Category: Tourism

Witches Brew: Machiavelli, Tarkovsky, Cefalù, Aleister Crowley, and Aci Trezza, an article by David Garyan

August 16th, 2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

Outtakes, Deleted Scenes, and Bonus Footage

Witches Brew: Machiavelli, Tarkovsky, Cefalù, Aleister Crowley, and Aci Trezza

In Chapter 18 of The Prince, Machiavelli wrote the following: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are,” which, in the author’s sense, means that a ruler should strive for virtue if the circumstances allow it, yet, at the same time, be prepared to act in a completely opposite way when another situation demands immoral behavior; this foxlike cunning is what Machiavelli described as the oft-misunderstood concept of virtù—translated as virtue in English, which incorrectly conveys the traditional overtones of moral goodness. In reality, virtù was Machiavelli’s way of emphasizing the wide spectrum of personalities that a good prince should have, all of which would allow him to keep order in his domain and by extension continue maintaining power there. For our purposes, however, I would like to interpret this particular quote in a different way, using the sentence before it (“men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you”) as a guiding point for departing on a different course of discussion; again, the meaning is ambiguous, as it connotes both light and dark—no one can touch me in the sense of absolute power, and, likewise, it’s been so long since I’ve been touched in terms of love or even artistic inspiration.

For a fleeting moment, I’d like to see Machiavelli from the perspective of creativity and affection (towards someone or something) because that’s where life really starts for people and how this journey through Italy began for my brother and I in the first place. From Ravenna, we left our apartment in a total mess and departed on a two-week tour throughout the mainland and Sicily. In all, we covered a total of 2,000 km on land, sea, and air, using all the modes of transportation in the process—an automobile, ferry, plane, and lots of trains. In this sense, I’d like to think that after having spent a total of one year here, I’ve come a bit closer to really knowing what this country really looks like, who its people actually are, and what its character is all about.

I’ve touched and been touched by everything I’ve seen during the past two weeks on the road and this intimate contact has made me realize that I do want to stay—that I do love this country despite the challenges I’ve faced and will continue to face. What I’d like to do, thus, is offer a different glimpse into this beautiful, yet complicated place—the hidden features that not many will see or even know about. By extension, there’s really no way to recreate the rush one feels upon encountering a great city for the first time—its impressive culture that everyone knows about; this article, however, will not discuss the Roman Forum, Colosseum, or carbonara; there’ll be no insights into Pompeii (a grand archaeological site overrun by tourists); in terms of Sicily, it’s equally pointless to discuss the Palermo Cathedral, its amazing castles, cannoli, or even arancini because those are things everybody experiences without really feeling the island’s true essence, so to speak; indeed, I saw and tasted all of those aforementioned sights and foods within their respective regions; nevertheless, I learned more about myself and Italians by closing my eyes and seeing with my hands, rather than witnessing everything from a distance.

Unlike Machiavelli, who was deliberately exiled—neither too close nor too far from his beloved Florence (on any sunny day he could’ve seen Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome)—I came to Italy out of my own volition. I arrived with the romantic idea that life would be “easier” here, that I would at last escape the insanity of Los Angeles, and finally find some peace and quiet; it must be said that I both knew and didn’t know that things never turn out that way, that people who move for precisely those reasons never fail in finding other difficulties to preoccupy themselves with, and, invariably, the need to escape them always returns. Upon entering the room in which Machiavelli wrote his most famous work, I felt relieved that exile wasn’t my own fate, that I didn’t have to write a work dedicated to someone who belonged to a family that was responsible for sending me to a place from where I would rarely fail to see the object of my affection—from a distance, always from a distance, never having the opportunity to touch what I so loved.

It’s by this window, in a little town called Sant’Andrea in Percussina, that Machiavelli wrote The Prince with the aim of getting himself out of banishment, attempting to curry favor with the family who had driven him out by dedicating the work “To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici.” Eventually, Machiavelli did return to Florence and died in the arms of his treasured city.

