Friday, March 30, 2018

Life after Facebook / La Vita Dopo Facebook

It's been a week and a half since I decided to leave Facebook.

I have not yet deleted my account. It is deactivated. I keep thinking I will be in a calmer place to do so. I'd like to do so from a place of purpose and intent, without compunctions.

Facebook makes it incredibly complicated to actually delete your account, much like cancelling a phone number with T-Mobile, another major PITA with which I also have extensive personal experience. They do not want to let your data go. A lost account is anathema when your brand relies on marketing and subscriptions. Apparently it takes them two weeks or more to delete your data from their servers, but we all know there is no such things as a true deletion. I am fairly confident that some version of my data will remain vestigially in Facebook, to be used in stats and trends, snapshots and numbers for year-over-year growth and loss.

I did successfully download and unzip my file. I learned I created the account in 2006. That was news to me.

I do have more time now that I am looking less at Facebook, which I always likened to some version of a beauty pageant of friends. You log in, and you see your list of friends, but that is far from accurate compared to your analog friends list, the same way that Trump's Miss Universe spectacle is hardly a spectrum of the most beautiful women in the world. It is simply a self-filtered list of self-identifying women who believe they are beautiful, or who were trained to be beautiful, and so now find themselves on a stage in a swimsuit and a sash talking about how to solve world hunger.

From the start I have had friends who refused to use Facebook. I never thought they were less a friend for having made that choice, although they were at times harder to track down.

I have more time now. I am feeling calmer. I am reading things I want to read, written by thoughtful people, rather than dumbly scrolling up, down, up, down, clicking things like a lab rat.

Click, click, click. Looking for news from friends. Who can take this much stimulus? What kind of an example am I setting for my kids, aged 3 and 6?

It's all become so Orwellian, and we've done it to ourselves.
As a confessedly extroverted person, Facebook and social media have presented a particular allure. Especially when we have been living abroad. I do feel that I am breaking light social links which, who knows?, might be missed or needed someday. But then again, perhaps not. The more friends I made and shed within the parameters of Facebook, the more stressed I felt about my analog life, the time I spent with my children and husband, how I felt about work. The people I met in my day to day meanderings about Florence.

I also note that Italy without Facebook feels much more like the Europe of the early and mid-nineties where I cut my international travel teeth. Quieter and more thoughtful. More observational, rather than being observed.

I do not love that Facebook owns WhatsApp and Instagram, my remaining social media outlets. I am still on LinkedIn, but it is noisy and less sticky for me.

What does it mean, to have a friend, a friendship, to be a friend, in this time of online friendships? I have made a small handful of friends online, and I treasure them. You know who you are. And I'll keep you as friends and regard you as friends in this new chapter.

What of the five senses? How can we reclaim the physical experience of life, that is not imagined, as we imagine and fill out experiences when online? I cannot see or hear those online friends as we chat or interact. I do not sense their mood, the conversation stripped of context and reduced to typed phrases. It is difficult. What of all the feelings that online time generated in me, feelings that had nowhere to go, no outlet, no receiver, as I stewed in my own feeling juice. I became exhausted by my own dead-end responses. This, as I yearned for in-person friends and an actual network of social acquaintances who would know my name, greet me, as me how I am, allowing me to reciprocate.

Life has quieted down. My world is shrinking in one sense, and growing in another. Another plus: unhooking from the dopamine loop has really improved my overnight sleep cycle.

Mark me: the next great move culturally will be going off-grid. As much as possible. Private, secret networks that do not sell data to marketing firms. I have been rebuked; people have told me, "I have nothing to hide. I do not care if they monitor me." But that is not the point. Their monitoring purpose is to datamine and sell your data. What irks me the most is companies like Facebook are making billions off of us each quarter, with their selling selling selling to advertisers, and giving us nothing we would not have already had. We all have friends. We all have groups, and networks. Facebook simply superimposed a filter that we all came to rely on, or so we thought.

I'm on the cusp of something. This reminds me of a Rinzai concept with respect to novitiates: those with the biggest ego to shatter are the best students because they must learn and change the most. I acknowledge I was a frequent Facebook superuser. (This is starting to feel a bit like the twelve steps...) But it became very, very unhealthy.

Leave your ego at the door.
Time to strip it down.
As the French cynically and correctly observe, "Si c'est gratuit, c'est vous le produit!" (If it's free, the product is you.) I refuse to log in for the privilege of reading the equivalent of junk mail. With apologies to my handful of thoughtful friends who remain.

