Friday, August 31

Driving in Italy: Your Midnight Run

The one great thing about staying in the city thru August is the lack of traffic. What usually takes 45 mins on a good day (plus another 20 to find parking), becomes a swift 15 mins in the summer. But, while one might think that with fewer cars, driving is actually in some way better or safer, think again. Because it’s during the lonely month of summer, when everyone starts running the red lights, pulling U-turns when you least expect it, and driving at top speeds that, even if they managed to see you in their path, they wouldn’t be able to stop their vehicle in time to miss you.

So, actually, while with the heavy traffic you can be sure that people are sort of lulled into obeying the traffic rules, in August, anything goes. I make it a point (in August) of never ever running a yellow as it’s about to change -- because I know there is an entire fleet of motor scooters and cars already jumping the green on the other side.

And if that’s not enough, in an attempt to make everyone cautious, at midnight (year round), all the lights start flashing yellow. This is actually an excellent idea. Somewhere down the line, someone clued into the idea that at night, with very little traffic, people were running the reds and making the guys who innocently sped through the greens a statistic.

But, the idea would be a bit better if they were yellow on one side and perhaps flashing red on the other side. So, one knew or, in the very least, believed, that the other guy has to stop before throwing his 2000lb vehicle into oncoming traffic. And if they ran the red, at least it’d be a lot clearer to the police who was at fault for not stopping.

So, basically with both sides flashing yellow, instead of making everyone cautious, the effect turns out to be the exact opposite. No macho guy (or gal) worth his salt is going to look like the jerk who actually slowed down, of all things. Intersections turn into a free for all game of cat and mouse, except it looks a bit more like Tom&Jerry [actually, I think it’s a bit more like Wyle E. Coyote and the roadrunner—but without the Acme instant spring kit on the wheels of your car].

In short, while racing through the streets of Rome is wonderful during the day, at midnight it’s not the Werewolves you need to fear, it’s the Formula 1 Wannabees.

Wednesday, August 29

Eurostar: A trip for all Senses

I admit it: I have wild fantasies over Giugiaro, the designer from Pininfarina (of Porsche fame), the man behind Italy’s “high speed” EuroStar trains: I am a frequent traveler on them, usually 4 or 5 times per week. As I ride them, he fills my every thought. But not out of sheer lust.

In fact, not a trip goes by that I don’t dream of the day that I could take that architect, strap him to a seat, and have him ride his high-design trains day in, day out. And get an idea of how it truly feels to be inside a beautiful Eurostar train. Oh, he can even ride in first class. For ‘certi versi’ it’s even worse than 2nd. The experience would, once and for all, serve to convince at least one designer in the world that Form over Function is not a good thing. But in a country where ‘la bella figura’ trumps all hands, well, not less can be expected.

If nothing else, I’d like to suggest my own expedient: how about simply renaming the ubiquitous ES to AG? AG after Abu Ghraib – that way, at least, riders will know what to expect.

The Eurostar, with its wide seats and sleek design is excellent; superior in fact, to the ones where they were invented: the cramped and dirty and uncomfortable French trains. But, the comfort stops there.

You sit in your seat, but, if you’re a woman, or if you decide on any other position in the chair other than the straight-seated one, well, the chairs begin to make the electrical chair preferable by comparison. So, you close your eyes to forget your pains? You have a line of fluorescent lights shining in them; so strong they even penetrate your blinders (a must on any train trip). There is no peace. Again, you think, ‘if only I could reveal all my state secrets’ -- for sure that might turn off these lights. I now hope to find seats where they are mercifully burned out.

Uncomfortable and blinded, you can’t get any shut–eye anyway: the announcements for eating, drinking, lateness (a daily occurrence) and whatnot, broadcasted in a volume to wake the dead, are incessant. And, in the pauses in between? Don’t worry, your head will be numbed by the shutters that shake, rattle and roll; jarring your every thought and of course, putting out any conversation you might be willing to have -- even with yourself. I have taken to riding in 2nd class, just to avoid going deaf by the shaking shutters.

So, with your sense of touch, sight and hearing underway, the final coup de grace is the smell. The cleaning squads love to post their first-world notes declaring boldly, ‘this bathroom has just been cleaned’, but, on numerous occasions I have entered the bathrooms soon thereafter only to find them covered in excrement of the highest order.
The cleaners simply pour gallons and gallons of putrifying cleaning liquids with a smell so powerful that I grab a barf-bag when the corridor doors open and in wafts another barrage. I spend most of the trip looking like a Taliban's wet dream: wrapped up in a kind of Burkha, except my head and eyes are completely covered; a winter coat wrapped tightly around my legs due to the sub-zero temps, a scarf around my face as if I am an avian flu carrier...The germ-paranoid Japanese take one look at me and immediately change cars. Don't they do this to prisoners on Guantanamo?

What's left? Ahhh..taste. While the food on the ES (I mean AG) trains is outstanding, the prices have risen to Four Seasons levels. I used to eat 4 or 5 meals a week years ago… Post-euro, I haven’t eaten a meal on board in over 4 years. But, if you happen to take an early train anywhere, ‘caveat emptor’: the hot tea and coffee has a bit of a metallic taste to it. Why? The litres of chlorine they pour into the water at the beginning of each trip. Great. I thought Chlorine was used to disinfect swimming pools or, at these levels, even killed people.

