Wednesday, January 29

Italian Stories: Groundhog's Day

What does an Italian Groundhog look like?     A blackbird.  


Turns out, while Americans wait and see if a groundhog will see its shadow, the Italians have their own mother nature equivalent: I giorni della merla - The blackbird's days which fall on the last three days of January and indicating the coldest days of winter. And although weathermen report that there are (often) days much more frigid, turns out that in the Old Country, Old Wives' Tales are tough to defeat. We'll just call them, Alternative Facts worthy of their staying power.

But leave it to the Italians and their gift for gab and you'll find that the legend has now morphed into a number of different tales, to be recalled by future generations, depending on your point of view. So, pick your tale:



I. During a very cold winter in Milan's Porta Nuova (I like this, my old stomping grounds)...a family of white birds took refuge in a courtyard of a palazzo.  The father could not find food due to the cover of fallen snow.  It kept right on snowing, so the father bird decided to fly out of the snowstorm looking for food.  Before he left, he settled the mother & three baby birds near a smokestack for warmth.  Able to return only after the storm had passed (3 days), he found his family black with soot.  The sun came out in February, marking the end of winter, but by then even the papa bird had turned black and from then on, blackbirds were born.


II.  ...It was so cold that the family - unable to even flap their wings - perched its nest atop the smokestack.  Finally, after three days they could fly away - but by that time the white birds had turned black, and from that point on, the blackbird came to be.

III.  This version becomes more dark (in tutti sensi):  The papa bird left his family inside the chimney, and went out to search for food.  Upon his return, finding his mate all black, he didn't recognize her and left.  She died of hunger.

IV.  Two young blackbirds return to the hometown of the young female in order to marry, situated beyond the Po River.  Afterwards, once they left for home, back over the river, it got to be too late and too cold.  So they spent two days more nearby with relatives.  On the third day, their next attempt, it was so cold that the male died -- and that's why today you can still hear the lament of the female along the Po river each end of January.

One astute blogger reported the actual temperature indications.  In fact, they found that:  
The average temperature of the three days in question is 3.6 degrees celsius, while the average of all of January is 2.8 degrees.  At nearly 1 degree more, it "proves" that legends and tall tales are just that, indeed.  

Nonetheless, be sure to throw an extra blanket on your bed just to be sure...

Friday, January 24

Bridgegate, Rubygate, and a new word in the Italian lexicon

I admit it, I have been fully relishing in the day by day revelations of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's alleged bullying rampage.  Only Illinois seems to be more corrupt, and we won't get into a Chicago / New Orleans showdown.  But what I can't tolerate is the moniker most of the press have haplessly attached to a scandal about a bridge:  BridgeGate.  It makes my skin crawl just to type the word.  Must we be condemned to add the suffix -Gate to every scandal that crosses our collective radar?  By now, most people interested in the news have no idea what or why this is.  I can just imagine dictionaries today, adding this suffix to the list of possible word endings.  I can see foreigners the world over scratching their heads, "Those are toll lanes, not gates!" or "Monica-Gate? How many people was she bonking?"

While in an Italian language forum one woman cast her plea out into the world..."Can someone please tell me what is Watergate?!"  A few years ago, the online press, Il Post took it on themselves to explain, in no uncertain terms, the bizarre practice with the Italian press, posting this headline:  Why all scandals are called Gate.

But what is an even more audacious commentary on American marketing prowess, is the fact that even Italian scandals sport the Gate ending, which always makes me wonder if they pronouce it, Gah-teh; which confuses them more than ever.  Rubygate / Batman-Gate / Sexy-Gate (the scandal covered in "Vesuvian sauce") -- they even relished in New York City Mayor's eating his pizza in true Italian style, with a fork = Fork-gate.  

I need to take a break because I am writhing in pain.

But, it didn't start with the Italians.  If I am to trust my web sources (hah!), it is the fearful English-hegemony French that started it all in the first place.  In 1978, a scandal broke which was quickly dubbed, Winegate.  From there, it was a slippery slope straight down to the bottom.  Today, we are treated to Hollande-Gate or Gayet-Gate.  Help me.  Please.  Someone.  Anyone.  Although I must say, European "Gate" scandals tend to be more associated with sex scandals than with corruption.  Maybe because they're more used to brushing off the bribes?

When will another scandal be so great as to stop the gate verbage cold?  Enron - Madoff - Parmalat. Parmalat was the largest financial scandal in history.  Berlusconi's Ruby Heartstealer could be called Rubyalat (which just happens to rhyme with "a lot") or Hollande's First-Lady problems would be Premier Dame-alat?  Anything but Gate.  

For those of you who don't know what, in reality, Watergate even stands for, it was the name of the hotel complex situated on the Potomac where President Nixon's guys broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters.  

Recently, the President of Rome's regional government found a bug in his office underneath a chair, which garnered almost no mention in the press.  Most of Berlusconi's convictions rest upon wire-tapping of his inner circle and his adversaries alike. People don't think twice anymore.  It's no wonder that Gate may be here to stay.  Aiuto.


