Articles by: Damiano Beltrami

  • Life & People

    Barzini Jr. May Be Forgotten in Italy. But Not in New York

    “The Baroque is the mood in which most Italians live,” said Luigi Barzini Jr. in a 1969 PBS documentary (producer Bernard Birnbaum) on the Italian national character. “Baroque is when you can draw a straight line, but you prefer to draw a curve. Baroque is when reality is too cruel, so you bend the truth a bit.”

    The documentary enticed and entertained the audience that participated in the symposium on the famous italian journalist Luigi Barzini entitled “Journalism between Two Worlds” last Thursday December 18. The event, supported by the Consulate General of Italy in New York and moderated by vice-editor-in-chief of Corriere della Sera Massimo Gaggi, celebrated the centennial of Barzini’s birth.

    “Together with Montanelli and Buzzati, Barzini Jr. was one of the greatest Italian journalist of the last century,” said Beppe Severgnini, columnist of the Corriere della Sera, bestselling writer and founder of a 10-year-old online forum called Italians, after Barzini’s well-known book published in 1964. “Yet, Barzini was victim of a collective amnesia. The year is almost ended and this anniversary was basically ignored in Italy.”

    Most of the debate focused on the reasons why such an outstanding correspondent was almost forgotten in Italy.

    “He has always been an outsider, in Italy and in America,” said Andrea Barzini, son of the journalist. “From this condition of outsider comes the ambition of giving explanations about the Italian and the American national characters.”

    These tight, ironic Barzini explanations displeased some Italians who are not really into self-deprecation.

    “His critique of the Italians is not to despise his fellow countrymen,” said Francesca Barzini, Andrea’s sister. “It is an excess to love for the Italians. But he was totally misunderstood and he suffered from this.”

    “Sometimes people don’t like to see their faces in the mirror,” commented Severgnini, who took part at the conference primarily as a fan of Barzini. “And people don’t like the person who holds the mirror.”

    America, unlike Italy, however, has always realized the talent of Barzini. He was admitted to Columbia University’s journalism program and after that, as his older daughter Ludina said, “his greatest ambition was to write for American newspapers like the New York Times.” America loved him and consecrated him as a tremendous writer and an extraordinary detective of the human nature.

    “When I was interviewing Sinatra I noticed that in his library he had a copy of The Italians by Luigi Barzini,” said American writer Gay Talese. “I thought, this is what makes Barzini so necessary, then as now; he was the first Italian who gave Americans of Italian extraction like Sinatra something to read about the country of their parental origin.”

    But the book is also widely enjoyed by Americans who have no Italian background at all.

    “I used The Italians a number of years ago in a freshman writing class in an art college in New England,” said Anthony J. Tamburri, dean of the John Calandra Italian-American Institute (Cuny). “The students were white Anglo Saxon Protestants who had absolutely no idea what Italy was. But it was a great success.”

    Professor Tamburri’s students enjoyed learning what expressions like “Fare spettacolo” or “Non farsi far fesso” meant from The Italians, a book he considers the best available in English to the non-specialist reader to make sense of a people as fascinating as they are mysterious.

    Barzini helped not only Italian Americans who wanted to know more about the country of their parents or Americans who thought of Italy as an exotic county where people eat pasta and tiramisu’ all the time. It also helped foreign correspondents based in Italy; one of the most demanding jobs on earth given the complexity of the country, the land and human nature.

    “I read The Italians before I went to Italy as a correspondent in 1983,” said Roger Cohen of the New York Times. “It really is a masterpiece. It gets a central characteristic of the Italians, this deep wisdom that sometimes seems to express itself in extreme frivolity. Knowing so much about how hard life can be, the Italians choose to dress this up in this captivating, magical, impossibly seductive show.”


  • Life & People

    The Ice Issue

    Natives are free to disagree, but I really believe that the most difficult achievement in America is not becoming President. It is obtaining a soft drink with no ice. In New York ice is like American flags: ubiquitous. Whether it is an unbearably hot summer day or a freezing winter one, ice boldly floats in gigantic water jars, invades fast food plastic glasses, and surrounds transparent boxes of pineapple chunks.


