Monday, July 30

All roads lead to...

Last week, I went to the Joe Cocker concert at Rome’s fairly new Auditorium. It was fantastic, but, more than that, it was held in what amounts to the most exceptional place in all of Rome, if not all of Italy. Rome’s Auditorium, designed by Renzo Piano, is absolutely stunning, even though we don’t get to see the moon pass by through the performance like the Ancient Romans once did from their seats in the Amphitheatre.
Their concert and activity offering is nothing short of spectacular: ice skating in their Winter Garden, Gospel, world music, symphonies, jazz, and much more. It is the solitary diamond, the crown jewel, in Italy’s infinite cultural offerings. And, people have noticed: it attracts more visitors than any other Auditorium on earth (including Sydney & the Met).

Unfortunately, you simply can’t get there.
To the untrained eye, it would seem just the opposite were true: there isn’t a corner of Rome that doesn’t have a sign (replete with an arrow, no less) beckoning, no pleading with you, that the Auditorium is just around the corner. From the very center, to miles outside the beltway. There are so many, that at first, I was convinced that Renzo Piano had converted the Colosseum into a fabulous new Auditorium, with a roof, as in days of yore…
But, that was simply wishful thinking. The Auditorium is nowhere near the centre of Rome, and pretty much, nowhere near the 10,863 (my est.) signs which inform you that the Ancients got it all wrong, in fact: all roads lead to the Auditorium.
Dave Barry once wrote a column about driving in Italy: he surmised that the locals just changed those arrows around time and again, as you circle and circle around looking for your hotel.
I believe, instead, that the workers, once they reached about a 1/2 mile radius of the place, just said (as they approached the roundabout with 7 exits, or the highway turnoff)…”Ora Basta! Oh, what the heck, they made it this far, they’re bound to know where to turn off!”. Ditched their last 58 signs in the garbage bin and went home for a siesta.
After having missed the beginning of many a concert, I discovered they now have a shuttle bus for all us poor souls, which leaves right from the center of Rome. Now if they only had a sign for the Bus Stop…

Saturday, July 28

End of the Plague in Venice

Last weekend I went to Venice to celebrate the end of the Black Plague. All in all, we were about double the 50000 survivors back in the day. Party boats with ghetto blasters cruise the canals until late in the evening, until so many are 'parked' in the laguna it looks like an absolute parking lot!

Near midnight, we are then treated to a full 1hr. fireworks display, the likes of which I've only seen at Disneyland (although their time, like 20mins.).
The only glitch was when the Leonardo-inspired boat bridge we crossed to have lunch in Giudecca lost a juncture, but, those efficient Venetians allowed us to board boats back for free.

We ate & drank well (in Venice??!!!), even after the evil restaurateur took us for tourists and told us, alá Seinfeld Soup Man that first we couldn't sit down (he sat about 4 tables of locals after us), and then that we could only order pizza. The pizza was excellent, but, as we finished, he brought all the Venetian specialties we had originally ordered to the next table over.

Ya gotta believe it's a tourism-based economy...Keep the faith.

Service with a Smile

While the Romans have understood the importance of hospitality, every once in awhile you come across someone with say, a more Milanese attitude toward customer service. And, sometimes it happens when you least expect it: and in that moment, in your little microcosm, you see all of Italy in a macro sort of way. Today, it happened at noneother than the local gelateria. Before I had a chance to peruse the myriad ice cream flavours, I first worked my way around all the signage and notices slapped here and there on the front doors, walls, and ice cream cabinets and cash register: No Dogs, No loud talking at night, No use of the Bathrooms...

Once through my reading of the local regulations governing gelato eating, I scanned the little flavor signs and then, picked out the usual, Chocolate & Choc Chip. Naturally, there were signs for just about everything except the pricing. I was in the center of Rome and wondered at this point if I'd need to take out a home owner's loan for this little treat. Receiving the gelato, I was about to turn and sit at any one of the nice tables, then thought better of it: I hadn't yet paid, and of course, that would signify that a 5 euro (already exorbitant) small gelato near Piazza Navona would price out to double that. So, I decided to simply pay and eat outside where my dog was waiting anyway. Surprisingly, the gelato was exceptional and competitively priced (just 2 euro).

