‘Patagonian toothfish’: raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of it.
Apparently, the Patagonian toothfish is a “petulant and repulsive giant” living in the dark bathypelagic depths of the oceans surrounding Antarctica (and how exactly can a fish be ‘petulant’ is something I plan on asking authors Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter if I ever meet them). Whilst not exactly a looker, the toothfish is a delicacy sought by wealthy diners the world over, a fish whose rarity gives a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, a whiff of exclusivity, to its taste. As well as making it the objective of unwanted attentions from poachers worldwide.
“Catching Thunder” is a story of piracy at sea, but not in the peg-leg-and-cutlasses sense of the term. This is a story of illegal fishing, ecologic disasters and of a trade worth billions. It’s also the story of those – activists, law enforcement agents, honest fishermen – who tried to put a stop to it.
If there’s one takeaway point from this book it’s that the high seas are nothing like terra firma. On land, as we know, there’s little chance of escaping inquiring eyes. The world I’ve seen in Xinjiang becomes the norm day after day and we are being mapped, tracked, face-recognised, followed; not so off-shore. At sea there are few rules, fewer ways of enforcing them and even less people who care. The oceans, “Catching Thunder” teaches, are a place where a ship can change name and flag overnight, carry two sets of registration papers, including a pre-stamped one, ready to be filled with whatever new identity its owners will come up with. A place where a handful of vessels, switching names faster than Lady Gaga changes attire, can drive a species to the brink of the extension for the benefit of faceless Spanish criminals.
Pitted in this fight against this impalpable enemy is a motley association of legitimate fishermen, Interpol functionaries, local officials and, crucially, activists from Sea Shepherd. It is indeed these activists who will play the lion’s share in the fight and in the story: their chase of one of the pirate vessels, the appropriately-named Thunder, will enter the annals for length, difficulty and risks.
Normally, I’ll admit to be wary of righteous moral crusaders. I’ve heard countless religious fanatics whose “Love thy neighbour” commandment stopped at homosexuals, or vegans who would preach against meat whilst smashing avocados flown in from 10,000 kms away. But if your beliefs are strong enough to lead you to spend three months chasing a pirate trawler through everything from Roaring 40s storms to equatorial doldrums, like the crews in this book did, then you have my utmost respect.
“Catching Thunder” reads like a spy story, like a Ludlum novel. It’s the kind of book where you turn pages fully expecting Matt Damon to get in through a window before dishing out karate chops ecumenically. The truth is that it’s a complex, meticulous piece of investigative journalism seen from all sorts of angles – the righteous, the lawful and the criminal – in a relentless progression that pulls you in like you’ve been tangled in a longline as it’s being cast to sea. But above all, this book is a sober reminder that environmental devastation isn’t wrought only by multinationals and their “greed for green”: it’s also actions from individuals, such as ordering an exotic fish, that can be equally destructive.
Day whatever of lockdown. As of this week we’ve moved from “Stay home” to “Stay alert”. Face masks may be worn in some shops and on public transport, but it’s only a suggestion. A fourteen-day quarantine for overseas travellers might be imposed, or perhaps it mightn’t, sometimes in the future. More than ever, this country needed a Winston Churchill. It got Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill.
Anyway, enough with politics. Better to head out, to check how the neighbourhood is coping. After all, that’s as far as we can go. Or perhaps now we can go further. But not to Wales. Definitely not to Wales.
The situation is critical, the tunnel is long and, whilst we can see the world around it, we’ve got to walk its entire length. But not everyone’s in agreement. For somebody, it’s a hoax. Actually, a haox. I bet that whoever wrote this also passes his/her time posting comments on the BBC’s website.
Mr. Monkey lives close to the Tube station and he isn’t taking any chances. “Better be safe than sorry”, he says.
We love walking around the posher streets in our neighbourhood. There’s a milk van – remember them? well, this one’s electric, get that Elon! – leaving milk and juice on people’s doorsteps. A Fiat 500. Beautiful bicycles. Last Thursday, during the “get-out-and-clap-your-hands-for-the-frontline-workers” minute, somebody improvised a three-piece concert: viola, violin and cello. Three neighbours got together and played Somewhere over the rainbow to a small crowd of socially-distant locals, plus some dogs who spent the whole performance sniffing each other’s arse.
A side entrance – painted black so not to be covered with soot – leading into the old stables of a beautiful manor, its main gate a triumph of white wood and stained glass, and a cross to remember the all-but forgotten tragedy of Holodomor. Both are a few blocks away from our flat.
Lastly, something genuinely heart-warming. Since the first days of the lockdown this bus stop has been turned in an art gallery for the local kids. It’s been like that for weeks and no one – no soulless council worker, no bored yobbo, no inane tagger – has vandalised it. Which is all the better for, amongst the many beautiful drawings, it contiains the absolute masterpiece below. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a young Ringo Starr worrying for the NHS. Ricky Wally, you’re a legend.
Full circle. We’ve come full circle. Trekking has been my family’s only past time: it’s understandable if, like homing pigeons, we felt its call, the urge to get up and go, shoulder the pack and get out early, when it’s still chilly and no one’s about.
It could be earlier, I lament to myself. There are some cars already in the parking lot and the sun is already above the ridge lines, painting the flanks of the hills gold. Back then we’d have said that we were late.
