Sunday, December 30

Bell'Italia: Great Things in Italy Dec '07

As I end the year, happily ensconsed in a tiny country house on the property of a Franciscan Monastery (ex, i might add, although the church is still consecrated) in the breathtaking Sabine Hills just outside Rome, dog-sitting for a friend (who has taken in all manner of strays...) and, in between wandering fields of olive groves, perusing 1st century ruins and a breath-taking church, while sharing convivial holiday rites with friends and neighbors, well, of course, this is, the Why We All Love Italy, isn't it??
And, while another stray just showed up today (he must have heard that the food was good in this joint), gives one pause, and tomorrow alas, I must face the evils of the Italian POST OFFICE...(and, I will spare you the gory details of the dressing down I recently received there for -- gasp! - daring to cross the threshhold -- double gasp!! -- and attempt to post 2 pkgs 15 mins. before closing time on the 24th!!!!), I do want to offer you a few things to be thankful for which occurred in December and will hopefully bring us more faith in the system in 2008:

Rome's City Govt has launched an exceptional ad campaign against giving dogs for Christmas...this is a good thing. A very good thing. At least one Animal Rights Office is trying at long last to nip the problem of dogs abandoned each summer in the bud. Let's just hope the campaign gets picked up all over the country.

The Italians have spearheaded the campaign against Capital Punishment at the UN.

Not only was a drawing by possibly Michelangelo just discovered in the Vatican archives, but they have just uncovered two stunning marble wings from the Palatine Hill. One wouldn't think there was anything left after centuries of pillaging, bombardments, and tourists.

The Rome City government has decided to freeze the Garbage Tax through 2009. The tax is so high, you'd think the TA.RI agency stood for Tax of Rumplestiltskin -- they were literally weaving the stuff into gold.

The Ministry for Youth held a competition to offer monies to young people with a terrific business or idea to improve our world. Turns out they were bombarded by "recommendations" - which, incredibly, they threw each and every one straight into the circular file...saying they were sick & tired of this culture of raccomandazioni, and wanted to base the competition on pure merit. Let's hope this idea is one that will take off.

Friday, December 21

The Italian Grinch-oni who stole Christmas

This morning, I awoke to what sounded to me like a fool riding up and down the street with his muffler off (a fairly common occurrence here of bravado). Instead, upon opening my shutters, I was horrified to see workers sawing down a magnificent pine tree, 50 years old and 5 stories high, right out of the middle of my cement jungle which encloses four buildings. That stately tree, which could have made it on Broadway (or at least, off-Broadway at Rockefeller Center), was obviously far too beautiful for this middle-class ghetto.

Or perhaps this entirely pagan symbol of Christmas was deemed too unworthy to last. All I know is that by noon, all of its branches were turned to mulch, and workers were chopping down the now bare trunk block by block. I don’t know about the Chis down in Chiville, but I can tell you, the last thing I felt like doing was sing.

Instead of my wonderful Michigan-like pine, I now have to face the eyesore of the vomit-colored building, paint chips and all, which it hid so nicely. And now, I'll have even more layers of extra-extra-large underwear hung out with no sign of embarrassment for terrific viewing (trust me, Victoria's Secret it is not). The only benefit, as we all gathered on our balconies to observe this despoiling of nature, was that my cute Fireman neighbor came out too; to close the shades probably not for the noise or sawdust, but so he would never have to look at that building again.

Going into the piazza, I said loudly, “I’d like to know who was responsible for such an act.” And, an elderly man (so as not to use my own epithet for him) piped up, “I put in the request. I just couldn’t sleep at night thinking one of its branches would fall and kill someone.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Well, with that kind of logic, I offered, why don’t we just cut all the trees down in all of Rome! Not to mention a stately pine doesn’t often lose branches. The fact that the place where it stood was closed to any pedestrian traffic, was too unbelievable for words.

Now, I can tell you that that guy didn’t sleep at night for a whole host of other reasons, ranging from incontinence to the fact that he was riddled with insecurities since his own mamma undoubtedly passed away, and took his anguish out on the only thing he could…Mother Nature. But, what kills me is that one person’s phobia could decide the fate of hundreds of families, with no petition, referendum or word. In a city beseiged by smog, he singlehandedly pulled the plug on our respirator.

I know this sort of stuff happens the world over. But even more surprising was the reaction by my more (usually) militant neighbors in the face of simple bureaucracy: complete and utter resignation. ‘Well, it looks like the tree was causing problems’, ‘oh yeah, the noise was unbearable’, or, ‘I guess it had to go, you know, a branch could fall..."

I apologize for not being more in the Christmas Spirit—if I could just find city officials with hearts to grow two sizes today, well then, perhaps I can find a way to get a replacement tree, this time planted in my own back yard.

Tuesday, December 18

Francesca Maggi's...Strange But True!

Not even 1 month later after my Limonata Posting, regarding American kids learning capitalism, my prediction came true! Today's paper reported from the Treviso Gazzette that a middle school kid was expelled from running for Mayor of Student Council. Why? He was offering telefonino recharges & treats in exchange for votes!!! (Naturally, he won) Looks like he's all set to have a bright future in politics or business.

Now, I tend to avoid blogging about the Vatican and like matters, because, well, once I start...But, there is something I simply can't get out of my mind. It would appear there's a bit of a conflict going on in the church's collective psyche; first, in an effort to bring more of their stray lambs into the fold, well, they've recently reinstituted or, shall we say, promoted the idea of Latin Mass.
While at the same time, in a town in Italy, they're reportedly giving away trips to theme parks if the kids show up for mass! Pretty soon, we're either going to have a lot of kids knowing Latin, or a lot of kids confusing Mickey Mouse for Someone Else.
Why is it that the worst parts of America always get imported??

Saturday, December 15

Christmas Gifts: No Pets, Per favore!

One of the reasons we love Italy, is because of its wonderful traditions. It’s still (barely) one of the last refuges where Christmas is still less commercialized (that is, if you’re like me, and don’t set foot in shopping malls). The manger scene exhibits, the churches, the panettone. It was actually Saint Francis himself who started up the whole idea of manger scenes in the 1200s, recreating one at Greppo (which, incidently, just burned down – the manger, not the town).

But, in my opinion, Christmas for many, actually has far far earlier roots. Skipping over poor old Mithra, the sun god who was worshipped throughout the entire Roman empire, and whose birth was (adjusting for calendar switches) on December 25th, many Italians carry on an age-old tradition which goes back even further: to the days of animal sacrifice (and I’m not talking about the dinner table).

Sure, they’ve updated a bit from the days of bringing one’s goats & sheep in for the kill. These days, the sacrifice comes in the form of a fluffy little kitten or puppy, all joy and a nice red ribbon. According to reports, it is the most desired gift each season. And with those wily Koreans coming out just in time with kitties who glow green & red in the dark, well, I can just see the demand in a few years’ time. They’d make perfect nightlights, except mamma won’t allow the darling ‘pets’ in the bedroom.

But, these animals won't be brought to a marble altar for slaughter at the hands of the High Priest. No, here they're laid before an evergreen tree, a shiny collar round their throat. They're first fattened up, even trained, and often loved. After 8 months, they'll be unceremoniously killed at the bumper of a brand new Audi. And sometimes, the sacrifice won’t even wait for summer. Today I ran into a bum; beer in one hand, tiny puppy and a half-opened can of food in the other. He said an elderly woman had abandoned the pup there this morning. He named the frisky thing Laica.

Fortunately, some very sensible people in Rome’s animal rights dept have started an ad campaign this year, attempting to sensitize people to the responsibilities of giving a pet this Christmas. The ads end with a beautiful Christmassy cheer: We hope that in 2008 this ad will no longer be necessary. Take a look at their site. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see the ads at Veterinarian offices and pet food stores.
But in my book, they still get an A for Effort. After all, long-held traditions are a hard thing to break.

Friday, December 14

Keep on Truckin'! Your Daily Updates Here

See Apocalypse Now blog below:

The Final Count as reported in City daily paper:
Well, they're saying that we Italians will be spending about 20 euro more for things due to the transport strike, above and beyond all the other holiday price increases. And don't expect to wait for those after-holiday sales, either! They don't have them here.