The benevolent fate of perishing on home soil wouldn’t grace Andrei Tarkovsky, considered the greatest Russian filmmaker of all time. Having made his first five films in the Soviet Union, the avant-garde director became increasingly unsatisfied with the repressive atmosphere of Soviet censorship, which began to take a toll on him until finally in 1979, after authorities stopped one of his projects midway during filming, Tarkovsky abandoned the project and traveled to Italy in search of more creative freedom; it’s here where he made perhaps his best movie, Nostalghia, released in 1983.

Unlike Machiavelli, Tarkovsky never returned to his home country, despite the fact that he likewise attempted to portray himself as a man who didn’t have a problem with the people who ultimately did everything in their power to alienate him from his own people. According to a NY Times obituary, when Soviet authorities refused to grant him permanent stay in Italy, Tarkovsky renounced his homeland’s citizenship—still, he stated the following: “I am not a Soviet dissident. I have no conflict with the Soviet Government.” Nevertheless, as Peter Wagstaff writes in Border Crossings, “Tarkovski encountered fierce resistance within the Soviet film establishment, even to the extent that in Cannes in 1983 Sergei Bondarchuk, the head of the Soviet delegation, actively (and successfully) campaigned against the award of the Palme d’Or to Nostalghia.” The great director died of lung cancer in Paris at the age of 54 and it’s long been suspected that he didn’t, in fact, die of natural causes but that his disease was really a product of poisoning which occurred during the filming of Stalker.

Anatoly Solonitsyn, an actor who appeared in many Tarkovsky movies, along with the director’s own wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, died of the same cancer. Tarkovsky’s sound designer at the time, Vladimir Sharun stated the following in an interview: “We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Piliteh with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larissa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.” Coincidence? Maybe. Let’s not get into that, however. Life is life.

Tarkovsky continues to be a major influence on not only avant-garde cinema but movies in general. My brother and I were lucky, thus, that by pure chance, on our way up to Piazzale Michelangelo, we spotted the director’s former residence on a somewhat quiet Florentine street. The plaque was quite high above the door but still big enough for me to get a decent picture. Standing there for a considerable amount of time, it proved difficult not to contemplate what the director must have done and felt walking around his neighborhood.

In eerie Tarkovskian fashion, his name was still on the door and we thought about ringing the bell and asking for a moment of the good director’s time, but for some reason we decided against this and let him enjoy his self-imposed exile without any disturbances from fellow countrymen.

After all, it’s enough for a great filmmaker to be seeking asylum in a foreign land only to end up in a Latina refugee camp. In a documentary about the approximately 80,000 refugees who were housed in the so-called “Rossi Longhi” center, Italian journalist Emanuela Gasbarroni uncovered a document which proves that Tarkovsky did, in fact, pass through there—a fact perhaps “forgotten” by biographers. Even the memories associated with the camp, according to the la Repubblica article, are something that authorities are trying to remove from people’s recollections. Damnatio memoriae is clearly affecting not just Tarkovsky but all others who’ve had to endure self-imposed exile or forced migration.

Tarkovsky fled Russia because of censorship and a stifling creative atmosphere. Generally speaking, it’s not a surprise that those in power are rarely comfortable with views that challenge their own dominance; what’s more interesting, however, is the so-called woke phenomenon which is currently sweeping across the US and also all over social media. Anything challenging the current dominant liberal stance is met with illiberal liberal denunciation—you know, cancel culture. The way it’s very easy for parents to love children who always behave and do what they’re told, so it’s very convenient to “tolerate” and “encourage” speech that satisfies the agenda of the dominant political class. There’s no freedom of expression anymore if you’re only free to support the status quo and to dissent even the way a ruling class sees appropriate. In one sense, contemporary American activists, for example, have achieved a lot in “exiling” the Confederate legacy from its historical homeland; on the other hand, this process has led to a type of intolerance rarely seen in a country like the USA.