A trail loops the Glen Affric, starting with an inviting slope leading to the water’s edge. Light flows between the trees, still nude at this tail end of winter. Walking between them we can glimpse the loch, the glacial valley around it, the ancient mountains that surround it from all sides. We walk rapidly, soles scraping the gravel of the path, water rumbling in the background and fronds rustling in the wind.
The path is large and dry and we’re happy about it. Our shoes, trousers and gear are still caked in the mud of yesterday’s trail. Rain, sleet and the thawing snow turned Meall Fuar-mhonaidh into 1917 Somme.
Not today, not here. We talk intermittently, hands sunk in pockets and faces behind zipped-up jackets. We chat as we walk down the path at a brisk pace, waiting for the sun to shine like he means it, and for our bodies to build up the required heat.
The Glen Affric trail is long but not steep, an 18-km loop coasting the lochs, rising and falling with the whims of orography, weaving in and out of thickets of ancient scot pines, past rust-red ferns and venerably old mountains eroded by eons of wind. It’s what we wanted: long, quiet, isolated and as different from London as it can be without leaving the country (back then, in early March, travel was still possible but getting sketchier by the day).
A battle – or, rather, a series of skirmishes, of ambushes – was fought here in 1721, firefights in these woods between the Ross clan and the joined forces of the MacKenzie and MacRae. It’s the wobbly lid of the Pandora’s box that is Scottish history with its endless chain of rebellions, domestic strife and blood feuds too nebulous to navigate without a detailed flow chart. XVIII century Scotland wasn’t that far from today’s Middle East.
A handsome lodge sits pretty on a rocky promontory abutting the loch. Nothing flashy, just solid, florid, well-built and impeccably kept; the kind of place where I dream to weather this quarantine, writing my memoirs whilst the venison stew slow cooks in the kitchen and the dogs snooze in warm pools of light coming from the south-facing windows.
Dream on, I tell myself as I walk past, coasting the fences that protect fragile woods from over-enthusiastic deer and sheep. Woody Guthrie might’ve sang “This land’s your land” but what’s true for the redwood forests to the Gulf stream ain’t valid for Scotland.
No one knows exactly who owns what in Scotland. Holyrood launched, in 2014, a 10-year-project to map land ownership in the nation but, halfway through the lifetime of the initiative, barely a third of the country’s ownership map has been completed. Still, there’s enough evidence to suggest that my lodge-ownership dreams are destined to stay in a drawer for the foreseeable future. There’s Green MSP Andy Wightman’s estimates, according to which half of Scotland’s rural land is owned by less than 450 people. There’s the fact that 87 families possess a chunk of the country bigger than Kuwait. And that less than 3% of Scotland is community owned.
Glen Affric is not different. Over the years it passed hands between people with kilometric pedigrees: from Dudley Marjoribanks – a.k.a. Lord Tweedmouth – to the 6th Earl of Portsmouth to Viscount Marmaduke Furness. Today the lodge belongs to one David Williams, whose son James happens to be married to Pippa Middleton, Prince William’s sister-in-law.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
At times it feels as if the views were Jurassic. As if, from behind the canopy of these ageless pines, the head of a brontosaurus could emerge, chewing on a branch. It’s just for a second, enough for a bank of clouds to roll in, trailing wind and rain in their wake. Then you’re in an endless bog.
Traipsing in a bog is a miserable experience. Traipsing in a bog whilst being lashed by cold rain face-on is even worse. Eventually, mercifully, the clouds crab-walked away and the views returned to be, to borrow from our American friends, aww-some.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Strawberry cottage had the name the cannibalistic witch would’ve given to the marzipan house where she lured Hansel and Gretel. The reality is simpler, more rugged, void of human presence. A trail uncoiled in the distance. Another descended from the snowy flank of Beinn Fadha.
The wind picks up as we round the loch, alone and snacking on the dried fruit we’ve taken with us. A hut sits near the water edge and a herd of deer follow their stag up the woods, away from us. In that moment I felt the same sense of satisfaction, of content isolation, that filled me up on the Altiplano, where Argentina, Chile and Bolivia all rushed to meet each other in an embrace that no one but us was there to witness. Atahualpa Yupanqui began singing in my mind.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The road climbs on, through the woods and back out in the open. We smile and carry on.
Incomincia la decima e ultima, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Panfilo, si ragiona di chi liberalmente o vero magnificamente alcuna cosa operasse intorno à fatti d’amore o d’altra cosa.
It’s in time of crisis that the true character of people comes to light. One of the greatest lessons of my life, so far, has been to find out who, in the moment of greatest need, stuck around no matter what and who, instead, was just a fairweather friend (or relative). The same could be said of countries and this, indeed, is the topic of my last story in this Decameron. It’s a story of liberality, generosity and, yes, friendship.
Tucked on the side of the Balkan Peninsula as an afterthought, tiny Albania has just given the world – those who bothered caring, at least – a lesson in magnanimity that larger, richer, more “important” countries ought to, should to, learn from.
Less than 80 kilometres separate the heel of Italy from the coast of Albania. Not enough to act as an insurmountable barrier, even during the harshest years of Enver Hoxha’s lunacy. We’ve always been close, locked in a relationship where, more often than not, Italy wore the clothes of the abusive partner.
