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2.22.2010

When I was a work of art and didn't know it!

Starting March 14 until May 31 the world-famous Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic is going to start sitting behind a table, for 7 hours a day, for (nearly) 3 months, as long as her retrospective at MOMA lasts. Titled "the Artist is Present", it is an entirely new installation - pardon, "art performance" - she has specially designed for this show at MOMA. It is going to be the "pièce de résistence" of her retrospective while she has delegated to some 36 young artists she has specially trained the reproduction of some of her more famous pieces - sorry, I mean performances - from past exhibitions.

She will let visitors stream down to her table, they will be able to stop in front of her (will there be a chair for them?), but as far as I understand it, she doesn't plan to engage in any conversation whatsoever. Mum is the word. For 7 hours times 90 days, that's about 600 hours stitting behind a table without either moving or talking. That will be her longest performance ever. In a recent interview, artist Marina confessed she expected that the performance would test her to the very limit of her art.

In the same interview, by the way, she also said she liked the recession. These were good times for artists, she declared. Certainly good times for her, since she started back in the 1970s with such performances as "imponderabilia": it required her standing naked on a doorstep with Ulay (now her ex-husband) in front of her, leaving just enough space between the two of them to allow visitors through in such a way that they had to walk looking either in her face or in his. That was in Italy back in 1977 and since then, wow, our Marina has come a long way, baby! The MOMA is tops in the contemporary art world - there is no museum that is more important and no city like New York. No wonder she likes recession times!

Now, at several points in my working life, I've had to sit for hours on end on the podium at international conferences without being allowed to say one word. And this sort of thing could go on for 8 hours or more, for up to a week. I think the longest I got stuck this way was ten days.Just had to sit up there, next to the Conference chairman (or chairwoman as the case may be) without moving from my seat, looking down at the audience, as one delegate after another asked for the floor and made in a monotonous voice an incredibly dull and banal intervention. My only job was to make sure the Chairman had the names of speakers on his list in the right order and that he had in front of him the right documents for discussion - not much to do, but I was thankful I did have something that helped me from falling asleep.

If only I'd known that sitting like that, without moving, for hours on end was an art performance! That would have been an immense consolation. Yes,I was a work of art and didn't know it. I was in the same position as Molière's Jourdain who didn't know that when he spoke, it was prose. Ah, little did I know how artistic I was, stuck on the podium, motionless and bored to tears.

But now, from one artist to another, I have some words of advice for Marina - because she is right, it's going to be quite an ordeal, to sit at that table for 3 months! I know - because I've gone through it myself in my own small and modest way - there are actually three big dangers threatening her.

One, (you've guessed it already) is boredom. After a while, just looking at people is no fun. You get jaded. A face here, another there, who cares. So you need to prepare yourself with little stories you can tell yourself - things to meditate on, or amuse yourself with. That's very important - or else you're going to fall off that chair, fast asleep. And that would be very, very undecorous, now, to have a slumbering artist suddenly collapse on the floor.

Two, you have to decide whether you are going to allow yourself to repair to the toilet. Now I suspect that in your view the artist has to be "present" throughout the whole exhibition, right? then you need to plan for it: no tea or coffee in the morning, no milk with your cornflakes, no orange juice, nothing. Banish all liquids!

Three, come prepared to take good care of your...behind. Some people are endowed with vast, cushiony behinds, and they're the lucky ones. If you're not the type, dear Marina (and looking at you on your pictures, I suspect you're not), then you're in REAL trouble. Do take a thick, soft pillow with you to sit on. It'll save you from untold tortures: a chair, even a padded one, after a few hours makes you feel you're sitting on spikes. Yes, like knives pointing upwards and slowly going up and through the lower part of your body. And unless you're an Indian fakir, you're in deep trouble. And nobody is going to notice that pillow you're sitting on. And I sure won't tell your little secret!

It's going to be HARD, Marina, but then, what doesn't one do for Art with a capital A? There's not limit to Contemporary Art!

