05 August 2009

Advice from an Italian mother

Barbara, mother of the three boys I care for over here is pretty hilarious.  She has a very good sense of humor about her "little monsters," as she calls them, but also about everything else.  I wanted to share some of her more memorable quotes:

On motherhood:
"Poo! I love poo! I get up every morning, and I say to myself 'how much poo will I be able to clean today?  I cannot wait to change the poo for all my little monsters!'"

On people getting mad about others breaking rules:
"Don't they know where they are?  This is Italy, the place where laws go to die."

On infant Samuel:
"Crying, pooping, eating . . . sometimes all at once . . . that would wear me out too.  No wonder he sleeps all the time."

On make-up:
"Like most things women do, they think it's for the men, but the men don't really notice."

Advice to a couple pregnant with their first child:
"Sleep now.  You will never sleep again."

Needless to say, it's been an enlightening experience over here in more ways than one.

03 August 2009

Bad Travellin', Part II

My trip to Porto Fino was on the other side of ‘get up and go’ coin.  The town is about an hour’s boat ride north of Sestri and the boat trip is supposed to include a 45-minute stop at the town on the other side of peninsula from Porto Fino, called San Fruttuoso.  San Fruttuoso is home to “Il Cristo degli Abissi” or “The Christ of the Abyss.”  The story is that over a century ago a boat that was trying to dock in San Fruttuoso’s small bay crashed and sank.  The statue of Jesus was part of the cargo, but instead of fishing it out of the bay, the residents left it as it was.*  It’s not possible to see the statue from the boat, but it apparently can be easily seen if you swim out and dive down a little.  There is a festival every year celebrating “Il Cristo degli Abissi” the last Sunday of every July.  Alas, I could not attend. 

Turns out I should have taken a clue from the fate of the ship in the story.  I didn’t find this out until later, but if the sea is anything but completely calm, the boat won’t make the stop in San Fruttuoso.  All we did was go around the peninsula and look at the bay from the boat.  I also got to hear the captain announce, “San Fruttuoso: il interno degli Cristo degli Abissi.” Thanks.  Because I wasn’t aware of that when I bought the ticket.

My hopes to see a crazy Jesus statue dashed, I was excited to get more than the allotted hour’s time to walk around Porto Fino.  “It’s beautiful,” my employers told me, “You could look at the yachts all day if you wanted.”  Porto Fino is where the ultra-rich go to vacation.  And not just rich Italians.  Everything there was translated into German, French and English as well as Italian (I was told George Clooney has a house and a yacht there? I don’t know if this is true).  So at the very least I figured I was in for some pretty architecture and good views.  The rich have to want those things right?

There’s a scene in Pride and Prejudice in which Lizzy is traveling with her aunt and uncle and they want to go to Pemberly to which Lizzy objects.  In reality, she wishes to avoid Pemberly because she wishes to avoid Mr. Darcy, but as she cannot explain the situation to her relatives, her stated reason for disliking Mr. Darcy (and therefore his estate) is because “he’s so . . . rich.”  I am Lizzy Bennett without the loved-but-rejected suitor behind my words.  I should have known Porto Fino would annoy me.  The first yacht I saw looked as if it could have crossed the Atlantic unscathed and its owner had christened it Limitless.  Oh, I thought, so he thinks he’s God.  There was also the more crude option, but I’ll leave that in case any of my readers are na├»ve enough not to think of it.

It didn’t get much better once we got to port.  I had an hour and a half to explore, but it was far too long.  You see, as a traveling philosopher-nanny, I’m quite poor.  I like to go places to see what else there is in this world, not to buy things. There was really nothing but the latter option in Porto Fino.  Lots and lots of shops where I could drop a month’s rent without batting an eye.  No, I’d prefer to have a roof over my head for thirty days rather than have this nice shirt.  Thanks for the option though.

But, as this is OVRP, I should be able to at least write about the town’s church, correct?  I mean, this is why I’m generally drawn to churches – unless it’s a huge cathedral, entrance is free, and it’s where most of the best art (at least in Italy) is anyway.  One of the only perks about getting off Sundays, on which most things in Italy are closed, is that the churches are open all day long.  It seems, however, the ultra-rich don’t care much for mass.  There was only one parish (which for Italy is insignificant), and the church was not open.  I noticed there was only one mass per Sunday.

My last resort was to get some gelato. I paid €4 for a small cone, which is a bit outrageous.  It wasn’t even good.

