Friday, November 30

Life in Italy - November

Who says that good news doesn't get reported? Each month end (and in Dove Sono on the side bar),  I offer up lots of good things that happen in Italy...

Entertainment/  Laura Pasini won a grammy and a few more recent music awards to boot

Sophia Loren was voted Sexiest Woman ever, by an int'l poll. Ahhh...the good ol' days when curves were actually appreciated...So, can someone tell me why we pay attention to Paris Hilton???
Wil Smith is going to team up again with Italian director Gabriele Muccino on a new flick (see Pursuit of Happyness)

A journalist currently (but not for very long, I imagine) working for the RAI-TV Networks stated that the entire enterprise 'fa schifo' (loosely translated, totally sucks) and should just be closed down & started over. The politicians were infuriated and called for her head..errr, maybe that's one of the problems...why are politicians running the TV stations anyway? 
I say she should win an award...

Life in Italy / Someone walked over 33.880 km to alert people to the grave problem of abandoning their pets I wonder if he was joined by the thousands of animals he would have met along the way...

With an aging populace, 49% of 69yr olds and older claim to have a regular sex life (compared to 8% of singles...) Of course, the study didn't disclose with whom...

And Abroad / And the best news yet (sorry, it doesn't come from Italy, but it was too too good to pass up), Paris has installed walls that basically splash back should those wily Parisians use them for toilets!

Okay, so you want a conspiracy theory? I'm just trying to hedge my bets so as not to put in too much time in purgatory for a blog called Burnt by the Tuscan Sun.

Monday, November 26

Running in Circles

There is nothing short of a revolution going on in the city that invented (or, in a nod to Da Vinci, shall we say, perfected), the automobile: Detroit. Basically, America seems to be looking toward ‘Old Europe’ for some new ideas in solving traffic jams. Now, that may come as a surprise to anyone who has spent hours riding Rome, Milan or Florence’s Ring Roads, but it’s true.

It looks like America is trying to adopt the idea of Traffic Rotaries, rather than the tired and completely botched idea behind traffic lights which pretty much bring traffic to a halt. Seeing that Europeans have never had a whole lot of respect for the traffic signal anyway, (well, it depends… that behaviour is inversely proportional to the enforcement agency’s zealotry in the matter)… America is looking at keeping cars on the move.
And this is great. What’s entirely American, however, in a country which cannot take responsibility for any personal behaviour, are the rules and signs governing rotary etiquette.

While in Italy, who gets to go first is a game of cat & mouse so totally evolved, that it's a modern update of this most basic rule behind animal behaviour: Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest.

A few years back, they changed the law to bring clarity to the Who-goes-first policy. But in very Italian style, the law had as many exceptions as there are traffic circles and so now, it’s pure chaos with everyone involved in every accident claiming (rightly so) the precedence. I practice the “whoever’s on the right goes first” line of thinking. Others, the “whoever’s in the circle gets the right of way”. The problem is, you just don’t know who’s following what school of thought.
So, in the U.S., where life is governed by a CYA-philosophy, as you approach the new-fangled circle, you’re inundated with YIELD signs and bright yellow pedestrian crosswalks. Just to make the point clear, they add a few more signs – replete with arrows – to point out where, precisely, people might be crossing.

Now that it took us over 200 years to learn something from Europe, perhaps Europe might learn something from us. But I won’t hold my breath.

Tuesday, November 20

Turning Learning into Limonata

While in the USA for Thanksgiving, I’ve had the privilege of being invited for lunch at my nephews’ school. And while being regaled by the 6 yr. olds breaking into the Gobble Gobble Turkey Trot, back at home, I learned that something even more insidious was being brainwashed into our little ones’ heads: UNADULTERATED CAPITALISM. In something quite frighteningly reminiscent of Brave New World, it looks like while in Europe, our Nike-clad kids & parents take to the streets protesting “globalization” (something I’ve never quite grasped, to be perfectly honest…I mean, they don’t like dishwashers or pcs??), America is busy hard-wiring kids into what it takes to be a true blue-blooded capitalist.