Glad to see the new spiffy design of the fantabulous EuroStar. Maybe someday someone will finally take into consideration the passengers and not the politicians.

Tuesday, August 28

A Word from the Brits

Recently, an article made the headlines ‘round the world of the best & worst sites to visit according to Virgin UK. And, while the conclusion was obvious – if you follow the crowds you’ll always be disappointed – even I had to agree, that the Eiffel Tower & Times Square were pretty big letdowns, especially if you go to either place for New Year’s Eve (I have). What caught the Italians by surprise, is that three of their sites made the top 10. So, just to sort of compare notes with my Caveat Emptor column on the left, well, I couldn’t agree more.

The MUST SEE list included Venice’s Grand Canal. While the expense of riding up and down it is approaching UK congestion tax fees (with the current horrid exchange rate), I must say, I have never ever been even tempted to pick up my newspaper or a book whenever I’m on a ferry boat riding the Grand Canal. If you do, you feel like your ripping off your very own senses.

On the list of disappointments, the Spanish Steps came in at number 6. And, while they’re not much to look at, they make a great place for people-watching, even though, you’re probably being watched even more by all the pickpockets roaming around there. What’s really worth having a look at there, though, is the McDonald’s. I was around when it first opened in 1986—they had to make it conform to the beauty of the square (even though the Micky D’s smell stlll was intentionally pumped out into the square – you should have heard the retailers’ protests way back when!). Well – with its mosaics and fountains and ceramic tiles, to this day, I still want to hang a banner down the front of it, alà Greenpeace, which declares, “Real McDonalds don’t look like this.”

My BIG disappointment, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, came in at number 10. And, while it’s loads of fun to take those pictures which look like you’re holding it up, can’t you do that nowadays with Photoshop?

But, incredibly, even Leonardo made the ranking. At number two of the disappointments, was the Louvre – now, I think that’s a bit of British envy – the problem there is the crowd, and, anathema to the Brits, the fact that one must actually pay a King’s Ransom to see the Emperor’s treasures. But, the Mona Lisa a big letdown?

I must say, the first time I saw it, behind a crowd of people and under plexiglass, I didn’t even stop to try and see it. But, now that it has its very own room, well, I think it’s all about expectations. Clearly, people thought it would be who knows what, when in fact, it’s just a simple portrait that even Leonardo didn’t complete until years after the sitting.
In short, it’s when you get off the very beaten path, well, you will be amazed at every turn in the road and what you’ll find on every hilltop. And, if you stop for lunch, well, you will never be disappointed. Except, I’d say, in Venice.

To see my lists of great sights or sites to avoid, just click the link.

Monday, August 27

Baby on Board

As the Italians pile into their cars to head home from their month of repose, they all follow the same tradition: pile the luggage in the trunk, the mother-in-law in the back, and the baby, right up front in mamma’s arms. If they’re little enough, and papà's bored enough on the long drive, sometimes, as a car passes at 90mph, I look over to see baby actually standing on papà's lap, hands held firm on the steering wheel, everyone all a-smiles.

Obviously, the Italians feel (despite the statistics to the contrary) that their children are immune to decapitation-by-airbag or other atrocities that could occur in case of the most minor fender bender; in a country in which fender benders are often fatal. For them, this simply does not pose a life-threatening situation (unlike those of air currents, wet hair and bare feet in the house). Well, I’ve sort of made this my personal crusade. As mothers strap their kids in the front seats, I generally poke my head in the window (I confess: I am a ficanaso - an unrepentant busybody) and remind them of their folly.

The reactions I receive run the gamut of MYOB from a modest, ‘bug off’ to today’s insult, “may you and your dog be decapitated first.” I wanted to remind the mother that I was not the one with my head posed directly in front of a missile that will fire at 280 km/hour…but, she sped off before I could tell her as much.
Instead of seeing that they are literally playing Russian roulette with a loaded air bag, even friends who go to great lengths to put their kids in harm’s way whilst at the wheel -- while taking all kinds of precautions whilst indoors-- will inform you that you are simply being an over-protective American… This, from a society that fears a bogeyman will take their children’s lives should they even pass by an open window on a hot summer’s day.

I have finally, however, figured out the illogic (of their reaction to me, not of their action in the first place--that will forever remain a mystery): Italy, although a “Catholic” country (quotes intentional), has a populace whose beliefs sway from the superstitious to the absolute surreal. So, when someone says, “Watch Out! You may get killed or, hurt, or worse,” well, they view it as if you have just put a curse on them. Of course, rather than take the precautions to ward off precisely that threat, they just touch their balls (if they have them…the Italian version of ‘knock on wood’) and carry on. Thus the reaction of the drivers in question.

The encounters usually end with me looking at the car as it runs off, ATTENZIONE: Bebe A Bordo signs posted carefully in back – a 21st century talisman -- warning other drivers they better be careful because they have a baby in the front seat, no seatbelt. I dream of the ad campaign in which those test dummies fly around a car at top speed, and the fact that the Italians wouldn’t even have to invent the ad; they’re so good at dubbing, they could just copy it…
And the mothers with their little bundles of joy? They speed off, babies secure in their laps, but, even if the car has no A/C, windows closed tight to ward off certain death from the air currents.