It looks like, while the transporters were striking, and the global warming people were meeting in Bali, well, this strike actually did its bit for global warming: during the few days of the strike, small-particle dust and other bits and things went wayyyy down! Just to prove that old Italian saying, "not all illnesses cause disease".

But, here's a brief rundown city by city of some of the problems caused by the transport strike. We'll go from South to North.
BARI-hospitals can't change the linens, planes without gas That's funny, when my aunt was in the hospital, I had to change the linens anyway!

NAPOLI-Hospitals without oxygen (both literally & figuratively speaking), Garbage Trucks without gas, Traffic piled up. Garbage in the streets & traffic? They call this news?

ROMA-Police escorts for gas shipments to a select few people, I'm sure. Privilege prevails.

BOLOGNA-Gas alla go-go at the Motorshow. Now how'd that happen?

GENOVA-Exodus over to France to purchase gas. Now, when their truckers strike, there'd be no way you'd be crossing that border!


MILANO-Taxis get informed as to where to find the gas, Ambulances secured with gas. Two hours to fill up. Efficient as usual.

TORINO-It's here where the real action is. Supposedly the agricultural industry lost 10 million euro per day. Fiat had 17,000 people stay home throughout.

DAY 5: Things like they're back to normal, with only a slightly hire-than-average number of cars crowding into the gas stations. So, now what?

DAY 4: Okay. The papers have all announced that the strike is off...so, why are the gas stations still closed for business? Two theories: 1) They already ran out due to the run on gas from pent-up demand, or 2) They all decided to take this opportunity to get some Christmas shopping done.
In all this confusion, I just wonder if we won't see a little blip in birthrates come next September.
In the very least, we will notice higher rates of spending this holiday season on the part of all those (now fairly wealthy) whores who work the country's highways! Talk about pent-up demand...

DAY 3: Strike has been halted for talks, but now all the cars "lining up" are blocking all traffic, since the pumps went ON, and so the end effect is about the same.

DAY 2: Cars lining up to get their gas before it's out. No fruits & veggies at the supermarkets, much to the satisfaction of the myriad farmer's markets around town. Streets appear a bit quieter.

DAY 1: of SCIOPERO: People taken by surprise, highways start to be blocked.

Wednesday, December 12

Apocalypse Now


Yesterday, I walked out my front door and thought the apocalypse was upon us. Kilometer-long (and wide, after all, we’re in Italy) lines were forming in front of all the gas stations, even the one that sees only four cars in a week. Not having yet read the paper, I debated rushing to the grocery store to stock up on cans of pork&beans, but quickly changed my mind when I realized they don’t sell them here, and I’d probably end up with the Italian version of Spam instead.

So this 1970s end-day scenario was not due to OPEC suddenly turning off the spouts, nor was it that China decided to stock up on reserves ultimately garnering all the oil left on the entire planet. No, this was about a strike – but not of the gas station attendants. As they posted up their signs saying. “Tutto Esaurito”, they seemed to be still on duty. The truckers were on strike, alá francais, but here in the Peninsula, a strike of this caliber can cripple the country literally overnight. [After all, peninsula in Italian is penisola, isola or island providing the most accurate depiction].

But, playing out like a scene from The Sopranos, this strike took a strange twist not even screenwriters (when they’re not on strike) could think up: turns out the truckers were protesting to have more State controls, better safety requirements, and, even places to pull over for a quick pee, (although I doubt the latter is indicated precisely that way on their list of demands). Could this truly be the case? My Italian genes kicking in again, I knew there had to be something more to this—but what?

It would appear that what’s going on here is nothing more than an entirely modern update of an age-old tale, first brought to light by wise Old Aesop himself. It’s a case of sour grapes. The 40% of legitimate truckers are angry that the other 60% are getting away with illegal shipping, no scheduled stops, weigh-ins, and other petty inconveniences and making a few more bucks in undeclared pocket cash to boot.

So, since they can’t beat ‘em, they’re going to try and get the illegal shippers to join ‘em.

It’s true, you can drive from Trieste to Trapani and not come across a single police car. And, I’d be one driver who’d be quite pleased if they’d institute breath tests from the quantities of alcohol consumed along Italian roads, all before 7am…

Now, it remains to be seen if they bring in the Financial Police in droves and the problem gets resolved, or, if those same defenders of the law don’t simply increase their own pocket cash by turning a blind eye along the way.

Tuesday, December 11

Cross-Cultural (mis) Connections

This past weekend, I had made ‘plans’ with two different friends, one American, one Italian. Needless to say, I ended up having a terrific time with the American, I’ve yet to hear hide nor hair of the Italian. Although I love my Italian friends dearly, and have many many of them, problem is, this happens all the time.

It all began last week, Monday. I heard from both*. Alessandra was coming to Rome and could we get together? Cathy, asked if we could have a movie night. I spoke briefly with Cathy…how does Friday nite look to you? Great. End of story.

The odyssey of Alessandra was just beginning, but, I am well-prepped for the rigamaroll… In Italy, it is never enough to simply ‘make a date’. First, you must confirm it weeks in advance. After which, you must be prepared to reconfirm the confirmation each day up until the actual event. Throughout this time, the other party will begin the horse trading as your date, like stop signs, doctor's visits and deliveries is merely a suggestion. She will offer new options, include more people (or less), change the hours, day, and entire plan altogether.

If you don’t call to reconfirm, the date is on, or, it’s off. I once exchanged a dozen text messages with a girlfriend after I proposed seeing an English-language movie at 8pm (she said great!). At that point, she set out offering me nine other options. Ultimately, she went to an Italian flick with three other girlfriends at 10pm. I ended up watching the movie I had originally intended to see.

If instead, all goes smoothly, the day of the event it’s a total crap shoot whether you will, indeed, be having an outing with your buddy. If you (the foolish American) did not reconfirm the umpteen prior confirmations, all bets are off. If instead you do call to confirm, you have provided the perfect opening to get dissed.

For it is at that precise moment that your pal will let you know if they’ve received a better offer in the meantime: usually using a phrase which begins with “Not feeling very well”, Italian code for “I don’t feel like it.”

If you call at the prescribed time to query the whereabouts of your party (as they are significantly absent), you are met with a perfunctory “Ahhh…come? Non ci siamo capiti”, the most hated words in the entire Italian language.

What they say is, “We didn’t understand eachother”, a perfect misunderstanding, if you will. What it truly means to me is, 'one of us understood perfectly, and it obviously ain’t you!' To Italians, it’s bella figura -speak for, “I got a better deal.”

Just as they drive down the white medians to hedge their bets on the highway, this practice is put into place on many many levels. So, I offer this to you, because after all, forewarned is forearmed.

As for Cathy, I showed up directly Friday night, no confirmation necessary. I was welcomed with open arms, pizza & brownies. I still haven’t heard from Alessandra.

*names have been changed to protect the innocent

Friday, December 7

Rome's Airport Express-a Feat fit for a Conqueror

Okay. I admit it, I’m one of the few people in Italy who thinks the trains are actually pretty swell. My love affair obviously peaking after a bout in the USA, in which they think a monorail circling the mall is mass transit.

But, I do get a bit, shall we say, sensitive to the train situation in Italy when I take, as I am wont to do, a train from Italy to Switzerland. Though sharing a long border, the vastness separating their idea of train travel or more specifically, arrivals & departures, is immense. Having just rushed to and from the airport (arriving in Italy on Black Friday—not the shopping day after Thanksgiving -- but the day that the trains, taxis and buses were all on strike, but that’s another story).

Basically, my beef is with the lack of ramps or escalators or elevators to take you up to the train tracks with all your luggage in tow. Those pictures of migrants moving their belongings and 9 kids and grandma from South to North are so incredible to me; I view those early travelers as true heroes; the descendents of those great Roman legions of yore. Crossing frontiers with all that baggage and none of the slaves to ease the burden.
Obviously, they all settled in Switzerland, because when they got there, they made absolutely sure that ramps and modern technology when it arrived, was going to be put to good use.

People love to recite the claim about Hannibal's crossing of the Alps to conquer Italy. That’s because he probably had ramps and pulleys and even luggage with wheels to help him over from that side in! Come to think of it, no one ever mentions if he ever got back over. He probably took one look at the innumerable staircases he'd have to haul his booty up, and went into early retirement on the beaches of Viareggio.
image from about.com
But, let’s not pick on the poor Italians. After all, here at Rome’s Ostiense station, Platform 13 (the Airport Express) was outfitted with an escalator by an obviously seasoned traveler.  Four months later (in 1990), they changed the Airport Express to leave from Platform 12.

