Monday, March 28, 2011

An Italian and a Greek in Islamabad

I’ll run the risk of appearing a bit boring, but it’s true: (1) the world is really small, and (2) it seems that everyone is passing by Islamabad in these days.

And so, after having met Martin and Annesophie’s parents last week, tonight I met Panos, one of our gang at LSE.

After London Panos and I took a somehow similar but parallel career path, but despite working more or less in the same field (more focused on humanitarian assistance Panos), our roads have never crossed so far.

It took us a few years, but tonight we finally managed to meet again. Because in these days it seems that all the roads lead to Islamabad!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bye-bye Kabul (for now)

Cannot say Kabul is a nice city. Dusty. Congested by traffic. It still shows the scars of a thirty-year war. And of the more recent blasts.

And you cannot avoid the unpleasant feeling of claustrophobia, overwhelmed by security briefings, security warnings, security alerts, security drills, security bulletins, radio-checks, check-points, off-limit zones, restricted-movement zones, US soldiers, Blue Helmets, etc.

That being said, I have to say I didn’t dislike Kabul. On the contrary, I kind of like it. Despite its enormous contradictions and problems, I actually found it vibrant, dynamic, optimistic, with that kind of energy you feel when everything has to start from scratch, the worst is over, and there is great hope in the future*.

In these days I met young and dynamic managers, committed leaders, and - in general - people very much projected towards the future. And determined to make it better.

Bye-bye Kabul. In a few hours I’ll fly back to Islamabad, but I’ll be back in just a few months. See you soon…

(*) "C'é fermento, c'é fermento..." - who recognizes the quotation?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Afghan bread

As observed in one of my previous posts, it seems that in this period I cannot refrain myself from writing posts on food. This post is on Afghan food. Or, better, on Afghan bread.

From the Indian ‘tandoori’, to the Pakistani ‘tabak’, to the Afghan ‘kebabs’ - I have to say I am still not very fond of the cuisine of the ‘sub-continent’, as they call it here (and who knows if I will ever be). And if you know me, you should know that if I don’t like it, I don’t eat it*.

Of course there are international restaurants in Kabul (we went to a Lebanese restaurant a couple of evenings ago that was the end of the world!), but if - as it happened often in the past days - you are confined to your guest house for security reasons, well, you have to be satisfied with what the guest house's canteen offers you. Which basically means that I often prefer to skip my meals.

Luckily I discovered the Afghan bread, or naan. Well, it has not been that difficult, as Kabul has plenty of street-shops that hang these breads as ham legs in a western gastronomy. Whatever, I absolutely became addicted to the Afghan bread, to the extent that my breakfasts, lunches, afternoon snacks and dinners are now almost entirely made of naan.

So, mums (plural as I discovered Mathilde’s mum is worried as well), don’t worry: your son (or son-in-law) is regularly eating, and will be soon back home without having lost too much weight…

(*) Davide must have taken it from someone in the family, after all…

Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Italian in Afghanistan (and that’s not me)

I can’t say there is much to see driving around Kabul*. Certainly Kabul is not the kind of city where you keep on asking your driver to stop to take pictures. But when we passed in front of the hospital built and run by Emergency, I couldn’t resist to ask the driver to stop for a second.

Gino Strada is a controversial character. You may or may not share his radical positions. You may or may not like the way he presents himself. But certainly you can’t avoid to admire what he did, and, if you have a hat, take it off and say “chapeau”…

(*) Even though Kabul has its charm, I have to confess. But this perhaps will be the topic of another post…

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hotel Kabul

Ok, I promised myself I would have not scared my mum during this mission. But as my mum doesn’t read the Blog, I feel I can impress a bit my readers…

The above is the door that from the lobby of the Guest House where we are staying leads us to our rooms. The long and narrow alley surrounded by high (and thick) walls that leads to the door is meant to make the work of the snipers more difficult. The walls of the alley are covered by barbed wire to discourage attacks. The door is of course armoured. Behind the door there are two armed soldiers that check the documents of whoever wishes to enter (if you forget your passport in the room, you are done for!). While one soldier opens the door and check your documents, the other one points the rifle at you until the passport check is over. After you pass this check point you go through a couple of corridors and then you finally reach a small yard over which the rooms of the guest house overlook. There are sacks of sand to protect the rooms against bullets and the splinters of grenades a bit everywhere. Two armed soldiers are on patrol 24/7. And on the roof (see below) another armed soldier watches over the situation…

On the door of my room, instead of having the usual notice explaining what to do in case of fire, I have a notice explaining what to do in case of explosions, gunfires, and grenades.

