Tuesday, July 29

False Estate

A friend of mine has been looking for an office to rent around Milan. Luckily for him, he’s been given ample time to find one; because in Italy, if you’re looking for a home or office, you have to take off a lot of work in order to do so. In one of the last bastions of la dolce vita, real estate people still don’t work weekends, much to everyone’s demise.

And so, he set out looking for an apartment in the area he wanted. Needless to say, in a country which doesn’t hold telling the truth in very high esteem, he says that half the time looking for a place is spent on sleuthing out the clues on whether or not the realtor is truly telling it like it is, or merely hedging her bets when it comes to apartment size, availability and location.

For him, anything that does not match each of the above requests is a deal breaker. For the realtor, everything is in play. Nothing is not debatable, nor not open to interpretation. His conversations are highly reminiscent of Laurel&Hardy’s “Who’s on First?” routine.

One realtor, so zealous in having found a legitimate client (it would appear there are a lot of fake clients, too), actually went around his neighborhood, calling all of the apartments he had already seen, and then telling him they were now her listings. He kindly demurred saying he knew them well, and no, no amount of talking them up was going to make him change his mind and fall in love with them.

At one point, he found what seemed the perfect place. He called the same day the ad came out. He was asked what type of business he was in. Upon answering, the woman said the place was no longer available.

- What do you mean? A moment ago it was. It’s perfect for me.
After putting him on hold, she gets back saying, “Okay. My colleague, Marco, will take you to see it, but just don’t mention my name or my office to the owner.”

Upon arrival, the owner asks if he’s a Doctor. Well, in Italy, where titles are everything, he said, in fact, he was, meaning that he had a Post-grad degree and that his business was totally on the up and up.

The woman looked perplexed. She said Dottor Marco here had told her that he was a real Doctor. Now he was perplexed. "He’s my realtor!", he innocently exclaimed, much to Dottor Marco's chagrine.
"No he’s not, he’s a Doctor." And then ensued a case of uncovering mistaken identities, right out of the play book of Oscar Wilde‘s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

Needless to say, by having told the truth, he didn’t get the office he wanted.

Saturday, July 26

Amore per Alitalia

Well, ya gotta hand it to RyanAir. First, they paint "Arriverderci Alitalia" on their planes. Then, they bring British humour to the Neopolitans by advertising, "Don't pay taxes! (for garbage removal & on flights)! Now, they've got the entire country in a tizzy for reprinting Minister Bossi's casual gesture, basically citing that by supporting high cost Alitalia, the country officials are basically saying (see gesture) to passengers.
Problem is, RyanAir's right. And therein lies the controversy.

The government, after giving away untold thousands of taxpayers' money to their friendly "Banker Consultants" over at San Paolo di Torino, received word from their trusty financial advisors that: a) Alitalia was indeed bankrupt, b) they'd have to cut jobs (even more than Air France had allowed), and c) they needed to sell the Company. Wow. Truly earth shattering news.

So now, the truth's out: it's not really about Alitalia at all, but about how Berlusconi and his cronies can shake a bit more moolah out of its airplane piggy bank. Now, if only the Italians will stop waxing nostalgic over having an "Italian flag carrier" (never mind a bloated, costly and inefficient one) and realize this basic truth.

To pay for Alitalia's debts, the government has legitimized its own Ponzy scheme whereby they give 300 million to Alitalia, and then gauge the populace (the ones who pay taxes) to pony up more to Alitalia in order to cover the debt, and, now the huge EU levy on the illegal "loan" to start with.

And, with his characteristic chutzpah, Berlusconi asks the people to keep flying Alitalia, thereby paying even more into its coffers...Why Italians don't ask for their money back is beyond me, or, in the very least, a taxpayer discount on flights. But never fear, our White Knight is going to see it through.
No one ever denied that he wasn't a marketing magnate (just check out his Forza Italia campaign he brilliantly put out years ago, months before announcing he was running for Prime Minister of the newly formed Forza Italia party).

