News From Italy

I’ve been laid up for a few days, and weeks to come, with a fractured collarbone and two fractured ribs, collected on a down-hill bike run in Stresa, Italy.  As the saying goes, I ran the road, and the road won.  On top of that, internet access in the posh hotels is charged at 25 euros a day which is too much to contemplate.  I have been able to contemplate other things, though.

American culture, at least some forms of it, have taken over the world.  No more nicely dressed men and women as the standard on streets in Italy.  Blue-jeans are on just about everyone, young and old, fat and slim.  And not nice well cut ones.  Baggy, worn, low hanging — you know the scene. Another favorite are the REI type hiking trousers with lots of pockets, and often zipped at the knees to make shorts.  And baseball caps.  Yep.   With Stresa Italy on the front, or Verona, or Casa Giulietta — that would be Juliet’s House, in Verona, false historical location of the balcony scene. Middle School kids in Bellinzona, the capital of Italian speaking Ticino, Italy, affect punk dress and loud contempt for whatever they take a mind to.  Runners in shorts and Ts are just about everywhere, in the 4 cities we’ve been in, seldom in big groups, but in singles or couples.  Bumper to bumper traffic creeps along the Lungo Lago in Lugano, much like San Francisco’s Embarcadero.  In this case it’s Italian workers coming across the border to complete the 25% of foreign workers in Switzerland.  Some of the buses are fitted out with the big advertising stockings that appeared on San Francisco Muni buses a few years back.   And a taxi is a taxi is a taxi, everywhere.  In Bellenzona, the capital of Ticino, there were MaxiTaxis.   No smoking signs are everywhere but considerable numbers of people continue to smoke, walking down the street, or in outdoor cafes.  Muzak wafted over the tinny speakers of our hotel, everything from “Love Me Tender” to “Country Roads”, all played with piano or vibes, unlike our hotel in Tremezzo where Mozart was the standard breakfast fare.

Then there are the ways that Italy is still Italy.  The streets and sidewalks of every city we’ve visited are clean.  No flying paper trash of cast-off cigarette butts.  Sanitation crews are out at all times of the day, some on foot with brooms and dust-pans, some in small street sweepers or trash trucks. Plenty of pedestrian only zones, particularly in the old parts of the city.  The haste and hassle of cars is left in parking lots blocks away; people walk to do their errands, chat with friends and find a small cafe, indoors or out, for espresso, wine, panini, or gelato of one flavor or another.  American cities would bring back conviviality and lower the CO2 contribution by hastening to adopt these age-old patterns and habits.  The Italian Lakes, Maggiore, Como, Garda and Lugano, despite being on the southern skirts of the Alps are year round comfortable.  The large bodies of deep water keep the down-slope winds at bay.  Once or twice a winter there might be a few centimeters of snow, but on the whole it’s the wonderful Mediterranean climate — think Santa Barbara, California– with palm trees, bouganvilla and non-deciduous evergreen trees.  Wonderful, tended walkways, for the famed evening  passiagata, wind along the shores of the lakes.  Sailboats are scarce but ferryboats abound, either for tourism or commuting, especially around Como, Bellagio, Mennagio and Tremezzo on Lake Como.

Italy is very much part of the popular movement to recycle and convert to greener energy sources.  One billboard reminded people there was white, blue and green energy sources, which I take to be solar, small hydro and bio-mass.  Energy use campaigns are visible. I’ve seen well-made, well-placed recycling bins for public use, in several cities.  Hotels use the towel on the floor, towel on the rack suggestion we are used to in the U.S. and most have electricity savings schemes for the rooms, from a master on/off switch at the door, to a key-card slot, into which your card must be inserted to get lights on in the room.  When you leave, you take the card, and the lights go out.  Even small bars have motion sensing switches on lights to the restrooms; no motion, lights out.

For all that, the lakes are a degree or so warmer than decades ago, and despite efforts, and success, at controlling fertilizer run-off, and waste-water treatments begun in the 1970s there has been a resurgence of colony forming bactria in most of the big lakes, making swimming risky.  This article from 2007 in the Independent, U.K. cites extreme levels of cfu in the waters of Lake Como where George Clooney has two villas.  Even though the report cited is 4 years old, Legambiente, Italy’s foremost environmental group does regular samplings of lake water and the summer of 2011 shows not much improvement.

 The latest snapshot of pollution in Italy’s lakes indicates Laglio is one of the worst-polluted lake beaches in the country. Bacteria is measured in terms of “colony-forming units”(cfu), a measure of viable bacterial numbers per 100 millilitres of water. The upper permitted limit of cfu for lake water that is safe to bathe in is 100. But at Laglio the figure is 6,800 – 68 times too high.

 

It’s always good to get outside the U.S. and see how the headlines and top stories are different, depending on the country you are in.  I didn’t pay too much attention to the Amanda Knox / Meredith Kircher trials of 4 years ago.  The Italian court review of Knox’s conviction as an accessory in  Kircher’s murder has been a major lead on CNN-Europe and in the newspapers.  The Herald Tribune — not really a European newspaper of course– had a good article on how the court’s turning over the verdict is seen in England, Italy and the U.S.

There are articles about Kosovars and organ-trafficking, Danes cancelling border checks, and major pieces about climate change and the pressure in some quarters to prepare for large, engineering projects like shooting reflecting particles into the troposphere to cut down on sunlight falling on earth, in case of extreme emergency following a “tipping point” when CO2 sequestering will no longer work; and another about an ozone hole opening over the arctic for the first time; the previous hole that lead to world-wide banning of CFCs, was over the antarctic.  [I’ll post these separately.]  The death of Steve Jobs, at age 56, made many of the papers, Swiss, Italian, German, French.
As to Lexie and me personally, we are adjusting to my slightly crippled state. I’m in a collar bone strap 24 hours a day, and have to practice deep breathing to keep the lungs from trying to avoid pain by breathing too shallowly, and incurring pneumonia. No laughing or hic-cupping, please! And sneezing is to be avoided at all costs.  I have to be walked hand on elbow, not because I can’t walk — in fact the legs are fine, and learning new lifts without the help of the arms– but a trip and stumble even against a wall would be a soaring scream moment. So Lexie goes out to reconnoiter at her usual fast pace and leads me later to one or two at an elderly gentleman’s pace.

I had the experience of a glass of white merlot the other night, a wine I didn’t know existed. It’s made without any of the skin of the grape, which adds the red color we are more familiar with. I’ve been able to keep up with some reading, particularly Guy de Maupassant’s short stories about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, especially Boule de Suif, which exploded on the French literary scene in 1880. In my drowsy hours, brought on by pain meds, what better than the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, Within A Budding Grove. Our next destination is, after all, Paris! Best of all for me, I’ve seen some European birds I’d never seen before: a wonderful, stately barnacle goose, a hooded raven, blackheaded gulls, and a crow like bird with a bright orange legs and beak called a chough.

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