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Flying, anthropology and everything in between

For the man charged with promoting Italian culture in Cyprus, it has been a busy life. THEO PANAYIDES meets someone with enough energy to have known the leader of the Catholic church, canoed down the Amazon and write novels to fund charitable work in the third world

There’s a photo on a shelf in Umberto Mondini’s small flat in Larnaca. Actually he has lots of photos – his family, his sons, Umberto with Pope Francis, Umberto on a plane with Pope John Paul II – but one in particular shows him around the time he got married, at the age of 40 (he’s now 68), a beaming, ebullient-looking person in a pilot’s uniform, with luxurious black hair and beard. His wife was (and is) 14 years younger; he was an Alitalia pilot, she a cabin attendant. They already had a four-year-old son born out of wedlock, surely not so common in late-80s Italy. Above all, not only did he fly jumbo jets but he was also an anthropologist, going on perilous expeditions to remote places! His charisma and confidence – his personal energy – must’ve been off the charts.

28 years later, the hair and beard are no longer black – but the ebullience remains as we sit in the rather poky flat which he usually shares with two dachshunds named Cipria and Agenor (they’re back in Italy, for the summer). The walls are adorned with posters for academic seminars on Indian tribes – given, presumably, by Umberto himself – plus a garish painting of a Hindu babuji. On the table, a plate of carobs, more for decoration than nourishment. On the bookshelves, along with a few of his own books, the Holy Bible, more for reference than daily use; he was, after all, a professor of History of Religions at Rome’s Sapienza University. (Is he religious himself? “Uhh… In my way.”) On the landing outside his flat, quite unexpectedly, a flag stand holding the flags of Italy, Cyprus and the EU – not a patriotic gesture but a practical one, because the flags are needed for Dante Alighieri events and there’s nowhere else to put them.

Umberto is president of the Societa Dante Alighieri Cyprus, aiming to promote Italian culture on the island; something of an honorary post, but still a position of authority – then again, he’s used to positions of authority. He was a captain at Alitalia, flying MD-11s and Boeing 777s, and in fact only retired in 2010. Before that, in his youth, he spent 10 years in the Air Force, rising (again) to the rank of captain and becoming a wing commander: “I was 27,” he recalls. “I had 30 pilots and 50 engineers [under my command], and many of the engineers were the age of my father!”. He turns his phone off before we begin the interview; later, I happen to ask if he’s the kind of person friends will turn to for advice if they have a problem. “Yes!” he replies with a laugh. “Yes, very much – that’s why I turned the telephone off.” He shakes his head, looking very Italian: “All the time, all the time…”

That said, he doesn’t come across as the philosophical type; his advice, if you asked for it, would surely be practical, and delivered lightly. His usual response, when I ask a non-factual question, is to make a joke of it. Does he understand why many people have a fear of flying? “Ehh… It’s not fear of flying, it’s fear of the end of the flight!” he replies, laughing merrily (but does concede that yes, he understands that sense of helplessness, and indeed often feels it himself when he’s flying without also being the pilot). Umberto seems largely immune to the modern problem of over-thinking everything. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about him is perhaps that he pursued two wildly divergent careers – either one of which would seem very bold and exciting to the average person – and did it just by doing it, without any special dispensation or unusual circumstances.

From the start, flying and anthropology went side-by-side. He studied the latter at university, but switched to the Air Force at 20. (“Anthropology was my interest. The Air Force, and being a pilot, was my job,” he explains vaguely when I ask about this choice.) While flying, he began his thesis, on the Sami people of Lapland – but then moved to commercial airliners, put the thesis on hold so he could pass the exams, then had to abandon it altogether. Still, it didn’t take long to find a replacement. In 1979 he was flying to Montreal and met an academic from McGill University who told him of the Mistassini, a tribe of hunters in remote northern Quebec. “So I went there, just out of the blue! I went with an old Dakota from Montreal to Chibougamau, then I rented a car”. You know you’ve led an interesting life when it includes the line ‘I went with an old Dakota from Montreal to Chibougamau’.

There was no email at the time, of course; the tribesmen didn’t even have phones. Umberto just turned up, in the middle of winter, armed only with a handful of names supplied by his friend at McGill, explaining that he was an Italian anthropologist doing his thesis and could he please tag along while they hunted for beavers. Each family had its own winter hunting grounds, “in a land which is as big as Italy”; they travelled with dogs – which took weeks – but already, in 1979, many had switched to small, single-engine planes. They took off from a massive ice lake, he recalls, but the engine was inevitably frozen and the propeller couldn’t turn so “they lit a fire under the engine – my God!” he laughs, “with petrol, with gasoline!” –seven or eight Mistassini having piled into a plane built for four, with all their supplies. The land was completely flat – so he watched the planes taxiing and taxiing, burdened by all the extra weight, before finally lifting off and climbing painfully to about 1,000 feet, heading off to even more remote places.

That’s how he did all his fieldwork, in between the job as a pilot – not just the Mistassini in Quebec but later the Ese Eja in the Amazon (they live between Bolivia and Peru, along the Rio Madre de Dios), the Mocovi in Argentina, and assorted tribes in India. There’s a video on YouTube of Umberto trying “opium water” with a group of Raika elders in Rajasthan, though he cheerfully admits to having been more worried about the water than the traces of opium it contained. He also wrote books – one of them has a preface by Pope Francis (during his time as Cardinal Bergoglio), whom he got to know in Argentina – including a number of successful thrillers, using the profits to build schools and orphanages in places like India and Congo through the charitable NGO run by Alitalia.