Thursday, August 23

Life in Italy: Rules to Live By

After their primal fear of Air (see Posting below), the Italians, I have found, also have an incredible fear of Water. And, if you want to throw into the pot the fact that the entire country is burning endlessly from heel to hamstrings due to the sex-crazed pyromaniacs lighting it ablaze, one might even come to the conclusion that over here, the three basic elements of life are a sort of unwanted necessity; good for making pasta, but bad if you have any more intimate contact with them.
I try to go to the pool every day. When I leave the gym, however, heads turn – and not because I in any way resemble Marilyn Monroe or Paris Hilton for that matter. People stop what they’re doing to stare, as if I had gotten out of the shower and simply forgotten to put my clothes on.
They gawk and, even old ladies will stop me on the street to tell me what I already know: my hair is wet. Actually, damp, but let’s not get caught up in syntax.
I have very short, thin, hair. Which means, in the usual 90 degree heat, it’s pretty much bone dry before I’ve crossed the gym parking lot. But for some reason, another Italian paranoia has been passed down by centuries of nonnine (little grandmothers), generation to generation, that, one must never ever leave the house with wet hair. Even in summer. You will probably catch your death (from what, no one seems to know).
I think back on those carefree summer days growing up in Michigan, pool hopping in the dead of night, riding bicycles to the lake and back, riding in cars to the beach, top down, my (long) wet hair blowing in the wind. And to think, I even lived to tell about it.
I cannot for the life of me figure out why I should, after swimming in chemicals, further damage my already-chemical dyed hair, by blowing it dry before going out in the burning sunlight. In fact, my hair dries so fast, I don’t even own a blow dryer (which, just to confuse newcomers, they call a Phon). But, come to think of it, if you’ve ever gone to an Italian beach, there they sit, thousands of people under umbrellas, guarding themselves from that other life-sustaining basic element, the Sun.

Monday, August 20

Hot Time...Summer in the City (III)

I’ll never forget my Italian great-aunt, and how she would spend the dark cold days of winter, pining away for that first glimpse of summer sun. Only to spend the summer, sitting in the dark, windows closed and shutters, well, shut.
During the days, the Italians smartly shut the shutters in order to keep the intense heat from coming indoors. But in the evening, when things cool down to 75 degrees outside and 90 degrees inside, they shut the shutters all the same. Because ‘out there’ lurks something more insidious than a peeping tom or more dangerous than a rapist or burglar. Air.

The Italians’ fear of air (or, air currents, more precisely) is legend. In the heat of a summer night, the mere mention of, ‘why don’t we crack a window?’ causes them to spring up on cue and lock down the house as if preparing for a monsoon. Heated discussions ensue. In Italy, it is not religion, sex or politics you should not mention at the table (all are freely discussed and debated with relish); but mention opening a window in blistering heat, and all hell breaks loose.

One sweltering evening at a friend’s, a baby was overheating so much, his entire body turned scarlet, but the mamma refused to even crack a window for fear of immediate death by contact. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, I imagined the baby would simply have melted not from heat, but from the cool air that would have wafted in.

Even on buses or unairconditioned trains in the midday heat, one by one, like life-sized Jack-in-the-boxes, the Italians will spring up and shut those windows, no matter how insignificantly they were cracked open to begin with. Italy’s public transport is nothing short of a war zone; waged at the windows between the hardy foreigners and the feeble locals time and again.

One Herald Tribune reporter surmised that the Italians’ fear of air goes back to the Bubonic Plague -- when an open window or a breeze really meant ‘catching your death of a cold’ (note: last known mass outbreak 1900). The Italians even have an expression for what happens when your body (or neck) freezes up from a draft: “colpo d’aria”, or ‘hit by air’. But as for me, although the more modern versions of the Plague-- Sars, Ebola or even Shanghai flu- may eventually prove me wrong, I’ll take my chances and keep on sleepin’ the whole night through, windows wide open.

Saturday, August 18

Hot Time..Summer in the City (II)

WARNING: from the Italian Consumer Reports (2007): Aria condizionata e salute
Raffreddori in piena estate, mal di gola, occhi irritati, torcicollo, a volte gravi infezioni batteriche: l'aria condizionata può causare questi e altri disturbi. Per evitarli, sono sufficienti una regolazione adeguata della temperatura e una manutenzione corretta e costante dell'impianto.
WARNING: AC & Your Health -- Colds in the thick of summer heat, sore throats, stiff necks, grave bacterial infections; all caused by AC. To avoid risk, simply keep the temperature at avg levels & keep your unit properly maintained.

While this summer is a scorcher, it will not go down in history as the infamous one a few years back when even the thermometers were waving white flags. It was the summer that Italians discovered U.S.-style weather reporting: factoring in the heat with humidity temperature, rather than giving us the straight numbers. It was also the year they brought in an American import previously thought to be so insidious that only the most obscene even had them in their automobiles (but not in their homes or offices): air-conditioning.

Yes, that was the summer in which Italians – in a sort of mass brainwashing – collectively overcame their primordial Fear of the Air Conditioner – all 60 million of them. 2.1M units were sold that summer compared to 950,000 just 3 years previously.