Every time I return to my room I think that escaping from Alcatraz was probably easier than reaching my room!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Afghanistan from above

While observing these rough and apparently inhospitable lands from above, my mind went to those caravans that for centuries climbed over these passes and crossed these plains from East to West, backward and forward - and I just wished I could be dropped with my backpack and my tent there, and told: “Ok, see you in one week in Kabul…”

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Towards Afghanistan

Stunning views over the Hindukush range.

The invisible line that divides Pakistan from Afghanistan.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

My first week in Islamabad

Lunch at Qaim’s

I am about to conclude my first week in Islamabad, and in the process of collecting and reorganizing initial impressions and sensations.

Well, the conclusion is that, strangely perhaps, I hardly managed to build a well-defined 'first' impression of this city. I have to say I have seen very little of Islamabad, tossed about from the hotel to offices and back to the hotel, and this may have somehow prevented me to spend enogh time understanding and digesting the city. A couple of evenings out to a restaurant, my dinner at the French Embassy, a blitz to a commercial center nearby the hotel to look for a pharmacy, and today lunch at Qaim’s were in fact the only escapes from this ‘back-and-forward’, hotel-offices-hotel, this week…

What to say then of Islamabad. Well, perhaps the first thing that somehow struck me is that it didn’t respond at all to the image of chaotic, crowded, dirty, noisy Asian megalopolis that perhaps I was expecting. Just to be clear: Islamabad is not the Pakistani version of Delhi. Planned and designed ‘on paper’ to be Pakistan’s temporary capital and built from scratch in the 60s, Islamabad is on the contrary clean, neat, characterized by broad and straight avenues, green parks, and very little, if not at all, traffic or pollution. Organized as an American city with roads that intersect perpendicularly, dotted by houses that are obviously ‘new’, I felt Islamabad lacked a bit a ‘soul’...

Chapter security. Well, I didn’t have the impression to be constantly ‘under fire’, but have also to say that I have never seen so many road-blocks in my life. Basically there is one at every intersection, and you need to slow down, stop and show your documents basically at each of them. To get in the hotel there are two checkpoints within 30 meters from each other. At each of them the car is scanned by guards that look in the engine and under the vehicle to make sure there are no bombs attached. And once by foot, you have to pass by two x-ray machines before you can finally walk in the lobby. Despite I didn’t perceive any imminent threat in the past days, a few times we were required to either enter or exit the hotel using secondary exits because of ongoing demonstrations outside, and on Thursday several of my meetings were cancelled because of a security alert.

I don’t want to scare anyone, and be reassured my mood is good and my general impression is that these are mainly precautionary measures - and that we are not in danger. However I have to say that this is the first time I work in a country where the level of alert is so high.

And tomorrow, off to Kabul…

(Ps: I realized that in the past weeks most of the posts, this one included, directly or indirectly focused on food, restaurants, dinners, lunches, etc. As far as I am concerned, this is absolutely accidental, and there is no specific reason for that. But I’ll pay more attention in the future, and if I come up with an explanation, I’ll share it with you. Likewise, if you find a possible explanation, please let me know J).

Friday, March 18, 2011

Diner chez l’Ambassadeur

In line with a recurrent theme in our past posts (how small is this world), let me report another casual encounter*.

No this time I didn’t meet Annesophie, one of my best friends from the times in London, but her parents, monsieur l’Ambassadeur de France à Islamabad et madame, who have been leaving here in Pakistan for the past three years and invited me for dinner chez 'la Residence' yesterday eve**.

