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).
Nella quale si ragiona, sotto il reggimento di Neifile, di chi alcuna cosa molto di lui disiderata o con industria acquistasse o la perduta ricoverasse.
To achieve one’s dreams is a great feeling: to do so after having put some level of effort is even better. This is the topic of the third day of the Decameron: tales of arduous conquer of seemingly unachievable goals, mostly of squires hitting the sack with noble ladies or abbots scoring with noble ladies or friars getting lucky with noble ladies (hardly a surprise that the Decameron featured in the Index librorum prohibitorum). Alas, my story today isn’t going to be as spicy, though it includes toil, deep discomfort and, as it is my custom, a penchant for choosing the very worst moment to embark in this quest. But let’s start from the beginning.
There used to be a dinosaur in the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London. Dippy, as it is called, was a revelation when I first saw it in 1996. Then, a few years ago, came the news that Dippy was buggering off for a tour of what we snobs living in London call “The Regions” (cue in a shiver of barely-concealed horror). In its stead, the NHM decided to put another skeleton. This time of a blue whale. Cue below a photo taken from Look Up London.
It was one of the very few cases where the stand-in crew does a better job of the headliner. In fact, I’d say that this 25-meter blue whale is awesome and I’m more than happy for Derby, or Stoke-on-Trent to keep Dippy. And the reason for me to say this is that I’m terribly fascinated by whales – and blue whales in particular. No other animal has ever come close to their dimensions. Somebody has calculated that their jaws have reached the maximum dimensions allowed by physics in order for them to feed in the way they do. Do yourself a favour and read Nick Pyenson’s Spying on Whales and if you don’t feel pure awe then something’s wrong with you.
Anyway, all this to say that seeing a blue whale has been a dream of mine. With only one catch, actually two. First, as always, dough. Second, and more importantly, I’m not good with boats. Well, since we’re amongst friends I’ll spill the beans: to say that I’m not good with boats would be like saying that Challenger’s last launch went a wee bit wrong. Although things have improved in the past few years, back in 2017 I wouldn’t have wandered out into the Indian ocean on anything less than a supertanker. Up until the fateful day when we boarded a glorified bathtub on a stormy day in Sri Lanka.
Mirissa is, or at least was back then, a village caught in the transition between fishing hamlet and tourist hotspot. Hotels were few and far inbetween, resorts unheard of and if the beach bars looked like shacks it was because they were so, not for a stylistic choice. Every morning an unseen hand would list the number of aquatic creatures – sperm whales, sea turtles, dolphins, blue whales – spotted on the previous day’s cruises on a whiteboard stuck in the sand. It was too good an offer to pass.
The day chosen for the coronation of this dream was also the one when the good weather turned. After a week or so of heart-warming sunrises and sunny afternoons that begged for a hammock and a nap, that morning offered a 180 degrees turn. Gun-metal sky. The beach looked more Stavanger than tropical island. A sign in the hut where we assembled, a marshmallow-soft crew of vacationers in flip flops and swimming trunks, said that they expected 6-foot swell. I did a quick comparison to proper units of measure and the result yielded a meterage that, to my land-dwelling eyes, was appropriate for tsunamis. Being responsible adults, we ignored it and swallowed the sickness pills.
The boat wasn’t a bathtub. It was actually a catamaran, meaning two bathtubs linked together by a two-decked platform designed to be rolled over by the first wave, sending flip-floppers into the jaws of awaiting sharks and krakens. On board were some well-worn life vests with instructions in tidy katakana characters and visuals like only the Japanese can draw. Arms here and here, head through here, tighten these and may the odds be on your side.
We spluttered out of the marina, noting how not a single fishing boat was out, and already one guy – a French fellow with a 1970s moustache and a girlfriend that was beginning to realise the enormity of the error she’d made – already with the head in a bucket. As soon as we left the harbour the boat started woosh-thumping on the rollers, the prow rising and falling with the regularity of a metronome and the propeller whining louder as if suddenly found itself in open air. Hey, where’s all the water gone? it seemed to complain.