I remember when my niece was about 7, she conducted a marketing survey with all my friends (via email, no less), asking at what price point she should be offering her lemonade. She then had to produce a report on her findings, set up the stand, and sell her stuff. In Italy, parents would have pulled their children inside their Mercedes’ faster than you could say "limonata" to avoid the Brutta Figura in front of the neighbors: What?! You want people to think we’re needy??!!!

Now in 7th grade, my niece’s class has formed a MINI SOCIETY in which they decide on products to produce, warehouse and sell. They give them mini business plans like a TARGET MARKET LOCATOR PLANNING GUIDE, BUSINESS CARD TEMPLATES, and MARKET SURVEYS. My niece’s group, would then set out to produce and sell their products on Auction Day. Post-sales, they would have to deduct the fixed and variable expenses of rental & advertising space, posters, warehousing and even consulting services. In a nod to the country of indefatigable entrepreneurs (or was it Starbucks?) they named their group, ‘Cappuccino City’.

Now, I’m not familiar with what goes on in Italian schools, and regardless, we all know that on average, Italian kids are far more educated than their American counterparts (who rank somewhere near Albania), despite the complaints we see in the daily papers. But, an exercise of this nature, I have never heard of.

In fact, I shiver at the thought of an Italian correspondent program: whereby the first thing they do is offer their real money & other treats to School Council members in order to guarantee a prime location in the school cafeteria, purchase licenses some of whom get denied because they didn’t pay off the principal, skip the marketing survey part, and then charge exorbitant prices for their goods. One group of bullies doesn’t sell anything but is still the richest. They’re busy getting paid the ‘pizzo’ and avoiding taxes. After hiring their employees, they can never fire them, even after being caught stealing from the coffers. But it doesn't matter. They'd have to close down their booths due to the strikes. The rest of the class doesn't show up because the buses didn't arrive on time. And those who are able to buy the item and find it breaks? No refunds permitted.
Now that would be truly educational.

Sunday, November 18

And on the 43rd Day...God created your domain

Well, actually no. That's not quite how the story goes. In fact, today I received in my mailbox, a do not pass go, do not collect €500 card...Why?
They say that the information I submitted about me is incorrect (even though I am already on file), due to the problem of middle names in Italy.
Their system only has space for first and last, and, entirely my fault (I admit it, I should have known by now), I submitted false documents...obviously, with my middle name in there.
As a result, not only can I NOT simply correct the name (by merely adding it in), but, I must resubmit all of the information from scratch.

And, although I dutifully signed each page (twice), including the block letter version to avoid any problems, of course, they said that I did also not sign the contract properly. That's because, now you must sign it in two places! Obviously, the bureaucracy was just too little for some people. And so, I dutifully reprinted out the document - carefully paginated by them so you end up with a blank white page on which you are to sign your name.

As I wrote in my October INTERNOT and INTERNOT REDUX entries, I am still waiting for an Italian domain. It cost me five times the U.S. fee, and while for my $9.95 I was live within 24 hrs., I'm still waiting for godot.


Ti comunichiamo che la registrazione del tuo dominio è stata completata con successo e che il tuo nuovo dominio sarà online entro 2 giorni da quello in cui hai ricevuto questo messaggio.

Music to my ears...43 days after my initial request and $67 later, I got my domain! The hitch? It will be 'live' in two more days' time.

With pure hootzpah, is actually advertising to 'Have your own Domain underneath the Christmas Tree'. I imagine they mean Christmas 2008, right?

Thursday, November 15

Roughing It

I asked an Italian girlfriend if she would be going back to her family's home in South Africa for the holidays. She said, no, because it was always so stressful. As I commiserated about family and what not, she interrupted to tell me it wasn't the family that was the problem, it was the Italians.
She said, "You know how they are. Turns out I have to accompany them everywhere and I never get much of a holiday as a result. They need to go here and there, and from our place, you need a car, and they don't want to drive, she continued, and it's me who gets saddled."

