Tuesday, February 26

The Fall of Rome: Redux

I now know how Rome fell. Historians have been arguing for the better part of 1500 years (since it regrouped after the fall), for the exact reasons why. But I know.
It was the insipid TV Tax.
Well, not quite exactly, but close.

After the Goths, the Barbarians, the Despot Emperors and the Popes ran off with pretty much everything there was to run off with, leaving a few dozen cattle grazing in the Forum, a few tax authorities and what was left of the store owners, decided to pretty much pillage the population to make up for the losses by overcharging and overtaxing the populace until they simply threw themselves in the Tiber or ran off to Gaul, where corporate and church greed promised great rewards.

At that time, Rome was reduced from a peak of 1.5 M people, to about 25,000 (although who was left to take the census, I’d like to know.)  Trying to make up for the tremendous fall in revenues, the Romans soon found themselves with a faulty postal service, taxes on all the roads leading to Rome, taxes on hay for their horses, taxes per chariot wheel (if they owned one), taxes on candles for lighting, and prices on basic foodstuffs, namely bread & pasta, through the roof. Salaries, of course, were nonexistent, having plunged into subsistence living standards.
Bandits of course were making out, like…well, bandits, which was the most successful enterprise in the country.
And in all this, I’m sure that encased somewhere in the Virgin Vaults was a papyrus scroll which set forth the tax on listening to public speeches in the forum.
Even if you weren’t exactly listening, but just happened to be waiting for your husband, or turning tricks, you’d be taxed for having been in earshot.
Fortunately for us, there were as many tax evaders back then as now, for without them, Rome would never have made it to the Renaissance.
Every so often, the RAI State Television, in cohoots with the tax authorities, unravels an old parchment of their own.  Citing a 1938 law (well before TV was ever even imagined), they are setting out to recoup all the losses in TV Tax revenues from all the people who claim not to have one, or just don’t cough it up.
They state that every household must be taxed if they have any sort of gadget that can receive any sort of image; that means, cell phones and pcs, macs and iPods.
A few years back, the tax was 200 euro (already more than double its pre-euro level). This year, households starting receiving bills for over 600 euro, along with letters threatening to put ‘the boot’ on cars and garnishees on wages if they didn’t pay up. Consumer’s Unions are fortunately on the attack, having filed a formal complaint for “abuse of office”.
It is hard to fathom the reaches of this kind of thought process. But perhaps the tax authorities can take a cue from a brethren, Karl Marx. As he so astutely paraphrased,
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Friday, February 22

The Devil Doesn't Only Wear Prada

Anyone who has caught a glimpse of this year’s Fashion Shows being held this week in Milan must really be popping the Prozac. They say that when skirts are long, markets are up and vice versa. Well, I believe that the designers this year are mirroring the angst of an economy fast slipping into recession, a mortgage crisis, a healthcare, garbage and even an Italian government crisis. Take one look at the gruff models and there’s no reason to feel uplifted.

They figure, 'Hey, since no one can afford the clothes, let's just throw out those Fantasy Island storyboards and go with the Addams Family instead!' It's like pulling in your second string players for the last 20 minutes of the game.

There was a time when the fashion designers were giving us their version of sexy: little 11-year old boys. But even those boy-girls had interested pouts or even – god forbid – smiles on their faces. And of course, it appealed to their Japanese patrons.

But now, they’ve since swapped that innocent look for Amazon warriors looking like they’re psyching themselves up for battle. These pale-faced women are so gruesome, they look like Virginia Woolf – after they plucked her body out of the river (of course, without the bloating).

Considering that society likes to talk about First Wives being traded in for the new younger ‘model’, my position is -- if this is what’s on offer, there are going to be a lot of marriages remaining intact in the future.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to wake up next to one of these goons sans makeup and expensive jewelry.

At this point, I’m afraid to think what’s coming down the line in the Men’s Collections. Rapist Revisited? Because this view from Hell sure ain't pretty.

Monday, February 18

Life in Italy: Cleanliness & Godliness?

