Tuesday, November 24

Living in America

Any visitor to any country, will immediately identify three things that truly signifies they are no longer at home. In Nepal, it could be the cows roaming the streets, the garbage flying out the windows, and the constant bartering. In the USA, I found:

1) The huge cars - Attending a soccer game in New Jersey, each auto seemed one version or another of a strange metallic Mammoth species. These SUVs, Maxi-vans (whoever called them mini was clearly misguided), and immense pickup trucks made me feel like Stuart Little.
While giving thanks this holiday season that the roads are equally large, I also realized how fortunate we are in Europe to have roads far too small to accommodate these monoliths. Although they make their presence known, in Italy they are still easy to pick out of a crowd. In the gas-guzzling, super-sized America, there are entire fleets of these vehicles seemingly moving along roads like an oversized swarm of giant locusts.
Now I see why little cars like the Mini Cooper or SMART have such a hard sale here.

2) The grocery aisles or, people's kitchen cupboards - Stocked so full of stuff, it makes their immense pantries and shelves appear bare when there's one item missing from the usual seven different cereal boxes and 12 salad dressing bottles.
The funny thing is, in every house I've been to so far, the kids open the cupboard, blankly stare into a crowded space (but that's only because they're not watching TV, texting friends, and posting on facebook while listening to their iPod and doing homework at the same time), which most foreigners would take for a bomb shelter storage unit, before slamming the door and decrying, 'There's nothing to eat in this house!"
From a foreigner's perspective, it's so routine, that it appears to be an Ancient ritual not unlike saying a quick prayer to the house gods who once occupied little cupboards in 1st century Rome.

3) Toilet paper - For people used to the sandpaper as something to actually bring close to sensitive parts of your body, coming to America is like a dream come true. Not only do they offer nice smelling aloe versions of the stuff, they even decorate them for the holidays. You can find turkeys, pumpkins, and little santas just to make your bottom happy.
Englishmen will recall that up until 1995, they actually used wax paper - pretty much the least absorbent item on earth, as t.p. I imagine that for them, it brings new meaning to 'America is no. 1'...and no. 2 as well.

Sunday, November 22

Coming to America

Anyone who says New Yorkers are rude, has clearly never set foot in Milan. From the Customs Officials chirping, well, okay, grunting, ‘Welcome Back Home’ right down to Merl the cool bus driver telling me that “If any other driver tells you you can’t bring the pup, you tell him, ‘Merl said to take good care of me’”, the bon amie has been baffling. And that’s without anyone actually seeing Trevor – America is an extremely dog un-user-friendly place -- who could melt the frigid heart of Torinese widow in about 12 seconds flat.

At Newark Airport -- a place so completely comfy it feels like Milan’s Linate or London’s City Airport – even though it’s three times the size -- I found myself being escorted to the holding pen at immigration. Although I’m an American citizen, I’m on a delinquent list for having had 3 passports stolen when traveling/living in Europe. Combined with my two year hiatus, they wanted to just make sure it was me trying to break the border.

Traveler’s Advisory: Always take the U.S. Embassy recommendations, and leave your passport at the hotel and carry a photocopy. Yes, the cops might get mad, but you won’t end up on the eternal roll of the delinquency list.

At Ground Transportation I felt I had walked into the control tower for JFK. Debra the Manager was handling three customers, two staff and three telephones – not one her own cellphone. “Where you goin’”? She’s calling up the companies for me, negotiating the rates…No, no, no, no, no!– hanging up. “I got $29 and they’re trying to charge you 60.” Next company, 33. “I got 29 (she pipes up, looking annoyed) – “Okay you’re good to go. This gentleman (in the red suitcoat) will be escorting you down to the Welcome Desk where your driver will meet you. Have a great time in Jersey.”

As I left the airport, my thoughts drifting to Debra perhaps telling me $60 only to split the difference with the operator…surrounded by signs reading, ‘If they ask you for a ride, You shouldn’t be taking one’, I thought, ‘No Debra, you’re not in Caltanisetta any more…’

Thursday, November 19

Nuovo Mondo

America. After a two years’ absence, I feel like so many immigrants who came before me. And, although I know the country (I’ve heard the stories from NYTimes.com or Jon Stewart), and the language, I will be taking my impending trip with a new perspective… blogging about my experiences in the New World while I’m there…(these two months). It is not the promise of the Yankee Dollar, while my liras keep deflating...zeros added to them time again. Instead, with the strong euro, my American dream appears as a 50% off sale (when compared to European prices) and (relatively) cheap gasoline. Perhaps even 1 day dry cleaning and Tivo. And, as long as I avoid Starbucks, I might even find a bottomless cup of coffee at a local diner, but sadly, no free wireless.