Lest you think I’m complaining about my terrible life in Italy where I get to ride boats to mountains and stay on the beach, I’ll just say that compared to the week before (and the weeks after) the Porto Fino trip was a bust.  The bad traveler got her comeuppance.

*This story is false.  It's just what the residents like to say what happened.  They actually put the statue there themselves in 1954.  Not as fun though, right?

28 July 2009

No Voglio

There is a kiddie-ride here in Sestri that I think is the bane of most parents’ existence; it is called il Bruco Gnam.  If that means something, I don’t know the translation, but the ride is familiar to anyone who has been to carnivals – it’s a child version of a roller coaster, with only three little hills and usually the cars are decorated to be some kind of animal; I’ve seen dragons most of the time, but here it’s a caterpillar.   Very route, but the kids here go crazy for the ride because of an addition I’d never seen before – there is a small lion with a detachable tail hanging above them that this guy who runs the ride pulls up and down while the kids try and get it.  It’s rigged—he tries to be very democratic about which child wins—but if the children know it, they don’t care because their main goal in life at that point is to catch the coda and win a free ride. 

It’s not the ride that interests me so much, but the guy who runs it.  This isn’t like a carnival where employees hired by the bigger company run the ride – no, I’m almost positive this guy, who my employers lovingly call Signor Bruco, owns the ride and this is his living.

Signor Bruco looks to be in his mid-fifties and he sits in the small controller box all day long chain-smoking, with sunglasses on no matter what time of day it is.  He is the man who controls the fate of the children and whether or not they will be able to win this time around.  As I stated above, Signor Bruco is very fair so no complaints there, but while he’s pulling the rope that controls the lion, he always adds comments.  The comments themselves are relatively harmless, “occhio” (look), “prendilo” (grab it), “sedute” (sit down, for all those children about to kill themselves trying to get the coda), are his favorites.  It’s just the way Signor Bruco says these things that weirds me out a bit.  You’d think the delivery would be along the same lines of carnival workers—like the really annoying moms at U8 soccer games—but no, Signor Bruco’s diction is like that of Barry White.  I doubt he has much control over his deep voice, but “occhio” doesn’t have to be pronounced as if he’s about to sex up his girlfriend.  Prendilo is the worst of the bunch, not only because he draws it out the longest (PRENdiiiilooooooo), but because I know what he’s saying.

Perhaps I am just over-sensitive, or my American prudishness is coming out.  That may be, but I have more reasons to be strangely fascinated by Signor Bruco, and that is the music that is playing at his ride.  Rather, the diversity of music.  One of the first times I noticed the music at the ride, the album Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan was blazing out of the speakers.  Delighted as I was, I couldn’t help thinking huh, strange choice for a kiddie ride.  Still, I shrugged it off and figured that if I was stuck doing this all day every day, I would play whatever I wanted too.

And play whatever he wants he does.  I now wish I had been keeping a more thorough list along the way, but the strangest ones have stuck with me.  I have heard techno, Snoop D-O-double G, Maroon 5, some jazz that I’m pretty sure was Miles Davis, and, I shit you not, KC and the Sunshine Band’s Greatest Hits. 

I can only formulate questions.  What?  How does one person like all of these genres enough to listen to them for entire days?  And how does a middle-aged Italian man even know of Snoop Dogg, let alone play the music at a kiddie-ride?


I’m afraid my question will go unanswered.  I’m too nervous to strike up a conversation, for fear of him saying to me, “PRENdiloooooo”.

22 July 2009

Bad Travellin', Part I

In a lot of ways, I'm a really terrible traveller. I never plan ahead: my packing is generally done frantically the night before, I never research the town or area I'm heading to beforehand - in short, I just figure out where and when I'm going and then get on the plane and go. This leads to what a lot of people would see as wasted time. Days I could have spent sight-seeing or puddle-jumping to other places are spent instead getting my bearings and becoming familiar with my surroundings. I wish I could say this is indicative of the way I live the rest of my life, but travelling is really the only occaision in which I dive head first and then once I'm chest deep figure out the consequences. Going in blind no doubt causes pain along the way, but it also helps me avoid preconceieved notions. It's all about being flexible and I've always found stretching much easier when I start from an open position than when my body is already set.

