Saturday, December 26

Italian Fashion for Kids in Italy - Seriously Mini-Me's

Even Benetton's World of Colours are often muted.
A friend of mine with a newborn was opening some gifts left at the office. She said, Now wait for it. They will be the most gorgeous clothes you've ever seen - but all in greys and blacks. I mean, the clothes here in Italy are so beautiful - you can seriously imagine yourself wearing them. But...what if I want some rainbow colors on my kid? I had to laugh. So I started paying attention to store windows, and in fact, the clothes are so stunning...but she's flat-out spot on (not polka-dotted). Greys, blues, blacks, mini-scarves looking less like Winnie-the-Pooh on a blustery day and more like what the guy was wearing in UP. Just try and Google Armani Junior: Okay, okay...It is Armani but, they are kids, aren't they?
No wonder Benetton flaunted all of their myriad colors. And it was such a break from tradition. One look around (well, okay, if you happen to be in any other city than Milan), and you get to feast your eyes on our Eastern Europeans and Latinos brightening up any dark day's color palette with their unbridled embrace of anything bright - from head to toe. It's as if you've waltzed into some sort of Alice in Wonderland at the mall moment, but in your looking glass you get to gander the gorgeous fabrics more reminiscent of the days of Soviet Empire threads.
In the end, of course, the Italians are weaned on these stunning ensembles. Once grown up, they get to strut their fabulous linen stuff to the awe of all who behold them. While we Americans, with our bold colors and outrageous get-ups, and items that double as pajamas, or throw-ons (or throw-aways) as fashion, end up with People of Walmart sites instead.

Fashion for the whole American family! At Kohl's
Word: Style. 

Saturday, November 28

It's the Great Pumpkin - Or make that...The Grande Watermelon in Italy!

Halloween may have come and gone, but for many of us who want to relish the gorgeous fall weather (even if we can't enjoy the trees changing colors before our eyes - we still have umbrella pines - ha!), it's never too late nor too early to love Peanuts. On a recent trip to Milano I visited the outstanding Comics Museum, or WOW! Spazio Fumetto, worth going off the beaten track just for their bookshop alone. They were hosting an outstanding collection of Peanuts old and new, with amazing interactive tables revealing past cartoon strips and movies, original prints and letters from the inimitable Charles M Schulz, the first "Chuck", as Peppermint Patty would no doubt have had the audacity to call him to his face. 
Italians have always loved Peanuts - even producing their own catalog of cartoons, Linus. Not as popular as Topolino (Mickey Mouse & friends), but he's a tough one to beat: I believe it outsells the Bible 'round these parts - with or without our beloved Pope Francis.
So the collection also revolved around Italian lore in the world of the tiny characters. And as the Curator took me through the rooms, I was stunned to learn that the Big Great Watermelon - Il Grande Cocomero as it were - was not a mistake in translation, but actually intentional. 
This was disappointing for two reasons: First, because I have long held up the Grande Cocomero as an example of what gets lost in translation...We can only guess what the Bible stories originally held for the masses...When it went from ancient Aramaic, to Ancient Latin, to Ancient Greek and back again before going into Italian then English. I mean, pumpkin to watermelon? I shudder to think of the generations of young children who saw pumpkins here and there, and insisted they were watermelons. To say nothing for the mistaken seasons. I mean, watermelon in November? It reminds me of my college Italian prof - who I am convinced delighted in leading us seriously astray - telling us to always ask for the gabinetto, when we needed to go to the loo. Turns out, I asked many a hostess if I could use her outhouse until some good samaritan finally corrected me on that account.
Secondly, the translators actually chose it - because they wanted a masculine version of Babbo Natale, or Santy Clause...and thus they sneered at the Grande Zucca (feminine). They felt they had to come up with a macho veggie that grew in patches in the great outdoors. I find this explanation quite ridiculous. First and foremost, for the visual cue that is hiding in plain sight, much like the Great Pumpkin himself. Green watermelons / orange pumpkins, but hey, who can tell? But I'm irked by the fact that Italians, much earlier and more prominent than ol' jolly-faced St Nick, an import, have always celebrated their own gift-giving lady...La Befana. Clearly they could have made the Zucca a Zucca and everyone would have been the wiser.
Anyone who follows my blog or Twitter account knows that I am relentless in sticking up for the invisible women of Italy. Our society chooses to ignore them unless of course it's mealtime (Master Chef excepted) or when they feel amorous, or worse, like killing someone.
So, just like Linus in
visible force of much like the Great Pumpkin: Everyone says you don't exist...but I believe in you. So to the publishers in 2015, I would say, bring us the Grande Zucca once and for all.