Decades on, and with the advent of modern technology, a ray of hope was instilled into the faint hearts of fatigued travelers: In a rare moment of lucidity, they started a major renovation program and began installing elevators up to each of the platforms. In a country with over half the population over the age of 60, well, I thought that surely, someone with true social commitment was at the helm. I began to have visions of Shanghri-la.

As I approached my track, heart beating fast, my pulse quickening with each passing step…finally, finally, going to catch a train without feeling like I had just lost the Iron Man contest. One elevator, now two, now three, now four… then seven…Right up to Platform 11.

I’ve said it before, that Italians love conspiracy theories, and now so do I. I believe that somewhere, there is a highly disgruntled employee, who has long desired to travel, to ride the wings of love, so to speak, and go to distant lands far and wide. And just can’t. And so, in an effort to sort of get back at the proletariat, well, he placed an order for the elevators to simply stop one platform too soon. And, has since spent his time ignoring all missives from above to have the oncoming train simply change tracks.

It may seem a long shot, but I simply cannot offer you any other explanation.

Friday, November 30

Life in Italy - November

Who says that good news doesn't get reported? Each month end (and in Dove Sono on the side bar),  I offer up lots of good things that happen in Italy...

Entertainment/  Laura Pasini won a grammy and a few more recent music awards to boot

Sophia Loren was voted Sexiest Woman ever, by an int'l poll. Ahhh...the good ol' days when curves were actually appreciated...So, can someone tell me why we pay attention to Paris Hilton???
Wil Smith is going to team up again with Italian director Gabriele Muccino on a new flick (see Pursuit of Happyness)


A journalist currently (but not for very long, I imagine) working for the RAI-TV Networks stated that the entire enterprise 'fa schifo' (loosely translated, totally sucks) and should just be closed down & started over. The politicians were infuriated and called for her head..errr, maybe that's one of the problems...why are politicians running the TV stations anyway? 
I say she should win an award...

Life in Italy / Someone walked over 33.880 km to alert people to the grave problem of abandoning their pets I wonder if he was joined by the thousands of animals he would have met along the way...

With an aging populace, 49% of 69yr olds and older claim to have a regular sex life (compared to 8% of singles...) Of course, the study didn't disclose with whom...

And Abroad / And the best news yet (sorry, it doesn't come from Italy, but it was too too good to pass up), Paris has installed walls that basically splash back should those wily Parisians use them for toilets!

Okay, so you want a conspiracy theory? I'm just trying to hedge my bets so as not to put in too much time in purgatory for a blog called Burnt by the Tuscan Sun.

Monday, November 26

Running in Circles

There is nothing short of a revolution going on in the city that invented (or, in a nod to Da Vinci, shall we say, perfected), the automobile: Detroit. Basically, America seems to be looking toward ‘Old Europe’ for some new ideas in solving traffic jams. Now, that may come as a surprise to anyone who has spent hours riding Rome, Milan or Florence’s Ring Roads, but it’s true.

It looks like America is trying to adopt the idea of Traffic Rotaries, rather than the tired and completely botched idea behind traffic lights which pretty much bring traffic to a halt. Seeing that Europeans have never had a whole lot of respect for the traffic signal anyway, (well, it depends… that behaviour is inversely proportional to the enforcement agency’s zealotry in the matter)… America is looking at keeping cars on the move.
And this is great. What’s entirely American, however, in a country which cannot take responsibility for any personal behaviour, are the rules and signs governing rotary etiquette.

While in Italy, who gets to go first is a game of cat & mouse so totally evolved, that it's a modern update of this most basic rule behind animal behaviour: Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest.

A few years back, they changed the law to bring clarity to the Who-goes-first policy. But in very Italian style, the law had as many exceptions as there are traffic circles and so now, it’s pure chaos with everyone involved in every accident claiming (rightly so) the precedence. I practice the “whoever’s on the right goes first” line of thinking. Others, the “whoever’s in the circle gets the right of way”. The problem is, you just don’t know who’s following what school of thought.
So, in the U.S., where life is governed by a CYA-philosophy, as you approach the new-fangled circle, you’re inundated with YIELD signs and bright yellow pedestrian crosswalks. Just to make the point clear, they add a few more signs – replete with arrows – to point out where, precisely, people might be crossing.

Now that it took us over 200 years to learn something from Europe, perhaps Europe might learn something from us. But I won’t hold my breath.

Tuesday, November 20

Turning Learning into Limonata

While in the USA for Thanksgiving, I’ve had the privilege of being invited for lunch at my nephews’ school. And while being regaled by the 6 yr. olds breaking into the Gobble Gobble Turkey Trot, back at home, I learned that something even more insidious was being brainwashed into our little ones’ heads: UNADULTERATED CAPITALISM. In something quite frighteningly reminiscent of Brave New World, it looks like while in Europe, our Nike-clad kids & parents take to the streets protesting “globalization” (something I’ve never quite grasped, to be perfectly honest…I mean, they don’t like dishwashers or pcs??), America is busy hard-wiring kids into what it takes to be a true blue-blooded capitalist.

I remember when my niece was about 7, she conducted a marketing survey with all my friends (via email, no less), asking at what price point she should be offering her lemonade. She then had to produce a report on her findings, set up the stand, and sell her stuff. In Italy, parents would have pulled their children inside their Mercedes’ faster than you could say "limonata" to avoid the Brutta Figura in front of the neighbors: What?! You want people to think we’re needy??!!!

Now in 7th grade, my niece’s class has formed a MINI SOCIETY in which they decide on products to produce, warehouse and sell. They give them mini business plans like a TARGET MARKET LOCATOR PLANNING GUIDE, BUSINESS CARD TEMPLATES, and MARKET SURVEYS. My niece’s group, would then set out to produce and sell their products on Auction Day. Post-sales, they would have to deduct the fixed and variable expenses of rental & advertising space, posters, warehousing and even consulting services. In a nod to the country of indefatigable entrepreneurs (or was it Starbucks?) they named their group, ‘Cappuccino City’.

Now, I’m not familiar with what goes on in Italian schools, and regardless, we all know that on average, Italian kids are far more educated than their American counterparts (who rank somewhere near Albania), despite the complaints we see in the daily papers. But, an exercise of this nature, I have never heard of.

In fact, I shiver at the thought of an Italian correspondent program: whereby the first thing they do is offer their real money & other treats to School Council members in order to guarantee a prime location in the school cafeteria, purchase licenses some of whom get denied because they didn’t pay off the principal, skip the marketing survey part, and then charge exorbitant prices for their goods. One group of bullies doesn’t sell anything but is still the richest. They’re busy getting paid the ‘pizzo’ and avoiding taxes. After hiring their employees, they can never fire them, even after being caught stealing from the coffers. But it doesn't matter. They'd have to close down their booths due to the strikes. The rest of the class doesn't show up because the buses didn't arrive on time. And those who are able to buy the item and find it breaks? No refunds permitted.
Now that would be truly educational.

Sunday, November 18

And on the 43rd Day...God created your domain

Well, actually no. That's not quite how the story goes. In fact, today I received in my mailbox, a do not pass go, do not collect €500 card...Why?
They say that the information I submitted about me is incorrect (even though I am already on file), due to the problem of middle names in Italy.
Their system only has space for first and last, and, entirely my fault (I admit it, I should have known by now), I submitted false documents...obviously, with my middle name in there.
As a result, not only can I NOT simply correct the name (by merely adding it in), but, I must resubmit all of the information from scratch.

And, although I dutifully signed each page (twice), including the block letter version to avoid any problems, of course, they said that I did also not sign the contract properly. That's because, now you must sign it in two places! Obviously, the bureaucracy was just too little for some people. And so, I dutifully reprinted out the document - carefully paginated by them so you end up with a blank white page on which you are to sign your name.

As I wrote in my October INTERNOT and INTERNOT REDUX entries, I am still waiting for an Italian domain. It cost me five times the U.S. fee, and while for my $9.95 I was live within 24 hrs., I'm still waiting for godot.

