G-Spot

All along the pier, as you walk from the maritime museum to the Molo Vecchio, there’s a thriving informal economy. On the landward side, stallholders hawk fruit, vegetables, cheese, and sausage from makeshift metal stands covered by a yellow awning.

Behind them, traffic roars on an elevated highway, below which the classic Italian swarm of Vespas and Fiats buzzes angrily. I successfully dodged them in my little Fiat Punto, so I didn’t get stung.

Fiats formed an integral part of my youth, and I warm at the thought of the little creatures. Inside them, I’ve done practically all you can imagine, whether in motion or stationary—which seems appropriate, since fiat means make it happen, or get it done.

I recall one such machine, a rear-engined cinquecento, steaming (and I mean that) on the coastal road when suddenly the engine lost all power. I coasted to a standstill in a haze of horns. Upon inspection, the accelerator cable had snapped—I had perfected the art of flying in that car, but not by wire.

I passed the cable out through the engine lid, known elsewhere as the trunk, slipped it through the open window and tied it to my left shoulder. I accelerated toward my destination by leaning forward, and overtook by craning over the wheel. I felt like a biker encased in tortellini.

All along the edge of the new pier in Genoa are African immigrants selling crap. Cheap sunglasses, miniature souvenir galeras, and fridge magnets. Some guys were selling counterfeit bags, purses—all shiny, all cheap. And judging by the confidential nature of some of the transactions, I suspect they might also trade in a few undisplayed wares.

These men are very dark-skinned, their origins clearly in Central Africa. People from the Congo, some of the Guineas, Senegal, perhaps Angola. In my experience such men don’t like to talk about their journey, but I would bet more than one is a survivor of the infamous Lampedusa run.

The story of cross-border runs is always the same: during the colonial war, the passadores in Portugal would be paid to take draft-dodgers across the Pyrenees into France, fugitives who knew that capture in Franco’s Spain would mean a sure delivery to Portugal—which in turn would ensure four years in the paratroops in Guinea-Bissau, considered the most dangerous war theater. Often people-smugglers would abandon groups to almost certain capture near the Spanish border, saving themselves money and time.

Whether he deals in Mexicans smuggled into the U.S., or in containers full of Chinese on the port at Calais, the people-runner is always a hard-hearted and ruthless man. Upfront payments ensure no incentive exists to provide safe passage.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that so many people seem to want to come to a continent that many consider is dying economically. This is false irony, since life in Europe is peaceful, reasonably safe, and minimally affordable—so it seems to a native of Cabinda, Zimbabwe, or to a Syrian refugee.

So come they must, and come they do. The rows of coffins, the dead children, attest to the hideous inequality that constitutes our world. They warrant three minutes of TV, before returning to the US shutdown soap opera, or the next empty-headed show.

A mock-Spanish galleon sits on the dock at Genoa harbor. Among other things it's where Polanski filmed 'The Pirates'. For me, that's not much of a recommendation.

A mock-Spanish (Tunisian-built) galleon sits on the dock at Genoa harbor. Among other things it was where Polanski filmed ‘The Pirates’. For me, that’s not much of a recommendation.

So it would seem also to a Genovese fighting the Turk at the battle of Otranto, back in 1480. The convulsions in the two arch-rival city states of Venice and Genoa were responsible for Italian immigration to Iberia, and may well have been responsible for the arrival of Columbus in Portugal.

The Galata museum is disappointing in that regard—Like a Gucci bag, it speaks more to style than substance. I was hoping to learn much more about Columbus, and about his voyages. I saw a lot of interactive displays, and models of various kinds, but nothing to document the impact of Genoa’s prodigal son. Apparently there’s a room on the ground floor with a range of materials on Columbus, but it’s hardly prominent, and I missed it—it’ll keep for the next time.

By far the best part of the museum is the top-floor exhibition of the exodus of Italians to the New World, four hundred years later. There are wonderful shots of São Paulo, back in the days when it wasn’t a giant car park. I particularly liked one of a bonde, which is what Brazilians call a tram. This one announced it was heading for ‘Liberdade’, and I think I prefer a streetcar called freedom to one named desire.

But honestly? The exhibits at Bremerhaven in Germany, and Halifax, Canada, are both superior—and both have found space in these pages.

Time is the great leveller, if you excuse the pun, and I needed to explore the wonders of Italian cuisine one last time. So I didn’t make it to the house where the Admiral of the Ocean Sea lived as a youngster, although the museum shows an urn that claims to contain the ashes of Columbus—having seen Vasco da Gama buried in both Cochim and Portugal, I take that with a pinch of salt. It seems anyhow that I would have drawn a blank on that visit—the house is open only on weekends.

Italian restaurants are full. That struck me as a sharp contrast to Portugal. The vatlive site (oxymoron alert) states.

The Portuguese VAT rate for restaurants and catering services may be reduced in the forthcoming 2014 Budget.

The VAT rate was increased several years ago from the reduced rate of 13% in 2010.  It has estimated benefit for the increase is around €200m per annum, and the corresponding loss in corporate income tax from restaurants is €7m plus the rise in unemployment contributions is €21m.  So, in economic terms, the VAT rise was a success.

Apart from the fact that the website authors have difficulty forming sentences, they apparently can’t distinguish between finance and economics. Italians use a flat tax rate of ten percent for restaurants, and the place I ate in filled up in a New York minute.

The two waitresses covering the floor were small, thin, and manically driven. Any American would have thought them insufferably rude. They were always in transit when you summoned them over, and the only sign of life was a voice from the back of their heads muttering arrivo. Which they invariably did. Not a word of English in sight, and actually more Genovese than Italian.

It’s a tough town, strictly business, the port area a magnet for all sorts, just at it must have been five centuries ago.

I headed north on the freeway, my accelerator one giant dead spot. Vans sped past me up the long hills of Piedmonte at over a hundred miles an hour. I smiled, contented with my Punto, Sepia, and Nebbiolo. Va bene.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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