Onward with analog life in Italy, parenting small children, my adorable intelligent husband, writing, my work, my friends. Making new friends. Valuing analog relationships. Forging ahead. Finding that true horizon.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Exit Facebook / Uscita di Facebook

It all began innocently enough, in the fall of 2007, when Jason and I were faculty in residence on campus. In our orientation the year before to our duties as wholesome adults providing non-alcohol-based programming options to undergraduates in university housing, an outgoing professor - a well-known college dean - had said he had joined Facebook for a while, but had deleted his account a few months after, when social boundaries began to blur and hierarchies of common sense became morally ambiguous.

"I deleted my account because I felt really weird when students poked me, and I did not want to poke them back."
Hmm, interesting, I thought; what is this Facebook?

But I paid it no heed until the following year when it became clear that Facebook had become our main marketing strategy for events with the students. These were amusing Facebook days, when everyone and their dog was not tapping away on Facebook. I could toss off a post without thinking. It was very stream of consciousness. It was an amusing scrapbook, a sketch pad, a old-school bulletin board. I actually formed groups based on one of the many elementary schools I attended, I friended my best friend from the fifth grade, I talked with a random person about a second-grade teacher whose bizarre affect had made a major impact.

More and more people joined Facebook. As more people got on the platform who fit into categories of "people who did not need to know my every thought," such as my parents and manager and conservative cousins, I chafed at feeling so reserved, and I missed my social sketch pad. These were the days when I took quizzes and gave posts thumbs-up and shared posts to my timeline and other people's timelines. These were also the days when random personages such as "ex-husband of high school friend" showed up with an itch to argue. I tried to ignore such online skirmishes, but congenitally do not have the stomach for much conflict. I snooped people who had exited my daily life, gracefully or not, to see what they were doing now, but it never made me feel any better. It just fed the curiosity, and seemed to make every year and every phase of my life concomitantly present in a space that seemed more and more like a chaotic emotional warehouse.

I understand that some higher spirits may view as a drawback the human need to live within a linear time frame, but our brains are wired that way for a reason. For about ten years, everyone and everything and every relationship was all alive at once on Facebook, in high relief. As a social person, I found this exhausting.

However, as our years in Oklahoma continued to accumulate, Facebook provided a glimpse into what life I might be living elsewhere, an important remedy for me at that time. It offered endless escapist imaginings, but it offered no roots in exchange.

I did not have FOMO. I was deeply afflicted with WIWSE (wishing I were somewhere else.)


I "Facebooked" (by now, and ridiculously, its own verb) far less when we were busy with tasks that finally led to the arrival of Victor, being depressed and burying myself in work, and plenty sick of living on campus by that time, in our fourth year. I did not make a single post about being pregnant, fearful I would jinx the delicate chemistry. I did post a picture of the newborn Victor, and someone commented that they had not even known I was pregnant.

Once he was in the world, though, all bets were off, and hundreds of baby and kid pictures were posted. I regret this now as an invasion of his privacy, regardless of the good intention behind it to let grandparents see how he was growing.

In Arezzo five years ago, I was on social media frequently, keeping in touch. As a gentle social medium, Facebook is ideal. I remember the years in the nineties when I used to write paper letters, then 2000-word emails, to friends in other cities, and in other countries as I continued to return to Oklahoma from Europe. A small broadcast seemed the ideal antidote to the draining exercise of recounting afresh events along a segment of the timeline for a single person. As a person who travels frequently, and has lived abroad often, something like Facebook became necessary to knit together the disparate episodes of my life. Maybe I did not want everything clamoring at once for attention, but the ability to successfully find and ping person x from place y was useful to me.

I should have become more suspicious the day I saw the blue Facebook f on the label of a Heinz bottle of ketchup. Hmm,  I was using Facebook for my purpose, but what was their purpose? Zuck didn't care about me, a dumb f***.

I continued to post pictures, stories, poems. Of myself and friends. Of Victor, and then Eleanor, when she came along. Gradually I noticed the newsfeed changing, how it would throttle the scroll until I read the ad. Ads in Messenger. Ads that matched my recent searches. Ads that bordered on offensive when I realized the extent to which my Messenger conversations were being datamined. Ads that were offensive when Facebook made assumptions about how I viewed myself and my world. I started reporting offensive ads. I dropped off my Outlander fan groups.