Thanksgiving in Italy-Fine Feathered Friends

For Thanksgiving, I bring my annual tradition of posting one of my earliest entries on celebrating this very American tradition as an expat...Today, or often over the weekend, people are breaking bread (well, actually stuffing) with their native friends, and many foreign faces as well. So, wherever you are, enjoy your own Festa di Ringraziamento!

Spending time in the USA during my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, well, makes me think about all those wonderful Thanksgiving Days celebrated by all us 'expats' in our adopted countries. In much the same way that Italy (and Europe, for that matter) have adopted Halloween as their own, well, in industrious Milan or places like Geneva or Lausanne, even the store owners get ready when Thanksgiving comes around the corner.  It's so popular, you now need to order the bird in advance.  Those same stores stock their shelves with many items that ordinary Italians would probably have fed to their pigs if they had them.

Although Italians eat lots of turkey, they seriously don't eat - much less prepare - the 15kg. version -- whole. But, right around the last week of November, you could ask the butchers to purchase and then hold onto the whole bird. And this was terrific. Aside from providing the butchers and cashiers a bit of holiday entertainment, you (along with your bird) would be the center of attention. One year, they were so confused by our request, a friend ended up with an 11kg bird for the price of one kilo: 3euro95. Even after questioning the amount, they insisted the price was right...let's just say given the cost of things here, we had lots to be thankful for that year!

Surprisingly, Thanksgiving in Italy brings one lots closer to the original Thanksgiving feast. First, there's the shipping of all the canned foodstuffs, probably not unlike the stuff our forefathers brought in huge wooden crates to and from the New World. Americans start filling up empty suitcases with goodies like cans of pumpkin and cranberry, Stovetop stuffing mix, and packs of Jiffy cornbread (because polenta just doesn't do the trick).

Me with one bird that doesn't need
But, in a nod to those original pilgrims, I must say, it's the turkey. While we don't have to quite break its neck & clean out its gizzards (although, if you forget to request it, you might just end up with the whole thing, head and all), we all get a bit tripped up by something never quite seen in an American home -- all those feathers. Or, feather tips, rather.
While in America, you get something that very remotely resembles the animal from whence it came; here, you're reminded that this was, in actual fact, a bird -- feathers and all. And so, you learn how, exactly, one rids oneself (or one's turkey) of his down without actually peeling the whole skin off, feather tips and all. I can just imagine those early pilgrims trying to figure this one out: the Indians furious that their guests tried cutting away the feathers along with the tasty (and fatty) skin. No wonder so many died of hunger. So, ignoring old traditions of plucking, you find your best gas-powered flame thrower, and start burning away.

Although no matter how long you painstakingly go about de-feathering, there are always a few tough ones left over-- kind of like those grey hairs you try so hard to dye. And, while I must say, this process does not make me nostalgic for the huge butterball turkeys with a self-popping thermometer inside, it does add a bit to your preparation time.

The last problem you must face in serving your feast, is that, contrary to popular belief, Italians do not feast, least of which during a non-Catholic holiday, and especially, in the evening. So, that annual pigging out fete sort of falls a bit flat, with each Italian carefully choosing their primo (mashed potatoes & stuffing), the secondo (turkey), and the contorno (veggies), and questioning why one must eat 'family style' and not one dish at a time. They barely fill their plate, never mind second helpings. Stuffing is seen as an alien life form and desserts, well, whoever heard of a dessert made from a vegetable?

So, while the rest of us heap up our plates again and again, and then start loosening our belt buckles, well, judging by our girths, we can see why Thanksgiving is a wholly American phenomenon.

Sunday, October 11

Guess who's coming to dinner? Dining, Rome-Style with BonAppetour

When I stop and think about many times have I or pretty much everyone I iknow enjoyed truly memorable meals in Italy? Or wherever I've traveled? Sometimes, a restaurant 'experience' is so terrific, we go back a second night. Once I ordered the eggplant parmesan for the first and second course. And then there was that to-die for menu degustazione at that over-the-top-place in Florence...but as good as it was, I recall needing a defibrillator only after I saw the bill (mercifully, I wasn't paying). 
But let's face it: The best meals - ever - have been the ones where, out of the blue, you were invited into someone's home and fed - to the gills - upon every local flavor there was fit to feast. In Morocco, a super nice guy who worked at the hotel where I was staying invited me to his family's home where his mother proceeded to make a cous-cous the old-fashioned way...hours later she served us a spectacular dish, just like in that movie, Cous-Cous. The next eve, again, his Uncle served tagine that I still can taste every morsel, ten years on. Needless to say, we are all still good friends.
So, leave it to a few foodie engineers (from Singapore!) and the internet no less, to bring the in-home / out-of-town experience to all and sundry and BonAppetour was born.
Al fresco dining on a stunning Roman terrace
Our terrific hosts, Stefano & Federica 