    For a foreigner, the war against ice is a serious issue and has to be handled professionally. I sense that the best strategy to defeat General Ice varies depending on the battle field. Take the easiest ground, restaurants. Here you have to convince the waitress from Prague, Cordoba or Mexico City that even if she gives you water with no ice, you’ll tip her well. If you are lucky enough to meet a waitress on her first week of training you might succeed. If she has been working there for more than a month, relax. Focus on the food. You’ll drink when you get home.


    Now let’s consider an ever tougher combat zone, the bar. Getting a rum and Coke without tons of ice is harder than convincing an Italian not to eat pasta for a week. You have to yell in the bartender’s ear: “No ice please,” and hope he is not deaf, disinterested or disconnected.


    Restaurants and bars, however, are a piece of cake compared to fast food places. Here, if you request a drink with no ice they will think you want to challenge them. They take it personally. So I found that the best strategy is to follow the rules of the Ciceronian rhetoric. You say what you are going to say (anticipate you want a drink with no ice), you say it (“No ice please”), and finally you say it again (“As I said, no ice please.”) It doesn’t always work, but it reduces the chances of getting a cold.

  • Life & People

    Got a place in NYC!

    You can toast. You finally found a decent ad on Craigslist, contacted your new housemate by email and paid the first month’s rent through Western Union. Now you have a home in New York City. The excitement, though, lasts till you actually see it. When a brisk taxi driver kicks you out of the cab in front of your new building, you are not too impressed. A team of rats dances joyfully around the garbage bags. A snobby bunch of raccoons stares at you, as if your European look was rather funny. You realize that the door lock has been picked a considerable number of times. Plus, nobody has ever bothered to repaint the interior walls of the building.

    Your apartment is a studio designed for hobbits. Your room, as pointed out in the ad, is cozy. It couldn’t be cozier. It’s no more than 32 square feet. A white fan covered in dust is on a twin size mattress laid on the floor. The mattress is wrapped in olive-colored sheets. You take a closer look and establish that they used to belong to the previous roomie. Naturally, nobody took a stab at washing them. The window, one of your main concerns, is there. It is a narrow rectangle covered with a Venetian blind. The view is breathtaking. You can see into other people’s living rooms. Just 60 feet separate your pillow from the couch of a bold individual who frantically bangs on the keyboard of his laptop, from a woman who chews carrots, from a guy with a baseball cap surrounded by empty Budweiser cans. As for the door, you realize you weren’t as lucky as with the window. You have no door. Instead, there’s a bright red cloth that is sometimes lifted up by your housemate as he makes period trips to “the office”, the toilet. The bathroom reveals other problems. Problems it would be inelegant to mention them here. But just imagine that a colony of beetles has elected it as their adopted land, and the toilet is so tiny you need to be a contortionist not to get stuck. It happens.

    Don’t despair. It’s not so bad. You get the chance to say hi to a next-window neighbor who is in the same situation.

  • Facts & Stories

    Piero Bassetti's Italici. New & Old Generations in a Glocal World

     The web has changed the categories of time and space, and by doing so it has changed the way people feel to belong to a certain country. No longer geographical provenance, citizenship or language alone defines people’s identity.

     This is particularly true for Italics. More than 250 million people refer to something that has been originated by the historical presence of Italy in the world. Most of them do not live in Italy, don’t speak Italian, don’t watch Italian soccer and don’t follow the convoluted developments of Italian political life. Yet, they feel somehow attached to Italy.
    It is a transnational community characterized by shared values and interests. Historically, its roots lie in Italian emigration, but it has since undergone a number of changes and now extends beyond those roots.
    Piero Bassetti, a renowned entrepreneur, politician and public intellectual, defines this feeling of belonging in the widest cultural sense as Italicity.
    “The world we live in faces us not only with a big financial crisis, but also with big cultural crisis,” said Piero Bassetti, speaking at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò later last week. “We have to readjust the categories of our feelings, categories like the attachment to the patria. The relationship between Italianità and Italycity is not in any chance controversial. They relate in a new way on which we have to reflect. And in the case of Italians this happens already. Every Italian has in his pocket a passport with two nationalities, the Italian one and the European one.”

