Training for the NYC marathon: an academician’s perspective

I decided to train for the New York City Marathon.

Why an averagely fit person may decide to run the NYC Marathon

Let’s rewind my decision. Running in Central Park is probably one of the most iconic sport activities in the world. Most of its charm fades after doing it a few times, but it still a great place for a stroll or training, especially in the Manhattan borough that lacks green areas so much. As you run past the Harlem Meer, the Great Lawn, and the MET, you’ll realize that everybody in NYC goes from a run, from athletes to untrained amateurs, from kids to mature and old folks. I don’t know why this happens – it may have to do with the “you always have to look good” unspoken policy of NYC, or with the lifestyle of New Yorkers – but it is a fact that running is a part in most people’s routine, just like food trucks or going to the cinema.

The sublimation of this routine is of course the NYC marathon. Designed to pass through all the 5 boroughs (yes, even Staten Island, it actually starts down there – just to makes you think how LONG  a marathon is), it is organized by New York Road Runners (NYRR).

The marathon happening does not go unnoticed. Many roads and bridges are closed. A lot of people will cheer on the streets – for their friends, for a cause they care about, or just for the fun of it (Americans really respect, and like supporting, those who fight hard for their goals, whatever the latter are). When the marathon hits Manhattan around kilometer 26, the cheering is so loud that often pushes the first-time runners beyond their limits – a bravery they’ll pay later in the race. As they say, “You can’t win the marathon on First Avenue, but you can lose it”.

The NYC triathlon, on a smaller scale, has a similar effect on the city and the crowd. And just like in Central Park, you’ll notice that everybody – really everybody – is running those races. So it’s easy to get convinced to join the excitement and dream about upgrading your weekly stroll to something more challenging. If – at the same time – you bump into the novelist Haruki Murakami describing how he became a long-distance runner, then you’re ready to give it a try.

When I first started running I couldn’t run long distances. I could
only run for about twenty minutes, or thirty. That much left me
panting, my heart pounding, my legs shaky. It was to be expected,
though, since I hadn’t really exercised for a long time. At first, I
was also a little embarrassed to have people in the neighborhood
see me running—the same feeling I had upon first seeing the title
novelist put in parentheses after my name. But as I continued to
run, my body started to accept the fact that it was running, and I
could gradually increase the distance. I was starting to acquire a
runner’s form, my breathing became more regular, and my pulse
settled down. The main thing was not the speed or distance so
much as running every day, without taking a break.
So, like my three meals a day—along with sleeping, housework,
and work—running was incorporated into my daily routine. As it
became a natural habit, I felt less embarrassed about it. I went to
a sports store and purchased running gear and some decent
shoes that suited my purpose. I bought a stopwatch, too, and read
a beginners’ book on running. This is how you become a runner.

(From: Haruki Murakami, What I talk about when I talk about running.)

You’ll think “Well, I can try training for that, worst case I can just drop”. As you’ll discover later, that’s not exactly true.

The 9+1 program

If you follow the standard path, getting to run the NY marathon is not easy. Sources in the internet claim that, out of all the people who apply, roughly 15% gets a spot (I could not find official statistics). But as someone living in New York, you have a pretty good way to circumvent this. NYRR has a program that will guarantee you’ll get in: you just have to complete 9 races among the dozens they organize in a calendar year, and volunteer in another one, and then you’ll have a guaranteed spot in the next year’s marathon (you still have to pay for it, though). Incidentally, running those races is a good way to pre-train (the real training starts 4-5 months before the marathon) and to understand whether you can actually convince your body to run way more than it wants to.

The “+1” in “9+1”

You can volunteer at one of the races (which means: watching for runners in distress; serving water or food; work at the bag check) or at any of the events NYRR organizes. I cleaned up a garden of a historic house in south Brooklyn: three hours of work, and the opportunity to go to an area of NYC I would not have gone to otherwise. If you have a terribly bad opinion of volunteering or high opinion of spending your time doing other things, you can add a “K” to the “1” and donate it to NYRR – that’ll work, too.

On training and the solitude of a special type of New Yorkers

So, you start with the training. Your weekly 3 miles will become 5 twice a week, then 8, then still 8 but faster, then 10. In between all this, there are the 9 races you signed up for, and the times you wish to achieve. I find especially hard to predict how fast you can run a distance if you never tried before, but there are tables on the internet that in my case worked pretty well, even if they are obnoxious to life events happening on the side, that will affect how much you can train (or maybe they can abstract this out). As for most activities (other than learning German), first progresses are quickly achieved, and you can see your pace improving steadily.  When that is not the case anymore, you’re already hooked. Addicted to the pleasure of self-improving, you will start therefore to look for new ways to improve your performance: reading everything you can find in the internet (keep your elbows at 90 degrees, your shoulder down, do the right stretching before and after). You’ll think about taking running classes, or at least joining a group.