Speaking of complaints, my inner organs weren’t enjoying the ride. Everything that was ‘down’ tried to go ‘up’ and, in an inner corner of my mind (which, in case you were wondering, works exactly like in that Woody Allen movie except for the fact that all the workers are on strike), a squeaky voice kept on repeating Just so you know, I don’t believe we are meant to be here. Regardless, the boat soldiered on, cruising straight ahead until the coast was nothing but a memory, our world was a grey ocean and the only feature were freighters cruising by in the distance (“Captain, are those ships in distress?” “Nah, it’s those stupid whale-watchers. Better have a launch ready in case they capsize like last Wednesday, though”. “Aye aye captain”).
On and on we went, lashed by rain that grew colder as the day went, the whine of the engine and the rale of the sea sick our only companions. Those who weren’t vomiting looked on the verge of passing out, and those who weren’t passing out didn’t seem to be enjoying the cruise. I was ranking my life choices in order of stupidity when the corner of my eye felt something different. The sea next to us was no longer a uniformly chaotic lump of trembling foam. Something long, grey and smooth had appeared, stretching from crest to crest.
An excited gasp. Perhaps it was me, perhaps it was everyone else. We piled up on my side of the boat as the blue whales emerged in formation. Two, three, maybe more, they surfaced to breathe next to us, a lot closer than the crew would’ve ever dared going. We’d been told that it’s hard to see more than half the animal at any given time and the little we were seeing was longer than our entire boat. Later, the crew would’ve estimated their length at over twenty meters.
A whale emerged upwind, closer to us than any before, and breathed a column of vapour that blew into us. For a second we smelt musk, an undertone of algae, of deep sea and unknown worlds. Then she dived, arching her splendid back until the tail flew in the air, a moment we failed to catch on camera but that is etched in my memory forever. Then they were gone.
We turned back soon afterwards. The following day the sun was again out and the wind gentle; the whiteboard on the beach showed a paltry tally – 4 blue whales. But it didn’t matter: they were our blue whales.
E incomincia la seconda, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Filomena, si ragiona di chi, da diverse cose infestato, sia oltre alla sua speranza riuscito a lieto fine.
It doesn’t often happen to be able to fit in a quote from Otto von Bismarck, the moustached Prussian heavyweight… but today the rule book has flown out of the window and I can not only quote Otto but – hold on to your socks – misquote him.
“God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and those who lack good judgement.”
Day 2 of the Decameron is indeed dedicated to those who have a bad day – sometimes through no fault of their own, but often due to their imbecility – and, against all odds, manage to save their bacon. Amongst all of them, my favourite story is the one of Andreuccio da Perugia. He’s a horse trader, who – having heard of the great bargains to be made there – makes the fateful decision of going to Naples alone with 500 golden florins. Doing the mistake that is perpetuated daily by millions of muppets worldwide, he makes the point of flaunting his riches around. The inevitable happens: he is swindled by a voluptuous Sicilian, Fiordaliso, who pretends to be his sister, falls into a manure pit, almost drowns in a well, joins a gang of thieves who are planning to rob the tomb of a rich archbishop, ends up locked in the sarcophagus and, by sheer luck, ends up getting out of that pickle with a reward that will make him forget all his misadventures.
This is also my story. I haven’t robbed tombs and I haven’t been to Naples to buy horses, but I, too, have walked into something utterly unprepared, have found myself in a heap of trouble and, like Andreuccio, lived through it and emerged from it unscathed and marginally wiser. But let’s start from the beginning.
The year is 2010. Yours truly is finishing his Master’s Degree: all exams done, all extra-curricular activities completed, the little booklet where grades are annotated has been stamped “COMPLETED”. All that remains to do is the so-called Discussione. For those of you who’ve never done an advanced degree in Italy, first of all congrats; secondly, you might need an explanation.
