Tuesday, April 29

Visit Milan - A city on the Move

Back in Milano, it would appear the entire city is undergoing a facelift. And this -- well before Expo 2015. The scaffolding is almost all down off the stunning Duomo with its thousands of gargoyles. It only took a few years—and considering the 400+ years it took to build the thing in the first place, well, I’d say that’s nothing short of a miracle. The nearby Palazzo Reale is undergoing a refurbishing that will expand it’s already impressive show offering, and the trams running by have been repainted to their 1920s yellow & orange, adding a wonderful dash of color to a once grey cityscape.

Even the Train Station is getting a cleaning…What I once thought was simply a black building is now a dreamy cream. It’s a shame the Milanese deplore this fascist monument – it’s actually one of the spiffiest buildings in drab Milan. In fact, every now and again they try and cover it up with some godawful construction which ruins the entire approach from the front.
photo by Hanzibar
Years ago, they put up a thing which I thought was totally cool – a huge skateboard ramp on the piazza. Wow—now that was a City in touch with their citizens! After all, there are dozens of boarders at all hours on the huge piazza. Turns out, it was an immense lighting system -- so the hundreds of drug addicts out front could find their veins more easily. It was so horrid that even the City officials came to their senses and it was finally taken down. Yet no other city in Italy wanted the eyesore – even for pay.

Now, they’ve put up a totem about just as high and just as ugly showing us a countdown to the fast train or something. Considering we’ve been riding and paying for these trains for years, I would have thought the line was well-established by now. I wonder if the clock slows down every time the villagers take to sitting on the tracks to avoid the train from passing their way.

But inside, they finally took down the wall and steps from the central part of the building whose only purpose was to impede passenger movement. With that blockade, you could be sure to reach your train only after breaking a sweat from running the gauntlet of thousands of passengers trying to squeeze through the smaller side entrances. This was obviously the brainchild of the same committee that tried to instate an entrance ticket at one point.

While all of this is absolutely terrific news, of course, one could say that between the payoffs for putting things up and the bribes for tearing them down again, the Station is more than the gateway in and out of Milan – it’s the gateway for income distribution -- and a microcosm of the waste and deficit spending that one finds across the entire country. After all, wasn’t Milan nicknamed in the ‘90s Tangentopoli (Bribe City)??

Saturday, April 26

Earth Day in England

Another interesting observation from my London sojourn is that no matter where you go, or what you’re doing… everyone -- from the doorman to the taxi driver to the barista at Starbucks to your friends and colleagues at breakfast – lunch and dinner – I mean everyone is talking about their ‘carbon footprint’. I was here a year ago and had heard nothing of it.

People here brag about how their carbon footprint is less than their neighbors’, their husbands’, their friends’, their family members’. They sit around dissecting their recycling – motoring – eating habits. Even how much less of a footprint they’ll leave if they do recycle plastic or do not (which consumes more energy in the long run); if they go to a zoo rather than an amusement park filled with lights; if they eat things wrapped in plastic, and so on.

Back in Italy, at least the Naples garbage crisis (my personal obsession) has brought the idea of recycling to the forefront. It’s unfortunate, though, that no one takes it too very personally. Instead of recycling one’s bottles, 'they' hope that 'they' start recycling… While everyone stands idly by, buying more plastic bottles, and waiting for ‘someone’ to solve the problem.

But the garbage crisis is just the tip of the iceburg. With the highest per capita car - cell phone – tv rate in Europe, and the lowest recycling; the plastic water bottles, grocery bags, and gazillion plastic containers strewn at the curbside of every local market from the tip of the toe to the top of the boot -- Italy must be leaving absolute skid marks from its carbon footprint.

I wonder, what did these Brits do to get this topic on everyone’s lips and in just under a year? Is it simply a question of Civic Society, and the greater good? Was it the press? Or was it industry who took the lead, first amongst them the grocers?

It would appear that in boot-shaped Italy, leaving a carbon footprint is almost as stylish as a pair of Todd’s shoes.