This addiction motivates you in the most unlikely situations. Like taking the train alone at 6 on a Sunday morning to get to that race in south Brooklyn, the only companions party animals on their way back home, and people getting to work that look at you wondering why the hell you chose to be there. Solitude is a pretty constant companion of runners. If you have a pretty tight schedule, it may be hard to find fellows to train with. And during the run, most chatting is cut off after the first mile or two. It is a unique opportunity to be in NYC with so many people around you and enjoy the silence.

Running a half-marathon

You don’t wish to do it, but since you’ll have to run a marathon anyhow, at some point it makes sense to run a half marathon. For me, it came a little too early (roughly 2 months after I started training), but since I began piling up my 9 races late in the calendar year, I did not really have a choice. I run the Staten Island marathon, at 8:00 am on a Sunday morning in October, which means waking up before the sun rises to be sure you’ll get there in time.

In all races there is a moment when you really would like to drop, and your only, repeating thought is “Why am I actually doing all this?”. To me, this first happens during the 7th km, when my left knee starts hurting. For some unknown reason, the pain increases until km 10, and then slowly recedes (I know, I should see a doctor about it). The main crisis usually happens 2/3 into the race, as a mix of regret (“I shouldn’t have run those first kilometers that fast”) and fatigue, that fades away as soon as you smell that the finish line is getting close. When you run a distance you have never run before, you should  add to that a “last miles” crisis: you have no idea what to expect from your body then, and for me the last kilometers of the half marathon were way worse than I could imagine. Your body will beg you to stop and since you have no intention to listen, it’ll get vicious, simulating all kind of illnesses: left arm pain, collapsing stomach, choking sensation.

But there are a number of things I enjoyed about running the SI half marathon, too. First of all, the entertainment, with the best of it being impromptu – a not so young anymore couple, the man playing the guitar, and the lady dancing for us. The feeling of running through a terrible storm on a seafront road with the vintage, fascinating and somehow creepy name of “Father Capodanno Boulevard”. More than all, the relationship that unfolds between you and your body throughout the race. From the outside, a race may look monotonous. But from the inside, each run has its own story, during which you develop an intimate understanding of your mechanics: which parts feel the strongest, which start to cease, what you can do about it and, if nothing can be done, you learn to ignore it and go on, developing your personal version of the bumblebee’s flight.

On the relationship between training for a marathon and doing theoretical research

The way a researcher is evaluated is different from most jobs. A surgeon or a clerk are expected to perform well every single day at work, since every mistake is extremely costly. A researcher publishes a bunch of papers every year, and in each of them there are a handful of ideas (sometimes by one of the coauthors). He is therefore expected to perform extremely well few times, and do whatever the rest of the time. This is why many people think of research as a product of pure creativity1. And creativity indeed matters, but, as Terence Tao – arguably the most famous mathematician of our times – puts it:

Contrary to public opinion, mathematical breakthroughs are not powered solely (or even primarily) by “Eureka” moments of genius, but are in fact largely a product of hard work, directed of course by experience and intuition.

What distinguishes research from most other jobs is that the outcome of this hard work is not daily available for you to be proud of, and to motivate you to continue. You may take a wrong turn, work on it for a while before understanding it does not lead anywhere, and be left with no progress on what may actually work. The Eureka moment, when (and if) it comes, is so exciting that one may attribute all the merit to it, and discard the importance of wrong turns. But there is, I believe, a hidden path that you are discovering everyday, through all your mistakes and the small observations they imply, which allows you to build a stronger and stronger intuition for the problem. This hidden path will never reveal itself, but without constantly looking for it the final bright idea is virtually impossible to achieve. Convincing young collaborators that they should believe in the existence2 of, and keep looking for, this path is, I think, one of the hardest tasks of supervising Ph.D. students.


On the other hand, while training for a run, there is a very strong correlation between the effort you put and the results you see. If you train harder, you’ll run faster. There are moments when you have to deal with an incredible amount of pain and discomfort, and live through it. You know that, if you will give up, there will be no finish line, no friends cheering you – in a word, no reward. This does not happen when you do research, since you don’t know if the reward was there anyhow. Hence running trains the hard-working and self-convincing attitude you strongly need for effectively doing research.


Also, while running you learn to have faith in certain facts, well before they become intuitively clear to you. This is fundamental in research, since you often must learn and use some results well before you have a solid grasp on them (that will come when you become more familiar with the topic). For instance, every collection of tips for runners begin with the suggestion to start a race at a pace slower than your expected one. Which, of course, you never do the first time, fueled by the excitement. You pass the first mile, look at your watch showing a much earlier time than planned, and the usual thought is “I am way more trained that I thought I was. Cool”. More often than not you are wrong, and you’ll find yourself regretting your sprinting start in the last miles (this has happened to me, more than once). So you’ll have to learn to believe in starting slow, well before it becomes part of your natural routine.


