Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lost in translation - being Italian in America

Last week, I was invited to speak at a conference in New York City, organized by ILICA (Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance). The full title of the conference was "Saving Venezia & Protecting New Orleans. The MOSE project. The debate surrounding Italy's most innovative technology." and it was held at the Manhattan campus of St. John's University. The proceedings were punctuated with a series of sumptuous meals prepared by imported Venetian chefs from the Trattoria Bissa da Rocco in Mestre, coordinated by Andrea Tiberi, an Eatalian chef operating a successful wine bar in New York.
Two thousand pounds of fresh fish and other products (like radicchio chioggiotto) were flown in from Chioggia for the event. The mayor of Chioggia, Romano Tiozzo, accompanied the cargo shipment to personally ensure that it arrived safely to the event. He was not the only notable present at the conference. We had the pleasure to meet the Italian Consul General in NYC, Francesco Maria Talò, and the ambassador's advisor Alberto Gallucci, and heard the voice of the mayor of Salinas, CA, the American capital of radicchio production. The conference was hosted by Cav. Vincenzo Marra, president of ILICA, and Prof. Anthony Tamburri, Dean of the John Calandra Italian American Institute.
In the quarter century that I have spent in the U.S., I never really had much of chance to interact with Italian-American institutions. I always thought that they were the province of Americans of Italian descent, but not for "true" Italians like me. Meeting the members of ILICA, I was surprised to find out that many of them were actually born in Italy -- as I was -- and had lived in the U.S. for most of their adult life -- as I have. Just last week, I renewed my "green card" (which might explain the "green again" in my enigmatic tweet) and was re-awakened to the fact that I am an alien in a country that I consider "home"... I discovered that my green card had expired while trying to embark in a flight from London back to my home in Spencer, Massachusetts, this summer. I was traveling with my son Nicolò, who could get onto the flight with no problems, because he has an American passport (despite having been born in Venice like me). This bureaucratic snafu, combined with the recent controversies surrounding my role as chair of the planning board in Spencer have convinced me that I should apply for citizenship in the country where I have spent the majority of my adult life (i.e. become "evergreen" as I obscurely stated in my tweet). Meeting the members of ILICA made me realize that I really am "one of them" for the first time in my life, and the outcome of the conference confirmed that I am really more American than I thought...
Given the subtitle of the conference that explicitly mentioned the "debate" surrounding the construction of the MOSE project, I though it would be useful to elucidate for the audience the nature of the controversies that accompanied the project for three decades. Despite having made clear both in the slides (below) and several other times during my remarks (which were fortunately videotaped by i-Italy cameramen) that I was simply relating the history of the opposition to the project, which have all been resolved (as I repeatedly stressed), and not presenting my personal views, those who did not speak fluent English in the audience were left with the impression that I was personally against the MOSE project. Very unfortunate indeed...
Ironically, the very last question I emailed to Prof. Tamburri, as I was preparing my slides, was whether they were expecting me to present in Italian or in English. Given the name of the hosting institution, it was a legitimate question, and Prof. Tamburri replied that I should present in English. As it turns out, this was probably a fateful decision since what transpired at the conference clearly indicated that my presentation was "lost in translation" due to language barriers on the part of the delegation from the Consorzio Venezia Nuova (CVN) and the Magistrato alle Acque, headed by Mr. Patrizio Cuccioletta. Their vehement reaction with ad hominem attacks to my personal and professional integrity left me and others in the audience stupefied. It was embarrassing display of unwarranted defensiveness on the part of those who were invited to the conference to represent the "best" that Italy has to offer as far as cutting-edge engineering.
Given the tenor of my presentation, where I actually praised them for their technical skills (slide 10) and expressed clearly that the controversies were "resolved", as well as my faith in the effectiveness of the barriers to achieve what they were designed for (slide 31), it should have been amply clear that my intentions were purely informative.
