Brief Dialogue on Happiness at Augusta University

This is the presentation given at Augusta University, last Wednesday, in front of an interesting group of students and professors. We talked about happiness and we realized that this is the only human passion which will never perish under the modern politics of hate and obsessive competition.

I’ve been in contact with Professor Giada Biasetti since when we ran into each other in Jacksonville, last September, at the SAMLA Conference. In that occasion, I read a 15-pages text based on my Brief Dialogue on happiness and I had 15 minutes for that. I promised to myself not to repeat an academic conference anymore in my life.

This talk was different, as it wasn’t on behalf of my university nor an academic lecture. It was just a dialogue. I did not base it on a paper, neither on specific topics. I talked with the students, not to the students. We started from a statement by Seneca, “Happiness is not a human condition, but our biggest passion.” The word “passion” was our first keyword. The second one would be “love.”

“What is happiness for you?” I asked. Someone said, “commitment”, some other “objectives” and “the way one reaches them”, all possible solutions to our research, indeed. However, one of the first aspects to consider talking of happiness is that there are thousands of possible answers to this question.

During the presentation (with the help of the slides that you find attached to this article), I told the story which is behind the story. That is, I did not talk of the Brief Dialogue, but of what happened before writing it.

During the last ten years of my life, I’ve been wondering what is happiness and how to reach this state of mind, giving away the material wealth and the ‘knick-knacks’ that we carry on along our travel. I realized that I need a small luggage if I want to have a pleasant travel.

So, with only one backpack, I left for Montevideo, Uruguay, on February 2014, one-way ticket, no idea of the results of my research and no money in my pockets. I had a general idea of what I would write, but I did not imagine what I would experience and how intensely I would live.

When I left my home, my job, my girlfriend, and friends, I only had a purpose: find happiness and bring it back to them. I was looking for a narrative solution to our problems. And the only tool I had was my pen, I had to write as soon as possible and as much as I could.

In 2012, I had seen a person on television. He was the president of Uruguayan Republic, José (Pepe) Mujica, a man that became a model for new generations. It was the first time that I heard a politician talking of happiness and quoting the ancient Stoics like Seneca, inviting people to work less and not to run after money and success. I had to meet this person because he had already a place in my story. Pepe Mujica was a character out of a novel.

I arrived in Montevideo after a couple of months spent in South America, where I had never been before. The colors and sounds of the city stroke me at first and impressed me the most. Buildings were old and colored; a noisy music from ancient radios came out of the little metallic grids on the windows; children played in the street with squashed cans of Coke as a ball and scored against the closed shops. On the bus, homeless people sold everything for few pesos, candies, socks, sandwiches, and called loud asking for one minute of your attention.

I arrived in Plaza Independencia, where was a huge building with green windows inside cement cases. It was the Torre Ejecutiva, the place where the presidential office was. I did not have any appointment, neither a confirmation from them and, in addition, I was wearing an old baseball t-shirt, which must have been in a piteous condition. “The president is not here today”, the secretary said, “but you can come next week and we will listen to your project”. I did not have a project, I didn’t really know what I would write. Something on Mujica, maybe his biography, but I was not sure at all!

During those first weeks, I had the chance to look around the city and find out which were the poorest blocks, Marconi, Casavalle, Ipodromo and Bella Italia. I had a room booked in the Jewish street of Barrio Sud, but I did not stay there for long, just for one month or so. I needed to look for the characters of my story, and I sensed that they weren’t there.

I met a boy in that flat, though, and it’s worth to talk about him for a second: his name was Nicolas, he had long curly hear and blue eyes; he ate without hurry, pausing at each bite with his elbows on the table and his fork on the plate. When I asked him “What do you do to pay your rent?” he said, “We deliver love.” He was part of a group, in fact, whose name was El Cuarteto del Amor, and they went around singing old love songs. People ordered a song and they walked along the streets playing it. They didn’t even care about the hat with the coins; sometimes they simply forgot it on the sidewalk and run after nice girls to dedicate them a piece. This was the kind of person I was looking for my story.

I’m also indebted to my friend Henry Ortega Spina, who helped me a lot with the Spanish version of the Brief Dialogue, published in the National Library Review. Henry was a good friend, we always had parilla together and dreamed of a better future for South America.