2.20.2010

Long Live the Wily Greeks !

They deserve our gratitude!

As I had suggested in my last post, the wily Greeks have done it again. Far from destroying the Euro by exposing its soft underbelly, with their cunning and creative public accounting they've selflessly given us Europeans, members of the Euro zone, a helping hand.

Finally the press has caught up with the news, and French and German exporters are reportedly happily crowing that the Euro at last is giving them a breather. About time people realized the benefits of a weaker Euro! Meanwhile, with the Fed tweaking upwards one of their discount rates, the dollar has strengthened somewhat, giving an additional push to what the Greeks had started.

This said, there is little doubt that the Euro has a dangerously exposed underbelly: the richer Euro-zone members (meaning Germany and France) may very well have to bail out Greece's national debt. This is likely to be a hugely unpopular measure and the Germans in the street - guys like you and me who know little about economics and public accounting, and rarely think about it - are already grumbling, saying that they don't want to help out people who've been on a free ride (meaning the Greeks) while they were tightening their belts (because of the slowdown in exports). But they're wrong: they should thank the Greeks for lowering the Euro and making it easier for them to sell their stuff abroad!

Moreover, and that's very fortunate, Greece is a small country and the bailout, if needed, should not be too expensive. Think what it would cost if it were Spain! And there's a silver lining: with the speculative attack on the Euro brought on by Greek profligacy and total disregard for Euro rules, the institutional weakness of the Euro has been at last fully exposed. As long as the Euro was flying high, no one had noticed. But now, hopefully, something will be done about it.

And something really NEEDS to be done. Or else, the next villain - I mean country - will be Spain, or worse (why not?) Italy. Then any bailout would cause intense suffering - not to mention the collapse of the Euro.

Seriously, will our governments take note? I hope so.

2.13.2010

The Greek crisis and challenge to the Euro: Why is Europe not rushing to the rescue?

Two days ago, speculators expected the European government summit in Brussels to announce with suitable fireworks the salvaging of Greece from its horrible debt...Then nothing happened. No fireworks. Only a very cool response to the effect that if something really, really went wrong, then Europe might do something - something meaning presumably that it might provide whatever funds would be necessary to stem speculation and restore confidence in the Greek Government's capacity to manage its debt.

Moreover, as Angela Merkel coldly observed, Greece hadn't asked for help. So why should anyone have ever expected it to be forthcoming? Moreover,the European Commission had indicated that it was perfectly happy with the Greek Government's reform programme. People in Greece were a lot less happy, as clearly shown by their street protests and strikes this week. They were not going to accept reforms without a good fight, now, were they? But that's par for the course. No reform is ever liked by those who have to go through them. It's in the nature of things.

It's also in the nature of things to grumble. Grumble about the fact that the Greek only deserved what they got, after having gotten into the Euro zone on false pretences, faking their public accounts and pretending the debt was around 4 percent of GNP when it was four times as high. Grumble about the fact that speculative attacks on sovereign debt were a new, profoundly disturbing facet of our never-ending crisis, and mutter about what country might be hit next: Spain (very likely), Portugal (idem), Ireland (idem), Italy (less so but not out of the woods) etc etc Grumble about the fact that Europe once more was not able to put its act together: here was a crisis among Euro members, the Euro was threatened, no European government wanted the International Monetary Fund to come to the rescue, but neither did they lift a finger to do anything constructive.

We're back to the usual dismal display of European weakness and incompetence on the international scene.

But are we?

I believe there are two good reasons why we have witnessed this bizarre, ho-hum outcome in Brussels. Last night, I was watching Stiglietz on TV (in an interview on France 24) and I half expected him to come up with these very reasons. After all, he is a famous Nobel Prize Columbia U. Professor, probably the top economist of his generation if not of our times, the man who single-handedly managed to slice off the head of the Washington Consensus dragon (remember the Washington Consensus? It was that catastrophic ideology whereby unleashing free Market Forces was the answer to all our ills - just ask the Asians how they felt in the 1990s crisis when the IMF raised interests and tightened belts, thus ensuring the crisis would last twice as long as necessary...) In short, I consider him a very big man and he's just come out with a book on the current crisis with a very apt title: Freefall. A book I've put on top of my list of books to read...He's also an advisor to the Greek Government, so I truly expected him to come out with the goods, and tell us what really happened in Brussels and why Germany and France didn't rush to rescue Greece.

