Sunday, November 26, 2006

O poor Canada!

They used to ask me in Canada the following question: “So what sport do you play”? I’d say, “Soccer”. They’d say, “Oh, the sport for sissies”!
I went on November 25, 2006 not too far away from Udine to see the Italy-Canada Jaguar Test rugby match, the last of the series. Italy trounced Canada 41-6. It was a nice occasion for me because it was the first time in 17 years that I’ve been living in Italy that I got to hear at a public event O Canada (the organisers of the match were very nice, they had the words to both anthems in the official program). This is perhaps my fourth rugby match so far after the other three in Rome.

When I came home I watched the DVD that I have on the All-Blacks. I’ve gotten to the point of having become totally nauseated with soccer (especially after this summer’s soccer scandal in Italy). I find rugby much more stimulating and more of a “man’s” sport than soccer, even though I don’t understand perfectly the rules (and the fans are terrific too: they cheer the other teams touche as well as substitutions. Italian soccer at least is simply plagued with idiotic fans). I also find rugby, along with many other sports, one of the few, unlike soccer, which you DON’T try to win based on deceit (such as going for goal in soccer and accidentally “tripping” in the penalty area, or provoking other players as Materazzi did in Germany).

I remember in Winnipeg that I had contemplated playing rugby until I saw a bumper sticker which read, “Give blood, play rugby”! I also recall a friend showing up at high school one day. He had a broken wrist. I asked what happened. He said, “Oh, I smashed a guy’s head during a rugby match”. I said, “But didn’t it hurt”? He: “Yeah, but I gave the guy 10 stitches”! A pity I didn’t play. I think I would have been rather good at the sport.

After having watched the All-Blacks and yesterday’s Italy-Canada match, I can only agree with the observation on sissies…(all pics by M. Rimati)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Mr. Top Gun makes it three!

Yes, Mr. Top Gun himself, Tom Cruise, is about to get married for the third time to actress Katie Holmes, but not in Los Angeles or New York, but rather in the small town (pop. 12,000) of Bracciano, located about 35 kms north of Rome.

The town of Bracciano is located next to a lake and the two will be getting married (on November 18th, 2006) in the medieval Odescalchi Castle located in the centre of the town. Last night, November 16th, the couple hosted a dinner in a downtown restaurant in Rome. Some of the guests included Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith, Brooke Shields and Canada’s very own Jim Carrey. Some of the other guests who will be arriving for the wedding will include David and Posh Beckham, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Russell Crowe, John Travolta (flying his own jet by the way) and heart-throb George Clooney, voted just today as THE world’s sexiest man. One guest who won’t be invited (and I don’t personally know why he should in the first place) is U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Ronald Spogli.

Legend has it that Cruise-Holmes had a romantic “interlude” in Bracciano during a take or two of “Mission Impossible 3”, which was partly shot also in Rome. Bracciano’s castle isn’t new to these type of weddings. Previous newlyweds have also included: CNN’s envoy Christiane Amanpour and James Rubin (Madeleine Albright’s former spokesman), Roman singer Eros Ramazzotti and Michelle Hunzinker and Isabella Rossellini and Martin Scorsese (that marriage only lasted four years. Scorsese’s best man was Robert De Niro).

The folks in Bracciano are naturally getting rather excited to see Tom “Cruiz” (Italians are rather pitiful when it comes to pronouncing foreign names. Few can seem to pronounce his correctly. One banner in the town even reads the following: “A big cheers for a big event”!). The mayor of the town, Ms. Patrizia Riccioni, in order to offset the costs of having to pay the town cops their overtime wages during the extraordinary event, has rented a room in city hall (with a view on the motorcade) for 1,000 euros (for just three days). CNN, ABC, CBS and Sky News will all be there, as is every Tom, Dick and Antonio of the world of paparazzis. The “Ave Maria” will be instead sung by Italy’s very own Andrea Bocelli.

The castle itself has been rented to Mr. Cruise and his future missus for a cool 1.5 million euros. Mayor Riccioni, who has given the ok for the wedding to take place, has not though been invited herself to the event, but nevertheless is very, very happy for the incredible business that the Cruise-Holmes circus is bringing to her small town (30,000 fans are expected to descend upon Bracciano tomorrow and stores are loaded with every Cruise paraphernalia around). The mayor is also happy as her town beat out the Lake Como area in northern Italy for the wedding. Why pray tell? Because that’s not only where Mr. Clooney has his villa but rumours said that Cruise-Holmes would actually get married there instead of Bracciano.

The feudal castle is one of the nicest of Europe and dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries. There’s a wee bit of mystery and suspense surrounding the old castle: Isabella dei Medici, of the same famous Tuscan family, was murdered there when she was only 34 years of age by her husband, Paolo Giordano Orsini of Bracciano (he had fallen in love with another woman). Ghost experts say that Isabella still roams the halls of the castle! Hopefully, ghost Isabella will have pity for the newlyweds (Holmes’s father has worked out a deal that if the two divorce, his daughter will get a cool 30 million bucks!).