I work in the field of IT, as do both my brothers. The software devs in my company were horrified that I used Facebook at all.
"Why??!!" they yelled. "Why!"
"I don't know," I responded lamely. "Grandparents want to see pictures of our kids."
"That is NOT a reason!" the grumpy one shouted. "We are trying to help you."

When we moved back to Italy almost two years ago, I was still very active. But social media for me has always felt like a verbal junk food. Like a binge night out, I never felt better after a session scrolling around and liking and posting on Facebook, no matter what their corporate marking department claimed. I gave up on Twitter long ago, and have never really cottoned to any other platform, except Instagram lately, which vexes me all the more for its acquisition by Facebook.

I began to write and write and write in Italy, the cloud of Oklahoma slowness and sadness having lifted, and I began to focus my creative energy on my writing, which has always been a refuge for me: blogging, fiction, poetry, journalling. Reading good fiction. Picking up my New Yorker subscription again. The more I wrote for myself, the calmer and happier I became, in ways that social media has never provided me with its Proustian buffets of regret and vexed spirits.


The 2016 election in the U.S. was a turning point for me. I confess I was one of those people who had become wrapped in the echo chamber of Facebook, obtaining far too great a percentage of my news from behind the login, as a member of Pantsuit Nation, the "secret" group with something like 3 million members. I had believed my newsfeed. I had been lulled into complacency.

I was shocked the morning after the election, in the dark hours when Jason came to wake me and tell me the awful news. I posted a remark about my anger and disappointment, and the specter of a conservative Christian cousin materialized with plenty to say to me in this public space, and she did. That was the first time I deactivated my account. I cried for a week after that, the conservative cousin adding insult to the injury of an election gone terribly awry. I collected myself and saw with fresh eyes the Facebook madness I had come to accept as normal, on both macro and micro levels. Their greed for profit with no foresight as to consequences led directly to this ugly and painful chapter in American history. And we all took that ride with them because we liked to know what our friends were doing.

I have deactivated my Facebook account a half dozen times since then, but my next action is deletion. I am tired of reading about Facebook's massive profits, founded on data that we have all given away because we valued community, even though we were quite capable of finding a bottle of ketchup in the grocery store without the endorsement. (Seriously, a Facebook group for ketchup?!)

I'll download my file; I will make sure I get all those baby pictures. But the cons outweigh the pros for me. Facebook is no longer the innocent distraction it once was. We need to accept the fact that it is distorting and destroying democracies in the name of relentless marketing and capitalism. As a social and extroverted expat blogger, I will be looking for better options to create and sustain my communities and to let my audience, however small it becomes, know when I have posted new pieces, be they creative or narrative, and to find my fellow writers and true travelers. I have seen my numbers plummet on this blog when I am deactivated on Facebook.

I like Instagram, but feel similarly marketed to death by the endless friending/unfriending by businesses I will never patronize, and personalities that seem to border on porn stars. There are many good reasons, some seductive reasons, to stay active on Facebook. But I think I am done. I deleted the app from both my phones, Italian and American, a year ago.

Perhaps I am grumpy GenX. I do not mind being labeled; my cohorts and I form the most cynical generation. We expect to be screwed. We will not be manipulated so easily. But we can show ourselves out. I am going to go deeper into my writing and my art with the minutes and the hours that I formerly dedicated to Facebook, often without conscious intent. And I know I will be more content for it. I have proven this to myself.


To my friends against whom I have leveled accusation of being a Luddite for refusing to participate, I apologize. You were right, and smarter than I was.

If anyone is reading this, thanks for stopping by, even though it is not getting posted to the big blue. Drop me a comment; I am not going off-grid, although I will be deleting my Twitter account soon enough.

You can still find me on Google+, Gmail, Gchat. I am on LinkedIn. I hope that is not a decision I will come to regret in ten years, but I may. It just seems the better, less egregious option for now.

The writing will continue. The writing is just beginning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Math Americans Cannot Do

O my people, I read the news and weep. It is hard to watch from here. It is harder still to live it.

It does not have to be this way. Can we try some calculations that every other developed nation does not routinely engage in? Let's review some math that Americans cannot do.

THIS:
How many hours/days/weeks/months til an "active shooter" situation threatens people I love and civil society - takes a life, many lives?
How many lives until it matters enough to change?

