Tuesday, January 29

The Tears of San Gennaro

With wonderful, Southern Italian drama, this last weekend even the Church added a few recyclable bottles to the pile while imploring all good Christians to start recycling, for the good of all the residents. Except these bottles were full of the tears of San Gennaro, the patron Saint of Naples. Although his remains are pulled out each year, sometimes San Gennaro is called in to do overtime; in particular, during “catastrophic events”, such as the one encompassing Naples right now.

And so, in a very modern update (or, a very medieval one, depending on your point of view), one can now add ‘garbage’ to the list of miracles to be performed by this great saint, along with War, pestilence, earthquakes and general miserableness, usually famine. It’s too bad that during the latter, most people’s miracle appeared in the shape of a large ship, taking them to America. But with Ellis Island a tourist destination and the borders pretty much closed to proper immigrants, well, neapolitans can’t really count on that option today.

So here we are, asking San Gennaro to work on that last catastrophe in reverse; given this is an extreme case of over-abundance – of garbage, that is. And that miracle needs to take effect by January 30th, when the European Union starts to enact sanctions which could cost the country up to 700,000 euro (over $1M) per day.

- While the Army has cleared up most of central Naples, they’ve seem to run out of places to even store the stuff for safe-keeping until it can be processed elsewhere. Once again, the residents, expecting the stuff to miraculously disappear in thin air, are fighting even access to these storage places.

- The Fire Brigades are putting out fires at the rate of about 1 every 15 mins.

- De Gennaro’s idea to reopen, albeit temporarily, the dumps is virtually out of the question, given the residents’ blocking of the roads with trucks, buses, and themselves.

- After procuring ‘okays’ and even handshakes from other regions to take the garbage, including Sardinia and Lombardy, the fallout was such that they changed their minds no sooner did they step back into their pristine regions. (my solution: in the interest of 'loose lips sinking ships', blacking out the press until the garbage has been processed).

- Meanwhile, while everyone agrees that the region (and all of Italy for that matter) need these termovalorizzatori, whereby they turn the garbage into energy, they will take 3 years to build.

With all this resistance, what will they do until then? (and with whose contracts, and at what price for the corruption-laced building contracts there). Of course, getting them to recycle in the first place should have been put in place by the city and regional govts. in the first place, but, it's still an option. Of course, those wily Neapolitans have even thought of dumping it all into Vesuvius, and hope that the gods don't get angry and spit out the toxins all the same. Who knows if this isn't the real reason behind Pompeii's demise??

In any case, the appropriately named De Gennaro, the ‘Garbage Czar’, certainly needs his own miracle to get this resolved.

Friday, January 25

Another one bites the dust

So, here we have it, proof of that old adage which states, "Italy functions despite its Government, not because of it."

In due course, things will be put back in order, the same old faces will take the same old seats in Parliament, and nothing will truly change. That is, except their paychecks. They'll all give themselves a handsome raise when they come back into office. In fact, I'm convinced that there's a perverse incentive driving the government's occasional (or, should I say, regular) falls. Applying my own dietrologia conspiracy theory, I'm starting to think that, since each time Parliament starts anew, it gives itself sweeping raises of 5 to 15%, well, maybe this is the true reason every so often they just throw in their hats.

The most highly paid government in pretty much the world can't even keep it running on a continuous basis (well, Berlusconi did, but I'll save that for another blog). And I thought golden parachutes given to American Chief Executives after making record losses were obnoxious. While each new government gives itself higher pays and added perks, the Metalworkers union is rejoicing for 100 euro extra in their monthly paychecks after four raiseless years. Pick a category of worker (except for those exceptional employees at the fabulously run Alitalia), and you will find the same situation across the country.
[An exception however for FIAT employees, who got a raise after record profits, and my heartfelt congratulations go out to all of them.]

But, what gets my goat even more is the 2000+ year old acceptance of the status quo. People practically ho hum the results of a new set of septegenarians at the helm; all the same faces, just shuffled like a deck of cards. After all, wasn't Andreotti seven time Prime Minister? They still prop him up on crucial votes. And I'm sure a foray into his home would reveal a very modest place right in line with a public servant. Caligula.

And yet, while headlines scream that Italians are the least paid in Europe, the most-taxed, that they sustain the highest gas, electricity and water payments (and to this I would add milk) as well as bank charges, highway tolls and auto taxes...and the list goes on... Why aren't people taking to the streets and screaming for their heads?? America was founded on a much lesser gripe.