Today, even small amounts of “unsanctioned” disagreements can led to being ostracized, along with loss of employment and status. By no means does this argument serve as an excuse for people to say what they wish—that’s not freedom of speech. Indeed, controversial comments should be protected, but when they have no merit or intellectual value—when they’re simply made to inflict pain, people who live by utilitarian principles of maximizing society’s happiness should invariably recognize these comments as pain, instead of “speech.” In his article “Worlds Apart: Reconciling Freedom of Speech and Equality,” UC Berkeley professor John A. Powell distinguishes which kind of controversial speech is acceptable and which is not: “Assaultive racist speech functions as a preemptive strike. The racial invective is experienced as a blow, not a proffered idea, and once the blow is struck, it is unlikely that dialogue will follow. Racial insults are undeserving of first amendment protection because the perpetrator’s intention is not to discover truth or initiate dialogue but to injure the victim.” Walking the streets of Rome, I was confronted with the very challenge Powell highlights. Take a look at this photo taken not far from the Colosseum. Tell me: Does it offend you?

In the US, such an establishment would probably have already been burned down, but would that have served the First Amendment’s interests or gone against its core values? I’m really not sure at this point, but I think we have to do a better job in confronting the past, and by confronting it I mean something akin to carefully removing the poisonous plants within a forest, not simply writing off the entire organism by uprooting every tree just because that particular environment has produced harmful substances within a place that ultimately represents something bigger than the considerable problems it simultaneously constitutes. Although I was startled when I first saw it, ultimately, I’m now okay with this particular establishment and also business concept in general, precisely because as a US citizen I value freedom of speech; furthermore, in this case, I don’t think the messages or depictions are meant to assault anyone. These are a series of dictator wines and among the detestable Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin varieties, there also appear Che Guevara, Lenin, Marx, and Churchill—figures who are far more complex than the previous three, meaning their intellectual pursuits and achievements make it harder to fit them neatly inside the classic dictator archetype.

In reality, it’s not necessarily about despots, repression, liberalism, freedom, or even the difference between Europe and the US; what it’s really about is the human tendency to see everything foreign, mystical, and strange as a threat. Even the most liberal people or countries will seek to avoid that which disturbs the harmony of their environment.

Nowhere in Sicily did this become more apparent when Mussolini, in 1923, told Aleister Crowley—the infamous occultist and poet—to leave the city of Cefalù. Crowley was a controversial figure in the early twentieth century, claiming that he was the prophet of a new age called the Aeon of Horus. He developed the religious philosophy of Thelema after experiencing a vision in 1904; supposedly an entity called Aiwass had contacted Crowley in Egypt and dictated the text known as The Book of the Law, which would go on to serve as the foundational ideology for the entire belief system. One of the core principles of this religion can be seen in the following picture I took inside the abbey.

After renting the house, Crowley was known to have driven the landlords crazy by painting murals on the walls and supposedly some of the graffiti is original, but I have my doubts about the latter point; locals would’ve probably whitewashed everything shortly after Crowley left; the reason for this is precisely because he believed that people had a so-called True Will which was unique to them and it was their duty to follow it; hence, like stars, which occupy both a distinct time and space in the universe, Crowley believed that humans too were both dependent and independent of time—that they were part of the universe yet possessed a path and destiny which was unique to them. Yeah, kind of crazy, to be honest, which is why I was so interested in seeing this place. I mean look at the alien behind me.

Crowley was a notorious drug user and hedonist in general. Locals didn’t take kindly to his presence and his reputation certainly preceded him. The infamy surrounding the man reached such an extent that even the well-known Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia wrote a story about him called “Apocrifi sul caso Crowley.” The work is in a form of letters exchanged between Mussolini himself, a general, and the commissioner of Cefalù. With my rather limited Italian and some help from Google Translate, I realized the story is written in a satiric tone and probably for good reason, given how flamboyant Crowley was—it wouldn’t be wrong to think of him as the twentieth century Oscar Wilde, one that also thought he was a prophet, however. As the pictures show, the abbey is in complete ruin and locals couldn’t care less about preserving it, which is a good thing because we really don’t need any more men (or women, in fact) believing they’re prophets.