So, I spent a lot of my time going around the city and meeting people from all the region, mostly old people, with the conviction that they represented the most important source of life experience and memories from which one can create a credible piece. Streets in Montevideo are noisy and joyful, full of stands or little shops selling mate and bombillas of the best Uruguayan tradition. I also had the chance to visit nice corners of the region, seafood restaurants smelling of octopus and roasted marlins. Meat everywhere, roasted and perfumed inspired me ancestral instincts never dozed off in my daily modern routine. Sometimes I ran into street artists like Cecilia Varela, dancing Tango with her red skirt and green camisole, little breasts, and brilliant enormous eyes. I was mad for Cecilia Varela.

But the person I wanted to meet, above everyone else, was el Pepe, as people used to call him. An 80-years old man, with the wisdom of an ancient philosopher and the tongue of a poet. Pepe Mujica gave his salary, about $ 9,000 per month, to an organization for young single mothers; and he refused to live in the presidential house, choosing to stay in his old farmhouse. “I’m a flower farmer” he used to say, “why shall I change my lifestyle now that they made me president!” During his fictional life, Mujica was jailed 16 times, and he managed to escape almost every time. He keeps on his body the proves, 16 firearms scares.

I saw him for the first time in his car, an old blue Beetle half destroyed, led by his best friend, the chauffeur who would introduce me to him a few months later.

Mujica spent many years in jail, not because he had been a criminal or nothing of the style. He had been instead a leader of an armed rebel group, the Tupamaros, fighting against the State Army who imposed a military dictatorship in Uruguay back in the ’70. The dictatorship ended in 1986, but many leaders like him were kept longer. Mujica spent 13 years enclosed in a tiny hole under a police office. A place called Calabozo, a nightmare for any human being. The worst thing for him was not to talk to anybody and not to read any book along 6 years of isolation.

Finally, somebody threw some books into the cell: Philosophy and Science. That was how Seneca entered Mujica’s life, almost by accident. However, thanks to those readings, happened in that specific moment, Mujica could appreciate the real sense of life and understand that richness is in our head, and not in our wallet.

Behind him, there is a great woman, Lucia Topolansky. She has been a rebel too. Her name was changed into Ana in that time, and she spent several years as a prisoner like her husband. For a woman, you can imagine that the tortures during the imprisonment were even worst. The soldiers assigned to the political prisoners were the milicos, trained by the French officers in Panama City. Today Lucia is a senator and she lives next to her husband. They couldn’t have any child.

The day I finally met Mujica I had already turned into a perfect Uruguayan. I was living with few earnings, I was not shaved and I didn’t have a good smell neither. We had a coffee in a bar, the place where he had lunch on Tuesday, right behind Plaza Independencia, that is, Plaza España, on Rio de la Plata. On my arrival, I had been in that place and I had chosen it as the setting of my story. This bar is a place for free people, I told myself. And, in fact, it was the place where I would meet el Pepe.

“Everything begins in the schools”, Mujica told me wishing me all the best for my project. And I realized in that moment which was my project: write the Brief Dialogue on happiness and distribute it for free amid young students in European Schools.

Mujica had the movements of a rock singer, an old rebel with little sparrow eyes. Wise lips of old people and cheeks of children. He smiled only with a little part of his face. “Suerte viejo!” he told me before greeting each other. I’ve never gone back to Montevideo since, and I don’t know if he could read the Spanish version of the Brief Dialogue. However, I realized during the following years that Mujica was only the first part of my little mission. Now that I found the man, rather than the politician, and I had a real description for my main character, I had to move on the next protagonists.

And this is how I ended up in the poorest place of the city, looking for real people. During the following months, I met an old man who told me true stories of Mujica’s childhood. It was don Alberto, the owner of a little bar in Barrio Palermo. (All the descriptions of these places are in the Dialogue. What I’m doing now is only telling the story of how the Dialogue was born. This is the reason why you might have the impression that I’m running too fast and that a part of the text is missing). Don Alberto told me about the first years of political activity and the time when el Pepe and his wife started fighting together with the Tupamaros.

I also met Ada Simeone, a Belgian dancer who had suffered a serious disease and could barely walk with a cane. However, she did not give up and kept traveling around Uruguay with that thin wooden cane, trembling each time she missed a dose of her strong medicaments. She was the one who told me for the first time about the Cantegriles, the places where real misery was concentrated. She had worked there as a volunteer. “Misery, dear Francisco”, she said, “is the same in every part of the World, be it in Africa or here. But on television, they only mention the other side of the ocean”.

Walking toward the poor side of the city, only my bag on the shoulder and sandals on my feet, I thought about Eda’s words. “Misery smells bad and it’s the same smell everywhere.” An object found in front of a closed shop gave me the sensation that the two halves of the city didn’t get along together: it was a metallic grid, with polished bright points. It was used to prohibit homeless people sleep there.