    According to Bassetti we are still living in an international world, but we are entering a new phase. We are entering a glocal world, a world where the relationship between what is local and what is global will not be mediated only and always by the international approach, but by different ties. For instance, by social online networks like Facebook.
    “What is really important about the notion of Italicity”, suggested Anthony J. Tamburri, Dean of John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College/CUNY, “is that it refers to people as a sort of aggregate, not dividing them into different categories.”
    New York is traditionally considered to be an excellent laboratory to analyze the hybridism and contamination between different categories of Italianità and Italicity.
    According to the Consul General in of Italy in New York Francesco Maria Talò, currently in the U.S. there are three main categories of people who feel, in different degrees, linked to Italy.

     First, the group of traditional Italian Americans, integrated American citizens who speak no Italian and are not Italian citizens but feel great attachment to Italy. They are tens of millions.


    Second, Italian nationals, those who have an Italian passport and speak Italian. They are hundreds of thousands. They are Italian, but it’s very likely that their children will be part of the first group.

    Third, the category made up of researchers, scholars, businessman. The expression of what Consul General Francesco Maria Talo’ calls the new Little Italy, Madison Avenue.
    “The old Little Italy in downtown Manhattan does not exist anymore,” said Talo’. “This is a sign of success for Italians, it means that they had a successful integration, they don’t need anymore to live together in a small enclave. The problem now is to help these three groups to work effectively together.”

    At the Casa there were representatives of all three of them. First of all, the numerous participants to the round table: professors and journalists that have dedicated their whole career to the study of Italian culture and language. Teresa Fiore (California State University Long Beach), Fred Gardaphe (Queens College, CUNY), Fabio Finotti (University of Pennsylvania), Niccolò d’Aquino (journalist for Il Corriere della Sera), Ottorino Cappelli, professor at the University of Naples “L’Orientale” and Project Coordinator of i-Italy, and Letizia Airos Soria, executive editor of i-Italy and journalist for America Oggi: all of them contributed to the enrichment of the debate, sharing their point of view on an issue that is not yet object of researches and analysis, but that induces to deep and consciuous reflections for its extraordinary actuality.
    The public was very active too. It was composed by people of different social and cultural backgrounds. But with something important in common: the love for Italy. Among those present, three stood out:: Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò, Cav. Joseph Coccia, founder of the Coccia Institute of Montclair State University (NJ), and Cav. Vincenzo Marra, founder of ILICA. All three of them, each in a different way, have given an extraordinary contribution to the spread of Italian culture in the United States. 
    The conference, that lasted almost 3 hours, was the fruit of a fortunate encounter between Bassetti and i-Italy. We share the same mission: to spread and consolidate a new Italic identity in the United States and in the world. A transnational, cosmopolit and g-local identity that finds its Manifesto in the book presented in this occasion:
    Because we know that relationships without boundaries change the meaning of place, bringing it closer to the meaning of node, opening up a new relationship between the global and the local, in which the global penetrates all loci through its networks, and each locus folds directly into the global. (...) Because we know that this new glocal world will be our world and our destiny.

  • Life & People

    World War II Veteran is Looking For a Job

    As some of his comrades in arms were enjoying their parade in Manhattan on Nov. 11, Frank Carbone, a 87-year-old World War II veteran, was flipping through the pages of a design book in the library of Kittay nursing home in The Bronx, thinking about how to get a job.


    “I don’t have time to waste,” said Carbone, an Italian American grown up on Cortland Avenue in The Bronx . “I don’t get no benefits from the government. Last week I had a runny nose and I went to the VA hospital to ask for a flu shot. They told me I was not entitled. I didn’t argue, I just left.”


    Carbone is one of a vanishing breed of World War II veterans, but he still remembers the war as if it were yesterday. He suffered frost bite in the winter of 1945 while fighting with the American army and French resistance fighters against the Germans in the Voges Mountains of France. He was hospitalized near the battlefield, but no records exist and he isn’t entitled to any benefits. He feels more lucky than mad about the lack of records.


    “In that evacuation hospital there were guys with legs and arms missing, guys shot,” said Carbone. “They had no time to write down names.”


    Carbone was drawn into the war by his passion for planes, sparked when his 7th grade teacher asked him to build a model of Charles Lindbergh’s airplane. Years later, in the fall of 1939, Carbone, then a seasonal worker, went to the army command center at 420 Lexington Avenue and introduced himself.