Another reason the premise is best left in a state of disrepair is because it’s more interesting this way and also much harder to find. There’s nothing I love more than walking through ruins; this pursuit always demonstrates to me the frailty of human endeavors. In Ortygia, for example, I saw the Temple of Apollo, dating back to the sixth century before Christ; as I looked at what was left, it was clear to me that this was once an impressive structure but what was even more majestic was feeling the presence of time walking among the ruins, slowly picking up rocks and putting them into its bottomless pockets. Crowley’s abbey, on the other hand, is one hundred years old and looks worse than what the Greeks built so long ago. I think it’s, thus, safe to say whose legacy time is giving a much harder time when it comes to being removed from the face of the earth. There’s perhaps a greater amount of stone left at the Abbey of Thelema, but on any given day you’ll find more people admiring the Temple of Apollo, meaning the Greeks are still with us while Crowley has largely been forgotten.

Speaking of the Greeks, we can perfectly make the transition to Odysseus, the legendary king of Ithaca who fought in the Trojan War and was stranded at sea for over ten years before finally returning home. The first stop our great hero and his men made on their long journey home was in Sicily; in fact, one of the most important and recognizable events of the myth are said to have occurred in the town of Aci Trezza, about a twenty minute car ride from the hometown of my university classmate Emanuele and his sister Valentina, both of whom I consider very good friends. They were gracious enough to host my brother and I for the duration of our stay in the Catania region and also took us to Syracuse.

Meeting people like Emanuele and Valentina is a fortune filled with the greatest happiness and sadness—happiness because you’ve found genuine people in a world where it’s difficult to do that and sadness because it’s so difficult to find genuine people in a world where everyone is supposedly looking for happiness. Hence, it’s both very easy and very challenging to have friends like Emanuele and Valentina—easy because they’re the most understanding and generous people in the world and challenging because you don’t want to do anything that will upset them, making you second-guess every action and emotion; in fact, a funny thing related to what I’m speaking about happened the morning my brother and I were supposed to fly out of Catania. While sitting in the courtyard of their house having breakfast, enjoying a cake their mom had prepared for us, I tried making a little jest to show how good it was by telling them I wanted to take the whole thing with me; they thought I was being serious and started wrapping it for me; immediately I told them this wasn’t necessary, and we all had a good laugh about the matter.

Nevertheless, having said all that, the cake still ended up flying from Catania to Bologna because Valentina packed it for her boyfriend and then forgot to take it out of the car before our farewells—in these circumstances Emanuele drove us to the airport; on the way, I didn’t miss the opportunity to tell him I was putting it in my bag, and, in fact, I’m eating the cake right now as I write this article; indeed, life is really all about that—misunderstandings that lead to understanding; confusion that leads to clarity; missed opportunities that bring new opportunities and sometimes these revelations also work the other way around, meaning not in your favor. In the end, however, I think I should accept that life is beautiful and every second of it is worth living, even when nothing makes sense and it seems like the whole world was designed to work against you. Maybe this is what we were all thinking here after having climbed up to the dome of Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata in Catania. Maybe we’re no longer seeing with our eyes but looking at the world the way it really is—perhaps even coming so close as to touch it.


(Photo by Valentina Ventura)

Let’s return, however, to Odysseus and the town of Aci Trezza; as Emanuele told me, not only is it the city where Giovanni Verga‘s novel I Malavoglia is set, but there are a number of places which begin with Aci in Sicily; it goes back to the Ancient Greek myth of Acis, a mortal, and Galatea, a sea nymph. When the Cyclops Polyphemus (yes, the same one who traps Odysseus) becomes jealous of their love, he kills Acis; in her grief, Galatea transforms the object of her affection into an immortal river spirit; it’s thus in the town of Aci Trezza that Odysseus runs into Polyphemus. The Matterhorn-shaped rock I captured in this image (there are about three or four in the vicinity) is supposed to be one of the stones which that angry Cyclops threw at Odysseus after he escaped the cave and began taunting the giant; locals call them faraglioni dei Ciclopi.