While I do not carry livestock, I have little Trevor in tow, stuffed in a bag for the 16 hours (between take offs and landings) underneath my seat. I do not have to endure the trials of those immigrants stuffed in the bowels of the ships (although Trevor does), so wonderfully portrayed in the movie, Nuovo Mondo (or Golden Door - its name in English). But, traveling in ‘cattle class’ can, at times, feel much the same. Cramped conditions, no leg room, but at least treated to a movie while being served a wonderful grilled chicken dinner with a fudge brownie for dessert.

Stay tuned as I bring you my experiences in America…First stop, Newark Liberty International Airport [that would be, NEWARK LIBERTY all attached and not, Newark Airport or Liberty Airport, to use interchangeably as in the Fiumicino / Leonardo DaVinci debacle…].
Can’t wait to meet the Mother of Exiles as she greets me -- one lowly bit of 'wretched refuse' as described in Emma Lazarus’ epic poem. Of course, most of us being received only after finger-printing and taking shots of the irises of the eyes). And, while we have to claim on a form we've not been in contact with Mad Cows or various Swine (e.g. people), it still beats the health exams of Ellis Island of days of yesteryear.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

with silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

* picture from NIAF - National Italian-American Foundation online banner

Monday, November 16

Thinking of Moving to Italy? Think Again. Three Ways that Living There is Different than Visiting

Guest Post by Cherrye from My Bella Italy

The idea of living in the bel paese makes many would-be expats as green as fresh basilico. It is Italy, after all, one of the top tourist destinations in the world and a place where history and culture seep from centuries-old buildings and antique cobblestone streets.

However, visiting Italy and planting roots aren’t quite the same thing -- a truth I’ve been forced to share on occasion whenever bright-eyed tourists proclaim their love for this land and quickly inform their spouses, “I think I could live here.”
The truth of the matter is, it’s not easy to live in Italy. In addition to the sad state of the economy, the laughing stock of a prime minister and the forces responsible for letting 100,000 tons of trash overtake Naples in recent years, there are some things that are harder to live with than others.
And here are three of them.

1. Cibo and Vino
People travel to new countries to soak in the culture and lifestyle of the region they are visiting, and when these people are in Italy-they get to eat it up. Literally.
Italian food is arguably the best food in the world, and I’m a sucker for Calabrian red peppers, eggplants and pecorino cheese. But sometimes, a girl just wants a peanut butter sandwich on American white bread … some cheddar cheese … real orange juice.
When you’re traveling in Italy, PB&J, Mexican burritos and quick and easy sushi are the furthest things from your mind. But the longer you stay overseas, the more you’ll find that not only old cravings die hard but -- after a year--or three- they can spring back to life - with a vengeance.

2. Chiuso … Again!
You know how charming it is that stores still close in the middle of day and everyone goes home to enjoy a long lunch with their families? Well, try running to the store for tampons, ahem, personal items, in the middle of the day and being met with closed gates.
Not so charming anymore …
Not so charming at all … .

3. Red Tape and Personal Space
Italy is notorious for its never-ending red tape and just about every expat has a bone-chilling Italian bureaucracy experience to tell. Travelers to Italy generally laugh off the eternal lines and misinformation -- but when your residency depends on spending 3 hours a day over 3 full days in various lines only to be told you have to start all over again, it is not a laughing matter.

Speaking of laughing matters, there are dozens of contradictions that we foreigners come across on almost a daily basis. And, I’m sure, that for Italians moving to America, the same goes for them, too. For example, southern Italians, who hang their laundry to dry for the entire neighborhood to see, notoriously get upset when their privacy has been invaded even in the smallest way. So why they have no problem when a pharmacist questions them in front of a crowded room of those same neighbors, “What do you need?” And they reply in a loud, proud voice, “Something for my hemorrhoids.”

Do you live in Italy? What other misconceptions do you think there are about living here as compared to traveling here?

Cherrye Moore is a freelance writer and B&B owner living in Calabria, Italy. She writes for Affordable Calling Cards offering calling cards for Italy.
She also pens informative and entertaining articles on traveling to Calabria on her website, My Bella Vita.

Friday, November 13

The New Oprah?

