Posts Tagged ‘indignati’

The Story of Santa Claus

In #GlobalRevolution, Italy, March to Athens on 14 March 2012 at 13:42
March to Athens

Day 128-LIV, Bari.

St. Nicholas of Bari

Bari, March 14

Dear people,

The old town of Bari protrudes like a horn into the sea. It’s a place of mystery, a tale of 1001 Nights. The small white alleys wind around and lead you astray in unexpected directions. There are no straight intersecting roads like you find them in the cities of the West, built by either the Romans or the Greeks or the Americans. This old city belongs to the East. Wherever you find yourself within its ancient walls you can never see where you are going.

Suddenly a space opens up in front of you, a holy space adorned by an immaculate basilica. Here, people from all over the known world flog together in pilgrimage.

Bari is indeed a most venerable city, no less than Rome, or Jerusalem, or Mecca. For Bari is the posthumous home of Santa Claus.

It might seem a bit strange to associate Santa Claus with a sunny Mediterranean city like Bari, but they say it’s true, the man who is at the root of the legend, is buried right here in this basilica.

To the faithful, he is known as Saint Nicholas. He is venerated in the East and the West, by catholics and protestants, by believers and atheists. And they say he performed some mighty miraculous deeds during his lifetime.

Now, the facts don’t matter. The truth doesn’t matter. The only thing that really matters is the story.

Saint Nicholas lived in the Greco-Roman province of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, during the twilight years of the empire. He was bishop of Myra. His deeds are remembered with spectacular celebrations, twice a year, on the day of his death, the 6th of December, and on the day his remains arrived in Bari, the 9th of May.

On one of my previous travels I was fortunate enough to be in Bari to see the procession which narrated his miraculous acts.

In those closing years of antiquity, during a horrible famine, a ferocious butcher had slaughtered three children and turned them into ham. Saint Nicholas was invited to taste, but he knew. He revealed himself, he punished the butcher and he brought the children back to life.

The Saint was also famous for saving the honour of three adolescent sisters. They were so poor that they couldn’t afford a dowry, and without a husband they would probably have been forced to live their lives as prostitutes. But Saint Nicholas wouldn’t let it happen. At night, he filled the young girls’ stockings with riches, enough to guarantee them a happy marriage.

When famine struck again on another occasion, the Saint showed his mercy to a crew of sailors by multiplying their cargo of wheat, over and over again. It was enough to make bread and sweet spiced biscuits for many starving cities all over the East.

After Saint Nicholas passed away he was buried in his home ground where he was revered for many centuries by the faithful. But at a certain point, the faithful were conquered by an alien religion.

With the advance of Islam in the middle ages, many of the old centres of orthodox Christianity entered the vast domains of the caliphs and the sultans of the East.

At that time, the West was profoundly christian. The various cities competed with each other in piousness and status by collecting every type of holy memorabilia. Splinters of the cross, thorns of the crown, robes, bones, teeth and skulls. As a city you didn’t count if you didn’t own at least a piece of saint.

The most glorious cities of the age wouldn’t limit themselves to mere fingertips or toe nails. They wanted the entire skeletons. The sailors of Venice subtracted the remains of the evangelist St. Mark from the muslims in Egypt. And with another memorable secret operation, the sailors from Bari raided the muslim city of Myra, dug up Saint Nicholas, carried him off to the harbour, and took him home.

Thus, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of Bari.

In the centuries that followed Bari would become part of the kingdom of Naples, and as such it came to be dominated by Spain.

This might explain why people in another pious seafaring nation – Holland – thought that Saint Nicholas came from the Iberian peninsula. In another version, the ‘Spanish connection’ comes from the oranges. These usually arrived in Holland from Spain during the beginning of December, when the Saint came to the Low Lands to give sweets to the children who had been good, and whip lashes to those who had been bad.

Holland is especially devoted to Saint Nicholas. Up to today, the Saint is celebrated every year on the evening of December 5 with songs, surprises and sweets. The people call him Sinterklaas.

When the Dutch founded the city of New Amsterdam in 1625, they brought their Sinterklaas tradition to America. Together with other Dutch characteristics and morals, it remained a part of the American culture also after the city was taken over by the English and renamed New York in 1664.

During colonial times, the figure of Saint Nicholas merged with the British character of Father Christmas, and his feast was integrated with Christmas celebrations. The Americans called him Santa Claus. His place on the calendar was taken over by the local holiday of Thanksgiving

However many times the veneration for the original Byzantine saint had changed, he had always been regarded as a moral figure. A judge of good and evil. A benevolent father who rewards his faithful, but who isn’t afraid to punish them in case they deserve it.

The last and most radical change of image, both in style and content, would come in the 20th century, when Santa Claus was adopted by the Coca-Cola Company.

Under the influence of the beverage brewer, Santa changed his bishop’s robe for a bright red polar outfit. He became a jolly old man, with a smile for all. He wouldn’t judge you. He would reward you not on the base of your conduct, but on the base of you purchasing power. He would deliver all the presents you could afford on Christmas eve, on board his flying raindeer sleigh.

