Saturday, June 30, 2007

(not so) hidden treasure of St. Peter's

I was going to read the full history of this wonderful Bernini sculpture in the left transept, but couldn't bear standing in a throng of turisti. So you'll just have to imagine it for yourself, which is fine: the skeleton with an hourglass floating out from under a red drapery below a man praying (Alex VII) doesn't leave much room for interpretation. This piece was, for me, more impressive than both altars, the first of which is wooden and very busy, while the second (at the apse) is after all pretty traditional, even with the perfect solitary dove shining in the sunlight. Granted, the latter is much more appropriate for depicting the triumph of the Holy Spirit, so I can understand why the artistically superior piece pictured above was relegated to the sidelines. But damn is that skeleton cool-- especially the flash-enhanced version above. (It's normally a much duller gold.) It's also fitting, given that St. Peter's holds more than 100 tombs, 91 of them for Popes.

St. Peter's is duly amazing. However I have to say I am not a fan of the Baroque style, especially in terms of interior design. Every square inch of the massive church was somehow adorned. It's overkill--which is saying something for a space so large--and I couldn't help but think of kitsch baroque. Also, though I tried to shun my politically correct impulses, I couldn't help but shake my head at all the pillaged gold from other countries that must have gone into this single building. Sure, it's for the glory of God, but would God really appreciate the pillaging? Furthermore, is it necessary? Shouldn't God be more happy with the mass of people rather than the building they worship in? (Ok, I won't hold this against the Catholic Church's 16th century mentality.)

Not to say it's a bad idea to build a kickass church as a sign of your sacrifice and dedication. But if you're going to do it, go high Gothic-- let the art shine through the architecture and the sense of wonder created by the vast space and towering columns, while the color is concentrated on the ceilings and altar, where it can be most appreciated. Bare gray stone goes a long way in complementing that and maintaining a sense of wonder in the presence of the Lord. St. Peter's, in all its colorful and well-kept glory, still doesn't compare to cathedrals found in various Spanish and French cities. However it may be the single coolest building to have a long-distance frisbee throw (which we considered trying, but common sense won out).
And that floating, hourglass-wielding skeleton reminding us of our mortality? He's my boy!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Eurozine honors random Budapest ABC

I am convinced that the foto on the cover of the excellent euro cultural journal Eurozine is from Budapest (Unfortunately I cannot reproduce it here). But it's no iconic Danube scene that we're all used to seeing: it's a simple, beat up old ABC, or cheap neighborhood 7-11. What's amazing is that I think it's one of my locals back in the 7th district! If I recall correctly, this beloved sign was option #3 on those frigid nights when I needed, like, milk, jam, and rolling papers (for my roommates). Not 4 blocks from where I used to live in '02-03 with old friends C and V, and very close to present-day Poke's place. Once the Jewish ghetto, then left to rot under the Soviets, and now one of Bp's coolest neighborhoods.

What say ye, disparate members of the Budapest clan? Am I wrong? Is our old hood finally hitting the big time?

By the way, Eurozine is smart, informative, non-profit, and provides uniquely wide Continental coverage, both political and cultural, with ample attention to central Europe. There is also a great review of what's new in Continental magazines, a la Slate's service for US publications. En fin, there's tons of stuff going on there (including the ABC cover foto!) so put it on your hit list.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Americans not world's only fatasses, report finds

In the latest example of how Europeans want to be like Americans:

"Sedentary modern lifestyles and over-eating have raised obesity to the number one public health challenge of the 21st century, with rapidly increasing childhood obesity of particular concern to western nations. The European Commission has given the food industry and advertising sector until 2010 to clean up its act."

See? The ugly stereotype of the fat American is now well known (and justified), but it turns out that we are, once again, in the vanguard. In truth, our lifestyle is so reviled in Europe precisely because it forces Europeans to face their own inferiority—and no one likes to do that. It’s ok, though: now that they’re beginning to resemble their heavier and happier buddies from across the pond, they’ll come to terms with it. The European child obesity epidemic and annual Obesity Europe conferences are steps in the right direction. Maybe someday they’ll become rich like us too! (Fat chance…)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

another day, another church

we killed it

Rome: the city is falling apart

Trastevere: It doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as it looks.