His new solution? "We've come up with a slogan" -- nothing like taking real action toward cutting your losses. How much did they pay the PR Consultants from the kitty to come up with this one?

Io amo Italia, io volo Alitalia.

Now that's amore.

Thursday, July 24

Traveler Advisory - Milan

Each time I take a trip, it seems there’s always something new to discover – and, I don’t mean just the cultural events! Here’s a taste of the good, the bad, and the ugly of Milan:

Milan’s luggage check – don’t tell Al Qaeda, but, while they’re still going through the ridiculous machinations of x-raying our bags, they’ve finally stopped the foolishness of making a photocopy of our i.d. cards, adding an extra 4 mins. per person to the already outrageous wait time.
They must have realized, in the event that one of us did choose to blow up the 500 bags (versus just blowing oneself up amidst thousands over on the platforms), the copies of our i.d.’s would probably be shredded, and, they’d never know whodunit anyway.
Meanwhile, all the poor souls who have the most need for a luggage check, due to their extra large and heavy bags – please know that they’re not accepted. They make you weigh your bags and they have to be under the 20kg cutoff point.

And while we’re in the luggage deposit, you better plan your time properly: don’t cut it close for pickup…you will miss your train. On the Sunday before holidays, they had only 1 person on duty handling drop offs, pickups and the cash register.

Milan’s Corso Garibaldi – This has turned into one big pedestrian mall, even though it’s still a bit tough to walk on the pavement. It’s wonderful to see Milan so vibrant, with so many cafés, restaurants and bars to choose from. We had a midnight Spanish feast outdoors, with all the great people-watching there was to go with it (especially if you like seeing fully grown women trying to look like 12 yr. old boys with new! extra large hooters...)

Public Transport/Time Ticketing – if visiting Milan, your best bet for moving around is taking the lovely (but noisy) trams, which I particulary like because they keep cell phone use to a minimum. There's always the great Metro subway lines (never mind the stops are about 100m away one from another)…I buy a 24 hr. ticket and ride it heavily (3 euro). Just be aware of line changes due to construction around town (and we haven’t even started the building projects for Expo 2015).
Keep in mind that the 75 min. tickets are good for only one trip on the subway. In Rome, note that the Biglietto Giornaliero (day ticket) is only good 'til midnight of that same day.

Driving in the Centro Città
-- After renting a cute little lowcost Smart car, I was probably hit with 245 euro in tickets roaming around the center. You’ll now find lots of parking places, because you’re not supposed to be there!!

Tuesday, July 22

The Italian Job

There are a couple of financial scandals going on in America (just a couple?!) that have piqued my interest these days. I'm talking about American-born Angelo Mozilo, former head of the largest home lending Company, Countrywide Financial, and Italian Raffaelo Follieri, better known as Anne Hathaway’s ex.

Now, I’m not implying that the Italians have cornered the market on graft and corruption – just one look at the litany of Wall Street scandals, Enron, Worldcom, lobbyist money, sex scandals, Watergate, Ponzy schemes; even the Kennedy’s got their money and status thumbing their noses at Prohibition. Taken together, they add credence to the Italian proverb, tutto il mondo è un paese (the whole world is a village).

One must consider, however, that Italy’s Parmalat did outdo them all in terms of sheer chutzpah, amounts involved and levels of ‘creative accounting’ so intricate it would make Daedulus’ Labryinth look easier to get out of (btw, he was Sicilian).

But one thing’s for sure: where these two guys messed up is that, if you’re caught in America, you risk getting the book thrown at you (just ask Martha Stewart). Generally speaking, there aren’t many politicos lined up to save your skin (unless you’re Ken Lay, Mark Rich or Scooter Libby), or no judge who's going to turn a blind eye. Follieri’s life sentence would set a nice example for more than a few white collars thinking they can get away with it.