Old Saint Nick means different things to different people all over the world. For some he is the original Byzantine saint, for others he is the jolly old man with a sexy bottle in his hand, and for others yet he is everything in between.

One way or another, Santa means something to all of us. Also to the March to Athens.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of Bari, he is the patron saint of sailors, he is the patron saint of all Greece. And as it turns out, ‘Nikolaus’ means ‘victory of the people’.

Santa is the 99%. He is our man.


Food Sovereignty

In #GlobalRevolution, Italy, March to Athens on 13 March 2012 at 19:29
March to Athens
Day 127-LIII, Bari.

Popular Assembly in Bari

Bari, March 13

Dear people,

One of the greatest Dutch narrators of the 20th century is Marten Toonder. His life work, the Oliver B. Bumble epic, is a monument of Dutch literature in text and drawing, a brilliant and sometimes prophetic mirror of contemporary society. Just to give an example, the ‘Big Brother’ reality show is one of Holland’s most succesful export products. But it wasn’t invented by Endemol Corporation. The idea comes from a 1960s Oliver B. Bumble story.

In another episode from those years, Toonder explains his readers the basis of economics so that everyone can understand.

“If you have little, you will lose it to someone who has a lot. If you have a lot, you will only gain more.”

On top of the pyramid there are the Bovenbazen or ‘Upper Bosses’, the ten tycoons that own Everything.

The upper bosses live together in the Golden Mountains, and they lead a sad and boring life. They don’t do anything else but exchange their possessions between themselves every day of the year.

When the hero of the story accidently becomes part of this most exclusive club, his colleagues explain him some of the basic rules of business.

“Remember. Nature is our most important enemy. Because nature reproduces itself. I hope you understand what I mean…”

Yesterday evening’s popular assembly was about food sovereignty. It was organised together with various small scale farmers from the zone. And what I heard made me think of this basic rule of business.

Today’s agricultural business has taken the shape of a global Leviathan. The seed multinationals control the greater part of the crop market and impose their seeds on local farmers. They only sell the most productive types, to the detriment of biodiversity. Often these seeds are patented and genetically modified in such a way that they become steril.

Big business has succeeded in impeding nature to reproduce. The farmers are forced to buy new seeds every year.

But the seeds are only a part of the story. In industrial agriculture the soil erodes and because of monoculture the crops are very susceptible to diseases. You won’t be able to grow them without making use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides which are supplied by the same seed company.

Things get even worse. In France there is said to be a law that forbids farmers to replant the seeds of their crops…

Very silently big business is destroying ten thousand years of human agricultural heritage, for profit. In the face of this, seed banks are being set up by governments and farmers to preserve or control the original seeds, uncontaminated by cross breeding with genetically modified ones.

The subject of food sovereignty is one of many fronts in the battle against the impending control society. Many people in organical farms are already active in this battle, trying to save local crops, trying to encourage diversity and the consumption of sustainably grown products.

The upper bosses are in control the financial markets, the production and distribution system, the pharmaceutical industry, the national banks and governments, shielding themselves with patents on all sides. They are about to control the building blocks of life, and they are taking away control over our drinking water and our food supply.

The revolution is not just a romantic’s dream. It’s a bloody necessity.

With a Little Help from the Dogs

In Italy, March to Athens on 13 March 2012 at 13:03

March to Athens

Day 126-LII, Bari

Day 127-LIII, Bari

Bari, March 13

Dear people,

We have reached the sea, but we still haven’t decided which Greek port we want to sail to. It was the first point on yesterday’s internal assembly. Patras or Igoumenitsa.

One thing that we did decide upon was that we don’t want to split up the march. After that we took a vote to get a general idea of people’s preferences.

It was deadlocked ten to ten. And the interesting thing was that our group was rigourously divided along national lines. All the French but one voted for Igoumenitsa. And except for three abstentions, all the Spanish but one voted for Patras. The Italians were divided, and one of them honoured local custom by switching sides.

As you all know, I myself am very much in favour of Igoumenitsa.

Here in Bari we have also been joined by an American blogger from Occupy San Diego. He abstained, but in the end he made a very simple observation.

“I think the solution is already in the name. March to Athens. If there weren’t a sea to cross, we would have kept on marching. The boat trip should serve to cross the sea, not to shortcut the march.”

To unblock the situation, the moderator asked people if anyone had radical objections against one of the two ports. Three of us were ready to block Patras, but in order to avoid conflict no-one did.

If the assembly would have decided to go to Patras, I wouldn’t have blocked it either. I would probably have left the march instead.

The assembly decided to send a large transversal delegation to the navigation companies.

 At the port terminal, neither of the two companies made any trouble with regard to our shopping carts, but if we went to Patras, the dogs would need to have some kind of passport.

The dogs are with us since we crossed the Apeninnes. They are shepherd dogs decided, and they probably considered us to be a herd that needed to be guided. For some, this implied a form of ‘verticality’, and they denounced it. But one of the few principles of our movement is that we are inclusive, so everyone can come along.

