells the story of how she fell in love with Italian and her adventures in the process of learning it, I saw another flower in the Garden of Italian Delight. There are so many other books that tell the personal stories of American women who fell in love with Italy and went there to actually make their declaration of love, starting with the esteemed Under the Tuscan Sun (about buying a house in Italy) to the current Eat, Pray, Love (about, among  other things, falling in love with Italian food). Italy is a country and a story that’s worth telling again and again -besides, that repetition fuels tourism, too.

However, this book is also part of a larger non-fiction trend – the self-help books that don’t instruct you how to do things, but rather tell you the stories of people who have learned to do them. Away from description and classification (the manual)  to personal narrative (the memoir). Written by non-professionals in areas of high emotional demand, like child rearing or diet, these books can’t make a claim for the scientific authority of their lay authors. But neither do they need to, since their goal is inspiration by example coming from successful ordinary trailblazers and the suggestion that anybody can do the same. An invitation to form a community of fellows.  Continue reading

A Museum of Odds and the concept of museums

There is a Ripley’s Believe it or Not odditorium some 20 minutes from where I live – an establishment that displays a collection of bizarre items, ranging from a two-headed calf to real human shrunken heads to the replica of a tree in which a hurricane threw a sleeping baby that remained unharmed and still sleeping, some 50 years ago. Robert Ripley was a cartoonist and an adventurer, as well as self-proclaimed “amateur anthropologist” who presented such items in his radio show and newspaper career and later founded a chain of museums of odds where they were to be displayed.

Surprisingly, this visit gave me an amazing portion of food for thought. To be sure, these are artifacts that you most likely know about – just like in a regular museum. They are not necessarily all authentic items, but isn’t this also valid for usual museums, too? The concept of a museum is a physical space where you go to commune with history, to be intellectually reminded of certain events or phenomena, to be emotionally stimulated by your physical contact with the material expression of a certain idea and understand it at another level.  Continue reading

My clothes, my armor. And my mother-in-law

Photo by E. Ivanova

As I’ve always objected, there is no point to “natural” styles in make-up or fashion — if they were really natural, they wouldn’t be styles, after all: a visual concept you have to buy as opposed to something you already are.  This photo on the left I did a couple of years ago sums up the idea: first you scrub yourself of your undesirable natural state (feathers or any trace of hair?) and then you cover yourself with another layer which is supposed to represent your real self much better: your more authentic and hence, ironically, more natural representation. It reminds me of Agrado in All About My Mother,  the transsexual who is convinced that all the changes she did to his/her body are justified by the idea that they make him/her be more like herself.

But this is not about the everyday tranvesting we do to our real selves through clothes. It’s about my mother-in-law, an upper-middle-class woman, Italian at that, who has always seen clothes as her identity shell. Which means that she has always invested a lot of emotion and of herself in her clothes. She hasn’t been going out much lately and her fancy, dressy clothes, so important to her, have not been able to do their role. Continue reading

Would you choose to live a war?

The most logical answer would be “no”, of course. But there are hundreds of occasions in which thousands of people decide to relive wars – and their potential PTSDs – on purpose. Reenactments, for example, so popular in the US.

On one hand, they are part of the trend of romanticizing and nostalgizing the past, just as the reenactments of other, not so traumatic events and activities, like Renaissance fairs and heritage villages, replicas of everyday life of years past. You get a hands-on, or rather eyes-on, play-on education of what the past actually was. What it meant to be witnessing it.

I can understand that. We’ve got some wars that are already far enough in the past for us to accept as part of our national mythology: Revolutionary war, Civil War, Spanish-American war reenactments and even more obscure cowboy gun battles that definitely qualify as non-traumatic reproduction of history snippets. But it’s different when the war in question is so close in time and emotional connection to us like WWII.  Even if we’ve settled into our collective interpretation of such a war, reliving it unsettles us. Continue reading

Diamonds in My Pocket and the art of living cross-culturally

I’ve often wondered, what would be the most powerful cross-cultural  immersion situation one could ask for? What daily life activity could give you a taste of another culture – and a jolt of culture clash – in the most effective experiential way? Shopping in a foreign country? Sharing a meal with strangers? Falling in love? What could be the single most important step you could recommend to someone to get acquainted with a culture?

While I was reading the absolutely delicious Diamonds in My Pocket by Amanda Kovattana I finally realized what this activity most certainly is. Yes, living with a family with a different cultural background, but more specifically having someone from a different culture have a say in organizing your personal space: tidying your room putting everything in order; with a concept coming from a different culture. But who publishes guides detailing how space is organized in foreign countries? You have to either experience it or decipher it in literary texts, to find those hidden diamonds where they are least expected to be. Diamonds in My Pocket is one of the most honest and culturally illuminating books I’ve read recently and I firmly believe the most powerful reason for that are the rich descriptions of interiors loaded with cultural revelations. Continue reading

The loss of mechanical machines

When I was a kid, we used to go on field trips to a local textile factory. There was one machine that sat separately in a large production hall. The manager proudly explained that it was an electronic loom and it could reproduce exactly and quickly any design you enter in its computer memory.

Twenty years later, all looms are electronic. But during my summer visit to Northern Italy, the cradle of the famed textile and fashion industry we all admire, I was surprised to hear people speaking of mechanical looms with nostalgia. Something has changed in the last decades and it’s not just cheap Chinese competition. The machine as we know it is gone, quietly. Continue reading

Small towns on both sides of the Atlantic

It seems that every summer I get new inspiration for a comparison between American and European lifestyles. It must be my vacation in Europe that inspires me to state the obvious. But how can you resist visually absorbing the beauty of European small towns? Falling in love with them? Here is an Italian town, population 50,000, that’s so vibrant and livable that makes me consider how an American small town would compare to it.

Let’s start with the basics: this town doesn’t seem to be affected by any kind of economic crisis, much less a housing one. People seem happy and connected, public spaces are lively and, this being Italy, everything is beautiful. But that’s a bonus that comes with decades if not centuries of historical building preservation🙂 . Continue reading