Up to then, Italians would exchange their war stories of having visited the U.S. in the summer and been met with the ‘cold showers’ one gets when leaving the sidewalk and entering a sub-degree store in New York City. And how, each one of them got every sort of illness because of our overuse of the A.C. And even worse, how it then lead to sore throats, then bronchitis, and God-knows-what other viruses that were lurking in the AC ducts of their hotels, just waiting for attack.

Before that summer, you’d be surprised to find how “broken” ACs in taxi cabs were at epidemic proportions. Even in the spanking new ones. If you managed to find one "working", the driver would keep the windows cracked just to be sure the air never was too too cold. Clearly, they were being driven more by their fear of the AC itself over their fear of gas consumption. But not that summer.
Suddenly, air conditioning units were sold out throughout the entire peninsula; fans could not be found from Sicily to Brussels; brownouts were rife. And, funny thing, no one got sick from their AC blowing like the wind. The articles condemning the use of cold air disappeared from the front pages of newspapers.

In fact, the only ones to die that summer were the ones who did not have the luxury of that purely American symbol of largess. They were the fallen heroes of the last battalions of a battle raging since the '50s: a battle for the very soul of the 'Sunshine State'.

Friday, August 17

Hot Time..Summer in the City (I)

Well, summer has finally come to Rome, with its scorching hot 90 degree days; hot enough not only to fry an egg on the sidewalk, but to fry your own frittata – with onion.

As if Global Warming wasn’t enough, I suspect that City officials in Italy contribute more to heat stroke and their populace's suffering than anyone or anything on earth (and I don't mean the steam the politicians blow off time and again)...

Forget the CO2 emissions and cow gas and icecaps melting – for some odd reason, cities throughout the country think it’s a banner idea to make their sidewalks out of black tar.

Granted, it’s easier to dig up now and again - a regular feature of the Italian cityscape - as they lay wires and more wires and even more in order to get on and then stay on the Information Superhighway.
Here, however, they've taken that highway concept a bit too literally.

Haven't they noticed how Vespas list just before sinking into the sidewalk as if mistakenly parked in quicksand? Or, how women can actually walk right out of their shoes as their heels get stuck right in their melting path? I know of what I speak.

The heat emanating from the sidewalks is palpable long after the sun has disappeared. I imagine that, if someone really checked, they’d find that this is the number one reason for temperature rises throughout the country.

Milan used to be, like Amsterdam still is, a city of canals. Once they decided to pave them over with bricks, it was downhill from there. Now completely tarred, I have oft been tempted to toss broken glass in the melting tar at least to make it sparkle a bit. Sometimes, when walking my dog, I feel that I am sort of slowly braising him from the paws up.

It was no wonder that up until very recently, people parked willy-nilly on the sidewalks just as on the streets. Drivers would simply ‘pull up’ on the sidewalk to make a phone call, dash in for a quick espresso at the bar, grab a prescription at the pharmacy. It didn’t really matter where you left the car. The sidewalk was merely an extension of the road you had just been on.

And, that’s to say nothing for the aesthetics. One comparison between Milan and Rome and you can see how inviting it is to sit down at a sidewalk café where the sidewalks aren’t actually just an extension of the kitchen ovens.

All I know is that whoever came up with the expression, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get outta the kitchen’ has never left the restaurant altogether to be served out on the sidewalk.

Wednesday, August 15

August in Italy: Closed for Vacation

Well, today is the most holy day in all of Italy, if not all Catholic Europe. It is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and, it is observed by everyone, even moreso than Christmas. Of course, that’s not to say the modern Catholics still practice the rites of their forefathers; with church services and animal sacrifices.
No here, Ferragosto is celebrated as the holy day of Vacation; a day at the beach or of huge feasts with all the family. Counting the number of people I found in church (19 octogenarians), well, you see what I mean. I had gone to my favorite spot in Rome where there is a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary – I would have paid homage, but, it was closed in observance of the holiday.
In fact, it’s the time when cities literally empty out and everyone goes somewhere else. Rome’s city center still bustles with tourists, but, one step away, you’d be hard-pressed to buy a loaf of bread or even quench your thirst.
Last night, saying goodbye to a friend after drinks, I looked around and noticed ours were the only two cars in the entire parking lot—and on the roads. It was joyous. Home in under 10 mins. whereas in September that same trek will transform into a 30 min. ordeal.
I’ll never forget when an American friend, turning 50, packed everything up and decided to move to Milan. Problem was, she arrived on August 14th. She said she thought she had landed in the middle of the set of a ‘B’ horror flick: it appeared that a neutron bomb had been dropped, leaving all the buildings standing but all forms of life totally vaporized.
In fact, for survival, you could only count on an obscure law passed during WWII: that bread shops could not remain closed for more than three days running. But still, you had to drive out to the highway just to get gas.
Milan has gone to great lengths to change all this, and now, supermarkets, banks, museums and even some shops are open for business. But, more than any City ruling, the biggest factor in changing people’s habits was the entrance of Italy into the Euro zone. Since then, the cost of living has gone up (by some estimates, bread is up over 60%, basic foodstuffs, 140% and gas reaching stratospheric heights); simply put, people just can’t afford to go away.
So now, while cities boast of the (relatively) brisk August business, it’s because we’re all sort of stranded, like castaways on a remote island.
But for me, I hope the August tradition never quite vanishes entirely – I simply stock up the pantry, put on my rollerblades, and, wondering what Mary might think, enjoy my holiday.