The Greek company serving Igoumenitsa would close an eye on it. And apart from that, Patras is twice as expensive.

So that more or less sealed it. The dogs broke the deadlock, but at the moment the assembly still has to confirm the final decision.

Latest news, this right in. It’s just passed one o’clock. The assembly has confirmed. We are going to Igoumenitsa. We will depart tomorrow evening at seven. We will arrive thursday morning March 15 in Greece at seven o’clock in the morning.

Scenes from Acampada Bari

Coast to Coast

In Italy, March to Athens on 11 March 2012 at 23:07
March to Athens

Day 125-LI, from Palo del Colle to Bari, 17 km.

‘And so it came to pass, on the eleventh day of March in the year of our Lord 2012 that the brave marchers to Athens finally reached the most venerable city of Bari…’

Bari, March 11

Dear people,

The wind comes from sea. It batters the plains and brings along the sweet odour of salt and spices. The first faint hints of the East are in the air.

It’s not just the air, or the odours. Also the colours are changing. Since we descended down the mountains into Apulia everything started to get brighter. The green of the hills, the white marble stones of the old town centres. I’m sure I could say the same about the blue sky, if we had been lucky enough to see it.

Irsina, Gravina, Altamura, Toritto, Palo. Each of them is a maze of bright alleyways and snow white houses with iron balconies. When you arrive there during the hour of the siesta, like we do, you will not find a living soul there, except for an occasional cat.

Acampada Palo del Colle

Thanks to the people of Palo del Colle

Then you come closer to the sea, and the wind gets stronger. You hop from one suburb to the other, and then you finally find yourself in front of Bari, one of the places which bears the name of ‘gateway to the East’.

I’m walking together with comrade Milton from Naples, and just before Bari we get lost. We don’t want to take the national road, but every other road we take seems to lead us away from the metropolis, or ends up being blocked.

We walk for hours and hours through the desert of an industrial park, through olive groves, past abandoned villas and old outskirts in ruins. All the while we can see the city in the distance on all sides, like a fata morgana, but we don’t seem to reach it. It’s as though Bari were protected by some kind of magnetic shield, and only the faithful can enter.

As a last resort I direct a prayer to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of the city, asking him to let us through. And lo! a small road opens up in front us. Our hearts are beating full of expectation while we start following the path that takes us straight into Bari at sunset.

Comrade Milton and the sunset

"The whole world is our fatherland"

When we reach the old centre we find the others have already been camped for hours in one of the most beautiful squares. It’s close to the boulevard. At night, when all the other sounds die down, we can hear the sound of the waves in the distance.

We have made it. We crossed Italy coast to coast. Some of us have even descended the entire peninsula. Together we sit down around the fire. We toast, and while the luscious odour of hashish rises up from the circle, we reminisce about the various episodes of the march.

Then a police car stops by. The driver addresses us with a smile and with curiosity. He asks where we are from, where we’re going and why. We explain it briefly, we give him a flyer. He reads it, he nods, and he says: “Very well. Keep up the good work.” Then he drives off.

"Only when the power of love will be bigger than the love of power, the world will know peace."

Acampada Bari in the early morning light

Smurf Land

In Italy, March to Athens on 10 March 2012 at 17:58
March to Athens

Day 123-XLIX, from Altamura to Toritto, 23 km.

Day 124-L, from Toritto to Palo del Colle, 8 km.


Palo del Colle, March 10

Dear people,

The walk from Altamura into the plains was the worst. Twenty kilometres straight along a busy national road in the rain. There is nothing we can do but push on at an elevated pace to get it over with.

Finally the last few kilometres we have the road all for ourselves. It’s not yet in use, so we’re able to inaugurate it with our shopping carts. The rain has stopped, and in the olives fields along the road our efforts are rewarded by the view of the trulli.

A trullo is a typical Apulian peasant house. It looks a bit like the homes of the Smurfs. I adore them. When I was only a couple of years old, I wanted to travel to find the village of the Smurfs. Unfortunately, back then I didn’t find it, but I knew that some day I would. And indeed, I did.

At about fifty kilometres further south from here there is a village which is almost exclusively made up of trulli. It’s called Alberobello. You should see it. It’s even better than Disneyland.

It’s already dark when everyone has reached Toritto, the first suburb in the gravity zone of Bari. Tonight we would prefer a place with a roof, but there is none to be found, so we take the square. The sole officer on duty makes a worried phone call and then leaves us in peace.

News from Athens is coming in. Our people on the spot have grudgingly accepted May 5 as the day on which ‘Agora Athens’ will begin. They would have preferred to start a week earlier, but in the absence of convincing reasons there was no way that our assembly would agree to change the date of arrival. With that, the hot issue of the date is finally closed.

Other more interesting news concerns the rumours of a German march which will start in Patras on May 2 and which will arrive in Athens on May 15. Then there is even talk of a bicycle march which will start in Holland to cross all of Europe and arrive in Greece through the Balcans. It sounds great, and I hope it won’t turn out to be just rumours.

