Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lightning over the skies of Milan

The air suddenly gets cooler, and I sense that the flashes that fill the edge of my vision aren't the usual TV rays seeping through the windows of my neighbors in front, or the lights from the one "skyscraper" of Milan that can be seen from our front windows. It's a natural phenomenon, more majestic than simple artificial lights. Two air masses are colliding over the skies of Milan.

Lightning storms always make me mad happy. I am fascinated and excited by them. So I run to the balcony and start to observe, oooh-ing and aaah-ing at each flash. One mass is straight in front of me. I realize that the other one is coming from behind my building, so it's still out of sight. All I see are flashes reflected around and on the windows of the tall building.

Lightning arches behind the clouds and creates stark outlines of the plump cotton-like fluffs, heavy with rain, and quickly pushed around by the wind. Once in a while, the angry tail slash of a lightning outreaches beyond the outline and peeks at me, creating images of angry battles between giant electric iguanas.

I sense a rhythm. Flashes on one side. Answering flash from the other. Two flashes. One. One. Two. One. One two three! One. Half. Hi. Hey. You're in my way. No, *you* are in *my* way. Oh yeah? Wanna fight? Look at this! Ha! Take that! What do you have to say to that?!

And then I start humming the tune from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". It actually fits nicely. I wondered if Steven Spielberg had taken a hint from nature for his inspiration.

So after I take a few pictures and decide to write about this, I check IMDB. It turns out I wasn't so off the mark. According to their trivia on the movie, he was "[...] partly inspired by an experience from [his] childhood where without warning his parents rushed the family into their car, drove to an area where many others were gathered, and watched a spectacular meteor shower."

Nature is cool :) And the little lightning animation I posted here doesn't do it justice. But I wanted to share ^_^

Sunday, July 20, 2008

what street people want

I often start to write a blog entry offline, take off with it, then kill it abruptly feeling unhappy with it and thinking I just started ranting, so I shouldn't post it. Or it's way too long and I know most people have ADD and won't read through the whole thing.

I then read them again at a later date and find they weren't so terrible after all, and there was at least one good core idea in it. This bit is from one such un-posted entries.

In the city jungle, it becomes second-nature and a survival skill to develop a sense of what the person approaching you wants. I am against stereotypes in theory, but I find I apply them in practice a lot. I know that not all black people in Italy are those french-speaking africans that gather at the corner of my neighborhood every weekend to be loud, obnoxious, drunk, drug smugglers, and in general up to no good... but in such a segregated society (Italy is quite different from NY!) the first thought and reaction if I see a black guy on my street will be based on that. Having grown up overseas, I reason against it, but instinct is an indomitable bitch.

So far I've developed this database of Milan fauna: if the person approaching you smells of alcohol and is dirty, he's a hobo and will ask for money. If you are smoking, someone will ask for a cigarette. If you just bought your ticket, they'll ask for the extra change. Many stick around the ticket vending areas all day just to do that. Some offer help first--the automated machines can be difficult to navigate the first times--but in the end you know what they are after, so you don't even want to accept the help. If he looks decent enough but latino, he'll whisper obscenities or try to grope you (ok, this one maybe ain't that common in Milan, it happened only once or twice, but it's a small trauma of mine from the Central American countries, let me be). If he's a dirty child, he'll try to pick your pocket. If he carries an instrument on the subway, he's walking each subway wagon playing the same tune over and over, often without much soul, and will ask for money at the end. If she has long skirt, tanned skin, and sandals, she's a gypsy who will mostly try to steal something/beg. If they try to push a book or a bracelet in your hand pretending they're giving you a gift, they will then ask your name, try to get you to stop, to talk, engage in conversation. I haven't actually stopped long enough to hear the full pitch, but I imagine it ends in a "I'm poor I need money" line.

The pronouns I'm using are based on observation. There are certain demographics for each group [insert some deep conclusion here]. Of course, not all are potentially dangerous. You also have the tourist, italian or foreign, who might ask you for directions; the asian sellers of seasonal wares (do they all have a central warehouse with a person who decides "today you peddle this!"?? they all have the same things around the city!), just sitting in strategic places hoping to make a sale, and running away quickly as soon as they see a cop. Or the black sellers of counterfeit bags.

Once in a blue moon there are promoters, who actually give you free stuff. Although by now people are so wary, they often refuse even the really free stuff, afraid of a gimmick. Although the advertisement surrounding them helps their image. If you're dressed up in a huge chicken costume giving away samples of cereal, it's a pretty safe bet it's free.

Tired and wary most of the time, I have developed the "no thanks" flat answer to just about anything and anyone approaching. I figure there's only about 1% chance of getting it wrong. To those who do not look like any of the above, I actually give a chance and listen. Unfortunately many have discovered my database as well, and have learned to get around it by not looking like their stereotype, approaching you as if they were just happening to ask the time, but they end up asking for money as well.

A while ago a dude on a busy road caught me as I was trying to cross the street, just off the tram and on my way to the supermarket. He was Italian, clean, looked like an average middle-aged blue collar. He started by asking if I was Italian. "What is it, it's all foreigners that live in this neighborhood now? Do you live here? I need some help, my car broke down, I can't even call my coworkers, they all went home already, no one is answering and I have to get back home... I left my atm card in the car. I got locked out. I can't buy gas... Don't you have some money I could borrow for a train? I can leave you with my address, I promise I'll pay you back..." I quickly remembered an evening 10 years ago, different country, different culture, same story... the guy I was with was easily convinced and had given him a big bill. Even if I protested. The story had later ended up in the papers, a guy was going around presenting a difficult but credible situation in which he was lost and needed help... and had scammed so many people out of more money than your average beggar. If this dude I had in front of me had needed real help he'd have asked for a police station, or would have gone to a store, to a guy, not to a young-ish looking girl all alone in the middle of the street, don't you think?

I have lived on the kindness of strangers most of my life. People have taken me into their homes, offered help, sometimes without even knowing me. I have always been amazed by that. Also, why am I willing to help a clean-looking person who asks for money or help, but not a dirty-looking person who asks for the same thing? Doesn't the latter need the help most?

I wonder what stereotype I fit into. It probably changes in each country, in each culture, just like the stereotype of the black person is different between Italy and NY. You can be a king in your own country, and a beggar in another. You are the same person, but people see you differently, and it's hard to change people's minds.

Sometimes I think that loosing your naivete does make you smarter and a better survivor... but it also makes for a pretty depressing life. When you expect everyone approaching you to be out of wanting to scam you, it hardens your heart not only to the scammers, but to those who appreciate you for who you actually are.