A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Italy Rediscovered Part 3

24 February 2012

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

It’s not that we couldn’t find Milan.  That was easy enough, although our route did not quite match the directions I had.  In fact, we even took the right exit off the autostrada, but at that point we were entirely confounded.  Our exit forced me to drive north, but we needed to go south, so I made a U-turn, only to be shunted involuntarily onto the toll road again, where in this case — in what the Italians call sistema aperto ('open system', or perhaps more accurately in our case, 'open the wallet') — we would be required to pay a fixed charge again, regardless of the distance traveled.

I took the next exit in an attempt to turn around, only to find that I had entered yet another toll road.

During this entire time, my jet-lagged, semi-conscious brain actually had enough reserve capacity to observe that all of the other drivers, being Italian and apparently in awe of recondite, Renaissance ideals of beauty such as symmetry and balance, centered their wheels over the lines that divide lanes, thereby straddling la strada.  (Either that or they were having fun pretending to be jet pilots in their Alfa Romeos and the road, a runway.)  In any case, this state of affairs forces one to respond with an equal degree of ambiguity to lane markings if only to avoid the moving objects that continually intrude into one’s path, resulting in a sort of moiré effect on the traffic patterns that synchronizes nicely with jet-lagged perception.

Now that we were on our third toll road, rather than take another exit and find ourselves halfway to Rome (you may be familiar with the saying, tutte le strade portano a Roma . . . now you know why), we stopped at an official-looking building near the barriere (toll gates) in a humble attempt to ask directions.  All of the doors were locked, but soon someone was calling to us from a window: “Aspetta un momento . .  . alla porta . . .”

After a minute the door opened and a state worker (statale) invited us in.  “Buon giorno, signore,” I said, dusting off my Italian.  Proffering an unwieldy, already-opened map, I requested, “Per favore, per andare a viale Fulvio Testi?” (that is, How do we get to Fulvio Testi Avenue?)


La carta automobilistica


He repeated the name of the street and, looking into the air, pondered for a moment.  This gesture two other statali registered as an invitation to join us and demonstrate their superior navigational skills.  No one seemed to be doing any work whatsoever when we arrived, and they all seemed positively delighted to receive some company.

About statali, Tim Parks offers the following observations in his book Italian Neighbors


“The privileges of the statali (as perceived, of course, by non-statali ) may be listed as follows:  they are not obliged to work; they are not even obliged to turn up at work with anything more than token regularity; midmorning and midafternoon they can take a long coffee break in the nearest bar and combine it with a spot of shopping, or with filling their pools coupon in their favorite tabaccheria; they enjoy shorter hours than the private sector, which means they have more time for moonlighting; they can get cheap holidays in hotels and camps reserved exclusively for them; they can get very low interest mortgages directly from their employers while they are given higher interest rates on savings at the bank; they have quite unbelievable maternity and paternity rights; they have a better health insurance plan; they have the right (so important for an Italian) to be transferred to their home area after a number of years’ work elsewhere; they enjoy the most extraordinary pension arrangements, which often allow them to retire well before they’re forty on a decent index-linked income; but above all—and it’s worth all the rest put together—they are absolutely and utterly unfirable whatever they do, wherever they do it, whenever and how often, it doesn’t matter, they simply cannot be fired.  They have arrived.”


If this were true about these particular statali, I don’t know.  But they were genuinely gracious and affable.

Apparently the issue was not where viale Fulvio Testi is — everyone knew that.  The problem was how to get there through the medieval maze of streets around Milan, approaching a ‘you-can’t-get-there-from-here’ conundrum.  After the first statale put forth an itinerary, the second objected, “Ma, no.  È la via unica, quella strada . . . [But, no, that’s a one-way street]," and then offered an alternate route.  But then the third statale interjected, “Al contrario . . .” highlighting a different set of conditions.  What gave me pause was that they were probably all correct:  it is impossible to get there from where we were.

Soon they were all talking at once, with the statale on my left raising his voice, “Aspetti . . . Aspetti . . . [wait, wait]."

After a while the first statale pulled rank and gave what he considered the definitive route and the others were driven into compliance:  “Prenda questa uscita . . . [take this exit], paga il pedaggio . . . [pay the toll].”

Rats — here I was hoping for an official pardon in view of my absolute ineptitude as a foreigner and the fact that we had already paid the toll once, before we had inadvertently re-entered the toll road.

He continued: “Al prossimo angolo gira a sinistra. . . [left at the next corner], al semaforo, gira a destra . . . (right at the light].”

I was noting all of this down mentally . . .

“Vada fino al edificio che sembra un ananas . . . [go until I reach a building that looks like a pineapple].”

Wait a minute  . . . did he say a pineapple?!  Who was I talking to, Giorgio de Chirico?  Just nod, I told myself, and act like I understand:  “Capisco, capisco,” I said solemnly.

And then there were 13 other directions after that.  My thinking was that if we ever found the pineapple building, the rest would be easy as pie, whatever fruit may be listed in its ingredients.

“Mille grazie, signori,” we thanked them.  They all had satisfied looks and we felt gratified that in some small way we had helped them accomplish something that day.  We hopped back into our Ypsilon, paid our toll, and took the specified exit.

“You know, it really does look like a pineapple,” I exclaimed when I saw a circular building with undulating segments at the circumference of each storey.  I think I was so happy at the discovery that I turned too soon and once again we became hopelessly lost.


It didn’t quite look like this, but you get the idea.


At least we weren’t stuck on another autostrada.  We managed to park on the side of the street and ask a passerby for directions.  He hesitated for a while (again, the problem wasn’t that he didn’t know where viale Fulvio Testi was, he just didn’t know a clear way to get there), and then, in desperation, he asked another passerby who just then happened to come along.  The second passerby authoritatively stated a complicated set of instructions and the first one, speaking in English for the first time, said “He is right !” with the exuberance of an Azzurri fan after a particularly intricate football maneuver results in a score.

Back in the Ypsilon, we followed these second instructions explicitly; however one particularly sinister gira a sinistra was disguised, I missed it, and we went a long way off course.  When the new scenario did not match the instruction-set, we turned back and only then discovered the incognito turn, finally rolling onto viale Fulvio Testi, our long-sought, hard-won goal.

As we reached our destination, the words of our seventeenth-century poet, Fulvio Testi, redounded:


Se vittorie si belle han le guerre di viaggio


“If travel’s wars have such beautiful victories.”  Even if that’s not exactly what Testi had originally written in his poem that Claudio Monteverdi had set in his eighth book of madrigals (“Se vittorie si belle han le guerre d’amore” — If love’s wars have such beautiful victories), I figure that Testi traveled enough as a diplomat (his 'day job') that he might have thought about saying it himself a few times.


Portrait of Fulvio Testi (1593-1646) by Ludovico Lana — today an almost-impossible-to-find street in Milan is named after the poet.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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