DOMAIN UPDATE:

Ti comunichiamo che la registrazione del tuo dominio è stata completata con successo e che il tuo nuovo dominio sarà online entro 2 giorni da quello in cui hai ricevuto questo messaggio.

Music to my ears...43 days after my initial request and $67 later, I got my domain! The hitch? It will be 'live' in two more days' time.

With pure hootzpah, register.it is actually advertising to 'Have your own Domain underneath the Christmas Tree'. I imagine they mean Christmas 2008, right?

Thursday, November 15

Roughing It

I asked an Italian girlfriend if she would be going back to her family's home in South Africa for the holidays. She said, no, because it was always so stressful. As I commiserated about family and what not, she interrupted to tell me it wasn't the family that was the problem, it was the Italians.
She said, "You know how they are. Turns out I have to accompany them everywhere and I never get much of a holiday as a result. They need to go here and there, and from our place, you need a car, and they don't want to drive, she continued, and it's me who gets saddled."

Now this, I couldn't believe. I know that Beppe Severgnini (one of my favorite authors on things Italian) has a book called Italiani con Valigie-Italians Suitcases in Hand, in which he most likely describes these sorts of things, but I've yet to read it. Instead, my mind wandered to all those Italians I've ever met or taken around New York, London, Nepal...In short, they are inveterate travelers. But it's true, you sometimes get the feeling that mamma needs to be nearby in order to keep things ticking at a good clip. I remember how many Italians refused to eat anything other than pasta and would then usually complain about the way it was cooked anyhow. The more adventurous ones would occasionally go to a NYC steak house to eat real meat, and not a 'fiorentina'. But nothing more.

Italians are indefatigable travelers, especially the younger generations who have been spoiled with trips for a long weekend to the Red Sea or Maldives, with mom, dad & boyfriend. Separate rooms, of course: mamma & papà in one, kids in the other. So, perhaps this rule no longer applies. But, I do recall that on a trekking expedition in Tibet we needed dozens of porters and even more ponies to take all our belongings. Why?

To accomodate the picnic tables, pots and pasta we had for eating meals, not to mention the utensils. What I thought was totally civilized, (well, Italians did invent the fork), the Italians probably thought was roughing it. After all, we had no tablecloths. Mamma would have been aghast.

Tuesday, November 13

Business As Usual

I just thought I'd share a 'typical day in the life of' with you. After 22 years of doing business here I probably can make a few wild generalizations...some practices endearing, others just aggravating.

It all started when I met two would-be entrepreneurs. As the saying goes, behind every olive tree in Italy... you'll find someone dying to go or already out on their own. Typically, and like so many of them, here they are, one day working in a bank, or a ceramics factory, and the next, they're off producing leather handbags for Prada. And in this, I know for sure, that if the govt didn't do everything in their power to impede this entrepreneural spirit, right in their very dna, well, this country would be like Japan.
So, our entrepreneurs, leaving their day jobs, came up with a nice widget.

It just turned out that that week, someone had contacted me asking if I knew anyone who sold those very same items. So, before I put them in touch, I thought I'd provide them with a crash session in marketing their widgets. They were totally flabbergasted-and I have no idea if that word even exists in the Italian language. I have yet to meet an Italian entrepreneur who first set out to study the market, competition, pricing, all necessary details before putting out their 'Open for Business' sign.

Once we covered that, I asked them to prepare some pricing to see where they stood in the ballpark. I received a call whereby they asked if we could meet face to face. Unfortunately, I couldn't. And, although one of the more endearing qualities of doing business here, it costs you half a day. So, I pulled an American. Can't I just give you the parameters over the phone? I pleaded.

Sure enough, I won that battle, but not the war. I could tell, I could just tell that no one was taking any notes. Lo and behold, I received a few more calls to 'clarify' that everyone had understood the laundry list. And here, I knew, that even a meeting would not have helped--no Italian worth their sale would ever be caught actually taking notes. Never. So, I put up with the repeat listing.

Ready to make their offer, they called and asked for a meeting. Again, not being my business at all, I begged for mercy and asked that they please send in the offer. And, don't forget to include a 10% commission for me, after all, I'm not a Franciscan monk. Already prepared for the reaction, I held the phone out a bit. What?!! That seems like a steep fee!!!!

Yeah? Well, considering the commission on high ticket items is usually around 30%, and any agency will always ask for 15%. Consider yourselves lucky. Not to mention the fact that this single order represents more than you'd be able to sell over the next 7 years. Two to One, My lead.

Another call: Well, who should we address the order to? Me. A new attempt to go over my head: Well, wouldn't it be just easier to send it directly to the buyer? No. Three to One.

I receive the order. No sign of any commission fee for me. I call. Well, of course, it's in there! I didn't want the client to see it. You can trust me, no? After 22 years, I'm sorry, you guys have a great expression about Verba Volant, Scripta Manent... And, don't worry, the client already knows I'm not a Franciscan. Fine, I'll resend. Four to One.

But, here's the catch: should they get the order, and get paid, how will I ever be sure to get my money? Even with contracts, this rarely happens. 3 cherries. They take the pot.

Monday, November 12

Che tempo fa??

Okay, I know that once you're reduced to talking about the weather, things are not looking good on the creative front..but, stick with me here..I don't really want to talk about the weather, but rather, the weathermen (and, I realize this is not pc, but, in Italy, I have only seen weathermen). But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Today's headlines screamed, 'cold front on the way!' 'Temperatures down 7 degrees (which is a lot in centigrade). I left the house totally prepared...and almost died from sun stroke.

Now, I know it's a Michigan thing, because when we all ended up in New York City, everyone complained about the weather forecasts. I mean, in Michigan, you can set your clock to their "light flurries in the afternoon". Right on cue, at 12:05 pm, you look out your window, and behold! Light flurries. (Of course, one could argue that that's because there are always flurries in Michigan).

But whereas Americans know predicting the weather is a total joke, they give us funny guys and clowns to give you the daily reports. They dress up in raincoats, toss funny suns around (best depicted in Steve Martin's L.A.Story), the works.

In Italy instead, they bring out their Maresciallo of the Corps of Army Engineers or Navy Brigade, all dressed up in their finest, brass buttons and all. I half expect them to salute at the end of their predictions. These guys, oh so serious, go at it giving you a play by play so thorough you'd think they were channelling Einstein. And yet, I plan for rain, there's sunshine. Wild storms predicted? Light sprinkles fall instead. I can't figure it out...it must be the seas that throw things off a bit.

But, living in a city where, as the saying goes, there are Four Seasons in a Day! well, before I take the dog out, we both just stick our noses out the window.

Sunday, November 11

Antitrust...Trustworthy?


I attended an excellent presentation by a remarkable man who definitely deserves to be in the position he is. A lawyer graduating at 22, a judge and President of Italy’s Antitrust, Antonio Catricalà gives one faith that the system is working [he was since pegged to be a part of the 'technical govt - Monti's cabinet]   As he described many of the inroads the government is making in tackling a number of issues, from the cost of bread & pasta to the sale of Alitalia—all of which affect the economy on many different levels – things certainly are moving.

Italy these days, besides the delightful place it is to visit, is known as the sick man of Europe, making it a bit more difficult for those who actually live here. Even Portugal is surpassing it in growth and jobs and all those good things that determine the health of a country. And, while Italy still grows, compared to its European brethren, there are some glaring issues which need to be fixed and fast.

In his off-the-cuff presentation, Antonio Catricalà discussed two things that Italy lacks, and needs to improve, for the vitality of the country: foreign investment and more gas in the engine—in the true sense of the word. Italy depends on outside sources for all its natural gas needs, and, by two not-so-democratic nations providing it as well; Algeria & Russia. If anyone remembers the (unrelated) nationwide blackout caused by a tree falling in Switzerand, well, you can well imagine one small hiccup over there, and everything could just come to a sudden (and not a grinding) halt over here.
During the Q&A session, we also heard a few views about the importance of somehow releasing the stranglehold that the unions have on much of its industry, especially in terms of job flexibility and pensions and all those good things, especially when discussing Alitalia,(my biggest pet peave), but more on that later.