In a well timed article today, the NYT examines Rome’s growing tourist party problem. Having just returned from a wonderful 4 days there, I can attest to the problem. Few other cities in the world—certainly European ones—have as overwhelming a tourist element. They are everywhere. But this is an old problem, and it is not just a problem. The 20 million (!!!) tourists who visit in 2007 are going to pump a ton of money into the city, and everyone benefits from this. The city should make more than enough money to pay for its upkeep, which is essential given the wear and tear inflicted by visitors and natives alike. This, of course, creates full-time jobs. And so on. The problem, of course, is the long term erosive effect of so much activity. There comes a point where the natives just want their city back. Thus a city historian (and apparent reactionary?) claims that if this recent tourism boom continues for 10 more years, they will no longer have a historic center at all.
I hate to side with the cynic, but I can’t help but see Rome as a bit of a kitschy wonderland if things are only getting worse. The city will remain lovely and lively, the sites incomparable, but it will only get more crowded in all the wrong ways—at museums, at touristy joints in and around town squares, and around the big ruins sights, which already look from a distance like ant colonies. This coming from someone who absolutely loved Rome.
One must feel for the poor natives. How can they stand it? Not that there is nowhere to go in the old town to escape the foreigners, but let’s say there are very few places. One of our little side games while wandering around for hours this wknd was trying to spot places that, as natives, we would go to avoid being overwhelmed by turistas (a few are always ok—but sometimes you want to be alone). Aside from neighborhoods outside the center and the studenty San Lorenzo neighborhood, and a couple parks, the only place we could really find was Trastavere (the main 'drinking plaza' is pictured above on the morning after). Which is also sort of a studenty neighborhood, but not as hard-to-reach as San Lorenzo; it is right in the thick of things on the Tiber.
It’s a shame that before one can even talk of the beauty of Rome, one must address the tourist question. But the fact is that, for the classic EuroCities like Roma, Paris, London, etc, there will only be more tourists each year, and the industry will grow accordingly: more hotels, more average eateries, more boisterous outdoor drinking wherever and whenever possible. It is only natural that natives complain--as a scraggly 50 year old, I probably would too.
Restless natives have mobilized. They hang unsightly "People live here" signs from balconies and pressuring local politicians to enact anti-partying, pro-peace-of-mind legislation. The key factor here is public alcohol consumption, a sore subject for Spanophiles like me. In the good ol’ days, Spain used to be like Rome in that one could wander freely with a beer—something that seems innocent enough--until it is abused. Teenagers used to take over entire plazas with botellon parties (calimocho = cheap wine + coke, often accompanied by hash + tobacco joints and lots of noise). The inevitable botellon law prohibited this Spanish institution in many plazas across the country. Now residents are sleeping better at night, but you have to look around when having a beer in the park or anywhere in public outside a bar or restaurant. Shouldn't that be allowed? Shouldn't the law be against large groups of revelers, rather than a few people chilling out? We all know how much the laws against drinking in public in say, New York, really suck, especially in the warm weather.
It seems that Rome, in contrast, is sort of like Spain in reverse: apparently, 5 years ago, people weren’t permitted to walk around with alcohol. But the police have stopped penalizing it, and everybody does it. I would like to know why they've turned the cheek, and how long they plan to look away.

Later this week: other stuff on Rome.

The only crappy thing from Rome

2.44pm f*cking Rome airport

Question of the day: whose fault is it more, Alitalia's or mine? I have an opinion, but I'll just stick to the facts. You decide.