Well, he didn't.

And I think I know why. Curiously - so far - the media has also kept mum on the subject. I don't know why they are so reticent and I suspect that soon what I'm saying here is going to occur to somebody else. Of course, I'm only "nougatizing" and I could be wrong. You tell me after you've heard my reasons.

So here they are. One is broadly political, the other is strictly economic.

The political first.It's very simple: if governments in Brussels had come out announcing a rescue with all the fanfare needed to discourage speculation, that would have cut any chance for the Greek Government to successfully carry out its planned reforms. It would have encouraged protesters in their protests, strikers in their strikes, and made any reform impossible from the start.

The economic next. This is a more touchy issue. And harder to prove. But it is so likely to be true that it is difficult to believe it isn't. This Greek crisis in the Euro zone is exactly what the doctor would recommend to lower the Euro. And a weakened Euro is precisely what the doctor recommends to encourage European Euro-zone exports, particularly the German ones that happen to occupy top-end, high quality and/or luxury niches in the international market. The kind of products you can easily sell more of the very minute prices go down. So any point loss in the Euro is a God-sent for Germans. And for the French too. And the Italians. Ok, I won't go on, you get the picture. But naturally nobody in Brussels could come out and say so, even if they all secretly rejoiced at the weakening of the Euro.

How does all this strike you? Let me know...

1.31.2010

About Tomatoes like Red-skinned Water Balls and Illegal Immigrants...

Yes, tomatoes that look marvellously red and sun-ripened in the middle of winter: those are the wonders of modern agriculture for you!

Last night, I watched a French TV newscast (France 2) reporting on the invasion of Spanish tomatoes in French supermarkets, all the way up to Paris - coming in by the million every month of the year. The TV crew had gone down to the South of Spain to investigate the production area around Almeria. A fantastic landscape of plastic greenhouses, bulging sheets of white plastic endlessly rolling over the hills. And under these sheets (that can be conveniently opened or shut according to temperature), there are rows upon rows of tall tomato plants. They grow on gravel and are fed water by the most sophisticated drip irrigation techniques. And a lot of water is used for each plant: there was mention of 3 liters per day. New tomatoes ripen every morning and are picked by crews of East European and African labourers. Then they are packed in nice looking plastic film boxes and trucked out across Europe.

I think Italy (where I live) must be the only place in Europe that's not getting Spanish tomatoes (and maybe Greece too). The Italians eat their own locally produced tomatoes, and they taste pretty good too - even in winter. They're not about to start eating Spanish tomatoes.

Yes, because the Spanish tomatoes taste like...water! I know because I've eaten them when I was in France. But it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. After all, water is what they are, right? They grow on gravel and water, full stop. Under the circumstances, you can't expect them to taste like tomatoes. Lucky for you that they look nice and red!

The TV crew interviewed some French customers in the supermarkets who were buying those tomatoes and asked them how they liked them. They were met with embarrassed shrugs and one lady complained they tasted of nothing. When asked why they bought them, the answers ranged from "they're here, so why not?" to "they're cheap". And so they are. At €2.50 per kilo, it's barely above the summer price. Not bad.

But this TV crew was determined to scratch underneath the surface: how cheap really and why?

Well, it turned out the farm gate price was around 70 cents. So by the time it hits the supermarkets, the price is multiplied by 3 or 4. Don't be surprised. That's the kind of margins our dear marketing chains and distributors use and live on (and grow fat on). What else?

