Saturday, August 29, 2015


We enjoyed our one-night stay in Bologna, but had a nightmarish experience trying to leave the city. We got to the train station at 9:20 for our 9:58 train. The reader board in the waiting area showed our train, but without a platform number. We checked the train roster posted in the waiting area and it said it normally leaves from Platform 4, but when we got to that platform the reader board there showed a different train, one that would leave at 10:10. We waited ten minutes to see whether it would change to our train. We asked a police officer, who called somebody on his radio and told us Platform 10. We went over there, and found others waiting for our train; I never figured out how they knew about Platform 10—maybe they had an app that gave up-to-date details, or maybe all of them had asked police or other officials. It got to be 9:57, still no platform indicated on the board. Then finally something happened—it showed that it would be 15 minutes late, still no platform. After 15 minutes, it showed 30 minutes late, still no platform. We'd been standing for over an hour, as there were no benches on the platforms, and we had to keep moving as people lit up cigarettes. As the new time approached (10:25), suddenly a platform appeared on the board: Platform 3!

Everybody on Platform 10 rushed downstairs into the corridor to get to Platform 3. But the corridor was so blocked with people shoving in both directions, that it was almost a standstill. I felt a bit nauseous and claustrophobic, being trapped in a crowd (that's the nightmare aspect), and wondering whether the train would take off before we got to it. A woman near Les had a panic attack, and a police officer edged his way through the crowd to help her. Because I had less luggage, I made more forward progress than Les, and finally got up to Platform 3. I was prepared to stand in the doorway to prevent the train from leaving until Les could catch up. But in the end, even after Les got on, the train stayed there 10 minutes more. So there'd been no need for panic, but we had no way to know that as we struggled to get to our reserved train.

We got to San Benedetto del Tronto, where we spent a week at the Itala Kongreso, Italy's annual Esperanto convention. There were about 250 people, half Italians and half from 31 other countries. The week included many options: excursions every day, classes at three levels and two seminars in the mornings, talks in the afternoons, and entertainment in the evenings. As usual, often two or three things happening simultaneously, so one had to make decisions.

Banner announcing the convention

This was a very intellectual, academic, type of conference. The talks were all by university professor types. For example, a talk by a linguist about the appearance (or not) of definite articles ("the") and indefinite articles ("a") in European languages; some languages use both (English), some use neither (Russian), some use one but not the other; the speaker showed how, from 2000 years ago, articles spread from certain languages to others. Another very interesting talk, by a professor of linguistics, was on "Why should one read literature"; one fact I learned is that 40% of university graduates in the U.S. read no literature at all after graduation; I'm actually surprised that as many as 60% do read literature.

One ongoing seminar discussed the idea that the whole world is becoming more and more like the U.S. (e.g. individualistic, materialistic, businesses having a lot of power even in governmental and university affairs, using sophisticated advertising techniques to manipulate people's desires): is it true, and—if so—what are the consequences of that? Is there an alternative model, and how can we encourage that one? The discussion on topics like this is interesting, where the participants bring a perspective from many countries.

Our favorite talks were a three-part lecture series on the evolution of language, numbers, and calendars. An interesting point: the fact that 80 in French is quatre-vingt (four 20's) shows that in the past the French used base 20 for numbers. Also, in French and some other languages, the word for nine and new are the same or similar (e.g., neuf), indicating that they once had 8 as their base. Interesting fact: the days of the week in Latin-derived countries relate to the order of the things seen in the sky: moon (Lundo), Mars (Mardo), Mercury (Merkredo), Saturn (Saturday), etc. Another one that I didn't know: from 1929 to 1940 the Russian calendar had, first, 5 days in a week (skipping Saturday and Sunday), then 6 (in order to have one rest day). I'd like to have had a whole semester to cover the same material in a less rushed manner.

The organizer arranged for us to stay at a small (6-room) hotel above a cafe/bar. We had our breakfast in the bar, and dinners and suppers at the conference hotel where most of the events were held. Our breakfasts were totally decadent: a piece of delicious cake baked by the owner's wife, an exquisite cornetto (like a croissant, but in many wonderful flavors like pistachio, and so warm they melt in your mouth), a cup of fresh organic juice, grapes or a plum, and cappuccino.

We did three half-day walking excursions in the town, and one full-day excursion by tour bus. The walking tours had an Italian professional guide, who needed to be translated into Esperanto, which doubled the amount of talking. We prefer tours like in the Toronto event, where a local person, not a professional guide, leads the tour and talks only in Esperanto. Also, the pace was too slow for us; although I can easily walk five miles at a fast clip, I find it difficult to walk even one mile slowly, and it's even harder for me to stand for long periods listening to a guide. Often during the tours, the Italian guide would boom out each sentence, then the Esperanto translator would give his version in a soft voice difficult to hear, especially as the Italians in the group had already understood it and felt like it was OK to talk during the translated version.

One walk centered on the many statues in town. We liked the fact that each statue has a miniature one next to it, with Braille explanations, for blind people. Also to help the blind, many streets had textured pathways on the sidewalks, including ones leading to the sculptures. We'd first noticed these in Bern. Since the Esperanto Society for the Blind was holding its annual convention in conjunction with the Italian convention, these were nice features for them. Another tour was to the Museo del Mare, with its three sections: amphora, the local fishing industry, and fish and other sea creatures.

Whimsical statue in San Benedetto; note the miniature version on the left for blind people

We did an all-day excursion to several cities up the coast. The first one, Loreto, was our favorite, and we'd have liked to spend more time there. Les heard his beloved Eurasian collared dove for the first time in Italy, and captured his best photo yet.


