Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Bologna Experience

The trip to Bologna to see the Sokolov concert was interesting in itself, though surprising in some ways. There is a kind of tacit set of beliefs regarding nations like Italy and Spain that is part truth, part wilful distortion for propaganda reasons. One of the oldest of these is what has become known as "The Black Legend." Much like the blood libels that swirled around the Jews in the Middle Ages, this is an out-and-out attempt to smear an entire nation with a vile set of lies. Wikipedia has an article on it that contains some useful information. Here is a quote from the article that sums it up nicely:
"An image of Spain circulated through late sixteenth-century Europe, borne by means of political and religious propaganda that blackened the characters of Spaniards and their ruler to such an extent that Spain became the symbol of all forces of repression, brutality, religious and political intolerance, and intellectual and artistic backwardness for the next four centuries. Spaniards … have termed this process and the image that resulted from it as ‘The Black Legend,’ la leyenda negra."
— Philip Wayne Powell, Tree of Hate (1985)
One has only to realize that Spain was the first global empire with many jealous European rivals to understand the source and motivation. There does not seem to be anything similar in the case of Italy, and that may be because Italy only became a nation in the later 19th century and was not around earlier to attract this kind of animosity.

You are wondering why I am bringing this up? It is because I found Bologna to be surprisingly disappointing, even on my short visit there. Yes, I know that compared to Madrid, Bologna is just a provincial capital, but still. The mood is so entirely different. I suspect that the common view of Italy is that it is brighter, newer, more fashionable, more progressive and with much better sports cars than Spain. Well, that last part is true, it does have great sports cars. They even had a couple of Lamborghinis on display at the airport--not surprising as Bologna is the headquarters for the company.

But my impression, just based on a brief visit to Bologna, is that it is a run-down collection of ugly buildings. People do not acknowledge one another as they would in Spain. People seem unhappy. Frankly I wonder if the reason they build such wonderful sports cars is simply to run away from their lives faster! The only really nice thing I saw there, apart from the concert, of course, were a couple of motorcycle dealerships with spectacularly terrifying motorcycles on display. You know, the kind that look like they are doing 200 kph standing still? The hotel was just an example: the room decor was something out of the Hugh Hefner era, and not the Los Angeles phase, no, back when he was in Chicago. It was amazingly difficult to get a meal: the hotel dining room did not open until 12:30 and closed at 4 only to re-open at 7:30 and there were no other restaurants in the vicinity. After the concert I managed to grab a piece of very indifferent pizza from a joint open around midnight. When I was checking out they first said I owed 3 euros (as it was mostly prepaid) then they changed their minds and said I owed 11 euros because of the "tourist tax", then they said, no sorry, you don't owe anything. When I asked what I was being charged for the room, they could not even tell me that.

I took a walk the next morning and my impressions were all strengthened. Lots of smokers (unlike in Spain), lots of people that look very unhappy, ugly, ugly buildings (of course, I wasn't in the lovely historic centro), indifferent service. Oh, and the food? There was a large breakfast buffet at the hotel (for which they apparently charge 18 euros) but the hot items (apart from some bread) consisted of a big vat of scrambled eggs which were a mixture of runny and slightly burned plus another big vat of bacon with a very few slices slightly burned and most of the rest seriously undercooked. Not impressive. I managed to have a dish of the Bolognese specialty, tagliatelle al ragú, at the hotel restaurant and it was ok. Though I have made better myself. And the tagliatelle was not home-made, but came in a package and it was too al dente. Just slightly crispy.

I will be in no hurry, assuredly, to return to Bologna, or Italy for that matter. Spain, on the other hand is much more pleasing. They power wash the streets every night, for pete's sake!

But the general impression, I think, is that Italy is totally cool and Spain is a bit creepy. This probably is an echo of the Black Legend which had its most powerful effect in the English, Dutch and German-speaking parts of Europe. My reading of Spanish history tells a different story. One of the things that the Spanish are often criticised about is their treatment of the native peoples in what is now Central and South America. But as the Wikipedia article points out:
As early as 1512, the Laws of Burgos regulated the behavior of Europeans in the New World forbidding the ill-treatment of indigenous people and limiting the power of encomenderos -- those who received royal grants of authority to impose forced labor on specific groups of natives. In 1542 the New Laws expanded and corrected the previous body of laws in order to improve their application. Although these laws were not always followed across all American territories, they reflected the will of the Spanish colonial government of the time to protect the rights of the native population.
You want to know who really was a horrifically abusive colonial power? The Belgians!
What is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo has yet to recover from the brutality of the Belgian reign when it was the Belgian Congo.