The next question is an obvious one. How come tomato producers can turn their products out at such low, low prices? Easy: they use cheap labour, people who come from outside the European Union. The TV crew interviewed a couple of them, illegal immigrants from Mali. Nice chaps, really, and obviously eager to work. They lived in a run-down house, clearly the cheapest lodgings they could find. And no wonder: they said they were paid €700 a month, and what with the rent, the cost of food and the electricity bills, that didn't leave much to send back home to their families in Mali. But better than nothing. These guys weren't about to give up their job...

All this makes me very sad. This is the exact reverse of a win-win situation. It's a dramatic lose-lose situation. Think of it:

a. the tomatoes are lousy, there's no gain for the European consumers who're actually paying for water packed in red tomato skins at 3 or 4 times the price of mineral water;

b. the jobs created by this tomato industry go to a kind of labour that is scandalously exploited. And as I write about this I have a hard time containing my indignation. A monthly salary of €700, paid directly to an illegal immigrant who is, by definition, beyond any health care benefits and cannot claim any social protection of any kind, well...it's more than unfair, it's pitiful, it's absurd, it's downright unethical. The situation cries out for revenge!

But it's not something confined to Spain. The same thing regularly happens in Italy. Most recently, it was early January 2010, we watched street fighting in the little town of Rosario in Calabria (reportedly some 15,000 Italians pitted against 3,000 immigrants). At the heart of the problem, there was this particular group of African workers living in an abandoned factory, with apparently the local mafia "protection", giving them a roof and work. The Italian army had to cart them off in buses for their own safety to protect them from the wrath of the local population. Meanwhile all agricultural production in the area came to a stop. There was no one left to pick off the fruits from the trees (the Italians certainly wouldn't) . Who knows where these immigrants are now and what they're doing...

I don't know whether the mafia is always behind every one of these gruesome episodes of Exploitation of Man by Man. Perhaps they are, especially in places where they control much of the economy. And that's not just in Southern Italy by the way - there are lots of places like that, just about everywhere in the developing world, including of course the famous BRIC countries.

Bottomline, one thing is certain: all these illegal immigrants are an easy prey to ruthless entrepreneurs. And these modern agricultural producers who exploit them have nothing to do with your vision of the good old peasants close to the earth, the righteous defenders of traditions and values.

No, these guys are out there to make money. And if there's a bunch of foreigners who have no friends locally, can't speak the language and in fact have no rights to be there but they are willing (nay, they need) to work, then why not let them? It's to everyone's advantage, right?

That's good old Adam Smith's Invisible Hand at work for you! And what damage it does, untold damage in terms of human suffering.

This is why I really get mad when I see piles of tasteless red tomatoes in supermarkets. It's not just a matter of taste...It's a matter of ethics!

And can't we do something more constructive with all these poor guys who flock to the coasts of Europe in the hope of finding work? There really are two kinds of illegal immigrants. I think those who want to work deserve our respect and support. Those who don't should be kicked out.

One should make the distinction. Don't you agree?

And if we are to show respect and support for those willing to work, then we have to be ready to do something constructive about it. In particular, European governments should put in place institutional arrangements whereby low-skilled jobs are systematically identified and put in a database made available to immigrant applicants with the appropriate profile. Actually there are lots of jobs like that, and not just housemaid jobs. I remember talking to a baker in Rome who was desperate - his bread was fabulous, mainly because he did it the old-fashioned way, getting up in the middle of the night to knead the dough. But he couldn't find anybody - I mean a strong young Italian - willing to come in the middle of the night and learn the tricks of bread-making. At the time, I investigated the question a little further and discovered there were some 4,000 jobs of the kind just in the Lazio region, that weren't covered. Nobody wants to get up in the middle of the night to bake bread...but if an immigrant is willing, why not give it to him?

Politically, it might be hard to swing, what with trade unions always preventing any changes to the labour market structures. But the unions should be told that they are defending jobs that no West European citizen wants. They've all attended school - many even the university - and low-skilled jobs are below their dignity, right?