We occupied Albania twice in recent history: a fleeting invasion at the tail end of the Great War and a more concerted effort in 1939, when Mussolini decided to show his pal Adolf that he, too, could be big and macho and do stuff. We then proceeded to employ Albanians as reluctant cannon fodder in the beleaguered invasion of Greece, an enterprise of such imbecile slapdashness that Mussolini’s fateful words on the eve of the campaign – “Spezzeremo le reni alla Grecia” are still used to mock ill-conceived enterprises bound to fail miserably.
Then the Iron curtain fell, separating Europe from Stettin to Trieste but also the Adriatic, us on one side and Albania on the other. Contacts were prohibited as Enver’s regime descended into criminal paranoia and madness. Still, no one could stop airwaves: on bootleg TVs Albanians synched on Rai Uno and liked what they saw. We’ll never be able to apologise enough for that.
Eventually, it came to the long hot summer of 1991. The first Gulf War quickly forgotten, Italians descended to the beaches as history, on the other side of the Otranto channel, happened. Hoxha had died in 1985 but only then were walls falling down. The Albanians, hemmed in for over half a century, finally had a window to the world, and that window looked directly out to us.
I wasn’t yet six but I do remember the footage on the news. I remember the grey walls of the ship, the yellow cranes, the writing “VLORA – DURRES” painted on the stern. But, more importantly, the people. The pier of Bari port, the bridges of the ship, everything was carpeted with people. Twenty thousand of them, twenty thousand desperate Albanians arriving on a single ship in a country that, up to that moment, had less than half a million foreigners over a population of 55 million. All whilst everyone – government included – was flipping like a pancake on the beach.
Albanians were the forefront of Italy’s demographic revolution. They led the change that turned a country of emigration into a country where more than 10% of residents are foreign-born. They spread into every city, every province, weaving into the society and, before long, it felt as if they’d always been there. I remember noticing the soft, musical accent of the baker near home: when my mother told me she was from Tirana I asked her in which region it was.
With time, the Albanian community grew to just shy of half a million. They worked in Italy’s factories, shops, farms and offices. They opened up businesses, sent kids to school, paid taxes. They brought in questionable fashion (leather jackets), an unwavering love for Mercedes sedans and, in Kledi Kadiu, the first sex symbol for a generation of schoolgirls. In doing so, Albanians lifted the cover on our parochialism and prejudice. Fostered by centuries of deep hate of their neighbour, of wars with the city on the other side of the river, Italians – especially us northerners – discovered xenophobia.
“Terroni and Albanians should all be thrown to whatever gutter they came from” was a comment I remember being said by an adult outside the oratory on a Sunday, post-Mass, perpetuating the marriage between Catholicism and hypocrisy and that lasted for millennia.
Spurred by a media frenzy that depicted Albanians as responsible for every crime committed in Italy, from robberies in the North to pimping everywhere, a nasty equivalence – Albanians = criminals – took hold and cemented in the back of everyone’s minds. Until others arrived, that is. Meanwhile, away from the headlines and into reality, Italians and Albanians kept on discovering each other and, in the process, discovered long-lost cousins. I shared a house with Erion, a brickie, and found out that we shared a great deal many moments of pop history: Anna Oxa at Sanremo? He’d seen her. Del Piero’s 1994 goal at Fiorentina? He’d seen that too.
As years passed Albania grew richer and richer, despite an influx of the most criminally rapacious Italian “entrepreneurs”. Young people began returning home – including some of my university friends – to build a better country and, hot on their heels, we began travelling there. I, too, made more than one attempt to get there.
Then Covid-19 struck. It rampaged like wildfire in the industrial heartland of Lombardy and Veneto, raking victims in the factories and farms where a generation of Albanians, amongst others, found work and fortune. Long-time European partners turned a cold shoulder; a Dutch minister who shall remain nameless blurted out a speech that could’ve passed for Brennus’ “Vae Victis”.
On a cloudy day in March a small crowd gathered in Tirana. Amongst them the nation’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, and thirty figures clad in white: doctors and nurses. Shortly before they boarded the plane, bound for Italy’s hospitals to join the fight against the coronavirus, Rama gave a short speech in Italian. Barely looking at his notes, in the soft accent that is quintessentially Albanian, he said that even though immensely rich countries have turned their back on others, Albania didn’t, for they weren’t without memory and they’re not the ones to leave a friend, a friend who helped them in the moment of need, without support.
This is it. This is the last story in this modest tribute to the Decameron; I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to read and Other Half who meticulously combed through each post, intercepting all my typos. The lockdown goes on, the impact on our society and economy is still very much unknown, but it won’t last forever. And when it finally stops, I’ll have to visit Albania, to say thank you to our friends.
E come il nuovo giorno apparve, […] dietro alla guida del discreto re verso Firenze si ritornarono.
Incomincia la nona, nella quale, sotto il reggimento d’Emilia, si ragiona ciascuno secondo che gli piace e di quello che più gli agrada.
“Quello che più gli agrada”. What you like the most, what pleases you the most. A simple topic at first glance, a much more complex one once you start delving into it. We’re so focussed – obsessed, even – on the pursuit of happiness that we often struggle to point what, exactly, constitutes it. Or what our favourite things are.