Comrade Bobò

Comrade José Miguel cleaning the square

Later on in the evening, people from the association Libera, which manages the real estate confiscated from the mafia, open the entrance of their building on the square, so that we can find shelter in case of rain.

Now, for me electricity is a daily necessity, and I’m lucky enough to find a place in the entrance where I can plug in my laptop. Today I won’t write any updates. From all the various fronts of the revolution, messages are coming in. From Jesus Christ, who is participating in one of the marches going to Paris for the French elections, from Spain, from Greece, from Holland. I want to answer them all.

But every now and then, people notice me and they gather around. They want to know everything about the march. How many people we are, where we are from, when the march has started, when we will arrive, what we hope to accomplish, etc.

I must have answered all these question at least a thousand times, and every time I put away my computer and I answer them again, with the same enthusiasm. Because I’m well aware that if ever I would say ‘Not now, I have other things to do’, I would have ceased to be a revolutionary.

So I talk to people all evening. I see the admiration in their eyes whenever I speak about our march. And when all the others have already gone to sleep, the locals bring their things to me. Late at night, when I finally finish my letters, there’s a pile of pizzas next to me, bags full of pastries for breakfast, softdrinks, cigarettes etc. I get up, and while I carry everything to the camp, a car stops in front of me, a window rolls down. It’s one of the people I met earlier this evening. “Hey Oscar, will you come grab a beer?”

“Thanks man, but not tonight. It’s really time for me to get some sleep.”

Arriving in Palo del Colle

Bringing the vessel safely to port



In Italy, March to Athens on 8 March 2012 at 23:19

March to Athens
Day 122-XLVIII, Altamura.

Acampada Altamura after the rain

Altamura, March 8

Dear people,

Where the police didn’t succeed, the weather did. At least in part. Last night the rains came down, and when it started again this afternoon we were a lot less bold than when we took the square the day before. Those of us whose tents hadn’t resisted started to seek shelter under a roof.

It was a real shame. Not only because the rain brings down the morale, but also because it impeded us once again to hold a popular assembly. The last serious popular assemblies we held were in Potenza and in Vietri.

Today we hide under the arches of the old cathedral for an assembly among ourselves. The tensions between us and our people in Athens haven’t yet faded away, and apart from that we have to decide to go to Igoumenitsa or Patras.

Even though I always try to keep my distance, I obviously have my opinions, and I have shifted my position a bit since I joined the march in Rome. By now, I have made a tacit alliance with the Old Man. We have come to appreciate each other, and we share the same long term goals. So whenever the assembly is about to decide on something important we meet up for a petit conseil de guerre, ‘a small war council’.

Instead of exasperating the assembly by simply blocking proposals, we try to prepare the terrain by measuring the spirits and trying to convince people before the assembly starts.

At the moment the important thing is to make sure we go to Igoumenitsa instead of Patras. Most of the French are in favour of Igoumenitsa. They did more than 1500 kilometres of march already, so 500 more won’t be a problem. Many of the Spanish are in favour of Patras. They want to walk less with the excuse that ‘we can do more propaganda in the villages we pass.’

Now, those of you who have been following my adventures, know very well that I don’t take myself – or life as a whole – completely serious. I like to play. And today I played the role of orator to defend the cause of Igoumenitsa. The original was in Italian…

“Dear comrades,

First of all, I would like to remind you that if we didn’t have the fortune of possessing a well filled treasury, then Patras wouldn’t have been an option at all, and we wouldn’t be here discussing about it.

If we decide to go to Patras, we will empty our treasury. And with all the unknown factors of Greece ahead there might come a day that we will bitterly regret it.

Having said this, there are a lot of more or less valid reasons to go to Patras.

We will be able to do more propaganda. We will be under less pressure. We will be able to choose between many possible routes, etc. But most of all we will have more time. Indeed, we will have so much time that we could easily take an entire month of holiday before continuing our march and still be in Athens before the fifth of May.

But I sense that the real reason why people would want to go to Patras is because it would mean we wouldn’t have to walk so much.

To me, Patras smells very much like the ‘easy way out’. I would interpret it as a sign of weakness, almost of defeat. And not just me.

My proposed route from Igoumenitsa

Surely I would understand us taking this option into consideration if we really didn’t have enough time. But I can assure you, with all the data at hand, that we can easily cross all of Greece and reach Athens before May 5, respecting the consensus that we reached at Sermoneta. [15 to 20 km a day. Two days of rest per week]

For me, this would be reason enough to go to Igoumenitsa. But maybe not for you.

That is why I want you all to realise very well what we are doing, and what we have already achieved.

Tomorrow this march will be four months old. Some of us have done it all, right from the start in Nice. And many of us have walked the greater part of it.

Not me. I have only been with you since Rome. But all the same, it has been a pleasure and an honour to walk with you people.

In these past four months the march has crossed the mountains three times, in winter.

I can tell you that not even Hannibal, nor Caesar, have ever done something similar.

Our march has encountered the snow, it has resisted against the freezing cold, against persisent rains, hail storms and more.