The funny part

There are moments in running that are sheer fun. For instance, in races where participants are encouraged to dress in peculiar ways, you may then get the opportunity of seeing a T-Rex in the subway, on its way to the starting line (notice the running shoes, as well as the christmas lights in the bag, as if it had a chance of going unnoticed).


Sometimes something accidently comic may happen. During a 15K race in Central Park under a colde, heavy snowstorm, while I was feeling like one of Napoleon’s soldiers during the Russian Campaign, a bunch of people passed me running bare-chested. (Now that I think about it, I did not see them at the end, though). During such a hard race, giggling about the funny things you see can help getting past the finish line.


1. The work of artists is perceived in a similar manner. But Nick Cave actually composes his songs by working 9-to-5 in an office.

2. This path may, indeed, not exist for some problems. Still, the only way you can look for it is convicing yourself it indeed exists.



Thomas Mann in Laos

Last year in Laos, I remembered a passage from The death in Venice that I could not really understand when I was a teenager.

Back then, I did not enjoy the book. Its long sentences sounded unnecessary complex; the fears and doubts of an ageing man were too far from my sensibility. Now I see how the complexity of the prose mirrors the complexity of the inner life of the protagonist, and passages like the following make much more sense:

“Lively, clear-outlined, intellectually undemanding presentation is the delight of the great mass of the middle-class public, but passionate radical youth is interested only in problems.”

[T. Mann, The Death in Venice, 1911. English translation by David Luke, 1988]

This sentence came back to my mind after visiting Luang Prabang, the delightful, and Phonsavan, the problematic.

Luang Prabang is Laos’ ancient capital. It enjoys a unique location, on a hill facing the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The jungle that surrounds the city is still very present in the center, where nowadays a most perfect marriage of nature and urban architecture is achieved: tall, thick trees caress the many buddhist temples and the wooden colonial villas. And speaking of colonization, French influence is most evident in food: you can have excellent croissants for breakfast, or enjoy the typical sticky rice in those kind of restaurants you can afford once per year back home, and everyday here. The bar Utopia, faithful to his name, condenses the western concept of Heaven on Earth, and spices it up with cocktails and flirting backpackers. You can also stop at the night market or book a tour to remote villages or the breathtaking Kuang Si Falls. 





The Kuang Si Falls

All this you can do in the 1km stroll between the two ends of the main street, and on the neighbouring roads. The few who dare to exit from this tourist ghetto will find a town more chaotic, dirtier, equally dominated by nature, and which surprisingly also hosts some Laotians (whom you cannot see, for instance, in the pictures on the Utopia website).


Phonsavan has instead been described as a “charmless town” (Guide du Routard), “pervaded by a feeling of incompleteness” (Lonely Planet), “like the set of a Spaghetti Western directed by David Linch” (Wikitravel). To me, it looks like a gigantic gas station. It has been established only recently, in substitution of the neighbouring town destroyed during the bombing of eastern Laos. They chose to build it where road 1D from central Laos meets road 7 to Luang Prabang. Most buildings in fact face those streets, and they are modern – in the ugliest sense of the term – and covered with the dust lifted by running cars. Behind them, fields and huts, but also governmental offices, shops selling building materials – everything needs to be rebuilt here – and mechanics working on old soviet cars, those donated by URSS when Laos was just a pawn in the cold war chessboard.



Old Russian tank

If Luang Prabang satisfies your senses, Phonsavan and its problems pose questions stimulating them. How does a government that cannot afford to be generous with his citizens give a future to a region that did not yet recover from a war that ended 50 years ago? How to cope with the never-ending problem of cluster bombs that did not explode, and that today blow up farmers hoeing the ground and kids playing? How can one be positive about the future if even the local Buddha statue had his usual smile defaced into a sad sneer by a bomb?


Despite all this, Phonsavan is growing. The ambition of the government scattered official buildings quite far away from the main streets 1D and 7, hoping that one day the empty space will be filled by a developed town. Small neighbourhoods with villas popped up here and there. MAG is clearing of mines larger and larger areas. The Lone Buffalo foundation teaches English and tries to recompose a split up community through soccer. And the neighbouring Plain of Jars with its mysterious civilization may bring to the area the attention it needs for further development. But neighbouring countries deny having stolen archaeological finds, whose return could ignite a deeper investigation of the area – for which, by the way, no money seems to be available at the moment. So the problem is nowhere close to be solved.