In Italy, these guys may not have gotten busted in the first place (it would all depend on who they had in their pocket). Or, if they did, they may have gotten off lightly, or, the trial winds on so long, they get off from sheer boredom. Or, like (the likely outcome of) Parmalat or even the Tangentopoli folks -- they get a slap on the wrist and are told not to do so again. Their families get to keep the change hidden away in outposts like the Cayman islands or Lichtenstein.

America seems to have the market on Corporate scandals, only because they get caught. This marked difference with Italy was aptly put to me one day by a sociologist: While in America, we have corrupt individuals -- in Italy, it is the entire system which is corrupt.

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, July 17

Waiting for the Tide to Come In

A friend of mine repatriated to NY after 14 years in Italy…well, he lasted only 7 months. He’s now happily ensconced back into the apartment he never gave up upon departure. He longed for the days to come back to a place where you worked hard, but you don’t give up your life as you once knew it.

The funny thing is, while he didn’t experience much culture shock in NY (he claims he didn’t have time for it), it was upon his reentry that he found the problems flooding in.

How quickly he had forgotten that 'Sì, Signore' - 'Yes' doesn’t mean 'yes, right away', but rather 'in a few weeks' time', and that people will not only put you on hold for 40 minutes, they’ll hang up on you outright if you so much as pipe up to complain about it or the trouble you're calling for in the first place.  He has by now spent the better part of the month trying to delete his New Yorker ‘squeaky wheels get the grease’ attitude, and rebooting his Milanese mannerisms – always stay cool and collected, or they will turn against you. Horribly.

So, since coming back to Milan, he’s had to wait (patiently) for his phone to be hooked back up, to get a lease contract, to do this, do that, but most of the time, he simply has to wait for other people in the food chain to come back from the seaside.
He says if he hears the word “mare/seaside” one more time he’s going to go postal. The funny thing is, in Milan, it’s not an excuse, it’s reality.

Trying to buy a car, get a plumber, even rent an office. The ads are posted, but nothing can be done, Signore, they’re all at the mare.
His only recourse: he got in a car and drove himself to Forte dei Marmi’s seaside for a nice long weekend.
His outgoing message, “I’ll have to get back to you. I’m at the mare.”

Saturday, July 12

Doing as the Romans Do

While entertaining guests this past month, I found myself dishing out a lot of rules about beach (and other) behavior to remember during their stay. I realized that, in a country that collectively flips off the thousands of rules that govern daily life, the rules that are adhered to the letter are the ones governed by the omnipresent Ministry of Bella Figura, under the strict watch by none other than mamma and gramamma.

I offer you my short list, but, feel free to add any of your own:

- Men: No walking around bare-chested at all times, except when sunning yourself, at which point Women: you can go topless.

Even the most anarchic soccer fan won’t be caught with his shirt off (the TV cameras might just pick him up whilst mamma is watching).

- Bare feet: only poolside and on the beach, but even a foray to the beach bar means sandals. This goes even (or especially) in houses.
After moving here, I actually got athlete’s foot from the lack of air around my extremities, but, I must say, I am quite used to this (and the persistent athlete's foot) by now.

- Wet hair: Of course, never ever leave the house with wet hair, lest you get struck down in mid-stride by the boogeyman.
Needless to say, this is one rule that I prefer to totally break on a daily basis, even in winter.

- Eating with fingers: Never. Not even if it’s spare ribs or yummy drumsticks. Just don’t ‘go there’. Same goes for fruit. Use your knife and fork.
I tend not to order things I’m too tempted to pick up by hand.

- Laughing out loud: first visitors to Italy always remark on the fact that women don’t seem to laugh here. While the rest of us notice that Americans can be heard three train compartments ahead. Pipe down and keep boisterous laughter to a minimum.

As a direct descendant of The Loud Family (SNL), personally, I can’t stand this rule (I mean, if ya gotta hang up about happiness…)so, if you’re in a crowded (and noisy) pizzeria, I say, go for it. But, I’ve actually been asked to quiet down or leave in many a ristorante (okay, I admit, that was in Milan). Where they’re used to us barbarians, it’s probably not such a faux pas or act of sheer crastness.

