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It’s not the purpose of this blog to start featuring obituaries but, today, I’m making an exception. I’ve just read that Ennio Morricone has left us aged 91 (still too soon if you ask me). People with far greater eloquence than me will publish much better articles; they will exalt his career, enumerate his successes, lament the dismal treatment he received by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I’ll just leave here this scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: it’s the scene of the search for Arch Stanton’s tomb. A magnificient scene by itself, but destined for immortality by Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold. Even a cinematography illiterate like myself can’t avoid feeling goosebumps each and every time I see Tuco running around in a crescendo of desperation.
Sit tibi terra levis, Maestro.
Slowly, with a lot of very British dithering and even-more-British bursts of anti-social behaviour, our society is opening up. A few days ago, I went on the Tube: my first public transport ride since mid-March. Pubs are rumoured to be opening on July 4th, a date saluted by the tabloids as “our Independence Day” (demonstration, if ever there was a reason, that history is not a mandatory subject in British schools). Hesitantly, gingerly, we are starting to consider foreign travel. Which, for most of us emigrants, means returning home.
And what a funny place “home” is. I realise I’ve never really introduced it to this blog, though it featured on a few posts here and there: Biella, meaning “connecting rod” in Italian. Lying at the butt-end of the Po valley where the flat, alluvial land hits the Alps, Biella is a place renowned in Italy for its friendliness and openness. “You can stay there thirty years and not make a friend”, a saying goes. A Milanese chum of mine had a client in Biella, a guy whom he called “November 2nd” due to his particularly sunny disposition and outlook to life (notice for the non-Italian Catholics: November 2nd is the day of the dead, where you are expected to pay homage to long-lost relatives at the local cemetery. Think Dia de los Muertos but without the parades, make-up, music or mescal). Such is my hometown.
I won’t deny it: despite its gloom, the metre of yearly rain and the boneheadedness of its inhabitants I like my hometown. I haven’t lived there for 15 years now, but I still feel bieleìs. You will have me drooling over a good polenta concia, lament the lack of Amaro di Oropa, sneer at the French for daring to hint at owning the paternity of toma and I still check the results of the local basketball team.
Biella is a whimsical experience, a surreal place. Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner’s Roy Batty, came ‘round one day and got lost in our woods, so lost that he had to call the Carabinieri to come find him (they did). Michael Schumacher, one hot summer day, arrived as if directed by something, got an ice cream for himself and his son, and then drove off. Never came back, apparently. If you want more proof, here is some: titles from local news, pearls all from this year. And bear in mind they’ve been unable to go further than 200 metres away from home from February to May. God knows what else they could’ve done had it not been for some bat-eaters triggering a pandemic.
Man who called the Carabinieri to say he was in danger was only trying to check his phone reception
Gang steals two cigarette lighters
Man sneezes and runs away without paying for his groceries
Biella City Council’s website hacked by a Russian prostitute service
A man complains to the Carabinieri of having seen a child driving a tractor
Mayhem in Roppolo: an ostrich evades from its pen and goes walkabout
Two horses and a donkey stroll around Trivero in the night
Woman hit by a kayak on the sidewalk
“That bar’s music is too loud”: but it wasn’t true
An indignant reader complains: “There’s a barefoot man in speedos on the Oriomosso trail”
30-something in trouble for a dildo found in his car
Man blows up cafetière by filling it with petrol instead of water
Songbird trapped in a Ponderano tobacconist, freed by the Fire Brigade
Off-piste skier ends up on the roof of a restaurant
68 apply for 3 jobs as traffic warden. All fail.
APPEAL: There’s a cat stuck on a tree, does anybody know it?
Septuagenarian starts a fight at the post office. “They wouldn’t give me a discount”.
I once had a colleague who, in retrospective, I wish I’d known better. He left the company before I could, proof once again that the only outcome of too many postponements is missing out on things. But I digress; I had a colleague, once, and that guy had an uncanny ability to ask the right questions. One day over lunch he asked one of those: “if you needn’t worry about money, what job would you do?”.
There was only one answer, for there is only one dream job that, even in my dreams, I know could never pay enough: travel writing.
Now, I think I’m getting close to that. Not to getting paid – oh no, not that – but to making a job out of it. The hours poured into this nascent project, this veritable labour of love, are rivalling those invested – or wasted, I should say – in the dayjob, the one that pays the bill. I’ll be back with more, but in the meantime, here’s a teaser to end this post.
