“Of course, Shakespeare was Sicilian…”

13 12 2009

The Adventures of a Shakespearean in the Mediterranean

I hear it all the time: “Ah, you study Shakespeare and Italy? Well, then you know Shakespeare was Sicilian.” Others are more cautious: “my daughter’s teacher said Shakespeare was Sicilian, what do you think?” By now, the Sicilian authorship theory has been the subject of a documentary on RAI Due and, given the notorious power of television over the Italian mind, the frequency with which I encounter it should not be surprising. Its proponents claim young Sicilian nobleman Michelangelo Crollalanza (Italian for shake spear) emigrated from Messina, found his way into the emerging Elizabethan theatre, and secured an English outlet for his writing by marrying a brilliant translator by the name of Anne Hathaway. What makes it awkward for me is the palpable desire for this story to be true.

There’s no question that Shakespeare was aware of Sicily: Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale take place on the island. This does not mean, however, that the world’s most famous dramatist was a native of Messina, the setting for the romantic games of Beatrice and Benedick, anymore than the locale of Hamlet alludes to his Danish origins. What comes to the fore in Shakespeare’s Italianate plays, as I discuss in my new book Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the Jacobean Stage, is the reproduction and elaboration of textual material from previous books. Just like most of his contemporaries, who enjoyed the novelle of Boccaccio and worried about the power politics of Machiavelli, Shakespeare was a voracious consumer of Italian books and English books about Italy. In many ways, the importance of Italy in every aspect of early modern English culture reflects the provincialism of that island, watching the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance from afar.

As seen on RAI Due:

 

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Obsolete Products, Up to date Prices

8 05 2009

 

Be careful with those sharp curves
Be careful with those sharp curves

In Italy, shopkeepers still hope to sell you a Betamax at a profit

One of the most surreal sights I’ve seen in Italy was a girl feeding a boy lasagna with a fork from the back of the Vespa he was driving. Yet weird Vespa experiences are not all that unusual here: I’ve seen a three wheeled Vespa pickup (the in-famous Ape) flip over at an intersection under the weight of a load of boxes piled more than three times its height. Yesterday I followed a red Vespa through crowded cobblestone streets, amazed at the driver’s ability to control his scooter while carrying a large gate for a picket fence. Alas, the suicidal maneuvers of helmetless teenagers upon speeding two wheelers have long lost their novelty value.

Another surreal but common sight in Italy is the obsolete product at an absurd price in the front window of a Mom and Pop shop. The absurdity comes not just from the fact that the shopkeepers continue to proudly display a slide projector to passersby, as in the case of a photo shop I marvel at every morning, but that they persist in attaching a widely optimistic price tag to something which by now has little, if any, value. Indeed, unable to shift traditional cameras in the wake of the digital revolution, photo shops are a prime example of this extortionate optimism. The hope seems to be that some gullible antiquarian will pop in and make up for their years of patience.

I had a keen insight into to the logic of the Italian shopkeeper upon visiting a negozio di casalinghi(housewares store) which was filled with decades old products. My wife, an enthusiast of Italian designer housewares like Alessi and Guzzini, was stunned to see products she remembered from her childhood. “It looks like a museum of the 1980s”, she whispered as she picked up a faded box containing an old Guzzini breadbox, “my mother threw this away years ago”. The products were so old that none of them were made in China. The toy section was even more historic. As a Canadian I was amazed to see a ye olde knockoff tabletop hockey game in the Italian provinces. If it had been a Coleco model, rather than an unknown brand, I might have even paid the €30 price. For girls, the selection was even better, they had a complete set of louche Barbie furniture from the late 70s and an aged Barbie Ferrari for only around €30. The box of the car was battered and it was clear the price had been “adjusted” several times. If it had cost €30 (60,000 lire) in 1980, the price would have amounted to about a fifth of the average monthly wage. The owner’s prompt refusal of our request for a discount as we left confirmed our hypothesis. “These are classic products”, she said, “we do not know their real value anymore”.

Solo €950!
Solo €950!

The concept of opportunity cost does not seem to guide Italian shopkeepers, who prefer to adjust the prices of aging merchandise for inflation rather than reduce their losses by moving it out. My all time favourite example is the electronics store that filled its display window with a collection of first generation video recorders priced to stay there for another 25 years. It looked like a joke: a stack of historic VCRs like the Sony Betamax for prices close to €1,000! Sure they may have cost that in the 1970s, as early adopters paid a premium to get the latest technology, but it seems unrealistic to maintain such prices in the new millennium. The VCR history remained in the window for about a year – I like to think a collector found his treasure trove and, in the process, allowed the shop to bring in new products like the Commodore 64 personal computer. 