And while tasting saumon à les herbes et tartare de légumes, two considerations came to my mind. The first one: that French cuisine is much better than Pakistani cuisine. And the second one: Annesophietta, when will we meet again???

(*) And as far as casual encounters are concerned, Mathilde has accidentally met Francesca and Kaz, two friends of us from Washington and Delhi, in Tunisi! This is really a small world!

(**) A special thanks for the delicious dinner (and I hope that the fact I was invited for dinner on Thursday was purely accidental…)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Viva l'Italia!

From Islamabad a little thought to the 150th anniversary of our country… happy birthday!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

An Italian and an Argentinian in Islamabad

Almost as a seaman who can boast a lover in each harbour in which he docks, it seems I can boast a friend in almost every city where I land.

I had not spent 24 hours in Islamabad yet, that I already had dinner with Martin, a very good friend of mine from the times in DC - as well as an ‘official follower’ of our Blog.

And while tasting grilled chicken with green chilli and mint, two considerations came to my mind. The first one: that this is really a small world. The second one, less trivial perhaps: that most likely I will not become very fond of Pakistani food either…

Monday, March 14, 2011

Les M&M’s are pregnant!

Dear family and friends, les M&M’s are officially pregnant.

As a summer-storm, Baby will arrive sometime around mid-August. And, with a mix of fear and enthusiasm, we look forward to this tempest in our lives...

Matteo & Mathilde

In partenza!

Mathilde to Tunisia and Washington, Matteo to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Apologizes in advance if we won't manage to keep the Blog fully up-to-date in the next weeks, but we'll surely have plenty of stories and pictures at our return.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

The sea in winter

Getting lost is often an opportunity to discover new places.

I am still not 100% familiar with the roads in Rome, and in fact yesterday, on my way back from Fiumicino airport where I went to pick Mathilde back from her trip to Sweden, at one point I found myself on the highway to Civitavecchia, with no possibility to U-turn for several kilometres.

But often getting lost suddenly becomes an opportunity to discover new places. And in fact when we finally managed to get out of the highway, we found ourselves on the seaside, in Fregene, popular destination of Spring and Summer's daily out-of-town trips for several Roman families.

The place is not up to much, even though the sea in winter has always its charm. But the food...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On the other side of the desk

I had a quite interesting experience today. I was in fact invited to participate to a discussion on ‘careers in international organizations’, and to share with students near to graduation my experience and advice on how to develop a career in an international organization.

There are two aspects of this experience that I found interesting. The first one is that I found myself sitting in front of students that are today in the exact same situation where I was 15 years ago, and I could see myself in them. I could feel the same enthusiasm and at the same time the same uncertainties, the same questions I had 15 years ago. I remember that when I was a student I attended a short cycle of classes from Giandomenico Picco (the former Under Secretary General of the United Nations), and I do well remember how inspiring they were and how much they contributed in shaping my will to undertake a career in development cooperation. Today I felt the double-responsibility of on the one hand transmitting to students the passion and the enthusiasm for a profession which I find extremely fulfilling and rewarding - as Picco did to me. And on the other hand the responsibility of not providing a ‘too romantic’ picture of this profession, but to objectively present it with its positive aspects as well as its drawbacks.

The second aspect that I found interesting in this experience was that in order to prepare my contribution and identify the key messages I wanted to deliver I had to look backward to my career so far and try to understand what the turning points and the critical decisions I had to take were, and to distil from them lessons that could be useful to the students. This was not a trivial exercise, because when we look at our career we are often too focused on ‘today’ and ‘what’s next’, and we rarely take time to critically think to the process and the decisions that brought us here.

What I discovered is interesting, but I will tell you another time. Good night for now.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Da Flavio al Velavevodetto

Coming back to Italy after twelve years abroad is not easy. I can’t say I am facing what is commonly known as ‘cultural counter-shock’, the shock associated with re-adjusting to your own native culture after having being immersed in another culture for long time, but certainly there are aspects of living abroad that I am missing.

What I am certainly not missing is ethnic food. Since I moved back to Italy, I have not been to a single non-Italian restaurant yet! Perhaps I simply have to recover 12 years of ‘starvation’. Or perhaps it’s true: there is no better cuisine than Italian cuisine.