Part and parcel of a degree is the preparation of a dissertation. Normally it’s 2-300 pages long, excessively boring and most probably will never be read by anyone, including the writer. Said dissertation will then be exposed – or discussed – in front of a hemicycle of professors whose degree of interaction will oscillate from foaming outrage to apparent death. Then everyone will bugger off, professors will mark the performance, the applicant will be called back in the room, given a mark and the partying will begin.
In my case, the Master’s was a door to another course, an MBA in which I invested all my savings. No Master’s, no MBA, no career as I have it today (whether it’s a good or bad thing I’ll ask myself another time). So there was a lot riding on it.
It’s just obvious, then, that I was to be going abroad the weekend before the opening of the graduation window, right? Of course it was. But, I was thinking, the ‘window’ was 3 weeks long and applicants would be called in alphabetical order starting from a randomly chosen letter. Based on the scientific evidence of years of school (never been called first), I decided not to worry about it. Lo and behold, the week before the trip my relator gleefully announced that I was to pass the gauntlet at 15.30 on a Monday, on the first day of the window.
What to do? Ditch the trip? Of course not. First, it was all already committed to and, hey, money is money. Second, it was quite an event: going to Dundee to see a coursemate, then an evening concert in Edinburgh, Interpol as the headliners. Only an idiot would pass on it… or so I thought.
Scotland welcomed me with its usual treasure chest of whisky, impenetrable accents, friendliness and icy weather. We bagged an unexpected treat on St. Andrew’s Day in St. Andrews where the Red Hot Chili Pipers (I shit you not) inflamed a crowd huddled beneath a circus tent whilst a blizzard raged outside. Interpol, too, were amazing. What was slightly less amusing was to wake up on Sunday in Edinburgh, the day before the graduation, to see a huge hostel dorm room filled with snoring people and, beyond the windows, a few inches of snow.
Now, everywhere else I’d been in the Northern Hemisphere a 10-cm snowfall would’ve been cause for, at most, celebration from kids and not much more than a little bit of a delay on the ring roads. Maybe a few crumpled bumpers for those Audi drivers who like to tailgate people on the fast lanes, but that’s it.
Not in the UK.
The entire airport stood as if frozen. Ground staff milled about in disbelief, looking at the white fluffy stuff (now melting away as a brilliant sun had emerged from the clouds), at themselves, then again at the snow. A car drove up and down the apron where dozens of planes waited patiently for something to happen. Then, over the tannoy, somebody cleared his voice and croaked what everyone, by then, had figured out. The airport was closed, would everyone please piss off.
A monumental queue unrolled outside the EasyJet ticket office where a lonesome and much harried lady was repeating what a pre-registered message kept on repeating on the loudspeakers: pick up your bags, go online, and get lost. Sensing that queuing wasn’t much of an option I hopped back to the bus back to Edinburgh. On the way there I cobbled together a plan: clearly, the flight was toast. My best chance was to head to London, 400 miles south, and grab the first available flight for Monday morning and, then, scramble as quickly as possible to Turin, hoping along the way to be able to grab a suit, a tie and my notes. Those were the days before iPhones, mind you, when 3G was still science fiction. Having failed to find an internet café, I reverted to the next best. Call home.
To say that the call caused a bit of a stir would be an understatement. The phone was picked up by my mother who, in true Italian fashion, proceeded to call me an absolute idiot – not without reason – and that I was properly up the creek without a paddle, something that I was by then very well aware of. Eventually the phone landed in the hands of my brother and, with a minimum amount of swearing, we succeeded in creating a virtual debit card, navigate to the Ryanair website and book the first flight of the day from Stansted to Bergamo. All I needed to do was to find a way to bridge the gap between where I was to where I needed to be. Having grabbed an eye-wateringly expensive East Coast train ticket to London I settled in for what promised to be a relaxing journey south, with perhaps the opportunity of a pint in town before heading over to Stansted.