In Phonsavan, I met an Israeli couple that came back to Laos 20 years after their first trip. Back then, travelling in the country was a serious hazard, because of the attacks by rebels. They visited Luang Prabang when it was a troubled city, much as Phonsavan is today. “I am not completely happy how the problem was solved there”, the man told me.

H.P. Lovecraft and a manifesto for daydreamers

Most readers and publishers consider horror stories as part of popular fiction, together with romantic novels, science fictions, and all possible shades of grey. Yet there are some authors of horror novels that received a wider acclaim. One is Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories are much more than just horror tales: in some of them it his hard to tell what happens inside the characters’ mind from what takes place outside, while others can be considered the start for detective fiction in general and Sherlock Holmes saga in particular. A second one is Stephen King, whose books inspired many Hollywood directors to make good, great, or just average movies.

The third most famous writer of horror fiction is probably Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I cannot tell any of his stories that was turned into a brillant movie. On the other hand, the atmosphere from his works has been an incredible source of inspiration for novelists, directors, and even game developers. This is because the imaginary worlds he created are more uniform, hence more easily recognizable, than those by Poe or King: little shady towns hidden in the woods of New England; forbidden books whose readers are driven mad; heinous gods…

“…of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”

[H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulu, 1928]

On the other hand, it is hard to find any relevance in Lovecraft – and any interest in his work – other than the “atmosphere” mentioned above. So readers that are not fascinated by horror fiction tend to simply skip him.

His 1929 short story The Silver Key is somehow an exception. On top of being a classical Lovecraftian tale – with mysterious events happening in a baroque style – it is a manifesto for his whole life of daydreamer. The main character of the story is Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s alter ego who appears in several other stories. In which we find out that Carter has a number of supernatural experiences, many of them connected to his ability to travel in his dreams to a fictitious world. But something changes in The Silver Key:

“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt those liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. “

Something must have happened for him to lose his ability to dream of enchanted worlds. We find out what in the next paragraphs.

“He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away. […] Wise men told him his simple fancies were inane and childish. […] They had chained him down to things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world.”

People around him despise his ability, and force him to connect himself and give importance to real life.

“So Carter had tried to do as others did, and pretended that the common events and emotions of earthy minds were more important than the fantasies of rare and delicate souls. He did not dissent when they told him that the animal pain of a stuck pig or dyspeptic ploughman in real life is a greater thing than the peerless beauty of Narath with its hundred carven gates and domes of chalcedony, which he dimly remembered from his dreams; and under their guidance he cultivated a painstaking sense of pity and tragedy.”

But you cannot be forced to love something you despise, hence Carter quickly loses interest in real life.

“Amidst this chaos of hollowness and unrest Carter tried to live as befitted a man of keen thought and good heritage. […] He walked impassive through the cities of men, and sighed because no vista seemed fully real; […]. Travel was only a mockery; and even the Great War stirred him but little, though he served from the first in the Foreign Legion of France. […] Having perceived at last the hollowness and futility of real things, Carter spent his days in retirement, and in wistful disjointed memories of his dream-filled youth.”

After a series of Lovecraftish events (including: dreaming of long time dead ancestors, night walks in scary woods, and the mysterious Silver Key from the title), Carter disappears, probably having left to the dream world “wise people” wanted to bring him away from.

“Carter’s relatives talk much of these things because he has lately disappeared. […] There is talk of apportioning Randolph Carter’s estate among his heirs, but I shall stand firmly against this course because I do not believe he is dead. […]  It is rumoured in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai, that a new king reigns on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad, that fabulous town of turrets atop the hollow cliffs of glass overlooking the twilight sea wherein the bearded and finny Gnorri build their singular labyrinths.”

As said above, the whole story can be seen as a manifesto for the life Lovecraft chose for himself. A life that he spent almost entirely in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was seldom seen outside his house and died in poverty, having never really found a real job. Nothing was more important to him that his fantasies, and the stories he could get from those. Sufferings and hopes of average people do not interest him: those that matter are only “rare and delicate souls“. Bored by real life and confused by hard sciences, he claims the right of dedicating his whole life to daydreaming.

“There are twists of time and space, of vision and reality, which only a dreamer can divine; and from what I know of Carter I think he has merely found a way to traverse these mazes. “

Everybody who is strongly passionate about his job – let it be literature, science, or anything else – has to fight with the same demon Carter finally succumbed to. But Lovecraft’s manifesto concerns a much wider public: it applies to anyone who gives up a reality he/she despises or simply cannot understand. Lovecraft’s answer to this feeling may be dangerous; it is for sure dangerous for our society. But his merit lies in having been able to put all this into words, reaching out far more people than any of his other works.


