On the Same Boat: A Conversation with Paolo Predonzan
Paolo Predonzan is an Italian entrepreneur living and working in Hong Kong. We had been introduced by Angelo Paratico, just recently, with the occasion of a cultural event, a conference on the Chinese Rites Controversy by Fr. Gianni Criveller that took place at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. That brief encounter was sufficient to recognise each other on the same boat to Shenzhen a morning of June this year. Friendly, expansive, Paolo seemed to greet the world that sunny day, when spring is turning summer, and his good spirit was contagious. But already arriving to our destination there was no much time but for courtesy words and to wish each other good luck in our endeavours.
What a happy coincidence to meet again at She Kou for our trip back home. For someone like me who has travelled far and wide in China and that for the most part has experienced only hardships, seeing Paolo at the Shenzhen pier was comforting. He was welcoming me, also amused at surprised, and we realized we had become already instant friends. Waiting at the pier and later taking a seat in the boat, almost empty and quiet then, we engaged quickly in conversation. Our journeys in the mainland, half social, half work this time, we coincided, had been fruitful , and we could look ahead with a positive outlook.
But there was something striking in our exchange from the start. Without prior agreement and as if that were the most natural thing to do, Paolo only spoke in Italian and I only spoke in Spanish. This is the story of a conversation between two people who spoke different languages and who understood each other.
This was not a miracle, for both Italian and Spanish are mutually intelligible to such a high degree. But there was something more than the common Latin roots of our respective languages − and that Paolo knows more Spanish than he modestly wants to admit. There was an old common civilized world to which we want to belong, where words are uttered to be understood, where people think before speaking, where every word is invested with meaning and every sentence is crafted to make sense. Where the voice is crystal clear, and utmost care is put in diction without unnatural affectation. As I discovered Paolo Prodenzan was such a person, I immediately tried to attune. And what a refreshing experience to recover in the other, this new friend that I started to know, all the values I have grown up with, the recognition of our common humanity raising above the material practicalities, the numbing technologies and the demeaning of manners.
Talking and listening without interruption, letting finish the argument of your counterpart, so rare nowadays, are no small things to celebrate. Between us there was no need to assert ourselves, no room for the uncouth ‘to make a point”. And of course, there was more than considerate, basic, rhetoric, a lost art; we would talk about everything, as civilized people do, starting from the ordinary things of life. In this spirit, nothing is trivial for us, all is important. The pleasant weather, the placid waters of the South China Sea that carry us today and our conversation with a soft pace. Our love for Hong Kong, an open city, our home, and its many felicitous features – and a few not so much so.
What a contrast, I thought, between Paolo’s ancestral Veneto, a region he still evokes with love, its serene green landscapes, the land that gave birth to Palladio; and my beloved Madrid, still a dusty village, on the Castilian plateau almost 800 metres above the sea, extremely hot in summer and unbearably cold in winter. But I learn of striking coincidences between the local Venetian language and the Spanish, like calle (street), for one.
For people like us who belong to ancient ancestral cultures and that, for sure to the smallest degree, have absorbed a bit of their wisdom, nothing is forbidden in the conversation, nothing that belongs to our world. He confesses himself an atheist, and I a believer. We admit religion have played a big part in the making of every one of us, Italians and Spanish, as though you have to respond for action or reaction, learning to accommodate and adjust for life − though no more so for the younger generations.
Paolo speaks fondly about his group of friends with whom he regularly meets to chat. I tell him we call that “tertulia”, which I miss so much. They are his partner Corrado Savazzi, Massimo Sfriso and Fr. Gianni Criveller, and he kindly invites me to join them some time.
Our conversation leaned naturally for the most part for what is really important, the most crucial topic of our time, the economic structures where we live and work, its inhuman disregard for man and its natural environment, a system supported by political elites and well-entrenched by financiers and their lobbies, the big enterprises, the so called academics, spurious think-tanks and journalists under pay.
This is a large topic I shall have to come back. Why, he asks, if it is manifest the current financial and economic set-up has caused so much misery, fear, uncertainty, why we cannot change it? A financial system artificially overgrown and detached from the real economy is clearly a time-bomb. And this system is not the result of force majeure or an Act of God. People have only one life, why letting millions without hope? Why making the world to fit the market (what a few perceive as the market) and not the people? Paolo accuses the spin doctors, pervasive in the European Union, that one day are doctoring in one direction and next they retract in full. The Euro currency for instance, whose introduction and support at any price (at any human price) has cost so dearly to millions of Europeans. Paolo condemns the intellectual and moral underpinnings of those who sustain there is no alternative, that there is not a better system possible. Of course, another system is possible!
I could not agree more. I recall the late Tony Judt − one of my highest regarded public intellectuals, I sorely miss him – who writes precisely about this. In one of his last books he points out to the great Polish poet and intellectual, Czeslaw Milosz, who in his The Captive Mind, denounced the old Soviet mindset that preached no alternative. Judt highlights that this is exactly what is happening today in the modern liberal West. This is a fecund area, how such thinking has become prevalent: no alternative, we are told – intelligence slaved.
Paolo recommends me to read In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell, that I have fortunately read afterwards. Russell, another fundamental author with the finest prose, touching upon a classic theme, a subject which I have frequented and I hope to write about: the need of spare time to cultivate ourselves and collect our thoughts. Russell defends the fundamental features of man, the dignity of man, which are not working to exhaustion while so many others go without work. Which sort of system is this? Paolo also recommends me to read The Gravest Crime by Paolo Barnard. We talk further on the peculiar conditions in our respective countries, some differences on the causes and effects of the current chronic crisis, and their common ills, a permanent state of division of our societies, their incapacity to work on a shared goal.
This trip has been different, I have enjoyed and learned so much. I tell Paolo that I have started to write encouraged by my friends Angelo Paratico and Ciriaco Offeddu. Paolo tells me he does not write much, but that lately he started to write his correspondence more consciously, more aware of what he writes and how. I did the same too, this is a great way to grow. He reminds me he wrote a short article, like a divertimento, on pugilism. The word, pugilismo, the same both in Italian and Spanish, strikes me as a beautiful word and brings back memories of my infancy for I also did boxing as a child. Yes, I relished in Paolo’s article posted in Beyond 39: The greatest: why Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the best in boxing history.’ http://beyondthirtynine.com/the-greatest-why-floyd-mayweather-jr-is-the-best-in-boxing-history/
And only a few days ago Paolo has posted a short gothic story in Beyond 39 too: http://beyondthirtynine.com/a-gothic-story-from-paolo-predonzan/
We arrive to our destination in Sheung Wan and we have to bid farewell. As we shake hands, I encourage Paolo to keep writing. He has many important things to tell, and he knows how to tell them.