But, I was met with a taste that was decidedly not Chocolate. Instead, it had a Belgian Chocolate flavor, the kind made with hazelnuts--and I'm terribly allergic to nuts. I strolled cautiously back into the store, hesitating to even mention it to the gelataio guy. After all, this is a country where you can't take back a defective stereo should you have the misfortune to purchase one (I have); a country in which, after buying a wonderfully sophisticated (and equally expensive) pen set, it did not write. Fifteen minutes later and back in the store, I was told under no uncertain terms to "get lost" and that I had probably damaged the goods myself in the time I had left the store and set fancy pen to paper; a country in which, the old adage goes, 'If you Buy it, It's broken, You still own it.'

But, courteously, the guy behind the counter asked me if anything was wrong (I must say, the place had only recently opened). So, I told him the problem. At which point, he chose to do what every red-blooded paesano does in a case of Customer Disatisfaction: he lied.
He insisted he had, in fact, dished out the Chocolate and that's what I ordered and that's what I got.
I then went back to Rule No. 1 of Life in Italy: never take 'No' for an answer. So, I proceeded to explain that while, yes, both varieties were in fact a sort of chocolate, one was made from pure cocoa, the other, from cocoa and nuts, or, in this case, Hazelnuts. And, if I just so happened to be very very allergic, we really wouldn't even be having this conversation because I'd be sprawled out on the ground in anaphylactic shock.

Hearing this very convincing argument, he then did what the next red-blooded Italian would naturally resort to: He blamed it on me. 'That I must have pointed to that very bin, that I got what I asked for, etc. etc.'
At which point, a very nice young woman stepped in, probably someone who had just finished her very own Hazelnut Delight and explained that both versions, were indeed, chocolate, but in order to obtain what he had served me, one would have to ask for it by name (gianduia, or nutella). And, since I had asked simply for chocolate, well, it would make sense to serve the pure cocoa version to me.
And, for about the 2nd time in my 15 years in Italy, I actually got a return accepted! I was so elated with my success, I did not even complain about the fact that this time, however, I was given nearly half the ice cream as before...

Friday, July 27

La Festa in Piazza

Today, all of the residents of my little quartiere here in Roma were invited to an inauguration of the piazza which they just put in, replete with trees, shrubs, benches…all surrounded by carefully bricked walls; the whole thing so inviting, I wager that by tonight, the graffiti artists will have their own little inauguration party: I give it 72 hrs. max before those cute walls are totally covered in soccer slogans and hieroglyphs on an order only dreamt of by Egyptian sovereigns.
So, as the flyers posted all around the neighborhood read, the festa began at 11am. So as to arrive on time, I set my alarm on my mac precisely. To 11:10.
Reaching the front door to my apartment building, I realized I had forgotton the most important thing when attending any public event in all of Italy: my cellphone? Business cards? No. A newspaper.
Finally arriving at the piazza at 11:15, workers were doing the usual last-minute clean-up. No City Officials, no drinks. Only a small group of neighbors huddled around expectedly waiting for something to happen. And, true to form, nothing did.
11:30 and I finished the paper. While I’m used to these self-important dignitaries showing up fashionably tardy (which, in italian, btw, is tardi), by 11:40 I gave up and went back home.
I was reminded that last weekend, they had a fireworks display (for the kiddies). Of course, it was to start at midnight, although it was certainly dark enough by 9pm-already way past bedtime. I agonized over what time I should awake my niece & nephew. 11:50? 12:10? The first explosion? Deciding they’d be too tired to enjoy them by then, I decided upon 11:55. After all, they'd been testing them all day long. The fireworks finally came on – precisely- at the point at which we all retired under the covers, 1:20am.
They say that we spend over 7 years of our lives waiting. Whoever came up with that statistic had never set foot in Italy. From lines to buy bread, to the infernal postal office (I’d say 7 years were spent solely there), to train ticketing, to the now-epic proportions of airport security (not to mention the luggage retrieval which sometimes takes longer in Italy than the flight itself), I imagine that Italians live to be the longest on Earth in order to make up for all the time they spent waiting.