Friday, April 25

Size Matters

I’m in London this week, which is why you haven’t heard much from me. Aside from some of the obvious differences in architecture, the proliferation of pubs, and of course, the look of the people (they’ve got nuthin’ on the Italians), some things truly stand out: like all those protruding bellies. In a country which invented the princess style (or, Little House on the Prairie smocks), I’ve never seen so many umbilical cords since visiting the newborn room at a local hospital. It seems the whole country is pregnant.
It must be something in the water. And coming from a country with the lowest birth rate in the world, it makes for quite a surprising sight to behold.

Of course, unless you’re in the south, Italian women don’t even leave their house once pregnant. Here, you’ll see them running the London marathon. I’ll never forget a friend who wouldn’t even go out for a pizza—just because she was pregnant. Italians tell me that pregnancy is treated not so much as something to show off and celebrate as much as an illness to get over. Maybe Italians do make children, but, because of the Bella Figura Rule, those bellies are just not seen in public.

Once the kids are born, these British mums run around on/off buses, the tube, in stores, museums, kid play areas with kids in strollers, on leashes, in backpacks, wherever mum or the nanny feels like taking them (I must say, I haven’t seen many dads). I saw my pregnant neighbor walking her dog until she was 6 months pregnant; I haven’t seen her since (that was 2 1/2 years ago).

And considering there was a study revealing that the UK was the absolute worst place in the world to raise a child, I am very very impressed by the amount of optimism shown here by the general populace. But, whatever it is they’re putting in the water, perhaps the Italians can start lacing their water with it, too.
Shame that everyone drinks the bottled stuff in Italy.

Saturday, April 19

Berlusconi: Beloved Statesman or Demigod?

Picture from: Jean Gouders' Berlusconi

Here's a long-held secret: To truly understand Italian politics today, all you need to do is have a look at Ancient Rome. It's all there; the intrigue, the switching sides, the Senators-for-life, the plebes, the rowdy titles of the morning's news reports. Heck, you can even find the same fist-fights on the Senate floor, although I don't think they wield knives anymore. About the only thing that's changed are the lack of togas and the advent of cellphones, which, would have made planning for Caesar's demise a heck of a lot more efficient [I could hear them now, Okay, here he comes -- just about to enter the Senate!] But, they had trusty slaves to courier news, about just as efficiently as any broad band today. [What? I can't hear you! Speak louder! Darn! The line fell again!]

And, so, in considering my post-election Blog, I offer you a brief writeup on the outspoken and charismatic leader, Gaius Julius Caesar:

Caesar was Consul and then Dictator briefly. Then, nominally in 49 B.C.
Consul for a 2nd time in 48, Dictator for 2nd time after Pharsalus
Consul for 3rd term
Declared Curator Morem in 46 B.C. - actually, the Councillor for Public Morals (today, one could argue that it's the Media tycoons who are the arbiters of Public morality...)
Dictator for a 3rd time (declared for 10 years)
Counsel and Dictator for the 4th time in 45 B.C. (kind of like appointing oneself head of an important Ministry while running the rest of the Government and the private businesses all at the same time).
He then became Consul again, before simply declaring himself Dictator Perpetuo.

Now, I'm not implying that Berlusconi was self-appointed. After all, he won by an overwhelming majority. The above could apply to any number of his predecessors. But, the reaches of his public office holdings and private business interests and overall realm of influence gives one...pause.

Going back to Caesar, during his rule, (and all this info has been plagiarized directly from Oxford Publishing's, Who's Who in the Classical World...) he considerably increased the numbers of Senators, Priests and Magistrates, he created new patrician families and founded colonies for veterans and plebes. And while he dressed in the ornaments of Roman Kings, he refused the title, Rex. He pretty much went directly for deification instead.

Berlusconi may dress in businessmen's garb, but he has compared himself to Jesus.

In fact, Caesar was a distinguished orator who had the gift of using ordinary words to make his points--one could say he was a natural-born speaker. His praise was often tinged with flattery; a true sign of a charismatic leader, much like the showman Berlusconi. And as for the ladies, let's say it wasn't only Cleopatra/Veronica, kept at bay in her Alexandrian/Milanese fortress, who he had a thing or two for.