- Kids in restaurants: Half the people (Italians & expats included) affirm that Italians always bring their kids out, while the other half say never. I think they always do, but you’d just never know it, since the kiddies are so well-behaved (again, a lot of controversy on this one).

I had American guests whose daughter skated with her cool healy shoes 'round and 'round the restaurant. The (Roman) staff was more than terrific about that and the child did not end up nailed to the floorboards. But still, kids have got to behave in public, and, while we’re at it, sit up, no feet on the chairs, and no playing with their drinks.

- A corollary to the above is Pasta Eating: Spaghetti is not to be picked up in large scoops and eaten like a Purebred after running the Belmont Stakes. Italian children get the twirling from day 1 (I think it’s in their DNA). Just get the kids gnocchi and call it a day.

- Doggie Bags: Because I usually have my dog with me, I have a handy excuse for taking home doggie bags. But, in fancy restaurants I still ask with much trepidation. I can’t stand the idea of throwing out my half-eaten $75 meal. But, just don’t let an Italian see you do it.
I actually had a boyfriend who broke up with me after I asked to take home half a pizza – in the pizza box – from my local pizzeria.

- Saying Buon Giorno and Buona Sera whenever you enter a store or restaurant: This is one of my favorite things about living in Italy, right up there next to the sadly dying practice, the air kiss thing. I wish Americans would get on this track instead of their insipid Valley Girl inspired “How are ya’??” greeting.

Saturday, July 5

Happy 4th of Luglio!

Last night, I was invited to attend the annual Embassy shindig held in the gardens of the Ambassador’s Residence. Lest you think simple villa, let me say that the gardens with their labyrinthine patterns, statues and flowers easily held the 3000 guests, servers and huge BBQ pits for the scores of hamburgers and hot dogs served on those delicious buns which, if one stops and compares them to the Italian pane, well, could taste a lot like eating vanilla taffy.

But, what really stood out (aside from Gina Lollabrigida, still beautifully going strong), were, of course, the thousands of Italians, not least for their totally elegant summer dress. Although I must admit, Americans have greatly improved over the years, almost reaching the easy sophistication of Italian style (just don't mention ‘business casual’). I didn’t notice any Brits donning those godawful pin-striped suits which make them all appear that they just walked off the set of Guys&Dolls, but, then again, are they invited to celebrate our independence? Do they come if they are? I wonder what the protocol is on the British presence on the fourth of July.

But, right from the start, there were other clues that set us apart, even though the evening was, of course, about our strong ties. The line to get through security wound up the block. Most Americans, including decorated NATO Officers, stood in it. An Italian woman muttering, “this isn’t for me” knocked me over with her bag as she plowed her way to the front. She was not alone. For all I know, the Americans are still Indian-filing in, while the Italians partied all night and finally went home, grabbing the first taxis just ahead of the rest of us.

As we filed by in the heat, we found tables mercifully laden with small plastic bottles of water. The Americans grabbed them and chugged them down before reaching the Ambassador and his wife. The Italians, hot & thirsty just the same, took one look at the table, saw there were no plastic cups, and simply passed them by; pleasantly choosing to ignore that barbaric fast-food mentality brought over by their hosts.

At the food tables, of course, you could find the Americans making a mad rush for the brownies, chocolate chip cookies and Haagen-Dazs – Heck-–I even ate them between courses in the way that smoke addicts cop a smoke while eating. Italians chose forks and plates of mozzarella although some Italians joined the Americans in happily chugging beer from the bottle, in a ‘when in Rome’ sort of nod. It was our holiday, after all.

After people applauded the Ambassador’s excellent speech -- in perfectly fluent Italian -- on the power of cooperation, the need to help boost the economy, and the Italians’ standing along with it, and, of course, maintaining the standards of their most excellent industries, I got the impression that the message didn’t quite sink in.