Sunday, January 19

Life in Italy: Paradise in a Handbasket?

Friends & I got to reminiscing about the good ol' days of Life in Italy.  Basically, my building in the center of Milan had been bombed by the Allies.  But my staircase survived, which is how my neighbor - living high up on what I counted as the ninth floor (and what Italians unabashedly called the fourth) rushed her kids out of the building and over to safety.  You see, I have a theory:  When they rebuilt the building, the other three stairwells were outfitted with elevators.  Ours was not.  And while I cursed each and every time I came home from a trip to the USA with two over-stuffed suitcases filled with goodies, or every time (make that three times per day), I had to go out and walk my dog, well, I was better for it.  And so was my neighbor lady who lived to the beyond-ripe ol'age, actually, totally mature one of over 116. The woman upstairs from us (on floor 9 1/2 by my count), was still going strong last time I saw her at 97. With her rosy cheeks and strong countenance, I had always assumed her 70+ year old son was her husband.  There were no other old people in any other part of the building.  Case in point. 
But, what would I have given for one of those old-fashioned Italian baskets and pulleys that I could have used to hoist my bottled water up those nine floors all those years?  We had a tiny drugstore just below.  I would have pledged my unbridled allegiance at the expense of paying three times more for my groceries, if the grocer could have blithely given a tug week after week. Heck--I would've put my old dog in the basket rather than force him up the staircase of doom.  We still even had the pulleys in place.  [Although I'm glad I didn't, he lived to be 20 in the end].
An old Panaro - or wicker basket used for groceries
still in use in Italy's south - and still necessary everywhere else
- picture & excellent Italian writeup on this & more at
Le Mille e Una Storia - 
So a friend here in Rome then told me that her building still had one of these.  One so strong you could actually put a person inside [but who's going to do the heavy lifting, well, that's another story].  I was totally green with envy.  In Milan, we had outlawed the hanging of laundry on balconies.  The baskets I'm sure went out around about the time they decided to asphalt the glorious canals that had made Milan look more like Amsterdam.  The noisy old trams have their days numbered while Milan grows ever more modern.
Call me nostalgic, I for one, would love to bring the canals & the baskets back to Milan, along with the breadmakers or panettieri from whom the basket gets its name.  
Milano - Then & Now

You can join the Association lobbying for the reopening of Milan's 
amazing canal system here
Riaprire i Navigli


Wednesday, January 15

Working in Italy - What NOT to do

People who accuse me of picking on Italy usually think I really dig for the dirt.  I usually respond with the fact that most of my information comes from Italian newspapers, conversations with taxi drivers, men-in-the-coffee-bars, that sort of thing.  But I nearly spat out my cappuccino today reading about a "new phenomenon" that has crossed the radar screens of HR personnel across the Boot.  That's because, not only have I experienced this since 1992, the situation will be one excerpt on my forthcoming book about doing business in Italy.  The article dealt with the delicate situation on how to handle mamma or papà accompanying their precious bambino on the job interview.
From an excellent blog post from Flown & Grown
in which I discover that in this brave new world of helicopter parents
that this is not necessarily a wholly Italian phenomenon
I used to warn my staff when hiring in Italy, when I ran a small subsidiary for an American multinational, was...to kindly decline the interview for anyone who's mother called for the appointment. I once got a mamma on the phone who took umbrage at my suggestion that...If La Mamma had to make their appointment, I didn't want that person as my employee. She did what any mother would do - she stuck up for her brilliant salesman son.  She upbraided me, telling me that her son "could not be expected to make the calls himself from his current employment, now could he?" (In his/her defense, it was the age before ubiquitous mobile phones).  I offered that he had a lunch break, didn't he?  
Mammas & Papàs would often be waiting in my waiting room, or in the hallway just outside the door.  I would have to commend the moral support vibe and sheer commitment, but it often left me bewildered more than bewitched by the candidate's drive. The article went one further, citing that some people in the hospitality industry, actually had the parent walk into the interview altogether.
Mamma out of the room, these same people then said that the next faux pas was to ask, almost immediately, how much the job paid.  Again, in my tiny little office world, this happened time and again.  You should see the look on their faces when I would respond, "Absolutely nothing.  Or at least, that's what I'll be paying you if you don't first tell me why I should hire you in the first place, and what you're going to do for me."
If cellphones had been handy at the time, I could just see these kids texting away as if in the university exams room, desperate to emote the correct reply.  Today, they probably ask for a 'Life Line' and make the call to the parent out in the car, anyway.
In the U.S., according to Flown & Grownnow we have Take your parent to work day! You can read about one mom's misgivings on the topic which I share wholeheartedly.  Of course, it's easy for me to come down so hard - I don't have kids.  But still...With Italians living longer than ever, and parents around til kids are in their 70s, I can't help but think why that youth unemployment is over 50%.


Check out my latest post on Irreverent Italy!
Life in a tourist destination...
http://irreverentitaly.blogspot.it/2014/01/italian-phonetic-language-after-all.html

Wednesday, January 8

In Italy, a child...by any other name...