Stefano's outrageous peach & pear dessert with amaretti cookies

We were treated to an aperitivo upon arrival, and served up a luscious drink made with elderflower and prosecco. You can pick a menu, pick your party, and, whether you're a local or not, you can ply your hosts with all kinds of questions about their lives, their lifestyles and whatever (they spoke English). Our group put our dynamic duo hosts in a bit of a pickle, between gluten-free, nut-free, vegan, and other requests...but Stefano the chef proved that he could still get the dishes right, that would appeal to all of us.
I think this is a terrific concept, like other 'Sharing Economy' initiatives, especially Air B&B. I mean, really, people have been sharing meals for millenia...and the idea that this is something "new" kind of tickles me pink. I'm still on the fence in terms of the reasons we had taxi medallions and so on (for the uber-crowd), and restaurant health inspections to sort of lean on...But then, we realized...that they weren't really inspecting and taxis are hit or miss like anywhere...So, actually, being able to rate your hosts, takes the concept of tipping one step further, really. You're most likely guaranteed to receive terrific personal service. And BonAppetour actually tests the servers, so to speak, before including them as hosts on their server. 
Dinner was served in courses, with plenty of time to linger between them. All in all, the next time someone asks me for reservations...I may suggest they try dining in a beautiful Roman home instead. Now, if we can just find the right app to remove food allergies...

Sunday, August 30

Advertising in Italy: My personal Cleo* Awards

Italy is known for its creative genius, probably a notch above the norm. So, I'm starting to think...that in this Brain Drain we've been having over the last few decades, that they're not the engineers and architects, pizza guys and researchers who've been leaving in droves: They are the people who are supposed to come up with terrific ads - so grande, in fact, that we actually want to go out and purchase something we don't need. Any long time readers of my blog or book will know that I believe the entire country needs a crash course in Marketing 101. So, here's the latest in the good, the bad, and the downright rotten in terms of my line of vision (since I thankfully have no TV):

Dishonorable Mention • Carrefour Supermarkets

This August, when the streets have emptied, the store fronts have closed, a 25+ year dream of mine came true - A supermarket open 24 hrs. Why they picked the only time of year in which no human beings are in town to do so has kept me up nights. And while I'm thrilled to drop in at a reasonable 10pm or 11pm, really? We're going to go from supermarkets just making it til Sunday morning all the way over to 24/7 in one fell swoop? Talk about Culture Shock. It's like giving Africans iPhone 6s without walking them through land lines first. 
But seeing that we all have long-abandoned Carrefour years ago when the crisis hit and their prices just kept going up to make up for the lost sales to the Austrian discount chains, it's going to be my neat little secret. No advertising, I can just see the September marketing meeting. 
- What? You're telling me you sold 6 boxes of cous-cous and 14 tomatoes in all of August???
-- No, Sir, there was one American who purchased a box of Corn Flakes and some almond milk too.

The Sloppy Seconds Award • Name Withheld

I wish I could have recorded look on the faces of the (very) elderly couple as they approached their car after coming home from vacation. The husband quickly tossed the advert off the windshield, but his wife, not missing a beat, asked him wth???
Now. This could be genius marketing, especially if we were living in 79AD and phalluses were really the in thing. Every home had them depicted on walls, they were sticking out of funerary monuments, and carefully crafted on every statue. But it's 2015.
And I don't know who did their focus groups...but, someone's got to tell these dick heads that generally speaking, it's women who a) make the purchase decisions of households b) decide to go out to eat and c) pick the place. The guy just drives and pays.
And, conducting my own personal poll of about one, I can confidently attest that when a guy asks you out to eat, and even though the Milanese have a tidy expression for what comes for dessert (Cina, Cena, Ciula - Movie, Dinner, Sex), there is nary a woman who thinks - Andiamo! - about having her date's piece in her mouth when she'd rather help herself to a plate of carbonara. So, guys, let her enjoy her meal first. Just saying.