These are people who don't live for the good of the public, they live off the public good. The inside perks including cheap apartments (which would more appropriately defined as palaces) in Rome's city centre, private cars, wine, women and song. They spend their days bickering while Napoli burns. The Financial Times with pure British hubris finally stated the obvious this week: the worst-governed country in Europe. And yet, they remain the highest paid.

No one (but Beppe Grillo) comes out saying 'send them packing'. I, for one, propose tying pay to results. Another comic recently joked, 'let's pay them very little and see how many really want to govern'. Let's.

In a country of contradictions, the mindset is that if the politicos are well-paid, they won't be tempted to take bribes. Well, since that theory has long been proven uhhh...slightly off the mark....it's high time the people get a few perks of their own; start demanding pay increases each time a new government is installed.

This solution would even work with the Italians' love for Reverse Psychology: it might even serve as an added deterrent for changes in governments, and actually keep the bums in their fancy red velvet poltrone.

Wednesday, January 23

Great Balls of Fire

From Agora magazine

I know this is 'old news', and that the pictures have already gone around the world... but, I've had the articles about this on my desk for far too long. Here's a guy, who, in the midst of the Monizzapoli scandal (garbageopoly) decided to confer a little color on Italy. And, he has succeeded.

First, with his dying the Trevi Fountain red (and, once we all found out the dye would not stain the monument, we all agreed, it was, in fact, to nice effect) and now, by tossing 500,000 colorful balls down the Spanish Steps. What the self-proclaimed futurist artist states is an act of protest, I (and a few other art critics) believe he is doing a good job of brightening up the City; showing color in movement.

So, what's the difference between Cecchini (whose name means a sort of sniper) and Christo (whose name, well, never mind)...If you visit Christo's site, you'll see he calls himself a "Bulgarian-born American Environmental Artist" (I knew America would get blamed somewhere for this). I've come up with a few of my own conclusions:

1. Christo's art generally stays put for awhile, and doesn't get hurriedly swept up by Street Sweepers, as if a bunch of plastic coloured balls from a McDonalds play area was something we shouldn't be allowed to see in broad daylight. If the authorities only practiced that kind of zeal on the transvestite prostitutes around town, well, now that'd be something to applaud.

2. Christo takes pains (very long ones, considering the 30-odd years it took him to get approval to set up his orange laundry in Central Park) to procure all the right certifications. Problem is, Cecchini would have to wait out a dozen or so governments to get those same permits, pay off an untold number of bribes, not get in the door for more than 20 odd years because of lack of raccomandazioni (friends in high places) and die, like much else, with his futurist dreams still in his head.

3. Cecchini gets arrested and has to pay a fine. This time for "imbrattamento" (meaning something close to messing things up like a graffiti writer). I would have suggested something more like Public Nuisance, given a bunch of balls on a stairway, but, hey, I don't make the rules. Anyway, Christo sometimes attracts protesters (for the environment, like when he covered a bunch of islands with plastic), but, it's Cecchini who is trying to protest, no?

4. Christo carefully articulates the meaning behind his installations, even if you still don't 'get it' in the end. If Cecchini is protesting, might he speak up about what it is, exactly, he's trying to accomplish above and beyond obtaining his 15 mins. of fame?

And, speaking of protest, he says he's on the Right. So, here we have a 50-something unemployed guy, still living with mamma in public housing (e.g. paid for by the State, something I would say, the Left probably had something to do with) and probably garnering a pension...and he's protesting?? In the very least, he could be protesting his own personal state of affairs, and adequately representing the rest of his countrymen to boot. But, with colorful and, dare I say, allegre installations?

And, while I believe Cecchini's controversial contributions are a vast improvement to another (City-authorized, City-financed and City-sanctioned) installation of Dead Children hanging from trees around Milano, I can't help feeling I must still be missing something.

Monday, January 21

Peel me a grape, Beulah

I had a dinner party this weekend for about 20 Italian friends. A more wonderful, convivial evening could not have been had. But, what I find truly impressive at these gatherings is the Italian use of forks in ways we Americans, with our hamburgers and pizza-eating behaviour, could never fathom. Some people may be born with a silver spoon in their mouths, Italians are born with forks in their hands.

And, while it's not true that the Italians invented the fork, judging by their zealotry in using it, it's no wonder they get the claim to fame.

