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Sequined Vermin of Iniquity

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Jul. 8th, 2005 @ 09:43 am

I know my weblog was meant to be off-air. But having lived through the day of horror that yesterday struck London, I thought I might put up a few thoughts, scraps of emotion left over from a day twisted out of its normal shape.

First, briefly, what happened to me, a story that is really of minor interest, since I was quite safe all day long. I live at Kings Cross, so obviously I take the tube from there every morning. For no particular reason, I was being slower than usual in my morning routines yesterday, and only left the house around 8:55. I would normally have taken the Piccadilly tube to Piccadilly around 8:40. As far as I know, I wouldn't have been in danger even then, because the Piccadilly line hit was the northbound one, and I take the southbound train in the morning. By the time I got to Kings Cross, however, police told us not to enter, as a "power surge" had closed down the station. Scoffing at this as any London commuter would, I decided to walk to Euston, and take the tube from there. It must have been one of the last ones.

Only at work did I start to piece together what was happening. News of more power surges and "bangs" (wonderfully understated) came slowly in, and then internal emails from security told us to stay inside and avoid buses, as the police knew there were bombs on them.

The day never really started. The little work I did was overshadowed by the constant checking of websites, the phone calls, and text messages. At about 2 o'clock we were told we could leave. Shortly afterwards we were told it was better if we left, in order to help in staggering the homewards journey of so many Londoners, and to avoid any security risks around the 5 pm rush-hour.

Office men and women, ties off, in that universally recognisable symbol of daily completion of one's work-chores, filled the pavements, together with tourists clutching suitcases; the modalities of pedestrian traffic seemed to operate as normal despite the fact that there were few, if any cars on the street. Without a map, walking home to Kings Cross was a fuzzy affair; I tried to keep at a north-easterly course most of the time, but had to make several corrections as I ran into a number of closed-off streets; at one point I walked by the now-fateful area of Russell Square suppressing a horrid curiosity, making myself get away from the site.

I found my neighbourhood transformed. Camera crews everywhere, NBC even on my street, thousands of people, in their long march home, converging on the knot of main roads around Kings Cross in bizarre imitation of the car traffic that would usually fill the area. Every two or three minutes, sirens blaring down Caledonian Road around the corner. Helicopters occasionally flying over head. As Ian McEwan puts it, very elegantly, in today's Guardian, "the machinery of state, a great Leviathan, certain of its authority, moved with balletic coordination".

The well-rehearsed script of my routines was now suddenly splattered with blood and horror. Names which before only resonated as tube stops, perhaps on the way to work, were now synonyms of disaster. And yet it still felt as if it couldn't be - Russell Square, Tavistock Square - in my mind they will always be associated with the discreet elegance of Bloomsbury, its vaguely academic tranquillity.

The tube map, so simple and so appealing, with its joyful web of colour, guide and teacher of every travelling Londoner, had been ripped off its pedestal and was now being mutilated on TV screens with horrible graphics and notes, overwritten by the graffiti of terror. Again, an unreality to it.

Perhaps this refusal to really fathom what was going on was a good sign. I saw it in the sober, and quiet faces of most people walking home, or even sitting in the pub yesterday evening. A tranquil, yet powerful, confidence. An awareness of being part of a thriving, vital organ - London - in a throbbing, growing, confident organism - this country? our civilization? - which would ultimately look back on these attacks as little pinpricks, or insect-bites. Pathetic in their pretension, their effect ultimately small and ridiculous.

Update - here is the link to my three minutes of journalistic fame:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/07/AR2005070702176.html

One last update... Jun. 11th, 2005 @ 12:43 am
... and then we say goodbye. It is with sadness that I announce the imminent end (at least for now) of Sequined vermin of iniquity. The weblog experiment was interesting, fun and certainly a fantastic way to pester friends, but the time has come to call it a day. Not that I don't have stuff to write, but I suppose this weblog has become a victim of its writer's usual lack of constancy in projects. But rather than let it die ignominiously into the ether, I thought I might close it off properly. I don't have the time, energy, or enthusiasm to really update it properly anymore, and I find it an oddly limiting format in which to write anyway.

That is not to say this will be my last weblog though; I might revive a more policy wonky weblog some time this summer. We'll see.

In any case, from London, this is ajapanizedblur. Good night.


THE END

Election fever in Bologna... Apr. 27th, 2005 @ 11:43 pm

... there's never an election too far away to keep up the excitement of a nerdy political science grad student. After the excitement of the Papal Conclave has ebbed away, we now have the Bologna Center Representative Elections. The two lucky BC Reps will get to represent all of the ex-Bologna students when we move en masse to DC next year... and I'm one of the candidates!

One of my campaign worker minions has sent out this modest endorsement:

"By the way I would also like to discretely emphasize that Ruben Diaz-Plaja
is simply too good to be true!!