So here we are. We have reached the other end of Italy, and with our efforts we have conquered the hearts of the people we encountered on the way.

And now that spring is finally upon us, I cannot conceive the possibility that these hardened veterans would choose to sacrifice our treasury to bypass most of Greece and take the easy way out, going to Patras.

I honestly think that everyone who is to be considered a real marcher of the March to Athens has the moral obligation, towards him- or herself, towards the people who support us, and towards history, to finish this march in grand style by crossing all of Greece, starting in Igoumenitsa.”

Even though it was a tongue-in-cheek speech, the French loved it. They nicknamed me Cicero. I hope it will be enough. For now we haven’t decided yet. Whenever we have, you will be the first to know.


Drying a sleeping bag on the victory monument

Same Old Story

In Italy, March to Athens on 7 March 2012 at 22:16

March to Athens

Day 121-XLVII, from Gravina in Puglia to Altamura, 12 km.

Altamura, March 7

Dear people,

The amount of stories is endless. I have preferred to talk to you a bit about the briganti while we crossed the mountains of Lucania. Because even though we are peaceful, we share their indignation against the state. And we have adopted their battle cry which we have sung whenever we found ourselves confronted by police or carabinieri… “Hey! Ho! Hahahaha!”

I could also have told you about Padre Pio, the local saint which is venerated all over Italy, but particularly here. I could have told you about local specialties and customs, about the practice of witchcraft…

Camp in Gravina

None of it all. But there is one thing that I still want to touch upon before we march further into Apulia. It’s about the basis of our current economy. Petroleum.

The region of Basilicata – the official name of Lucania – is one of the few territories in continental Europe, maybe the only one, where there’s oil to be found.

I’ve seen the installations here, on one of my previous travels. I’ve seen the chimneys burning away the natural gas 24 hours a day.

It has only been a few decades since the drilling began, but since then things around here have started to change. Real estate values have dropped, the environment has been polluted, and the local underworld which hadn’t previously been active here, started to become attracted by this new ‘market’.

Arrival in Altamura

There’s a strong movement in Basilicata active against the oil industry. People are angry, mainly because they feel colonised. Big oil takes away their resources, but hardly any of the profits return to the local population. Fuel prices here are as high as anywhere else. So yes, times have changed, but one way or another the south has remained a territory of exploitation.

Comrade Max


On the Cathedral square in Altamura


We reach Altamura, the ‘city of bread’, and we take the central square.

Police arrive. They had been informed by their colleagues from Gravina for a change. They start off on the wrong tone.

‘You weren’t supposed to occupy this square. We had agreed you would put up your tents elsewhere.’

I know nothing of such an agreement, and neither do the people of the vanguard. I answer that we decide ourselves which square to occupy. In this case we put our tents right next to the cathedral.

“And who are you, the duke of Altamura?”

Not quite. I’m a modest person. But the officer doesn’t like me. On the phone with his commander he calls me sfacciato (insolent). At that point I change attitude. I have lived two years in Sicily, enough to take insults very personally.

When the commander and the rest of the local police force arrive, I make it clear that respect is the basis of a fruitful dialogue. “I will not talk to you,” I say to the officer in front of his superiors, “you have failed to show me respect.”

Honestly I don’t like to humiliate someone in public, and in this case it was mainly theatre, but it worked. Police were a lot more reasonable after that.

What followed was the same old story. They don’t want us to camp here. They want us to show documents. They forbid us to make a fire, etc.

The fire is lit under their noses. We refuse documents. They try to insist, they menace to use force. “We can still come to an agreement, but if our superiors in Bari give us the order, we will take you in.”

In the meantime a crowd has gathered around us. They like us. They talk to us. They bring us food and blankets.

“As you wish. But do tell your superiors that if they decide to use force against peaceful citizens, it will be broadcast live on the internet. It will go around all the social networks. The whole world will be able to watch it. So with all the bad publicity that would result from it, your superiors should think twice if it’s really worth the effort.”

It wasn’t, of course. Like many of their colleagues before them, the police very silently retreat, and leave the square to us.

Local public in Altamura



Outside Pressure

In Italy, March to Athens on 6 March 2012 at 19:18
March to Athens
Day 119-XLV, from the river valley to Irsina, 15 km.
Day 120-XLVI, from Irsina to Gravina in Puglia, 20 km.

View of Irsina

Gravina in Puglia, March 6

Dear people,

It was good to be out in the countryside for a day, with no noise around us, just goats and wide open space.

Yesterday we marched on Irsina. It’s a peculiar place, a dying village with two very distinct faces. When you arrive on top of the hill you have the old centre to your right. You will hardly encounter a living soul there. On your left there’s the new centre, where you will find what’s left of village life.

It starts to rain when we’re about to take the square, but local sympathisers help us find shelter in the form of the local sports centre. Later on they come by and bring us wine. One of them is a former councillor for the communist party. He is young, not older than me, but he recalls with the typical nostalgia of a communist that Irsina used to be the red beating heart of Basilicata.

Comrades Lucia, Chequita and the dog.