After all, I actually shared a meal once with an Italian who ate an entire plate of spaghetti alle vongole without touching one single clam shell with his hands in an effort to scoop the little guys out. Although I grew up eating pasta (and I count Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Tuna Helper in that category), to this day, I make sure never to order spaghetti on a date just because I might just end up twirling the entire plate onto that single Italian-styled fork. Growing up, I considered it a great feat of finesse when my salisbury steak sauce hadn’t magically mixed in with the chocolate pudding number in my TV Dinners.

And so, for Italians, touching food is seen as rather barbaric. But, what happens when it comes to the serving of fruit at the end of a meal? (author’s note: one of those decidedly Italian traditions which remind us all why the Italian lifestyle is, in fact, unparalleled). The Italians break into a dexterity with their beloved utensils not unlike a virtuoso pianist at the grand piano.   In short, they start peeling the fruit. All of it. Without touching a one. Or, in the event they must pick it up, no matter, that grubby peel will end up on the plate anyway.

I always sort of thought it was a pesticide hangup, but have since discovered it comes from the annals of those great Italian wives’ tales-for-medicine warning against digestion problems. And in a country where stomach aches out trump all maladies, you will actually have occasion to see someone, fork and knife in hand, peeling their grapes.

I don’t like eating anything that takes too much effort, including lobster and chestnuts, so you can imagine where I might draw the line on grape peeling. When I see this act of over-the-top civility, I realize why movies come out with titles like The Invasion of the Barbarians when discussing America. Go to any Food Court in any American Shopping Mall and you’ll see what I mean.

But I can’t help but think that with the amount of effort involved in peeling those grapes, it is no wonder Italy became a wine-producing country.

You can read about Mae West and her famous quote here or, see Diane Krall's Peel Me a Grape, Baby Video here.

Thursday, January 17

Park Place

As if the Romans needed a new, fabulous shopping mall (they obviously take this Forum business very seriously), a 7 story building is going up right in my neighborhood. Errr..make that, was going up. Like many of the half-finished concrete structures you see scattering the Italian landscape, this one, too, just 1km from the center of Rome, is now just a scaffolding-encased empty carcass, waiting for its doors to open.

While usually in our fair country building is stopped because it was illegal to begin with, this one actually started off with all the paperwork in place. But then, the builders pulled a fast one; although the problem was visible to all us residents from the moment they started digging: Where on earth would all those shoppers park?

Now, I have always (naively, I know now) thought that the Italians’ penchant for making buildings without conceiving of parking was due to their usual simple lack of planning and organization. The examples are endless: at IKEA, a place which gets 40,000 visitors on any given Sunday, the parking structure holds about 2000 cars.
To make your appointment at a business complex outside of Milan which houses every major corporation there, you must pretty much park your car about a mile away and then flag down a good samaritan to give you a lift in the rest of the way – or risk circling for hours to find a spot--given that the thousands of employees there vie aggressively for one of the 200 legal spots in the entire place.

And this, in a country with more cars per capita than any other country on earth.

But, it turns out that in my shopping mall, the contractors signed on to build a parking structure for 1000 cars. Unfortunately for them, they won the contract under one administration and now were being dogged by a new one to adhere to it. With pure chutzpah, they simply built the building without parking. Obviously, thinking they’ll get more money from retailers than drivers.

As what usually happens in Italy, they’ll probably end up paying the fine and the problem (for us residents / opportunity in retail sales for them) will remain unresolved. After all, the building’s already up. They can’t very well start digging in now! Or, they won’t. They might wait it out until a new government gives them an amnesty, leaving us with the eyesore for years to come. (Although which is worse: the uncompleted mall or the completed one, I do not know).

Saturday, January 12

Kiss Naples Goodnight

Ahhh...Naples is known for its incredible tradition of folk songs, and, is the home of one of my most favorite Italian singers, jazz artist, Pino Daniele. Not only has Napoli inspired arias, folksongs, dance, poets, artists and writers, to make up their own heritage, but many artists have set their tunes to lovely Naples by the Mediterranean Sea.
Louis Prima, another favorite of mine (and not least for being the inspiration for and the actual voice of King Louie in Disney's The Jungle Book, is making a comeback these days. I thought it appropriate, since he was born and raised in that other unfortunate place by the sea, New Orleans, to use him for my very own tribute to lovely Napoli.