    “What do you wanna do, they asked me,” Carbone said. “I wanna fly an airplane like Charles Lindbergh’s.”


    Carbone did not qualify. But the letter from the army arrived a year later, as he was operating a diesel Caterpillar in New Hackensack at an airport building site.


    “I was really discontented,” Carbone said. “They told me that I was in the infantry and not in the air force. They sent us to Kansas for training. It was like a desert, we walked all day long and when you took your shoes off at night you had horrible blisters.”


    After moving to Biloxi, Mississipi, for patrolling the cost to prevent a possible invasion from the Germans, finally Carbone thought he had the chance of his life.


    “Volunteers in the air force were needed,” he said, “so I applied and finally was accepted by the reviewing board of the high ranking officers. When I had my fist training session in Slipper Rock, Pennsylvania, I was very happy, it was my passion.”


    But in spring 1944 Frank Carboni wasn’t flying an airplane. He was on board the ocean liner “De La France” with 15,000 other soldiers, heading to the war in Europe. He stayed in Portsmouth, England, getting ready for D-Day.


    “When I landed on that beach there were about 10,000 dead bodies around,” Carbone said. “The water was red.”


    Malnourished and sick, Carbone got back to the Bronx in the fall of 1945 and went to the army command on Lexington Avenue.


    “They didn’t tell me nothing,” he remembered. “They said good night and good luck.”


    Now Frank, as all his neighbors call him, lives on Social Security money and would like to get a job in the construction sector, where he worked a number of years after the war.


    “It’d be a challenge for the brain,” Carbone said. “I have a background in engineering. I know how to put buildings up.”


    As he looked through the windows of his room at a construction site, Carbone considered the past presidential elections with disenchantment. He shows no particular sympathy for President-elect Barack Obama, nor for former naval pilot John McCain.


    “I admire McCain because he turned down the offer to be released and spent three more years in prison,” Carbone said. “But would he have done something for the veterans? I don’t know.”


    If Carbone were president, he would protect veterans’ benefits.


    “We gave our life for the protection of the country,” he said. “You gotta give us at least a house, education and medical service.”


    Looking at a yellowed newspaper photo of Lindbergh’s airplane, Carbone described what President-elect Barack Obama should do.


    “He gotta lift the country,” he said. “Gotta do what Roosevelt did with the New Deal. Build roads, post offices, highways, dams. Create jobs. People gotta eat, gotta find jobs.”

  • Life & People

    Crazy Craigslist

    Like lasagne, linguine and limoncello, surfing Craigslist can be addictive. At times, dangerous. Certainly, it can lead you to weird lands. When you feel slightly dazed and are almost convinced you had too many whiskey and coke, don’t panic. You are perfectly sober.


    The ad you’re reading is not a joke, it’s actually true. This guy, Keith, a finance yuppy, advertises a really cheap room for a woman between 18 and 27 that is fine with walking around the house in her underwear. For an Italian folk, the sexiest thing about it is not the request. There are plenty of finance yuppies with busy lives and few screws loses in Milan’s bars too. The most enticing thing is definitely how this naughty Wall Street dude organizes, in a coherent and consistent fashion, a number of pseudo-arguments to support his cheeky desiderata.


    At the beginning, Keith acknowledges that the ad to some people can come across as very offensive. But he soon explains his point: “Consider that some people have views of life different from yours.” Then he spells out why he would fancy a girl hanging around the place not too wrapped up into clothes: “My social life is pretty much inexistent, I really want to put some spice in my life.” Finally, Keith focuses on the roomate’s duties. “You don’t have to strip for me, think about a long-term relationship or being my fake girlfriend. No physical contact. Just be the girl who walks around in underwear. Send a picture. It doesn’t have to be a provoking picture, but it would help.”


    An Italian finance yuppy would not have invested time in trying to explaining why overtly spying a consenting hot roommate washing a coffee machine is not strictly against the law. He would have devoted all his precious time in the interviewing process.



  • Art & Culture

    The First Edition of the Festival of New Italian American Cinema is over... BIS!!!

     The festival of New Italian American Cinema organized by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute ended last Saturday, closing a well-attended event that presented over 30 movies by young directors.  