The other day I walked by an elderly woman washing her car. As she got ready to leave, she left a pile of dirty paper towels stacked up around the basin. When I motioned that she perhaps should clean up after herself, I was given the usual treatment:

Basically, a defiant pout, chin jutted outward, hands positioned in a questioning manner which, according to Russell Peters, one of my favorite comedians, means “What the Fuck??” Followed by a slur of commentary of the sort I didn’t spend time on listening.
And, off she sped, most likely to run back into her house, in which she spends an average of 6 hours per day making spotless. I swear, you can identify cavities in back molars just looking into the stainless steel of most Italian homes' kitchen tops. Their houses are so spotless, you begin to think they are not, in fact, truly receiving you in their homes, but in the model home of the apartment complex.

The curtains get washed and ironed regularly – it must be a form of a workout. I’m sure that’s why Italian women are in such good shape. I once stayed with a family where they even ironed the socks and underwear. I pondered how many wrinkles socks actually get in their lifetime, and, if they iron the single socks which are leftover time & again, readying them, so to speak, for the day they meet their mate.

And, in keeping true to form, when they invite you in, they will always – always – apologize profusely for the mess. As you scrutinize the apartment, you wonder if ‘the mess’ signified that the cds were no longer in alphabetical order or that the milk cartons in the fridge were not all positioned face-frontwards.

Even in homes with small children this is the case. I cannot, for the life of me, determine if kids in Italy actually play with toys, or, if they’re simply forced to go and play with their foreign playmates’ collections. I’ve yet to spy a single toy on the floor of any Italian apartment. I sometimes envision scenes of Bewitched, with little baby Tabitha just making the toys somehow magically disappear when a guest arrives.

But, once out of the home, all bets are off. Whereas the rest of the world comes home to drop our shoes where we stand, lay around surrounded by candy wrappers while ignoring the coffee cup ring on the kitchen counter, the Italians leave this to the Great Outdoors. Under the cover of anonymity they sort of relax those tough indoor standards.
And if they get caught? They can always rely on 'the hand' and trust me, you'll suddenly feel as if it was your fault for catching them in the act.

Thursday, February 14

Valentines Kisses

Ahhh.. Valentines Day – the day for Love and Lovers. The day in which sales not only go up 1000% on chocolates, the figure actually doubles as men and women rush around buying up chocolates and sweet nothings for their husbands/wives and lovers.

But the greatest symbol of this store-bought holiday is, of course, the Chocolate Kiss or Bacio Perugino – that little chocolate piece from Perugia, romantically stuffed with little love notes for your sweetheart.

While in America, Hershey’s Kisses were naively a sign of sweet innocence, in Italy, they were actually born from a love triangle on the production line. As the story goes, the chocolatier’s wife had a thing for one of the guys in quality control. So, she started sending little notes down the line, hidden in the chocolates.

I’m not too sure how the story ended—with the founder happy to be rid of her and all the more wealthy from her little scheme, or, if ensued a much longer battle over copyright, probably still unresolved in the Italian courts these 100 years on.

It’s most likely he came up with his own fabulous chocolate hearts packaging to win the heart – of his own lover.

Wednesday, February 13

My Funny Valentine

I received a wonderful singing Valentine - well, in the mail. It was from my mother, so I knew right away it was a Singing Valentine (I always get a Valentine’s from my mother…although at forty-something, I might add, instead of bringing cheer, it sometimes gets a bit depressing, but..that’s another story). As I pulled the red card out of the envelope, to my surprise, there was my Christmas card belting out an entire chorus of We Wish you a Merry Christmas!!

So, instead of kudos for having the foresight to send a Valentines Day Card ahead of time, I thought, well, “better late than never!”  But one look at the post mark, and, I knew the culprit was another: in fact, it had been posted from the USA on Dec 18th.

Now we all know that Italy’s Post Office horror stories could fill the Library of Congress. Everyone has one – well, make that a couple hundred. I’ve actually witnessed Brits try to organize mass protests to no avail, while the Italians stand idly by, shaking their heads in disgust at the Barbaric rise in decibel levels. We’ve heard all the stories: from the workers in Milan being filmed stuffing envelopes under extra-large sweatshirts to extract cheques and money orders later (they got to keep their jobs), to postcards delivered to relatives long since dead, to my personal favourite -- your ability to conduct pretty much every transaction on earth from buying a house to tickets to a Rock Concert to long-distance adoption, except stamp purchases.