Saturday, August 11

Chi, Cosa, Dove, Quando e Perche’??

Picking up a newspaper in any country is actually a sort of wonderful trip into its pathos. In Italy, newspapers are like those brain-teasers you did as a kid. No wonder their elderly are so sprite, they work their brains on the morning daily.
To get into the read, first, you must decide on which ‘bent’ your supposedly objective editors are taking (right, left, center, communist, capitalist, you name it).
Then, just skimming the headlines often tells you the entire story.
But, if you are fearless enough to delve right in, you’ll find that they will have none of the famous 5Ws-in-the-1st paragraph-style of writing. No, in Italy you must don your best Sherlock Holmes cap and try to figure out the who-dunnit for yourself. This, due to the fact that every single story, right down to a common break-in, will usually have political repercussions and a half a dozen conspiracy theories to go right along with it.
This week’s big story is that they’re losing thousands of bags a day at Rome’s airport. Ask the employees, it’s because they’re under-staffed and overwhelmed. But, two weeks on, the headlines scream of ‘Sabotage!’. Funny though, after putting in 80 more workers, the story and the problem has died down.
And, dare you step into the middle of a long-running story, well, you will never get those tedious summations you find in American reporting (now…what crime did OJ commit, again?). Sometimes, it’s just easier to go to the bar, and openly ponder, ‘so, what is it that happened here?’ And, depending on the political bent of the clientele, you can feast on a smorgasbord of responses; each one with its own conspiracy theory to boot. But to come to (your own) conclusion, you must read on and on and then, read between those same lines in order to ascertain if Mr. Mostarda did it in the Cucina with a Candelabra.

Thursday, August 9

Highway Robbery

Last week, they arrested a group of people who they had been tracking for the longest time: their crime? Ingeniously, they took photos of speeding cars on the highway, issued very realistic if not identical speeding tickets, and waited for the money to roll in.
Now, if people actually went ahead and paid the tickets, our criminals really would have been rolling in the dough. But instead, although their takings were fairly limited, money was still coming into their coffers.
The Italians are nothing if not ingenious and enterprising. With all the rules and regulations that abound here, well, getting around them simply takes sheer wit. And, if you ask me, there should be some sort of clemency program whereby, the more ingenious the crime, the lesser the punishment. Sort of like hackers who go in, cause trillions in damages, and end up with a fabulous new job at a major multinational corporation.
One crime demonstrated such genius, I was seriously disappointed I hadn’t thought of it myself. One night in Naples, thieves actually built an exact replica of an ATM Cash machine, signs and all. People stepped up, inserted their codes, and the card was eaten due to ‘technical difficulties’. Not an unlikely occurrence, they simply stepped away.
Later that day, the thieves would take all the cards with all the codes to a real cash machine and withdraw as much as they could. At 250 euro max withdrawal, they couldn’t take out oodles of money, but hey, I think they get an ‘A’ for effort. Absolute brilliance.
They have other more ingenious crimes which rake in much more, usually at the expense of the elderly and infirm. And for these crimes, I would never take exception: people who dress up as police or utilities people, get into the house, spray the unsuspecting victim with chloroform and take everything they have. The practice is so prevalent, they could start their own worker’s union. Or, even people who befriend the slightly dotty Signora, and then make off with her life’s savings. No, for these crimes I would throw the book at ‘em.
I myself once fell for the new rule passed one year that forced us all to install smoke detectors. Not thinking like an Italian, I decided: well, sure…I better get one – it’s the law. So, when the two guys showed up with an official document, the unit in question and asked to install it for a mere $200, hey, I was all set. Until this summer, when my sister showed up with two battery-operated units straight from the dollar store to install in her vacation home.
But, as for the rest, we oftentimes have a good laugh over the sheer chutzpah – until, of course, we fall victim ourselves.

Wednesday, August 8

Driver's Ed

I admit it: I've been living in Italy for over 20 years, and, although I drive like a Formula1 expert, I don't have an Italian driver's license. This is not to thumb my nose at the system, the problem actually rests with the U.S.A. They don't accept Italians' licenses in America, so, the Italians don't accept ours. Both countries, however, don't have a problem allowing drivers from countries to tear up the roadways, coming from places where they don't even have cars on their roads; so go figure. But, really, I cannot see the logic. Italians make excellent drivers. In order to race all the others like a bat outta hell just to make the red light, through roundabouts and merges, and create four lanes where there is only one, all the while talking on the cell phone and dodging dozens of motor scooters, well, in my opinion takes excellent acumen and finesse. So, it's simply not true they "drive crazy". They combine skills, speed and defensive driving all in one and we should have more drivers in America like the Italians.  As a side bonus, they also don't usually practice the American phenomenon of Road Rage (although the Pope came out on this recently - see article under 'notizie' in side bar).