Day nine has been a constant thought, lately. What can I possibly write that’s meaningful and even remotely interesting? Travel would immediately come to mind, but how to talk about it without sounding mournful, morose, sad?
Without much in the way of decisions, this morning, I went out for a run (which the government still allows to do, though that might change) in that golden hour before 6:30AM, when the sun is just peeking from behind the Shard and it’s just me and a few magpies strutting amidst the daffodils, Brant Bjork’s Low Desert Punk riffing in my brains.
Instead of my usual trod – down the road, past the rail underpass, by the park and down to the centre of the borough – I turned left. As I ran, I felt the pinprick of something I hadn’t experienced in a while: a discharge of something, a titillation of synapses running up and down my spine. I grinned as I ran, welcoming my old friend. Now I had something to write about.
We travel for different reasons, many reasons or no reasons at all. One of the motivations that get me up and running, scouring flight websites and raking debt on my cards is this sensation. I don’t know if it has a name but I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel it: perhaps you’ll find yourself in it.
What’s its phenomenology? Well, doctor, it’s a funny one. It’s like that knot of worry at the mouth of your stomach, only pleasant. Think of the sensation that a selz candy – by the way, do they still make them? – gives when its filling sizzles in your mouth: now propagate it to the entirety of your spine, make it go up to the top of your neck. It’s the feeling that puts a spring in your step, makes you crank up the volume and, above all, makes you smile broadly.
I have dozens of memories correlated to this feeling, a visual collage of situations: walking in the sun in Buenos Aires’ Palermo, buoyed by the good weather and a satisfying beer selection; driving under the relentless Atacama sun in our rumbling red pick-up truck; flagging down cars in Gulcha, Kyrgyzstan, before being picked up by Murat in his big Kamaz. Or walking down a posh hotel corridor with Other Half, who’s quite more used to those sorts of surroundings.
I often wondered what triggered this feeling, for the not too selfish reason of wanting a repeatable way of summoning it at will. For a while I settled on the realisation of having “made” it, of having reached some goal that I’d for long dreamt of. Or perhaps it was the sudden realisation that something I once day-dreamed about had finally happened… but it wasn’t the case.
This morning’s run has revealed everything. I needn’t flying to some far-flung destination, break new ground, explore something that had previously been inaccessible to me. In fact, today’s run took me past the route that, up until late February, I used to follow to commute to work (ain’t missing that one!). The key, the driver, was my decision.
Suddenly, all made sense. The hitch-hike, the desert drive, even today’s run: in all these cases everything – to go or not, to turn left or right, to flag that car or not – was down to me, down to us. To a certain extent we were masters of our destinies, unburdened by pre-existing commitments or must-do’s. Contractual obligations, societal pressures were absent: no one was obliging us to pick up envelope A rather than B. Choices, decisions, outcomes and consequences were absolutely down to us and us alone.
I ended my run on a great high. Happy for my newfound epiphany and for the awareness that, even in these days where our world has shrunk to the local neighbourhood or less, there’s still a chance to be free.
Incomincia l’ottava, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Lauretta, si ragiona di quelle beffe che tutto il giorno o donna a uomo o uomo a donna o l’uno uomo all’altro si fanno.
It’s human nature to be looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses but… believe me, those were better days. Granted, the pay was pitiful and the hours horrid but the job was something I believed in, the team great and the leadership inspired.
Mind you, the office was perhaps the saddest I’ve had the misfortune to work in. Stained, dusty carpets; Formica desk, dark blues and browns, old pictures on the walls. It was the only place I’d ever been where a tea lady would come round with a trolley, ringing a cowbell as she did, and people would rise up from their old chairs and queue to buy their prawn cocktail and tuna sandwiches. Every day they’d get up, hand a fiver and eat at their desks, eyes transfixed on the sports website, reviews of kayaks, the Daily Mail. A guy whose screen was on my line of sight drank builders’ tea and read car tests on HonestJohn.co.uk, every single lunch, without fail.
Yet our corner was radically different. Same furniture but different atmosphere. It wasn’t the saddest and beigest school library: it boomed with laughter, vivacious conversation and the occasional swearing. The difference, needless to say, was due to the people. The team was small, less than a dozen with senior managers sitting amongst us. Communication was great and never dull; and, yes, there were the pranks.
One rule we enforced with Taliban zeal was the one of locking your laptop when you weren’t at your desk. Not so much because we cared about cyber security; rather, we enjoyed the punishment that came with it way too much. You left your laptop unlocked and unattended? Then you must suffer.
No one was exempt. I left my computer open to answer a call and, as I returned, I found I’d just sent an email asking the entire team (including those overseas) what kind of ice cream they wanted for tomorrow. Our director was dragged into a meeting to appease an extremely angry client: that didn’t stop him from confessing to the team that he was going to donate 30% of his wage and bonus to me. But the most memorable happened to a guy called Ian.
Ian was a character in a team of characters. A senior VP based in America, a tall blond man with a wild beard. He was close to retirement and one never to miss a chance to speak his mind openly. I admired him for that: the more senior his interlocutor, and the stupider the question, the higher the concentration of expletives per sentence. He originally was from Scotland, moved to the US as soon as he could and would only come over in the event of big meetings or similarly big fuck-ups. The fact that he’d been in London for two weeks underlined the dimensions of the problem.