Whatever the reason is, one thing is certainly true: in Rome, carbonara has a different taste.

And tonight Chiara could confirm it…

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mathilde in Testaccio

Testaccio, ten minutes walking distance from our new home, is considered the neighbourhood of the ‘true’ Romans. And the Testaccio market is unanomously considered one of the best (if not the best) markets in Rome.

‘Se nun je dai la robba bona a queli der Testaccio, queli te pijano e te menano!’ an old Roman once told me. Which, in Roman slang, means ‘if you don’t give good products to those living in Testaccio, they take you and they beat you!’

The first time Mathilde went to the market, she called me all excited: “Matt, I have been to Testaccio market. Oh my god, it’s gorgeous! I even felt I wanted to cook!”. And while I was pretending to be as excited as Mathilde on the phone, inside I was thinking: ‘poor Mathilde, I am sure those merchants ripped her off’, and the only thing I could say was “be careful to the pickpockets”.

This morning we went to the market together, and I stood open-mouthed observing Mathilde agilely moving between stalls with all the merchants warmly greeting her: ‘buongiorno signorina, bentornata!’, ‘buongiorno mademoiselle, piacere rivederla!’, ‘bonjour-bonjour’...

Marriage à la Française

We continue our brief reportage of what happened in the past two weeks, when we were left without internet.

Last week-end we flew to Paris to attend the marriage of Benoit and Benedicte, a.k.a. les Ben & Ben’s.

The party took place in the Parisian countryside, not far from where we celebrated our wedding less than two years ago. A little leap into the past.

I am sorry, I don’t have many more pictures: unfortunately my camera run out of battery right at the most awkward moment…

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The incredible Hulk!

It is well-known that ants can lift more than 20 times their weight.

I am not sure whether this Ikea mattress weighted more than 20 times my weight, but I can assure you that I felt very much like an ant while carrying it up to the sixth floor!

(Those with a good spirit of observation would have noticed that I wore a jacket and a tie to bring the mattresses up. As I said earlier, la classe non é acqua…)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Les M&M's at Ikea

Which couple didn’t spend at least a full Sunday at Ikea in its life?

Well, our turn happened to be two week-ends ago, at the Ikea ‘Anagnina’. Just as background information, the last time we spent a full day at Ikea was in October 2006, at the Ikea of College Park in Washington DC. We spent 12 hours in a row, from 9 am to 9 pm, hardly stopping for lunch or even to go to the restrooms. We disagreed on everything, and at the end of that marathon, yes, we had the house fully furnished, but we were literally ready to break-up.

Five years later we repeated the experience. Lessons learnt? Well, at the end of the day we just bought a mattress, a small table, a chair, a stool, two glasses, two dishes, two forks, two knives and a pot.

Our home is still pretty empty, but at least our marriage is safe…

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Les M&M’s are back on line!

Apologizes for the long silence. I may say I have been overwhelmed by the new job (which incidentally is true), but the real reason for our long absence from the net is that we have been waiting for the past two weeks to have internet at home.

And I don’t want to be ungenerous with my own country by highlighting that in India it took us only two days to have internet connection at home (and it little matters that Airtel kept on calling for one month after the installation to ask when they could come to install internet: these are little inefficiencies that you smile about when your service is actually delivered). In the end in fact we should consider ourselves lucky as it took us only 17 days to finally have internet, when, according to a friend of mine who worked in the telecommunication sector, the average wait here in Italy is more than 20 days!

And in the end it little matters that, yes, we finally have internet, but that the telephone line stopped working. It seems in fact we will have to get used here in Italy to be content with little, and to accept that you cannot have it all. If you want internet, the fact that you may not have a telephone line is a little price you may need to accept. If you want the telephone line, perhaps you may need to accept your doorbell won’t work, and so on… And anyway, luckily there is Skype!

Anyway, the most important thing is that, yes, les M&M’s are back on line, and that little by little we will update you on what happened in the past two weeks.

So, stay tuned!