Why did I ask?

Cremona024When my sister-in-law came to visit in December she asked for recommendations for places to visit on a day outing and I advised her to go to Cremona and Mantova. I have wanted to brush up my memory of Cremona ever since she came back and said she had really liked the town. So, with beautiful weather now available, I decided to forego an hour's extra sleep last Saturday and take the early train to Cremona.

My usual bicycle was at the workshop and so was the strong chain that I use to secure it, so I rode another bike to the station and had no choice but to use another flimsy chain. I locked the bike to a post in front of the ticket office, hoping that the prominent place would discourage bicycle thieves, who have become rampant of late especially in the area around the train station. It took me two hours to reach Cremona, and used the time to finish reading a book about the events leading up to WW1. It was a boring 750 page long book, that I was reluctant to give up out of moral commitment, but certain reconstructions of events were so detailed as to sound more like gossip-mongering than history. The most interesting point was when I realised that the last 200 pages were indexes, notes and references which I wouldn't have to read!

Gardening hopes shattered

Barbarossa035For the first week I was unable to bring myself round to opening the shutters. I dreaded to see in broad daylight the sight I had caught a glimpse of on the night of my return from Africa. Those three weeks of absence had meant a tragic turning point for my garden. My family had cowardly taken advantage of my absence to hire a gardener, or should I say a butcher, and gratuitously destroy decades of slow growth for no apparent reason.

I cannot imagine that they couldn't anticipate how upset I would be, as I had always opposed any plan to trim the trees. Maybe a bit intransigently, but I could have taken part in an amiable discussion and eventually be talked into accepting a compromise solution. On the contrary: I was put in front of a fait accompli.


Romania075I was never particularly familiar with that colleague of mine, and I was surprised when I heard she was retiring. She looked ageless and I took her presence at the workplace as granted, never thinking she might one day leave the 120-strong team.

I heard they were collecting money for a farewell present and I chipped in. Then came an email message she addressed to all the staff, a well-written, heart-felt farewell letter that expressed her mixed feelings at having to leave. She was a reserved nature, not used to expressing her emotions openly – she warned as if we needed to be clarified – but "there comes a time when life forces you to take steps and this was one such moment". She would like to invite everyone to a little do in her office a few days later.

Honesty... and a confession

Xinjiang0829I was at the supermarket checkout about to pay for my groceries when the man who had left moments earlier came back holding the receipt in his hand. He pointed out to the cashier that there was an error in his favour, as the shopper had been scanned twice but a pack of ravioli had not been typed. The man dutifully wanted to set the accounts right and paid up the small difference. The thing impressed me and prompted me to put my hand on my heart and ask myself weather I would have acted in the same way. Probably not, to be true, and yet I couldn't deny that the man's behaviour struck me as commendable even though the amount at stake was a trifling one.

Then I nuanced my standing and admitted that if I were to deal with a traditional shopkeeper, chances are that I would have pointed out the mistake. In fact, I remembered an episode that happened when I was at school. I had taken on the task of buying an English language exercise book for the whole class, and went to the bookshop with the money collected from my schoolmates. The shopkeeper inadvertently gave me one book more, a fact that I only realised when I got home. The next day I returned to pay for the extra book, and the owner was so touched that he wanted to give me a small gift in thankfulness. That time I felt proud of myself, and in due time much above the baseness of another schoolmate who bought a novel for all and stuck fake price tags on each book to earn on the difference, until he got unmasked.

Healthy food awareness

tajine004The modern consumer is on the one hand the easy target of advertising campaigns for food products whose consumption is not necessarily an instance of a salubrious lifestyle; and on the other hand he is often assailed by a sense of guilt regarding the anti-aesthetic consequences of a disorderly diet, and, if worse comes to the worst, he may regret compromising his very health.

And so in comes the ample offer of products or services, ranging from drugs, slimming diets, gym courses, you name it, that try to counteract the effects of fundamental errors in an earlier stage. In a word, we close the stable door after the horse has bolted. However, granted that whatever is marketed in respect of foodstuff or fitness counselling obeys to the same perverse economic system, there is hardly any contradiction between these two opposing trends: as long as something can be sold it makes the economy spin and a profit can be made. If the market doesn't have any scruple, it is only the consumer who, under the illusion he can indulge to gluttony at the same time as aspiring to having an athletic physique, falls victim to this paradox.