Mal was Ian’s peer, running the shop this side of the pond. If Ian was a blonde Donald Sutherland Mal was more Del Boy Trotter after thirty years of 2-packs-a-day. A great team leader, a genius in a crisis but, above and beyond, the master of ceremonies in our pranks department. Which leads me to the fateful day.
Ian’s on the phone. He’s been on the phone for hours, muffling the swearing because on the other side of the line it’s the Homeland security and those guys don’t do humour and would definitely not appreciate being called a cocksplat. Eventually the calls end, Ian jumps up and announces “If anyone asks, I’ve gone to visit those backstabbing bastards over in Quality” and storms off. Without pressing CTRL+ALT+DEL on his laptop.
“Eyes on the door matey” Mal whispers to me as, swift like a cat on nicotine, slides at Ian’s desk.
“Ian’s really pissed” Michelle, our collective voice of reason, intervened. “Can’t you let this one slide?”
“Ah fuck it” replied Mal. “He knows the rules and besides he’s always pissed”. Furious typing ensued.
Ian returned to his desk soon afterwards, suspecting nothing. Back he went to the Lenovo, still in a foul mood. Then something weird happened. In one and twos, people started wandering in our corner, looking for Ian. After a brief moment of hesitation, they’d march over to his desk, dish out a hand, shake his, introduce themselves, say welcome him and then walk off. One remarked that, yes, he did look a bit like Richard Branson, only with a full beard instead of a Van Dyke.
This carried on for a few hours, Ian growing increasingly pissed and Mal turning the colour of Chianti. We cowered in our cubicles, hoping not to be there when, eventually, the volcano exploded. Eventually, after having saluted a posse of six apprentices who’d come upstairs from their workshop specifically for that purpose, Ian stood up and asked, with a tone loud enough to be heard by dogs all the way to Liverpool:
“Ok, who of you miserable fuckers has excogitated what is going on and how in God’s name do I stop it before I murder someone?”
Amidst fits of laughter Mal, who in the meantime turned aubergine purple, suggested Ian checked his sent emails folder. There was the following:
To: All London staff
My name is Ian XYZ. I’m normally based in New York but I’ll be here in London for the next few weeks. As I don’t know many of you please come see me for a chat; I normally sit in the East quadrant, desk 26, and people say I look a bit like Richard Branson.
See you soon,
Incomincia la settima, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Dioneo, si ragiona delle beffe, le quali per amore o per salvamento di loro le donne hanno già fatto à suo mariti, senza essersene avveduti o sì.
Day seven and, well, I feared this one. I knew Dioneo would throw the mother of all curve balls. Dioneo, a character that – critics and researches say – has the most of Boccaccio in him, with that name so echoing of Dionysus, god of pleasure, wine and madness. The most dissolute, the most rock ‘n’ roll of the ten. If this was a film he’d be bound to be played by a young Johnny Depp, for the topic of this day could only come from somebody with the face and eyes of a young JD: pranks, jests, cruel jokes played by ladies on their men.
The ten stories, in Decameron, are an artillery barrage of wily ladies using humour, brains, magic and superstition to outwit their (not particularly smart) husbands to save the bacon of their lovers. Is this something that has ever happened to me? Well, not being a particularly smart man how in the world would I know? Eventually, I landed on a story. Who knows, maybe Dioneo would’ve liked it.
Scotland is an unforgiving lady. Years ago, when I was following a project in the outskirts of Glasgow, I used to fly in to find, in those fleeting moments before landing, a magical land bathed in the sweetest golden light of sunsets up north. Dark blue lochs traded places with rust-red ferns, whilst dense carpets of green forests ran up to the feet of ancient mountains shaped by the actions of long-gone glaciers.
It truly felt like the promised land, a mixture of everything I yearned for and couldn’t – for reasons of time and money – grasp. The interplay of water and land of Norway. The wilds of Patagonia. The remote cliffs of the Putorana plateau. All at the price of a 50-minute flight from London.
Then one day at the fag end of this winter, as travel bans began dropping like VIP names at a wannabe dinner party, we got there. We would’ve gone there quicker had it not been for Britain’s stupidly low speed limits (seriously guys, 70mph? and average speed cameras?).
Scotland opened up her treasure chest as our plucky rental car buzzed through the border and deeper into the Highlands, revealing all I’d seen in those moments when the crew has already sat down for landing, and much more.
Only to hide everything behind a curtain of rain.
At times, without warning, Scotland would lift the screens and reveal landscapes that needed only Björk to pass as Icelandic. But that would last only for a minute; with a sonorous laugh, Scotland would send out some more hail, some more fog to blind us.
It should’ve been easy to give up, turn the car and head for home where, as friends were saying, the sun shone and riverside pubs were open. But I was by then hooked, dangling down Scotland’s line without even the will to trash about.
So out again we went, persevering on treks that went farther, longer, through bogs and mud and rocks, lashed by the winds and rain and hail, to try and catch a glimpse of her. Sometimes, every now and then, she’d have pity on us before the inevitable rebuff.
Still, I find it hard to hold a grudge against Scotland. Much like the protagonists of today’s stories, it’s impossible to be mad at her. Also because… but that’s for another time.