    “It’s the adjective ‘new’ that really sparked the choice of the films,” said Professor Anthony J. Tamburri, Dean of the Calandra Institute. “We wanted to show what the younger and up-and-coming generation of Italian filmmakers out there is doing.”  
    Family issues dominated many of the films.  For example, in the documentary “It’s One Family Knock On Wood” by Tony De Nonno, we meet puppeteers Mike and Aida Manteo as well as their children and grandchildren, a family bound together by a Sicilian folk tradition that dates back to the 16th century.  
    Stories of gender and sexuality were also well represented. The short documentary “Mother Tongue: Italian American Sons and Mothers” by Marylou Tibaldi-Bongiorno features seven Italian American men – including Martin Scorsese and Rudy Giuliani -- who describe their special, complex and at times hilarious relationships with their mammas, who are excellent at instilling fear, insecurity, low self-esteem and guilt in their sons. Or consider “Household Saints” by Nancy Savoca, in which three generations of Italian American women struggle to live in a rather macho post-World War II Little Italy in New York.     
    The new generation of Italian film makers seems to put much more emphasis on the working class than the previous one. This can be seen, for instance, in “Romance and Cigarettes” by John Turturro, a musical love story depicting the troubled marriage and family life of Nick, an ironworker, his wife Kitty, a dressmaker, and their three wayward daughters.   
    In the final roundtable of the Festival, directors Gianfranco Norelli, Nancy Savoca and Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno discussed the Italianness of their stories, agreeing that they were interested in telling universal stories, not just Italian American ones. 
    “The greatest response that I got [to her film “True Love” ] was how universal the story was,” said Nancy Savoca with a smile. “After the screening in China a young man came up to me and said that in his country weddings work exactly the same as the one shown in the story set in New York, in the Bronx. This was my intent. I wanted to say, look, we’re all the same.” 
    Finally, the crucial issue of immigration, both in America and in today’s Italy, was touched upon, particularly in the discussion of Gianfranco Norelli’s documentary “Pane Amaro,” about the persecution and racism that Italian Americans and Italians suffered from 1880 to World War II. 
    “After ‘Pane Amaro’ was broadcasted on Italian television, the Italian media were shocked by how little is known in Italy about Italian immigration in America,” said Norelli. “This is partly the reason why the documentary was done. Discrimination against foreigners in Italy increased in the last decade. For instance, [Giancarlo Gentilini] the mayor of Vicenza, a town in the North of Italy where a great number of North African workers are employed in factories, was once reported commenting on them with a group of friends in the following way: ‘Could we use them, dressed as rabbits, to have hunters’ exercises?’” 

  • Op-Eds

    Scorpio? Forget about the room

    A week before leaving for New York I talked on the phone with a friend who lives in the City. When asked, I confessed that I hadn’t started looking for a room yet. “Are you crazy or something?” she shouted. “It takes ages to get a decent place on Craigslist.” Having realized that she was very sensible to the issue, I showed my commitment by not asking what Craigslist was. Honestly, though, my one week of Craigslist house-hunting turned out to be more exciting than a Simpsons episode, a quattro-formaggi pizza or even a school trip to Prague.


    Looking online for an apartment in New York is not merely a way to find a room with a bed (at least the frame), a window (not just painted on the wall) and hopefully a closet. Looking online for an apartment in New York is like bumming around in an eccentric country. Forget about Italian handwritten post-its with a vague indication of the location of the apartment, the price of the rent and the telephone number of a fake tenant stuck on overcrowded university bulletin boards. These American ads are professionally edited, never-ending diplomatic treaties. They are maniacally compiled documents with perfectly pedantic lists of all the laundromats in a 10 mile radius.


    The most interesting parts of the ads are not the room descriptions, but rather descriptions of the tenants and their ideal candidates. Take Jenny Matthews, a 20-year-old girl who wants to rent a $1,325 room in Greenwich Village. She is not happy with just any individual who can pay the rent without causing trouble. She is looking for nothing less than a saint. “You should be a drama-free, responsible, down to earth, clean and respectful person. Someone who loves to go out but keeps the party outside the house. Someone who isn’t noisy but is around. Someone who is around but isn’t a couch potato.”