Another person that helped me a lot over there was Pablo Lopez. Pablo had two jobs, one in the day and one in the night. He was a night guardian in an INAU Institute, the place where in Uruguay they kept orphans or minors that had experienced a crime and could not be jailed due to their age. A very hard place where guardians like Pablo only stood few months until they gave up and moved on to another job. Female educators could also be victims of sexual abuses by the same minors. INAU children at times were impossible to monitor unless they were under the effect of specific drugs used in that place.

Pablo’s family lived in Calle Susana Pintos, the place where I took the picture for the Italian cover of the Brief Dialogue. They lived in a tiny shack, unfinished, wood and metal sheets. With them, I had the chance to see something I will never forget: sweet green hills from far, then fetid when you came nearer. It was, in fact, a stratum of soil and grassland covering tons of rubbish. More litter was thrown by reach people from their cars. They drew along Susana Pintos and they trashed their plastic bags.

The image used for the cover of the Italian version portrayed a child on his plastic blue car pulled by his father, an Indian guy whose face I didn’t see. They represented in my mind our search of a father, Mujica’s search, and mine. I felt something in common with el Pepe, as he has lost his father very young and he never talked about him.

Streets in those areas were dirty and poor. There was no drainage system and few shoes on people’s feet. However, inside those poor half-furnished houses there were I-Phones and plasma TV. How can it be possible? I asked myself. I was told later that politicians in Montevideo promised all kinds of technologic items through special programs to those who accepted to vote them!

Technology can be miraculous and save human lives, but in the hands of uncultivated young people, I wondered, what were the consequences? Mujica said that inside our little screen we have all the answers as if it were a sort of magic. What we cannot find in there are the questions, though. Who teaches us how to create questions? Whose questions are we answering instead?

The capacity to query oneself, said the flower farmer, is the beginning of any revolution. And in my mind, only books can teach this capacity. Reading can enhance certain mechanisms and help us build our point of view opening the doors to culture, self-culture and, most of all, personal freedom. This means critical thinking.

My little help to those children, therefore, could be only one: writing.

I realized along the old barrios in Montevideo, that in South America no one is poor for a caprice. When you are poor over there you are poor for real. I often wondered if all my efforts and sacrifices were useless in front of so much sorrow and indifference. I saw the kids playing soccer with an old ball without shoes and older men collecting plastic and iron from the rubbish as a job. Selecionadores was their name, they were considered a sort of public workers, even though they got few cents for each ton of material collected. And I thought that those children, without an education, would be selecionadores themselves.

A few months later I decided to go back to Europe and start diffusing my story amid the students. I had been living in the Cantegriles with few dollars per month; nobody at home knew how I could have sorted out and, most of all, nobody knew what I kept inside my old yellow folder.

The yellow folder was one of those objects that look for their own place in the world like human beings do. I sensed that it would be much more stimulating not to open it and let people imagine what was inside. And so I did, until the last day, “What do you keep in that yellow folder?” “¿Vos guardás el Breve diálogo sobre la felicidad?” my Montevidean friends kept asking.

I started working on several articles and reports which were published in magazines and newspapers. Nobody could believe that I had done everything on my own time and for free. When some friend asked me “why” I simply realized that she was not a real friend. People who love me and understand my devotion to my writing did not make any question, they were just happy to see me again and listen to my story.

Publishing and selling my Brief Dialogue? No way! Making money with a story based on Mujica’s philosophy of sobriety would be anti-ethic. I had to do more and look for new contacts in Italian high Schools. And that’s what I did, writing to each single institution and asking for an invitation to talk with their students.

I gave no more than 20 talks because nobody reimbursed the trips. When I ran out of money I had to stop, even though many other schools invited me and they are probably still waiting for me. In total, 10.000 copies of the Italian version have been distributed for free, by mail, in front of the schools, during the talks and the literary events I took part or the presentations of other books that I had previously published.

During our “brief dialogues on happiness”, students showed great interest in the subject. They made very significant questions wondering which would be their way and how to reach their objectives stepping out of the mad competition and the gold rush.

The first keyword in Augusta last Wednesday was “passion”. The second was “love”. And the third was “enthusiasm”. I believe that enthusiasm can make the difference in any situation, as it was the case of those professors who showed commitment and got their students involved in the encounters. It’s something that nobody can teach, something that comes from a secret place inside of us, not from class books nor to get grades.

The importance of reading was my final message to the students. As I mentioned in the previous pages, reading is the only weapon we need to overcome the politics of hate and compulsive competition. Therefore, I also gave them reading advices, suggesting the same books that in a way or another have sometime changed my life.