Sunday, August 29, 2010

Parle Americano?

Students in Rome Blog wrote about the latest dance beat Europeans are going crazy over, "We No Speak Americano," Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP's remix of Renato Carosone's "Tu vuo fa l'Americano." Here is the original:

Here is the remix:

The blog also added a link to a translation of the original lyrics. Besides not discussing how nonsensical the Yolanda Be Cool video is, the post also didn't discuss the one thing I thought was odd about this recent hit: it did not (or not yet) top the charts in America (it's popular, but not the most popular). Is this because the Americans are offended by the song? Too proud to know that their culture is killing other culture? Or just knew the absolute truth, that people really did want to speak and act like them? Personally, I think it's because Americans have already formed their own--differing--opinions about the song. In th end, Yolanda Be Cool's translation is catchy, but doesn't really add to the internal conversation Americans have had about their identity in relation to the song. After a brief research, I found these clips, made by Americans, using Carosone's song, having different points of view about American culture and the cultural hegemony represented by speaking American.

1. Sophia Loren's version from "It Started in Naples"

An Italian bombshell performs the song, the guitarists rocks out like a stereotypical American musician, and an American--the prototypical "Americano" that Carasone sang about--learns to love Italy, albeit a fantasy version of it.

2. The Talented Mr. Ripley
The song's main performer, Dickie Greenleaf, doesn't want to be an American; the "audience," Tom Ripley, is also undergoing his own identity turmoil. All set in a jazz club, the most quintessential post-war American export, in Naples. All the characters are forced to deal with their own insecurities with their identity in a foreigner's language.

3. Lou Bega's Fantasy
He doesn't ask you why you want to be American, he tells you: YES! You want to be Americano! But then he presents different and conflicting ideas about the American identity to the point where one asks, "what am I exactly supposed to want?" In the end, he kills it with his dumb answer: money.

Lago di Ledro

This summer, I made it a goal to discover Italy's lakes. Not it's "great lakes" like Garda, Como, or Maggiore--as beautiful those lakes must be (the only one I have been to is Garda), they are too crowded, with their tiny villages enjoyed by millions of visitors each year. Instead, I wanted to see the country's smaller lakes in the north, especially in the Trentino and Alto Adige, which are dotted with small and intimate lakes made difficult to access by the peaks that enclose them. I planned on doing at least one Italian lake each weekend, but it did not work: immediately after discovering her lakes, I discovered her mountains, her small villages, and her party-loving people. I became too inundated, to the point where I only found time to visit one lake, Lago di Ledro. Lago di Ledro happened to be one of the north's most beautiful lakes, and a recent "last weekend of the summer" trip with some friends only solidified my love for the place.

My first trip to Ledro was last June, warm enough for a nice late-Spring sun bathing but early enough that most of the vacationers were still only in their planning phase. It's only about fifteen minutes from Garda, but its modest size and relative lack of self-advertisement prevents it from drawing a significant part of the bigger lake's visitors. Besides, it lacks Garda's grandeur and accesibility--it doesn't smack you with its sublime beauty, with the sun peeking behind giant cliffs and its rays glittering on calm waters; it doesn't have Garda's established hotels, tour groups, and restaurants that make planning a visit easy; and it doesn't have extensive connections to big towns, the closest train connection being from Rovereto (and from there, who can take a bus to Riva del Garda, then maybe you can get to Ledro from Riva del Garda two or three days after you left your original destination). Even though you have to drive further up from Garda, there are no imposing mountains that crown Ledro. You expect a lake up in the mountains to reveal itself in one stunning and blinding view, but you still have to look for it once you get there. It hides, and the only indication that you are finally there are a couple of souvenir shops, a few albergi, the palafitte museum (prehistoric huts were discovered on the lake's shore a few decades ago), and an overabundance of German and Dutch tourists (they have taken ownership of the place, like all the other lakes in Northern Italy). Once you finally find it and sit in its shore, you are calmed by its beauty but not impressed. After almost driving off the road looking up at Arco's castle, or down at Garda's cliffs, or dodging pedestrians at Torbole and Riva, Ledro is quiet...too quiet.