So why stop the immigrants who are willing to take them? Granted, you need to have a system in place to separate the grain from the chaff - the immigrant willing to work from the one who isn't -. But once you do, it seems to me you shouldn't be so afraid of those hordes of foreigners knocking at the door. And the guy who works is a lot less likely to become a petty street criminal than the one who doesn't.

This would be a real win-win situation. Wouldn't it?

1.25.2010

How about a nice ARTICHOKE RECIPE to comfort us a bit?

News are so bad and so sad these days, especially the ones coming out of Haiti...That's when I run to my kitchen for a little comfort. How about a nice "tortino" Florentine-style made with some tender spring artichokes?

There are lots of recipes for this on Internet but, as far as I can see, most of them are wrong. The objective of this recipe is to produce a fluffy omelette that rises in the oven like a soufflé and is filled with crisp, flavourful pieces of artichoke. I've had this only a couple of times in Florence, in one of those old-fashioned trattoria where you just know that you're eating traditional food of the best kind, and it's taken me several tries before I could perfect the recipe.

I could refer you of course to Artusi, the author of the definitive treatise on Tuscan cuisine, but I'll share with you the little secrets that I have discovered that ensure your tortino will come out just right. It's very easy to do but it requires some care. AND good ingredients. Of course, that's a general rule: if you want to prepare good food you just can't skimp on the quality of the ingredients. For example, for frying, I ALWAYS use olive oil. Not necessarily the best most expensive quality, but it's got to be real olive oil: it has a great advantage over all other types of oil on the market. Because of the way it withstands heat, it fries a lot better. AND it's the least bad for your health. AND the best tasting.

Now, back to the artichoke tortino. Turn your oven on (especially if it takes time to heat up like mine does): set it at 180° or mark 6 or whatever heat you normally use to roast a chicken. In other words, hot but not too hot.

Then start with the artichokes. You need 2 small ones per person (or a big one/person - but better small). I use the small variety you find in Italy, the ones with leaves tinged with a lovely violet colour. Actually you can use any type of artichoke, provided you prepare them correctly: you have to peel the stem (to get rid of the thick, string-like fibers) and take out all the external leaves that are tough. Then cut off the artichoke tips, leaving only about half the leaves on, or even less. Be vicious about it! Once you overcome the impression that you're throwing everything away, it is in fact very satisfying to get rid of all those dark green leaves! What you should have left in your hand is just a tiny, tender, yellow-leaf artichoke, maybe half or less of what it looked like before you started hacking at it.

Then cut it in 4 or even 6 pieces lengthwise. And scrape the inside to get rid of that hair which is in the centre and is obviously inedible. At that point, quickly throw the pieces in cold water to which you've added the juice of 1/2 lemon: the purpose of this is to prevent the artichokes of turning black on you.

Next, lay all the pieces on kitchen paper and pat them dry. Then throw them in a bowl and flour them.

Heat olive oil in a deep pan (at least a couple of inches) and when it's close to smoking (but NOT smoking!) throw your floured artichoke pieces in. You should shake off the extra flour and throw them in ONE by ONE. Let them fry until they're a nice golden colour and crisp. Take them out with a perforated spoon and set them to dry on paper.

Now prepare the omelette in the usual way, beating together one or two eggs per person (but never make a tortino with less than 3 eggs: it won't work!). Salt and pepper to taste, a little grated parmigiano (optional) and throw in the fried artichokes.

Oil (or butter) a pyrex dish, pour the egg-artichoke mixture in it, sprinkle with a little grated Parmigiano cheese and put the whole thing in your (now hot) oven.

It takes about 20 minutes to bake (or more depending on the size of your tortino). Watch it rise and turn golden. Check for doneness with a toothpick, but then it's a matter of taste: some people like it real done, others prefer it moist. In any case, don't be disappointed when it starts to come down after you've taken it out of the oven. That's normal: after all, it isn't a French soufflé! It's just an oven-baked omelette...

Ma che buono!

Have a nice glass of red wine ready and warm crusty bread and let me know how you like it!

It's a guaranteed comfort food...
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