Now this, I couldn't believe. I know that Beppe Severgnini (one of my favorite authors on things Italian) has a book called Italiani con Valigie-Italians Suitcases in Hand, in which he most likely describes these sorts of things, but I've yet to read it. Instead, my mind wandered to all those Italians I've ever met or taken around New York, London, Nepal...In short, they are inveterate travelers. But it's true, you sometimes get the feeling that mamma needs to be nearby in order to keep things ticking at a good clip. I remember how many Italians refused to eat anything other than pasta and would then usually complain about the way it was cooked anyhow. The more adventurous ones would occasionally go to a NYC steak house to eat real meat, and not a 'fiorentina'. But nothing more.

Italians are indefatigable travelers, especially the younger generations who have been spoiled with trips for a long weekend to the Red Sea or Maldives, with mom, dad & boyfriend. Separate rooms, of course: mamma & papà in one, kids in the other. So, perhaps this rule no longer applies. But, I do recall that on a trekking expedition in Tibet we needed dozens of porters and even more ponies to take all our belongings. Why?

To accomodate the picnic tables, pots and pasta we had for eating meals, not to mention the utensils. What I thought was totally civilized, (well, Italians did invent the fork), the Italians probably thought was roughing it. After all, we had no tablecloths. Mamma would have been aghast.

Tuesday, November 13

Business As Usual

I just thought I'd share a 'typical day in the life of' with you. After 22 years of doing business here I probably can make a few wild generalizations...some practices endearing, others just aggravating.

It all started when I met two would-be entrepreneurs. As the saying goes, behind every olive tree in Italy... you'll find someone dying to go or already out on their own. Typically, and like so many of them, here they are, one day working in a bank, or a ceramics factory, and the next, they're off producing leather handbags for Prada. And in this, I know for sure, that if the govt didn't do everything in their power to impede this entrepreneural spirit, right in their very dna, well, this country would be like Japan.
So, our entrepreneurs, leaving their day jobs, came up with a nice widget.

It just turned out that that week, someone had contacted me asking if I knew anyone who sold those very same items. So, before I put them in touch, I thought I'd provide them with a crash session in marketing their widgets. They were totally flabbergasted-and I have no idea if that word even exists in the Italian language. I have yet to meet an Italian entrepreneur who first set out to study the market, competition, pricing, all necessary details before putting out their 'Open for Business' sign.

Once we covered that, I asked them to prepare some pricing to see where they stood in the ballpark. I received a call whereby they asked if we could meet face to face. Unfortunately, I couldn't. And, although one of the more endearing qualities of doing business here, it costs you half a day. So, I pulled an American. Can't I just give you the parameters over the phone? I pleaded.

Sure enough, I won that battle, but not the war. I could tell, I could just tell that no one was taking any notes. Lo and behold, I received a few more calls to 'clarify' that everyone had understood the laundry list. And here, I knew, that even a meeting would not have helped--no Italian worth their sale would ever be caught actually taking notes. Never. So, I put up with the repeat listing.

Ready to make their offer, they called and asked for a meeting. Again, not being my business at all, I begged for mercy and asked that they please send in the offer. And, don't forget to include a 10% commission for me, after all, I'm not a Franciscan monk. Already prepared for the reaction, I held the phone out a bit. What?!! That seems like a steep fee!!!!

Yeah? Well, considering the commission on high ticket items is usually around 30%, and any agency will always ask for 15%. Consider yourselves lucky. Not to mention the fact that this single order represents more than you'd be able to sell over the next 7 years. Two to One, My lead.

Another call: Well, who should we address the order to? Me. A new attempt to go over my head: Well, wouldn't it be just easier to send it directly to the buyer? No. Three to One.

I receive the order. No sign of any commission fee for me. I call. Well, of course, it's in there! I didn't want the client to see it. You can trust me, no? After 22 years, I'm sorry, you guys have a great expression about Verba Volant, Scripta Manent... And, don't worry, the client already knows I'm not a Franciscan. Fine, I'll resend. Four to One.

But, here's the catch: should they get the order, and get paid, how will I ever be sure to get my money? Even with contracts, this rarely happens. 3 cherries. They take the pot.

Monday, November 12

Che tempo fa??

Okay, I know that once you're reduced to talking about the weather, things are not looking good on the creative front..but, stick with me here..I don't really want to talk about the weather, but rather, the weathermen (and, I realize this is not pc, but, in Italy, I have only seen weathermen). But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Today's headlines screamed, 'cold front on the way!' 'Temperatures down 7 degrees (which is a lot in centigrade). I left the house totally prepared...and almost died from sun stroke.