As per the original Decameron, Friday and Saturday are dedicated to other things than storytelling. Though I won’t spend Friday in penitence and I wash more than once a week, I’ll be taking a breather and will be back Sunday.
Incomincia la sesta, nella quale, sotto il reggimento d’Elissa, si ragiona con chi con alcun leggiadro motto, tentato, si riscotesse, o con pronta risposta o avvedimento fuggì perdita o pericolo o scorno.
A skill I’d pay good money for is the one of being able to make a good come-back. Of being able to deliver knee-slappers with surgical precision and at sizzling-hot temperatures. Unfortunately I’m the kind of person who’d brood over a situation for days, eventually going “ah-ha! That’ll teach them”… but the moment has passed.
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why today’s theme – witty remarks that can get people out of a sticky situation – might be a tad hard for me to write about. Luckily, though, I worked in an industry where pants-burning sarcasm is a widespread skill. Those working in the civil aviation industry often see some of the least commendable human behaviours: the rapaciously selfish, the criminally inept and the catastrophically stupid are all frequent fliers, it seems. Wit, ça va sans dire, is necessary to survive. Here are four brief snippets from my time there, either witnessed personally by yours truly or by friends and close ones whose honesty I can vouch for.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty.
A flight to a destination where meat consumption is an act of faith. Catering, in its wisdom, has loaded only 10 steaks in a Business Class cabin of 40. Three rows in and the inevitable happens: no more meat. And it couldn’t happen at a worst passenger: a long-faced, whiny Englishman, one of those who wear pink chequered shirts. You know the type. Well, for this guy nothing will do. Not the salmon, not the chicken, certainly not the p-asta. On and on he whinges at the poor crew: “That’s not good enough. Not good enough, I said. What are you going to do about it?”
Before the crew could interject, magic happened.
When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on
When the morning cries and you don’t know why
It’s hard to bear
With no one to love you
You’re goin’ nowhere
Yes. From the other side of the aisle another passenger declaimed in Homeric tones, without raising his eyes from his laptop, the refrain from that immortal Bee Gees song. He then looked at Mr. Whingy, at the crew and smiled.
Salmon was OK.
A First-class seat ain’t one.
The day after the 2012 Olympics ceremony. As the nation reeled from the after-parties and calculated the bill for the whole shebang I was at the airport, going through the motions that precede the boarding of a plane (there’s a lot to do besides answering your questions on why it’s taking so long, I’ll have you know). The flight was one to JFK.
One of the suited-and-booted slickers that, in the company, looked after VIPs glided to the gate. “Chaps”, he opened “Be advised that Herbert Bullwinkle and his entourage will be joining this service today”.
Cue in blank faces from all of us. Who the heck is Herbert Bullwinkle?
Seeing the question marks buzzing like neon signs above our head, the VIP chaperon used his stage name. Aaaah, THAT guy. East Coast rapper. Millionaire discographer. Yeah, rings a bell.
Soon, before we started the usual charade of allowing families with small kids and those who need a bit of extra time onboard, another suited colleague arrived at the head of Herbert and his entourage, consisting of a fridge-freezer-sized man and a slender woman who brandished a MacBook like an axe. Boarding passes and passports out, scan the pass… red BEEEP.
As I typed furiously to clear the message, change two seats and re-print boarding passes I could feel the woman’s eyes piercing furiously into my head. Is this guy dumb or what? I could feel her asking. A foot was tapping somewhere. To their credit, Herbert and Mr Fridge-Freezer remained calm, joking about yesterday’s performance with the Caterpillar, a man from the security company whose job was to inspect passports on US departures and thusly named thanks to his resemblance to the character in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Same face, same voice, same moves. It even looked as if he’d just smoked a whole narghile loaded with opium.
Anyway, message cleared, seats modified, passes printed. I snagged them from the printer, scanned and passed them on to the Caterpillar. He held Herbert’s passport up, had a good peep, closed it around the boarding pass, handed it over and said
“Mr Bullwinkle, you might have 99 problems but a First-class seat ain’t one”.
The cones, guv.
Thursday afternoon. Huddled in the room called ‘The Fridge’ for its over-exuberant air conditioning system, we all waited for whatever came first: frostbite or the arrival of our boss and chair of the meeting.
Eventually, with only twenty minutes’ delay, the immaculate suit of Alistair slipped through the door (with Alistair within it). Now, Alistair isn’t his real name, but he so should be an Alistair. His mother made such a mistake when he called him… can’t say.
Anyway, Alistair sat down with his usual smirk. One eyebrow raised, pale blue eyes glimmering with humour, mischief or irony – or perhaps all three. For the umpteenth time I thought all he needed to be a Bond villain was a cream suit and a red carnation in his lapel.
“Sorry all” he said as soon as he sat centre-table, like Jesus. “Just came over from checking out Yankee Mike”. Those of us who knew groaned, the others were brought up-to-speed quickly. -YM was an airplane which, that day, had the misfortune of getting T-boned at speed by one of those motorised sets of stairs whilst having the audacity of being parked at its gate surrounded, as it is the law, by bright orange cones.
“Damage’s quite extensive” he continued. “They all but ripped off the starboard winglet, it’ll be quite a while to repair it”.