Fellow volunteers

We met as volunteers working at the same night shelter but we found out that we had already been colleagues unawares when both of us had served, albeit at different times, at the same institution in Jerusalem. It usually didn’t take long until she talked about her volunteering in Israel with someone new, and it must have been like this that we discovered common ground. She was rather chuffed when it came to the topic of her yearly stays of over a month each time.

From that first day, whenever we did a night shift together we often talked about common acquaintances, the staff, the patients, the atmosphere in Jerusalem, and life in that big house. I promised one day I would show her the photos I had taken the summer I was there. Now there will be no more time for that…

Christmas cards

In the internet era Christmas cards have become a rarity. The young have not lived in the heyday of the post, and many older people consider it outmoded or too formal to send cards, but the main reason may be that they are rather inconvenient. Because you’ve got to buy one, write in good hand a well thought-out message parsed with punctuation and capital letters (an insurmountable stumbling block for most email writers), copy the address, buy a stamp, stick it on the envelope, and mail it. Compared to the click of the mouse required to send an email, this takes much longer, involves more commitment and more expense. In most cases it involves a process that is not accomplished in just a few hurried minutes in front of the laptop screen.

But receiving a Christmas card is much nicer than an email that is read as quickly as it was written, and then is destined to be deleted leaving as little trace as the effort it required when it came to life. Luckily, I still have a few friends who I still exchange cards with and this year I even received one from a former work colleague from England who I used to correspond with. It was indeed a good surprise.

Wedding wine

I invited my friends to celebrate three November birthdays, among which mine, and I prepared a genuine Moroccan dinner because of my recent visit there: harira with dates and chicken tajine. On another occasion I had tried out this particular harira recipe which had turned out above my best expectations and had gathered the unanimous praise of all my guests. I was glad that the flavours resulting from the mix of coriander and unfamiliar spices did not taste too strange to my more conservative friends, and therefore I listed it among the dishes that deserved being offered again. As for the main course I went for something blander that the previous time and prepared a chicken tajine.

Only an Arab sweet was the great absentee, and this lack was especially felt when a friend admitted thinking of getting one ready. She had surfed the net to find inspiration, even set on a recipe, but finally given up the plan because of a busy day. Never mind, she said, she had brought some wine, directly from her father’s cellar. She knew nothing about that bottle, but relied on her father’s good appreciation of wines. I put it in the fridge to cool while we chatted and I warmed the dishes up.

The globe traveller

When I met him in the lift he was carrying a globe in his hands. Across the lands of two continents red and blue lines were drawn that must respectively represent his proposed route and the one already carried out. It was an original way to take note of a travel itinerary and it naturally let me to exchange a few words during the handful of seconds that the lift ride lasted. At the hostel door we said goodbye. I was going into town and he to a bookshop, with his globe.

The day was a perfectly clear one, and warm for December. It was hard to believe that Saturday’s gloominess had been able to transform itself into such radiance of light and outburst of colour. The previous day, a cloudy sky had not allowed me to fully enjoy the harbour view from the overlooking knoll, but today was the perfect weather for no matter what open air activity. I walked to the Sagrada Familia, gasped in front of the formidable unfinished construction from the outside, while the inside literally made me hold my breath. The Gothic cathedral pattern had been updated into a wonderful flourish of modern art where nature-inspired motives were not only the decoration but also the structure. The bright sun filtered through the stained glass and painted a kaleidoscope of coloured patches on the light columns and on the floor.

The power of novelty

The economy spins thanks to innovation, this is perfectly well known. Economists have pointed out that innovation can take various forms, product, process and the litany goes on until a given sacred number which is in its turn presented as an innovative discovery, because a new theory also constitutes a sellable product.

All things new have always aroused the attention of customers who rush to come by the latest rage and thus distinguish themselves from those who fall behind or cannot afford it. Often it doesn’t really matter if a novelty is an improvement to the previous situation, because large swathes of the public would do anything in the name of social distinction, a goal they are prepared to attain by investing whatever amount of superfluous money they deem worthy of this. Fashion, hi-tech and every other industry sector are driven by the buyers’ irresistible craving for novelty that only partly brings about a genuine advantage in their welfare. Most products on sale pretend to introduce innovation, but in fact only respond to the manufacturer’s and the seller’s logic of making money. The pandered consumer is not always the victim, but is often the one guilty of uncritical behaviour, apart from being one of the natural driving forces in the mechanism of consumer economy.