The next stop was Recanati, where we toured the library of Giacomo Leopardi; he's a well-loved Italian poet. (An Italian fellow was horrified to find out that we'd never heard of Leopardi, and immediately recited a long poem by heart.) Our last town was Ancona. We visited the very unusual Museo Tattile Statale Omero, a tactile art museum where touching is not only allowed but encouraged. It contains sculptures, both originals and also copies of famous ones such as Michaelangelo's David, all geared for blind people to be able to get a sense of.


One evening a good one-woman play was presented, and on other evenings, there were concerts at the outdoor concert venue. One concert was by Kim Henriksen, a well-loved Esperanto rock singer (see a video from an earlier performance). All these evening events started at 9:30, and we were always surprised on the way back, at 11pm or so, to see that children were still playing in the playgrounds—long after children in the U.S. would be in bed.

Rock concert at the outdoor pavilion

San Benedetto del Tronto is a beach town on the Adriatic Sea. There were lots of tourists, but they all seemed to be Italians. (The main clerk at the conference hotel, the biggest in the city, spoke no English; Les sometimes communicated with him in French, which the clerk knew a bit.) The beach, similar to all the beaches we passed in the train, had thousands of umbrellas, each beach area arranged in grids, with tables and lounge chairs. There'd be one grid of blue umbrellas followed by a grid of red-yellow umbrellas, etc. I think the idea is that you rent your umbrella and its furnishings for a period of time, and I'm guessing that you choose your favorite beach based on whether it has a good playground, or area for soccer or volleyball or bocce, or whatever is important to you. Neither Les nor I are beach people, so we didn't take advantage of this part of San Benedetto.

Beach area of San Benedetto, one of a hundred or more

The first weekend there, we hit San Benedetto's Antico e le Palme, one of the most important exhibitions of antiques in Italy with hundreds of booths lining the pedestrian malls, each selling furniture, paintings, sculptures, carpets, ceramics, jewelry, books and prints. and antiques; this happens four times a year. On Tuesday and Friday mornings, all year, there are also hundreds of booths, this time selling clothing, fruits, plants, pots, etc. Every evening until midnight and later there's music in the plazas, buskers, masses of people roaming around. The streets always felt completely safe, day or night.

Twice-weekly city fair in San Benedetto, from our hotel window

Quarterly antique fair still doing business at 11pm

We found this conference frustrating for several reasons. There was a lot of Italian spoken: at the meals, while lounging around, on excursions, even among the organizers, etc. And the groups chatting in front of the conference hotel always seemed to include at least one smoker at every table, making it completely uninviting to sit down and join in. Even though there were lots of good aspects to the organization (and, having organized conferences ourselves, we appreciate the huge amount of work that went into it), a lack of posted information caused several problems for us. Although Italy wasn't as blazing hot as Les feared, it still was hotter than we like, and meeting rooms without air-conditioning were often uncomfortable.

And it was annoying that the waiters at the hotel, where we had our 1:00 dinner and 8:00 supper, seemed to treat vegetarians with either indifference or contempt; it was never clear which, but the end result for us was that almost every meal consisted of just the antipasti. These were very nice, put out as a buffet, with lots of vegetables, but pretty much the same ones every day. While everybody else after that got soup or a pasta dish, followed by a meat or fish plate, the waiters sometimes gave us a substitution (pasta in tomato sauce instead of pasta with small clams), but usually told us to just eat more of the buffet food. After a few days we didn't even wait around; we just ate lots of appetizers, then got up and left, because it felt so dispiriting to watch everybody else getting a nice meal. This was quite surprising because, as I've noted before in this blog, most Esperanto events treat vegetarians very well.

Our hotel unfortunately did not have convenient WiFi. Les had to make a (free) phone call to activate the internet each time he wanted to use it, and sometimes the connection would drop out in the middle of a session. Considering that his motto is "Home is wherever WiFi connects automatically", this didn't feel like home to Les.

We ran into a couple of people we'd met at other events this summer, but for some reason we made only a few new friends here, including a lovely couple from Lyons. And two or three of the organizers were very helpful to us when we were feeling helpless with our lack of Italian.

The laundromat we used was closed for three hours every mid-day. It reminded me of my experience 50 years ago in Florence. I went to a laundromat far from my hotel, did the wash, put it into a dryer, and went away for half an hour. When I returned, I was surprised to see that the building was locked. On asking a passerby, I discovered that it wouldn't reopen for three hours!

When we tried to get train reservations from San Benedetto to Zurich, we ran into a problem. Even though it was still six days off, all the fast trains were already full. We had to settle for some slower trains, at less ideal times, and it all took a lot of effort, plus meant missing the closing ceremonies. We're really fed up now with the Eurail Pass, for forcing us to wait until we got to Italy to make the required reservation (it has to be done in person at a ticket office in the country of that particular rail company), which in turn meant that the train was already full. And now we have to worry that by the time we get back to Switzerland, the only place that we can make a reservation for our trip from there to Leipzig, that train will also be full. Without the rail pass, you can buy tickets online from anywhere in the world—often at greatly discounted prices—so the rail pass doesn't seem like such a good deal after all. Things were much simpler during the first half of our trip, before we started using our rail pass.

The prices of food seemed amazingly cheap in Italy, after being five days in Switzerland. We had gelato every day, and Les now can say "hazelnut" in six languages (to facilitate his gelato orders). Oh, I guess seven languages if you include Latin; that one is easy because it's the same as Esperanto, as are the names for many plants and animals.

One thing Les appreciated about the people in San Benedetto is they always looked happy. Even when they're arguing, they seem to be enjoying life. My theory is that it's all that gelato.