And, finally, according to my source, while he had no real plans for social, economic or constitutional reforms, Caesar merely aimed to imprint his Divine and Hereditary Rule wholly onto the Republic.

If you look over on my Amazon widget on the side bar, you'll find one of a terrific series of "light" novels set in Ancient Rome which spells it all out for you--by Colleen Mccullough. Good beach reading once you get past all the names.
Also in the side bar, a good article from the American Magazine on Berlusconi and his third time up to bat.

Tuesday, April 15

Italy's Love Affair with George Clooney

Somewhere between his purchasing a house on Lake Como, starring in Siriana, the release of Vanity Fair in Italian, and winning the Oscar for Michael Clayton, George Clooney morphed into the new Italian version of Marcello Mastroianni.

No, that’s not a typo. I think that the Italians think that he is actually one of their own. I don’t believe he has any Italian blood in him, although they’ll – no, scratch that – they’ve already – let that little oversight go, too.

But, seeing that the Italians haven’t come up with a new Mastroianni since, well, Mastroianni, they’ve decided, like the entire Italian soccer team, to just import one instead.

You cannot turn a corner, open a magazine, look at a TV, bus, newspaper or website without seeing Georgello’s mug. As nice as it is to look at, could he really be that crazy about Omega watches, Martini Red, Toyota, Martini White, and Nespresso caffè? And, all at the same time?

This week he was stumping for Walter Veltroni, called to Venice to stump there, too, his latest film (as Actor-Director no less) In amore niente regole (Leatherheads) is plastered all over town. Sky TV and Fox use his movies regularly to promise you terrific films all the time. Too bad they’re all Ocean’s 11 – 12 or 13 24/7.

Even tonight they managed to pull out a 1995 flick, Accerchiato, in case we were missing him between 9 and 11 pm, since he’d already been on 4 other channels and all the ads in between.

This amore has gone so far that he’s slotted to play the head of the Italian P2, the high stakes men's club filled with Italy’s politicians and businessmen which eventually fell apart after the Tangentopoli scandal. Hearing him speak Italian, I just hope the script's in English.

At this point, I say he change his name, keep dating hot models, perhaps have a kid with Chiara Mastroianni, and maybe make a few remakes of Marcello’s movies—at this point, nobody would be able to tell the difference.

Friday, April 11

Italy's Elections--A Bit Too Cheeky?

There’s something a bit frighteningly familiar about the Italian elections tomorrow. It seems America is everywhere.

- Walter Veltroni lifted Obama’s Yes We Can! and depending on the translator it means the same thing, or We Can Do It! He’s now busy running around with George Clooney, who, the last time I checked, had not become an Italian citizen…

- If you check out Berlusconi’s Party, the Popolo delle Libertà (People of Freedom), you can find a version of their logo with the Statue of Liberty in there. What to expect from a guy who has been using the Bush playbook for the last 8 years? But, does he know that the Statue came from the French? Maybe it’s in honor of France’s new First Lady, the (former) Italian, Carla Bruni - who has recently traded in her Italian passport. Maybe Silvio thinks he can bag a French ex-model if he becomes Prime Minister.

- An affiliated site depicts terrific portrait photos of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and even Milton Friedman, as if they were acting as advisers in this election.

- And the weirdest part of all was the heated debate about the voting cards in which the symbols were printed far too close too each other. Instead of looking where the X marks the spot (e.g. the intersection), any card with an extraneous mark flowing into another party's symbol will be disqualified. They didn't reprint them (cost: €5M), but I'm sure they would throw most Floridians into a tailspin.

- And the myriad parties of the left, all aggregated even though they supposedly wanted to get rid of this plague upon Italy, are using the famous NBC Peacock to show they’re all birds of a feather.

But while in America we are only inundated with lawn signs on every other house, in Italy, every election season, sidewalks across every city, town and hamlet are plastered with the politicos and their cheeky grins smiling out at us.

And although the photo shots have vastly improved from the mug shots of days of yore, in an age where looks tend to win, I’m not sure this is always a great idea.

