Tag Archives: italy

Helveticans tried to do me in

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Nasty, brutish and Detroit

This is a really great 'full catastrophe' piece about Detroit, one of America's most robust and baffling tragedies:

The troubles of Detroit are well-publicized. Its economy is in free fall, people are streaming for the exits, it has the worst racial polarization and city-suburb divide in America, its government is feckless and corrupt (though I should hasten to add that new Mayor Bing seems like a basically good guy and we ought to give him a chance), and its civic boosters, even ones that are extremely knowledgeable, refuse to acknowledge the depth of the problems, instead ginning up stats and anecdotes to prove all is not so bad.


This is from Guernica:

There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.


OK, so that's the bad and the ugly. What's the good?

It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.

[…] In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases. Much of the South Side of Chicago has Detroit like characteristics, but the techniques of renewal in Detroit won’t work because they are likely against code and would be shut down the minute someone complained.

Just as one quick example, my corner ice cream stand dared to put out a few chairs for patrons to sit on while enjoying a frozen treat on a hot day. The city cited them for not having a license. So they took them away and put up a “bring your own chair” sign. The city then cited them for that too. You can’t do anything in Chicago without a Byzantine array of licenses, permits, and inspections.

In central Indianapolis, which is in desperate need of investment, where the city can’t fill the potholes in the street, etc., the minute a few yuppies buy houses in an area and fix them up, they immediately petition for a historic district, a request that has never been refused. […]

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it.


This reminds me, strangely enough, of my trip to Italy last year. I attended a fundraiser organized by my buddy Giacomo for earthquake victims in Abruzzo. Their idea was to raise a bunch of money, fill a van with sandwiches and sound equipment, and drive down to Abruzzo and throw a dance party. The night I was there we raised like 2,000 euro, and the next week, they did their Movable Techno Feast.

It struck me that weekend how similar America and Italy are. We know that the government isn't going to do anything for us, so we take some of the responsibility. Everyone I talked to at the Abruzzo fundraiser had a 'if not us, who?' kind of attitude, the same one you found in a lot of America after Katrina and 9/11. You can't count on the government for everything (or, quite possibly, anything), so you do it yourself. This goes from small gestures to huge movements, from sponsoring a bell-ringing santa to endowing a college fund.

There's a kind of vitality and independence there that I really like. One of the symptoms of growing up in a well-functioning social democracy (Denmark, Switzerland, etc) seems to be the ebbing of this 'let's make this happen fellas!' drive. Government will take care of you. You're hit by a bus and you keep your job, your home, your car, your kids. A friend of mine here in Copenhagen gets a monthly stipend from the government for being allergic to wheat. Because gluten-free food is more expensive. We roll our eyes at this, but there's a logic to it.

It's sort of sad to think that a generation or two of well-functioning government and social harmony might just neuter Americans of everything we like about them. It's also sad to think of the profound price we pay for our individualism. I'd trade some of that DIY urban renewal in Detroit for a government that actually addressed its failures and their impacts on the individuals picking up their trailings.

For now, though, I just keep reading great articles about the people doing their best to salvage a city out of Detroit, and cross my fingers that no one with any authority notices them.

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I was in Italy this weekend

hanging out with, among others, the bassist in this band:

The Calorifer is Very Hot – The First of the Gang to Die

and these guys, who are not Danish but are spelled that way.

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Ø la la la

One of the highlights of the trip was two days on Ischia, a little island about an hour from Naples. Brian's grandparents are part of the Ellis Island emigration wave from Southern Italy, and the brothers and sisters they left behind still live on Ischia. I tagged along.

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Fellow Travelers
2 Italians, 2 Canadians

(We didn't take any pictures in Naples. It was mostly just us market-haggling and trying not to become a robbery anecdote.)

Giacomo has a Nightclub
Political Party. Literally.

Partito Democratico threw a … carnival, I guess, and we went. It was all very Tammany, but the ribs were good, the people were local and the drinks were diuretic, so who cares how many membership cards I signed?

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Mike has been in Italy for the past 10 days

Mike sees remnants of Italy's Communist tradition in the fact that no matter how far away something is, your Italian friends tell you it takes 'fai, 10 minutes' to get there.

Mike is reading a book about the history of the mafia, and reading it in Naples feels like flipping through The Satanic Verses in Damascus.

Mike can achieve sleepfulness in the following places: A sloping lawn next to a car park, a welcome mat-sized rectangle on the floor of a train and the backseat of a Fiat. Mike was not aware of this prior to last week.

Mike feels guilty about giving his laundry to his Italian friend's grandmother, who not only washed all of his underwear by hand, but ironed all non-underwear items. 
Mike: 'Nona, that's really not necessary.'
Nona: 'I do what I want!' 

Are there any stereotypes about Italians that aren't true? The trains are late, the people do most of their communicating with pinched-finger gestures, everyone lives with their parents and, yes, you do want to move there about 10 minutes after your plane lands.

Mike is amazed he's gone five bullet points without mentioning the food.

Mike took a shower with his straight friend. The reasons for this are vast and tedious, but the look of nano-terror on Straight Friend's face as he heard the phrase 'dude, we're gonna have to do this together' was worth the preceding discomfort.

Excerpt from Mike's awesome mafia-history book: "Following a famous mafia murder in 1903, the New York Herald proclaimed in alarm, 'The Boot unloads its criminals upon the United States. Statistics prove that the scum of southern Europe is dumped at the nation's door in rapacious, conscienceless, lawbreaking hordes.'"

Mike thinks we can all agree that 'statistics prove' is the filet of the above quote.

Mike thinks Turin is feloniously underrated as a weekend destination.

Mike is beginning to doubt the rigorousness of his preacher's-kid upbringing. Italians spent last weekend celebrating 'Ferragosto', or the ascension of Extra Virgin Mary into heaven. Mike was not aware that she did that, or that Italians celebrated it.

During the Ferragosto party, Mike saw his first fistfight since high school. Two, actually. He is reassured that his Fight or Flight instinct still consists of finding a good spectator-spot from which to gawk and sip something alcoholic.

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