And so it was, I believe, McKinsey & Co. who won the coup of actually getting a contract to evaluate the abysmal Postal Services and then recommend changes to it. Millions of euros later, they came up with what any of us waiting in the infernal lines while dozens of workers behind the windows stand around chatting would have offered free of charge: the Post Office did everything well and profitably… except deliver mail. McKinsey went on to say that perhaps they should reconsider staying in their ‘core business’.

Considering that a letter from Rome to Milan or Naples to Turin arrived faster by donkey courier in medieval times than it does today, I say, just as we are looking fondly on as Big Cities adopt man-powered rickshaws, maybe we should be looking at Donkeys as the mode of travel for letter delivery in the 21st century.

We would just have to make sure that they aren’t fitted with large sweatshirts bearing the Poste Italiane logo whilst on duty.

A few commonly shared stories have appeared from time to time on The American Magazine. Just click to read n’ weep:



And, drop me a line in the Comments -- I'd love to hear yours!

Tuesday, February 12

Smooth Walkin'

Nowadays, I actually enjoy going back up to Milano, and noticing all the little improvements along the way—new store fronts, new bars, new faces, new art shows. The city seems more vibrant in some ways.
One thing I hadn’t noticed was the huge upgrade of the pedestrian mall they had created a few years back. I hadn’t noticed it, because I had by now gotten into the habit of taking a side street, bypassing all the cool shops. It was too painful. And I don’t mean just the prices.

Walking up that street, with its new inlaid granite blocks was terribly uncomfortable. Once again, the designers had a great-looking concept which, once put into practice, did not serve its intended purpose. The walkway, as it were, was so painful to actually set foot on, my dog would lunge himself into traffic (yes, you can always count on cars on Italy’s pedestrian malls) rather than face the stones.

And he wasn’t the only one to seek reprieve. There was a little 10 inch strip of flat marble running up the street on one side. And, in the first-ever documented case of Italians actually forming a single-file line, well, there we would be, like good 10 little Indians, marching up the block—all in a row.

The situation was so horrible that finally, the residents (and the store owners, especially the ones who were losing a great deal of business on the side of the mall sans flat strip) started a campaign to get the marble blocks sanded down. They hung posters, little old ladies petitioned the City officials, shop owners protested. Before they had a chance to sit themselves down and block traffic from entering this no-traffic zone, well, the City actually brought in the sanders. At what cost, this do-over?

Incredibly, today I found on that same walkway, a Citizen’s Initiative truck run by the Milan newspaper group Corriere della Sera. They asked if anything could be improved in town and to write down my complaints.
Thinking they should perhaps take it up with the residents in the outskirts where the streets are hardly paved with marble, I took one look at my new smooth mall, and walked on by.

Friday, February 8

Déjà Vu

I thought I’d give the Italians a bit of a break while I migrate over to France, although the Sarkozy – Bruni affair (now marriage) is of course, very Italian, but even the French have out-trumped anything the Italians could have mustered… At least the Italians still keep their affairs discreet.

But, what can you say about a country where President Mitterand’s long-time amante and his wife actually presided upon his State funeral, side by side. To use the French word, at least they’re not hypocrites. I have to hand it to those sexy (if you like guys in suits) and sex-crazed French presidents…to think Sarkozy could get divorced and remarried while in office, and, to do one within a few months of the other, is well, commendable. Especially considering that in America, they would if they could but they can’t. Anyone remember what happened to Gary What’s-his-name on the Monkey Business?

I just can’t decide if they’re way ahead of America, or have medieval Muslim leanings for taking a few wives instead. It could be that it’s all just calculated political posturing to please their Arab electorate.

Politics aside, all I can say is that their fabulous engagement rings are not the only thing that the lovely ex-model Cecilia has in common with the lovely ex-model, Carla. Simply put, Carla Bruni is the stand-in for his ex, Cecilia. I just hope Sarkozy doesn’t mix up their names in the heat of the moment…

And as for Carla? Given the Sarkozy track record* I’m glad your album was called “No Promises”. I’m sure you can always say you had your fingers crossed behind your backs whilst pledging your vows for eternal love...