I suppose because it worked for her, posting her image on every single issue of one of the most successful magazines in publishing, it could work for the Pope. After all, during the downtrodden days of a global recession, a general lack of spirituality, people leaving the flock...we need to put a face on inspiration. And not Oprah's New Age version of it either. No, we're talking a bit more Old Age. As in Testament. And so it is, that Pope Benedict XVI will be coming out with his very own calendar, His Grace gracing each page.
Here's a sneak preview:
Benedict greets his guests in his Sunday finest...Tiara and all.

Okay, everyone, now look under your seats! Keys to the Kingdom of God!

Showing off his fashion sense

Never a moment's rest for the leader of Christianity, but this is much better than the Flying Nun.

But, for those of you who would like something a little less lofty, and a bit more eye-catching, well, then there's always the Roman Priest Calendar, on sale at a newsstand near you...

Tuesday, November 10

LowCost Airlines-You get what you pay for

Today is a day that will certainly go down in history.
It’s a day that marks those first cracks in a seemingly 46km long barrier between those allowed to practice free choice, and those who would refuse their brethren these basic freedoms. While it is never as great as the first time the wall was breached, it is still a day to be remembered for generations to come.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall? No.

The day I actually achieved the nearly impossible feat – obtaining a reimbursement of sorts by an Italian Customer “Service” department. It’s not the first time it has occurred-in my nearly 18 years here, there’s been one – but who’s counting? - one – other time.
It’s a momentous occasion which deserves great pronouncements, so as one of my occasional Public Service Announcements, I will share with you the details behind this very exciting episode of history in the making:

6pm - I went to LastMinute.com to purchase a ticket to the USA (after 2 years’ absence, I am totally – totally excited about this (in the American sense of the word, not the Italian)-- although I’m sure a few readers will ask ‘why don’t you stay there, too?’.

CONFIRM BUTTON – Agreed – Credit Card – the Works.
373 euro ttl. to Newark, and I can taste that Thanksgiving Turkey & sweet potatoes already!
Don’t hit the back button or anything else or you’ll be charged…
Penalties in case of changes from this point forward.
You get my drift.

9am next day / We get an email stating that the carrier (and not LastMinute.com) has changed the price of the ticket by 50 euro. Naturally, it did not specify whether that price was going down (doubtful) or up (most likely). I smelled a skunk.
When you hit AGREE WITH TERMS, isn’t that a sales contract?
When they advertise a price and the deal is done, doesn’t that make it FINAL?
And, at this point, an astute friend pointed out that if I continue along this path, I was headed straight for another straniera di merda kind of response.

Nonetheless, pursue I did.
Noon/While on hold for Customer Service, I was offered an online survey by LastMinute.com to rate my most recent transaction. Aren’t they going to be sorry they asked. I gave them my online survey version of the riot act, commenting further that: “This is Highway Robbery, fraudulent at best, and these kind of wild price increases post-purchase is tantamount to criminal conduct.”

The very pleasant woman on the phone said, in short, “Suck it up”, or rather, she did what Italians do best, denied all responsibility: “First, it’s a price increase but it has nothing to do with us, and, it wasn’t a binding agreement since we’ve yet to charge your card…So, do you or do you not approve the expense?” In other words, Suck it up.
I decided not to press my case with her, and withheld a response until I went online to see if I could beat the now increased price elsewhere.

4pm / I couldn’t beat even the price rise, so back I went, armed with the pen (or keypad), mightier than the sword. I emailed the Customer Service rep who originally sent me the mail, telling her to go ahead and charge me, but, I still found this practice totally unfair, and, while I understood it was not due to LastMinute.com, for me, after two whole years of not traveling home, waking up to a 50 euro side swipe was just an unpleasant way to start my day.
For good measure I cc:d a couple of Consumer Associations who deal in travel ripoffs, adding that I’d pursue a full reimbursement when I had more time.

I actually got a response! And, a nice one, at that!! She wrote back saying she fully understood my dilemma, and, after talking with her supervisor, LastMinute.com would charge me only 20 euro and they would pay the rest.
I thanked her profusely for her time and effort, as while I still was upset over the 50 euro surcharge, I was immensely grateful. And, did I mention, I am a nasty little blogger about disservices in Italy?

Next morning, another mail:

Lastminute.com will be paying for the entire 50 euro surcharge that the carrier threw on them.
In my book, the Customer Service People at Lastminute.com (Italia) are close to reaching goddess status.