But then that's the point. Mind you, with all the Germans and Dutch tourists as well as the motorcycle riders that frequent it's windy country roads, Lago di Ledro can be a bit noisy. But these never overtake nor overwhelm the place. The water remains calm (hardly a motorized boat traversed the lake), the beaches always guarantee a quiet spot, and the roads and trails that surround the lake are never crowded, allowing for that now cliched emotional and spiritual renewal that the bigger lakes used to offer. It's clear blue waters and constantly shifting light made mobile by the clouds that are trapped in the valley by the surrounding mountains make writers think about time and place, artists of color and movement, and photographers of light and dark. Slowly, the place grows on you until you find that it inspires something in you, and you don't want to drive back to the traffic jams in Garda.

The best thing about Ledro however is the places away from the water. The trails up to Cima d'Oro never got crowded, and every strange hiker you encounter is more surprised by the brief acquaintance you make based on your mutual crazy desire to see the lake from above. The best view is from the door frame of the small church commemorating the Madonna Addorata, built on top of a hill overlooking the entire valley. Facing the altar, the doors look out into the Gruppo di Brenta mountains far to the north. (Note: I hiked the trail, but not all the way up. It's a hard hike, and my body started to do weird things in protest.) The roads going northeast lead to small, sleepy towns, farms, and lonely churches all equally decked out by masses of flowers that freely blossom in the area's spring-like temperature in the height of summer. But the best is Molina di Ledro, the lake's Sirmione, a humble hamlet located a few hundred meters from the lake consisting of winding streets, modest squares, and churches of no importance. It has no castles, no old monuments (or old monument that deems itself important), or does its city layout look particularly charming. Most of the visitors only venture into the town to resupply from its lone market, and maybe buy cigarettes from its lone tabaccheria. But these are why I love the town. The residents paint their houses bright colors and plant copious amounts of flowers out of their sheer desire to live in a beautiful space. It doesn't feel contrived or made to impress; it's narrow lanes are occupied by drying bed sheets and playful children instead of pizzerias and postcard shops. Its lack of irony in personifying the cutesy-ness typically attributed to "Italian culture" is refreshing for its inability to sell itself. Walking down its alleys, with the sun coming in and out of view, you almost feel like you are trespassing into someone else's world, but then the old lady from the bar smiles at you and you feel special again--until she smiles at another customer. Then you realize that she's just going about her day as usual.

But the summer is now done. In a few weeks, the lake will freeze over, the flowers will die, and the roads will be too dangerous. The Germans and the Dutch will be gone, the stores will be closed, and the mountains will continue to trap clouds, but now bearing grayness and chill over the entire valley. After a night of beers, calimochos, barbecues, and hiking (for some), all of us knew too well that the season is over, and soon it will be time to don thicker clothes to hide the season's tan. It rained, but we were too stubborn to give up our grill. The sky finally let-up, but it's with a hint of bitterness because we knew we were supposed to read the signs but refused to do so. The next day, we packed our tents and drove away. Maybe Ledro isn't too bad with a pair of snow shoes, I thought.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Ancient Roman dwelling upgraded to mansion after new finds

If you drive at least an hour and a half away from Venice in any direction, you will find a completely different world. Few tourists, less grandeur, but still brimming in history that is largely forgotten by the bystanders tunnel-visioned by the A4 from Milan to Venice. Nothing is more indicative of this than Aquilea, a town 80 miles northeast of Venice, in the equally unvisited region of Friuli-Venezia. Currently a mere magnificent pile of rocks that dates back to the Roman era, Aquilea is actually once one of the most powerful cities in the Roman Empire, the empire's largest second only to Rome, and its premiere port north of its capital. It played a great role in the development of the empire, as well as the early development of Christianity in Europe. Throughout the years however, Aquilea's role as one of the empire's most important city, as well as its position in the crossroads not just of the barbaric north and south, but also of the division between the east and west, contributed greatly to its demise and failure to recover. Now, it is much diminished, lacking the great antique remains of Rome or the great romantic atmosphere that Verona built around its roman remnant throughout its prestigious history. It is only recently that much attention is being paid to the town, with its buried and intact roman streets and buildings slowly being excavated by archeologists.

