The Art of Infiltrating Cultures

In tempi come questi…

… la fuga è l’unico mezzo per mantenersi vivi e continuare a sognare.

[Henri Laborit, 1976]

In times like these, it seems indeed, escaping is the only way to stay alive and continue to dream.

Henry Laborit wrote this in his “Éloge à la fuite“, and although the original text is in French, somehow it does have a more melodic tone to it in Italian.

La fuga, la fuite: not really the same as an escape. Something gets lost in translation, compromising the depth of this necessary manoeuvre. This manoeuvre, la fuite, often presents itself as the only path for those who need to mess up with geography in order to find inner peace.

This quote sings in Italian because it was used in Sagapò: a 1953 book by Italian writer Renzo Biasion, which was later adapted into the 1991 film Mediterraneo by Gabriele Salvatores. In its beauty and it’s cruelty, this comedy touches several multilevel topics.

One of the many scenes that made me laugh in sympathy was that in which “il disertore”, not seduced like the rest of his compatriots by the little Greek island and its peaceful inhabitants, tries once more to convince them to leave and go home. And in fury he drinks his coffee as an Italian espresso, pouring all the coffee grounds into his mouth. His friends laugh, already used to the pace of Greek coffee.

Una faccia una razza

Greek coffee is made to be drunk slowly, contemplating life, absorbing the moment, the light of the day and the company. Greek coffee is not a destination.
Italian coffee is a spark of bliss in a busy day, made to be drunk fast, vigorously. Italian coffee is a pat on the shoulder, an encouragement to keep going.

In this scene “il disertore” goes off the rails in frustration and unhappiness… This depicts a very important difference between two nations that are, as it has so many times said, “una faccia, una razza”. Because to be fully integrated into a new culture, you do need to let go of some of the conceptions that you bring with you from your own – or previous – culture. You need to DIE a little, if you want, in order to be more ALIVE. This is a step that many people in the world take with vehemence. And even so, it is a gest that hardly gets any recognition. A glamourless gest.

Adaptation and Exploration

The difficulty of moving and taking in a new culture, which cannot be neglected, doesn’t change the fact that today’s world is very different from that of Laborit’s, from that of Mediterraneo’s, or even from the baby-boomer generation.

I could adapt the initial quote to: “in times like this, escaping is futile”. Never has it been so easy to escape, but never has it been so unattainable. Because la fuga, la fuite, the concept of escaping from one’s own existence and finding a new life to start over from, it is all just a fantasy. I am not talking about changing one’s name, holding a fake passport, being a spy… this is all very well for action movies but that is not what I’m saying here. I talk about the very concept of discovering the world and being one with the communities one encounters.

One can only gulp in jealousy when hearing how “discovering the world” was for the previous generations. Those who could, of course. Those that travelled and moved to other countries, the first “expats” of our modern society. Such privileged individuals. They discovered the world when it was still fascinating and thrilling, yet they already had the means to do it. The Jacques Cousteaus of the world, being the first human to reach a summit or a sea bottom.

The escapes of today

Today flying and travelling is so democratised that almost anyone can do it – living in rich countries, that is. It is much easier to deal with bureaucracy, with visa agreements between countries, with cheap airline tickets. One can even travel without moving from one’s home. While travelling and staying connected go hand in hand, discovery is replaced by repetition of experiences, a competition.
(I reiterate: this is true for middle and upper class from rich countries, mostly. I wouldn’t want to start arguing how unfair it all is, when freedom of movement lets us explore far away lands at no cost by simply showing a Western passport, when those same people would have to go through financial and bureaucratic hell to visit our homeland).

Moving to a new country, living in exile, is easier than ever – but truly escaping is the most unattainable venture. And this might be because there seems to be less things one can let go off, or adopt, in order to assimilate a new culture. Culture is giving way to globalisation. Everything is connected in a way that it is all becoming the same, but in a different place. Same same but different. Truly that.


Home versus Homes

This takes me back to “il disertore”. He himself was a constant fugitive – although in his case he was escaping from imposed army service and unwilling separation from his pregnant wife. In his case too, escaping was the only way to stay alive and keep dreaming. I believe that the quote opening the movie does not refer to “il disertore”, but to his comrades that stay put, away from the war, in a paradise island for two years instead of going back to a joyless country ruled by fascism. And the truth is that escaping from “home” or escaping to go “home” is in the end the same. It is a cry for freedom. When that freedom means self-determining what is good for oneself. It means that your voice does not become overpowered by other voices. It means that “home” is where you want it to be.

I believe that it takes as much guts to escape from home and adopt a new culture, as it takes to go back to a previously abandoned home. To go back with the anticipated disappointment that it is no longer home and you are no longer you. This is probably why it took Ulysses so long to get back to Ithaka in the Odyssey. And this is why all the Ithakas of the world wait for us, patiently, preparing for a bitter-sweet welcome home.


A tutti questi qui stanne scappando…

What do you think?

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