How Lausanne looked like while the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program were taking place

On 2nd April 2015 an historical agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was reached in Lausanne, Switzerland. It came out of the negotiations between the world powers – most notably USA, represented by John Kerry – and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Three days before that, all the members of the mathematics department of the polytechnical university of Lausanne (EPFL) received an angry email from one of its members. He was complaining because in the last four days his collaborators were regularly stopped while trying to access the library in the Rolex Learning Center, one of the buildings of the university. Those who stopped them – as they stopped everyone else – were security guards, a quite unusual presence in the campus, who forbid the access without further explanation. Even if no communication on the presence of the guards had been given by the administration, everyone at the EPFL had understood by then why they were there.

The Rolex Learning Center is probably the most prestigious building at the EPFL, if only for his shape. To imagine how it looks like, take an A4 sheet of paper, make some small circular holes in it, and then push its short sides while keeping the other two firm on the table. The sheet would lift at some points, and do not move in others, in an irregular sequence of ups and downs. Apart from the library, it hosts studying rooms, a fancy restaurant and a less fancy cafeteria, working rooms for students, a bookshop, a bank, and more. Being a building that does not belong to any faculty, it is to some extent the centre of life at EPFL, and located right at the middle of it. It was impossible not to notice that it had been closed an patrolled, and easy to guess why: if the negotiations between the world powers and Iran come to a positive conclusion, the Rolex Learning Center will be the place designated to announce it.

The morning of the day the agreement was reached, I decided to walk to the Beau Rivage Hotel, where the negotiations were taking place – a classic, for also the Treaty of Lausanne that ended the controversies post-WWI was signed there. With his population of 140.000 people and its relaxed Swiss attitude, Lausanne looks more like a big village than a small city. Starting from the lake, it climbs on the side of a mountain so steep that sometimes in the northern suburbs you still have some snow, while on the lake you can feel Spring coming. I walked 20 minutes down hilly streets to get to Beau Rivage, without noticing any difference from a normal day. The Beau Rivage – a massive Art Déco building, so big and expensive that I always wonder whether it is ever fully booked – is roughly 100 meters from the lake, and has a private street maybe 50 meters long, that was blocked with a barrier. Next to the barrier, a young man with a flashy green jacket was standing. Not a security guard, more like the doorman to whom someone told to move some meters forward. The relaxed atmosphere was enhanced by the pictures published on the Swiss press of John Kerry walking around the streets around the hotel, stopping at groceries and cafés. The 20 Km of Lausanne running competition, to be held in 3 weeks, will probably be noticed more by, and create more troubles to, the Lausannois.

Negotiations about Iranian Nuclear Program - announcememnt of the agreement at the Rolex Learning CenterI spent the rest of the day at EPFL as usual – discussing some mathematical problems with colleagues, and then thinking about some others on my own. In the evening, a movie night was scheduled in the department. Slightly before the movie started, rumors spread that an agreement was reached, and that the authorities were gathering at the Rolex Learning Center.

When I arrived in front of the security guards, the Swiss police had joined them, and the press had already entered the building, with the exception of one journalist and his cameramen, that for some reason were not allowed in. Under an increasing rain, he tried to play it cool, telling the camera his ideas about what was going on inside. A small crowd had gathered next to the entrance – most of them were Iranians, who cheered their minister when he entered the building. When it was clear that things were going on inside only, I went back to my office. My window is maybe 50 meters from Rolex Learning Center, but the cries and the music from the students’ pub another 50 meters away were louder than any sound coming from there. Then I went watching the movie – which was, by the way, The meaning of life by Monty Python – and finally left EPFL in a metro full of students and their beers.

Some colors from my world tour (without filters or photoshop) – part two

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here. This post continues from here.]

The Darmouth Green of the Jungle around Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The bright green of the growing grass during the wet season in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia.


The honeydew green of crocodiles in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia.


The bright yellow of the leftovers of the rice harvest around Kampot, Cambodia.

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The dim yellow of the lights in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.


The cream yellow of the opera house in Sydney.


The yellows of Buddha statues in Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The pale gray of elephants in Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The ivory white of the limestone islands in Halong Bay, Vietnam.


The white smokes of clouds in the Australian skies.

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The white snow in New York City.


Some colors from my world tour (without filters or photoshop) – part one

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here.]

The deep black of the Bendigo gold mine in Victoria, Australia, 70 meters below the ground, when all lights go out.


The brown of the lava rock in Mauna Kea, Hawaii (and all the colors of the rainbow, too).


The slategray of the Ghan, the train connecting north to south Australia.


The reds in the Hong Kong market.


The magenta from a Tai Chi lesson in Hong Kong.


The flame red of Uluru, Northern Territories, Australia.


The orange of the lava tubes in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.


The purple of the sunset in Darwin, Northern Territories, Australia.


The auburn Red of the moulds in the Angkor Temple, Cambodia.