Unlike Odysseus, however, we left the island on better terms with Polyphemus. We finished our last day in Sicily by eating granita e brioche catanese at Gran Cafè Solaire, one of the best spots in the area for it and afterwards Emanuele drove us to the airport. Now back in Ravenna, I already miss Sicily; as with everything good, I feel both happy and sad—happy because I know that I’ll be back and sad because I don’t know when. Sabbinirica, my friends.


(Photo by Valentina Ventura)

Here’s to Sicily and I hope to see you soon, but why write anything else when pictures have invented an alphabet you don’t have to learn how to read?

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

Witches Brew: Outtakes, Deleted Scenes, and Bonus Footage

August 16th, 2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

Machiavelli, Tarkovsky, Cefalù, Aleister Crowley, and Aci Trezza

Witches Brew: Outtakes, Deleted Scenes, and Bonus Footage

Practically having traversed Italy from top to bottom, I feel like it’s a good idea to add some material which didn’t make the cut, so to speak, for whatever reasons. For the most part, I was intending to use these shots but they either didn’t come out right or it was difficult to incorporate them without disrupting the flow of the article; also, however, there are a few pictures here that are meant purely for comical purposes, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide which images belong in what category.

Machiavelli’s kitchen: Because even princes and those who write about them need to eat.

 

Machiavelli’s garden: From here he could see the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore—the Medicis knew how to punish.

 

Parco dei Ravennati: No, this park isn’t located in Ravenna, but in Rome; in fact, it’s not even located in Rome proper but close to the ancient port of Ostia Antica.

 

Via San Gregorio Armeno: Also informally referred to as the street of nativity due to its famous Christmas market, but it wasn’t Christmas in Naples—it happened to be August and it was pretty hot; good thing we went at night when the sun was taking a nap. According to the country’s official tourism agency, out of all the Christmas markets in Italy, this is the one you shouldn’t miss. I guess we didn’t miss it—we just came at the wrong time.

 

Lucius’s House: I have a new property in escrow and you know what they say about real estate—location, location, location; that’s why I chose Pompeii. As you can see, I get the finest views of Vesuvius and you always receive the best deal on lava in these parts. The only problem is that I can’t pinpoint the previous owner—was it, in fact, Lucius? No, I think it was Marcus, but then again it could’ve been Maximus. Who knows? Getting the contract done on this baby is going to be tough.

 

Pope John Paul II: In Messina I finally got to meet a bona fide pope and this miraculous occasion didn’t even make it into the article.

 

Mexican-Palermitan horse: The driver only speaks Italian but the horse is B1 in Palermitano. All jokes aside, Sicilian is considered a so-called “vulnerable” language by UNESCO. Likewise according to a 2008 study cited by the Endangered Language Institute (ELA), “only a third of the population will speak Sicilian at the end of the 21st century.” Sicilian is different enough from Italian to be considered its own language; in fact, it would be more correct to say that Sicilian itself has dialects of its own as there are even notable differences between the way people speak it in Catania and Palermo, for example; the language, however, is slowly losing its uniqueness because of “increasing pressure from standard Italian.” Along those same lines, according to National Geographic, “One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish. What is lost when a language goes silent?” The lesson here: Stop learning English and study some Sicilian, and this is coming from a guy who’s wearing a t-shirt from the English language school he works at—almost in every photo.

 

Spiaggia Pineta del Gelsomineto: Cliff diving videos are always fun, especially when you don’t know if things went well afterwards, or not. Judging by the fact that I’ve completed this article, however, it’s safe to assume that everything turned out all right—but then again, this whole thing could’ve been ghostwritten. How is a prankster like me familiar with UNESCO and endangered languages anyway? Again, I’ll let you be the judge regarding the veracity of this article’s authorship.