So, why don't I have a license? Whereas an Italian who goes to get a license in America spends all of about 2.5 hours in which they: stand in line, take the 15 question multiple-choice test, and go for a quick drive around the block, well, in Italy it's totally another matter: Read this entry from a friend who naively or bravely embarked on the road to driving legally in Italy:

So, you think buying a house in Italy is difficult? Try getting an Italian drivers license. There are two ways of going about this: legally or illegally. Illegally is a no-brainer. Simply pay 800 euros or more to the right person and get your license (maybe). It turns out there are many con artists, so this is a risky proposition to undertake.
Legally, is the great adventure of all adventures. You can: (1) do it on your own (not recommended) or (2) take a class.

Doing it on your own requires a Sherlock Holmes type personality. Lacking this trait, I elected to enroll in a class. Along with three other expats, we hired an Italian driving instructor to give us a class on the rules and regulations for obtaining a driver's license. The cost was 350 euros each. We met twice per week, two hours per session for almost four months.

During this time, our instructor discussed many things, most of which put me to sleep. I discovered that the Italian love of expressing oneself extends to their road signs, of which there are approximately 200. There are signs underneath signs, combinations of signs, and signs that tell you to ignore the other signs.

There are also human signs, called policemen. If the policeman is higher than the road sign, his directions take precedence. However, if he is of short stature, without a box to stand on, you may ignore him with impunity (referred to as the 'height makes might' standard). If you think the above is complicated, try to understand the 'right of way rule' -- without a Phd in mathematics.

This rule states, that at a junction without a stop or yield sign, the person on your right has the right of way. Sounds simple enough. However, what happens if you enter a junction with seven roads all merging together? (In Italy, these really do exist). Option one, you get out of your car, make a diagram, and have a group discussion on who has the right of way. Option two, he who has the fastest machine goes first, e.g., 'the tortoise and the hare rule'.

After 4 months of class, we were still unprepared to take the test. What we should have studied was the Test Question Manual, consisting of 3000 questions. Unfortunately, this manual, finally in English, was only in production for two weeks.
The written exam is taken at the Office of Motorizazzione in Rome. The first time I went, the computers broke down. The second time, I forgot my identification and was sent home. The third time, after waiting four hours, I was led into a small room with 20 other hopefuls. There were two proctors making sure answers were not being read off our shirt sleeves. We had 30 minutes to answer 30 questions. Sound straight forward? Nope.
In order to pass, you must think like an Italian. Major tip: opt out of the written exam and request the oral exam, available to all expatriates. Once you pass the exam, (you have three chances), you then register for the driving test (cost 94 euros). You take the test. You pass!!! Do you receive your drivers license? No. It must be printed. When? That's still a mystery. But you are now legal.
Paperwork Required: (1) Passport (2) Permesso di Soggiorno (Resident's Permit) (3) Carta d'Identità (I.D. card) (4) Driving School form (5) Eye exam (6) Bollo (or tax stamp available at some Tabacco shops) for taking test 7) 3 passport size photos

My copy of the English manual is available to the highest bidder.

Submitted by Linda Penzabene and Brian Rothbart, Albano Italy

Monday, August 6

Zebra Stripes

From where I sit, here in Bella Roma, we are undecidedly into an unprecedented phase of global warming, but, I’m not complaining. It hasn’t rained in months. Each day, you wake up to another beautiful blue sky. It’s simply gorgeous. But, I remember a few year’s back, when the mercury hit well over 100 degrees for weeks. That was the infamous summer when the French declared that 8000 people had perished prematurely due to the heat. And where, we all believed the figure to be much higher here in Italy, but nobody ever coughed up the statistic.
It was that summer, though, where an innocuous law was passed, that came in like an Arctic Breeze.
It was the law, in an attempt to protect much, if not all, of its citizenry, which dictated that cars would have to stop when pedestrians entered the crosswalk. And, as a dog-walker, well, you can imagine my elation. Visions of Swiss villages danced in my head. New worlds, new civilizations – a chance to go where no man had gone before. And, I tested it out to the max. In Milan, where pretty much drivers regard anything in motion (including other cars and even large long metal trams) as something not unsimilar to ducks in a shooting gallery, well, I would step off the curb, and cars would come screeching to a halt.
It was wonderful. Sublime. The power back to the people. After all, who came first, man or machine?
It was also far too good to be true. Like a mirage in the desert, before even the heat lifted, and as you focused your eyes, drivers realized that no one was really looking (except those lame two-legged pedestrians). And, with no cops to enforce it, well, it wasn’t long before Filipinos pushing wheelchairs, and mammas with strollers, were back at it – playing a life & death version of dodge’em cars.

Here in Rome, it’s gotten to the point where cars, in order to make their illegal left turns, actually take to driving DOWN the white lines as if they, too, were pedestrians; shaking their fists all the while at any of us who deign to challenge the maneuver. I’ve pulled my little dog out of harm’s way on countless occasions; only to look up to find insults being hurled at me from the front window.
I find it slightly amusing, and actually quite intelligent, that the crosswalk signals flash green for ‘go’, but, almost a split-second later, start flashing yellow. Basically, they’re the Italian version of the Brits' charming 'Look Left' painted on every curbside. Except here, we're being warned: cross at your own risk.

Today they repainted the crosswalks. That’s after conducting a study that found that drivers didn’t respect the crosswalks because basically, they couldn’t actually see them.
But on my busy corner, where, the newly installed cameras must have shown the atrocities being committed at every single light change, well, they determined it was better to just ‘not go there’ and repainted the crosswalk simply black.