“How on Earth did they achieve that?” I asked.
Alister looked at me and smiled even more. “That’s what I asked the guy who was driving the steps. Wanna know what he said? ‘I was trying not to hit the cones, guv’”.
Study, mama said.
Economy class, long-haul, day. A flight to somewhere, sometimes after the main meal service. Passengers staring into their seat-back screens, light oozing in from the windows, the humdrum of the engines. Two crew are working together, clearing out meal trays and stowing them into a trolley between them.
Clearing trays is, let me tell you, a thankless job. Almost without exception what is dished out neatly packaged, wrapped in paper and plastic, will return torn to shreds, butchered and dismembered as if it’d been attached by a troop of baboons armed with machetes.
A mother and his child are waiting with their trays held aloft. They’ve been doing that for a while.
As soon as the crews reach them and grab the trays mother looks at son and says, loud and clear: “Study, or otherwise you’ll end up picking up the trash on a plane when you grow up”.
After the briefest moment of silence one of the two crews, without missing a beat, replied, looking at the son:
“Study”, he said. “Study hard, or otherwise you’ll have to sit in Economy with your son when you grow up”.
Incomincia la quinta, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Fiammetta, si ragiona di ciò che alcuno amante, dopo alcuni fieri o sventurati accidenti, felicemente avvenisse.
Can love exist between people and a tree? Does an entire city rallying around a struggling oak, going to extreme lengths to save it from seemingly inevitable death, represent love? If you ask me, yes and yes.
Tucked into a corner not far from downtown Austin, a few blocks away from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, is a small urban park. Austin, here, is already slipping into the utilitarian pragmatism that makes its suburbs so forgettable. Not sensing what was here, in our visit we passed a few meters away. So we didn’t get a chance to see the very large tree that all but occupies the lot. Treaty Oak.
Its name, it must be said, is a misnomer. The Native Americans and Stephen Austin didn’t sign a treaty here; and it’s also uncertain whether Sam Houston rested under its formidable branches after having been booted out of the Governor’s office. But two things are true: the grove of which she is the sole survivor was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa Native Americans. And she’s half a millennium old.
Treaty Oak lived its quiet arboreal life near downtown Austin, largely ignored by those coming and going into Texas’ capital city, until one day in March 1989. That’s when large spots of dead grass appeared, seemingly overnight, around its mighty trunk. Fast forward a couple of months and it wasn’t just about dead grass: somebody had poisoned the tree.
Velpar is an herbicide made by Dupont, the company that has given us a lot of hard-to-pronounce polymers. Its purpose is to kill non-pine plants from pine farms and it does what it says on the tin with remarkable efficiency. Spilled on the ground, the chemicals will be captured by the plants’ roots, ultimately ending in the leaves. There, they’ll block photosynthesis, the mechanism through which a plant “eats”. The plant will change leaves, hoping to find a remedy to the issue, but it will never succeed: eventually, it’ll die.
A few glasses of Velpar are sufficient to kill a tree. More than eleven litres were discharged in the park around Treaty Oak.
It’s not the purpose of this blog to tell you why, and who, did this: there’s a cracking podcast, Criminal, for that; in observance to Fiammetta’s rule, we are indeed here to talk about love. Of love, Treaty Oak got in spades.
As soon as news broke of the attempt to its life, grief and despair swept across Austin and even beyond. Austinites descended to the park to take turns in hugging the trunk. Vigils were held, yellow ribbons tied to its branches and psychics arrived to carry out healing ceremonies that, they swore, would save it. Perhaps lacking in poetry but not in effectiveness, millionaire and true-blooded Texan Ross Perot called Austin’s forester John Giedraitis and instructed him to send the bill for saving the trees his way, no strings attached.
Ross Perot’s wealth bankrolled the Treaty Oak Task Force. Twenty PhDs – the finest minds on anything that had roots and leaves in the nation – steamed into town and under the tree, which by then was starting to shed its contaminated foliage. The contamination, it was clear, had to be stopped, but how? No one knew for sure.
The tree grew weaker and weaker with the days; it seemed that nothing – not the psychics, not the hugs and the get-well-soon cards – could save it. The Task Force dug up the contaminated soil and replaced with fresh one, but it seemed not to make a difference. Desperate, they injected solutions of water and sugar into the roots, to give enough glucose to the plant to keep on changing its poisoned leaves. A sprinkler system sprayed it with spring water.
Eventually, help came from the tree itself. A graft, cut from the oak earlier in the crisis, started to take root: once the young sapling had grown enough, it was plant next to the sick mother tree. With time the two root systems fused, merging into one, and thus Treaty Oak was saved. She’d lost half her crown, but in 1997 returned to produce acorns; today she’s still there, perhaps a little lopsided but still strong, shading the city of Austin for, I hope, the next 500 years.
Incomincia la quarta, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Filostrato, si ragiona di coloro li cui amori ebbero infelice fine.
Maria’s love was her job. It was a love she felt her entire adult life, something she dedicated her entire self to. A love that, ultimately, led to her death. I suppose it’s a story that fits the canons set by Filostrato: even if it doesn’t strictly adhere to the he-loves-her, she-loves-him formula I’m sure that Boccaccio, that old romantic, would let me add it. Because, at the end of the day, it’s a story worth telling.