The Malpensa Award • The Latium Region 
[in honour of Milan's Malpensa - IllthoughtAirport where you will always find adverts to fly in/out of there, as if you have any other choice]
This ad has been plastered all over buses and bus stops all around Rome & environs. It boasts of all the great things our marvelous region has to offer; the riches, the gastronomy, I'm sure making a big splash while I type at the Milan Expo2015. The words across the top say This is just a Taste. Brilliant.
But the caption reads, Come and check us out at the Expo - You'll want to get to know us even better. Better than what? Or shall I say, whom? Better than someone who - ahhhh - LIVES in Latium? Better than someone who regularly visits the beaches? Drinks wine from the Castelli? Heads over to the thermal baths? So, yes, come up to the Milan Expo so you can take a look at what is in your very backyard. Glad to see our tax dollars at work.

Most Improved Advert Award • Binacci Arredamenti (Furniture)

Although I'm going to mourn my morning LOL every time I left with the dog and got a glimpse of the latest narcissistic attack by Mr Binacci, this Feel Happy campaign is just great (save for its use of English - ugh). No more seeing him live out his 007 James Bond dreams, his Star Wars (or was it Star Trek?) fantasies, light saber and all...
But for those of you who might be nostalgic, I've already documented some of his follies in previous blogs entitled Advertising Age (live link). And did I mention he's trying to sell us a kitchen? 

*The Clio Awards are for the Ad Industry, but my new baby kitty is Cleopatra

Friday, August 21

Godfather Goodbye: Breaking down the Roman Rage over Funeral of a Mafia Boss

In posters hung around the church, il Boss
Vittorio Casamonica appears in papal
vestments bearing the caption
It's not like we don't know that the mafia lives and breathes down our collective necks and pretty much runs everything around us. Not a day goes by when Rome's Mayor doesn't pick a string - any string - from the grande ball that is Rome and unravels it only to find that it inevitably leads to some criminal, who, with their illegal buildings, waste removal contracts, human trafficking and beach resorts, live actually quite well for a malvivente, Grazie. It was one day earlier that his Administration nailed 59 ne'er-do-wells for a whole host of criminal dealings.
Look north, and in the city once termed Tangentopoli (Bribe City), the mafia contracts for the Milan Expo were uncovered but quickly dispatched out of sight, out of mind, just in time for inauguration day. Who said those Milanese were anything but efficient?
But this ostentatious funeral of a Gypsy King who ran prostitution rings, drug deals, and gambling and extortion pools was over-the-top. And I don't mean for the six black Clydesdales bringing up his gilded funeral carriage, nor even for the playing of the theme song to The Godfather which I actually found quite amusing. No, we're hopping mad for an entire card shark's deck of reasons:
1) The Traffic Tie-up -- Just like back in Imperial Rome and during Berlusconi's reign, all of a sudden cars came to a complete stop; blocked in traffic to make way for the funeral procession. In Italy, funeral processions rarely have the right of way, and certainly not one that shuts down roads for hours - while the black dark-windowed SUVs arrived to church. 
After a new electronics store, Trony, opened its doors on the day the iPhone came out causing the entire city to halt to a standstill, a judge forced them to pay the commuters who had filed suit and the City back as well.
Lucky for Mr. Casamonica, it's August and the streets are nearly empty. But on a normal day in September, his death would have truly stopped traffic cold. But not like anyone will ever ask La Famiglia to pay up for time spent stuck in traffic.  
City ordinance dictates that if you block public transport from continuing its course, you are fined something to the tune of thousands of euro per minute. Four buses had to discharge their passengers and sit to watch the entire spectacle. I'm surprised they weren't charged tickets. Despite this highway robbery, so to speak, I can just see the House of Casamonica countersuing the drivers for stopping along the roadside (also against the law so as not to favor prostitution) and no one even getting a blowjob. I can just imagine the lost revenues.

2) The Police Escort -- Adding insult to injury, the monolith cars were quadruple-parked in the streets, further blocking the traffic flow. But did anyone get a parking ticket? The traffic cops were there - paid for by the honest Romans who pay their taxes - but were tied up directing traffic for the Boss. 
Clearly, even though this Joe Shmoe doesn't pay taxes, he certainly loves the services they provide - at our expense. I'm wondering if we foot the hospital bill for his years of cancer to boot. Funny how that works.
Not to mention that if you or I double park these days, hefty fines are levied before a pigeon can even take aim at your car.
The police say they were 'directing traffic' and that no one "knew" for whom the bell tolled. Really? Just look up at the gigantic banners posted on the church just up ahead. Or, did they think that the Pope - with a nice dark tan - was coming to pay a visit?