It may come as a surprise to many, but Italy actually attracts very little foreign investment, despite it supposedly being open for business. That is, according to Mr. Catricalà, somewhat due to negative portrayals in the media (and I wonder if that includes yours truly), but, I suspect it has a whole lot more to do with the reams and reams of red tape, payoffs, politicians, lack of steady government, the labor laws, the sheer expense of hiring & firing, and, not least important, the exorbitant tax rates for business, and all those other things that get people running to England and Ireland, and even Poland to set up shop.

When Alitalia (which, according to this writer should have been shut down about 37 years ago) was brought up (by guess who?), Mr. Catricalà’s response was an unfortunate, ‘Hey, this is Italy…business as usual”. They would never allow the takeover by a foreign enterprise really (so much for attracting foreign investment), they are held hostage by the unions, and Air One, that stellar national carrier, would not be allowed to take it over, due to of course, monopoly power. That said, Alitalia will keep on flying, keep losing money, and keep on going, at the expense of the Italian taxpayers.

It behooves me to think that Mr. Catricalà actually related that, the opening of Malpensa (appropriately named, if you ask me) in Milano is crippling the carrier. Finally, the north had an int’l airport to/from Milan, finally, Italians were on the move, business was in the works…and this was a bad thing? While all other successful carriers vie to win slots around the world, only Alitalia would have trouble making an expansion to an airport 1 hour’s flight away into a financial disaster. And that’s due to the unions and the cost of flying the teams in & out of that completely impossible place, located somewhere akin to Western Siberia.

With regard to women in the workplace, I felt he simply paid lip service to the fact that women workers hold up one half (or more) of the sky. And, he reiterated the needs for day care and other services. But, I’ll cut him some slack as it was not his department.

In the meantime, in view of the October Sting of bread and pasta prices going through the roof, and the fact that his Dept is looking into cartel pricing, well, I applaud our dear presenter, and wish him a heartfelt In Bocca al Lupo! He’ll need it.

Wednesday, November 7

Francesca Maggi's...Strange But True!

A couple of little news clips struck me today, and, I know there must be more to these stories than what I’ve been given because something is quite amiss:

First, I read that some agency filed some complaint against some organization that was selling their properties at 1/10th the going rate. Basically, apartments in Rome go for anywhere between $14000 and $21000 per square meter. I can’t tell you what that is in square footage, but trust me, it’s a very hefty price.
And these guys are selling for around $1500 to $2000 per sq met. Now. I know that P.T. Barnum supposedly remarked that there’s a sucker born every minute, but, it looks like quite a bargain to me! So, what’s the catch?
All I know is that as a result, someone filed a complaint because the price is 'too low'??

Meanwhile, everyone seems to be suddenly up in arms over the preservation of one of Italy’s most derisible monuments. Since its inception, the ‘Vittoriano’, or monument to Italy’s first king, Victor Emanuel has been universally hated. First, because they tore down the remnants of that area’s medieval quarters to build it, including Michelangelo’s supposed abode. For years, it’s been called ‘the typewriter’, ‘the wedding cake’ and any number of other epithets against this fascist piece of architecture -- even though it holds the Tomb of Italy’s Unknown Soldier, watched over by a standing guard with an eternal flame. And that’s the catch.

The City Officials finally put in an elevator to get people to the top for some of the best views in all of Rome. Although they force you to pay $10 for the ride, it was providing good income. Obviously not enough, so they added a cafè up there too. But their capitalist drive has seemed to be offensive to many (my solution: knock the price off the ride up). Not to mention that the rest of us could finally enjoy all of the gorgeous mosaics and art up there too. Who else could? The unknown soldier?

So now, they’re saying the elevators have to go: first, because they damage the look (I have yet to notice them and I go by there almost daily), second, because they’ve turned a sacred place into a tourist trap.


Ummm….and the Pantheon? Victor Emanuel and his son are both buried in there! Not to mention Raphael our very first Superintendent of the Arts who is probably quite pleased at all the attention.
And then, there is of course, the tourist trap of Assisi, or what about the thousands of bodies we literally step over every time we enter a church, any of them throughout the peninsula? Those gorgeously carved flagstones are really coffin covers. The list could go on and on. Heck! We could even bring in Pompeii or the Pyramids…

Considering it’s pretty much the only monument in Italy with wheelchair access, I thought this was a good thing (although that price tag is so over the top, it makes the churches of Italy pale by comparison…even Pisa's entry fees).

It’s all so illogical there must be a conspiracy in here, but, I’ve yet to find it.

Sunday, November 4

R.I.P.

We just had a long weekend because Nov 1st marked ‘I Morti’, or Day of the Dead…or, more pleasantly, the day after, All Saints Day. It’s a wonderful holiday observed by many in the traditional fashion: visiting cemeteries, eating large meals, or others, less so inclined, taking 4 days off to the mountains.
And, actually, I love the traditions of Old Europe, like enjoying those family gatherings (best with distant cousins..both in lineage and geographically speaking), having a less consumer-oriented Christmas, taking walks after the evening meal. In fact, when we onlookers see things ‘changing’ over here, we find Italians generally picking up some of the worst habits of America and making them their own -- and none of us are all the happier about it.


But one thing that could change for the better are the card companies. You know, cards for any occasion. While you can find some imported cards nowadays with great graphics but blank inside, what happens when you want to send something for a more – errr- traditional event?


It happened to a friend of mine who discovered that an American colleague’s father had passed away. He wanted to send a heartfelt card, expressing appropriately the sentiment, perhaps adding his own message on the inside. On a mission, he tried various cartolerias, where one does, in fact, by carta (or cards).


Knowing that he was barking up the wrong tree from the get go, he decided to hedge his bets: “Do you have something – say, a nice CARD – for someone who is in mourning?”


- Well, Signore, usually one sends a telegram.


Getting a bit provocative since he knew he already was fighting a losing battle: 
“Yes, but, don’t you think that, for someone who may not understand the Italian tradition, say, a foreigner, receiving a telegram under these conditions might actually be somewhat, ahhh, frightening?”


Blank stare, so he continues:


“You know, telegrams are sometimes used to bring important – even very urgent – messages to people and…given the circumstances, I just don’t think it would have the same impact in America as in Italy.”


- Well, okay, why don’t you send the traditional blank white or ivory card with a matching envelope?


“Do you have anything else?”


Yes, the blank white card with a black line going through it.
(He looks at it and decides it does, well, provide the appropriate imagery of the finality of the situation…kind of like looking at the EKG line in an episode of ER). Audaciously, he presses on: “Could you help me write a message in there? I mean, what should one write?”


- That’s a very personal thing, Signore, and no, I cannot help you.


At which point I received a call and sent him to a U.S. website where they actually offer a number of somber messages just for the occasion. When I ventured, ‘why did you even bother?’ He simply stated that he wanted to "At least get her to think out of the box…I don’t know…I was a man possessed.”

Saturday, November 3

Italy's 3Rs...missing a letter?


This week, I heard that J.K. Rowling’s very first Harry Potter book, signed with her full name, Jeanne K. Rowling, sold for the hefty sum of $40,000. Amazing news… especially if you happen to have a first edition signed copy lying around the house (I don’t).


But, what struck me was how important that signature was to the very value of the book, and, even more so, the importance that her name was completely legible and therefore valuable to the buyer (not to mention the seller!). And, I certainly hoped that news hit a great many of us here in Italy, and not just their awesome collection of brilliant writers. Italy boasts the most number of bloggers on the internet. We obviously have a lot to write about.


It made me recall Mean Miss Ferguson (only to avoid a lawsuit for calling her by her real name, Cruella DeVil), my 6th grade teacher who, in her sadistic ways, forced us not only to write with liquid ink pens last used by Benjamin Franklin, but, also to write legibly, with no drips of ink on a page (you’d be suspended first from recess, then from her class altogether, not to mention the rather large E you'd find scrawled atop of your page, and decidedly not written with a nice black cartridge pen, but rather a felt marker – in Red).
She’d ridicule you in front of everyone, tape your hands to the pen, do things that today would land her in jail. Needless to say, I became pretty good with that pen, real fast.


And so, it came as quite a surprise when coming to Italy, a country that has penned their fair share of parchment, starting with those tablets of stone to St. Paul's letters to the Corinthians, right up to dozens of monasteries, filled with monks’ stunning miniatures painstakingly penned in great big books, ‘til today, to find that people merely scribbled their names on documents. In fact, nearly everyone here has the same signature…one form or another of a straight line going across the page. It’s no wonder everyone thought Leonardo was such a genius--his penmanship is gorgeous and, he did it all backwards!


