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A refreshing look at religious symbolism – in Otranto, Italy’s heel

9 Jul

It’s a sad but common ailment when visiting the world’s most beautiful places – burnout.  Whether museum burnout in Paris, temple overload in Angkor Wat or Cathedral overdose in Italy – it’s bound to happen sooner or later.  Yes, although we have a literal embarrassment of riches in the masterpieces in Italy’s churches and piazzas, sometimes you get a bit weary of variations of Madonna and Babe.

If you are in Italy and have reached this point, may I recommend a (lengthy) detour to Otranto, in the heel of Italy’s boot, for a change of pace? The Otranto Cathedral has the most fantastic floor mosaic I’ve ever seen decorate a church, from entrance to altar (the largest in Europe). Built in 1163 (the church itself dates back to 1068), the floor depicts a dizzying blend of catholic, gnostic and pagan imagery – from Adam, Eve & Noah; to mythical beasts consuming each other, to King Arthur, to Greek Goddess Diana – all suspended within a vast Tree of Life.


The trunk of the tree of life


Animals with animals snouts on their feet, devouring other animals


Your standard catholic centaur

These are the just kind of pagan images that eventually would earn their designer a fiery exile from the catholic church (and the early plane) – and in fact scholars are still trying to unravel the meaning and messages behind this remarkable floor.

In fact, that the mosaic has survived at all is a bit of a miracle.  On August 14, 1480, the city was sacked in an Ottoman invasion, and the cathedral was used as a stable for the invaders’ horses.  Oh and by the way, the inhabitants of Otranto were slaughtered in the attack, or sold into slavery or beheaded in a grim religious standoff for  800 martyrs who refused to convert to Islam. This event (“800 martyrs of Otranto) is also memorialized in the church. Go to the back right chapel and as you get closer you start to sense something strange about the the framed images behind the Madonna…

The chapel in Otranto's Cathedral

The chapel in Otranto’s Cathedral

…until you look closer and see….Gah!


…the actual 800 martyrs

Having endured a lot of interminable Sunday school classes growing up in Canada, I have to say that I would have been pretty keen on attending this church as a kid.

If you get tired of pondering myths and mortality in Otranto, you are only 2 minutes away from a gorgeous beach.  Which is straight where most foreign invaders head these days.


For those not living in Italy what’s at stake in the coming election

23 Feb

For my friends not living in Italy, this weekend marks another national election. With the country mired in a seemly hopeless financial crisis, it’s an important one. And believe me, the day to day effects of the crisis in the USA and Canada pale in comparison to what people experience here. Italians are hurting.

And although it seems inconceivable to anyone outside of Italy, Berlusconi’s party is running a convincing campaign, promising to alleviate the austerity measures – like the much resented property tax increases implemented by Monte – that have in fact caused recent suffering & dissent here.

However, while the charismatic and successful entrepreneur Berlusconi was in power in the 2000s, the only countries that had worse economic growth during that period were Zimbabwe and Haiti (The Man Who Screwed an Entire Country) And of course it’s hard to believe that your prime minister has his focus on the well being of the country when his attention is captivated by “bunga bunga” parties and boasts of sleeping with 8 women in one night.

Beppe Grillo is one of the intriguing upstarts of Italian politics – a comedian who started out making jokes about politicians that increasingly started to look more like reality. Initially blocked by the mainstream media – much of it controlled by Berlusconi, Grillo has become a formidable contender in Italy by virtue of the Internet and town hall style rallies.

“You can’t ask an Italian, an entrepreneur, a family to make sacrifices when the presidency costs about 240 million euros a year. Our president earns three times as much as (U.S. President Barack Obama). An Italian ambassador earns 20,000 euros per month. Merkel earns 9,000 a month. You cannot expect sacrifices right now, because we should all make sacrifices right now or no one will.”

Full article

Sadly, there is a sense that no matter what happens in the elections, nothing will change. “Berlusconi is just another actor in the same play,” says my partner Alessandro. And I understand. What Italy desperately needs is not just new leadership but a new, innovative and creative way to look at solving its significant problems.

It’s true that Italian politicians are vast in their ranks. There are inconceivable layers of government and bureaucracy here, all of them making far more than their counterparts in the rest of the world, while salaries in other all areas – research, teaching, finance, business, etc. are a fraction of what the rest of the western world earns.

But when I comment that Italy would be healthier if it pruned away much of this over bloated government corp that seems to spend most of their time figuring out ways to entrench their power, Italians fret about the fate of the army of support staff…drivers, secretaries, etc. What would happen to the little people if the admittedly useless ranks of government were thinned out?

Many countries have restructured and reinvested funds saved from stagnant industries into development that will benefit the entire country. Italy has promising potential for solar power generation, for instance. What if former support staff of redundant government officials were retrained and deployed in a nascent solar power sector, developing Italy’s clout in alternative energy, while decreasing its energy dependence.

