Last Tango in Zagarolo!

After my whirlwind tour of Italy (with a day in Switzerland too), I made it back to Rome on Friday, Oct. 8, in time to help Rossella Ottaviani (aka Santa Graziella) celebrate her birthday. Her husband Livio, another stalwart of the local cycling and Nowtopian scene, met me at the Termini station and after an interminable walk across a seemingly endless expanse we made it to a far corner where we took a tram loaded to the gills in the hot Roman evening. We disembarked in their neighborhood, which looks mostly like this:

Typical apartments in the Rome neighborhood where I stayed, not far from the ExSNIA social center and ciclofficine.

After an hour of decompression it was time to head to the bar for the birthday. There were dozens of people spilling onto the sidewalks, and of course, there is no problem with drinking in public there. Free wine was flowing and everyone was getting pretty drunk. Rossella and a guy who seemed to be the folk music specialist of Rome broke out guitars and started singing classic songs, and while I couldn’t understand much of the lyrics (well, none really!), I did enjoy immensely the energy and humor they brought to their impromptu performance.

Rosella and friend sing classic Italian folk songs...

I spoke with a lot of friends, mostly people I’d met when I was there in 2008, and had a great evening. The next morning we rose earlier than anyone wanted to, headed a few blocks over to the ExSnia ciclofficine (an abandoned factory, social center squat, with a DIY bikeshop in it that I visited before and is still going strong).

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Nowtopia Meets Descrescita Felice!

I spent the past four days with Fernanda and Mario in their beautiful house in the countryside of Marche, nearest the tiny village of MonSamPolo, not far from the coastal city of San Benedetto del Tronti. They are incredibly generous hosts, in addition to being very enthusiastic conversationalists, avid Nowtopians, and protagonists of the “Happy Degrowth” movement here. After all the busy days prior to this stop, it felt like a writers’ retreat, or an oasis, a place of true rest and hospitality (not to say everyone prior to this wasn’t also wonderfully hospitable, but I had to keep moving the whole time, so I was growing more and more tired as the days went by).

Monsampolo del Tronti, seen from the farm where I was staying.

The countryside around there mostly like looks like this, vineyards, olive groves, and more.

I had met Fernanda via Skype a year ago when they interviewed me online, and I’d seen photos of Mario. Also meeting me at the station was Paolo M., whom I’d met briefly in Siena. He loaned me his bike and we took a great ride on Wednesday, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Sometimes you meet people with whom you share an automatic affinity, and for me and Mario and Fernanda it is like that. We just enjoyed each other’s company enormously!

Me and Fernanda and Mario on the last day of my visit, in a wild glacial valley in the Appenine mountains.

Mario, posing as a proper farmer with his elegant pear, though he is actually quite an avid pear poacher from any roadside orchard he comes upon!

Fernanda is an incredible live-wire, always laughing and telling stories or bringing an unyielding earnestness to her thoughts and inquiries. Rather tall, she doesn’t sit still for long, with an ebullience that is totally endearing. She’s originally Portuguese, and spent her childhood in Mozambique where her father lived for 50 years before choosing Portuguese citizenship when the revolution decolonized the country. She has a lot of experience in EU-funded projects, lived in Belgium for some years, and has a son in Lisbon. Mario has a charming daughter, Francesca (or Kika as she’s known) by another woman who lives nearby, and  he’s a dentist when he’s not tending his horse, his garden, shooting video, working on his amazing home, or agitating with friends against the privatization of water in Italy, for a degrowth agenda, etc. Unlike Francesca he’s not quite so frenzied, always relaxed, curious, with a huge heart and a sweet warmth. He and Fernanda also maintain a close relationship with a community in Guinea-Bissau whom they visit every year, and will be helping at the Slow Food Terra Madre Congress later this month in Turin.

The capital of this region is Ascoli Piceno, which apparently was once considered as a candidate to be what became Rome, but lost out and remained a fairly small city. It’s on the Via Salaria, or “Salt Way,” the road by which salt was delivered from the Adriatic Sea to Rome. Fernanda and Mario live on a small hill beneath the aforementioned village, about 20 minutes by car from Ascoli Piceno.

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A Hop Into Switzerland

After Milan, I headed north across the border into Switzerland where I had an event at the venerable social center Il Molino. My good friend Susanne Zago facilitated my visit and we had a great time.

Interesting bike sculpture made of old railroad parts, just above Lugano at the train station.

She met me at the station and after stashing the luggage in the still easily available lockers (funny how in Europe all this hubbub about terrorism hasn’t led to having to take your shoes off when boarding a plane, hasn’t closed public bathrooms in train stations, hasn’t led to the removal of storage lockers on the grounds they might be a place to stash a bomb… the “police state theater” we live with routinely in the U.S. is really an insult to our intelligence), we headed off on a short bus ride to the top of a nearby hill overlooking Lugano.

I was impressed by the brilliant design of this public toilet!

Unfortunately, the amazing views of the lake and the surroundings were obscured by a dense white fog that hung over everything during my entire visit. Luckily I’ve seen these views before, at least in part, during past trips through this area on the train. The lakes are absolutely stunning. It’s a must-see if you haven’t been to this part of the world. Alpine glaciers carved out these magnificent lakes eons ago. They are amazing! Especially with all the gorgeous stone towns along the lakeside. Lugano itself has an epic lakeshore promenade, rather touristic, but still stunning.

Susanne has explored these walks in much better weather before, and showed me photos of what I should be able to see. Here’s one on her phone, with the same view behind… made eerie by the appearance of Hugh’s drawing from my t-shirt in the reflection….

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