Sunday, August 5

The Mamma State

I have received from all corners of the earth the article in which an 81 yr. old Sicilian mamma threw her 61 yr. old son out of the house and took away his meager stipend because he stayed out too late and didn’t tell her where he was going. Now, I’ve lived with an 81 yr. old (although I wasn’t on a stipend), and I can tell you, it ain’t easy…let alone, doing so for 61 years. So, fundamentally, I’m on his side.
But, while even the Italians had a hearty laugh over this grandiose display of mammoneism (that’s mamma’s-boyism), there is little here to laugh about in this country of mammones galore.
I could write chapters upon chapters of the mammone syndrome, and lots of ink has already been spent in the Western and even the Italian press on this most charming of peccadilloes of the Mediterranean culture. But, what’s more disconcerting are the recent developments in the Italian legal system, which has offered unadulterated (and some would say reprehensible) defense of this preposterous situation; mentally, emotionally and let’s say even physically unhealthy by anyone’s standards.
If our 61 yr. old Giovanni had pressed his case, the law would have reinstated him in the household, stipend and all, and reprimanded the mamma for essentially wanting more respect.
The Appeals Court recently stated that a 27 yr. old living at home was entitled to stay there forever, with a raise in his – for lack of a better word – allowance; because of course, in Italy, there are few jobs and prospects for this fully mature ragazzo. In another case, a divorced dad was forced to also pay child support to his 21 yr. old, up until the ‘kid’ found his way in the world.
Now with your very own live-in slave, clothes shopper, gourmet chef, housekeeper, and personal bank account for vacationing in the Maldives when you want to, I, too, would be hard-pressed to find my way out of the house and into this world. Let’s face it: flipping burgers at McDonalds, or even a banker’s job would be infinitely more laborious. And you wouldn’t find your underwear pressed and your bed made at the end of each working day, either.
But, by enforcing this mamma-state (formerly known as the nanny one, but no one can afford those anymore), the Italian courts are not helping poor Giovanni & Co. They are, in short, throwing the book directly at Italy; further exacerbating the europessimism, especially among the young, that there is no hope nor any future, so you might as well not even try. In their judicial zealotry, instead of helping progress, they instead defend their own kind (mammonas each and every one of them, I'm sure); condemning these 'deadbeat dads' for the crime of having actually gone out and made a living. In short, they carve their enlightened sanctions in the legal stone, and tell families (to the great satisfaction of all those mammas out there) that their little bundles of joy can remain so forever. These stone commandments are actually funerary epithets -- ultimately dictating that the Italian economy, if not the entire society, stays in diapers and crawls; never having to grow up and face the dark, brutal world of work and responsibility.
As for me, I’m looking into adoption—into an Italian family -- I wonder what kind of an allowance I could draw?

Friday, August 3

You Can't Make this Stuff Up

I offer you, dear readers, a sample Customer Service and Internet Account letter which I received when attempting to simply subscribe to a newsletter put out by the City of Rome (all punctuation precisely as received.. ? signifies letters with accents which they did not account for in the mail:

Dear user,
We remind you that on 14/06/2007, with your online request (protocol no. n? 20070614/113223/3223), ? the procedure of identification of the Portal was initiated, that can? be completed only by your sending in a relative contract for subscription.
We remind you, in addition, that you have until 11/12/2007 (180 days from your original request) in order to send in the contract.
In case of necessity.? it is possible to print out again the subscription contract for the service of identification by accessing the Portal with your proper credentials? which you already possess (Identification = your electronic mail address, Password = your password), selecting the section “User Identification” and, then, the marker “Identification” – “Visualize Contract” and then “Print” function.

The contract will need to be? signed and sent, accompanied by a photocopy, also signed, of your identity? card, a valid one, to the fax 0654573703.
You can send the signed contract and photocopy, signed, of your document also by standard post to the P.O.Box:
Viale Europa 175
00144 Roma.

Once your identification will be? completed, you will receive a mail at your inbox containing the new active credentials (identification and password), in order that you may access the services of the online Portal of the City of Rome.
Additionally you will? receive by regular mail a letter containing the second half of your PIN number.
We remind you that the first part of the PIN will? be sent to you via mail at the moment of your request for identification, and that the entire PIN code, containing both the first and second parts will be? requested by the Portal whenever you desire to access any online services in which you must modify your personal information.
If you have difficulty? or you would like other clarifications of the identification procedure we invite you to contact our Call Center “ChiamaRoma” at the number, 060606, or write an e-mail to the address