Getting back to the concert for a minute, the reason the concert started twenty minutes late was due to a gentleman named Fabrizio Festa. He is, apparently, a composer and jazz pianist. For some inexplicable reason, he was allowed to precede the concert with ten or fifteen minutes of harangue about Beethoven and Mozart. I only with great difficulty held myself back from standing up and saying in a loud voice: "DUDE! BASTA! IF WE WANTED A LECTURE WE WOULD HAVE GONE TO THE UNIVERSITY." But since that would have gotten me thrown out... I had a very similar temptation the next day when, on my Ryanair flight back to Madrid, we were subjected to an interminable harangue by two different stewards about things they wanted to sell us. Again, I wanted to stand up and shout at the guy: 'WILL YOU SHUT THE HELL UP!!!" But again, there is that pesky thing about being thrown off the flight. Over the Mediterranean, not a good idea.

Let me state a principal here: any time and place where there is a "captive audience" situation, that is, a group of people who are prevented from leaving the scene for whatever reason, some asshole is going to take advantage of that by haranguing them about whatever it is he wants to sell them: his thoughts on Beethoven, over-priced perfume or whatever. Every single concert in San Miguel is preceded by this kind of abuse. If it is not for fund-raising purposes, it is for the political glory to be gained by various sponsors. It is time that someone called this practice out for what it is. Oh, goody, a new project for me for when I get back home.

Well, I hope that this little congeries of rants has at least amused you?

A suitable envoi? Something calming, I think. Here is the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven in an old recording of Sokolov:


Marc Puckett said...

I 'know' Bologna only through a cop show television series set there, in the early 00s, I believe. But in a country where tax avoidance and evasion is the second national sport one has to make certain adjustments of one's expectations of civic/public behavior, particularly when one comes from the awful Anglo-Saxon regions, ha. And now that in so many places in Italy the importance of holy religion is increasingly diminished there is even less thought for public virtue than there was in, say, 1960.

Your Ryanair flight sounds truly awful! Did you travel with your iPod and headphones?

Bryan Townsend said...

Too bad you haven't been there; it would have been interesting to compare notes.

I don't want to come down too heavy on Ryanair. It was my first experience with them and they are a highly efficient budget airline. Everything is very organized. You can actually print out your boarding pass a week ahead. But, yes, there are no complimentary beverages or snacks or anything. You want it, you pay for it. And they are constantly flogging their merchandise.

I very rarely listen to anything on headphones--not sure why, I just don't really like it. And I didn't have my earpods with me!

Marc Puckett said...

Bought headphones not all that long ago, early this year perhaps, to replace the use of earbuds; the sound quality is superior to the buds I have but I can't stand to wear them for very long at a time unless I really am sitting still-- the physical feel of them over my ears and head becomes obnoxious-- and even then after twenty minutes I'm done so they've been relegated to the back of the closet where the cassette player and VCR are entombed.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's what they're called: earbuds! At home I have a really nice set of headphones from AKG but I almost never use them. I don't like the feel on my ears, except for brief periods.

Craig said...

Naturally I'll not contest your impressions of Bologna -- which I have "visited" only briefly, from the window of a train, in the middle of the night -- but it pains me to hear that you'd disdain to visit Italy again! Don't give up on il bel paese so easily.

Spain is lovely, of course, and I've enjoyed myself in Galicia, Barcelona, Madrid, and Sevilla, but for history, art, and religion there's nowhere like Italy to dazzle, delight, and instruct.

I've been very much enjoying these posts on your travels.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm sure you know how I rely on my commentators to correct me when I go astray! I have spent several weeks in Italy, playing concerts, but it was many years ago. I had left with a fine impression of Italy, so I was surprised at how many things in Bologna I found disappointing. So yes, I really should not base too much on one experience.

Will Wilkin said...

Thanks for your ongoing traveler's impressions. They are fun, the only vacation I can afford right now, and happily infused with the perspective of a serious musician with a sense of history.

Bryan Townsend said...

You are very welcome! When people comment on my posts, that is what makes it worth while.

Ricardo Quintas said...

Hi Brian,
When you mention "One has only to realize that Spain was the first global empire with many jealous European rivals to understand the source and motivation"... ahem, actually it was Portugal. :o)

Always a pleasure reading your posts.

Ricardo. Lisbon|Portugal

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much, Ricardo! I found the link you sent reminded me of lots of people and voyages I had nearly forgotten. Yes, the Portuguese were very important. I suspect we underrate the global reach of the Dutch as well...