Quite naively, in retrospect, I was hoping to incite discussion that would take us "beyond" this project to solve the outstanding issues that are of concern to average Venetians like me (slides 73-104), by expressing my hope that we could devote a commensurate amount of attention and funding to these other pressing challenges, thus creating opportunities to develop levels of expertise that could be exported to the rest of the world as the CVN is doing already in its field. These important discussion points were completely waylaid by the puzzling rebukes proffered by Mr. Cuccioletta and Mrs. Brotto, who seemed to be responding to some "other" presentation to those who followed and understood where I was coming from with my remarks.
Although I did not really take personally any of the comments that were made, I was truly disappointed at the missed opportunity for a real "debate" about these matters of crucial importance to Saving the Venetians. While one could possibly understand the obsequious deference to the prestige of the Venetian authorities on the part of some of the spectators, some "neutral" English-speaking members of the audience also seemed to have gotten the message wrong, and were thus intent to "shooting the messenger", despite my repeated re-statement of the informational (and impersonal) nature of my historical retrospective on the vicissitudes of the project. I will leave the readers of the blog to draw their own conclusions based on the included slide show.
It is disconcerting to me that my crucifixion on the altar of full disclosure ended up sidelining the excellent presentations by Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno and John Day, whom I hold in high esteem. The Bongiornos were instrumental in getting me invited to this conference, after having met me at the Wingspan workshop they organized for the development of their WaterMark film project in 2005, where I also met John Day, who presented to us the similarities and differences between the New Orleans and the Venetian situation. I also fear that the knee-jerk reaction that we all witnessed may have marred the potential for future collaborations between the Venice Project Center and ILICA, especially as a potential sponsor of our planned descent of the Hudson and circumnavigation of Manhattan with Venetian row boats in 2012.
All in all, this experience has cemented in my mind the fact that I am really more American than Italian at this point: truly an "American Italian", i.e. an Italian who has been americanized, which is slightly different from being an Italian American, i.e. an American of Italian descent. Regardless of the labeling, we all have more in common with each other than with Italians who only come to America to visit and are unfamiliar with the nuances of the American language, as well as with the spirit of open debate and transparency that are parts and parcel of American culture. It seems to me that to avoid embarrassing diplomatic incidents in the future, Italian Americans (and American Italians) should create a counterpart to ILICA, which we may want to name ELICA, an institution that will promote the diffusion of English Language to help Italians understand the Culture of America.
Having spent the last couple of years to fully release all of our 20 years of research for Venice through our Venice 2.0 anniversary initiative, I think ELICA may be just what we need to propel us together into this new era of open discourse and away from the closed-minded provincialism that is so 1.0 and has prevented the Italian genius from shining again in the world spotlight for far too long.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Wood Boat Mainiacs

Thanks to the extraordinary hospitality of my friends Anne Witty and Jonathan Taggart, I have had the luxury of sailing in Maine for two beautiful long weekends this month. I had forgotten just how wonderful the Maine coast really is, with its archipelago of granite mountaintops covered with hardy pines. It's truly like sailing in the valleys of the Dolomites long before the last Würmian glaciation that created the Venice Lagoon. The last time I had done that was about 25 years ago when captain Scoop (Paul McAskill) and I "sailed naked" (meaning with no instruments - it's too cold to remove your clothes up there) from Boothbay to Acadia national park.
Given that there are at least two plausible claims that the Mondo Novo (at least the Northern part of the continent later named after another Italian -Amerigo Vespucci) was discovered by Venetians before Columbus, either in 1398 by the Venetian brothers Antonio and Nicolò Zeno, or in 1497 by Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), all of whom are thought to have landed somewhere Down East, it was fitting that I should bring a gonfalone of Saint Mark to be flown on Nereid's mast on our voyages up and down the very same coasts that my fellow Venetians first viewed 500+ years ago.
I met Jonathan, who is a heritage conservator specializing in bronze objects, in 1996, when I gave a talk at the National Institute for Conservation in Washington DC, following which he joined me for a couple of Earthwatch "expeditions" in Venice, when we were cataloging and (thanks to him) restoring wellheads and bells across the city. Anne has been a curator for several maritime museums, including Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon, and, more recently, for the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine.