Having known him for countless months, I can assure you of his ability to
honorably represent your voice as the BC rep.

- Ruben is the epitome of integrity, a man that does not fear to stand up
for his ideas. During one of our numerous trips around the world, in
Sarajevo to be more precise, I recall him fearlessly dismissing any
compromise before being snowballed to death for having used all the
available hot water at our hotel.
- His near-chameleon adaptation skills guarantee that he will accurately
voice and defend your ideas in the most effective fashion. Anyone who
remembers him dressed as a cardinal for Halloween can testify of his
amazingly fast assimilation of Italian culture.
- Ruben has 2 first and 2 last names. This implies that by voting for Ruben
you get two representatives for the price of one! A lifelong opportunity I
would not miss and I am sure you wouldn't either.
- For having played at Diplomacy with him, I can assure you Ruben is immune
to any form of clientelism and favoritism. What better proof than the fact
he backstabbed me after 4 successful rounds of alliance against Russia!
- He put his outstanding organization skills at your service during the
whole first semester as he worked behind the counter in the library to make
sure your beloved Trade theory textbook would be delivered to you on time.
- Last but not least, Ruben is taller than Doina, elegant and his tremendous
British accent multiplicates the chances his advises will be considered
thoroughly and followed by his interlocutors.

Ruben is the single person I would trust my life to if we were in a North
Korean prisoners camp on the verge of a nuclear strike or in the streets of
a village under Al Qaeda control, wrapped in a star-and-stripes flag for
only garment and chained to a an electronic loudspeaker perpetually spitting
insults at Bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

Trust me, being a BC rep is a tough job, only comparable to hitchhiking
without your thumbs or cleaning piazza Aldrovandi with a second-hand
toothbrush. And I cannot think of any better candidate than Ruben to do so.

Join me in preparing the future of the Bologna Center: vote Ruben DP!"

If that shouldn't seal it?


Alles Waltzer, und viel Vergnuegen! Apr. 24th, 2005 @ 03:44 pm

(or, all waltzes, and much fun) - thus began last night's annual Austrian Ball at SAIS Bologna, and indeed it did live up to the welcoming wish. Being the enthusiastic joiner that I am, I was part of the opening quadrille line, which kinda looks a bit like this:

Or perhaps less kitschy. The waltzing went wonderfully, and people were rather more enthusiastic about it than I thought. I suppose if one makes the investment of putting on nice clothes and generally being all geared up for a formal evening, you're not really going to slink off into the room next door to dance to trance music (which was, bizarrely, the other music on offer last night). As a serial over-dresser, I was relieved to find that the standard of dress was quite high, with most men going for black tie or even military evening wear (for those of such a disposition); of course, my heavy, vintage-clothes store tails made an appearance. To my relief, I wasn't the only one in white tie at the ball. Anyway, I'll leave you with a nice picture of me waltzing away into the small hours of the morning:


Swiss Guards marching into Bologna? Apr. 20th, 2005 @ 12:39 am

It all started during my break from my IR class. I rushed out, to check whether there was any smoke - then my father called me to tell me that the chimney was indeed smoking, but that it was unclear. Went into class, whereupon the bells of a nearby church started to ring like mad. Tried to take notes, but kept on peeking at a friend's laptop, who was checking the news on the wireless (not the radio, the internet). At one point I thought, well heck, its not every day that a Pope is elected.

After much fiddling about with a defective TV in the basement with some other people who had escaped class, I decided to run out to a nearby bar; finding none with a TV that was watchable, I ran to a local hotel where I knew they had a TV - as I ran down the street, I could hear the words "Habemus Papam!!!" drifting out of a car - a few seconds later, I breathlessly told the receptionist I had to watch TV because they had elected a new Pope. He looked at me bizarrely (rightly so) but sort of complied, probably thinking "no sudden moves". At that point, I saw the grimacing, dark-eyed visage of Ratzinger appear on screen and my dad called again - "you know who it is, right?" he said, before the line dramatically went dead.

So, thus started my life under the reign of Benedict XVI, the 265th successor of St. Peter.

Of course, horror swirled around with the excitement of the moment. This is the one that wasn't meant to get it. This is the panzer cardinal, for heavens' sake! But he got it. Now what?

Well, life goes on somewhat. That's really it. The feeling is a bit like what I had on Nov. 3rd, last year - high hopes betrayed, etc, but ultimately, normal life has a pretty effective way of creeping back. Except that Benedict XVI will have even less influence on my life than President Bush.

On the other hand, this man might well be capable of acting to restore the Papal States. Expect those Swiss Guards marching into Bologna any time now.

Other entries
» A mysterious letter in my mailbox...