Sadly, the (very few) hotties get recognized only for their ‘eye candy’ appeal, instead of what might be their real solutions for resolving Italy’s blight. You'll see one candidate's response to the standard stiffs in suits on poster's around town. Hint: She's running for the Porn Party...hmmmm...I wonder if she'll win??

Wednesday, April 9

Italy's Tourism-Based Economy??

When are the luminati over at TrenItalia (Italy’s Train Co., the illustrious Ferrovie dello Stato) going to catch onto the idea that Italy is a country which is counting on the tourist dollar, or, rather, the tourist euro (since the Europeans are pretty much the only ones who can afford to visit these days)?
At Trenitalia, it’s almost as if the web designers like to view their work as a modern-day Rubik’s Cube. He who solves the puzzle is rewarded with a roundtrip ticket (paid in spades, by you, of course).

Here's a typical day-in-the-life of a foreign Business Traveler (who is fortunate enough to know Italian):

- Go to Trenitalia.it It redirects to the user-friendly, ferrroviedellostato.it followed by a gazillion other words and symbols.

- Pick your trips. No problems there. Put them in your shopping cart.

- Try to pay using a foreign credit card. You must log in.

- Log in doesn’t work. They say you need a new password (your password is fine, but, it’s probably been deleted for inactivity or some such nonsense). You make a few attempts. You’re timed out (why they need to time you is beyond me).

- You decide, after being forced to repick your itinerary 3 more times, to sign up as someone new (it’s about my 29th alias here). Go to inbox to collect their pseudo password, which does not work until you click in and change it.

- Back to your page, you try to retrieve your shopping cart. Deleted. I still have books to purchase on Amazon over the last 8 months. Amazon even adjusts the prices (except at Amazon, they often go down…)

- Start your ticketing all over again. After inserting 6 tickets, you go to Purchase. Rejected. You’re notified that the max no. of transactions is 4. Now that’s one for Business 101 -- Limit number of purchases for absolutely no apparent reason other than to lower revenues.

- So, you try to go to your list to delete out those last 2 tickets (all the while thinking, Lord in heaven, I’ll have to go through this again??!!) Meanwhile, your shopping cart has been annulled. Start over.

- 4 tickets this time. Go to cart. Everything looks pretty good. Make purchase. Your purchase does not go through (back to your pet foreign credit card theory). Your cart is annulled.

- Try calling ticket phone line where, I must say, the people are kind, courteous, and very well-informed. Only thing, she can’t hear me (there is so much noise in the background, I truly believe her). I call back.

- After sitting through a recording governing laws, procedures, and the entire Italian white pages, I get to the person, plead my case, but the line goes dead. Three more attempts to call back, the lines are now busy.

- Fifth call now. Eureka! They do my ticketing for me. But, I can’t take advantage of the 20% discount for Saturday travel. Finally, after a bit of pleading (back to Rule #2 for living in Italy, ‘never take no for an answer’), she tells me that I can get the discount if I go from Milano to Florence only. Great. I’ll take it.

- I then ask for a ticket from Florence to my final destination. We can’t issue those, as those are Regional Trains. Huh??? Aren’t you the train company for all of Italy? Yes, but no phone sales on regional trains. I will give a handsome reward to anyone who comes up with the rationale behind that one.

- Ready to purchase my single, one-way ticket (I needed 6 in total). Except they can’t accept foreign credit cards either. So, I can’t get a ticket. Back to Rule #2.

- I ask if she can, in the very least, reserve the ticket for me (she can). I have 24 hrs. to pick it up at one of the machines.

I am quite uplifted at this point, as, I have outwitted the system. Applying my dietrologia conspiracy theory, I believe they don’t allow foreign credit cards because they don’t want all us rich foreigners getting the online discount of 5%. I think someone should inform them of the dollar/euro exchange rate.
In any case, by having her reserve the seat, I still get the discount anyway. Ha ha ha.