Now, I can think that maybe people are just copying the graffiti writers they’ve grown up with…but even those scribbles have loops in them sometimes. So, you start to wonder why no one signs their name properly. Have one look at the penmanship, and Miss Ferguson would have simply keeled right over in an apoplectic fit of rage; pens held with the entire hand (all fingers and thumb on the utensil), pencils thrust between two fingers, thumb freely waving in the air -- it’s no wonder they don’t serve Chinese with chopsticks here. Nobody could begin to handle the opposable thumb.


Of course, all this breeds your own little Italian conspiracy theory, since Italians pretty much spend about 7 years of their lives just signing documents and registered letters. They really don’t want anyone to know whom, exactly, made the signature. This theory is not my own-- it was actually related to me once when I asked someone if they could please sign legibly on a contract.
It’s no wonder those monks invented the very first printing press. They were the ancestors of comedian Rodney Dangerfield; they just got no respect.


You can buy a print of Leonard's writing here.

Tuesday, October 30

Internot Redux

Well, as the saying goes, I guess I put that cart before that ol’ horse… or, as the Italians say, I put the cart before the oxen… That's because in Italy, things move a lot slower due to the weight of the red tape, value-added tax (iva) and other charges that find their way in between point A and point B…

And so it is, after properly sending in via telefax all of my web domain registration info to the proper office, I found a number of various emails in my inbox telling me that, no, Dorothy, we were still decidedly not in Kansas anymore…

On Friday, I was informed (twice) that my request for a domain name was rejected because they did not receive my myriad documents. This, due to the Regulation of 1 March 2007 regarding the awesome website registry, telling you it would still take a week to register my name.

I was also informed in the same mail that, if I had already posted my docs and various i.d.s (including those of my unborn children), NOT to simply disregard this message, but to start over from scratch following their easy steps. It would appear that in Italy, they have no get out of jail free cards in the deck.

So, back onto the website, and off it was again. Eureka!

But, on Sunday (and, I’m happy to report someone was taking care of my domain on a Sunday… but please keep it to yourself or else someone will be bound to shut that service down)… I received another email from register.it.

This time, stating that they had, in fact, received my documents, but they could not read them due to a problem with the fax. They then list how to go BACK to the website and reprint them again in a nice font size. They print out fine at my end, so, I imagine that it’s the actual fax transmission that’s tripping us up.

Adding another 40 minutes (and a 5 day waiting period, should all go well) to my 3 day affair…I wonder if I tapped the heels of my ruby red slippers together if I might not get a home page...

Friday, October 26

A Week of Magical Thinking

Now, I don’t want to take full credit for this week’s events, but…the stars seem to have aligned in my favour on a number of issues:

First and foremost, the HEAT did go on today! (see entry below). And yes, we are back to our wonderful no-coat weather, albeit with a slight drizzle. It doesn’t matter, seeing that my building went coop, and, as true democracies do exist (I like to refer to it as mob rule), the heating arrangement basically favours those elderly and infirm (and the little ones) at the subsidized expense of us worker bees. After all, Italy is a socialist country.
You see, unlike in enterprising Milan, where the heat’s on before you wake up, and shuts off during the noontime sun, only to go back on each eve before you get home from work, well, our heat was voted to go on at noon.
So, it’s not enough you have to wake up at 6am to make it to your office, you can’t take a shower because you would not be able to survive the subzero temps in your uninsulated abode when you got out. They would find you only in the spring, with your arm extended toward your towel, in much the same way as they found the mummy, Ötzi in the Alps. Take a shower in the evening? Fugettaboutit. The heat goes off again at 8pm.

Despite having to sleep with a wool hat on my head, I like the entire arrangement anyway. I work from home, so appreciate the daytime heat (even though the sun is blazing). And, it gets me to the gym more often, where I can enjoy a hot shower in a steamy locker room.

And then, my favorite man from Italy’s Antitrust Office decided to go after the Pasta producers too! It appears that they, like their bread brethern, may have formed some sort of pricing cartel. Or, perhaps they all just happen to go to the same tarot reader when looking at the future market.

Not only this, but Rome’s Mayoral office has decided to simplify the subscription process for going onto their site. With much fanfare, they announced this week that their – at this point totally demoralized -- potential visitors no longer have to start printing out documents and sending via fax all sorts of forms just to pay their taxes or look at the FAQ’s.

One small step for man, One giant step for humankind…

Thursday, October 25

If you can’t stand the cold…

Get into the Kitchen! As I write this, I am sitting at my desk, flannel sweatpants on, a wool t-shirt under my sweater, a hat on my head, and my winter coat over all of it. On my hands I don those kind of gloves where your tips are exposed, so they’ll only have to amputate the tops of my fingers once they’ve turned dark purple from the frostbite.

It’s not the incredible cold front that arrived in the Land of Sun from Siberia that’s the problem; after all, even global warming can’t stop that kind of air pressure system (although I wish it could). It’s the fact that it’s October 25th, and, the heat won’t come on in buildings in Rome until November 15th; the day the authorities have predetermined that it’s cold inside.

While this was a terrific measure during the ‘70s gas crisis to save money, I say, let’s abandon tradition (something very hard for our nostalgic Italians to do), and, maybe turn on the heat when the cold arrives. The system is so absurd, that at the tail end of winter, if we get a heat wave in April, the heaters are still pumping out, because they don’t go off again until April 15th. So much for Energy Conservation.

I remember coming down to Rome and finding my great-aunt standing, fully dressed with a hat and winter coat, in front of an open oven running full blast while she prepared her espresso; sometimes all four burners going, too. I used to laugh at the scene—but now make a mad dash to the oven each morning. In a portrait reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting, my dog is curled up right there with me; it’d be perfect if only we had a fireplace.

Thankfully, the powers that be, with an eye to their ever-aging populace, will no doubt decide that the heat can actually go on early, especially in schools and hospitals and the like. I’m sure just in time for the cold front to move on out.

Sunday, October 21

Kneading the Dough

Last week, I heard a terrific lecture from Italy's President of the Antitrust Agency, a remarkable man with an amazing background and excellent presentation skills. Unlike most of his paesani, who usually just sit up there and read out an excruciatingly boring internal report, he was witty and spoke off the cuff, and we all learned quite a lot, which will be food for my fodder later. He only touched lightly on a subject that is rather close to our hearts, and even closer to our stomachs, and even more closely, to our wallets. He had announced just the day before, that they would be looking into what's up with the price of bread (err, above and beyond the stratospheric price itself).

See my previous entries: Getting Milked at the Pump, Post Scriptum on Inflation and Hunger Strike.

It would 'appear' that the bread guys have formed a sort of cartel and that's why prices, overnight, seem to just keep rising (maybe it's the yeast). The bakers say it ain't so, but, in one day last week all the bread around the entire city of Rome went up 79% - literally overnight. Hmmmmm... In their (collective) defence, each and every baker, independently of the other, stated it was because they had just happened to be holding a terrific sale on bread the day before. Mr. Antitrust certainly has his job cut out for him.

In Milan, that totally inaccessible city, remotely located like for example, Bermuda, the price is double that in Rome and even more compared to Naples. Must be the difficult transport of the wheat across the Lombardy flat lands. It's no wonder we associate Bread with Dough meaning Money.

Don't ask me, but it's stuff like this that kicked off the French Revolution. Except back then, it was purely economic: Short supply, high prices. The Italians, on the other hand, have never been terribly fond of Milton Keynes & his ilk. So, prices just keep rising -- maybe the bakers are just burned out...