So, when my first day off was coming up and I asked my hosts what I should do, it was my surprise and pleasure to find out Sestri Levante is about an hour north of the Cinque Terre and just under an hour south og Porto Fino, both by boat. After look at a couple of maps, I see I could have easily figured this out on my own, but in the end it didn't matter on who's suggestion I went. I headed out early last Sunday morning for the Cinque Terre. My boat trip was only to take me to two of the five - Vernazza for one hour and Portovenere for three.
I was in for an awesome surprise; my time on the boat alone was worth everything I paid. We travelled southy from Sestri with the coast in view the entire time. Most of this part of Italy, I found, does not end in beaches (and thus, of course, no beach towns), but in sheer mountain cliffs. They were largely uninhabited, but here and there I could see a house in a position so precarious I wondered how it got built and its inhabitants travelled to and from. These places looked as if they had been stuck on the sides of the mountains by Godhimself. The mountains themselves were breathtaking, but I find I have a difficult time putting to words how these are different than any others I've encountered in the past. The only thing I noticed was that while not being rounded off like the Appalachains I know from home, they are just as green. Sort of like a mix of the former-named and the Swiss Alps.

Vernazza is a tiny town with what seemed to me, a lot of life. Its harbor, if one can call it that, consists of a big jetti which blocks the full focese of the sea from the small patch of sand behind it. The "beach" is essentially a wading pool, but I don't think one goes to Vernazza to hang out on the beach. The town is built into the sides of the mountains that surround it and as soon as I got off the boat I started searching for the road that would lerad me as high as I could go. There's something alluring about altitude.

The houses I found were small, but every bit of available land was filled with olive trees and grape vones. And almost every single house had its own wine vat in the backyard (sidenote: it is now one of my lifegoals to have the same thing in backyard, along side of the chicken coup I wish for). There was a house stuck to the side of the mountain that seemed to defy the laws of physics that I was trying to get to, but I stopped searching for a path when I found a small track with a two motorized seats and a couple of baskets attached that I could see ran straight to the house. The whole town was very quiet, especially the further up I went, but I almost died when, while negotiating some particularly steep and narrow steps, the church bells, which happened to be exactly next to me, rang loud and proud to mark noon. The bells, in a way, accomplished their purpose by bringing the name of that man for whom all church bells toll to my lips.

Portovenere was in most ways opposite Vernazza. A sprawling city, busy and noisy with a lot to see -- there's a reason we were given three times the time to explore. The first thought to strike me as we approached the bay was "this must have been a favorite naval spot for the Romans". A small island protects the coast from the sea, but the space between the island and the mainland is big enough for two rather large ships to pass each other. Sure enough, one of the first structures we passed was the remains of what must have been a very large lighthouse, which, if I interpreted what our guide said correctly, was built early during the Roman Empire's life.
Military stronghold it may have been, Portovenere now seems to be a vacation spot for all stripes. Its port is littered with tourist souveneir shops--a sign that says "Produtto Tipici" is almost guaranteed to give you bad food and cheap product, something I learned in Rome. Per usual, though, I looked for the highest point and started walking.

The highest spot, as so often happens, was a church, named for St. Peter. The edifice is situated on a cliff overlooking both the open sea and the city's port, is was extremely old and very small, and if I was reading and translating correctly, has a very rich history. It was built in 1125, partially destroyed by the barbarians during the 11th century, rebuilt in the 12th, stoof for a long time untouched, and then taken over by Napolean and used as a sort of headquarters until his defeat (the first time). Partially destroyed again by fire in the 19th century, I was now standing in the latest rebuilding, which was finished in the 1920s. A crucifix hung above the altar and one statue of St. Peter is its only adornment. It doesn't need much besides its view.
As I was exploring the area around it, I found an inscription on a rock face telling me that lord Byron was inspired to write his poetry because of Portovenere. So obviously Italy is responsible for all the good he produced in the world.*

The rest of the city was lively and fun - I saw many little children running around yelling in the back streets I was exploring. I got lost in a labyrinth of alleys and was very close to missing my boat because of it. Luckily, I made it in time and boarded to the captin yelling at me for making him late. He then proceeded to have a 10 minute long conversation with another ship's captain.
The ride back was just as beautiful, but I was exhausted and layed down in the ship's bow. As we pulled into Sestri, the sun was setting. Not a bad day for the bad traveler.
Next up, Porto Fino.

*On a tour of Pompeii in my previous foray into Italy, the tour guide said while pointing at some painting, quite spitefully, I might add, "See, look at this. This is the first demonstration of perspective in painting. The French claim they invented it, but it was really the Italians."
I always found this funny, and make a joke of how Italians claim all that is good in this world was made by them.