Or this:
How much will I spend on healthcare this year?
What is my year to year healthcare expense?
What does my employer pay out of pocket for my health insurance, and what percentage is that of my healthcare coverage?
How much do I need to save for healthcare costs?
What healthcare annual total would spell financial ruin for me and my family?
How much has my healthcare out of pocket increased %wise year over year?
How much will it increase next year? in five years?

Or this:
How much will I spend on food this year?
What is my year to year food expense?
How much has my food out of pocket increased %wise year over year?
How much will it increase next year? in five years?

Or this:
How much will I spend on childcare this year?
What is my year to year childcare expense?
What does my employer pay out of pocket for my childcare, and what percentage is that of my coverage?
How much do I need to save for childcare costs?
How much has my childcare out of pocket increased %wise year over year?
How much will childcare increase next year? in five years?

Or this:
How much will I spend on tuition this year?
What is my year to year tuition expense?
What does my employer pay out of pocket for my tuition, and what percentage is that of my healthcare coverage?
How much do I need to save for tuition costs?
How much has my tuition out of pocket increased %wise year over year?
How much will tuition increase next year? in five years?

Or this:
What has our country spent on the military and civilian incarceration this year?
What is our year to year military and incarceration expense?
How much has funding for military and incarceration increased %wise year over year?
How much will military and incarceration spending increase next year? in five years?

People. This is madness. There is plenty of money in the American engine. These should not be problems. America is more prosperous than ever before.

Do you know what I just saw? You will not believe this. IMAGINE a civil society like this: Italians aged 18 are getting a 500 euro cultural bonus now. That they can spend on culture. This includes books, theater, music...stuff...performances. More. I saw the sign in the bookstore and I teared up.

Americans age 18 are trying to not get shot in class. Wondering how to pay for college. They don't even know how hard it is going to be after their degree.

Is this the country we want?

It is not a money problem - we are all G7-G15 countries. It is mismanaged, so mismanaged. We are all just waiting around for the oligarchs to feel generous. They will not.

Is this the country we want?

My Finnish genes are strong. Finland is the happiest country in the world. They are civil and welcoming to immigrants because no one is deprived of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness.

Why did my forebears sail away? Well, famine. It wasn't so great 100 years ago. You can stand the cold if you are eating decently. Finland suffered the last natural famine catastrophe in 1860. Now famines are caused by war and more.

Is it weird that I have bad dreams about Ghouta? Someone should be.

Is this the world we want?

I understand that it is hard for Americans to spend too much time thinking about the global, or even daily domestic issues like childcare, healthcare, groceries, and tuition, when you have two mass shootings a month and a serial bomber is trying to blow up Austin one package at a time.

Is this the country we want?

Americans are so stressed. Understandable the push for legalization of marijuana -  which I am all for, in any case. Weed just gives people unhealthy cravings for Little Debbie products and Funyuns. No one gonna shoot anyone after smoking a big doob.

No medical care? Heroin.
Work/out of work/shitty job? Weed. Or heroin.
Depressed about things in general? Keep drinking.
Americans are masters of self-medication. 

It does not have to be this way. It is not this way in most places in the world. Go research heroin epidemic and tell me if any other country comes up on the list. Go on. I'd love to know.

Is this the country we want?

Oklahoma is sinking into a hole literally and figuratively, yet most of of their House Republicans are running unopposed at midterms. The oligarchy holds its own - they maintain their grip. It's hard to run for public office when you are struggling day to day to make the whole thing work.

Is this the country we want?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Italy: Italian Expectations / Le aspettative italiane

I've been thinking a lot lately about cultural expectations - what someone might reasonably expect to happen on a daily basis, living within a culture, and further, which expectations might fracture when the plate shifts, and someone from Culture A finds themselves more or less immersed in Culture B. We are all products of our culture, whether or not we recognize this, and I grant that it can be very difficult indeed to recognize this fact if one has never lived anywhere but in one's own culture, leading to the assumption that all expectations everywhere match the ones from inside the bubble.

I have written here occasionally on sociopolitical topics, but my first year in Firenze was more a fat pipe of beauty: see pretty thing, take pretty picture, share. I do love catching a breathtaking image on my scurryings about town on my various daily errands - school, work, choir, church, dentist, and more.