Please note: the lyrics have been altered slightly but the beat remains the same:

Buona Sera, signorina, buona sera
It is time to say goodnight to Napoli
Though it's hard for us to whisper, buona sera
with the noise coming from the military

In the mornin' signorina we'll go walkin'
‘Round the mountains of the trash to see the light
And by the little jewelry shop we'll not stop to linger
‘cuz you have to hold your nose with your ring finger

But in the meantime let me tell you that I love you
Buona sera, signorina kiss Naples goodnight

Buona sera, signorina kiss Naples goodnight

I was based overlooking New York Harbour when the now-infamous Garbage Barge came passing through again and again...Check this out.

Napoli Bis

Well, after delving into the foreign press, a little more apt to give you the 5W's than our Italian journalists, I finally got a quick rundown on the situation down in Campania, and offer you here my own answers to my own questions on the topic of garbage removal along with a few more spurious observations:

- Why'd the garbage back up in the first place?
What: While it looks like the dumps are simply full (they are), it's due to a simple lack of recycling plants, incinerators, and land fills.
Dietrologia/What's Behind It: The conspiracy theorists say that since the illegal (read: mafia/camorra controlled) dumps profit from these 'overflows', well, there may be an interest in a back log.
Quickie solution: the army is hauling the stuff to pits or someplace. Still near residents, no doubt, but at least free from illegal dumping of toxic waste.
New Solution: While they're talking about building new treatment plants (obviously not a short-term solution), some say they create energy, while others say they cause cancers (my vote: the latter), it would appear that Landlocked Switzerland with less land mass than Italy might take the stuff for recycling and energy and all those good things...
This begs a question I won't even bother posing.

- Why is everyone against the incinerators, etc.
What: Basically, due to a mistrust in government and local agencies (wonder why??)
Dietrologia/What's Behind It: I've since discovered after reading some insightful reports from the foreign press that contracts are won but then the toxic waste is merely dumped anywhere or in illegal dumps, which would explain why no one wants a dump near their homes.
According to some statistics, cancer is 12% above average for women living near dumps, 9% in men. That's certainly a strong case against them.
Quickie solution: Provide oversight to see that that doesn't happen? Fuggettaboutit..

New Solution: Another solution used successfully in Sicily is taking garbage into a place and the thing / machine/ magic elves separate out all the stuff into totally recyclable materials, and then goes ahead and recycles them! That's so they don't even have to go up against the locals refusing to separate out their garbage.
I have always held that the Italians are nothing if not inventive, and this, coming from the people who gave the world robotics, well, in my opinion it solves the problem on so many levels, it's sheer brilliance...
So brilliant, don't expect it to be put into use in the near future.

-The Camorra/Mafia Any way to get around them? Highly unlikely. In their infinite wisdom, the Italian govt. has you sign declarations in 6 copies of a document called 'Antifmafia Certificate' whereby, when you win a contract, you declare that you have nothing to do with the mafia.
Let me tell you, that is quite the deterrent.

- The Violence Meanwhile, the military has been sent into haul garbage but not restore order. And so, the fire brigades (trying to put out garbage fires are coming under attack and are forced into combat. Yesterday a bus was hijacked to place crossways in front of a potentially opened dump, and kids are still not going to school.

The Garbage Czar they've named has his work cut out for him. Hopefully, he'll do better than the folks in New Orleans.

Wednesday, January 9

See Naples and Die

Don’t put your trash in my backyard, my backyard, my backyard, Don’t put your trash in my backyard, my backyard’s full. from my favorite children's round

People have been asking me to comment on the garbage situation in Naples. I must confess, however, that after reading about 16 different articles over 29 pages of print, I still don’t know the true root cause for this calamity (I don't think anyone does, although Beppe Grillo, a comic turned political activist, takes no prisoners in deftly pointing out all the Usual Suspects in his blog. You can check out his SPAZZATOUR video (with foreign correspondents in tow) here.

Except for the fact that garbage is piled up to the sky, the amount of toxins in the air is at higher levels than if there'd been a massive blowout from Mt Vesuvius, and, the toxin levels grow exponentially the more garbage gets set afire by people taking the situation into their own hands. Even the kids didn’t want to attend school (seeing there are no school buses to be blocked by the garbage it must be the wily neapolitans’ way to get a Snow Day -- after all, it is January).

But, it looks like the authorities have decided to send in the troops; not to maintain order or anything plausible like that, but to physically haul the trash outta there (and to where, pray tell?).

So, instead of reading some insightful critique, I will give you only a few ‘talking points’, surrounding what confuses me the most:

- if they say that ‘everyone’ is interested in garbage removal from corrupt politicians to the camorra to the companies hauling the stuff, why is no one capitalizing on this obvious flood in raw materials? You’d think they’d be scrambling to haul it away to illegal incinerators or sell it to Romania or whatever, but that just ain’t the case.

