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 okay. 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 18 (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 17.

Decades on, and with the advent of modern technology, a ray of hope was instilled into the faint hearts of fatigued travelers: sometime last year, 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 15.

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.