Saturday, October 20

Milano & Rome ban traffic [sigh] - again

Each year, someone posts the listing of the state of the environment of Italy’s top 100 cities. Mostly smog and small particles. Not surprisingly, the big metropolises are more polluted then say, lovely Belluno. Last on the list? Ragusa in Sicily. Now, Sicily is not known for its industry, so I was pretty surprised by this, thinking it was due to exploding Mount Etna. I’ve since learnt that it’s due to a huge petro-chemical plant there. Wow. That should be a wake-up call. And trapped Florence which everyone considers the most polluted of all, comes in under Rome and Milan.
In short, it’s all those vehicles. Italy, after all, has the greatest number of cars pro capita in Europe. They have one car for every driver. And, considering the exorbitant costs of keeping, driving, and maintaining them here, not to mention that most of the roads people actually drive on were built for donkey carts, well, you’d think there’d be a deterrent somewhere. Not here.
But, I don’t get bothered by the smog, except that it blocks a once-terrific view of the mountains around Milan. What irks me, on the other hand, are the ludicrous measures that City officials, across the entire boot, put into action in an attempt at ‘containing’ the smog. Talk about spitting in the wind. Their measures actually serve to increase the very smog they were trying to get rid of.
It goes like this:

From Monday to Friday, more cars than any city can handle clog the roads as people try to get from here to there. We are constantly admonished to take public transport: average wait, over 20 minutes (the time it takes to get to the center of Rome by car), while the other night, past midnight, I waited a full 40 mins., finally flagging down a cab for my 6 min ride home. So we drive.

On the weekends, (Friday evenings, to be precise) and holidays, cities literally empty out. Off to the beach, their mountain retreats, the countryside. In Milan, I would go rollerblading down the fantastically empty streets.

So, what do our omniscient city officials do? They block all autos on Sundays. All 11 of them.

Not allowed in the City until after 8pm (or you are met with heavy traffic fines, with police out in force all day long, with overtime pay, to boot), what do you suppose takes place?
Instead of letting us trickle back home to mamma, in time to enjoy a banquet that is Sunday pranzo, we get miles and miles of cars, idling in traffic at 7:45pm, crawling back to their homes, as if it was top of the morning rush hour.

This exercise in futility is almost as senseless as taking shoes off at airports. Talk about what happens when decisions are made by committee.

Italy's Dirty Secrets

I wanted to print the whole list of Italy's cleanest to dirtiest cities, but the full report was not published. So, here's what I've managed to glean from a variety of sources:

no. 1-Belluno Home of my favourite Company, Luxottica. It goes to show you that even plastics can be clean.
2-Bergamo Set in the midst of Italy's industrial north, I don't think this fares well for the economy, but, their zero tolerance for traffic bodes well for pollution.
3-Mantova
11-Venice Incredible, with all that drilling and shipping & cruise ships, but, of course, they don't have autos. But where does Mestre fit in in the report? Mestre is to Venice as Oakland is to San Francisco.
13-Genova If the Italians could figure out a way to drive down those streets once configured for the bazaar, they would.
17-Firenze Florence is always chastised as the most polluted, and yet, it beats out all of the major cities in Italy.
23-Bologna
55-Roma
58-Milano Although it seems worse, with its grey ceiling overhead.
74-Torino Well, what do you expect from the car capital of Italy? It's still one of my favourite places, & you can still see the mountains from there.
77-Verona Lovely Verona, we hardly knew ye...
82-Bari (We're headin' south)
91-Naples Having lost 24 spots, probably due to the garbage pile-up, well, there's a lot of truth to that See Naples and Die saying
98-Frosinone This is the town where all the major pharmaceutical cos. ran to when the govt in its eternal wisdom gave tax incentives for Italy's South. It's right at the Rome border. Besides, their Directors probably never go there.
99-Benevento One of my favourite little towns...
100-Ragusa (Sicily) Hard to find pollution in a place with virtually no industry, but, here we have a petro-chemical plant & all that that signifies.

Friday, October 19

Internot

Okay. I’ve already established that the Italians are signage-challenged, but really the root of the problem is much deeper than that. It’s an organizationally-challenged populace, coupled with nonexistent customer service, leading to a lack of understanding of how those very services should flow...You can see what kinds of trouble we’ll be having in Tiber Town as Italy, like the rest of the ‘developed’ nations, moves into the Service Sector.

And so it is with the Internet. How many times has your click-through ratio moved into stratospheric heights, only to start finalizing your purchase …and be timed out unexpectedly by the system. Or, it doesn’t accept something you’ve (naturally) done but doesn’t allow you to hit ‘back’, so you're forced to start all over again. Or, it doesn’t accept credit card payments from foreigners (in a country banking on tourism), or, just simply crashes in the key moment. I have created so many identities attempting to purchase train tickets, that I’m sure by now I've been fingered by Interpol for suspected terrorist activities.

My Home Banking is so clever, that each time I want to conduct a transaction, I actually have to first go back to the bank, collect a new password, certificate, authorization and code, and by now propose my 9th-born son, that even taking care of it at the insidious post office is a better option. The bankers informed me of late that they received accolades for their terrific security system; I offered that they could just make it completely inoperable and it’d be totally failsafe.

And so it was, when I decided to order domain names for my business. Sitting in Italy, I chose a .com address, went to the U.S. site, and for $9.95 and a pay now! thru paypal, I was as good as gold: total transaction time, including searching for some cool names, about 9 minutes.

Same name, this time .it. About 10 mins and $49.35 later (and a few under-the-breath remarks on what one capitalist feels about monopoly power), no problem. But, I must wait 24 hrs. for confirmation in my inbox. Next day, I discover a mail stating that, unless I was an EU citizen, I could not take out a name. So much for free markets. They obviously missed the irony in that they’re offering Asian addresses to us non-Asians… or, is that just a smart marketing campaign targeted to the large Filipino community here?

Fortunately for me, I have dual citizenship. So, while wondering if people must marry Italians in order to get a domain name, I decide to simply change my initial purchase details.
After attempting to log on – third time was a charm – I get to the Home Page.

Cannot discern how to change my coordinates. I discover the letters in cute boxes: D E H M
Having perused the page, I divine that they mean, Domain – Email – Hosting – Mamma Mia!!

I try Domain – I take a wild guess at Information. I bump into my coordinates. It refuses to accept my telephone number written in the format of Italian tel numbers. First recomposing my tel number on a piece of paper, I’m in! I finally change everything, except my NATIONALITY, the thing they didn't approve of in the first place. At which point all of the changes previously made are lost. Again, back to GO with no $200. I see a message: ‘You must request assistance via email for these items”. I request assistance.

Next day, they have courteously changed the NATION for me. I’m quite certain there’s a valid reason for this block. Probably to challenge Americans who don’t know what a nation is.

Next day, properly inserted into the system, I discover that I still don’t have a domain registered. I reread the email, and find that I must now print out a Letter of Assumption of Responsibility (LAR), and fax it into some institution with my signature and soc sec’y number. I’m starting to feel like road kill on the information super-highway. They cheerily claim, “If you haven’t done so yet!” as if you knew you were supposed to do that in the first place. It just takes a button. They say we can find the LAR at the bottom of the ‘Documents’ section of the site.

Nowhere on the entire page is a section entitled Documents (not even under D) -- but, in my search, I did discover that I could have a t-shirt made with my domain written across it!

Logged on, but no place to go. That’s because, on the Register.it site, there is no site map, nor a search mechanism. And these guys actually offer to build you a website?! Finally, thinking like an Italian, I click on my domain name which appears totally inactive. Eureka! And, not on the bottom of the newest page, I see Documents. Here, I find Please Note (without the please): ‘we will not accept electronic signatures nor print-outs modified in any way’ (that’ll be blocked by another dept, I’m sure). I click the link to the LAR.

Blank page.
Try a second time. Blank page.
I start over from scratch, skipping the Ride on the Reading.

The home page reloads with a blank blue box. For some reason (obviously those Italian genes kicking in again), I scroll over the empty box. Like magic, links start to appear. I am on my way, back to Documents and over to Printer. So satisfied, I go play the lottery.
My number? The time of day plus the number of hours the entire transaction has taken (not including the fax time), spilling into 83 hours (and counting).

Sunday, October 14

Get the Big Babies out of the House

Well, if Italy’s Economic Minister didn’t finally tell the Emperor he had no clothes, this came pretty darn close. Here he was, Mr. Padoa-Schioppa, telling a country which prides itself on having raised an entire generation that does not know how to make a dental appointment without mamma’s intervention, let alone work as one, that the economic development of this country depends on … getting the Bamboccioni out of la casa. He might as well have stated that Italy no longer needs a diet of pasta & olive oil. But, at least, while no one has a real solution, a lot of lively debate has ensued.