All things considered, the neighbourhood has adapted pretty well to this lockdown malarkey. Each day follows the previous one in a well-rehearsed pattern: mornings bring the pastoral visit of buzzing bumblebees and the high-speed patrol of our resident parakeets. Afternoons, instead, follow a different schedule: as I wrap up the last calls of the day there’s a background noise of children playing football, the idiotic dog who barks at the holes he’s just dug and his equally stupid owners, the neighbourhood young parents’ association. Maybe Mr. Whippy will do a pass or two.
Not on that day, though. As the last meeting drew to a close, I had to shut the window to drown out the scream of a siren coming from right below us. Work done I did what every nosy parker would’ve done since we all lived in caves and not on the sixth floor of a modern block of flats: I went on our deck to check out what was going on. Other Half was already there.
“It’s the fire brigade”, she announced: sure enough, the bright red engine was parked downstairs, for the joy of the young parents’ kids. Get this, Peppa Pig. Neither you nor Bob the Builder can compare with the sight of four firefighters! And a truck!
Weirdly enough, the valiant firemen and women didn’t seem interested in our tenement. Rather, they congregated on the opposite side of the road, in the park, huddling beneath the gigantic planes and oakes that makes it feel as if we’re all living in a tree house.
“There’s a bird on the tree”, noted Other Half. Before I could point out that being on trees is sort of to be expected from birds she added “It’s looking as if it’s trapped, or somehow stuck there”. In fact, lo and behold, there was a magpie. High up in the upper branches, higher than our vantage point, flapping her wings desperately. Stuck.
“The neighbours say it’s been stuck there since yesterday, poor thing. They called the fire brigade”. She pointed out at a Polish lady whom I sometimes met downstairs in one of those awkward corridor encounters that are the norm in London.
It wasn’t long before we realised that the fire brigade couldn’t do much. With no way to climb up there all they could do was to shrug, shake their heads and drive off. At least they came, we thought as they left. The little magpie flapped a bit more, and then went quiet.
Daylight lasts for a while, this time of the year. We were returning home after a walk in the neighbourhood when we saw the Polish lady again, this time joined by another of her friends and a tall, muscular man in grey t-shirt and red climbing trousers. Ah, and harness, carabiners and a lot of rope.
“Is he going to do a Honnold?” I asked Other Half as we went back upstairs. It felt impossible. The plane was huge, with a trunk so big that three men couldn’t circle it with their outstretched arms, but… that magpie was stuck high up, where the branches get thinner and thinner.
“He’s doing it!” Other Half, being the climbing aficionado she is (I merely tried once and, in pure Italian fashion, gave up), had kept an eye on the green canopy that filled our view. The man, who turned out to be one of the firefighters who had previously attended the call, was climbing the tree. We caught glimpses of his red trousers as he ascended, leaves and branches rustling as he passed.
The whole building was out, Sky, Netflix and dinner be damned. This whole court of strangers was out there, rooting for the climber and the little magpie he was trying to save. Hating myself for having broken the only set of zoom lenses I had, I started snapping a few photos.
The firefighter was just underneath the magpie, drenched in sweat, perched on the very last branch that could reasonably hold his weight. “What is he gonna do now?” we wondered. He screamed below that the bird was tied up in a string. Wasn’t somebody playing with a kite, there, a few days ago?
“I’ll try and untangle ‘er” he shouted. Best Estuary English ever – actually, evah – outside of Billingsgate market, by the way. A proper Londoner. For a while all we could hear were some muffled curses, the rustling of leaves and the occasional squawk of the trapped bird. We didn’t need an Magpiese-English dictionary to know she was asking “what the actual eff?”. The sun was now sinking behind the buildings, the moon was rising to the south and the sky was turning indigo blue. Then, it happened.
“Got ‘er!” he exulted. “Droppin’ ‘er down now”, he warned our animal-loving Polish contingent below, lowering the bird with another rope. Moments later, our neighbour announced that the bird was fine. The whole building, those sitting in the park and us clapped, bellowed and whooped, including those whose cars have always been used as target practice by pooping birds. A few minutes later, the firefighter dropped to the ground, rappelling with the swagger of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a disaster movie.
The sun set as the crowd dispersed. The firefighter bundled his wares in a white Audi convertible, the Polish ladies left to care for the bird, so that it could have a great story to tell other magpies. As for all of us we returned to ignoring each other as is the custom in a London block of flats, revelling in the knowledge that, for once, the goodies won the day.
‘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.