Given their backgrounds, and their love for Venice, it is not surprising that our sailing trips generated a wealth of ideas about how to join forces for the documentation and restoration of the collection of traditional wood boats salvaged by Arzanà, a Venetian association which has sponsored a number of Venice Project Center projects on the topic in recent years.
The general idea is to document the lines of the boats in the Arzanà collection using time-tested manual methods and then compare the measurements with the results obtained using more modern techniques such as laser scanner (which we hope to borrow from our LTS friends at Ideagroup) as well as the structured light techniques being developed by my friend Steve Guerin in Santa Fe, at the Redfish Group. Once we have obtained the lines, we would turn them into CAD drawings and save them for posterity, which would open up the possibility of reproducing the boats in the future.
We promptly discussed all of these possibilities with the editor of Wooden Boat Magazine, Tom Jackson, over dinner with his wife Corinne, before we sailed together up the Eggemoggin Reach on our first day on the water. Later we also talked to wood boat legend Willits Ansel, who suggested to involve another expert, Greg Rössel. Meanwhile, Jonathan has signed up for a one-day workshop on Boat Documentation at the Calvert Marine Museum connected with the Museum Small Craft Association annual conference on October 7. This group is appropriately responsible for the publication of the classic book on Boat Documentation...
Given the strong ties that these experts have with the Wooden Boat School in Maine, we are exploring the possibility of getting a replica of one of the Arzanà boats re-built in time for the 35th anniversary of the Settemari Association in the summer of 2012, when we plan to take our rowing club to the US for a whole month, parading our diesona and a small flotilla of Venetian boats down the rivers Charles (Boston), Hudson (New York), Schuylkill (Philadelphia) and Potomac (Washington), thanks to the planning provided by teams of students from SUNY Cortland's program in Sports Management, under the guidance of another old friend, John Meehan, who is tenured at Hudson Valley Community College.
Just yesterday, President Obama gave a key speech on innovation at this very college. He would be proud of the innovative ideas we developed with our old friends as we floated around Maine.
We will make sure that we wave at him when we pass the White House as we parade down the Potomac on our brand new, Maine-built, Venetian boat in 2012!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The WPI Santa Fe Project Center is born

Over the summer, WPI's Provost John Orr gave the green flag for the creation of the WPI Santa Fe Project Center (SFPC) so today all six of our pioneering students who blazed the trail this past spring were at the WPI Global Project Fair, manning the first official Santa Fe table, where dozens of sophomores stopped to ask them questions about the Center they helped create. In the upcoming weeks, I will be offering a number of Information Sessions where interested students will be able to hear more about the new center, so they can decide if Santa Fe is where they want to complete their Interactive Qualifying Project in term D (March-April) of 2011.
Meanwhile, I have also been actively recruiting an interim contingent of about 12 students to bring to Santa Fe this coming spring of 2010 for the second round of preliminary projects just ahead of the first official group of 24-28 the following year.
I will be interviewing for the 2011 season when I fly back from Venice during Thanksgiving week for my customary marathon interview sessions to recruit the new breed of Venice, Boston and now Santa Fe students for the next academic year. The connection between Santa Fe and Venice, which was further cemented by Steve Guerin' s recent visit to Venice for the delivery of the Boat Traffic Simtable to the City's Traffic department, will be strengthened by the upcoming collaborations on several of the new Venice projects which we are developing this term. Simon Mehalek, chief technical officer of the Santa Fe Complex will travel to Venice this fall to be "scientist in residence" at the Venice Project Center, supporting all of the projects that will conclude the protracted 20th anniversary year for the VPC.
Finally, I am also recruiting WPI seniors to work on technical Major Qualifying Projects that will help us break new grounds in our quest to create an Ambient Platform for urban maintenance, management and planning based on the principles of City Knowledge. These joint research efforts will be conducted both in Venice and in Santa Fe, offering projects and internships in the summer and in the terms when the two centers operate (B in Venice and D in Santa Fe).
In true City Knowledge spirit, we should issue a birth certificate for the newly born Santa Fe Project Center!