Department for the Simplification and
Communication of the City of Rome

Thursday, August 2

Heart, Wind and Fire

I am still filled with the joys and sounds of an amazing concert held in Rome’s Ancient Port of Ostia Antica, right in the ancient theatre, stone seats and all. The concert, entitled La Grande Notte del Soul (the grand night of soul) way exceeded my expectations: that’s because, by the time I actually sat down, my expectations had ebbed to such a low point, I had none left.
In fact, it was not until I heard the familiar beat of noneother than Earth, Wind & Fire, did I come to realize, that I had actually bought tickets to the show I truly had desired to see.
It started when I had seen the poster, noted the website, and logged on to purchase 4 tkts. I searched Earth, Wind, Fire, the date, Ostia, you name it. Nothing came up. And, as happens with most Italian inter-not experiences, minutes turned into hours, and still ‘Transaction incomplete’.
I then called the quick access number (never toll free, as the pre-recorded voice informs you at the other end), and after a few minutes there, I’m told to call back during opening hours (of course, down for the lunchtime hiatus when everyone with a PC and a credit card can actually conduct personal business). Eventually, I explained the problem, and, I soon discover I was to search using the word, Grande. Great. When finally, I successfully made my purchase, I noted that the concert was actually entitled Heart, Wind & Fire -- along with the Joe Castellano Blues Band. Now ensues a few more phone calls to the Info Line followed by emails to friends stating that we may, in fact, be attending an Italian soul group’s interpretation of the Earth Wind & Fire songs. Did anyone know if EWF was still around anymore? Such is life across the Atlantic. The cordial info line lady at the other end, had absolutely no opinion on the matter.
Next day, I decide to be a bit more proactive and reexamine the poster. I text a friend: ‘do you remember there being a bunch of white guys in EWF??’ ‘I have no idea, she texts back’. Grande.
On the way to the concert, I pull the tickets out of the envelope. They are labeled, Heart, Wind & Fire as are the last-minute informational posters around the entrance. I text my friends again. Some are starting to have second thoughts on coming at all, and these are Italians!
Why all the trepidation? Because, Italy is a place where you go to the highly touted ‘Caravaggio and his followers’ show, only to find one Caravaggio—and 99 followers. It’s where your frequent flyer programs cost money to join, where free give-aways are always accompanied by fine print saying how much money you need to give away in order to get something free.
Let’s just say, what many would consider ‘false advertising’ here, is more interpreted as ‘suggestive selling’.
And so, reluctantly, I take my seat to hear the Heart, Wind and Fire concert, my friends still on the way (the concert starts at 9:30 pm, and most were leaving the house at 9:20, they’re Italians after all).
They text me wildly, asking me to ask someone; because they weren’t coming all the way to Ostia Antica to hear a black Beatlemania.
So, I ask some of the people working there. Shoulder shrugs. I finally enlist a live debate on the matter with other attendees. The upshot: “well, the thought has also crossed our minds…but, we decided that it’s gotta be the real thing, because somewhere in the fine print, it would have said ‘cover’, so we’re crossing our fingers, too, that it’ll really be EWF.”
And it was. Although not the original band members, which, probably in their 60’s by now was comforting, but along with the cover show by the Joe Castellano band, it was truly a night to remember -- beneath a full moon, surrounded by columns topped with ancient masks, and boogying to ‘Let’s Groove Tonight’.
As for the Heart, well, we determined it was simply lost in translation; after all, Italians can’t pronounce ‘th’, and so, Earth becomes ‘Airt’, which, to the Italian typist, knowing that in English, you drop the ‘h’ sound, probably sounded a lot like Heart.

Wednesday, August 1

Dog Days of Summer

August 1st. The Official First day of Summer for most Italians. It marks the day in which shutters go down, ‘closed for vacation’ signs go up, and streets go empty for one whole month. But, it also marks the day in which over 300,000 dogs, sitting on death row, can no longer count on having their death sentences commuted just one more season. They didn’t know it, but since being given as gifts at Christmas, they’ve been living on merely borrowed time.
As a dog-owner (having rescued an abandoned dog five August’s ago), I find Italy to be the most dog-friendly country on earth; after all, they’re accepted in restaurants, stores, hotels, taxis, heck—I even take little Trevor to concerts and Museums! Each October 4th, in honour of St. Francis, churches even hold special masses for your animals—in attendance.
But, in what is one of the many contradictions of this wonderful place, when surf’s up, and the days grow long, well, Italians figure that it’s a good time to dump their best friend at the side of the road, hoping he’ll get ‘picked up’. He usually does—by the front bumper of an SUV going 95 miles an hour.
The Italians (and they do not have the corner on this barbarian trait, as the problem is rampant throughout the Mediterranean), simply don’t consider animals as ‘pets’. They are beasts-- and no amount of unconditional love, company and dedication will change the fact that they can be disposed of as an empty pack of cigarettes--tossed carelessly out a car window.
While many of us animal lovers fret over the annual great dog massacre, some activists and City officials thankfully try to do something about it. Usually, by putting up poignant posters showing sad little doggies abandoned to meet their fate. This year, however, I noticed an even sadder new trend in the campaign.
Instead of running ads trying to depict these unconscionable owners as the true beasts that they are, this year’s ads say, ‘Give him a hand…or maybe two’.
In short, they’ve given up on trying to solve the problem at its roots and are now trying a ‘Save the Animals’ campaign; pleading with the rest of us to adopt the poor creatures we’ll find chained to lamp posts or criss-crossing major highways, before they starve to death or are mercifully hit. But even this campaign falls short. Each year, abandoned dogs cause nearly 7000 highway deaths (to humans) as cars swerve to avoid them. Wouldn't that have an impact on the rest of us?
As for me, another August spent in the city means running across motley packs of newly wild dogs: Poodles, golden retrievers, Dobermans, Beagles and every other mix of breed in between…it’s almost a charming scene right out of 101 Dalmatians, except for one thing: they don’t get saved in the end.