How did he find time for all this? “Ask my wife!” he replies with another uproarious laugh. “She was quite cross!” He’d use up his annual leave on month-long expeditions, and flying long-haul flights (as he did after 1996) also allowed him to pursue a teaching career; typically, a pilot might fly to Mumbai or Buenos Aires, spend three or four days there – enough time to prepare a lecture – then three or four days back in Italy. It helped that he seems to have been a man of prodigious energy: often, he recalls, he’d come back from New York on the overnight flight, “change my tie”, and go directly to give a lecture at the university.

Umberto’s always been a doer, it appears, an adventurer-extrovert with a practical bent and a rogue academic streak. Problem-solving is in his genes, the family being full of engineers; his dad was an engineer – though also an academic, teaching History of Technology – while his older son, 31-year-old Simone, is an industrial engineer (the younger, 24-year-old Alberto, is studying international relations). As a child, he was sporty rather than bookish; “When I was 15, I was dreaming about horse riding!”. He still owns horses, at the family home in Italy, though his teenage dream was closer to a knight or musketeer (“A gentleman,” as he puts it) than a jockey per se. Flying, too, was something of an adolescent dream: “I thought it was very romantic being a pilot” – a youthful delusion, of course, though you do get the odd poetic moment, flying over Greenland or dazzled by the psychedelic beauty of the aurora borealis.

Flying a plane is also an assertion of will, not a million miles from riding a horse (alone in the skies, guiding a powerful beast), which was surely also part of the attraction. Umberto comes across as a born leader, one of Nature’s captains – not through any particular genius but mostly, I suspect, because he’ll do it, whatever ‘it’ happens to be. Other men may talk of writing thrillers or going to the Amazon, but he’ll do it. If you need someone to run Dante Alighieri, he’ll do it. He doesn’t get bogged down in needless soul-searching. When was he happiest in his life? “Always,” he replies with a sweet smile.

He’s been through some hairy situations, and come out the other side. He paddled a canoe for five days down a crocodile-infested river (actually caimans, this being South America) then, when the river became impassable, had to walk through the jungle carrying the canoe on his shoulder. He captained a 14-hour flight from Rome to Buenos Aires during which the left engine started losing oil, so “I declared a pan pan pan,” as he puts it (‘Pan pan pan’ is a step below ‘Mayday mayday’, signifying a crisis rather than an emergency) and diverted the Boeing 777 to Recife, where it transpired that the engine was actually out of oil and would’ve failed if the plane had continued. It’s no surprise that he also loved fatherhood – the ultimate adventure, you might say – calling it “the pleasure of my life”. Alberto phoned him just the other day, he reports proudly, to share news that he’d done especially well in an exam. Simone is even more like his father, having spent time in the military (as a paratrooper) and done charity work (as a Red Cross volunteer), just like him.

All that said, it’s quite possible that Umberto isn’t the easiest person to live with. He has a temper, and does explode on occasion (“I’m generally very calm – but, if there’s something wrong, I shout”), but the larger issue is that no-one could’ve lived the life he’s lived without being unusually strong-willed; I assume he likes things to be the way he likes them. His wife can’t have been thrilled by his constant departures to far-off places – though it seems she also does her own thing, having now retired from Alitalia and gone off to work at her father’s pharmacy in Palermo without any immediate plans to join him in Cyprus. Are they even together? “Oh yes!” he assures me. “Long-distance. But we have Skype!”

He arrived in 2012, initially just for a holiday – but he met local artist Andros Efstathiou and got involved in organising a seminar on art and religions, one thing led to another and he’s now happily ensconced in the small flat in Larnaca. Despite having travelled all over, the Mediterranean is “my world,” he admits. His days aren’t especially eventful: he jogs every morning for an hour, seven to eight – from his place in central Larnaca, down the beach to the airport and back again – then writes books, organises Dante Alighieri events, gives the occasional lecture or presentation. It’s no surprise that he’s a Rotarian, nor is it a surprise that he’s tried – in vain – to convince Rotaract members (the younger version of Rotary) to go into the field “and see how it works” instead of simply planning worthy projects over dinner. It’s not that Umberto doesn’t plan, but planning isn’t really his style. His style is to go ahead and do it, just like when he turned up – “out of the blue!” – at that Mistassini village in the frozen wilds of Canada 39 years ago.

He’s done a lot, with the stories to prove it. I almost forget that he’s also an academic – but in fact he talks rather fascinatingly of tribal myths, and how “one common element in many myths all over the world is the first woman”. (Short version: Woman is originally an animal, her vagina blocked with thorns so she can’t be penetrated; Man must change the woman from an animal into a woman, taming her forest nature into a ‘village’ nature; this is also why, in some tribes, women aren’t allowed to go into the forest without a man, lest the spirits restore their old identity.) He’s chatted equally amiably with dirt-poor Indians and the future head of the Catholic Church. He’s gone from hacking paths through the jungle to flying high-tech machines with a price-tag – a single engine of a 777 costs around €10 million – that could feed an Amazon village for a year.

Quite extreme, no? “That’s life,” shrugs Umberto when I point out the contrast – or at least that’s his own life, the one he chose, the one that fits his particular energy. Someone else might’ve done things differently – but it sounds like Umberto had more fun, and you have to say he’s been successful. “I had some targets, some goals in my life, and – well, not easily – but I’ve reached them all,” he affirms breezily. He walks me downstairs, a distinguished gentleman with luxurious white hair and beard, the big Italian flag on the landing making our meeting feel like a state occasion.

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