I let the girl at the Lisbon check-in counter know my final destination, having previously warned her it was a rather rude word. She smiled and said that she’d heard it before, typing my data into her computer. Those last four letters are pretty much taboo, and unlike the Anglo-Saxon variety, it’s never used as an insult, in the sense that you might call someone that. My travel route was further complicated by the fact that the airport that serves Ancona is called Falconaro.

You probably think I’m exaggerating, but back in the days of fascism in Portugal, the European arm of GM came out with a new automobile called the Opel Ascona. You have to be extremely prudent with vehicle names, since what sounds promising and exotic in your language may tell an entirely different story elsewhere. Decades ago Vauxhall, or GM UK, released the Nova. In Spanish that means no-va i.e. doesn’t go, so the Opel equivalent became the Corsa. In a more  obscene vein, the Mitsubishi Pajero SUV had to be rechristened Montero in the U.S. To the Latino population, the original name meant Mitsubishi Wanker, or if you like alliteration, the Mitsubishi Masturbator.

And back in the days of Portuguese Africa, there was a well known ad in Angola for US-made Amana airconditioners:

‘Durma bem, durma com Amana.’

Since mana is a diminutive of sister (as it is in Spanish, from the word hermana), the ad literally recommended that you ‘sleep well, sleep with sis.’ Not well received in a catholic country. At that time the dictator Salazar had a people pleasing policy known as the three Fs―Fado, Football, Fátima. Music, Sport, Religion. The modern day version of the Roman Bread and Circus. So in 1970’s Portugal, given it would not do to circulate in a vehicle that advertised its name on the trunk in bold chrome as the Opel Cunt, the more genteel 1604S was used.

The town of Ancona (pop. 100,000) is of very old lineage, and apparently a destination for Portuguese Jews following the iniquities described in The India Road. The date of 1497 noted for the first arrivals is consistent with the policy instituted by Dom Manuel (the Fortunate), who sacrificed the Portuguese Jews in exchange for the hand of Infanta Isabel, daughter of the Catholic Kings of Spain. I tell it below, ending with the departure of the famed Jewish Astronomer Abraham Zacuto, the man who had supplied Vasco da Gama with solar declination tables for the period 1497-1500, just as he had for Bartolomeu Dias a decade before.

Dom Manoel’s wedding was a time of great happiness in the land. In the months that followed, all Jewish children under the age of fourteen were to be taken from their homes and raised as Catholics. Hard on the parents? There was a simple solution: baptism. Families faked conversion and practiced in secrecy. Many emigrated. Some despaired, and killed themselves and their children. Dom Manoel’s spiritual advisers rejoiced. Like miniature Portuguese Torquemadas, they reveled in the ethnic cleansing.

The old king would have fixed them with his cold eyes, the bloodflecked irises sparking, and said, “For a small nation, tolerance is not a virtue, it is an imperative!”

By October 1497, Zacuto had left Portugal for ever.

Not much has physically changed since I was in Ancona twenty years ago. From its port, the car ferries leave for Patras, in Greece, and it has historical connections with the Balkans, particularly with Croatia. To the east, across the Adriatic, lie some of the greatest smuggling routes in the world. You are dealing with Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, the old Yugoslav republics. The rule of law is gradually replaced by the rule of the gun.

I tried (and failed) to locate the magnificently rundown hotel where I had stayed two decades back, because I wanted to post a photo here of Josef Stalin. Country Joe had worked as a waiter at the hotel prior to returning to Russia and reinventing himself as a mass murderer, and they had his picture up on the dining room wall. It was far more interesting than the food.

As if in some medieval curse, the town was subjected to severe earthquakes for a period of several years in the 1970’s, to the extent that there was an exodus, forcing the inhabitants to move up to the mountains. The walls along the port road were exactly as I remembered them, still fractured, patched with concrete here and there.

Never far from God, a thirty foot high mural at the eastern end of Ancona watches over the town.

In the draconian measures to reduce tax evasion in Italy, ownership of vehicles has been challenged against demonstrable earnings. A guy told me he was ordered to pay a large sum to the government because he owned a fifty thousand euro automobile. The presumption was that he had undeclared sources of income. An identical car in the US would have cost at most $30,000 because the taxation laws are totally different.

Instead of paying, he opted to sell the six year old Audi. The best offer he got was 5000 €, ten percent of its cost. Clearly, the economic picture in Italy right now is pretty bleak. The sharp dividing lines of the Italian boot don’t help. The top third has the industry, with automobiles, design, and manufacture; the mid-section of the boot has the large agro-industrial belt: dairy products, and some of the best wine in the world. Dollar for dollar, unquestionably above French wines. The south pays tax, but not to the government.

At the toe of the boot lies the Sicilian Mafia; at the vamp are the Neapolitan ‘Ndrangheta, and the Camorra, which controls the surrounding countryside.  In Bari, the Sacra Corona Unita forms the heel.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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