The Turin rail station, the Porta Nuova, is a sea of rubbish; the computer is down at the tourist kiosk, “because of all the construction – here’s the photo-copy”, and outside building works are beached on every corner, including the “balcony” of the hotel room which is sheathed in my first Turin shroud, comprising plastic, rubble and girders. No religious image; that’s on the postcards down the portico.
Not so much a first impression, as a “moment”, the kind all cities can produce after, say, crossing the alps, or spending a lot of time in small towns. It is still a moment; a moment that evolves by taking the “wrong” turn from the station-side hotel and entering a bleak world of other cheap hotels, porno cinemas – so they still exist? – and the atmosphere of an Eastern European smelting town, circa 1965. It’s like turning left at Euston station and thinking you’re about to find Sienna. Thus the miseries of travel.
Which, of course, is all very unfair: the product of tiredness, sun and the ways of cities. If I was a surrealist (and this was 1920) I’d be happy to be confronted with these symbols of city life: the come-hither hookers, the tall and imposing office buildings, the wide car lanes and the (quite terrible) drivers. I don’t dislike this, for it is how cities are beyond the marketing plans; it’s just different from La Chambre or even Rivoli.
To use an anology it’s like coming to Manhattan first via a long walk in Queens, and then circling Central park (in this case walking a few miles along the Po river, gazing at hundreds of empty riverside cafés, a lot more building work, and gaggles of policemen buying ice creams or esperessos). It is fair, perhaps, to say that Turin is not yet a true tourist destination. Later, when I have walked and walked through the porticoed centre, seen plenty enough culture, and sat outside squares as big as the People’s Palace in Bucherest, I never quite shuck-off the idea of industrial surface, a “B” grade INSEAD project in urban renewal, no matter how hard I try.
The “myth” of Turin lies somewhere between the vectors of business, football and cars: only the former would Tom have had to consider, probably at the market-place in what is now the Piazza del Republica (and still as multi-ethnic as Tom’s time, I suspect). The closest he would get to the football-car thing is a troubadour on horseback. Or a bandit, resting from hard labours in the mountain passes.
The Dukes of Savoy ruled from Turin, and its location makes it very “nodal” for business, coming from either Venice, or Lyon. It’s said to be a city of the “night”. So at vampire hour I go to the piazza Vittorio Venetta to do the business.
“I’m surprised,” says American Robert, “by how people make some money by self-publishing and working with small companies these days.” He’s one of those men, easy in easy soft clothes, coiled-up in relaxation; and quite often utterly bald.
They exist everywhere in big cities, where they often to be found talking about ‘where next?’
“It’s a busy August,” he tells The Apprentice. “Nairobi, Cologne, home, Cambodia. I’m really looking forward to Cambodia.” The Apprentice has the role common in international business – yes man. When TA states an opinion it is so that “Robert” can reposition it. You’re right: but I am righter. Avoiding eye-contact (which is only for superiors) Robert stares towards the Po river, not for inspiration, more a semi-benevolent though weary stimulus to his explanation. Or a tiny act in the perpetual power play of business man-hood, you take your choice.
“With Amazon, and some of those other sites, a writer can publish and broker a small income,” Robert says, following a standard convention of explaining the snow-blindingly obvious truth with the air of Homeric Ode. I once worked for an Englishman overseas who “found” words in the OED, and made up new definitions for the “marketplace” – trade-marking them if he could. He relied on difference, eye-contact (all his clients were superiors), and a fine eye for the fine chance.
TA asks Robert about his role in Turin, then tries, hesitantly, to define it for himself.
“It isn’t that simple. What I do is very hard to explain [to simpletons and inferiors]. I usually say ‘management’: most people can understand that. The thing is, what we do has its own special language, and people can’t understand its frames of reference. ‘Platforms’, ‘Integration compatibilities’, ‘optimized thinking.’ If I said I was working for the UN improving on the accountable performance matrixes, people would get the wrong idea.”
The Apprentice Nods, as Apprentices Must. I think he has the idea. He’s the IT guy, and Robert has to prove he “knows”.
“This Wikipedia is good,” Robert says. “We were trying to get this guy from Grozny – that’s in Chechnya [ spoken slowly, for the slow]. So we talked to our travel guys and they told us Chechnya doesn’t have an airport. So I had someone check, on the internet, and we used Wikipedia, or Google, and we found that it was re-opened in March. It isn’t even on the Aeroflot website yet. We sent the code [web address?] to the travel people and they said they’d sort it. It’ll still be a miracle if he makes it. But I’d love to meet him. Chechnya, there’s a market.”
It is one of truths of being overseas for any length of time, working and living, that characters change – or rather they morph into a defensive aggression that is, in part, constructed out of the implicit question: “what went wrong at home?” We become bigger, more confident than at home, less risk averse. Though the world is small now.
When I moved to Budapest, knowing nobody, I soon met some ex-pat Americans. One, some kind of musician, popped out of the bar we were in, Googled me, and returned to ask about some part of my old life…the whole exercise took about 15 minutes, and my history was then part of my new life, despite the inaccuracies of the article. Hence the construction of social fortifications; this “biggerness”: “abroad” we can be mysterious, imperial, libidinous, “big fish.”