I’ve never met Maria. But I met her mother, Gabriella; and I’ll be honest, I behaved pretty much like an arse every time we did. In my defence I can only say that I was 12, press-ganged into attending her catechism lessons on Tuesday afternoons. You’ll excuse me for behaving like a dick.
Gabriella was her name but everyone in town used her surname, Bonino, and not only that; owing to a particularly annoying local custom, we added a determinative article before it, so that she was La Bonino. She was the ideal type of that kind of Catholicism that is so common in North-western Italy: scouts, guitars at Mass, church camps in the mountains, kids sent to the local denominational schools. I grew up immersed in it and you’ll pardon me for developing a deep distaste for it; even now, 20 years later, you won’t find me trusting a scout, anybody wearing a cardigan in the summer or those living in a house with hortensia growing in the garden (bone-headedness is also a characteristic of my lands).
I digress. Gabriella – la Bonino – was a retired teacher, Greek and Latin, at the local posh high school (which I did not attend). She had a mass of wavy silver hair coiffeured in a utilitarian way, bifocal lenses and a well-intoned voice tuned hoarse by years spent teaching the vocative case to generations of students. She was courteous but also straight as a die, one of those old Piedmontese that are now rarer than pandas.
Gabriella had one son and a daughter, Maria. As I said, I never met her but it’s as if I did, for her photos suggested that she shared more than half her genome with her mother: the same lineaments, the same rimless glasses, the same no-frills attitude towards attires or hairstyles. Maria, however, wasn’t as big on cardigans: perhaps because she was a doctor and because she worked in Africa.
I remember la Bonino dropping that fact during our lessons, often as a prelude to a bollocking. The notion surely impressed us: those were the years of the Rwandan genocide, war in Zaire and the first appearances of Ebola. To our uneducated eyes it seemed that the entire continent was boiling into a cauldron of chaos; catechism was a pain in the neck, we all agreed, but la Bonino was cool because of her gutsy daughter.
Maria, I was later to know, always worked in Africa. Hers wasn’t a day job, it was a calling, a passion. She lived and breathed it. Freshly minted from med school she headed the paediatric ward of Ikonda, Tanzania. There, she wrote, “I’ve been able to experience the purpose of my job. The thought of returning to Italy doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest. What I’d love to do is to stay here… despite the inevitable difficulties, I feel that here my days have a meaning”. I sometimes thought at how many, in the Tube cars that brought me to work, could say the same of their jobs. I definitely can’t.
And so she did, working in Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola. When she wasn’t there she was head paediatrician in Aosta, possibly the one place in Italy where people are more obtuse and impenetrable than in our city of birth.
Fast forward to 2005. It’s spring, I’m fast approaching the exams that mark the end of high school. One evening I met my father for dinner and found him in a sombre mood not exactly in character with his usual, ebullient persona. La Bonino, whom he knew from the charity scene in which both volunteered, had just lost her daughter. Maria had died in Africa.
Marburg sounds like a shitty Eastern-Block car built somewhere in the DDR but its true colours are a lot more terrifying than a drab dashboard and wheezing engine. Carried by bats, Marburg is a virus related to Ebola. Its symptoms (high fevers, deep malaise, severe diarrhoea, lethargy, vomiting and bleeding from the nether regions) aren’t anything I would wish onto anyone and its lethality puts Covid-19 right back in its box: outbreaks of Marburg have killed between 22 and 88% of those infected. On average, one in two of those who get it will die from it.
Maria was in Uige, Angola, 350 km to the capital and even less to the DRC border. In late 2004 she began noticing a new haemorrhagic fever cutting down her young patients. Quickly she sounded the alarm, requesting the help of the Angolan authorities and of the World Health Organisation. No one came until February ’05, when samples were taken and brought to South Africa and the US for investigations. On March 22nd came the response: Ebola was discounted but Marburg was confirmed. It was too late: she’d been struck by the illness six days earlier and would die from it on the 24th, aged 52.
She was buried in Angola, we were told, because the Italian health authorities didn’t want to take the risk of the infection coming over here. Later it transpired that it’d been her request all along: Africa was the place she loved, where she loved working and it made sense for her to be staying there. It made sense, for me at least.
In the intervening years I sometimes saw Gabriella in town. She lived in a handsome building in a cobbled street behind the Rosminian convent, an area that my dog loved to inspect whenever we didn’t venture into the woods. Years had passed and I was only a face in the ocean of youngsters she’d taught. And I’ve always been too shy of telling her I was sorry for her loss.
Perhaps, if I ever did, she’d given me an earful. Restrained, polite, free of theatrics for she was and remained Piedmontese to the core and we don’t exaggerate, but a bollocking nonetheless. Marburg, she remarked more than once – even during a Papal visit to Angola to which she’d tagged along – was a city in Germany. The virus had been isolated there when it came riding on the back of some lab monkeys in the 1960s. Fifty years later, it was still killing people and Europe didn’t do much about it. “Because it’s an African virus, what does Europe care about it? There’s no need for a cure” she lamented to the Corriere della Sera.
Gabriella died a year ago, aged 91. Her daughter’s example lives on, in the foundation that carries her name. You can help here (Italian only).