So this morning I arrive at Gate B08 for my flight to Barcelona, as instructed. The flight is delayed, but the screen at my gate says “Barcelona”—great. After the stress of checking in and what not, I had arrived; I sat down and put on my headphones and started reading about the EU. (God, this seems so long ago now.)
The next thing I know we are getting on line to board. I hand the lady my ticket and she tells me I have the wrong flight. This is Iberia, she says. I look up at the screen. It says Barcelona in bright letters as it did before, but now I notice the Iberia logo next to the time. She tells me the Alitalia flight changed gates.
Oh. Uh...what?
Sitting down, I’d looked up a couple times and everything had seemed normal, being that the flight was going to Barcelona. I admit I didn’t bother to look for Alitalia confirmation, given that I was at the correct gate number, and had been chatting with some Spaniards next to me about arriving late in Barcelona. Everything seemed oh so normal.
No time to waste, I run to the new gate. The flight is closed. I plead with the flight attendant, who does not give a shit because they made the announcement three times over the speaker. I should not have been listening to my headphones, she says. I ask why they didn’t put up a sign at the original gate anyway, given the ridiculous fact that the new flight was also going to Barcelona. Plus what about deaf passengers?! I cannot hold the plane for one passenger, she says. Please you must go to the Alitalia ticketing.
I run to ticketing, infuriated. I arrive, already sweating, and explain my situation nicely. I cannot help but imply it is their fault. It is not our fault at all, sir, 100 people arrived successfully at the new gate. I don’t bother asking what percentage of total passengers that was. I don't want to know (I kind of do, actually, but I don't want to argue with her from my weak position). I repeat that there are other ways to announce the changed gate, like perhaps putting a sign up at the former gate-- you know, in case people listen to music (not that people do that at airports), or in case a passenger is deaf (not that deaf people are allowed to fly).
She stares into the computer screen, silent.
I ask if I can please get on the next flight, because I have a conference this evening in Barcelona (a complete lie, but fun to imagine). She says I have to go back to the departures terminal, wait in line, and start over again.
I won’t have to pay more, will I?
Probably, she said, and consults with her partner in crime. Something about viaggeri pagare . Of course I will. I should, at least, she says.
I should? Excuse me? Look, I know your job obviously sucks and you probably hate your life because you can't do anything better than deal with an endless stream of viaggeri who have been fucked by your shitty employer, but still: I should have to pay? This must be a translation tick. I shouldn't be surprised that your English sucks, even though it's one of the few requirements of your shitty job, aside from looking pretty and entering data.
I ask her to call the departing flights desk for me to smooth things over as much as possible before I go all the way back there. She calls; nobody answers. Does that mean nobody is there to help me? She smiles at this question and calls again. I wipe sweat from various exposed body parts.
In the interim she asks me a hypothetical question. Say I was going to the cinema, she says. Say I miss my movie, and go up to the ticket window and ask if my ticket is valid for the next showing. Do I think they would let me in the next show?
Wow. Is this is a trick question, a joke, or is she trying to teach me a lesson?
Uh, they would probably let me into the next show if it isn’t sold out, I said. At least in my country.
She smiles and says “I doubt it. You need a new ticket.”
Maybe in Italy, you FUCKING IDIOT BITCH. I don’t say any of this. CUSTOMER SERVICE IS NOT THE ITALIAN FORTE, I’m thinking, as I smile at her, thank her, curse her under my breath, and take off for the departures area, which is very far away and to which I run at a good clip to work off the stress. As I run I think of my friend Zach, with whom I'd had a lovely breakfast that morning in our rented apartment. At this moment Zach was lounging around in Villa Borghese, taking in some last Roman sunshine before heading back to Bologna. I wished I were there with him, throwing the disc, drinking wine spritzers, like the good old days (like yesterday). I run faster. I am that guy at the airport, making the mad dash to catch a flight. But I am dashing the wrong way.

Back at departures it is a different story. The first woman, just coming off a shift, refers me directly to another young lady, with whom I speak Spanish.
Instead of treating me like an idiot, the woman’s first reaction is, literally, Oh, I’m sorry, I knew this would happen.
Taken aback, I am overwhelmed with hope that they will not make me pagare. I gently recommend putting a visible sign at the gate informing the deaf and headphoned passengers of the change, especially in the unfortunate case that the new flight has the same destination as the old one.
Yes, that is a good idea, she says.
Ha! A good idea! You fucking people should hire me.
On a roll, I apologize for making such a silly mistake. She laughs, No, it’s really our fault.
Wooooo! What's your name, cutie? (I don't ask this.)
Your flight is at 4.20 sir. Please relax. Go to the bar and relax for a few hours.
Are you going to buy me drinks, I ask. (I actually ask this.)
No, sir. I’m afraid we can’t do that.
Alright. But you probably should, after all I’ve been through.
Maybe, sir. You can write us a letter.
Exactly! That’s what I was thinking-- I’ll be on the lookout for the suggestion box! I like this girl. She speaks Spanish and appears to have a heart.
She carefully circles my gate, the time, and urges me not to use my headphones while waiting.
Back in business! Now I just have to kill 4 hours in the airport and miss my afternoon at work.
Passing through security for the second time, the guard looking at the X-ray screen notices my headphones. He says something about Bose. I laugh and tell him in improvised Spantalian that they are very good, very expensive, and were a gift. I pass them to him. Hearing Bjork in crystal clear noise reduction, looks up at me, impressed. If only you knew the problems they caused, amico! I laugh my way up the escalator.
Now to go back to the first ticket desk with the mean Alitalia women.
One of the same women is there, and she recognizes me immediately. I wanted to apologize for my behavior before, I say, trying to get on her good side.
It’s fine. You have a new flight?
Yes! And I didn’t even have to pay!
Really? I’m quite surprised, she says, slightly embarrassed.
Can I ask you a question?
Of course, sir.
Was I the only passenger who made this silly mistake?
She smiled. No sir, there were others.
There were! Why didn’t you mention that the first time?
Have a nice flight, sir, she says, smiling.