But now, halfway through year two, I find myself noticing and comparing the cultural data I have been accruing here through experience, and comparing it with my cultural reference section, abundantly shelved thanks to my career steeped in US immigration and academic immigration, and time spent living abroad and traveling, but especially Spain, France, and the UK. Because I lived for thirty years in Oklahoma, and left not quite two years ago, those cultural reference volumes in particular bear recent evidence of perusal.

I've indexed some of these mental notes and comparisons, and present one of them below for my audience: American aggression.

I am unsure if this phenomenon can be ascribed more to Oklahoma. Perhaps so, as I noticed far less of it in the more civil Pacific Northwest, and even in DC and NY, all places I have lived.

America is not only a frequent global aggressor, what with our various bright ideas for deploying military power, but internally, America is an aggressive culture. Part of this is due to the omnipresence of firearms, in open or concealed carry, or illegal carry. In the US, I was terrified of any dispute's escalation. A gun was a very likely possibility.

In Italy, gun control is sound, and logical. In fact, I have never thought anyone would pull a gun in the EU, and I am glad for that. Not even in Finland, which loves hunting, and is currently ranked by the UN as the happiest country on earth. My Finnish cousins in Karelia with their gun racks are not proponents of a firearms free-for-all. (In my perfect world, no one would hunt, but I do not get to make up all the rules around here. I kind of wish my great-grandparents had not gotten on that boat headed west from Liverpool, but that is a topic for a different day.)

An illustration of my cultural conditioning. One day last fall in St. James, I was either serving or singing, so was in the chancel during mass. A man came in halfway through the liturgy, alone. With a backpack. Of a certain age. Of course he was a tourist, but I have been so conditioned by the lack of public safety in the US that I actually began to have some version of a panic attack sitting up there. He started to fiddle with his backpack; he wasn't paying attention. But in my reptile brain I felt pretty certain that Backpack Man had weapons in there, and my palms began to sweat. Why is an usher not approaching him, or asking to check his backpack? I thought. All the other Americans in the building were facing forward and paying attention. Someone should really ask him to sit down, or ask to check in his backpack, I thought. I tried to mentally convince an usher to do so, as my imagination was working overtime and I was picturing him pulling some gun out of the backpack.

But no. It was fine. He was just a middle-aged tourist with a grey ponytail, and a backpack. He was probably looking for his guidebook to figure out where he'd just interrupted mass. He left a bit after, never having sat down, but neither having shot and killed anyone either, even though in my mind this had been a distinct and panicked possibility.

This reminded me of my time working on campus. I had two offices at OU: one was in an old building, the floorplan like a glorified hallway, with a front entrance and a hallway to another door. We had a few really disturbed international students, unstable young adults on the edge (one non-traditional woman in particular), with no-trespass orders on campus and police involvement, but I always thought in my mind, I can get out if someone goes nuts in here and becomes violent.

The other office, which I spent six years working in, was a renovated classroom, with one entrance, and this setup scared the daylights out of me. Happy international students did not typically come to our office. It was the ill ones, the failing ones, the struggling and depressed ones, the irrational ones. The office had one entrance, which was also its exit, and that was it. If someone came into our office with a gun purchased at a gun show, ready to teach me and my staff a lesson, there was nowhere to go or to hide. I literally sat at work and imagined the ways I could seek refuge under my desk, or in our supply closet where we also pumped breastmilk.

I calculated how long it would take an armed student to find me and shoot me. How long would I have to stay under my desk, could I convincingly play dead, or would an irate student come looking for me by name? How far down was the jump from the second story? Could I break a window and climb down that juniper tree? Probably not in time, but these calculations nevertheless spun through my head. This thinking was sick. But I did not feel safe, we did not feel safe, and that seemed to bother no one but me and my staff. Again, and to clarify, most of our 2,500 advisees were just fine, but we had five or so each year who seemed to be on a literal hair trigger.

This type of public violence did not seem to happen when I was growing up in Oklahoma and Michigan. The first mass murder by gun was in Edmond, OK, 73034, at the post office just a mile from my school, in 1986 or so. We were in shock for weeks. My mom understandably freaked out and didn't really want us going anywhere, which was more a punishment for me than my two brothers, who tended to stay home anyway.

There was bullying in my high school, but it seemed limited to skinheads versus skaters. I remember a fair amount of very Mean Girls-style bullying in the seventh grade, but no one ever thought that someone would bring a gun to school and shoot everyone, at any time, in my schooling.