Thursday, July 26

Rome Airport: A Traveler's Odyssey

My little niece & nephews left for the airport, bound for home.  It wasn’t long however, that I received the frantic call. No, the flight wasn’t delayed 6 hrs.: the security people determined that the kids’ mini-skateboards were Weapons of Mass Destruction. Of course, this is not outlandish, given the times -- it could happen anywhere given that we know that 6 yr. olds from suburbia may be hell-bent on crashing their plane into the Atlantic Ocean…(and, after spending a few weeks with them, I’d say that this conjecture is purely plausible).
So, yes, I would go back to the airport security and see if I could retrieve them for my teary-eyed bundles of joy.
I drive right up to the airport entrance find a parking spot, only to discover that the parking meter doesn’t work. Parking police are ticketing wildly; laughing all the way to the bank. Resolved that, on to the next obstacle.

The Italian airports, your first entreè into the country, their, say, calling card, are nothing short of inhospitable. Actually, I think it’s all part of a grand marketing scheme: they might as well start you off in the full-on intensive course in poor customer service, surly officials, and general chaos that you’ll be meeting up with time and again on your trip, right from the word go. But, this, I’ll save for another entry.

As you approach the airport doors, you find them blanketed with stickers, front and center, all the way down the walkway, across each terminal. In arrivals, you are not met with “Benvenuti! Enjoy your stay”, nor in departures do you find a chipper, “Arriverderci! Come again soon!” No, what you get, is a huge DO NOT ENTER white symbol with a bold red bar going through it. Below, the mistaken timetable, if you actually take such time to stop and entertain the sign while you’re rushing to your gate, states AIRPORT CLOSED from 12pm to 6am. I often find it amusing that most foreigners actually march up and down the walkway, looking for the one door that might be open.

The Italians, oblivious to these omnipresent warning labels, just waltz right in.
On my way toward the Security Check, I find an office right nearby, labeled, EXTERNAL RELATIONS; which me means, me: Jane Q. Public. I move toward the doors below, only to discover, huge warning labels plastered on both doors, stating Authorized Personnel Only. I debate whether or not I’m authorized for a while, but decide to go straight for the grail.

Back in the boarding line, I bark why I am there, and, thanking Italy for being just as it is, I'm allowed to go through. This would never play in Peoria! Once at the e-rays, I find a baker’s dozen of security people, mostly talking with each other while checking in bags.
They all eye me—this loose cannon, with no ticket, no bags to x-ray, and did I mention a dog? And yet, the important ones, first turn their backs, and then proceed to leave the premises. Must be their coffee break.
I finally attract one woman’s attention. I explain why I am standing there.
And of course, she offers me the standard Italian response to each and every dilemma which is not in their job description: “I can't do anything. We don’t have them. They’ve been thrown out by now.”

Rule no. 1 when living in Italy: NEVER EVER -- NEVER EVER EVER -- TAKE "NO" FOR AN ANSWER. You will end up packing your bags within a week in sheer defeat. Always, always, continue to plead your case…after all, is this not the country of Cicero, Caesar and St. Francis? Great orators, each and every one of them.
So, that’s what I did. I asked to be escorted to the trash bin. After all, I might manage to find some brand new bottles of water, lipsticks and all kinds of make up!
“No, we can’t do it, we don’t know where it is, by now they’re disposed of…etc. etc.”