Not so quick, genius.
Snow had thawed but something about it still slowed us. First it was ice on the power cables. Then, outside York, another convoy had broken down. Then, right before Doncaster, we stopped again. As the minutes became hours the conductor – a plump and jovial man looking very much like the chap that adorns the side of Megabus – tried, and failed, to understand what the hell was going on. “I can see a lot of people doing things outside but I’ll be honest, I haven’t the foggiest about what they’re up to”. By the time I arrived at Stansted airport, having bailed at Peterborough and having nabbed the very last train to the airport, it was almost midnight. There, I managed to book a high speed train from Milan to Turin and a bus from Bergamo (which Ryanair had the gall to call “Milan”) and the city proper. Unsettled by such carefree squandering after years of almost religious penny-pinching, some alarms triggered deep in the data centre of my bank and, with the brevity of an SMS, I was told that my card was blocked. I had €10 and £20 in my pockets.
Due to a long and illustrious career in flying stand-by and missing flights, I’ve developed an extensive body of knowledge about sleeping in airports: from the height of this experience I can safely proclaim that a night spent huddled around your backpack on the cold tiled floor of Stansted, sandwiched between a shuttered coffee shop and a WHSmith, is the absolute pits.
Eventually, long before dawn was due to arrive, I got ready to go, wash with whatever was available ( a miniature shampoo and a bottle of water, which turned out to be sparkling) and catch my flight. As I was heading for the loos for my hobo ablutions a cop ran after me. He thrusted my wallet, phone and passport in my hands, saying “They fell out of your pockets earlier mate”. I walked in the first cubicle not daring to think at the consequences of anyone less nice, or alert, than that officer crossing my path.
The flight was at silly o’clock and landed in Bergamo with a fanfare of trumpets and that voice, in thick Dooblin accent, heralding another on-time Ryanair arrival. From there, everything went like clockwork, like a split-screen movie with a running stopwatch on the left and the action on the right – a drive on an A4 motorway where no one had crashed into someone else and the fast train to Turin with its load of suited-and-booted go-getters. Waiting for me at the station were Better Half and my flatmate who admirably collected all the paraphernalia I required to be capable of standing in front of a bunch of mildly bored university barons to explain why the EU had actorship in the civil aviation industry. Riveting.
My allotted time was early in the afternoon; by the time we arrived there were still two hours to go and, as the relator informed me as he inhaled an espresso, they were running late with the morning session and hadn’t broken for lunch. Eventually, my time came. Clutching my dissertation and with palms so sweaty that I feared electrocuting myself as I adjusted the microphone, I went in.
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.
Adunque, – disse la reina – se questo vi piace, per questa prima giornata voglio che libero sia a ciascuno di quella materia ragionare che più gli sarà a grado.
It is perhaps appropriate that, for the first day, there wasn’t a specific topic to guide the vespertine stories of the young Florentine escapees. After all, why shackling their newfound freedom with constrictions? Better to give carte blanche to their imagination and to see how inventive took them.
There are, however, common traits in most of the stories from that night; a fil rouge of sorts weaves in and out of every novella. Nothing is what it seems. Today’s villains are tomorrow’s heroes. Strongly-held beliefs might turn out to be completely untrue.
Ser Ciappelletto, “the worst man ever to be born”: blasphemous, murderer, traitor of friends and of religion, yet capable of swindling a full absolution and nabbing sainthood, all from his death bed. The wise Melchisedech, who convinces Saladin that all three religions have their merits and one cannot be more authentic than the other. Can Grande della Scala and Erminio de’ Grimaldi, when put in front of their own stinginess, change their minds. The abbot cannot punish the young friar he caught with a woman, for he did exactly the same and with the same lady nonetheless.
If ever there was a lesson to be learned from this first day, it ought to be that being certain of something often rhymes with being wrong. And that contradictions are a part of human experience. My story is exactly about this.