Risultati immagini per mean girls

Gun violence doesn't just start with guns. It begins in a culture of aggression and bullying, where might makes right, and boys are bred and raised to be big, and therefore stronger, and therefore dominant.

In preschool in Norman there were six and seven year old boys in Victor's pre-K class (which should have all been kids who were four, turning five) who were specifically held back to grow bigger for football. This is madness. Note that girls were never held back for this purpose, as it was strictly gender-driven, and, I might argue, race-driven, since these little boys were almost always Anglo, creating a miniature ruling class of dominant males right there in pre-K that would persist in the culture in all cohorts, at all levels, for years.

I talked to the school's director about it, and was told something along the lines of, parents have a right to hold their children back.

Um, yes, I thought, but not for sporting reasons, and those boys should not be permitted to become the bullying terrors of the class. I was just sick about it in the fall of 2015. I did not want our children to be raised in a world where this seemed normal to them, where they had to learn to protect themselves because the adults in charge indicated they were powerless to change the rules, and thus the dynamic. This was the same school where I was told that conceal carry was the law in the state, and so the private preschool would make no rule otherwise prohibiting parents from toting their pistols around in the school. This was the same year where our small children were in lock-down three times for gun-related violence.

Conversely, the adults in charge might well be aggressors themselves, as with the neighbor in Norman across the street, who I saw one morning chase his son around their car, catch him by the arm, and hit him again and again until the little boy was sobbing. I saw all this from my window, like a terrible stage piece, but did not go out to confront the father because I assumed he was packing heat.

I had been raised in such a world, and had adapted by developing strengths in skills of "freeze and friend": smile at the big boys, they might decide you're harmless, and leave you alone. Play dead with a weird sort of frozen smile. Do nothing to provoke. Do not challenge. Crawl under the desk and play dead. Disappear. Become silent. Keep your counsel at all times.

You never see kids held back for sport in Italy. The Italian parents here actually think that soccer is a dangerous and violent sport, which really makes me laugh. The US from Italy seems like a version of Sparta on opioids, which is another topic for a different day. The overall atmosphere in the children's school in Florence is one of sane adults in charge, and I have noted little evidence of bullying. Italy, on the whole, and in this context, persists as a civil society in ways that America does not. I am sure bullying happens. I am sure it is pervasive in less well-off communities; Florence is arguably an Italian center of wealth concentration. Any Italian will tell you that the Mafia and Comorra and 'Ndragheta are bullying shadow institutions.

I re-read 1984 a year ago, looking, in part, for a playbook. Orwell does a superb job describing citizens cowed by culture, products of fear and conditioning.

An Italian woman asked me yesterday to explain what is happening in America. I was late for work, and could not. I said, it is a big problem, a huge problem. I am glad to be in Italy where things seem to work.
Ma che! her eyes grew wide. There is plenty in Italy that does not work! she told me.
Yes, I said, but you have a civil society.
She looked dubious.
Things work here, I pressed. I listed their universal healthcare, pensions, schools, nice roads, bridges that do not fall into rivers, the luxury of feeling safe from harm in public, which should be a primary civil right, but for Americans in America, it cannot be had.
In Italy, I said, people are kind to each other. There is a sort of kindness here, of life on a human scale, which America has lost. But also, I added, the US, Italy, and Poland are all on a list of flawed democracies. I understand why Italians are upset.

Risultati immagini per flawed democracies

Italian electoral rules seem to be of a piece with American gerrymandering, and a fair amount of election confusion. The voting rules are so complicated that no one can make sense of them anymore.
 
Worse, people vote, and then some other process blender takes over to assign percentages to their governing bodies based on the multiparty election results. Errrr.

There then ensued a long linguistic discussion of what flawed meant, and how to spell it, and when to use it.

She said my scarf looked pretty.
I do not think Italians love hearing Americans list what appears to be functioning in Italy.

I am still decompressing here from my time in Oklahoma. I know we are privileged to live here. We had the option to leave, and many do not. Everyone in America is compressed, with little sign of decompression possibilities on the horizon. My heart aches for this fact.

Hear me: It does not have to be this way. It does not. It is not this way in so many other places. The predominant culture in the US right now is not an inevitable reality.