 

Catacombe dei Cappuccini: Too many skulls for Hamlet, but let’s try it anyways.

“Where are your jokes now? Your pranks? Your songs? Your flashes of wit that used to set the whole table laughing? You don’t make anybody smile now. Are you sad about that? You need to go to my lady’s room and tell her that no matter how much makeup she slathers on, she’ll end up just like you some day. That’ll make her laugh. Horatio, tell me something.”
Hamlet, Act V: Scene I

And so, our Italian adventure ends on a very cheerful note. It’s always nice to know the world is both full of meaning and no meaning at all—somewhere, in the back of my mind, I distinctly remember something about being or not being, staying or going; maybe Hamlet himself said this or could it have been The Clash? “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,”—for God’s sake, let’s not get into that right now. I neither have the time nor the patience.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

“OVID-47,” an article by David Garyan

OVID-47

March 7th, 2020
Trento, Italy

 

Call me insensitive, but I believe the coronavirus neither constitutes an emergency nor poses greater safety risks than the ones people have already been dealing with their entire lives. Consider this scenario: An inventor approaches you and says that he has come up with a revolutionary machine that will completely change the way people live; it will improve their lives to such an extent that almost every single person on earth will have such an apparatus. The only drawback of this invention is that it will kill over three thousand people every day; it will become perhaps the biggest pollutant of the environment and require a global annual budget of over five hundred billion dollars in peripheral expenses alone to cover the damage it causes.

What do you say to this inventor? Is he or she out of their mind? What kind of machine are we talking about here? Tesla’s death ray? Not exactly. Perhaps the more level-headed, rational reader will have by now realized that such a machine as the one described already exists and has been in use for over one hundred years.

Of course, we are talking about the automobile. Every day, an average of one thousand people under the age of twenty-five are killed on the world’s roads, yet people make no fuss about this. They calmly walk out of their homes every single day ready to face this challenge—some people, God have mercy on them—even continue to drive; honestly, I find all of this rather puzzling. Where are the companies trying to sell military grade helmets to drivers at insane prices? “If your airbag fails, rest assured that this titanium helmet will keep you safe—fully breathable comfort-fitting cotton polyester fiber on the inside assures total user satisfaction. Also works for pedestrians who do not drive for safety reasons but are in danger of being hit directly by a car as a result. Helmet comes in black and also black. Order now and receive a free bottle of hand sanitizer. Must take delivery by Sunday.” Why does this sound strange?

Furthermore, why are there reports put out in the US by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that give all kinds of statistics about vehicular fatalities, but not a single mention of how perhaps you should avoid driving a car altogether? Never in a million years, as they say.

Thus far there have been a total of 197 fatalities related to the coronavirus in Italy—that is over a period of roughly one month; however, the US State Department has for some reason or other deemed it wise to post travel advisory warnings urging their citizens not to conduct unnecessary travel to Italy at this time. In that case, why take halfway measures? Why not go all the way and solve this problem the way it should really be solved? The official memo from the State Department about avoiding Italy reads as follows—not: Traveling itself is quite out of the question, given the danger that flying involves—you are after all 40,000 feet in the air and should anything go wrong, even a cure for the coronavirus is not going to help anymore. All citizens are strongly advised to remain at home and contact their nearest Italian Embassy in the US to demand an immediate cure for the coronavirus.

In no way is this an attempt to minimize the problem. The tragedies which have beset people affected by this virus are certainly real and ever-present: 197 people are after all 197 people, and the fatalities will not stop today; this is just talking about Italy. However, is the coronavirus really the biggest problem facing our world today? In a world full of gun violence, hate crimes, environmental pollution, inhumanity against women, and the plethora of other problems that deserve a little more hysteria, it is coronavirus—the new kid in town no one can get enough of—that is getting all the attention. Why?

Really, this is not surprising. We live in a world which has no problem believing the fear-mongering frenzy of companies making huge money off medical masks but cannot come to grips with an ounce of hysteria coming from a seventeen year old climate change activist speaking at the UN—about issues which will require far greater “cures” and “solutions” to ensure that the future generation will inherit a livable world. Only the distant future is apparently too much to handle for some people. What happens tomorrow is more important.