Now, I know it's a Michigan thing, because when we all ended up in New York City, everyone complained about the weather forecasts. I mean, in Michigan, you can set your clock to their "light flurries in the afternoon". Right on cue, at 12:05 pm, you look out your window, and behold! Light flurries. (Of course, one could argue that that's because there are always flurries in Michigan).

But whereas Americans know predicting the weather is a total joke, they give us funny guys and clowns to give you the daily reports. They dress up in raincoats, toss funny suns around (best depicted in Steve Martin's L.A.Story), the works.

In Italy instead, they bring out their Maresciallo of the Corps of Army Engineers or Navy Brigade, all dressed up in their finest, brass buttons and all. I half expect them to salute at the end of their predictions. These guys, oh so serious, go at it giving you a play by play so thorough you'd think they were channelling Einstein. And yet, I plan for rain, there's sunshine. Wild storms predicted? Light sprinkles fall instead. I can't figure it must be the seas that throw things off a bit.

But, living in a city where, as the saying goes, there are Four Seasons in a Day! well, before I take the dog out, we both just stick our noses out the window.

Sunday, November 11


I attended an excellent presentation by a remarkable man who definitely deserves to be in the position he is. A lawyer graduating at 22, a judge and President of Italy’s Antitrust, Antonio Catricalà gives one faith that the system is working [he was since pegged to be a part of the 'technical govt - Monti's cabinet]   As he described many of the inroads the government is making in tackling a number of issues, from the cost of bread & pasta to the sale of Alitalia—all of which affect the economy on many different levels – things certainly are moving.

Italy these days, besides the delightful place it is to visit, is known as the sick man of Europe, making it a bit more difficult for those who actually live here. Even Portugal is surpassing it in growth and jobs and all those good things that determine the health of a country. And, while Italy still grows, compared to its European brethren, there are some glaring issues which need to be fixed and fast.

In his off-the-cuff presentation, Antonio Catricalà discussed two things that Italy lacks, and needs to improve, for the vitality of the country: foreign investment and more gas in the engine—in the true sense of the word. Italy depends on outside sources for all its natural gas needs, and, by two not-so-democratic nations providing it as well; Algeria & Russia. If anyone remembers the (unrelated) nationwide blackout caused by a tree falling in Switzerand, well, you can well imagine one small hiccup over there, and everything could just come to a sudden (and not a grinding) halt over here.
During the Q&A session, we also heard a few views about the importance of somehow releasing the stranglehold that the unions have on much of its industry, especially in terms of job flexibility and pensions and all those good things, especially when discussing Alitalia,(my biggest pet peave), but more on that later.

It may come as a surprise to many, but Italy actually attracts very little foreign investment, despite it supposedly being open for business. That is, according to Mr. Catricalà, somewhat due to negative portrayals in the media (and I wonder if that includes yours truly), but, I suspect it has a whole lot more to do with the reams and reams of red tape, payoffs, politicians, lack of steady government, the labor laws, the sheer expense of hiring & firing, and, not least important, the exorbitant tax rates for business, and all those other things that get people running to England and Ireland, and even Poland to set up shop.

When Alitalia (which, according to this writer should have been shut down about 37 years ago) was brought up (by guess who?), Mr. Catricalà’s response was an unfortunate, ‘Hey, this is Italy…business as usual”. They would never allow the takeover by a foreign enterprise really (so much for attracting foreign investment), they are held hostage by the unions, and Air One, that stellar national carrier, would not be allowed to take it over, due to of course, monopoly power. That said, Alitalia will keep on flying, keep losing money, and keep on going, at the expense of the Italian taxpayers.

It behooves me to think that Mr. Catricalà actually related that, the opening of Malpensa (appropriately named, if you ask me) in Milano is crippling the carrier. Finally, the north had an int’l airport to/from Milan, finally, Italians were on the move, business was in the works…and this was a bad thing? While all other successful carriers vie to win slots around the world, only Alitalia would have trouble making an expansion to an airport 1 hour’s flight away into a financial disaster. And that’s due to the unions and the cost of flying the teams in & out of that completely impossible place, located somewhere akin to Western Siberia.