Further topics for this discussion: Italian rules that can be broken, Italian vending machines, the school menu and nutritionist. Much more anodyne topics, unless someone out there is really feeling this soapbox.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Firenze: Fringe Opera / L'opera vanguardista

The stables were freezing, the violinist said.
There was no way they would be able to play for an hour and a half, straight through without intermission. Their hands were cold, and even more importantly, their period string instruments were strung with gut to do justice to the Baroque music.
The steel or nylon wires, she said, would not have been impacted at all by the temperature, but the gut strings would have to be re-tuned every twenty minutes or so.
How this was going to be possible, it simply was not clear.
Plus, how were they expected to wear concert attire? I listened carefully and nodded. I am not string musician, but her concerns made sense to me. I too am always freddina - freezing. That condition, thankfully, is coming to a conclusion soon here in Florence.

The quartet was lodged downstairs in the palazzo, in the basso mezzanino, which I had never seen before, but looks every inch a set for a period film by Merchant and Ivory. Two bedrooms look out from large windows onto the capacious and blooming garden behind the palazzo, with rows of small frescoed barrel vaults for ceilings. The furniture is nineteenth century, with tiny desks and chairs and metal beds. They were there for the week for rehearsals for a festival production of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice," to be performed in the stables of the Palazzo Corsini by a young cast, with a forward-thinking director and producer.

I am friends with the producer, Sophie; she was also singing Euridice. She works with the choir at St. James, and as is often my way, I had fallen into conversations with her about ground logistics and creative solutions, given their performance dates in different cities and needs. That is how the quartet came to stay for a week at the palazzo we call home.

We had tickets to attend the performance on Thursday, and were going with Claudio and Francesca, who are our landlords, neighbors, and friends. I was glad they were accompanying us because I had no idea where the Palazzo Corsini was, and plus, Claudio had offered to drive us all. Francesca knows the Corsini family, and asked me what the address was for the performance.

"It's in the Palazzo Corsini!" I said brightly.
"Yes, I know, dear," she replied patiently. "What number? I don't even know how many numbers that palazzo has, between their doors and the gardens."
I looked up the palazzo on my phone, but the street it gave wasn't even right.
Francesca went back upstairs to get the poster the quartet had dropped off for her before they left.
"I know where it is," she said, "it's the scuderie (stables) address."
We headed downstairs to the piazza where Claudio was waiting for us with the car.

Driving from one location in centro ZTL (zona traffico limitata) to another is a bit like space travel - you must go out to a ring road to come back in, so a trip that would take me 10-15 minutes on a bike will easily take 30-45 in a car. Plus some swearing and dry gargling.

Claudio, however, as an unflappable Italian gentleman, gamely remained calm throughout the navigation, his beret jauntily perched atop his head as he manned the wheel of the tiny town car, telling Jason with a laugh on Liberta, "I am never quite sure which was to go here," and, later, backing the car out of a wrong turn he'd taken at the snake of an intersection currently strangling the main train station. I was plenty impressed with his aplomb.

We parked in a space that looked to me like it might have just barely fit a crate of clementines, and walked around to the palazzo. In front of the Hotel Medici, Francesca lamented the large paved apron in front of the hotel, saying, "There used to be the most beautiful fruit trees here." As far as I can tell, about 35 years ago someone who hated mature, urban fruit trees, such as used to crowd around many properties in Florence, began to rip them all out, and did not stop until they were almost all gone.

We arrived at the Corsini stables and walked in, through a huge door, then past car after vintage car that seemed ready for a period drama like "Downton Abbey." I am no car buff by any stretch, but these old Fiats and Aston Martins were gleaming. Claudio and Francesca had been to exhibits in the scuderie before, and were pleased to return. We checked in at will-call and wedged our way into the small crowd that was waiting to enter. It was a festive group, but I couldn't move. The venue was intimate indeed. Francesca immediately began to spy a few of her friends, and slipped through the packed people to exchange buona seras. Jason and I stood around and watched a cluster of girls on an ancient settee devour a giant bowl of popcorn.