... was what I found at school today. To be more precise, it was a print out of an email sent by one of my professors to ex-Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara (of Vietnam War fame) regarding his accomodation arrangements in Bologna, since he will be visiting us this week. I do wonder why I was chosen to be privy to that information. Perhaps my professor wants me to go out to the hotel and meet him? Or perhaps its a secret signal that I should go and impersonate Robert MacNamara? I don't think I particularly look like him though:

In his heyday

Now.


» Coffee culture/ Names for Popes
An American friend of mine recently commented that he missed the big, frothy, sit-down-and-relax coffees that you get at American coffee outlets of a slightly modish variety (they shall remain nameless). I found it a funny illustration of how supposed cultural transplants or imports have unintended effects. In my mind, many of the coffee chains that have become popular in the US and northern Europe in the last 15 years market themselves as selling a lifestyle: the Continental, bohemian, joie-de-vivre culture of quality coffee, the coffee one sips while gazing into one's lovers eyes or while smoking a sensual Gauloise over Sartre. (not to overstate the case) Many of these coffee chains go so far as to give Italian and mock-Italian twists to their products.
The thing you realize when you live in Italy, however, is that this supposed coffee culture doesn't exist in Italy. While I thank all the Saints in heaven that I can drink as much excellent Italian coffee as I like here, the form and cultural ritual of it here preclude any kind of slow, meditative, or sensual drinking of it. Rather, the Italian way, as many of you will know, is to just nip into a "bar" (not a cafe!) and drink one's coffee standing up, quickly, at the bar. Furthermore, the actual size, even of cappucinos, makes it impossible to really stretch the experience out. There's a reason it's called espresso, people...
However, if these nameless coffee chains were worth their marketing salt, they should change their emphasis from Italian coffee to Viennese/Central European "kaffee-kultur", which is, in my opinion, the genuine article. Viennese cafes, with their rich, syrupy coffees, free broadsheet newspapers and literary journals, discreet waiters,  and elderly philosophers playing chess against retired civil servants are much closer to the ideal.
 
My thoughts on the papal goings-on are still being mulled on. However, I would like to set down my favourite choices for papal names, including correct numbering, in case any of the 117 Cardinals happens to be reading this at the moment:
1. Gregory XVII - has a wonderfully regal tone to it. Besides, one of the great reforming popes was a Gregory
2. John XXIV - I like the long numeral there. Also, obvious reforming connotations.
3. Sixtus VI - unlikely, but I like the idea of being Sixtus... the sixth! Especially in Latin (Sixtus sixtus)
4. Julius IV - has a nice Renaissance feel to it
5. Clement XV - its time for another Clement
6. Innocent XIV - same as for Clement. Although it is a bit too Popey.
7. Paul VII - Simple, but also has many resonances.

» A cheap update...
... just to show that I'm alive. When I got back late from the holidays, L thought that I was one of the 1.3 million queuing to see the Pope in state in Rome. Err.. no. Anyway, stay tuned for one of my more philosophical ramblings on the goings-on in Rome. For now, here's something to amuse you all. (All three of you, that is)

[a]ge: 22
[b]oyfriend/Girlfriend: nope
[c]areer in Future: Eminence grise, pulling the strings in Brussels/New York/the Vatican (delete as appopriate)
[d]ead person you would like to meet: my grandfather
[e]ssential item: an empty notebook, moleskin preferably
[f]avorite song at the moment: the one with all the beats and the uh... singing
[g]uys/girls you've kissed: please talk to my lawyer if you mention this again.
[h]ometown:spiritual hometown:edinburgh; legal: brussels; current: bologna
[i]nstruments you play: used to be able to play the recorder
[j]ob title: in current job, intern
[k]icks Ass: confused - whose donkey am I meant to kick?
[l]iving places: flat in the SAIS ghetto
[m]ost memorable moment of today: hearing a chinese student rant about Europeans being like children needing to prove themselves
[n]umber of people you've slept with: see above
[o]vernight hospital stays: thank God, none, knock wood
[p]hobias: having to answer one of these things again
[q]uote you like: In essential things, Unity, in doubtful things, liberty, but in all things, charity. (St. Augustine)
[r]elationship that lasted the longest: 4 months
[s]exuality: none of your business
[t]ime you wake up everyday: 7 nowadays
[u]nique trait(s):tall, slightly curvy eyebrows
[v]egetable you love:avocado - is that a vegetable?
[w]orst habit: i lose interest in things quickly
[x]-rays you've had: teeth, feet, etc
[y]ummy food you make: four cheese lasagna with spinach, bechamel sauce and pine nuts
[z]odiac sign: gemini, cancer according to some accounts
» The madness descends on Rome
I have just received a text message from the Italian Civil Protection authorities, advising me to take precautions if I am going to Rome for the Pope's Funeral, and to take public transport. They have set up a special radio station, dedicated to talking about Rome traffic and playing religious music (and Edith Piaf, oddly), just for the Funeral.