With regard to women in the workplace, I felt he simply paid lip service to the fact that women workers hold up one half (or more) of the sky. And, he reiterated the needs for day care and other services. But, I’ll cut him some slack as it was not his department.

In the meantime, in view of the October Sting of bread and pasta prices going through the roof, and the fact that his Dept is looking into cartel pricing, well, I applaud our dear presenter, and wish him a heartfelt In Bocca al Lupo! He’ll need it.

Wednesday, November 7

Francesca Maggi's...Strange But True!

A couple of little news clips struck me today, and, I know there must be more to these stories than what I’ve been given because something is quite amiss:

First, I read that some agency filed some complaint against some organization that was selling their properties at 1/10th the going rate. Basically, apartments in Rome go for anywhere between $14000 and $21000 per square meter. I can’t tell you what that is in square footage, but trust me, it’s a very hefty price.
And these guys are selling for around $1500 to $2000 per sq met. Now. I know that P.T. Barnum supposedly remarked that there’s a sucker born every minute, but, it looks like quite a bargain to me! So, what’s the catch?
All I know is that as a result, someone filed a complaint because the price is 'too low'??

Meanwhile, everyone seems to be suddenly up in arms over the preservation of one of Italy’s most derisible monuments. Since its inception, the ‘Vittoriano’, or monument to Italy’s first king, Victor Emanuel has been universally hated. First, because they tore down the remnants of that area’s medieval quarters to build it, including Michelangelo’s supposed abode. For years, it’s been called ‘the typewriter’, ‘the wedding cake’ and any number of other epithets against this fascist piece of architecture -- even though it holds the Tomb of Italy’s Unknown Soldier, watched over by a standing guard with an eternal flame. And that’s the catch.

The City Officials finally put in an elevator to get people to the top for some of the best views in all of Rome. Although they force you to pay $10 for the ride, it was providing good income. Obviously not enough, so they added a cafè up there too. But their capitalist drive has seemed to be offensive to many (my solution: knock the price off the ride up). Not to mention that the rest of us could finally enjoy all of the gorgeous mosaics and art up there too. Who else could? The unknown soldier?

So now, they’re saying the elevators have to go: first, because they damage the look (I have yet to notice them and I go by there almost daily), second, because they’ve turned a sacred place into a tourist trap.

Ummm….and the Pantheon? Victor Emanuel and his son are both buried in there! Not to mention Raphael our very first Superintendent of the Arts who is probably quite pleased at all the attention.
And then, there is of course, the tourist trap of Assisi, or what about the thousands of bodies we literally step over every time we enter a church, any of them throughout the peninsula? Those gorgeously carved flagstones are really coffin covers. The list could go on and on. Heck! We could even bring in Pompeii or the Pyramids…

Considering it’s pretty much the only monument in Italy with wheelchair access, I thought this was a good thing (although that price tag is so over the top, it makes the churches of Italy pale by comparison…even Pisa's entry fees).

It’s all so illogical there must be a conspiracy in here, but, I’ve yet to find it.

Sunday, November 4


We just had a long weekend because Nov 1st marked ‘I Morti’, or Day of the Dead…or, more pleasantly, the day after, All Saints Day. It’s a wonderful holiday observed by many in the traditional fashion: visiting cemeteries, eating large meals, or others, less so inclined, taking 4 days off to the mountains.
And, actually, I love the traditions of Old Europe, like enjoying those family gatherings (best with distant cousins..both in lineage and geographically speaking), having a less consumer-oriented Christmas, taking walks after the evening meal. In fact, when we onlookers see things ‘changing’ over here, we find Italians generally picking up some of the worst habits of America and making them their own -- and none of us are all the happier about it.

But one thing that could change for the better are the card companies. You know, cards for any occasion. While you can find some imported cards nowadays with great graphics but blank inside, what happens when you want to send something for a more – errr- traditional event?

It happened to a friend of mine who discovered that an American colleague’s father had passed away. He wanted to send a heartfelt card, expressing appropriately the sentiment, perhaps adding his own message on the inside. On a mission, he tried various cartolerias, where one does, in fact, by carta (or cards).

