Sunday, August 23, 2009

Old memories in state-of-the-art Strasbourg

"General De Gaulle is in my heart." I knew ancient rivalries between the Germans and the French in Alsace were still biting, but I wasn't expecting to find such a vivid memory of the region's torn past. I was sitting on a bench along the river Saar on Quai St. Nicolas, studying the city's map and planning my next visit to Place St. Thomas, a Protestant church, when a man (who I soon found out was a former French soldier of WWII) confronted me with a sudden "Germans have hurt me so bad."

History is one of my biggest passions, so I perfectly knew what he was talking about. What
he didn't know was that what excites me the most is to find first-hand evidence and personal accounts that enrich and confirm my studies. I wasn't going to miss that occasion.
I folded my map and listened for a yesteryear account of some of the most momentous events of modern European history, the legendary calls of General De Gaulle from London to keep French spirit alive and kicking in the face of the Nazi occupation and the harsh battles neighbouring cities were fighting against each other during a useless and totally avoidable world war.

It was a pleasure listening to the personal experience of who survived to such dramatic events, and the surrounding of river and bridges were the perfect realistic geographic background.
I didn't need to ask him any questions, he was like a river in flood. My academic studies took on a different meaning: the view of Alsace as bone of contention in remote times became in front of my eyes way too recent to be kept in the scrap heap of history, although citizens, maybe exhausted from these struggles, have put all their best efforts to make these rivalries belong exclusively to textbooks.

The flowers' bright colours reflection on the Saar's crystal-clear waters and German-looking buildings were the perfect picture to combine with the story the man was bringing back to life from his most painful memories.


Strasbourg lies at the very border with Germany, divided only by a river, and today its inhabitants have the privilege to grow up completely bilingual.

Already on my way from Paris it was interesting to notice the change from the hustle and bustle of the European capital to the quieter northeastern region, and the difference between the "French" France and the "German" one was remarkable. Strasbourg is the perfect epitome of what the institution of European Union has meant for the old Continent. The whole region readily blends French and German cultures, elegantly resulting in a more polite French grandeur and a milder German austerity.

The closeness of these t
wo cultures today is natural and makes it almost impossible to tell the two nationalities apart. The German influence in architecture and art is by-all-means visible: signs in both languages aside, the city centre is dominated by lines of romantic half-timbered houses, that remind of the brothers Grimms' tales, and ever-green trees skirt the clean streets named after old traditions and French grandeur: Rue du Vieux Marché aux Poissons (Road of Fish Old Market), Rue des Francs Bourgeois (Street of French Bourgeois), Rue de la Division Leclerc (Street of Leclerc Division). Although the public transport service is very efficient, it's a pleasure dawdling about the perfectly walkable old-fashioned city centre and stop from time to time to eat delicious fresh bretzel.

The region is amazingly green and the landscape is harmoniously interrupted by small rivers and lakes. The adjoining Lorraine is as green and as German-influenced, having shared much of the Alsacian stormy past.

Every corner of France is a milestone for European and world history, and Alsace and Lorraine definitely among the most exquisitely maintained.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Meeting travel writer Stanley Stewart

When I first spotted him, he was getting off his Ducati and entering a pint-sized café in Santa Teresa di Gallura, Sardinia. I couldn't believe my own eyes, that was Stanley Stewart.

I had always wanted to meet him and I wasn't going to waste what was potentially the occasion of a lifetime.

Fortunately the café was really small, which gave me the excuse to sit just beside one of my favourite travel writers. His cappuccino was surrounded by small notebooks and he was skimming through tiny sheets covered with words. They surely were notes from his latest trips aimed at who knows what articles.

I started wondering what he was scribbling and if he was going to write about Sardinia, but couldn't hold back anymore so, defying my reserved nature, I shamelessly burst in his concentration: "You know," I mumbled with as much self-confidence as I managed to muster, "you made me want to go to Egypt." I have since seen some Egypt holiday deals and am looking forward to exploring what it has to offer.

I was relieved to find out he's not as grumpy as Paul Theroux allegedly is. "You should," he replied, "it's a fascinating country, and don't forget to cruise the Nile": his article on Egypt was too recent for him not to understand what I was referring to.

I knew he liked Egypt, otherwise he couldn't have written such a masterpiece. "What about Mongolia?" I kept on asking. Watching him sipping his cappuccino I reckoned he looked like the perfect Italian, but I didn't have a hard time picturing him contemplating one of Mongolia's harsh landscapes and eagle hunting with Kazakh falconers: "Of course!" I thought, "he's an expert traveller, he must look like a local!"

I had the impression he had just read my mind when he told me: "People in Mongolia can be very mysterious and they constantly surprise me, but I found them more approachable than many Parisians (laughs), although Paris is the best epitome of the lovers' corner."

Only a quick exchange of travel opinions before he hopped on his rented Ducati and drove away to find unexplored spots in Sardinian land he would write about in his next article for National Geographic.

A small sheet had fallen off the café counter, so that I had my exclusive foretaste on his upcoming article.

P.S. If you enjoyed my encounter with Stanley Stewart, I'm sorry to disappoint you: it never happened. I don't know if he takes notes of his travels in small notebooks and I have no idea whether he likes cappuccino or he prefers espresso. I only know that I find his writing enriching and inspiring, and this post only reveals my secret hope to meet him one day and have the chance to barrage him with questions.

Pictured? A view of Lake Omodeo in Sardinia, pretty much unexplored spot.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Italy and women's body

Italy is home to beautiful peintures and sculptures, countless scientific discoveries came out from Italian minds, the creativity of Italian people is renowned and museums all over the world are studded with Italian masterpieces. So what’s happening to the Belpaese cultural scene?

I’ve been living outside Italy for four years now, in London for two, I’ve travelled throughout Europe and South America and, although I deem other societies by no means faultless, I have never found in any country such a poor mainstream culture.

Without going as far as Michelangelo’s times, only watching tv shows broadcast in the ‘60s in the Italian tv, it’s possible to appreciate the difference between then and now. Today’s shows are embarrassing: dancers can’t dance, singers are mediocre, shows are not challenging or educative, anchormen (and women) only work if surrounded by semi-naked young girls who, by accepting to be humiliated the way they are, show zero self-esteem.

One of the most astonishing aspects of today’s Italian culture is that a talented person must be physically attractive, otherwise they have no chance to emerge and carry on with the future they have studied for. Yes, studied, because unfortunately this principle seems to apply to tv shows as well as the Parliament, recently become house of any sort of showgirl.

This, far from ensuring high quality programmes, is undermining Italian cultural vivacity and society, and is aimed at causing general mental laziness. This video introduces very well the topic of how women’s body is used to attract audience.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression that this is Italy today: this is mainstream, national media in Italy today. I have lived in Rome for seven years and, while the tv (public and private) was already leading towards the current widespread ignorance, all throughout the city there were many exhibitions, independent theatre pieces, challenging open-air shows and concerts going on.

The main difference with national tv is that these kinds of artistic expressions require mental vivacity, active participation, going out and socialising, using all senses instead of passively staring at the nothing the tv gives us today.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

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