Finally, a nice officer overhearing my dilemma, and perhaps noticing my cleavage (Rule no. 2: Always Dress Appropriately), said he knew all about the skateboards, and yes, they were still here (probably in his colleagues’ gym bag), and Ecco! Fatto! There appeared before me, two brand new mini-skateboards.
I thanked them effusively, and, with my newfound WMD, proceeded to go back through the crowded security area, and into the even more crowded check-in area.
Once outside, I tossed them into the back of my real weapon of mass destruction (if you really stop for a moment to examine the stats), and sped off toward home.

Wednesday, July 25

Alitalia: Arriverderci, Roma

Well, it looks like Alitalia is finally on the block. Strange, considering it's been losing money, well, pretty much since the day after Leonardo Da Vinci tested his flying machine. And while in other countries, we simply wax nostalgic while TWA dies a slow and painful death, while sleek SwissAir (SwissAir??!!) goes belly up (but, with true Swiss efficiency is reborn more or less a day later as Swiss), Belgium's Sabine crashes and burns, and they tear down the last 'M' from New York's PAN AM building, well, in Italy, they will have none of it. Like the cat that won't go away, it keeps on taking off and landing, right on its feet.
Basically, an airline that flies due to the wholesale sponsorship of its employees by Italian taxpayers. Dollar per dollar it is probably not unlike the money which goes toward supporting the British Royal Family, Fergie's shopping sprees and all.
You'd think, in the very least, the Italians would receive a bit of a discount on flights given their immense generosity. After all, even Sardinians get to pay less to go back and forth from the island on their very own airline. Instead, they are met with raging strikes -- first by the pilots, then flight attendants, then baggage handlers, then controllers, I imagine right down to the people that screw in lightbulbs in the lounges -- surly personnel, uncontrollable delays, flight cancellations and lost luggage.
And what do the Italians do? As they do with their almost hourly inconveniences: they simply ignore it. They figure, like everything else Italian, Alitalia will 'arrangiarsi' (always work itself out) and so, they continue to support their airline and collect their mileage. After all, what counts here is none of the above. A trip on Alitalia and you'll be surrounded by staff all donning Armani. Isn't that reason enough to fly?
At last count, no one wanted to buy it. Air One, a small Company so cool, so wonderful, so friendly, so efficient, I like to think of it as the short-distance version of Singapore Airlines, just abandoned the bid.
And if you go in or out of Rome's Fiumicino Airport, you'll find an enormous statue of Leonardo right out in front. Maybe, even the Politicoes and Alitalia officials will look out their window, and take a cue from the greatest Italian to have ever lived. After all, even Leonardo had the courage, grace and common sense to abandon his dream for flight.

Thursday, July 5

Carpe Diem

Links to Terrific Places off the Beaten Track

Umbria - Umbria Jazz Festival
Umbria - Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi
Torino - A trip up to the top of the Mole Antonelliana
Rome's Auditorium
Rome - Summer Nights at Castel Sant'Angelo
Rome - Museo Montemartini (ancient sculptures inside the old Electric Co.)
Rome - Summer Jazz Fest at Villa Celimontana
Near Rome (Subiaco) - spectacularly painted grotto of 5th century hermit St. Benedictine
Near Rome (Capalbio) - Giardino dei Tarocchi
Near Pisa - the town of Pistoia & the Piaggio Vespa Museum
Milano - Top of the Duomo for the gargoyles, even if you can't see the mountains in the distance
Florence - Museo della Specola to see the Wax Human Figures where Leonardo studied anatomy
Florence (Fiesole) - Primo Conti Museum to see one of Italy's most prolific modern painters
Asolo - a plate of prosciutto & figs in the garden of the Hotel Villa Cipriani

And, some things I think are just terrific!