But let us forget the world and its sentimental problems for a while. Let us talk about something else. For years, US families have campaigned on behalf of victims affected by gun violence for more stringent weapons laws—with little or no success. Even after El Paso and Dayton last year, there simply has not been much progress, which leads to the following question: Who is doing more—Italy about the coronavirus or the US about guns? Unlike automobiles, weapons are not essential, yet they too kill roughly as many people per year in the US as automobiles do, around thirty-five to forty thousand a year, which equals to about one hundred people a day, according to the Giffords Law Center. At 197 deaths over the span of roughly one month, Italy has the highest death toll in Europe related to the coronavirus, yet in a matter of weeks, lawmakers have taken decisive action to close schools and universities. What has the US done about its gun problem which kills far greater amounts of people every day? Pretty much nothing, you might assert.

Nevertheless, people will say this is a matter of apples and oranges—coronavirus versus gun violence; they are two different things. You can close schools for the former but not the latter; perhaps, but that is not really the point. Only two words are really needed: New Zealand. When on March 15th, an assailant targeted two mosques during Friday prayers, killing fifty-one people and wounding another forty-nine, lawmakers wasted no time: Within less than a week the prime minister of New Zealand put in a proposal to ban semi-automatic weapons. Only two weeks later, a formal introduction of the bill occurred. Twenty-six days after shooting, the bill passed by a vote of 125 to 1.

Compare that to the track record of the US: Within 5 weeks of the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama signed twenty-three executive orders and made twelve congressional proposals regarding weapons. Consequently, the US Senate voted on the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013; it failed to pass by a vote of 40 to 60. Additionally, the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, which was supposed to improve background checks for gun sales also failed to pass by a vote of 54 to 46.

What conclusion can we draw from this? There is a fundamental difference in the way which the US interprets freedoms and safety, compared to the rest of the world. In other words, the freedom to have a gun is more important than bona fide safety even if that very freedom inhibits another person’s freedom to live a safe life.

Nevertheless, people in the US still leave their homes every day, living ordinary lives and tourists still flock to the country in great numbers. There is very little alarm. The market for bulletproof vests is still quite small—although the guns themselves (the things which cause the actual danger) are being sold at record rates.

Vinay Lal, noted UCLA scholar wrote the following on his blog the day after the Route 91 Harvest shooting in Las Vegas, “There is no other country in the world which has such a troubled relationship with violence, beginning with the genocidal impulse that swallowed up a continent and its indigenous peoples.” That the day after, which is always the most difficult time for a country dealing with tragedies like this, also coincided with the International Day of Non-Violence was perhaps prophetic; however, on this occasion as well, the US missed another opportunity to do something more meaningful about its gun problem besides just infecting the public with endless hashtags of solidarity and spreading empty displays of consolation by the public at large; Lal, naturally, wasted no time pointing this out while the public continued riding the bandwagon of good fellowship, which is what it usually does when confronting big issues. On that note, I must ask why National Gun Violence Awareness Day is only observed on June 2nd when more than a hundred people die every day in weapons-related deaths?

Excuse me, but I digress. Full stop. Somewhere we seem to have gone off track. Ah, yes, we were talking about the coronavirus. What the above really confirms is how much more Italy is doing to combat the coronavirus compared to the US’s efforts on guns. Maybe New Zealanders can blame Italy for its slow response to the virus, but not the land of the free.

Speaking of the country which many love to call the greatest in the world, let us talk about climate change and pollution. As a US citizen, I am not proud of the fact that my nation is the second biggest polluter after China, where the coronavirus originated. When I lived in Los Angeles, my city had the dubious honor of having the nation’s worst air quality and this is still true today. According to Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, in 2017 there were 145 days in which the smog reached such high levels that it became unhealthy for everyone; likewise, in 2018 the air quality violated federal standards for 87 days in a row; however, very few people in LA actually care about this because the media rarely reports it and even if they did on regular occasion, no one would be crazy enough to leave a great American city like LA, just like very few smokers in Europe gave up cigarettes when governments put the bigger warning labels on the packs. Smoking can cause a slow and painful death but so can smoking the air of Los Angeles.