Those times are fading. The proletariate of Irsina was mainly made up of farmers. But with the industrialisation of agriculture, they left. The town used to have more than ten thousand citizens. Now there are little over three thousand, mainly old folks.

The others have emigrated, almost all of them to Sassuolo near Modena. There are now more people from Irsina living in Sassuolo than in Irsina itself. This is typical for many villages. Once a small nucleus has settled in the north, the rest follows.

Our sympathiser went up to live in Sassuolo as well. As a former councillor he gives us a little insight in Italian politics.

In general there are no real divisions. Almost everyone has surrendered to neoliberalism. Left and right have no problem to sell out public utilities to private enterprises. But when it comes to the past, people are ready to take to the barricades. In Sassuolo for example, a street had to be named after an obscure preacher, or a partisan, or an otherwise controversial figure. It led to heavy discussions, accusations and open warfare in townhall.

Arriving in Gravina

Today we descend further. We arrive in the green foothills, harbinger of the fertile plains of Apulia. The town is called Gravina, and you immediately feel that things are starting to change. We are emerging from the wilderness. We are once again on the treshold of civilization.

In the square we have an encounter with police. They are very polite, but they make the mistake of asking for ID. We refuse as usual. And when they say that we need a permit to camp, some of us start to laugh. The authorities try to convince us for a while, but when the entire group has arrived they give up. What amazes me most is the complete lack of communication between the police forces of the towns and villages in the region. Here in Gravina, they had no idea who we were, what we’re doing, where we’re from etc. You would think that someone would inform the next village about us, but no. The authorities might present themselves as a monolith, but behind the façade, their organisation is worse than our own.

On the square in Gravina

There’s discontent in the group, you can feel it. In the country side we reached a consensus that was a logical result of the decision taken in Potenza. As far as we are concerned, the Agora Athens begins on May 5, the last possible date of our arrival. After months and months of discussions, we finally produced a date. But a day later, our people in Athens, together with a few occasionals from Madrid and Barcelona, said they weren’t happy with it. They want us to be there on April 28.

The outside pressure starts to become pretty annoying. Some of the people who want us to be in Athens on April 28 have marched with us. They know how people reason here. If you are not walking, and you want to impose a date of arrival on those who are, then you will have but one response. The middle finger.

Our people in Athens wanted a date. Now they have one. I’m really sorry that they didn’t accept it, or showed a bit more of tact in negotiating an alternative.

As for me personally, I have my hopes set on the great demonstration of May 12, and not so much on Agora Athens. I’ve seen Agora Brussels and Agora Rome, and it wasn’t like people from other countries came to participate in large numbers, or that we produced something memorable. We were a couple of dozen, we all knew each other, and we organised our assemblies mainly for ourselves.

In my view, the march is much more important than the agora. The march reaches many people every day, in places that wouldn’t normally be touched by revolutionary fever. The view of us, pushing our shopping carts through the streets and camping on the squares in the cold is much more eloquent than all the words you can dedicate to a better world in a thematical assembly.

Sunset in Gravina

Memories of a Desperado

In Italy, March to Athens on 4 March 2012 at 23:07

March to Athens

Day 117-XLIII, from Tolve down the river valley, 20 km.

Day 118-XLIV, rest in the country side.

In the countryside, March 4

Dear people,

There is not a single inhabited centre for thirty kilometres in this region, so for the first time we decided to camp out in the open.

In Tolve our assembly attracted lots of people, but all of them were very shy. They only came to see, not to participate. On the other hand they were most generous. They brought us food, and they didn’t stop until we left. I myself couldn’t sit down on a bench to relax, without people coming to me with sweets, coffee and home-made sausages.

It was so much that we had to refuse at a certain point. Our shopping carts are bulking with pasta, bread, lentils, beans, fruit and pastries.

Yesterday we started to follow the river. That’s all we have to do from here on. Follow the stream, down to the sea. We take the old national road. There are no cars, only a tractor every now and then. We pass by little patches of forest and miles of green sloping hills, where the young winter grain is about to burst up towards the light.

Wild wild West

The river valley of Tolve

Some of the fields are blue. But those are not crops, on closer inspection. They are solar panels. It could be a view of the future. As a small scale biological farmer you would sow your fields with all that you need. Beans and corn and patatoes and hemp. Then you have a vegetable garden and an orchard, a vineyard and an olive grove. And finally, one field well exposed to the south you could use to cultivate energy.

At the crossing with the road that leads to Tricarico we halt. Above us there are half a dozen homes from the fascist era. They are all abandoned but one. The home of a sheperd.

Sowing energy

The abandoned farming community

This used to be such a farming community. But then the times changed, the shepherd tells us. After centuries of feudal servitude the peasants had finally inherited their land, and then they left it. They went to live in the villages and the cities, like their overlords had done, and they used machines instead of manual labour to work their estates.

The shepherd's herd in our camp

Around the fire

For once we have a real day off. No popular assemblies, no encounters with the locals, no electricity and no internet. I make use of this favourable circumstance to catch up on some reading. Something appropriate. The autobiography of one of the most famous briganti that ever roamed these lands. Come divenni brigante, or ‘How I became a desperado’, by Carmine Donatelli Crocco.