My Amazon Choices

Wednesday, July 4

Caveat Emptor - Tourist Traps in Italy

DRINKS IN THE MAIN SQUARE OF ANY CITY IN ITALY – A word for the wise: just don’t ‘go there’. The price you’ll end up paying will bring you straight down from any high you get from your surroundings. Call me cheap, but, I’ve paid up to $25 for two bowls of ice cream in Piazza Navona, and $17 for two hot chocolates in Milan.

ROMA - Finally, you can go up on top of the huge white Vittorio Emanuele Monument, even have a drink and get great views (free entrance). But, in a country where there is no ‘free lunch’, they’ll charge you €7 ($10) just to take the elevator up there.

The Audioguide at the Colosseum – just don’t bother – at Italy’s most popular monument, it’s unlistenable, and, after waiting in line, you’ll have to wait again with all the anglo-saxons to demand (and unbelievably, receive!) a refund (the Italians, keeping to tradition, just put up with the injustice).

Two hours only in the Borghese Gallery — citing ‘security’ reasons, due to the fact that not more than a 180 people are allowed upstairs, everyone is literally thrown out by the bouncers after 2 hrs. To solve it: hand-held counters (price $2.99) to just count the people upstairs, but no dice. Too many ‘interests’ want to keep it that way (after all, they make 15% of the obligatory reservations). So, instead of enjoying yourselves in what is arguably the most beautiful place in Rome, you’re stressed for time even there.

CITY BUS TOURS – great for the views, forget the audio. You won’t have to think about that, though, because once aboard, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a unit that actually produces sound. One positive note: stick the pods in your ear, and listen to the static, it’s almost like those white noise programs of rainfall.

FLORENCE – At the Uffizi Gallery for political reasons, they want to keep those lines 3 hrs. out the door, when they could just have you go right in with time ticketing (but, don’t count on this changing with modern technology -- the Uffizi is run by an ex-Minister of Culture who thinks that museums shouldn’t even be open to the public).

THE PRINCE'S WALK – The walkway and portrait gallery designed by Vasari which extends from the Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. Although you can spend 3 hrs there, it will take at least as many months to make your reservation. Cost: €70 (nearly $100). Have they never been to the (free) National Portrait Gallery in London?

PISA — I’ve yet to meet a tourist who felt their time there was worth the visit. It’s an ugly, boring town, and if you want to see the artworks inside the buildings, you are literally shaken down by the church. Don't go, and say ya did.

VENICE — If it weren’t for its beauty and romanticism, the entire city would be black-balled by me for the Tourist Trap that it has become. Look at it closely: it is the future of all of Italy: a tourism-based economy, which, instead of catering to their ‘guests’, takes advantage of you at every corner (or in this case, little bridge). This year, gondola rides went from about $90 for 50 mins. down to 40 minutes (same price). But, they make you pay first then slowly glide in at around 30 mins. all the same.
The Gondoliers were recently on strike to protest these rates and their 'excessive working hours'.
This same disservice is prevalent on Lake Como and their motorboat rides.

ASSISI – In the Basilica, just ignore the pious ‘brother’ who screams & hollers at all the visitors to keep quiet. Care to defend yourself, he’ll throw you right out. The biggest defamation to St. Francis’ Message of Peace that I have ever witnessed. Underneath your feet, Francis is no doubt dizzy from rolling in his grave.

As for brotherly love, the friars on the hilltop don’t ‘get along’ with the city officials nor the friars at the bottom—in what amounts to centuries of disharmony here. Giotto even crafted right in the Basilica a beautiful picture of this schism which Francis tried to put right. Looks like it didn’t last, but God bless him for trying.

The rest of the town leaves much to be desired (aside from its charm). Tacky souvenir shops line the streets selling Chinese knock-offs of what were once hand-crafted Italian works.

RENTAL CARS — Don’t even think of heading to your hotel in any City Center during the day to unload your bags or park. The hidden cameras are popping bulbs from photographing your license plate. Months after the joy is gone, you’ll be hit with fines in every town you dared enter as a tourist; in what amounts to a ‘Tourist Tax’ for the City Coffers.