Baskets filled with red, white & blue confetti bouquets were placed at the exits as a nice parting favor. I barely managed to grab one (and I mean grab), as people were plunging their entire bodies into the heap in order to pull out as many as they could possibly carry. Some women departing looked as if they had magically changed into Eliza Doolittle, bunches of these 'flowers' in their arms.

Needless to say, there weren’t enough to go around, but, hopefully the bouquets will be given out to others in the spirit of giving – versus that of taking away for one’s own benefit.

A nice rule to live by, unless of course, you’re an American patriot and it’s 1776.

Thursday, July 3

News of the World

Now, I rarely go outside the boundaries of my Italian peninsula...but, every once in awhile some excellent news ditties cross my line of vision, and I just can't resist! You'll have to decide which one you find more outrageous:

* In Holland, the Smoking Ban against Tabacco took effect. This means, like in most of Europe, you gotta go outside to smoke. Everything except marijuana. The coffee shops touting Mary Jane and all her friends are left intact, no laws, no fines.

Something inside me absolutely relishes this ruling, while somewhere else, I can't imagine why this law is so over-the-top preposterous.

* In England, they recently ran a competition for the star with the Best Smile, much like the Best-Dressed Awards (winner: Paul McCartney). This as an attempt to start focusing much-needed attention on the Brits' teeth (finally, we're well into the Next Millenium after all)

Truly, you can travel from Tibet to Timbuctu and find whiter, straighter & healthier smiles than you can in Central London.

* In the Maldives, they have installed those spy cameras that take photos of your license plate (who knew they even had roads in that island paradise?) So, one wise guy invented a contraption that, when he pressed a button on his motorcycle, the license plate flipped up -- in just the amount of time to whiz by the cameras at top speed. Well, they finally caught up to him.

This is so ingenious that I can't believe the guy wasn't Italian, but, I'm sure it's a new feature at your local body shop.

* In Bulgaria, the prostitutes were busy youtubing themselves in the public bathrooms. But, they also took to filming regular clients under the showers and uploading the files. Their fun was put to an end when the husbands saw their own wives on the porno sites.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but, in the event of the eventual confrontation, either the wives were lying about whoring around, or, the husbands were about how they found out in the first place...

Tuesday, July 1

Tante Belle Cose - June08

Actually, tantissime since I had such a fabulous 10 days traveling around S. Italy with friends. From Agropoli to Tropea, everything was more than exceptional: the hospitality, the food, the scenery. Paestum didn't disappoint (those temples are what brought me to Italy in the first place - never mind they're Greek). Even the people in the snooty hotel in Sorrento weren’t snooty. Why people even tolerate Portofino is beyond me. Come to Tropea! They still appreciate the yankee dollar! Incredibly, they even let us take out the peddle boats during lunch hour.

The only 'nota stonata', which went noticed by all (well, it was hard to miss), was the number of absolutely enormous German fraus sunning themselves in bikinis.

In Sorrento, I saw signs posted that the Garbage Collection will now be door to door - versus - the dumpster. This is terrific for two reasons: those dumpsters are huge eyesores (not unlike the beach bums above), and nobody uses them properly anyway. And, with door to door, they can finally fine the lazy ones for not recycling.

Now, to get them to pay up, well, that's another story.

In Venice, the govt found a way to clear the streets of all the illegal street vendors: citing security, no one is allowed to carry huge bags of ‘stuff’ along the streets. After all, the vendors have scouts so that when given the signal, they spring into action, pulling the sidewalks up along with their wares in a matter of seconds, and dashing, knocking down anyone in their path.

Anyone who has ever witnessed this feat can attest that they should be admitted as a sport in the Hong Kong Olympics.

While in Capri, they reopened a beautiful path put in by the founder of Krupp, who at the time, vowed to never return due to his treatment by the locals.

Those same locals are now eating the Capri equivalent of crow (probably seagulls), seeing what a beautiful patrimony he had left them.