Much like most of continental Europeans, I’ve for long considered the southern US to be a swamp of ignorance, prone to the occasional burst of violence and with a penchant setting crosses on fire. I considered them the land of God, guns and Trump, the place where creationism is taught at school. As strange as it might sound, I’d been readier to go to Iran than I’d been to visit Charlotte, NC.
Armed with facts such as that abortion clinics in the state had declined from 112 in the 80s to 14 in the year I was visiting, or that the weekly attendance to the city’s megachurches was higher than what Arsenal could muster – even with the promise of beer – I boarded my flight from Madrid in a state of mild trepidation. Over drinks in Chueca, the night before, a friend remarked how he was told that hillbillies would take pot shot at the 737 airplane fuselages as they left on freight trains, Seattle-bound. “And that’s just down the road”, he smirked as he downed the G&T.
The first indication that things mightn’t be as I expected it awaited in the airport’s immigration hall. American borders are, normally, an obstacle course of beige walls, 1980s carpets and functionaries who behave as if they featured on those Discovery Channel programmes where people dressed like them discover drugs and contraband every other minute. This time, though, there were Cookie and Doug. Cookie was a Latina lady not much taller than three packets of Oreo stacked one on top of the other, while Doug was a monumental man with a Hulk Hogan moustache, a brown suit that had been manufactured by a metal press and a tie that even my dad would’ve defined obscene. They patrolled the queue of travellers as they inched forward in bovine fascination and, instead of barking orders, spoke to people. As my turn came, Doug made a point of asking how I was, if I travelled far and apologised for the air-con being weak (it was so cold that I could’ve squeezed a half lemon with my nipples). When I left to go to the booth, he wished me a great stay in town.
My hosts had laid out an evening of entertainment: baseball. As with most Anglo-Saxon games its intricacies escaped me and, let’s face it, I was more interested in getting rat-arsed than learning why a guy dressed in pyjamas was running around or another was worthy of an ovation for catching a ball mid-air. Yet, even when obfuscated by a worrying amount of Sam Adams, I couldn’t help but notice a few things. There weren’t any riot police, water cannons, horses dressed in Day-Glo orange with a bit of Perspex around their eyes unlike every stadium I’d visited in Europe. Fans from both sides mingled together and gave each other way in the queues for loos and sausage stands in an apocalypse of “After you, ma’am”. And whenever my non-American accent was spotted I’d turn into the celebrity of the moment although, with hindsight, I should’ve passed on the “Italian meatballs” sandwich.
And so it continued for the duration of my stay, with absolute strangers offering help and guidance to other people they’d never met before, drivers letting us know we still had a quarter on the meter as we were parking after them and, above all, genuine pleasure at knowing that somebody from abroad – from Europe! – was coming to visit town. Then, as things were wrapping up and the return flight loomed large on my agenda, came the final lesson.
A barbeque. A quintessentially American affair in a condo with a community garden half the size of Andorra and an amount of food truly worthy of the adjective pantagruelic. In spite of our best efforts it was clear from the start that we’d never, ever be able to finish it all off. But that had never been part of the plan: during the feast, with the savoir faire that denoted a well-rehearsed ritual, our hosts spirited large trays of sizzling meat and potatoes, tubs of salad and big sacks of those fluffy bread buns, stacked them into the back of a van and drove them to a soup kitchen not far from where we were.
It was all so normal that I didn’t notice it and it was only when they returned that I realised what’d just happened. Through the beer haze it occurred to me that the Bible-thumping, Confederate flag-flying, gun-loving hillbillies had taught the European – son of a welfare state, born in the place where the Good Samaritan has been taught for two millennia – quite the ultimate lesson.