According to the CDC, cigarettes kill approximately 1300 people per day in the US and unlike the coronavirus, cigarettes do not transmit diseases for free—you must pay for them, on average seven dollars per pack, unless, of course, you are fortunate enough to be standing next to a smoker who might give you some of the diseases at no charge. Although cigarette consumption has been on the decline in the US for years, with many restaurants and college campuses (such as my alma mater CSULB and CSUN) choosing to ban smoking altogether on their premises, Italy is a different story. It is not uncommon for many high school students to smoke, even on school grounds, where it is allowed.

So, why do individuals still smoke? Because they like it; because it is about living; because it is what they want to do. The dangers associated with smoking do not interfere—at least in the smokers’ minds—with the lives they want to lead. Call it reckless or call it human nature, but either the lack of hysteria with regard to smoking is wrong, or the excessive concern related to coronavirus makes no sense; it has to be either one or the other, but maybe it is both.

Having lived in the US but now studying at the University of Bologna (located in the Emilia-Romagna region, one of the areas most affected by the virus), I can honestly say that I feel much safer here despite knowing the virus is spreading and will continue to do so for a while; in the US, the thought of becoming a gun violence victim was always in the back of my mind. The daughters of my next-door neighbor almost did become a statistic at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, where fifty-eight people died; luckily, they survived. Incidents like this have become so common in the US that to be hysterical about them no longer makes any sense. In fact, surviving a mass shooting is almost seen as an initiation ritual into the culture of the greatest country in the world—something to take pride in, if you will. Otherwise, what is the point of stickers like these, which I have seen myself on a few cars while still living in the US? Besides stickers, other merchandise such as clothing and flags exist for survivors to buy and display proudly—all in the spirit of the free market.

So, ultimately, it may sound a little crude but it bears saying: You can cure the coronavirus but you cannot cure a bullet to the head. The world, unfortunately, is a dangerous place; it has always been that way—from the beginning when we were cavemen to the time of civilized society. Nothing has really changed. We are safer because we have more ways to protect ourselves from the wilderness today. At the same time, the modern world has brought dangers which are far greater than saber-toothed tigers and jaguars; it is clear, then, that we have the same uncertain relationship with our dangers as cavemen had with theirs.

Two wrongs do not make a right, but when the third wrong comes along and claims to be the only fault in existence, we should perhaps take the time to stop and reevaluate the world we are living in; coronavirus is that third wrong, but it has not made the world that much more dangerous than it already was before.

“I’m not scared of Covid-19,” writes Abdu Sharkawy, a Canadian Infectious Disease Specialist with more than twenty years experience. “I am scared that travel restrictions will become so far reaching that weddings will be canceled, graduations missed and family reunions will not materialize,” Sharkawy adds.

Indeed, the show must go on, if you will; there is neither a life prolonged enough nor a patience which has sufficient discipline to wait for the end of danger. Yes, by all means, look both ways before you cross the road but do not hesitate too long when the road is totally clear—the moment is short; for God’s sake, do go ahead and cross when the opportunity presents itself, no matter how dangerous people say that particular road is.

I have lived my life precisely with that philosophy and it is the reason why I am still here in Italy, refusing to seek refuge in the US, where I know—despite the fewer cases of coronavirus—I will be no safer from the world than in Emilia-Romagna. I think caution is the only sensible option in life, not hysteria. Currently, I am enjoying the mountain air of Trento and my lungs are happy about that. As Ovid said in Metamorphoses: “You will go most safely by the middle way.” The wine in this country is as good as before and the history is still here. Come over, but do not forget to look both ways before crossing. Italy is waiting.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.