    Too selective? You must be joking. Some advertisers’ main concern is your astrological sign. It doesn’t matter whether you smoke weed, throw wild parties or are allergic to bathroom cleaning. If your sign is Scorpio, Cancer or Pisces, you’re screwed. No water sign roommates allowed.




  • Facts & Stories

    An Italian Democrat in NYC

    On Saturday, September 21, the leader of the largest opposition party in Italy was interviewed by Jane Kramer, New York Times Europe correspondent, and CUNY professor Michael Blim at a conference entitled “Power and Progressive Politics: Europe”.

    Mr. Veltroni, a professional journalist, was deputy in Romano Prodi’s center-left government in 1996 and served mayor of Rome from 2001 and 2008. As the Democratic candidate for Prime Minister last spring, he showed his determination to fight the battle against center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi without entangling in party alliances, particularly the radical left.  Veltroni regards the upcoming U.S. presidential election as a crucial moment not only for the U.S., but for progressive politics in Europe.

    “The victory of Obama could mean the opening of a new season of innovation and multipolar politics in international relations,” Veltroni said. “If McCain would win, especially after the choice of his running mate Sarah Palin, the message the world would get would be more in tune with a certain populist message that brought the victory of Berlusconi’s party and other right wing parties in Europe.”

    The former mayor of Rome strongly believes that a new Democratic presidency in the U.S. could  reinvigorate the sluggish European Union integration and vitalize Europe’s active role  in international issues. 

    “The E.U. started a journey but did not reach the end,” he said. “The E.U. integration process stopped in Ireland, in France and because of the red tape paralysis of Europe itself. Getting stuck in the middle of the road is the worst thing ever. You don’t have the certainty of the national state anymore and you still don’t have the United States of Europe, the goal I think we should aim at. The E.U. has to decide what it wants to be. It should become a great and cohesive reality with a common defense policy, able to answer the U.S., that especially with Obama, rightly ask for a more dynamic role of Europe in international crisis.”

    As noted by both Professor Michael Brim and Jane Kramer, immigration, homeland security and the widespread fear (real and perceived) connected to these issues are some of thorniest problems in Europe, and in particular in Italy. Veltroni, while acknowledging that any crime has to be punished severely, believes that integration policies should be enforced to prevent racism from taking over.

    “The Italian Democratic party has to be really clear-cut about this. Whoever is found responsible of a crime has to pay his or her debt,” Veltroni said. “But this is not enough. You need integration politics. A climate of intolerance against every kind of diversity is taking over in Europe and Italy. A number of European nationalist parties, including neo-Nazi ones, Saturday had a meeting in Germany --  officially to refuse the building of a mosque --  but beyond that lies the narrow idea that your world is just your home. Three terrible cases of racism recently took place in Italy. A black guy was beaten to death few days ago in Milan -- the prime minister said that there is no racist aspect in this killing, but the person that was beating him up was saying “dirty nigger”; two gay guys were attacked in Rome by a group of skinheads; and in a mafia slaughter six Nigerians were killed in Caserta near Naples last Saturday.”

    Jane Kramer suggested that part of the way Italians see immigrants is due to the way the Italian media represents them, often misinterpreting reality and fueling fears.

    “Really only one major newspaper, La Repubblica, is still detached from Berlusconi’s influence,” Kramer said. “You have a contestatory press that is almost nonexistent in a country where the press has always tended toward partisanship.” 

    According to Mr. Veltroni, certain mass media and political parties play the fear card  to appeal to mass audiences, but he reckons this type of game is a risky one.

    “A mix of fears, both real and virtual, from terrorism, a real one, to the mad cow disease, from the millennium bug to environmental threats, made the public opinion very fragile,” Veltroni said. “Political parties, like news organizations, use fear, seeing it as the most expendable good to get votes. Visiting a factory and suggesting workers to be afraid of immigrants because they are going to take their jobs away is the easies thing to do. But when election time is over you have to govern a society, and you need to create a situation where people can live together.”

    In conclusion, Veltroni reminded the audience, mainly made up of CUNY graduate students, that at the end of the day Italy is a country of immigrants.

    “Oh well,” he said, laughing, “I don’t need to mention it here in New York. Italians crossed the ocean to offer their will to work and their intelligence. And of course, now and again, we caused a few problems.”