“Who’s been drinking my cappuccino?”

14 01 2009
goldilocks and the three coffee drinkers

goldilocks and the three coffee drinkers

Goldilocks and the Three Bears for Italian students of English

English may be a world language but that does not mean that everyone understands it. In Italy, there is a local version of the language which has little to do with the original. You can find psuedo-English words like “footing” (a substitute for jogging) and “transfert” (a taxi or bus ride from the airport). There are also many recycled expressions which have taken on different meanings here, such as “fashion victim” for very stylish people, “ticket” for hospital user fees, “mobbing” for workplace harassment, and – my favourite – “pullman” for intercity buses.

Even the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is not immune. My 3 year old daughter has a locally produced version of the tale in English and there are significant differences with the tale we know and love. Many of the memorable phrases such as “Who’s been sitting in my chair?” are gone, replaced by expressions like “I’m sure there is somebody else here”. However, the most startling change is the total absence of porridge from the volume. Instead, like all Italians, these 3 bears enjoy a hot (but not too hot) cappuccino in the morning. Mamma Bear even has the typical shiny aluminum moka caffeteria.

There are fewer changes in the tale of the Three Little Pigs, since the construction techniques of the first two is similar to that used by local apartment developers.





Water – A precious resource in Southern Italy

4 01 2009

What do people do when water is scarce? They spend, spend, spend…

and meet lots of friendly plumbers.

Blue water tanks - an essential part of your home

Blue water tanks - an essential part of your Italian home

Everyone talks about how precious water is but, unless you’ve had to do without it, you don’t appreciate its significance. There’s nothing worse than having the taps run dry and not knowing when you will be able to flush the toilet, take a shower, wash the dishes, or even make a cup of tea again.

What I did over my Christmas holidays, or my brief visit to Gela

The province of Caltanissetta is not known for its plentiful choice of radio stations. On my infrequent trips to the area, most of my driving time has been spent listening to the broadcast recital of the rosary on the entertainment challenged frequencies of Radio Maria. I was pleased therefore to find more upbeat sounds as we passed through the petrochemical centre of Gela. Alas, taking advantage of the lack of competition, almost the entire output of the local radio station was devoted to annoying commercials for the standbys of Italian Christmas life: high fashion clothes and food. However, there was one business model that stood out from the more predictable concerns: private water suppliers. It seems as though there is a serious water crisis in Gela. A local news site is reporting that the erogation of water supplies has been blocked. In that case, as the advertising pointed out, the only possibility to get water is to pay for a tanker truck to come to your house and fill up the blue tank on your roof.

Dry, dry, dry

I know what they’re going through in Gela. During the first few years I lived in Palermo, there was a serious water shortage. The water would come at irregular intervals, at best providing the essential liquid two or three times a week. In such cases, you need to take care to preserve every drop of water when it does come. This meant that I ended up spending big money in the apartment I was renting for a water tank (placed over my hallway), a water pump at ground level (because the water pressure was so low it didn’t make it up to the 6th floor when it did come), and an autoclave to pump the water from my tank to the taps in the kitchen and bathroom. This was not a cost efficient solution. One pump or another constantly broke down – so that either the apartment was flooded with water or I missed the bi-weekly supply. Nonetheless, things have gotten better in recent years and we listened to the news from Gela with a certain amount of nostalgia.

Then we ran out of water yesterday afternoon.

A dry Saturday

It was our fault. We had become complacent. It was almost like living in Canada. As long we ran the pump a couple of times a week, we had all the water we wanted. However, we forgot to fill up the tank after we got back from our trip to Ragusa.

First the water started to spurt as we did the dishes, then the autoclave started to make knocking sounds, then the taps went dry. I ran to start up the pump to get more water – but, at the moment, our village does not supply water on Saturdays. We had to wait until Sunday morning.

Flushing your toilets with bottled mineral water is not a satisfactory solution.





Addio Alitalia?

18 09 2008

Bankruptcy seems imminent after failure of negotiations with unions

Theres always Ryanair...

There's always Ryanair...