- if residents don’t want incinerators and whatnot near them, what is their choice? Certainly they can’t truly believe that mile high garbage and all the pollutants that come with it (not to mention the stench and the physical impossibility of getting yourself around it) is a better alternative?

- if the most successful and largest company in Italy is the Mafia/Camorra (due I would say in large part to their complete mobility of employees – and bosses, come to think of it, not to mention the enormous tax savings, and of course, very few pensions to pay out later and, no commission payments to Visa or Amex), why don’t they just call ‘em in there to do what they do best? Haul out garbage. Cash in the returns.

- And as for returns, who ever knew there was so much money to be had recycling or removing garbage? Why??? I cannot quite grasp where the money comes from picking up peoples’ waste and then burning it.

My only solution to this whole predicament is not to bring in the military, but rather, bring in all those pyromaniacs who each summer set the entire Southern countryside all ablaze.

You could save the trees and clear the trash at the same time.

Tuesday, January 8

After Christmas Sales

Don’t think that just because Christmas has come and gone, we’ll be getting any bargains in the new year. First, there are those pre-announced (and pronounced) price hikes which, these days seem to be a daily occurrence. Turns out this year we'll be spending about 1000 euro more on groceries and about 750 more on gas for our cars. But, looking at the things that really matter, you’d be hard-pressed to find even find a broken santa statue on sale come January. To this capitalist, it was one of the most striking things to discover about life in Italy.

After Christmas, I thought maybe I’d be able to get some holiday decorations on sale at rock bottom prices. Niente da fare e Niente Affari! I didn’t see 2007 calendars even go on sale until about October when the 2008 ones were put on display. Aside from a slight discount on panettone ‘round about February when they’re too stale to eat for the Italian palate (but are then shipped over to America, where nobody knows the difference), you won’t find any posters screaming dopo-natale saldi!!!

I think it’s because the Italians, always looking for a way around things, would most likely have simply and surreptitiously postponed Christmas until after January, without saying a word to one another. It would have just sort of happened on a mass consciousness level. I could just see the headlines: Christmas retailers, worst year ever. And then, suddenly, their stocks depleted on December 27th, before retailers could triple the prices on unsuspecting shoppers.

The following year, we would find prices increased five-fold: and so Christmas would be postponed til Easter, and perhaps skipped altogether. It would set off a vicious circle that would have no end in sight.

And so, you have to call friends in the U.S. and the U.K. to pick up those santa mugs and xmas cards to recycle next year. But, how come their retail sector hasn’t ground to a halt as a result?

Friday, January 4

Buon Anno!

It’s a New Year, and, although the Italians ring it in with usual great civility – huge buffets with the traditional dishes filled with lentils to herald in lots of money, a sort of hamhock set in the middle of them, lots of spumante, pandoro & panettone, and the proverbial Midnight Kiss -- the headlines still screamed about the number of injured from setting off those “fireworks” (and I use the term quite loosely).

This year we were regaled by three incredible light displays seen (and heard – the shells were dropping right on top of us) off a gorgeous terrace overlooking Piazza Navona, but in years past it sounded like we were outside the green zone in Baghdad. Two guys I am quite positive were firing surface to air missiles and were engaging in combat. Judging from the amount of smoke filling the air, I think the guy in our building was winning. Car alarms were set off, windows were actually breaking, and our building was shaking violently. I went inside.

But it was the Italians who either invented fireworks, or, in the very least, borrowed them from the Chinese and then set off to make the most dazzling visual displays that money had to offer. One of the greatest experiences of my life was the Festa del Redentore, in celebration of the ending of the plague, held each July in Venice (and maybe these annual celebrations, hundreds of years on, serve a sort of preventive purpose…as we know how fearful the Italians still are about air).
And even the magnificent Trevi Fountain was designed by noneother than a fireworks designer, if you can believe it. Now that’s thinking out of the box to obvious great satisfaction for all!

But the Italians really know how to celebrate. In fact, while all the rest of the world has only one day to recover, we get an entire week. Come January 6th, we celebrate the epiphany, and the arrival of the gift-bearing kitchen witch (as I like to refer to her), who leaves coal or gifts in children’s stockings.
So, who in their right mind would or could return to work if there’s another holiday on the horizon? Work begins promptly on January 7th where I’m sure we’ll all spend the time exchanging photos, swapping stories, and basically carrying on our other happy traditions…