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The Munsell blue of Bondi beach, Sydney, Australia.


The petrol blue of the Mekong river around Can Tho, Vietnam.

IMG_5731 - copie IMG_5742 - copieMore colors here.

The kinds of people you meet while in a world tour (part two)

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here. This article continues from here.]

The barber that came to Australia from Italy 46 years ago. “Back then, you could buy an apartment in the Italian district of Melbourne for nothing, nobody wanted to leave here. Then this place became posh, so Italians that sold their apartment made a lot of money.” “Did you sell yours?” “Me? I never owed one, when I came here I had less than nothing!”

The horse trainer from Victoria, Australia. “So you’re from Italy? I was there last year.” “Where exactly?” “Paris.”

The Facebook enthusiastic. They barely know you, but they already tagged in 14 pictures from what they describe as the best day of their life. Their degree of separation to anyone in the world is 3. The worst happens when two of them meet: then a pictures-uploading competition starts. Where do I find the time for not looking at all of them? (semi-cit.)

Picture from a David Shrigley exhibition in NGV, Melbourne

Picture from a David Shrigley exhibition in NGV, Melbourne

The backpacker. Any shelter is decent enough for spending a night, any food scrap is good enough to be eaten. Doesn’t miss a party, especially during the happy hour. May miss a couple of museums without thinking twice, though.

The working holiday visa traveller. In Australia, they are more common than kangaroos. They work for a few months saving as much as they can, and then spend all their money travelling. They mostly come from Europe, but sometimes from Asia, too. Most of them have just finished high school: “The government cheated us by reducing high school by one year – a German girl I met told me – so we’re taking it back.”

The Greek-American who grew up in Brooklyn. “It was an amazing place to be. Not false like Manhattan. Everybody was there: Europeans, Africans, catholics, protestants, orthodox and whatnot. Communities were very open. My lifelong friends are Italians and Afro-Americans from that time. That’s when I learnt racist jokes and to make an excellent Carbonara.”

The stargazing enthusiastic at Mauna Kea. They live in Hawai’i, but in the coldest and farthest point from the sea, surrounded by a landscape that comes out of some sci-fi movie from the 60s. And they adore it.

Mauna Kea, Hawai'i (Big Island), Hawaii, 45 mins before sunset

Mauna Kea, Hawai’i (Big Island), Hawaii, 45 mins before sunset

The couchsurfers. They will create out of nothing a bed to host you, some free time to show you around, and a crew for you to hang out with. Probably the best way to get a first impression of a city.

The English butcher travelling around Australia. “This travel is a first time for me.” “First time out of Europe?” “First time out of south England!”

The old friends. While in a long travel, sometimes it is good to feel at home again.

The ex-alcoholic and drug addict. “I quitted drugs and alcohol seven years ago. But I need to be addicted to something, so now I am addicted to food and travelling.”

The Italians abroad. They almost unanimously believe in the seemingly contradictory mantra “Italians are nicer and smarter, but life here is so much better.” I am one of them.

The kinds of people you meet while in a world tour (part one)

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here.]

The Italian who saved some money when he was working as a pizza-maker in Australia and spent them to be a volunteer at a family run guesthouse in a small village in Laos. Well, not just an average guesthouse, but one located here.



The Indian who is too lazy to work, and too rich to need to work. So he decides to write a thriller, and his family sends him for 3 years around the world to get enough documentation to build his plot (and to keep him away from troubles back home).

The “purer” traveller. No matter how cheap you travel, or how much you go back to the nature, or to the “pure essence of travelling”: there will always be someone doing that more than you. Do you eat and dress only local, travel on tourist-free buses, sleep only in guesthouses where no word of english is spoken? You’ll always find someone who only hitchhikes on pickups, gets his food right from the farmers, and sleeps in temples.

The cyclists. The young Swiss couples that biked for one year and half from Switzerland to Cambodia, and are now planning to go back by train, because by plane would be too abrupt, but on the other hand “we cycled enough”. During their trip they spent on average 25$ a day per person, including extra money for attractions, trekking, etc. (but many cyclists travel with much less, see The “purer” traveller above). The not-so-young Australian who sold everything back home and will keep travelling by bike until he runs out of money, or finds a reason to stay. Much to my surprise, they share a very relaxed attitude towards travelling and the risks that come with it.

The Dutch couple that also sold everything they had back home to travel, but after 4 months decided to settle in Laos to build a butterfly garden. The outcome of their efforts is probably the closest place to the Eden I’ve ever seen. More about this here.


The part-time workers. Every year, they work like crazy for 6-8 months, and in the remaining 4-6 they invest in travels all the money saved. They come from Canada, from France, from Australia.