I have very fond memories of Bracciano as shortly after arriving in Rome at the end of 1989, I became good friends with an Italo-American by the name of Walt Bianchi. Walt’s folks had a really nice villa in Bracciano, and Walt would invite me over to do some swimming in the villa’s pool or a couple of rounds of tennis on the private court. I think I also stayed and slept there. Many a fine “brewskies” were drunk between me and Walt at his villa in Bracciano, contemplating by the poolside everything from life, women and the World Cup which took place in Italy during the summer of 1990 (Walt and I not only took in the opener in Milan between Argentina and Cameroon but also the final in Rome between W. Germany and Argentina). A toast therefore to the Cruises!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Paella beats Pizza?

Five years ago we travelled to Spain, for me the second time. We landed in Barcelona, rented a car and then drove to Valencia, Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Toledo (I now know where the term “Holy Toledo” comes from!) and then to Madrid. We flew back to Rome from Madrid five days before 9/11. I saw all the landing procedure at Rome’s Fiumicino airport with the plane’s cockpit door wide open. So much for security back then.

When I was in Madrid I had the sense that not only was the city very vibrant but also the that mentality was somewhat opposite to the Italian one. Sure enough, I walked by a newsstand and there I saw an official poster of Madrid being a candidate for the 2012 Summer Olympics, eleven years before the event! I said to myself, “Unthinkable such a thing in Italy”. And one night in Madrid while attending a classical flamenco show, I chatted with a Spaniard next to me. He summed up the difference between Italy and Spain in the following manner: that Spaniards are more “Prussian” mentality-wise than Italians who are much more “Mediterranean”. In fact, Spain’s south is much more developed than Italy’s “Mezzogiorno” which is basically plagued by problems related to the mafia (the south of Italy could live just on tourism alone if it got its act together, but in certain parts of Sicily—I’ve been there twice—they don’t even have running water in the summertime!).

Sure enough, in the November 4th, 2006 edition of The Economist (my so-called “Bible”. I’ve been subscribing to the “best magazine written in the English language” for the last 15 years or so), there’s an article on Spain vs. Italy and how the former is slowly beating out the latter economically and politically-speaking (the article says that Spain’s economy is already as big as Canada’s—which together with Italy is also part of the G8). The article also goes on to say that Spain, “Overall, however, the economic success has produced a change in the public temperament of a country comparable only with that of Germany after the second world war…Now Spain has self-confidence on steroids…Its emergence as an equal to Italy and even France will give it a seat at the top table. If there is ever a core Europe or a pioneer group, Spain will be in it”. Conclusion: if Spain keeps up at this pace and if Italy does not get its act together (in a previous issue The Economist said that Italy’s recent growth rate has been “pathetic”) the flamenco will surely one day beat the tarantella!

Friday, November 10, 2006

See Naples, and (literally) die!

If I’m not mistaken, the above saying pertains to Naples. I’ve been there on several occasions, the first time going as far back as 1981. I was about to conclude my first-ever backpacking tour of Europe (I had started in Spain, went up to France and then down to Italy). I was with my then girlfriend Jennifer. We were both coming from Winnipeg to Europe. After Rome, we headed down to Naples and nearby Pompeii (for the very first time in my life I actually slept outside, but not in a tent but rather on the ground in a sleeping bag near the ruins. We did this because we couldn’t find a hotel/pension. I’ll never forget the name of the campground either, “Spartacus” (a very appropriate name for the area, indeed!), nor being eaten alive by the mosquitoes that night). Pompeii was really nice and evoked memories of Pink Floyd’s concert there. If my memory doesn’t fail me, we even went to the island of Capri, or “Capri’” with an accent on the “i” as Americans quite often mispronounce it. In order to do that, we had to go to Naples’ port, and, as everyone knows, most ports around the world are rather seedy in nature. I was somewhat worried until we saw a group of US marines coming towards us. Some looked like linebackers for the Green Bay Packers! As soon as they saw the Canadian flags on our backpacks though, they cheered us on. I certainly felt protected. Why on earth did they cheer us on? Because shortly before Canada’s Ambassador Ken Taylor (with the support of the CIA), had helped sneak out of Iran six US citizens during the hostage crisis in Tehran. To thank Canada for that gesture, many billboards in the US thanked the “Great White North” publicly. As someone had stated back then: “What the US couldn’t do with brawn (the helicopter pilots killed in the desert of Iran in the botched-up rescue attempt of the hostages by Jimmy Carter), the Canucks did with brains”!