Robert is riffing on new media now. “So this guy, he’s an Armenian, you been there? He’s the secretary of the Farmers’ union, and he hasn’t got email. Imagine that.” Apprentice does, to no conclusion. He asks about the “deal” brewing: there are “complications” it seems. “Couldn’t you set up one of those ‘China funds’ and just buy it?”
“Yes, in Russia.”
“In Russia that would be like boxing from the floor.”
Which is how I feel a little in Torino, where for no definitive reason, other than a noticeable change in masculine self-regard – it’s ratcheted up considerably since France, even with foreigners – I’m thinking about commerce. Commerce and male anxiety. Am I mistaken or is there some kind of crisis going on here?
“It is the law, the fight against Terror,” Maria says. “Since 2005. If you want to use our computer we have to know everything about you. Are you a terrorist?” Maria leans forwards, she’s wearing a small pink bra and has a good tan. Then she takes my passport, sees my age, leans away, romance over. “So old,” she says. “I guess you’re not a terrrotist. Three euros, one hour.”
Thus continues my odyssey in the suspicious world of Italian Internet. At the internet point in the hotel the “law” is photo-copied about the terminal. The manager, Pietro, cannot find the password to log on, though. And this after numerous attempts, a geeky assistant’s assitance, two mobile phone calls and two re-boots. On the third I get some kind of access. “Firewalls,” Pietro says, “so we can protect ourselves.” I try and surf, but so many sites are blocked, so many pop-ups pop-up advising me that this is being monitored. By who? The police who aren’t buying ice creams on the Po?
Maria works afternoons and nights at the cyber point near the University. “It’s busy but not mad,” she says. “students and strangers, mostly.” Perhaps it is good that technology isn’t so easy here: it forces a different kind of social interaction, though I’d love to have Cesare Pevese or Umberto Eco’s details at my fingertips. I ask the American artist, Jim Hake, who has lived here for eleven years how much he uses it.
“It’s an illusion, not real,” he says. “You move someplace and try and keep a sense of identity you email friends back home. But when you meet them face to face you realize you’ve changed, and they have. There’s nothing there.” His work – which I’ll feature separately – is about the betwixt nature of modern art; Hake investigates in sculpture the ideas of mass reproduction in the age of the digital…
Eileen works for a language school here. She’s organizing the business travel of one of her investors, from Ireland. The office wi-fi is down, so they are in the cyber café. “If you fly via London you can be in Cork by…it’s much cheaper…no wait, let’s try this one…”
“Good, finally,” says another (Irish) Robert, sitting annoyed and unencumbered with labour.
Cesare Pavese committed suicide in a hotel, the Alburgo Roma, down the road (Wiki tells me: ‘The circumstances of his suicide, which took place in a hotel room, grossly mimic the last scene of ‘Tra Donne Sole’ (Among Women Only), his penultimate book’) but I don’t know why; but I am struck by thoughts of business pressure (this is Fiat Town, after all), and the curious and very evident Madonna-whore vision of many of the men here. Even the porno cinema was advertising “mature” products, illustrated by women of “age and size”. I haven’t seen the films, so who knows? Turin, despite its grandest squares, “the biggest in the world”, and its stylish outdoor lifestyle, has in turn a heavy thunder-clap of claustrophobia, and old-fashionedness . Is this just the war on terror? I don’t think so.
On the World Service last night Kristen Scott-Thomas talked long about the benefits of French life, most specifically the rights for women, and mothers. “It’s fantastic,” she says (I’ll look for the transcript). Here I’ve already seen three shouting matches and stormy separations between pouty men and women. That’s more separations than an entire season at Crystal Palace football club. I’m sure these things are true in other cities, other countries. Anxiety, “proving yourself”, being part of the male-female dynamic, are three sides of the contemporary triangulation. Strange still, to be having these thoughts in sunny Torino.
Up a porticoed street somewhere in the city Umberto Eco is presumably working on the answers right now; or showing how simlilar signs and signifiers were present in Renaissance Italy. The same issues of power, position and gender politics were, after all, the concern of the Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli. Who, incidentally, died not knowing that his “Prince” would have any influence, let alone be a bible for the “Roberts” of this world. Eco is Casuabon style knowledge with PowerPoint simplicity of prose, sort of. Tom would have liked Umberto Eco, so would I: but he’s not answering his emails.
Outside the university a group of students are filming an elderly white-haired man, Umberto Two, quite possibly. I can’t hear what is going on because the men who drink in the car-park opposite are singing a loud song, and the police are still running the squares in search of an over-long skirt or a under-priced Campari. Perhaps the song is about love; I can’t tell. As Robert might say: “The thing is, what we do has its own special language, and people can’t understand its frames of reference.”
Almost home and I bump into the Gramsci hotel, named, I hope, after the Marxist thinker, imprisoned (and dying) for his views. Gramsci’s ideas meant something twenty years ago, another way of seeing how society might work, “Marxism today” and all that. Now he’s a hotel in the seedy part of town. That’s the market for ideas, these days.
Thus much of business. Next is art, cinema and fun.