Will still poop its pants. 
That Italy is a male-chauvinist society is fairly common knowledge. I often bring into the blog the latest in keeping women well-heeled & childless in their monster SUVs [after all, going barefoot even in summer is barbaric, and pregnant? No one can afford kids anymore].  But in the name game, as one commentator told the press, Italy isn't in the 20th century, they're in the 1800s.  Well, as of today, all that changed.  Thanks to a dynamic couple from Milan, who refused to take "No" for an answer when told that their child could not bear the mother's last name. [For purposes of this post, I'll ignore the obvious - that even women's last names eventually lead back to a patriarch somewhere].
An Italian friend who had four kids 40 years ago with the woman who would become his life partner, was told that because they were unmarried, he would have to list on the birth certificate, 'Padre Sconosciuto' - Father Unknown.  Fast forward to our Milanese couple in 2012, and they were told that their offspring, if the were to sport the mom's name, would have to be listed the same way.  Outraged, and with the rest of the world on their side, they took their case to the European Union - and won.
Not so long ago, Italians decided that women could, indeed, change their own names.  But the laws drew the line on the kids.  I always liked the fact that women kept their own last names in Italy - but I've seen plenty of times, when the father is not part of their lives, how strange it is for the kids and their mom to have different identities altogether.  Gladly, that's not the norm.
So, Italy, one hyphen at a time, is allowing for names to be joined, for women to take their partner's last names, for children to take hers.  The last bastion is, in naming them strangely like Wednesday Addams, or Apple and such.  In one instant, and I believe it was a person who wanted to call their kid Adolf Hitler, or something like that, the judges intervened and refused to allow the name to go through. 
Moreover, middle names still cause problems.  I was actually not admitted to hospital once because I had filled out all the forms in the spaces provided: LAST NAME / FIRST NAME. Not thinking of my (largely unused) middle name.  When they took one look at my i.d. card, they said I'd have to start all over from scratch, months away, in order to get admitted properly.  I took the papers out of their hands and swiftly added my middle name to them...offering politely, that I had no idea what they were on about.
What would the Italians have done if they had gone the route of the Spaniards, and offered up a half dozen last names for every child birth?  Most of whom hail from the matriarchal side of the family?  I shudder to think of the bureaucracy that would ensue.

A few more fun posts on the Name Games of Italy:
Italian Name Origins
How (not) to correct your dual last names 
Fun Italian names

Monday, January 6

Branding la Befana

Today, I am not having an Epiphany - busy celebrating in Rome with an all-you-can eat brunch with my coven of friendly friends...I therefore reprise my annual Epiphany post!
Today is the celebration of the Epiphany. Or rather, it’s the day the old kitchen witch brings gifts for good kids or fills stockings with coal for the naughty ones. And traditionally, this has been the Big Day for little kids, up until not very long ago when Good St. Nick finally overtook her market share. After all, who could make it against a rosy-cheeked guy with reindeer and elves? Even though I thought La Befana might make a comeback post-Harry Potter, with her broomstick and all.

But, I think La Befana’s image issue is actually representative of a deep-seated marketing problem which besets all of Italy.  Sure, everyone associates Italy with beautiful things, fast cars, and Pavarotti’s voice, but luxury goods aside, the Italians still haven’t quite caught the hang of brand imaging for everything else. Think about it: Jolly ol' St. Nick? Although originally hailing from Myrna (by some sources), he became Italian and gained sainthood there after all.  And yet, the guy’s gift-giving habit will forever more be associated with Laplanders and the North Pole. All because of shrewd branding by the guys who gave us Nokia [although it was Antonio Meucci or even Innocenzo Manzetti who actually invented the telephone].  Heck, even Google owes its engine to an Italian inventor.

Take our long-nosed Befana, for example:

A scary old gift-bearing witch is the figure they chose to symbolize the arrival of the Three Wise Men…and to announce that God had come forth in the body of Jesus? My friend’s son here for a visit couldn’t sleep all night – not from anticipation, but from abject fear. Those wily Olde Englishmen - the forefathers of our mass-advertising execs -- already defying the Church with their divorce decrees, caught on to this story, and rebranded her for Halloween. And now trick or treating has taken Europe by a storm.

[And dare I mention what happened to her when she reached America? Having already turned Halloween into practically a 2-month event including movies, Harry Potter book launches, yard decorations fit for MGM, haunted houses and so many costumes there actually exists a Dept of Halloween in China, it then took the witch, put her in the kitchen so she could stay (and they could sell her) year round.]

And those poor Sicilians steeped in tradition? They didn’t even get the scary witch and her treats to look forward to. Those kids only get 'I Morti', that night between Nov 1st and 2nd when they would be visited by dead relatives in the night. In the morning (if they hadn’t died of fright from boogeymen), they’d find scattered about the balconies or windowsills chestnuts, almonds, nuts, and dried up figs. It’s no wonder the practice never quite took off in the rest of the world despite centuries of migration to and occupation from dozens of other countries.
Branding, my dear Watsonini. Branding.

**For more on our beloved Befana...Click Here