Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Unpacking after a month in Rome

Some notes written in airports and cafés outside our 5th floor apartment just north of Piazza del Popolo. They offer little on the woes of Europe today. I didn’t take care only to be nice. They aren’t the “informal research” of an academic on sabbatical or an aspiring VS Naipaul from Toronto. Here and there, however, they might fuel an argumentative lunch.

We had a wonderful time and will go back. But we needn’t rush. Rome is eternal. 

March 30th, Toronto —> Rome:

Virtual boarding pass on iPhone worked at Pearson International, but they still treat me as an old guy.

Thinking I’d like to write a post for my old friend Patricia Dumas. (I did, see April 10th blog) It would defend "soft nationalists" in Quebec and elsewhere for that matter. Specifically, why should the ones in Quebec be treated as hypocrites and untouchables by federalists? After all, are there really any hard nationalists left in Canada?

April 1st, Rome:

Hotel Locarno as elegant and sexy as ever.

Over-lit restaurants feel better when they’re full of Italians.

Looked out over Piazza del Popolo from Canova Café, where Fellini also watched the crowds, met friends, and gossiped.

Piazza del Popolo, the piazza of the people, is an immense oval dish that accommodates vast numbers of individualsbut not marshaled mobs. It‘s both a destination and an intersection; too big and too stimulating to allow you concentrate on anything for long. It can hold formal events and, at the same time, let you move around and see what’s going on. You’re in the audience and on the stage at once. Any hour of the day, workers hurry to catch the subway, young people wave to friends and take off, and buskers and peddlers hustle near the central obelisk and in the open spaces in every quadrant. Half a dozen Carabinieri shuffle about just off the Canova cafe keeping the peace by people-watching. Overlooking the square are three art-filled churches; on the square, private little dramas go on all day.

April 5th:

The apartment property manager and I removed a bathroom cabinet door. It slapped like a rattrap if you weren’t careful. A neighbor complained about a loud noise and hearing furniture moving in the middle of the night. Our first neurotic Italian? No such luck. The manager thinks the complainant is another Canadian or, possibly, an American.

Just read in FT: lawyers in the US use up 2% of US GNP; food just under 4%.

April 8th

—Corner store clerk* filled our Whole Food bag; a pleasant moment for both of us.

*Louise disliked the above. “'Clerk' is the wrong word … people in that store believe in what they're selling and make it a point to be obliging … I was given tastes of various cheeses, which — granted — one also gets at cheese counters in Toronto's All the Best cheese (that guy has impressive knowledge). What stood out at Daniela's was the enthusiasm, even across the 5-foot-high food counter, a sense of physically willing me to like them. If I'd said I didn't like one or t'other, am sure Gianfranco would have burst into tears.”

April 2728th  (catching up):

Our last weekend: sanacafé in Prati, the Borghese Gardens, Spanish Steps, Piazza Farnese, Piazza della Pace off Piazza Navona, Harry’s Bar, an expensive view of Rome at sunset from the top of the Eden Hotel, and gelato back at Canova. Racing the calendar carefully, like parting lovers.

April 29th

Rome’s downtown streets are too narrow to keep people and two-, three-, and four-wheeled vehicles apart or prioritized. (Here, hot doggers rent Segways; in Washington, they’re used by seniors.) Romans could wake up and have a functional, even brave government someday. But their streets will remain regulated by eye contact and quick wits.

Rome isn’t racing to keep up, but it doesn’t resist much either. “No problem” is just as good as “you’re welcome." High-fives are common as well.

Romans have been polishing their cosmopolitan ways for two millennia. They are warm and sophisticated but, also, tough-minded. They’ll tell you that they “love Rome” without caring what you think. They don’t show interest or compassion, however, toward panhandlers and the ragged peddlers from North Africa and India.

These anxious men shadow the tourists in all the city’s famous squares, pitching silently for coins before the visitors find their next authentic Italian meal. Conceivably, for those hawking gay trinkets, the best thing about Rome’s brand is its power to draw affluent tourists from abroad.

The most irritating tourist isn't American anymore. He's Russian. Unsmiling and gruff. "They think Italians should understand Russian!" a waiter complained in perfect English.

There's nothing peculiarly bad about tourists. But, in their growing numbers and with their purchasing power, they oppress the Latin in the Romans. Smiles wane and the service becomes more rushed. The Romans lose their sidewalks; they can no longer see their Trevi Fountain; Bernini's genius is barely acknowledged by squirming tourists tossing coins at a fairy tale. Spectacular views are priced into the purchase of a plate of cheese and tomatoes.

Little wonder Roman infrastructure struggles to keep up. The streetcars have automatic pay machines, but their use is optional; half their passengers walk past. (They never push, however.) From our 5th-floor terrace, I could count between 15 to 20 illegally parked vehicles any morning. I'm not a whistle-blower, but I'd check at noon, now and then, and find that not a vehicle had been hit with a ticket.

Rome has changed but isn't catching up. The moped has been replaced by the Vespa and other bikes much more powerful. Young women have their own and are rarely seen clinging from the back seat. Young people are everywhere; very few are seen using computers; and babies are even scarcer. You can guarantee that free WIFI isn’t available where English isn't spoken, including neighborhoods with colleges and universities.

April 29th, Frankfurt, a bracing morning stopover:

A great international airport. Thousands of planes land and take off  for other cities in Europe and around the world. On the ground, however, their passengers are within the German state.

German officials perform the same tasks as Italian officials. However they seem totally caught up in making sure they are behaving properly. They wait for a smile from their own conscience and never smiled at me. Their mental intensity leaves their fine bodies tagging along.

Along its long corridors, sit 12 X 12 X 15 meter glass smokers’ boxes, compliments of Camel Cigarettes. In the business lounge, I couldn’t resist noting that foamy beer glasses were resting on 20 of the 30 or so coffee tables lined along its glass wall. (In the US, there’d be Starbucks, bottled water, burgers, and laptops.)

At the four security and passport checks we had to finesse were numerous clocks to tell us how close we were to missing our next flight. Also, a short film replayed seamlessly, suggesting that all the passenger line-ups were populated by lovers who beam at uniforms.

Bracing last note:

We were cut off at the last security line by a mobile transport vehicle carrying a dozen frail seniors. Someone said “Iran”; anyway, it was clear that they were unable to understand English or German.

Being fast-tracked didn’t include other benefits; they were not given the light touch.  

The men were asked repeatedly until they understood that they were required to take off their belts. One passenger was scolded by an official for hoisting his suitcase onto the carrousel and leaving it sideways rather than length-wise. The whole line waited for ages as a boyish official on an x-ray machine peered into ragged suitcases. He didn't appear to suspect anything; their strangeness just made him uncomfortable.

The entire party had less sophistication, social confidence, education, and latent menace than any one of the some 700,000 on the one watch list that we know exists. Yet, the security officials seemed intent to press, to see whether one of these confused individuals would do something self-incriminating: shout, walk away, or cry suspiciously. A security woman cracked the facade for an instant. When one passenger finally realized that he had to take his sweater off so they could have a closer look at something in his shirt pocket, she tossed him a thumbs up.

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