The other time in Naples was when on July 3rd, 1990, I was sitting DIRECTLY behind the penalty shootout goal at the San Paolo stadium. I was there for the semi-final match between Italy and Maradona’s Argentina. Argentina managed to eliminate Italy from the 1990 World Cup that night. It was also one of THE saddest days of my life (once back in Rome for two days I didn’t leave my house, that’s just how depressed I really was!).

I’ve also been to Naples in more recent times and again to Capri. I’ve always enjoyed the city and its people who are more open and jovial than Romans in general. I’ve never had major problems either, even though I’ve never driven down (I’ve always taken the train) and nor have I walked around with massive and expensive watches on my wrist (Rolexes are hot stuff in Naples. They’ll rip them off your wrist as they whiz by you on their scooters when your sitting in your car at a red light). I recall that Oliviero Toscani, Benetton’s former photographer, once did a reportage on the city about 10 years ago. His conclusion? That nothing in the city works. This same sentiment has been recently evoked by one of Italy’s foremost authors, Giorgio Bocca. The title of one of his recent books is: “We are Naples”. But the Neapolitans nevertheless do seem to have a very “Carpe Diem” approach to life, even though many recently have been (literally) dropping like flies in the Camorra (one of Italy’s four mafias, the others being: Cosa Nostra, the ‘Ndrangheta and the Sacra Corona Unita) gang-land wars. High unemployment is one of the major causes as most young people can’t find good and honest jobs, so they gravitate to the Camorra which pays rather well for pushing drugs or wiping out opponents.

A good Italo-American friend of mine used to work there for a major American bank. He told me that he’d work late and would come out to still find his car in the garage with the keys in the ignition plus the car radio, something totally unthinkable in Naples. The garage owner though was nowhere to be seen as he had gone home. How could this be possible? Because the garage owner was also a member of the Camorra, and if you truly loved life, you didn’t bother stealing the car of a customer of a Camorra member! On another occasion, while playing soccer on Sunday, my good friend had a young kid, clad in his Sunday-best clothes, advising him that someone had just stolen his spare tire from the trunk of his car. My friend was indeed most bewildered, checked out the trunk of his car and indeed the tire was gone. The kid looked at him and said, “But for 25 bucks I know how you can get it back”! My friend paid and got the tire back. It was as simple as that. Another interesting anecdote of the rather contorted way of thinking in Naples concerns a fellow who had his car radio stolen. He left a note on the car dashboard saying, “Please, spare me, they’ve just stolen my car radio”! He returned to find a piece of paper on the ground where his car once stood. The note read: “We’ve used your car to get your radio back”! Prime Minister Romano Prodi has been urged to send down to Naples the army in order to bring justice to the town. Apparently, there are parts of Naples where not only US military personnel are prohibited from entering (the NATO base is not too far away from Naples, in Bagnoli) but Italian law enforcement officials are also discouraged going there.

I personally don’t know how the situation will be resolved because the Neapolitan mentality goes back a few centuries (the mentality in northern Italy is completely the opposite from what it is in Naples. Things that happen there are totally unthinkable in a town like Udine). All I do know is that it must have been totally amazing for a certain Diego Armando Maradona to have lived and played for Naples for eight years! Only someone with his kind of personality could have lasted in that type of environment, and only that type of environment could have allowed Maradona to do what he miraculously was able to do with Naples (two national titles plus a UEFA Cup victory). Club Naples, has he himself said, also helped him to become world champion in 1986. Marco Van Basten won his three Golden Ball awards while playing for AC Milan in the north. Ditto for the great Michel Platini when he played for Turin’s Juventus. I just couldn’t see the two surviving in Naples’ environment like I couldn’t have seen Maradona do the same in the somewhat “sterile” environments of both Milan and Turin, sterile compared to the chaotic atmosphere in Naples (former national goalkeeper and Fiorentina, Naples and Milan goalkeeper Giovanni Galli once told me that Maradona wouldn’t even bother showing up for practises, and yet he’d play and would play magnificently! That’s just how great he really was). So great was Maradona’s charisma on Neapolitans that some people in their homes would replace the effigy of the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro, with that of Don Diego. And one evening, when Naples won its first national “scudetto” title (the very first in 60 years!), kicking in the process both Milan and Juventus in the ass, someone had written the following on the outside wall of a Naples cemetery (directed obviously to those unfortunate laying inside): “You don’t know what you’ve just missed”! In conclusion, the following perhaps best sums up that “Carpe Diem” nature which is soooo embedded in the Neapolitan DNA. A fellow one day gets on a bus while smoking a cigarette. The bus driver looks at him and says, “Sir, can’t you see it’s forbidden to smoke on the bus”! The fellow looks at him rather startled and says: “But I’ve just had a coffee”! The driver: “Ah, sorry sir….”.

Friday, November 03, 2006

"You don't scare me"!

The cat does not look terribly perturbed by the Jack-O-Lantern! (pic by M. Rimati)