Knowing that he was barking up the wrong tree from the get go, he decided to hedge his bets: “Do you have something – say, a nice CARD – for someone who is in mourning?”

- Well, Signore, usually one sends a telegram.

Getting a bit provocative since he knew he already was fighting a losing battle: 
“Yes, but, don’t you think that, for someone who may not understand the Italian tradition, say, a foreigner, receiving a telegram under these conditions might actually be somewhat, ahhh, frightening?”

Blank stare, so he continues:

“You know, telegrams are sometimes used to bring important – even very urgent – messages to people and…given the circumstances, I just don’t think it would have the same impact in America as in Italy.”

- Well, okay, why don’t you send the traditional blank white or ivory card with a matching envelope?

“Do you have anything else?”

Yes, the blank white card with a black line going through it.
(He looks at it and decides it does, well, provide the appropriate imagery of the finality of the situation…kind of like looking at the EKG line in an episode of ER). Audaciously, he presses on: “Could you help me write a message in there? I mean, what should one write?”

- That’s a very personal thing, Signore, and no, I cannot help you.

At which point I received a call and sent him to a U.S. website where they actually offer a number of somber messages just for the occasion. When I ventured, ‘why did you even bother?’ He simply stated that he wanted to "At least get her to think out of the box…I don’t know…I was a man possessed.”

Saturday, November 3

Italy's 3Rs...missing a letter?

This week, I heard that J.K. Rowling’s very first Harry Potter book, signed with her full name, Jeanne K. Rowling, sold for the hefty sum of $40,000. Amazing news… especially if you happen to have a first edition signed copy lying around the house (I don’t).

But, what struck me was how important that signature was to the very value of the book, and, even more so, the importance that her name was completely legible and therefore valuable to the buyer (not to mention the seller!). And, I certainly hoped that news hit a great many of us here in Italy, and not just their awesome collection of brilliant writers. Italy boasts the most number of bloggers on the internet. We obviously have a lot to write about.

It made me recall Mean Miss Ferguson (only to avoid a lawsuit for calling her by her real name, Cruella DeVil), my 6th grade teacher who, in her sadistic ways, forced us not only to write with liquid ink pens last used by Benjamin Franklin, but, also to write legibly, with no drips of ink on a page (you’d be suspended first from recess, then from her class altogether, not to mention the rather large E you'd find scrawled atop of your page, and decidedly not written with a nice black cartridge pen, but rather a felt marker – in Red).
She’d ridicule you in front of everyone, tape your hands to the pen, do things that today would land her in jail. Needless to say, I became pretty good with that pen, real fast.

And so, it came as quite a surprise when coming to Italy, a country that has penned their fair share of parchment, starting with those tablets of stone to St. Paul's letters to the Corinthians, right up to dozens of monasteries, filled with monks’ stunning miniatures painstakingly penned in great big books, ‘til today, to find that people merely scribbled their names on documents. In fact, nearly everyone here has the same signature…one form or another of a straight line going across the page. It’s no wonder everyone thought Leonardo was such a genius--his penmanship is gorgeous and, he did it all backwards!

Now, I can think that maybe people are just copying the graffiti writers they’ve grown up with…but even those scribbles have loops in them sometimes. So, you start to wonder why no one signs their name properly. Have one look at the penmanship, and Miss Ferguson would have simply keeled right over in an apoplectic fit of rage; pens held with the entire hand (all fingers and thumb on the utensil), pencils thrust between two fingers, thumb freely waving in the air -- it’s no wonder they don’t serve Chinese with chopsticks here. Nobody could begin to handle the opposable thumb.

Of course, all this breeds your own little Italian conspiracy theory, since Italians pretty much spend about 7 years of their lives just signing documents and registered letters. They really don’t want anyone to know whom, exactly, made the signature. This theory is not my own-- it was actually related to me once when I asked someone if they could please sign legibly on a contract.
It’s no wonder those monks invented the very first printing press. They were the ancestors of comedian Rodney Dangerfield; they just got no respect.

You can buy a print of Leonard's writing here.