Soon a petite older woman with a booming voice came through.
"Georgiana!" Francesca brightened. "It's Signora Corsini. Let me introduce you to her."
Signora Corsini was all business, and leaned in to hear my name, and Jason's, while Francesca generously introduced as their friends and affiliates of Gonzaga, as opposed to the rambunctious tenant family in their grand palazzo on the opposite side of town.
Signora Corsini asked me if I had had any refreshment yet.
I said no, I couldn't get to it, gesturing to the packed bunch of people.
She looked shocked. "Of course you can arrive at the refreshment! You must! Allow me."
She parted the crowd with a deep, "Permesso! Permesso, signori!"
At a back table I had been unable to see stood two huge urns, one of mulled wine, the other of a concoction I understood to be a combination of beef broth (?), Red Bull (??), and, possibly, vodka (!?!). I do not know which observation alarmed me more: the possibility of such a drink, or the sad state of my Italian comprehension.
Unable to clarify the contents of this second urn in the roaring, tiny space, I said, "I would like the Gluhwein."
Eh?
"Err, the vin brulee."
Eh?
"Il vino," I said, pointing.
Signora Corsini dispensed a small cup of the steaming wine and handed it to me. "E lui?"
Jason politely declined.

The doors to the stable swung wide, and Georgiana invited "people of a certain age" to come first. Francesca looked at me and shrugged. "Of course, we're just going in." I followed her lead and we quickly found chairs. Jason had a standing post in the horse stall behind us, and neighed good humoredly. I saw a number of people I knew from St. James on this, the last night of the production, concluding their Italian tour. I noted a small group of women who seemed like they knew the place, and who all looked like each other, and assumed they must be the Corsini sisters. The daughter of one of them, aged about ten, had an enormous bowl of popcorn, and was sitting on the floor eating it with such gusto that bits and pieces were flying onto the rugs covering the stones, and dropping all over her sweater, adding a touch of farcical Wes Anderson to the whole scene.

Povere Euridice. Will she come back to life?
Spoiler alert: in the Baroque version, YES.
There were maybe a hundred people total in the audience, tops. The orchestra was at the far end of the stable, under a handsome stone statue of San Eligio, patron saint of horses and their caretakers, and under that, a smaller statue of the Virgin. The sound in the space was optimal, for the stables were a bit like a stone chapel, and filled with the music as the orchestra began to play. The Corsini were a historically well-placed family indeed as I counted sixteen stalls in our space, all bordered by stone columns. It looked like a horse chapel.

Orfeo baragining successfully with Amor to restore to life his beloved Euridice
The quartet did have to pause periodically to re-tune their strings of gut, I noticed, but they did it so quickly as to be almost unnoticeable, and in any case the handsome cast was a transparent distraction. Gluck, as a Baroque composer, had the resource of castrati countertenors at hand, but in this opera, Orfeo was sung by a beautiful, tall woman, whose face was scrubbed clean, her hair wound back in a tight braid. It took me a while to figure out she was Orfeo. I mistakenly thought at first she was the shadow Euridice - perhaps a dream Euridice - in any case, I worked it out, and the singing was beautiful, as the chorus and soloists were inches from us at full volume. 

The costumes were amusingly tongue-in-cheek - Amor was an Elvis impersonator, Orfeo an RAF pilot, Euridice's skirt and bodice looked like they came from last year's Feria Sevillana, castanet-ready. Moving forward, I would love all live entertainment to be that close to me; it is so much more striking than watching an opera on stage form a box, and everything looking like an animated postage stamp.

Euridice and Orfeo are reunited!
The young girl continued to eat the popcorn with her mother and aunties. I tried to avoid direct eye contact with the singers so as not to fluster them. Since this production was an adaptation, and not the entire work, it was about an hour and a half in length, but none the less for it. (Good news for Jason in the horse stall.)

Oats and opera, anyone?
The finale finished to much shouting of brava, bravo, bravi. The conductor thanked everyone for coming, and outlined the next festival productions scheduled in the gardens of the Corsini for late August and early September.
"Che meraviglia!" a Corsini sister breathed from a stall across the aisle. 
We finally squeezed out of the stables back into the entry corridor where all the vintage cars silently gleamed. In the warm evening, Francesca outlined for me the many talents and accomplishments of Georgiana, clearly a woman of much fuoco e spirito.

Driving home, Jason and Claudio debated the Gluck revision of the Orfeo and Euridice myth, agreeing at the end that Gluck was under pressure from his patrons in the royal court to make an ending more piacevole (pleasing), since the original plot is a tragedy, as Euridice perishes and Orfeo descends into an eternal grief. We also covered the casting, and the history of castrati, agreeing that the opera would have become vanguard indeed had it been edited to star Orfea and Euridice.

I can't wait to see their late summer productions of Tchaikovsky, Shakespeare, and Mozart. Perhaps I too might be able to dine in the Corsini gardens with other guests ...