It’s my hope that italians will use their legendary creative genius to look toward the future instead of lamenting the lost glories of the past.

The REAL Rules You Need to Know – Driving in Italy

17 Jan

I am very fortunate that I don’t actually need to drive in Italy since I have my own dashing Italian chauffeur boyfriend. However, being a passenger has provided me with a front seat view of what drivers in Italy really need to know.  Sure, maybe that international driver’s permit will give you a sheen of legality — but these are the true moves you need to know to get you from point A to B.

1) The Wedge* – Trying to make a left hand turn onto a busy road?  Forget waiting until there is space for you to enter. What you need to do is slowly wedge your car in front of the oncoming lane on traffic.  Yield to super aggressive drivers, but otherwise keep on creeping  your nose out until you’ve essentially blocked both lanes of traffic and  have clearance to go.  People might give you “stinkeye,” but don’t feel bad – everyone does it all the time, and it’s probably the only way you’ll ever leave a driveway.

*Can also be done in reverse!

2) The Straddle – This move finds you driving for long periods of time, straddling the middle line between 2 lanes.  The purpose of this move is unclear to me, but it must be super important since everyone does it, all the time.

3) The Strategic Double Park – Why bother looking for a parking place when you can just park wherever? This move requires nerves of steel and the ability to analyze a parked car’s owner’s motives.  Are they there for the long haul or could they reappear in a moment?  This also requires an appropriately contrite or righteously indignant response depending on the demeanor and/or hotness of the person whom you’ve blocked in.

4) The Highway Reverse – Take the wrong entrance onto the highway?  No problem.  Just reverse on the shoulder and back out of it.  Italians must have learned this from Minneapolis drivers.

5) The Hands Free – How else are you going to talk on your phone and smoke at the same time?  Or convey your heartfelt feelings to your fellow drivers? Better learn to drive with your hands in the air.

6) The Robert Langdon (aka Symbologist) – So you can figure out where this:

Italian road signs

…and this:

Italy Road sign 1

Courtesy FIA Europe Bureau

…will take you.

7) The Sheep Dodge – Just because you are 15 minutes from a city boundary doesn’t mean you won’t encounter local fauna.  My advice?  Relax and take pictures!

The most evocative Italian words, according to me

14 Jan

Personally, I have no doubt that Italian is the most beautiful & affectionate language in the world.  I’ve heard, and actually maybe just read this in “Eat, Pray, Love” (which may or may not be a definitive source), that the evolution of Italian into the national language was no accident.  While many countries had competing regional dialects, the “lingua franca” of most countries was naturally shaped by the language of the primary financial center. So, “Paris-ian” overtook all regional dialects to become the language of France, “London-ian” became the language of England, and so on.

Invecce (instead), Italian was the dialect chosen by a panel from a region of Tuscany to be the official language of Italy, because it was the most beautiful dialect.

Actually this whimsical story makes sense. I am continually surprised at how vitally important “beauty” is to Italians.  It’s part of the fabric of society – you can see how the aesthetic of style is infused into even children (I am still not as style conscious as the average 8 year old here). A speech is not referred to as good or bad, but bella (beautiful) or brutta (ugly). It’s part of what makes Italy as charming as it is, although sometimes you wish less emphasis were put on superficial beauty and more on actual substance.  If you live here you know what I mean, yes? 😉

Anyway, on to a few of my favourite Italian words:

“La Zanzara” – it sounds like it would be an exotic beauty treatment involving spices and asses milk that Cleopatra would indulge in before greeting Mark Anthony.  Instead, it means “mosquito”!

“Lamentare” – this to me is the perfect word to sum up the Italian cultural identity.  In English it just means “to complain”.  But to simply complain is tedious, unimaginative, uninspired.  Not Lamentare! We are talking about a tragedy of epic proportions.  There is love, passion, angst and fire all wrapped up in how you can express your opposition even to, say, someone choosing the wrong combination of gelato flavours or using an inappropriate shape of pasta with any given sauce.

“Fastidioso” – In English this means someone who is slavishly particular to standards, or having a meticulous attitude.  In Italian, it means to bother the hell out of someone, i.e. “David, stop fastidioso-ing your sister while I am driving!” It implies the kind of action when you pinch someone’s triceps repeatedly until they punch you in the face. Which is kind of what fastidiousness makes me want to do. 🙂

“Il Culetto” – What do we call the end of a loaf of bread in English?  The “heel.”  Ho-hum.  In Italian, it’s the “little bum,” proving once and for all that everything in Italy is just so damn sexy.

“Fango” – It’s not a dance, or new style of stilettos. It’s “mud.” What else do I need to say?

So. What are your favorite Italian words, and why?