Dico adunque che già erano gli anni della fruttifera incarnazione del Figliuolo di Dio al numero pervenuti di milletrecentoquarantotto, quando nella egregia città di Fiorenza, oltre a ogn’altra italica bellissima, pervenne la mortifera pestilenza: la quale, per operazion de’ corpi superiori o per le nostre inique opere da giusta ira di Dio a nostra correzione mandata sopra i mortali, alquanti anni davanti nelle parti orientali incominciata, quelle d’inumerabile quantità de’ viventi avendo private, senza ristare d’un luogo in uno altro continuandosi, verso l’Occidente miserabilmente s’era ampliata.
We all are in dire need of some escapism. Locked down in our cities, often unable to venture beyond the confines of our own flats, we stare at the uncomfortable truth of a world that, suddenly, has gotten beyond reach. And it’s not as if the media can be relied upon for some solace: every bulletin, every website, every TV programme, offers nothing but the count of the dead, of the sick and of the hospitalized with the added cherry on top of the latest draconian measures. Yes, we need some respite.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be away from it all? To be able to disconnect, to secede from this madness and to return only when things are back to normal-ish?
If that thought has ever crossed your mind, you’re in good company. Not just of many others like you but also of 10 Florentine youths that, although not entirely real, have etched their names into the history of Italian literature. I’m talking about the young narrators of Boccaccio’s Decameron.
The year is 1348 and the situation is grim. Covid-19’s casualty rate in Italy, as of today, is 0.008%; the bubonic plague that exploded 670 years ago killed one in three Italians and almost half the population of Florence. Caught in the maelstrom of the Black Death, seven young women and three men meet up on a Tuesday in the empty nave of Santa Maria Novella. Around them the city is collapsing, its society buckling under the relentless assault of yersinia pestis.
Why staying? What’s there for them to do? Isn’t it better to leave for the hills, to their lands out of town? After all,
Quivi s’odono gli uccelletti cantare, veggionvisi verdeggiare i colli e le pianure, e i campi pieni di biade non altramenti ondeggiare che il mare, e d’alberi ben mille manière… e di quelle cose che alla vita bisognano in questi tempi v’è la copia maggiore e minore il numero delle noie.
Isolated from the collapsing world, the brigade initiates a life made of good food, music and, crucially, storytelling. A queen or king is elected each day and a new topic is chosen by the reigning monarch. One after the other, they’ll tell each other stories, ten a day, for ten days. Decameron. Out of Medieval Europe’s darkest period come a hundred novellas, a book that – together with Dante’s Divina Commedia – is the pillar upon which the entire Italian literary tradition rests. I, and with me millions of Italian schoolchildren, have read the stories of Chichibio and the crane, of Federigo degli Alberighi and many others, as fresh today as they were six centuries ago.
We live in interesting times and much of what’s happening has either never occurred before or hasn’t manifested itself in our living memory. We both need distraction and something to stretch our minds, a wee challenge to keep our creative spirit alive. That’s why I decided to join Boccaccio’s ten in their buen retiro, an uninvited 11th guest, a Johnny-Come-Lately turning up at the villa with seven centuries’ delay and not even a bottle of spiced rum to make up for it. I will follow the rules of the queen or king and will add my own stories. Some will be based on travels I’ve made, experiences I lived; others will be about local lore. And in some cases – thank you very much, Fiammetta – I haven’t the foggiest idea of what I’ll blabber about.
This Wednesday, much like Boccaccio’s ten, I will start posting my stories, writing every day for ten days – with the exception of Fridays and Saturdays, like they did. I’ve never written this much, or this frequently, before and I’m seriously concerned about biting more than I can actually chew. But we’ll see. I hope it’ll be fun to do, to read and that it might spur others to do it as well. In the meantime, if you want to read the actual Decameron in a somewhat dated (but in my opinion appropriate) translation, including the excerpts I have included in this posts, you can find it here.
The reason is obvious: a global pandemic with its corollary of panic, knee-jerk reactions and uncertainty. It was only Wednesday but it feels like a year ago: can Europeans living in the UK enter the US? Is my Indian visa appointment still worth going to the consulate for? And again, can I enter – Italian, living abroad – Brazil, Chile, Argentina? (answers: possibly yes, maybe, increasingly unlikely).