*Sarkozy marries Marie-Dominique Culioli on 23 September 1982.
Sarkozy divorced Culioli in 1996, although they had already been separated for several years.

Sarkozy met former fashion model and public relations executive Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz when he officiated at her wedding to Jacques Martin.
In 1988, she left her husband for Sarkozy, and divorced Martin one year later. Sarkozy married her in October 1996.

Sarkozy and Cécilia ultimately divorced in October 15, 2007.

Sarkozy meets ex-model Carla Bruni in November 2007. Obviously in a whirlwind romance, they get married 3 months later.

Wednesday, February 6

Back to the Future

I have long held that Italy is a very nostalgic country. And now it looks like the folks at Trenitalia are so nostalgic, they’ve decided to take us right back to 1985; with the exception of their spiffy Eurostar trains (the train I love to hate) and the fact that nowadays, we all get a seat (we’d be fined €50 if we boarded without tickets—explain that to the foreign tourists), and of course, the ticket prices: we now pay about 18 times more to receive the same service we had in the ‘80s.

The nostalgia is so prevalent, the fancy Trenitalia.it website now even redirects back to its old unwritable and unpronounceable name, ferrovie dello stato (State Railways). I’m sure you’ll find this brainy move in your Marketing textbook right next to the Case History on Alitalia’s 50 years of running losses, and yet it still goes on flying. You can well imagine where we’re headed here in terms of efficiency and quality:

- In a country banking on tourism, you can no longer purchase tickets online with a foreign bank card. So, back to the ticket lines.

- When calling the reservations number (and here they are quite efficient and bilingual), I was told that the groovy promotions are on a first come first served basis, and to simply ask for my discount back at the ticket office.

- The windows were plastered with the promotion, but the ticket guy said those discounts were taken away on February 1st (it’s Feb 5th). So much for coordination of the information flow. I later discovered he lied – probably just couldn’t be bothered.

- I hold an Executive (Frequent Traveller) Card which, when it was first instated granted me a great many benefits (of course, for a hefty membership fee) including: free luggage checks, 10% discounts on travel, a wonderful lounge for meetings, free drinks, internet access, and no lines. Over the years, each one of these terrific benefits has been taken away; and so here we are, in 2008, when none are no longer applied (except the membership fee, of course). So much for keeping your customers happy. You'll find this move in your Marketing Textbook under "Monopoly Power".

- Once on board, I was surprised to see the drink vendors from days gone by roaming up and down the coaches even though there’s a bar on board. There is one modern update, however: now these guys are Albanians. Even just last year, the personnel manned each entranceway in an effort to keep these and other undesirables from clamboring aboard and stealing your luggage. I can’t tell you how many bags I saw literally fly out the doorway before this not-so-little perk was put in place. But no more.

- And while my train to/from Florence was on time, the bathrooms are back to ‘80s (or 1920s, take your pick) standards. And, the wonderfully courteous conductors who religiously checked your tickets now run through the cars mostly skipping us altogether just like before. If this keeps up, maybe I can get away with a free ride like half the guys in my 2nd class car (I no longer can afford 1st) -- just like I did when I was a student in the ‘80s.

Can someone please find the contraption to put us back up to 2006 again??

Tuesday, February 5

Trash or Treasure Trove?

At the risk of being accused as totally garbage-obsessed, I merely keep this up because while Napoli’s no longer making front page news, the problem still persists. But I offer hope.

Today’s La Repubblica newspaper ran an entire two page spread on a certain Zhang Yin, the richest woman in China, and the most successful “Self-Made Woman” in the world (with apologies to Oprah & JK Rowling, Queen Elizabeth & Imelda Marcos – although the latter are not really self-made, unless they started selling off art and shoes, then they'd make the grade). In any case, she made her money from recycling.

In Italy, they are now talking about instituting fines for people who don’t recycle. I can’t help but thinking that, at least in Rome, this initiative is going to go the way of fines for people who don’t pick up after their doggie’s poops. I mean, who is truly there to monitor? Especially at night, when, come morning, all the merda is all over the sidewalks? (The same can be said for garbage). In Milan, the garbage was separated in each apartment complex. The entire apartment would be fined time and again until we caught on. Needless to say, we caught on real quick and recycling in Milan is around 45%.