The Vietnamese girl that is a journalist, that is also a chef, that also writes books, that also translates books from English, that is also a voracious traveller, that also hosts fellow travellers. Not exactly the image of Vietnamese people you have back home.

The tourist. The category every traveller struggles not to fall into. He is shipped from an attraction to another as if he were a package, spending half of the remaining time taking nonsense photos, and the other half in places identical to those he can find back home. Saying Good morning and Thank you in the local language is the deepest he gets into the culture, but he is proud of that. His daily goal is to bargain down the prices as much as possible. His cold and abusive attitude towards most vendors is the main responsible (together with The vendor – level one, see below) of the absence of a normal dialectic between travellers and locals.


The vendor – level 1. To him, a traveller is just a chicken with a big pot of gold lurking somewhere between his wings. Smiles and talking are timed to stop at the very moment a transaction is concluded.

The vendor – level 2. To him, a traveller is still a pair chicken+gold. But he is aware that the traveller may have more gold lying back in the henhouse, or many fellow chicken he talks to. So the vendor is eager to distribute smiles and, in general, every courtesy and attention that won’t cost him anything.

The vendor – level 3. The one every traveller wants to deal with.

The enormous amount of small, young beings that populate every village I saw in Laos: small children running after puppy dogs, chicks orbiting around hens, piglets playing in the mud.

The Khmu village in Laos that celebrates a wedding dancing (at the light and power of a generator) with a surprising contamination of dance from the 80s, techno, and melodic traditional music – till 5am in the morning.

The Laotian who studied in the French school in Vientiane, then took advantage of the connections between Laos and Eastern Germany to obtain a degree in Economics from Dresden. Once back home, he became a white-collar in a bank, then a radio dj, then a live dj, then the owner of the first discoclub in Laos, then the first tourist operator finding financial support for removing bombs from the the archeological site of the Plains of Jars. Or at least, that’s what he claims.

(continues here)

[ita] Invito alle crittografie enigmistiche: seconda parte


[Questo post è per chiunque voglia leggerlo, ma soprattutto per Alessandra. Il primo episodio è qui.]



Iniziamo questo secondo post sulle crittografie con le sinonimiche. L’esposto è una parola incompleta, le cui lettere mancanti sono indicate da puntini.

Crittografia sinonimica (1 1 5, 4 4 = 9 6)


Il Popolese

Alla parola mancano due lettere. Non è chiaro, a priori, quali siano: ad esempio, “O” e “C” darebbero Vortici, mentre “E” e “C” darebbero Vertici. Quasi tutte le prime letture delle perifrastiche sono frasi del tipo


lettere mancanti


sinonimo della parola dell’esposto completata

Un po’ di esperienza ci dice che la prima lettura in questo caso è strutturata così:

Prima lettera da inserire (1)

Seconda lettera da inserire (1)

un qualche verbo sinonimo di “inserire” (5)

sinonimo dell’esposto completato da tali lettere (4)

un qualche verbo sinonimo di “ottieni” (4)

(con le ultime due potenzialmente interscambiabili).

Il trucco, per risolvere queste crittografie, è avere abbastanza esperienza ed immaginazione per trovare le giuste variazioni di “inserire” ed “ottenere” che diano senso alla seconda lettura (alle volte, si trovano parole un po’ “stiracchiate”). In questo caso, la soluzione è

E C letti, CIME dici = eclettici medici

da intendersi: “se leggi E e C (al posto dei puntini), la parola che dici (cioè Vertici) è (sinonimo di) cime”. Notare un tocco di eleganza: c’è un legame tra “letti” e “dici” che non ci sarebbe stato, ad esempio, tra “letti” e “hai” o tra “metti” e “dici”.

Ecco un altro esempio, la cui soluzione è in fondo alla pagina1.

Crittografia sinonimica (1 1 7 6 = 5 10)


Fra Diavolo

Le crittografie perifrastiche sono come le sinonimiche, ma invece di descrivere la parola (o la frase) dell’espesto con un sinonimo, lo si fa con una perifrasi. Ecco un esempio, ancora con soluzione in fondo alla pagina2.

 Crittografia perifrastica (1’1 2 6, 2 2? = 6 8)



 Nelle crittografie pure, invece, l’esposto è di solito una sola parola.

 Crittografia (3 2 4 3 = 5 2 5)



Il significato dell’esposto non ha alcuna importanza nelle crittografie pure. Il gioco consiste nel dare una descrizione della sequenza di lettere, o di come la sequenza risulterebbe omettendo o spostando alcune tra queste. Ad esempio, la prima lettura può essere una descrizione delle posizione relativa delle varie lettere nell’esposto (hai TA dopo PIS) o di cosa succede rimuovendone una (via TI PISA hai)3. Al solito, quale di questi sia giusto ce lo dice la seconda lettura:

Col PI dite STA = Colpi di testa

Quest’altra bella crittografia si risolve utilizzando una delle tecniche-esempio viste prima4.