Better to stop, cancel, take the loss as one of my MBA professors used to say (whilst looking like the Penguin on a massive coke high) and let things settle down. Let sanity return. And perhaps try and avoid becoming a problem that someone else will need to solve. As an old friend of mine, ICU nurse in my hometown, said in a lovely Instagram photo that I’m happy to share (click here or here for the account), it’s all gonna go well.
In these days of pandemic stupidity, I often find myself dreaming of inhabiting a world where I’m always the stupidest in the room. In the evident impossibility of relocating permanently to Antarctica (see uncle Tony’s episode to understand what I mean), the next best thing is to read enlightening books written by remarkably smart people. Anything from Carlo Rovelli or Lee Smolin, although I’m sure that sooner or later the faces I pull on the Tube when negotiating some passages of The Trouble with Physics will land me in a meme.
Narconomics is one such title. Written by Tom Wainwright, editor of TheEconomist and previously the magazine’s correspondent from Mexico, it’s a remarkably intelligent book. (little-known fact: an ally of then-PM Berlusconi once dubbed Wainwright’s employer TheEcomunist for having dared critiquing Silvio and, therefore, being a Commie. Another little-known fact: dolphins get a high on pufferfish toxins and, apparently, pass the joint – erm the fish – around. I wanted to fit it into a post for ages).
This is a smart and, let’s say it, ballsy book. Wainwright – who, based on the photos on Google, reminds me of those eternally youthful, slightly shy but supremely witty software engineers and data scientists that make my work bearable – went all-in on a market that is mostly managed by people wielding AK-47s and he did so from an innovative angle: how does the drugs market work? Does it follow the same rules as other capitalistic enterprises? What are its challenges? How is it being affected by innovations such as the Internet?
The results make for an incredible read. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure but, at the same time, I can’t avoid lingering on a few concepts that made me go wow. Sometimes loudly. Often on a crowded Overground train. So, spoiler alert and all that. You’ve been warned.
One of the first chapters makes quick work of the war on drugs. I mean, it’s not particularly hard to prove that it’s been a costly failure but it’s so much better to do it with economics. Think, for instance, at the habit of destroying coca crops that is a staple of the war on narcotics: the idea is that the less coca is produced, the more the retail prices will go up and the less white lines will be stacked by New Yorkers on their crystal tables.
Except that it hasn’t. As the book suggests, this is due to two factors: first, cartels – being, indeed, cartels – are monopolistic buyers. If you’re a campesino and the government burns half your crop of coca, it’s highly unlikely that the local patron will buy what remains at double price. Because you’ve got nobody else to sell it to (and, should you find another buyer, it’s likely that the patron won’t like it), you’ll have to accept the usual price and take the loss. The second reason has to do with profit margins. A couple of numbers from the book for you: a kilo of cocaine requires roughly a ton of coca leaves. This costs $400 in Colombia while the retail price of that brick of coke in the US is roughly $150k. Even if the raw product price doubled and, somehow, the entirety of this hike was to be offloaded to the customer that kg of cocaine will now retail for $150,400. I sincerely doubt that the yuppies will all switch to Tide pods because of a 0.3% increase in costs.
There are also some incredibly interesting insights into the reality of franchising in a cartel – and the dangers it might bring when the franchisees don’t stay on brand – or the fact that skilled workers are in such short supply (and the impact of hiring muppets so damn expensive) that gangs like MS-13 have embraced tattoos as the ultimate form of employee retention: it’s hard to switch side when you have the name of the local mara splattered across your forehead, isn’t it? And legal employment opportunities are going to be scarce too.
Narconomics is an incredible read because it’s entertaining, vivacious, insightful but because, more importantly, it forces the reader to think at so many things, above all at how our entire array of answers to the question of drugs has had little impact and even less economic sense.