Now, I don’t know, exactly, which of the above maneuvers got them to practice 'The Customer is Always Right' adage. Regardless, what would have been my last transaction ever with LastMinute.com, may not have us parting ways so bitterly. I recommend trying all of the above. But, I still wonder, do airlines have the right to just up fees like that? A gas surcharge? What? I know in Europe, travelers are much more protected by these drive-bys that the U.S. carriers get away with. Nonetheless, in a global recession, you’d think they wouldn’t try to pull a fast one – at the last minute.

Saturday, November 7

Emoticons...Italian Style

Cherrye from My Bella Vita left a comment on one of my blogs stating, "I laughed so hard I scared my husband". My first reaction was one, of course, flattery. But then, I said to myself, 'He must be Italian' (he is). In a country where LOL: Laughing Out Loud is pretty much frowned upon (my great aunt would always remark that my friends and I cackled like a bunch of hens - which is probably where those rambunctious Brits get their 'hen parties' from), I wondered, how do Italians (stalwart internet users, half of them) signify their (silent) peels of laughter over the internet?

So, I came up with my own little table. Feel free to add to it.

:( LOL Laughed Only a Little
but totally not worth actually laughing over

:! CAS Cracked A Smile
but now I have to run out and get a botox injection

:0 LNA Laughter No Audio
but at least la mamma would be pleased

3:) OIL Omigod! I Laughed
but now my boyfriend will break up with me for having caused a scene

picture from www.emoticons4u.com

Wednesday, November 4

Tante Belle Cose - October 2009

I obviously have a case of brain freeze...I almost forgot to write all the wonderful things that happened last month -- with the most important (but it was this month), The Heat Came On for all of us in Southern Italy! It doesn't matter much though, because in my palazzo they voted for it to come on when it's hottest - noon til 9. Which means, for those of us who work, taking a shower in the cold each morning, or taking a shower in the cold each evening, after work. I think it's due to those bouts of nostalgia for the old days that Italians love so much. But I digress (although I'm typing with a hat, coat and scarf on...and it's not even winter!)

For those of us a bit addicted to the Superenalotto Lottery Game (with prizes well over $100 M often), it has finally joined the rest of Europe and is offering play time online.
This is good news for many, but not for those truly addicted...

Not only did the Calder exhibit open at Rome's Palazzo degli Esposizioni (one of my favorite artists), a show regarding the work of Galileo was just inaugurated (on until Jan 6th).
It took them 500 years to issue a pardon, and about as long to show his work on Roman soil...Nonetheless, it's taking place at Palazzo Incontro, and I plan to be there.

One of Italy's applauded 'brain drain' medical researchers who has returned to his roots was asked to give his (supposedly) anonymous opinion on a number of projects that would get financing, based on his approval. Suddenly, he was met with numerous 'raccomandazioni', "to make a favorable decision" or give "the highest vote possible". He refused to capitulate.
Now, if more people will follow his example...(although it remains to be seen how long he'll be holding his post).

And finally, it will be considered a crime for those trafficking in animals or mutilating them for aesthetic purposes, with heavy fines to pay.
One blow for the cute little pet shops, one giant leap for mankind.

Monday, November 2

Business Weak

There have been a few nice October Surprises to announce, with the most incredible, that of my beloved Fiumicino Airport (aka Leonardo Da Vinci) -- breaking out new signage throughout the entire complex, a 'reorganization', which means, a new villa for the head of the ADR -- most likely in the Maldives, paid for in cash (not his own).
It's no wonder that a woman rushing to her plane commented that she was more confused than before, although the A, AA, B Terminals have finally been numbered (im)properly (for the rest of us): T1, T2, T3 and T5
Stating they've taken their cues from International Airports round the world, (and the befuddled Spanish-run Heathrow's Terminal 5 comes to mind), I'm starting to seriously believe that it is the number 4, rather than 13, that must be unlucky.

This October, grain prices went down a full 28%. Which means that pasta and bread prices went likewise dxxxx -- oh -- scratch that, UP by the usual monthly 4%.
Once again, I am happy to announce that food allergies have never felt so good.

Transparency International released its annual CPI (Corruption Perception Index) report finding that Italy ranks number 55, (1 being the least corrupt) just below South Africa, and 26th out of the 31 European countries (including those Eastern European ones).

And finally, I don't know who's doing the counting, as I've seen wildly divergent rankings in terms of Universities around Europe and the world, with Bocconi usually coming up okay on Business Schools, and Bologna or Rome faring well overall -- But, a newly released compilation states that no Italian universities are in the top 100 of the world's Best Universities. The University of Bologna checks in at number 187.
Is anyone paying attention to this stuff?