Sunday, March 16, 2008

Concept "bling-bling"

In November 1963 [date of Kennedy's assassination], when I started work as an assistant English teacher at the Lycée Henri IV in the ancient heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris, my closest friend happened to be an Italian colleague, the same age as me, named Benito Italiani. [Having nearly been christened Winston, I sympathized with the naming case of my friend.] As a typically naive Australian with zero worldly culture, I was surprised to learn from Benito that the concepts of right and left could be applied, not only to political people and situations, but to all kinds of everyday entities, contexts and events. For example, since we foreign students in Paris used to spend a lot of our time watching movies, I was particularly interested to learn from Benito that there were both right-wing and left-wing literature and films. Indeed, just as God had invented males and females, He had apparently gone on to organize the Cosmos into right-wing and left-wing things. And it was up to each of us (for reasons I could hardly be expected to understand at that time and place) to decide where we best fitted in.

Unfortunately, my Italian comrade was left with no time to attenuate a little my inbred Aussie ignorance, if not educate me in a broader sense. In the summer of 1964, I visited Benito and his American wife at their home in Pescara, on the Adriatic coast. In the following winter, I was shocked to learn by a letter from his wife that my friend had died in a skiing accident in the Apennine mountains of his native Abruzzo. Apparently Benito was an expert skier, who had the habit of venturing off the beaten track. At the base of a gentle slope, he slid into a concealed stream, and his skis got stuck. Another skier found him there, almost frozen, but was unable to set him free. He gave Benito a cigarette and dashed off to seek assistance. When they returned, Benito was slumped over on the snow, lifeless, and his unconsumed final cigarette had fallen from his lips.

Today, if he were still with us, I can imagine Benito informing me [with his charming Italian accent, which still rings in my ears] that the bling-bling concept is a universal phenomenon, which can be found in all kinds of individuals, from pop stars to presidents and princesses, and in everyday objects such as wristwatches, necklaces and computer mice. A legend concerning the origin of this expression is particularly amusing. It appears that "bling bling" is an onomatopoeia representing the jingling sound of abundant metallic jewelry. Well, a certain mohawk-haircut black American actor [a guy who once got shit belt out of him by Rocky] claims that he invented this behavior back in the days when he was a bouncer in a rough club. Every evening, there were brawls, and males tend to lose their jewelry in such circumstances. The Mohawk bouncer decided to pick up metal jewelry left lying around at the end of an evening's brawling, and exhibit it the next day by actually wearing it, so that rightful owners could reclaim it immediately at the door of the club. Nice, no?

Who on Earth [in France, let's say, to limit the research] could have had the sordid idea of referring to Nicolas Sarkozy, for the first time, as President Bling-bling? And why? I have the impression that this association has more to do with the glitzy-glinky atmosphere of a certain DisneyLand apparition than with wearing ostentatious Rolex watches... although the two contexts might combine their effects. Somebody said that Carla Bruni told a friend that she wanted a man "with nuclear power". Be this apocryphal [as it surely is] or not, the problem for fairytale people like the Sarkozy-Bruni couple is that onlookers are no longer concerned by the frontier between facts and fiction. Bling-bling, sing-song, thing-thong, ying-yong, ding-dong... Are French citizens in general still prepared to look upon Nicolas Sarkozy and the new first lady as serious individuals? I hope so, but I have my doubts.

Back in my Paris days, an awesome daily vision was the formidable construction known as the Conciergerie, with is massive torture tower, where a notorious Skeffington personage had once been imprisoned. The dungeons of this Seine-side fortress include the dismal dank cell where Marie-Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, was held. She was the mindless woman who suggested, when throngs of starving Parisians demanded bread, that they might eat cake.

When the hated Austrian princess was led from this cell, to be beheaded, the atmosphere was not exactly DisneyLand!

An impressive pageant on Marie-Antoinette has just opened in Paris, with assistance from the museum of Versailles, at the splendid Grand Palais. In this morning's press, a journalist has referred to Marie-Antoinette, cruelly and pointedly, as Queen Bling-bling.


  1. Michael ItalianiMay 10, 2009 at 8:19 AM

    Hi William,

    I just came across your post and was surprised to hear you talking about my father, Benito. After my father died, my mother moved back to her family in the states. Your posting reminds me of the final episode of the Sporano's where his son complains that all that's left of America is just bling. Needless to say, I have moved back to Europe. It's nice to know that the memory of my father, even in his short life, lives on.

  2. Dear Michael Italiani,

    I was utterly moved and thrilled to hear from you. Please tell me what has happened in your family since Benito's tragic death.


  3. So hard to compress forty odd years into a couple of sentences. Only recently have I been able to uncover and appreciate the devastation that comes when there is a premature death in the family.

    There is one aspect of the story that is slightly different from what I have heard. Benito had just begun to ski at Maiella near Pescara and was a novice. The idea was that he would take his mind off of the headaches that he was encountering on a more frequent basis. Evidently he had sustained a brain injury from a motorcycle accident years earlier.

    I wonder about skiing in those days, though. It wasn't really that common for people in general. I recently talked to a local in Citta Sant' Angelo who said that that was only for the bourghese. I know now that my family is really quite wealthy, but still to this day they believe they are simply humble peasants who don't engage in such frivolous activity. I know this, because when went back to Pescara, I stayed at a cheap hotel and sat there at one of the cafe's on the street sipping on a latte. I would get some sharp stares from my relatives, because they thought I was being way too trendy for their tastes. But what are you going to do in a new city? Sit and look like a tourist.

    Anyway, the other story that I heard was that in the early '60s Benito was an out in the open socialist. In those days, that might have been riske or idealistic. He did not live long enough to reach the '70s when it became risky to be a socialist, especially in Italy. So, I doubt he would have continued on like that, because the Italiani's are pretty conservative.

    It's hard to say what ensued in the following decades. The narrative turned to what happened next in my mother's life. I moved with her back to her parent's country and lived out two decades in the Hamptons. How's that for encapsulation. Only recently have I been able to come to grips and really comprehend Benito's story. That's why, for me, it is so interesting that I came across your post.