Comrade José Miguel out of socks

It’s a great narrative. Crocco takes you by the hand and leads you through the valley of his childhood, where his parents worked as peasants on the land of a local nobleman. He shows you around the little hut where they lived, eight people in a single space, the roof and the walls blackened by the ashes of the fire. Theirs was a life of misery, but Crocco recalls it with nostalgia and with immeasurable love for his parents, who worked like mules to grant their family a bit of happiness.

Then came the day that his mother was irrevocably offended by a local signorino. She had thrown herself at his throat in the defence of her children, and she had been heavily wounded by the aggressor.

Crocco wouldn’t forget the scene, and he wouldn’t forgive.

Later on, the same little nobleman barely escaped an assassination attempt. Crocco’s father was arrested by the royal guards, together with many others, even though he had a valid alibi. He served months of prison, until the real offender turned himself in. During that time, Crocco’s mother lost her mind, and Carmine and his brothers and sisters were scattered to work as underpaid peasants for various little nobles.

His mind had been poisoned, Crocco would write almost fifty years later in prison. He admits that he committed cruelties of all types, he has brought mourning into thousands of families. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he simply mentions the reasons of his anger.

When he reached eighteen years he was conscripted into the army of Naples. He had no choice. Only if you had enough money you could pay to avoid military service. If not you had to pay with your obedience, your time and possibly your life.

He got drilled as a soldier, and the experience definitely came in useful.

 One day he received a letter from his sister. Her honour had been blemished by a local townsman. Upon reading about it, Crocco immediately deserted. But before he fled the army he committed his first homicide by killing a fellow soldier who had offended him.

Back in town, he killed the townsman who had tried to ‘merchandise’ his sister’s honour, he took to the hills and he formed a gang of desperados.

La 'brigantessa' Michelina de Cesare

Crocco wasn’t planning to live his life as a fugitive. When the south was annexed by the north, he adhered to the new regime, hoping to be able to start all over. Later on, when he conquered Aliano – the village where Carlo Levi would spend most of his exile – he admits that he would gladly and peacefully live in this town as the local lord.

His hopes were vain. Crocco, together with most of the southern people were deceived by the new king. Deceived, and once again offended. The Piemontese never failed to show their utmost contempt towards the locals of the south.

Changing sides is an old Italian tradition. Crocco did so as well, more than once. Not out of cowardice, but out of deception. After the Piemontese had shown that they weren’t any better than the old regime, Crocco headed the reactionary resistance, collecting all discontent peasants and nobles under the banner of the old kingdom of Naples.

In many places the villages opened their gates, and Crocco was hailed as a liberator. If they didn’t surrender, they were conquered, plundered and destroyed. For a brief while Carmine Donatelli Crocco ruled over these lands like Hannibal and Spartacus had done many centuries before.

The king of Italy sent an army to destroy the menace of the desperados. But the army was defeated. Crocco was more than a simple brigante. He was a valourous condottiero. And different from many of his ferocious generals, he was capable of acknowledging the valour of his opponent, and of being merciful.

 During the height of his power, his name was on everybody’s lips. But some of the people who had adhered to the new kingdom spoke about him with contempt. The mayor of one of the villages near Crocco’s headquarters boasted that he could easily beat the desperados with the help of the local guard.

Crocco heard about it. He wrote a short letter to the mayor. ‘Dear mayor. I urge you to send me the flag, the portrait of the king, the portrait of Garibaldi and the village treasury. They are to be brought to me by the commander of the guard. If you don’t comply, I will come and get it myself. You have eight hours.’

Six hours later, the commander of the guard delivered all the requested goods and implored Crocco to spare the village.

In the long run it couldn’t last. The state kept sending down troops to the rebelious region, and many of the people who had supported the cause of the ancien regime switched sides again, depending on the how the wind was blowing.

Crocco was forced to keep fighting for his own survival and that of his two thousand men and women, without any political friends. He kept on plundering villages, he kept on committing cruelties, but slowly the balance slid to the other side.

During the last three years of his career as a desperado, he was limited to isolated attacks on coaches, travelers and farms. Many of his men got caught or gave themselves up, or got killed.

In the end, Crocco was betrayed by one of his generals. The Piemontese had offered this Judas life and liberty if he would lead them to his leader. He didn’t succeed, but the days of the desperados were at their end.

With twelve of his faithful men, Crocco continued to flee from justice, heading north to the Papal States, where he turned himself in to the pope.

The pope had him imprisoned, he didn’t extradite him to the Italian state, because that would mean he also had to extradite the small fortune that Crocco had on him when he reached Rome.

Six years he spent in a papal prison. Then Rome was turned over to Italy, and Crocco sent to trial.

He was sentenced to death, a sentence that was later changed into forced labour for life. In between, near the turn of the century, Carmine Crocco, the most legendary of desperados, found time to write his memories.