Things are starting to look bad for Alitalia: the CAI consortium abandoned its rescue plan (of the most profitable parts of the current Alitalia) after its bluff was called by six of the nine unions negotiating the transfer to a new corporate structure. The CAI members had threatened to pull the plug on the complex take over plan if there was not an agreement by the numerous unions for significant job losses, and changes in wages and work practices. At any rate, as they have been doing since the weekend, the current emergency management continues to claim that the company’s fuel is about to run out.
Better bankrupt than in the hands of bandits

"Better bankrupt than in the hands of bandits"

The Italian media is reporting that Alitalia employees reacted with glee to the failure of the plan – seemingly convinced that domestic political considerations would oblige the Berlusconi government to undertake a bailout under more lucrative conditions. It is worth noting that, during the previous electoral campaign, the unions rejected what seems to have been a much better takeover offer from Air France. The brinksmanship between the government and the unions seems not unlike a famous scene in the Clint Eastwood bad cop drama Dirty Harry: “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Are there two rescue plans or three?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as the gas is about to run out, and would blow your company ( or ‘your future electoral majority’, depending whether you see the unions or the government as having the upper hand) right out of business, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”




Buying Toothbrushes in Italy

6 09 2008

You can have any type as long as it’s Medium

One of the things that amuses foreign residents in Italy is the fascination of the local people with ugly big box stores and malls. As more North American style shopping centres begin to appear, even in the provinces of the south, Italian consumers have been quick to abandon those picturesque urban piazze filled with charming small shops. When a miniature version of a mall opened where I live a few months ago, with all of 20stores, entire families would come down from the mountains to gawk at the glamour and luxury of modern retailing. The German discount chain Lidl cannot open stores quick enough and there are long, disorderly queues in front of their doors every Monday and Thursday morning for the biweekly specials. The reason for all this excitement is simple: traditional Italian retailers are overpriced and arrogant.

I have just come back to Italy with a suitcase full of soft toothbrushes. Why? In the area where I live (but it seems to be a nationwide phenomenon from my brief attempts to find them elsewhere in the country) the supermarkets and pharmacies only sell medium toothbrushes. No soft toothbrushes, no hard toothbrushes, no choice.





Italian Manufacturers Move Relentlessly Upmarket

14 07 2008

The business model for Italian manufacturers has changed completely in recent years. The introduction of the Euro, the first time in history that a country has simultaneously devalued its currency and priced itself out of export markets, coincided with the emergence of China as the new workshop of the world. Ten years ago, when I moved to Italy, my brother and I used to marvel at the stylishness and sheer brio of the clothes and housewares on offer at a department store chain like UPIM. Now even iconic Italian products like Moka coffee pots and pasta makers come from overseas for the most part.

Italian manufacturers abandon mass market products

While many companies have taken the “if you can’t beat them, join them approach,” as elsewhere, a popular business strategy of Italian manufacturers is to move relentlessly upmarket. For example, Bialetti has completely redesigned its range of coffee pots to separate them from the cheap copies of their traditional products. It’s unclear, however, whether the mass-market Italian shopper is willing to pay 10 times the price of the copy for a mechanically and aesthetically superior product. Recent market data seems to suggest they are not. Indeed, many stores where I lived have stopped selling them because they are too expensive.

The famous television producer Brionvega, notwithstanding a recent bankruptcy and frequent ownership changes, has persisted in moving upmarket. Why buy a regular tv when you can get a €2150 individually numbered oggetto d’arte? With its optimistic production levels of 199 sets per product, the current management is making the high-end strategy of the previous manifestation of the company look down-market.

Save Xenon and Mirage!

Addio cari amici

Addio cari amici

In the latest example of this strategy, the famous bicycle component producer Campagnolo recently announced that it is abandonning the so-called “entry-level” market for road bike groups to concentrate on the high-end and professional markets. The step comes after the company previously abandoned the markets for city bike and mountain bike components, giving competitor Shimano a de facto monopoly in almost every sector of the business. The groups Xenon and Mirage – popular for giving a touch of Italian flair on cheaper racing bikes -are on the way out.

Instead of Xenon and Mirage, Campagnolo will introduce the Spinal Tap inspired ultra-expensive 11 speed Super Record system:

These go to eleven, it’s one faster innit?

The hope seems to be that cycling posers will pay big money for one more gear, permitting the company to make up for much lower volumes by concentrating on higher margin products. Vediamo.