I don't know what the mood was like in Italy these last few days, but in the UK it was quite surprising - at times it felt as if the UK had become Catholic overnight, at least in what concerns public authorities and the media. Massive headlines, pull-out supplements, dramatic public requiems, Cherie Blair wearing a rather old-style black veil, the Prince of Wales deferring to Rome and popery!

The next one will have a hard act to live up to. I sincerely hope, by the way, that it won't be a John Paul III, both in name and style. We need a progressive third-world Pope, one who knows a bit more about contraception and spends less time with Opus Dei creeps. Although be careful what you wish for - some of the third world chaps around are even more conservative than Europeans - witness the Anglican schism, with the Nigerians proudly taking the homophobic line.
» Modena, Reggio and Provincialism

Yesterday I managed to go on one of those improvised day trips I really should do more of. M, J and I met at the train station at relatively short notice, and got on the next train for Modena, about 20 minutes away following the old Roman Via Emilia. The Via Emilia (which is at the origin of the Emilia bit in Emilia-Romagna, Bologna's region) is a remarkable geographic and historic artefact. Remarkable, because you can trace it perfectly by looking at a map and seeing the towns of Piacenza, Parma, Reggio, Modena, Bologna, Forli and Rimini lined up as if drawn with a ruler.

It bisects every one of these towns on the Via, and it is still a fully functioning road, basically having been in permanent use since Roman engineers planned it two millennia ago. It is an odd feeling walking along the Via Emilia in Reggio, knowing that if you walk straight for the next 5 hours or so, you will eventually be in Bologna's town centre.

Geographic and historical footnotes aside, Modena was a fun place to go, close enough to just hop over for lunch... and indeed, on these trips to the Emilian towns, I have tended to insist on good physical nourishment as well as the satisfaction of the mind's appetite. And this can be done well in such places. Yesterday, for example, we settled down for an early lunch with a starter of the lightest, creamiest gnocchi known to man, covered in a sauce of walnuts and gorgonzola, followed by an excellent steak drenched in balsamic vinegar sauce, all served in a slightly quirky restaurant that insisted on playing rather bad 80s pop (they're not the only ones in Italy) as well as displaying erotic pictures in their bathroom.

Modena has the quaint air of sleepy decadence and complacency that can be both charming and oppressive in Italian towns. It is the home of the Italian National Military Academy, whose cadets are obliged to go out in full purple-lined dress uniform (including a spectacular flowing cape) that looks like something straight out of the 1850s. Seeing them strut around the narrow medieval streets made me think of the wonderful opening phrases of The Communist Manifesto, that great depiction of the repressive environment of mid-19th century Europe, where "Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies". I felt, if only for a moment, as if I was a young liberal or nationalist revolutionary of those days, avoiding the stare of some repressive and reactionary local Duke's "police-spy".

Or perhaps that was just the effect of something in the gnocchi, mixed in with reading something in my guidebook about the conservative, decadent and poverty-stricken nature of the Dukes of Modena over the years, who were pompous enough to build themselves a splendid Baroque palace in the middle of town, but too vain to admit poverty, having to use fake, wooden statues for the façade of their Baroque folly. Or perhaps it was the effect of visiting too many of the stultifying, dusty and dark little Baroque churches around town, filled to the brim with bad imitation marble ornamentation and kitsch Marian statuary.

Next on the tour was a further train ride up to the even smaller town of Reggio-Emilia (as opposed to Reggio-Calabria in the south), which made Modena seem like a bustling city and Bologna a glorious metropolis. Here quaintness was definitely outweighed by the palpable sadness of provincialism, highlighted by the pathos of little attractions that merit only a brief glance. To paraphrase Tolstoy, provincial places are all alike, whereas every great city is great in its own way. In every provincial town you will find the same little clues: crowds of bored youths ambling the streets in aggressive groups, up to no good; misplaced pride in minor landmarks (in Reggio's case, the house where the Polish national anthem was penned); sullen and outmoded shops; and that overall sense of generational boredom, as if people thought of great events and happenings in terms of centuries. People in Reggio probably still whisper excitedly to each other about the time when Napoleon was there.

Provincialism is the dark and sad flip side of the quaint and well-preserved towns in Europe; but it would be a mistake to think that provincialism can only afflict areas in the periphery or that are literally in the provinces - it is primary a collective state of mind. Complacency, conformism and lack of imagination are its chief sources; decline and the closing of the mind its prime effects. It can arise wherever people are both neurotic navel-gazers and constantly ranking themselves with other places; where people start to favour the particular and local too much; where tradition holds sway; and where above all, everything is felt to be fine and just the way it should be.


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