In Naples, tenants may pay the ‘pizzo’, but I’d like to see if they’ll pay the pizza-box fine or just send a few henchmen to the Condo President’s front door instead.

In Rome, we have anonymous dumpsters placed randomly around town. So, will they post little garbage fairies at each of the dumpsters who will then come chasing after you with your garbage in tow? Like most laws, they will be imposed but not enforced. Chaos wrapped in (unrecyclable) cellophane.
I propose that someone (preferably outside the Mafia) in this country of few trees takes a good hard look at Ms. Zhang’s enterprise. She takes containers that arrive in America, dumping their trash… errr goods and picks up the paper trash to bring back to China. Sheer brilliance. And she got extremely wealthy along the way.

Of course, she does business with a country where people separate their garbage out, voluntarily, and without the risk of fines…three things we’ll be hard-pressed to come by here. But, I would like to appeal to Italy’s innate entrepreneurial spirit. I know if she can do it, an Italian can do so, too.

In the meantime, I would also like to make an appeal to Ms. Zhang: I hear there’s a flotilla the size of North America roaming around the Pacific Ocean and made up of plastic bottles that have agglomerated from the undercurrents. Can you maybe throw out a huge net and perhaps tow this Great Pacific Garbage Patch back over to China too?
Alright. I admit it, I am garbage-obsessed.

Monday, February 4

Tante Belle Cose - January

Italy is looking at reducing taxes from workers' paychecks (automatically deducted at the source in an effort to keep everybody honest) in order to tackle the spiraling costs of living and jumpstart the economy. Considering they represent 76% of the working population, this to me, is a terrific proposal. But then where does it stop? When prices and pay are at Scandinavian levels, without the benefits?

Italy's Supreme Court has instituted a 1200 euro fine for anyone who leaves dogs in the car, no matter the danger. Having broken into many an auto in my lifetime to free the poor creatures, this can only be a good thing even though Trevor sometimes waits for me there while I'm at the cinema...Guess I'll have to go back to bringing him in as a stowaway!

Rome has decided to acknowledge that, after having closed the City Center on weekends to all traffic, people would actually need to use public transport to move around. They've finally extended the subway or metro hours to 1:30 at night.
Now, if the Major Capital City of London could follow suit (15M), considering the amount the Brits drink, that'd certainly put things right.

Italy final adopted an Anti-Stalking Law and is very busy doing a lot more than paying lip service to the increasing and highly alarming rate of homicides perpetrated against women at the hands of their lovers, husbands, or exes. Now, if they can just stop lighting the Colosseum green for every time America commits Capital Punishment, and light it up Pink for each woman murdered senselessly, they'd really be on to something. Sadly, the Colosseum would be pink over 100 days per year.

Sunday, February 3

Francesca Maggi's...Strange But True!

The Italian press got a big kick out of the fact that Cardinal Bertone, during a sermon at San Giovanni in Laterano, the third most important Basilica in Rome, quoted Woody Allen’s famous line, “God is dead, Marx is dead, and I’m not feeling so well myself.”
Frankly, I applaud any attempt by the clergy to appeal to their flock, and with humour no less; in a country where Latin Mass will soon assure that even more people are detached from the church.
But even I gotta admit that perhaps Cardinal Bertone should maybe have chosen a different person to quote from…I mean, with the pedophile scandal in America costing millions per year (in Italy, it generally goes unreported both by victims and the press), quoting an incestuous pedophile is, well…perhaps not so PC.
But, what to expect from the Vatican who took Cardinal Bernard Law, after being disgraced in Boston for covering pedophiles for decades, and ‘demoted’ him to run Rome’s second most important church, Santa Maria Maggiore?

According to the most excellent monthly news magazine, The Roman Forum, a public works councillor has estimated that it costs €4.3 M ($6.4M) per year to maintain Rome’s Nasoni water fountains. I imagine that cost, however, does not include the amount of money literally going down the drain in water itself. And with water prices up 27.7% since 2002, well…
But, the fact that someone is even starting to talk about the Nasoni is good news (although the EU has been talking about them since the ‘90s, fining Italy millions for this waste year after year).
Just think: if they just added off/on nozzles, we’d probably save enough between water, maintenance & fines to give IBM a new €58M website contract! (see previous blog entry about that scandal).