Economists & sociologists and the like have been weighing in ever since. But, they’ve got it all wrong. In an article in last Sunday’s Sole24ore, the WSJ of Italy, two writers made the case that it’s because of the school system. To them, I say: you have got to be kidding me. It seems ‘La Mamma’ is still as solid an institution as the very marble columns which hold up the Ministry for the Family itself.
Following, is my response:

Dear Sirs,

While I appreciate your astute examination of this cultural phenomenon of the so-called, ‘Bamboccioni’, I believe your analysis, that these kids are born in the classrooms, is strikingly off the mark. The Bamboccioni are made, nurtured, and developed much earlier—and within the four walls of their very homes. And, while the school system does play a minor role in this phenomenon, it is only an accessory to the crime: the true culprit being La Mamma—a figure who has devoted her entire existence to assuring that her little pride & joy (after all, there is only one) stays attached to her apron strings … for the rest of her very (very) long life.
From the time that child enters her world, everything - everything - is contrived to give La Mamma her haloed role in his. Even after the kid is grown and ‘flies the coop’, there she is, keeping a watchful eye from the apartment upstairs. I have a friend whose husband, post-marriage, refused to purchase a washing machine; he wanted his mamma to do his (& now her) laundry for eternity. Needless to say, the relationship didn't work out.

In psychology, this pathetic result is what’s known as ‘Learned Helplessness’.

The treasured bambini are spoon-fed, washed & clothed until well into their school years. Their mothers pick up everything they drop, proudly declaring, ‘Boys will be boys’, rather than teaching them to do so for themselves. La Mamma carries their book bags to and from school, and, I imagine does much of their homework, so as to ease their burden further.

How many times have I heard, ‘Giovanni, don’t run!’, when the child is simply just trying to be one. He learns to stay right in her sight, never venturing on his own. And let’s not even mention the single mothers-all of whom share a bed with their ‘little man’ right into puberty, under the guise of ‘protecting’ him, when it’s she who needs comfort. Even pea-brained birds know that they must throw their offspring out of the nest in order to see them fly.

I am convinced that Italy, now the flag-barrier for a pacifist state, does this out of the most base instinct for self-preservation. Should a calamity come like those of the past World Wars, these kids would not be like their forefathers; scavenging for food or joining the resistance—they’d be found cowering in a kitchen corner screaming for their mamma.

Growing up in the U.S., my brothers & I all had paper routes by the age of 9. We understood the idea of responsibility (waking up at 5am every day), good service (to get those tips), and the worth of a penny, which is exactly what we were paid per paper. Three feet of snow, my dad would roll over in bed, mentioning that he already had a job, and it did not involve waking up at 5am. So, off to work we went. We did it, not out of necessity, out of an almost knee-jerk reaction for independence.

At 14, we worked in restaurants or ice cream shops or babysat. They say that 1/3 of Americans have, at one time or another, actually worked at McDonalds. Italians, on the other hand, pride themselves in not having kids who work. Great training for a bright future.

At school, exams are oral & based on theory, not practice. You are taught to regurgitate the facts on page 339, but never allowed to actually use them. Passive learning by Professors is the rule of the day; there is no translation for ‘engaging’ in the Italian language.

Once in college, there are no internships that allow you to practice your trade; likewise, jobs are not assured when you get out. So why bother? As a student of psychology, I worked through University in the world-renowned Institute for Social Research. I was given so much responsibility, I rarely met the person in charge of the studies. By 19, I was writing Corporate Communications for Burroughs (Unisys) while a friend handled the night desk for a local TV station. In Italy for an internship at 20, I was responsible for stapling papers for 3 straight months in a large bank – and probably the first case of carpal-tunnel syndrome ever documented here.

If you manage to find a job out of college, (usually through daddy, and not through your own talent), you are almost paralyzed in it; while you wait for your manager-mom to tell you how to do your job, in which way, even what to write in that report. You do not bring new ideas to a meeting. My Company director friends complain they feel less like motivational managers and more like babysitters. I can’t tell you the number of times I have even fielded calls from La Mamma to set up interviews for their little bundles of joy—I usually respond that if La Mamma has to call, it is highly doubtful that I wish to employ her son.

Is it any wonder that one of the most successful businessmen this country has ever seen, Leonardo Del Vecchio, the founder of Luxottica, was an orphan? It makes perfect sense to at least one observer.

Aside from being orphaned, there are other exceptions to this rule, especially those who grew up with divorced parents or working mothers. But, these, sadly, are not the norm.

Even laboratory rats if rewarded with a piece of cheese, will repeat the behaviour endlessly. Well, not only do we reward these bamboccioni with fresh parmigiano (grated) on their daily pasta, but a roof over their heads, no monthly payments for rent or utilities, housekeeping service, & even a personal shopper and a fabulous car; not to mention health clubs and long vacations in the Maldives with their girlfriend…And you expect them to go against human (and rat) nature & simply turn and walk away? Come on. So no, dear Minister, it is not a question of providing for cheaper rents; these kids still need to cough up all of their other living expenses to boot.

But, I do not come with only complaints; I offer you a solution. Dear Mr. Padoa-Schioppa, forget lower housing rates. Why not bring in those incredible, dynamic, multi-taskers, financial planners and amazing personal relationship managers? Why not, start a campaign & start hiring La Mammas.

You’d not only kill two birds with one stone, you’d light the economy right on fire.

Saturday, October 13

What's love got to do with it? Story of an Italian neighborhood

I offer an update on the goings-on in my little piazza...While the graffiti artists haven't found a decent tabula rasa to deface, there appears to be other problems which the concerned residents have taken into their own hands...
A public letter & petition has been posted around the neighborhood. Surprisingly, though, these sort of 'direct democracy' initiatives often get responses. In a country where we don't have 'town hall' meetings, well, first they petition the governing parties, then they go to the press, and if all else fails, well, they start occupying the train tracks. Let's see if my piazzetta becomes the Little Piazza that Could.  My update as of Aug 2012 below.

To: President of the XI Municipality, Sig. Andrea Catarci

Dear President,

The residents of the Ardeatina Quarter, in particular those inhabitants of the Largo Bompiani area, Via delle Sette Chiese, et.al., would like to express our sincere gratitude for what you have done in Piazza B. Bompiani. Through the restoration of this area, you have provided a pinch of beauty to a quarter that is considered by many just a thoroughfare between Ancient Rome [the Appian way is nearby, ndr] and neorealistic Rome, given that we host the nearby historic monument that evokes great pain -- the site of the Fosse Ardeatine [again, this is the place in which 388 innocent Romans were massacred by the Germans toward the end of the war, ndr].
However, if you will consent, there exists some room for complaint. This in the fact that, having given us a new piazza, the competent authorities have completely abandoned the project before its total completion.

A. You have installed a properly operating electrical system, complete with lighting and proper illumination of the entire piazza; but to date, we are still completely left in the dark.
They installed in-ground light fixtures, all of which have been smashed to smithereens by the hoodlums of the 'hood.  I wonder not only why they're made of glass, but why they are not solar lights to begin with.

B. We were promised that the monument inside (see photo in sidebar) would be totally restored--but still, nothing.

The monument was beautifully restored, only to find one asshole who has mucked it up with his graffiti, and others who have smashed in parts of it, just because they could.


C. Additionally, we ask to whom goes the responsibility of cleaning the piazza of the leaves, pine needles etc. which fill the entire square; risking that someone will slip and fall? The people who frequent the square? We don't think so.
[note: in Italy, there is often a problem between the street cleaners who don't touch the parks, and park people, who don't touch the street, or garbage, or whatever--leaving much of whatever it is that people or nature leave lying around, stacked up for years of neglect,ndr].

Cleaning seems to be going a bit better...Meno Male!


And so, Mr. President, instead of thinking of creating a 'Love Park'*, why not think of doing the right thing for all of us, and start by solving the serious problems that reach the entire quarter; and not just when you're interested in getting a post of command -- while you wait on the honest and hopeful votes of your citizens!

Thank you!

*The Love Park, is a place nearby, where, all of the transexuals and Eastern European sex slaves are lined up one of the main thoroughfares in all of Rome. Instead of solving the problem at the roots, this President thought we might as well create a sort of Park there where men can freely enjoy expressing their 'love'. I say, 'what's love got to do with it?'