20 July 2009

I knew something was wrong when he asked "Susie, how does it flush?"

Reason #17 bidets are annoying:

They confuse the potty-training set.

17 July 2009

Bear with me on this one

Chapter 15 of Robert Soklowski's Phenomenology of the Human Person, which I finished last week, is dedicated to wishing and its forms. Sokolowski's reasons for writing an entire chapter on such a topic is that wishing is a peculiarly human activity. "Plants need certain things", he says, like light, water, etc -- indeed, "need is associated with life."

One step up the metaphysical chain we have animals, which in addition to needing things, also want. "Animals might overeat because they enjoy eating, but plants do not overindulge . . . they have no motivation to do so."

Then there are human beings, who have a trait besides needing and wanting. Sokolowski states,
Of course like plants and animals, human beings do need some things--food, shelter, company, assistance--and like animals they also consciously want some things, but their wanting can give rise to new forms of desire. Besides needing and wanting, human beings can wish for certain things. Wanting is conscious desire, but wishing is intelligent desire.

Sokolowski distinguishes between wishing and wanting through the category of distance; "if we could achieve [the wished for action] immediately," he asserts, " we would not wish for it, we would just do it." Deliberation, then, is the material of a wish. Sokolowski clarifies with an example: "if my ear itches, I raise my hand and scratch it. There is no distinction between means and purposes in this performance." In contrast, a full-scale wish--for example, the wish to get in shape--requires the deliberation and then insertion of something between the purpose and myself--to continue the example, lifting weights, running, etc.

As I was reading, although agreeing for the most part, I found myself raising a few objections. First of all, Sokolowski asserts that there is nothing analogous to needs, wants and wishes in nonliving matter; "atoms and molecules as such do not try and maintain their identities", and again, "when an atom emits a particle, nothing has really been lost. Nonliving things are indifferent to such changes."

Perhaps my countless lab hours in undergrad have caused me to anthropomorphize atoms, molecules and compounds, but I don't think I fully agree with this. Atoms tend toward lowest energy states; it's how molecules and ions--and thus most structures of complexity--are formed. And when an atom emits a particle, something is definitively lost, that is, energy. As this chapter is located in the section of the book entitled "The Body and Human Action", the first chapter of which is dedicated to explaining how the different types of energy in the world impress upon us and cause us to percieve, react, and concept, I have to believe that the emitting of a particle is pretty big deal for all parties involved. In any case, I have to think more about this (and probably consult a chemist and/or physicist).

My other objection is more vague; less an argument against than a feeling of discomfort with the idea. I very much liked the first statement Sokolowski makes about us, that is, "human beings go beyond both needing and wanting" (emphasis mine), but then he seems to backtrack a bit on this when he draws out the distinction between a want and a wish in humans. The categories of needing, wanting and wishing seem to fit nicely with Thomas Aquinas' explanation of different souls: the vegetative, the sensitive, and the rational. But the sensitive soul is not merely the vegetative soul + 1, and more to the point, that rational soul is not the vegetative soul + the sensitive soul + 1. Rather, each higher step takes up the previous and forms something wholly new--albeit with the powers of the former type. It seems to me the activity of wishing would take up within it and transform needing and wanting, because humans do not need and want the same way plants and animals do. Do we not always do something freely because we wish it? Where does a sensory-act in response to a want end and a logical-deliberation-act in reponse to a wish begin? Ultimately, I suspect Sokolowski is right, and that I need to go back, reread and reflect, but right now, it's not clear.

Yesterday, though, as I was feeding infant Samuel, my ear started to itch. With one hand supporting the infant and the other holding his needed source of nourishment, my inner response was only this: I really fucking wish I could scratch my ear.

And just in case you're interested:

Phenomenology of the Human Person, Robert Sokolowski. Cambridge University Press, (New York, 2008).

15 July 2009

On Italian Men

During undergrad I had a crazy (that term applies to both her intelligence and her mental status) Spanish philosophy professor who left after my sophomore year, but with whom I had a good relationship and still see on occaision. We met the summer after I returned from Rome and she made this unexpected remark: "Don't you just love Italian men and their compliments?"

I replied that I rather did not enjoy being cat-called while walking down the street, no matter in what country.

My esteemed professor then told me that Italian men compliment women differently than American men; Italian men are complimenting beauty while not being sexual, and I could not appreciate it because (and with this, I whole-heartedly agree) "All Americans are prudes."

However, concerning her main point:

I remain unconvinced.