And finally, in a rare moment of Awesome Customer Service, the (German) Bosch Company, known for its high quality, replaced my car battery with just one email exchange to the powers that be, and with incredible professionalism on the part of the Customer Parts people throughout my little ordeal.
[Basically, the retailer where I had originally purchased the faulty battery told me in no uncertain terms: 
a) the warranty was only 6 mths (it was 2 yrs)
b) the faulty battery was actually the fault of my car (yeah, right) and 
c) they would send it in to Bosch and wait for an answer (over the 3 wk holiday closures) – and I’d have to simply sit tight and go without wheels during that time, as a sort of ‘punishment’ for causing them this distress. As it turns out, they sold me the wrong battery in the first place (but is that a surprise?).
The Bosch people even amazed themselves over their own response, stating well, “We’re not a very Customer Service – Driven country and we were glad to prove otherwise." (Had my true identity been revealed to them in a Clark Kent sort of way???).
They have earned a customer for life and I’ll even be taking my Honda there for servicing…(they even took the time to give me a personal introduction...something worth its weight in gold in Italy).
Now, if the rest of the country would just catch on…

Friday, February 1

Italia.it or Italia NOT it?

P.J. O’Rourke, acclaimed author and Economist for Rolling Stone Magazine, once remarked that there are three ways to spend money:

1) YOU spend YOUR own money – and therefore, search out the best deals, price compare, get the best quality for the lowest price.

2) SOMEONE ELSE spends YOUR money – and here, he says, it’s like an ex-wife with your credit cards. Spends with wild abandon, but within the card limits (hopefully) or until she’s cut off.

3) SOMEONE ELSE spends SOMEONE ELSE’S money – an absolute free-for-all, no price controls, no checks, no limits, a case of pigs feeding at the trough. This, is Government Spending.

And, while this is applicable across all governments in all nations, it’s especially true for Despot Dictators and the Bush Administration at War. But it’s the Italians who really add that touch of color and drama to their spending. While Americans lament a $78 hammer, the Neapolitans once gave funds (through that seemingly bottomless pit of EU money) to two guys to set up a ‘modeling school’ (read, whorehouse, with owner-employee discounts). But I digress.

Last week, with all the hullaboo surrounding the huge piles of trash overflow and the Italian government (note: terms interchangeable), a small item missed most radars:

Italy’s incredible website, www.Italia.it built to promote -- as the government is wont to say -- “our petrolium”, was shut down. Given that Italy has so much going for it, it doesn’t really need promotion as a tourist destination, long as the Colosseum is standing and Tuscany doesn’t go coop, but, again, I digress. See article here.

The site’s closure wouldn’t be much to remark about, if it weren’t for the 58 million euro – that is not a typo - $85 million they put aside to make it. Now, I know there are exceptional websites out there. Some companies spend lots on them.
What would be a good benchmark for a really terrific website? $500,000? $1.5M? We’re not talking the making and running of Google Search Engines here. I'm sure there are even better templates than what they came up with.
In fact, the site boldly boasting, In Italian and English!!!! was most distinct for being totally impressive – in how fast you wanted to navigate off of it. What else would you expect from a government-run website?

But this domain, in real terms, was bigger than Nero’s Domus Aurea, his golden palace which once covered over 2/3 of the entire city.

Once again, the very people who this bad management affects, the honest Italian taxpayers, should be rampaging through the streets calling for the Technology Minister's head...did I mention - in a feat Dick Cheney would be proud of - he gave the contract to an IBM subsidiary? If I remember correctly, he once ran IBM].
If this ‘sacking of the treasury’ happened in Asia, the guy would have committed hari-kari by now. But instead, it gets just a brief mention on page 17. People simply shrug their shoulders, knowing that, just like the ‘modeling agency’, it’s just part & parcel with bad governance and ‘business as usual’.

And while Nero’s domain went down in history as the biggest, most incredibly outrageous waste of money, all for the glory of one megalomaniac, I for one, would like to submit an entry in Wikipedia that in 2007, history repeated itself.