Mission accomplished. The visionary brand-name of Edgeryders, with its funky hipster avant guard flagship ‘The unMonastery’, may have just tipped the scales. Our investment at the cutting edge of international co-living asylums for burnt-out geeks has turned into the major ‘Culture First‘ breakthrough we all had been dreaming of. A calculated miracle fell miraculously into place.
All of those who gathered in Piazza San Giovanni on the afternoon of 17th of October, 2014 have already forgotten the torturous introverted minutes absorbing yet another delay in the transmission program that would announce the most worthy representative for Italia’s capital city of European Culture. It wasn’t that pleasant; we each inadvertently prodded our individual sack containing a life’s assortment of disappointments. That said, none of us will ever forget the three minute visceral howl of exultation and of belonging among the chosen that shook the walls of both the town and its people. The we won. The campaign of buttons and banners, a bombardment of civic arrangements, of intricate consultations and rebellious citizens convinced a gaggle of international culture aristocrats that the City of Matera would host something worthy.
My personal esultanza was shared with a gang who deeply deserve the ‘Open Future’ promised by the cultural program. When the clever idea of an open citizen’s buffet lunch for the visiting jury members was brazenly stolen by big brother Lecce for the previous stop-over; the local bid workers had to think fast. It was one thing to meet people on their piazza – how about in their homes? The call went out for volunteer families to each host one of five visiting commissioners. Sixty responses flooded in. A second call went out – you unMonastarians are esperti in the ‘free lunch’, could any of you impersonate visiting dignitaries? Marc bowed out, tomorrow was already full; Katalin got the straight forward gig as additional guest around a big table in Piccanello. Bembo was earmarked another task: Bambini Day III – Casa di Robin Hood, a local children’s home for hopefully temporarily indisposed families wanted a distinguished visitor; who else could possible fit the bill?
Visit number one went according to plan. Eating, gift exchanges, a pleasantly parasitic local TV crew that got us on the marathon coverage, and then a quick retreat in time to greet the jury back at the unMon. Warm, not too wild, certainly wonderful.
The real key was visit number two. The days were full. Faced with a limited time on earth, how could I honour their plea to be more than just another photo op? One has to eat sometime; the free lunch was established routine; the big gathering on the piazza to meet our collective fate would need some serious ballast to absorb the liquid solace that seemed statistically on its way. In addition, I was breaking in the latest fashion in unMonastic understatement – our habitual scarf. It would prove a big hit.
Google maps wasn’t helpful, Philomena was. I arrived on the stroke of two and humming a merry tune, scrambled up the stairs. A box of gelati exchanged hands, other hands were shook. However, suddenly feeling hatless, I stopped the ceremonies to tie a knot in one end of my precious new scarf and encircled my head with a dashing turban. I could then assume what had become my traditional place at the head of the table.
Things dragged on a bit. Two staff members had yet to put in an appearance. As course number four was put to rest, a scarf party was instigated. Holding an impromptu workshop in turban binding can now go on my CV. One pair of eyes misted over as big brother reclaimed the house’s best scarf; I volunteered mine. Variations led to variations; soon everyone was suffering a broken limb that was badly in need of a sling.
The talk of the town and our dinner conversation was the imminent announcement of the contest of the century – had little orphaned Matera a chance to outreach certified heavyweights such as Siena, Assisi, Ravena? The kids had been recruited as local witnesses – there was some doubt as to whether braving the crowd in a limited piazza was responsible minding. At any rate, I was going the same direction, let’s grab our flags and take our chances.
Not every outing is unlimited fun. Keeping in line is keeping in line. To inject a rationale for our ordered parade, I suggested we do a marching band. Six voices could churn up just enough din to raise a few smiles as we transversed the traffic flow. When eagerness for this game started to flag, I introduced the ‘Pausa’, an energetic explosion of hip gyrations to a different beat that whipped up the tempo and hilarity levels. We took quite a few pausa. Before we parted ways in the crowd, and they sought refuge right in front of the stage, we were warmly welcomed by first Rita and then Ilaria who ran off promising them buttons. She didn’t come back empty-handed: no buttons, but T-shirts that fit at least the three youngest.
The myth will expand, far more people will have witnessed the day than Piazza San Giovanni could possibly ever hold. As the envelope was opened and the only word in the world we wanted to hear was uttered, a huge psychic lift from a down-trodden region was celebrated in the only way we knew: tears, endless hugs, howls.
Proclaimed by some archeologists the third oldest city in the world, Matera that had never won anything but derision and the attention of invaders, was at once vindicated. To be declared Euorpean Capital city of culture was perpetual – the honour, even when following a stream of other not entirely visible treasures such as (Mons, Pizen, Umeå, Paphos and Leeuwarden) could never be retracted. A regional big brother had been revealed as a bluff artist. The relatively recently established ‘Italian’ nation had been surmounted by honest, visionary work. The infectious glee that took hours to sink in would shake loose centuries of repression to the sound of a stream of increasingly entertaining orchestras (likely discretely briefed beforehand on their duties as crisis psychologists should the bid fail and we fall to licking our collective wound.)
However, all is not well in the city.
Vanni’s reaction to the win was that of all aspiring upstarts: quick sink your money in hotels, put out your nets in the swelling tourist stream. Not having the heart to crush his calculations, I heard him out. He recognised that his land was only a few decrees removed from the Greek Disease. If he was to at all remain positive, his apparent window of opportunity was immediate and frustratingly narrow. He had to jump. Now.
But other things get whispered sottovoce: somehow, somewhere in the ‘Open Futures’ cultural project design that carried the day, the future is not only outward facing. The challenge it also presents is to open and enter inwards. The glorious triumph can of course further subject the region to becoming servant classes to the parade of national and international petty criminal baby-boomers who have fiddled the system into funding their inadvertently greedy retirement schemes. However, there is a more profound reading of the Matera/Basilicata win: as the global economy shrinks around an inflexible, inflated productive capacity – the reality of the region’s short distance to fertile fields will reassert itself. If they can pause to redefine the tight knit family model that holds the percentage of highly competent women out of the formal workforce at an archaic level, a new social economy can be negotiated without succumbing to the frustrations of media inspired myths. At whatever the level that the social/economic collapse hits, the Basilicata region offers a model for a partial strategic retreat to the real economy of the past. Redefined as a life belonging to one of the few resilient societies that can negotiate a lifeline to viable subsistence, joyous frugality, and a balanced plundering of global resources, they can both refine and export the future we all desire.
My 15 on-stage seconds in the limelight to acknowledge the unMonastery contribution could be shared with the smallest circle of the crowd, hugging the stage, far left. We even had our own special choreography for the occasion.