 Crittografia (2 1 2 6 1’1 = 8 5)


Lo Stanco

Alle volte, anche l’esposto delle crittografie pure presenta lettere mancanti:

 Crittografia (1 4 4 = 4 5)


Arsenio B.

Questa non è difficile da risolvere. E’ chiaro che la prima parola della prima lettura sarà la lettera mancante, e se vogliamo che l’esposto sia completato in una parola con significato, è probabile che tale lettera sia A. Otteniamo dunque gratis anche un’altra parola: ROMA. Poiché Arom nella seconda lettura non avrebbe senso, ROMA sarà la terza parola della prima lettura. Fin qui abbiamo dunque ottenuto:

A **** Roma = A*** *roma

Ora dobbiamo trovare una parola di 4 lettere che dia al tempo stesso significato compiuto alla seconda lettura, e completi la prima lettura esprimendo il fatto che “inserendo” la A, otteniamo ROMA. Forse è finì? In fondo la A “finisce” la parola ROMA. Proviamo:

A finì Roma = Afin Iroma

No, finì non va bene. Pensateci un po’: la soluzione è nelle note5.



1. F O scopron OSTICO = fosco pronostico

2.  v’è la mirica, ma Ti? = Velami Ricamati (V’è è una perifrasi di Ecco, mirica è un sinonimo di tamerici. Ti è il nome la lettera da inserire. Il resto è mestiere)

3.  In questo caso, la parola ottenuta spostando o elidendo lettere (Pisa nel nostro esempi) ha di solito un significato.

4.  fa R se scosti l’E = Farscesco Stile.

5.  A crea Roma = Acre Aroma.

Enno Flaiano: Nel 1968 / In 1968

[English translation below]


Nel 1968

I porti invecchiano
Venezia è sempre da salvare
L’Inps assediata
Gli statali in sciopero
L’edilizia in crisi
Gli ortofrutticoli danneggiati dal Mec
Il turismo regredisce
Le acque sono inquinate
I treni ritardano
La circolazione in crisi
Lo sciopero dei benzinai
Gli studenti preparano la protesta
Rivolta nelle carceri
La riforma burocratica ferma
Napoli paralizzata
Sciopero dei netturbini
La crisi del latte
La pornografia è in crisi
Il divorzio è in crisi
Crisi dell’istituto familiare
I giovani svedesi non si sposano più
La torre di Pisa ancora in pericolo
Il porto di Genova paralizzato
I telefoni non funzionano
Posta che non viene distribuita
La crisi dei partiti
La crisi delle correnti dei partiti
Lo Stato arteriosclerotico
Il Mezzogiorno in crisi
Le regioni in crisi
Il Comune di Roma aumenta il disavanzo
Ferma la metropolitana a Roma
Duello di artiglieri a Suez
I colloqui di Parigi stagnano
Nel Vietnam si attende l’attacco
I cinesi preparano una sorpresa?
I negri preparano la rivolta?
Gli arabi preparano la guerra?
I russi nel Mediterraneo
De Gaulle in pericolo
La sinistra in crisi
La destra in crisi
Il centro-sinistra in crisi
Fine del parlamentarismo?
Il freddo ritorna.

(Ennio Flaiano, Diario degli errori, 1976)

In 1968

Seaports grow old
Venezia still needs to be saved
The national pension system is besieged
The State employees on strike
Building industry in crisis
Farmers suffer because of the EU market
Tourism regresses
Water is polluted
Trains are late
Traffic in crisis
Station attendants are on strike
Students prepare a demonstration
Rebellions in the jails
The bureaucratic reform has stopped
Naples paralyzed
Dustmen are on strike
The crisis of milk
Pornography in crisis
Divorce in crisis
Crisis of the family
Swedish youngs don’t get married anymore
The leaning tower of Pisa still in danger
The seaport of Genoa paralyzed
Telephones won’t work
Mail is not distributed
The crisis of political parties
The crisis of trends within political parties
The arteriosclerotic state
South of Italy in crisis
Departments in crisis
The deficit of the municipality of Rome increases
The subway in Rome has stopped
Duels between gunners in Suez
Negotiations in Paris are at a standstill
In the Vietnam people are waiting for the attack
Chinese people are planning a surprise?
Black people are planning a rebellion?
Arabs are planning to start the war?
Russians in the Mediterranean sea
De Gaulle in danger
Left parties in crisis
Right parties in crisis
Center-left parties in crisis
End of the parliamentarism?
The cold comes back

(Ennio Flaiano, Diario degli errori (Journal of mistakes), 1976)