Those memories were handed to me in the form of a book by comrade Max. I had told him to look out for stories about the briganti in the towns we passed. Like I said, I had tried to speak to the elderly of Vaglio, but they didn’t tell me a thing. While reading Crocco’s autobiography I found out what might be the real reason why they didn’t want to remember the briganti

“We attack Vaglio, a village at six miles from Potenza which resists with admireable valour. The menace of destruction in case they don’t surrender only strengthens the tenacity with which the inhabitants defend their village. Our messengers are received with bullets and fire. Various of our men die in the process. Divided into four columns, we attack from four different sides. We occupy the village while the heavily fortified monastery continues to resist. Our troops, enraged by the unexpected defense, slaughter anyone they come across, men and women, and they set fire to the monastery. The village is plundered. Anyone steals whatever he can. We leave the monastery burning. The 16th day of November [1861].”

(from the autobiography of Carmine Crocco, pp. 117-18, translation yours truly)

They heyday of the desperados came to an end a few years later, after equally ferocious persecutions by the state. But it wasn’t the end of the phenomenon of brigantaggio.

Sporadic acts of guerilla continued all over the south throughout the 20th century. As late as the 1970s, the authorities in Calabria admitted that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of citizens in the wild mountains of the inland.

 Up until this very day, so the story goes, if you venture far off into the forests of Calabria, you might encounter the last of the desperados, living in their caves, preying on remote farms and unsuspecting wanderers…


Over the Top

In Italy, March to Athens on 2 March 2012 at 21:33

March to Athens
Day 115-XLI, from Potenza to Vaglio Basilicata, 12 km.
Day 116-XLII, from Vaglio to Tolve, 19 km.

Arrival on the top at Vaglio

Tolve, March 2

Dear people,

Yesterday at last we reached the mountain pass in Vaglio Basilicata. We enter the little village under the watchful eye of the elderly. They are all sitting in a row on the central square. Most of them were probably born here, they have known each other for all of their lives. And it’s possible that they never went far away from the village. They know the outside world from the radio first, the television later. They never got around to using internet. Then they see us arriving with our shopping carts, and their conversation begins to sparkle. We definitely made their day.

The elderly in the square are exclusively men. The women are at home cooking, or in church praying. When you venture into the little alley ways, you might encounter some of them. Little old ladies curved over their canes, dressed black as crows, spying at you suspiciously from under their veils.

Centuries of social distinction between the sexes can still be felt in these regions. In public, man commands. At home, woman is in charge. And typically, women are much more reserved than men. A couple of days ago, I met an old man on a country road and I asked him about the direction. We had a little conversation after that. From the garden of their house close by, his wife had noticed everything. And so she yelled to her husband, in dialect: “Walk on! Come here!”

“Wait, woman!” the old man answered. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dealt her a blow later on. Because woman may command at home, but she may never question her husband’s authority in public.

I Napoletani


Leaving the square in Potenza


In the square I spoke to some of the old men, because I’m trying to find out if the stories about the briganti are still part of the popular tradition.
The men didn’t want to talk. “It’s all in the past.” And so I wonder if they really don’t know anything, or if they don’t want to share their knowledge with an outsider.

Making a snowman


All around Melty the indignant snowman


In the 1860s, when Piemonte annexed the south of Italy, they imposed their taxes on the poor peasants of the zone.

If you had the fortune of possessing a goat, it was possible that one day the tax collector of the new kingdom of Italy would knock on your door and take away your goat. The only valuable possession left after that would be your gun. You would take it, you would seek refuge in the hills and you would start a war against the state.

The period of the briganti coincides more or less with that of the Old West in America. But while the West has turned into a myth that has become part of the collective memory of the western world as a whole, the story of the briganti has been forcefully forgotten.

The history of Italy as a nation begins with a civil war. The north sent an army to the south to quel the guerilla. After years of resistance the briganti were exterminated, often their women and children as well. The state won and erected monuments to its own glory. In the official version of what happened, the briganti were painted as ruthless outlaws. Any other version was banned.

So maybe it’s true. Maybe the old men in the village square don’t know anything at all.

Acampada Vaglio

Come daylight we prepare to start our descent. There’s excitement making its way through the group, because of the news coming in. While we are here, camped on a lonely mountain top between the last heaps of snow, a popular revolt is spreading all over Italy. It began in the Val di Susa, where the locals have been resisting against the construction of a high speed railway for years. They are well organised, and they have become a reference for all the various popular movements.

The last few days roads, motorways and railway stations have been blocked from Sicily up to the Alps. There has been a battle at the barricades on the A32 near Turin. Various villages in the valleys have been effectively taken over by the ‘No-Tav’ partisans.

We read about in the newspaper. We want to play our part. “Let’s do an action. Let’s block the closest motorway we can find…” Many people are ready to go straight away, but the assembly urges them to be patient. Our comrades in Val di Susa have called for a general strike and a complete block of Italy next week. We will be at Altamura, we have time, and we might heed the call…

Spring emerging on the mountain pass


Valley of the Castagno, in direction Puglia