- I offer this theory to the lovely ticket lady on the other side. She states quite confidently that it’s actually my credit card company’s fault and not a policy of Trenitalia. I thank her for her help, and I call Amex just to be sure. The Customer Service guy has a hearty laugh. I’m glad I could make his day.

So, the next morning…
- I am forced to purchase a full price ticket from the machines (which happily accept foreign credit cards).
- Upon arrival in Milano, I go to another machine to pick up my Saturday tickets. Code number she gave me is invalid. I have to pay for a full price ticket. Trenitalia gets the last laugh.
- I then proceed to the nearest travel agent (although I sincerely debate making a very slight detour into the rental car company booth), to start all over and purchase all my tickets, with discount.

I know, in my heart of hearts, that these tortuous machinations will, in the end, keep my brain nimble and my body supple…so all is not in vain.

Monday, April 7

An Italian Expat Repatriates

I am reprinting this post from www.beppe.grillo.it for your own amusement (or despair, whichever comes first):

An Italo-Australian from Agrigento came back to Italy after forty years. He was in for some wicked nostalgia.

photo from Fiat 500 blog: www.500blog.blogspot.com/

He left Italy in 1968 with Mike Bongiorno and Pippo Baudo on TV, and Andreotti in Parliament. Alitalia was on strike. He had to go by ship. The commuter trains were full, filthy and late. He remembered the road works from that time, happening everywhere. He remembers the Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway about to be finished. Back then, there was the crisis of the Mezzogiorno (Italy's Southern region), the problem of the mafia and the neo-fascists.
He’s found everything the same as before. Exactly the same.

On TV there was even Mino Reitano, Peppino di Capri and Gianni Pettenati singing Bandiera gialla. “And Pannella?” He asked me. “Is he still there?” I assured him that he’s still there and that he does a beautiful thirst strike. "And Albertazzi and Raimondo Vianello? How about them?" I told him that they are often in the prime time evening slots.
"What about Emilio Fede and Bruno Vespa,”
he went on, “the TV News people?” “They have a different boss but they disinform even more than before -- their experience knows no limits,” I replied.

At that moment on the radio, Tony Dallara was singing “Come prima più di prima”{Like before but more so} and Mina was at the top of the best selling charts.

The emigrant thought I wanted to pull his leg so he started zapping the TV channels. To confirm his ideas.

He found: a debate about the modernity of the work of Manzoni with readings chosen from “I Promessi Sposi”, Roberto Benigni reciting The Divine Comedy and the Pope speaking from the balcony.

The last car the emigrant had, was a mousy-coloured Fiat Cinquecento, with a folding top. “And Fiat, how’s that going? And its current models?"
I hesitated a moment, frightened of his reaction. I then showed him an advert for the new Car of the Year – the Fiat Cinquecento.

“Mago Zurlì?” he whispered. I wanted to lie, but I couldn’t manage it. “Presenting Zecchino d’oro this year as well. But there’s no more Topo Gigio. He’s now gone into politics.” {note: Grillo's endearing term for Walter Veltroni}.

He returned to Sydney straight away, and sent me a postcard. It was an old postcard showing the rubble of Belice in Sicily after the 1968 earthquake, the same as today.

Saturday, April 5

Tante Belle Cose - March

With record gas prices, inflation across Europe, a looming mortgage crisis, and no government, it would seem hard to find something positive in the horizon, but, never fear, the Italians are nothing if not enterprising people.

This month we applaud:

- Mr. Ferrero, the maker of that true ambrosia, Nutella, making the Forbes list as the richest man in Italy.
Now, if Forbes can just get at everyone else's hidden accounts in Lichtenstein, Switzerland and offshore hideaways, that list might truly be something to look at.

- The huge RAI TV antennas will no longer grace the Seven Hills of Rome.
Perhaps the enlightened (nonexistent) government will quit stalling on calls by pretty much everyone on earth to take down the ugly telephone lines draping the Tuscan countryside, this, too, would be a wonderful sight not to see.

- Italian Pier Paolo Cito who won the Award for Excellence for his portrait photo, Le Donne di San Luca of Photographer of the Year.