For better or worse, the tourists still have not followed. Aquilea remains a small town, highly dependent on the modest resort industry to the south in Grado and the industry of the north in Udine. It accommodates the tourist very sparingly, and from my last visit (admittedly, in the early afternoon before the school groups arrived and in the fall when the August holiday rush was a distant memory) was a quiet one-road town with some yet-uncovered ruins by the main street. The town's centerpiece, its basilica filled with great mosaics, is off the main road and lacks the self-importance of San Marco or Milan's duomo. I walked through some of the ongoing excavation, wondering at floor mosaics faintly peeking through dirt that is yet to be brushed off. Amphora, modest carvings, and other ancient everyday knick-knacks are found everywhere, waiting to be placed in some staid museum for proper viewing. In thirty years, I'm sure the city would be more magnificent, with more buildings excavated and streets revealed to show the plan of the big city--underneath the thousands of people who traveled to see it. For now, it's just a quiet side-trip, just a stroll through a quiet town occasionally interrupted by undiscovered remnants of the past.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Five on Focus - Italian Cinema

Five on Focus: American Expat Bloggers on Italian Movies

Mostly by female bloggers living in what I would say benign parts of Italy (Florence, Rome, Venice). Which is not bad, only that one does get a certain point of view from the bloggers involved. I would have loved to see input from folks from the "other" industrial north (Turin or Genova) speak about films about the noisy dirty urban core, or from Naples talking about Southern Italians without talking about the mafia or the family (I know, it's almost impossible, but there a few movies for example about the African immigrant experience, something well outside of the Italian ideal). But the biggest surprise is the complete ommision of Fellini, as if there was a rule against mentioning the filmmaker most instrumental in developing our current ideas of Italian la dolce vita. Of his films, I would consider Amarcord to be the best because it fully illustrates that very Italian obsession with facade and impressions, without glossing over the limits of putting up a daily personal show (living with fascism is depicted as a daily farce akin to servicing impossible adolescent wet dreams). Another film that was also not mentioned which I think was instrumental in really romanticizing the idea of Italy to other Western viewers is David Lean's Summertime, about a woman's escape to Venice and her tryst with a merchant separated from his wife. It's a wonderful movie and may be the pinnacle of that sub-genre of movies about women finding themselves in Venice or some other Italian locale, without giving in to romantic notions of finding love in a place one does not even know is real. Despite these ommissions, the list are still great, if for nothing else to introduce you to some great contemporary Italian films and to the generally underrated Italian comedy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Movies in Italy: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)

*This series is to introduce you to the various films that were either set in Italy or were made in Italy, discussing how we as outsiders view the country and how Italians view themselves, and how this is expressed and experienced through the art of cinema

The Talented Mr. Ripley is an all-around movie that you could relate to whatever it is that’s bugging you at the moment: the role of women in a patriarchal society as seen in Marge’s character; Tom’s shape-shifting but ultimately tragic homosexual; Dickie’s invincibility and invisibility afforded to him by his privilege; even the rift between classical and modern music representing the coming social rift represented by the 60s. But for me what appealed is the Italy portrayed, and how it represents the Italy most expect when they visit the country. I think the movie tries to parody the self-absorbed relationship that the upper-class visitors has to Italy, but only unconsciously. There’s drama ,conflict, murder, but all of which have nothing to do with Italy or its people. A side-story about a tragic love-affair with an Italian woman was the closest these characters had at actually perceiving the country beyond their rose-colored spectacles, but even then it was easily dismissed as an element that revealed Dickie’s true character, without regard to the largely perfunctory and silent female character. The film have a lot of village scenes and postcard-pretty shots of Rome, Venice, and Sanremo, but it’s so remote to the story that I often questioned if the scenes were set in a sound studio. It’s like the film crew was on vacation, and they just needed to prove that they were there. There was no direct way that the scenery was engaged, no efforts to make the obviously staged market and street scenes more believable, not even to make the obviously exotic locales more palpable in their alieness. It might as well have been just another serial killer story set in Cleveland.