3) The Church -- Okay, so we all love Pope Frank. But we also love him for his boldness in taking on prickly issues: the homeless, human trafficking, drug dealers, and the mob. Last year, he stated in no uncertain terms that anyone gaining their livelihoods by say, shortening others', should be ex-communicated. But the priest of Don Bosco church decided to look the other way, saying that of course, he could never - never ever - deny someone a proper funeral service. He also said he didn't know for whom he'd be saying mass. Oh really? Look out your stain-glassed window sometime. The banners showing exactly whom were up there since the morning. And besides, how are you going to talk about what a wonderful Padrino - errrr - father he was? You'd have to know at least his name. Our parish priest also said he didn't care what goes on outside his church, just inside. Well, then, clearly he needs to open the stack of mail on his desk in the sacristy...because he obviously missed the memo on ex-communication.
And we won't even go into this very church's denial of a proper funeral a few years back for a poor man, one Mr Welby. Stricken with such a case of severe muscular dystrophy, by the time he asked his respirator be removed, he was unable to move, eat or breathe on his own. Sound familiar? Oh yes. Just ask Pope John Paul II about removing respirators and "natural causes". He's a saint now - he may just give you an answer.

4) The Helicopter -- A helicopter hovered aloft and at just the right moment, out poured the rose petals - clearly signifying bloodshed, not purity (at least to this commenter). After all, it was a very tongue-in-cheek funeral. There are strict laws about aircraft over the city, about photographing things from overhead, and so on. No one was asked permission for this. But I'm sure if they had, they'd have been granted it. Don Vittorio's niece probably works in the licensing office. But if you or I so much as float a tiny drone overhead to take a picture of the umbrella pines, watch out. You'll be before a judge in no time. [I will note that they've suspended the pilot's license - you know, the guy who took off from Naples? Yeah. That'll deter him from future forays for sure].
The Gypsy Kings - Don Vittorio with Rome's former mayor Alemanno
at a dinner party in which the men all cut deals
on dealing with Rome's garbage
(no pun intended).
Click here for the perfect metaphor for these pigs

feeding at the trough
5) Ignazio Marino, the mayor -- This is my own personal pet peeve. Certainly, The Buck Stops Here. But really? Generations of clan/politician pacts at the expense of honest Italians and the guy who's working on outing this graft one piece at a time is the one who gets the blame? Romans (and politicians from all colors who wish to maintain the status quo) in unison blame their mayor. But still. 
They would rather slide it under the carpet (see Milan Expo2015) along with the gazillion more dead-end uproars for the sake of omertà and the beauty of Bella Figura. Go figure. 
As for Don Vittorio? I guess routing this rot is not unlike Hercules having to clean the Augean stables.
#IStandbyMarino and wish him all the Best. It's a pretty thankless task.

Live links above in color.

Wednesday, August 19

Chiuso per Ferie - Taking a Roman Holiday

In Italy, right around August 1st you can practically set your clock to the day (Friday) in which every store in your orbit closes those metal shutters and heads to catch waves at the seaside or on some exotic vacation to sit out the summer heat waves. What to new arrivals or foreigners may seem quite an archaic practice, with time you begin to see the bright, sunshiny light - and you mount a countdown to the day you can walk across a street without getting mowed down, find ample parking spaces anywhere, and even get the pick of the produce without a cabal of little old ladies beating you to it first. 
You ignore the traffic lights on every corner, and pay attention to those orange and green florescent signs signalling - not so subtly - that the time has come for everyone to recharge their batteries, including the car mechanics & electronic shops. But this year, something was different.
Suddenly, those signs were almost nowhere to be seen. And after a few friends commented on the change in our summer scenery, well, I thought I had to too. But those missing signs? Weren't because your hardware store or coffee shop or local pizzeria had decided to stay open for the month. 
Chalk it up if you will to the "crisis" or perhaps that corner hardware stores are now few and far between (taken over by gelateria) but I believe the store owners decided to simply not spend one red penny on the once ubiquitous little signs sporting their customary beach umbrellas and the dates of closure, just to rub it in. This year, nobody but no one bought into them. And so instead of those neat little cardboard announcements, this year marked the year of the hand or computer-printed signs CLOSED FOR VACATION. On nearly every store front. 
But lest you think the Italians are going the way of the Greeks, think again. While Americans like to pride themselves in their Calvinist work ethic, most other countries - even taking off the entire month - are still more productive than the USA. 
And...judging by the incessant hammering, drilling, painting and plumbing of home and store remodelling taking place every summer, there's still plenty of commercial activity going on for everyone. Just don't ask the tax man about it.
As for me, I'll enjoy my tiny - almost vacant - corner of the world, speckled with outdoor concerts and outdoor movies. And just put in my ear pods to drown the din of the shop owners seemingly on vacation, but actually OPEN FOR REMODELING.