- The Romans, in a study of tourists, were listed as I più belli d’Europa".
So now you know why I live here – it’s eye candy that even Mr. Ferrero can’t conceive of.

Thursday, April 3

One Down (Almost), Two to Go

At the stroke of the (randomly fixed) midnight, the Air France-Alitalia deal was off the table. Both sides agreed to one thing, though; to abandon the talks and walk out in tandem, in disgust over a third party's improbable proposition (one that had nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to do with the financial deal, nor administration of the Company). Alitalia's President resigned in disgust, citing, "the only thing that can save Alitalia now is an exorcist." And as if on cue, today's paper ran a full page interview with a very busy priest engaging in such practices.
Perhaps he should have been at the table instead.

All of this melodrama, because of the unions, who have been feeding at the trough for decades now, are still gluttons for more.

Although my not-so-secret desire is to see Alitalia, lying belly up like an overturned turtle, rudders flapping in the wind coming off the runway, it would appear that the unions are inflicted with a serious disconnect. I hope they're all sent home to watch reality TV 24/7 'til the end of their days. Now that would make a good 'reality check'.

That leaves my last two monopolies, Agip & Telecom to see crumble under the weight of their own shoddy business practices. [Although I confess, I have ended my personal boycott of Agip Gas, as they have the lowest prices in town -- but it's still a matter of knowing which stations to avoid -- the ones with pumps running on speed dial. I may even provide you with such a list, but first I must talk to my legal advisors about the laws governing defamation.]

As for Telecom Italia, it is an entire conglomerate founded on the Mafia principal of extortion. They have been milking their customers since the day Meucci got a dial tone.

Instead of actually growing a business, they have been perfecting their decades-long practice of inflated bills, false advertising, shoddy telephones (no returns), worse installation, and gauging the customer by forcing them to purchase over-priced and faulty modems. Only just today they received an injunction for hiding 899 numbers (high-priced 900 numbers) in their internet service in order to bill clients hundreds in dialups, unbeknownst to them.

Up until 1994, customers weren't even able to view their call details (although Telecom seemed to know exactly how much you spent and where). Nowadays, they mask your calls by printing out only the first few digits ("right to privacy" they claim--ignoring the obvious fact that you dialed that private number in the first place).

Every time I get a poor salesgirl on the line trying to get me to switch back to Telecom, I explain that I won't rest until I see her Company owned by Deutsch Telecom. Heck, even Bolivian Telecom would be an improvement.
Let's see if this little wish doesn't one day come true.

Wednesday, April 2

Malpensa-on life support

Monday marked the first day that Malpensa Airport was running sans Alitalia. Which meant, in short, that it was running a lot more smoothly. Having cut traffic by about 70%, for the first time since the airport opened everyone got their bags – and, in under an hour.

But, really, they keep talking about reducing the costs of operating: so now they’ve sent home thousands of workers for 2 years – with pay. At least for the baggage handlers, all of whom got to keep their jobs even after being caught with their hands in well, other people's trousers, so to speak, this is tantamount to a paid vacation. They’ll finally get a chance to use all the terrific high tech gadgets they’ve been pilfering for years.

In Rome, on the other hand, things weren’t as bad as Heathrow’s Terminal 5* (so much for the supposed impeccable British organization)…but, of course, there were lines for check-in and lines for luggage. Needless to say, all easily resolvable if they’d just hire a few people, but naaaahhhh – obviously too much trouble.

And as if on cue, today it was announced that Milan won the hosting of Expo 2015. Not such great news for the hundreds of thousands of people they expect who will all be re-routed through Rome.
Or perhaps, in 7 years’ time, they’ll finally let the foreign carriers pick up some of the now-empty slots.

*And in a true twist of Strange but True happenings, the problems at Terminal 5 are so great, they're actually going to -- and I hope you're seated as you read this -- send the bags to Milan's Malpensa for sorting!!!! I think someone forgot to tell BAA that the baggage people are home watching TV - and getting paid for it. One truly has to note that problems must be pretty bad up there across the channel for the Brits to rely on the Italians for organization...

It’s no wonder they call parts of the airport Terminal.