Friday, March 27

How long for the sniffles?

Anyone coming to Italy can’t help but notice the big green illuminated crosses on pretty much every corner and lining every street. No, these are not the modern update of the little madonnas which adorn almost every palazzo in Italy. They are the bright green Farmacia signs, and, judging by the crowds going in and out, you’d think they were giving away free money inside.

Italians love their pharmacies, and pharmacists hold a privileged place in society as second only to the Holy Father. Although they dispense drugs, they are actually highly trained in what they dispense. The pharmacies here are not unlike those depicted in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, where the pharmacist was your friend – and, it’s him or her who would take the fall on a faulty prescription. They know their clients (and their ailments) by name, and can help you through any sort of malady.
But the thing that is most endearing about the healthcare system, is the role that the doctors play in all this. Not only can they divine your ailment, they are nothing short of soothsayers in the great healthcare realm. Call anyone this winter season, and you’re almost always met with, “Giovanni Rossi is not in – he’s sick – and will be out for 9 days.” And, while visions of a bubonic plague start to come to mind, you discover it’s simply the prognosis for sick leave that doctors confer on their patients.
Bronchitis? Two weeks minimum. A fever? Four days. Talk about the power of suggestion.
I recall the days when we all tried to stay the least amount of time out of the office; lest we use up our sick days, get sidetracked, or even lose out on choice projects. The irony here is that the U.S. operates on the reverse system which says, ‘Heart Attack? 2.6 days. Pneumonia? 4 days (including weekends). Giving birth? 3 days.
In a country which doesn’t have set sick days, you don’t need to keep track. Based on your prescription, your pharmacist will know how long you’ll be bedridden.

Wednesday, March 25

Business Weak

Time for my update on business practices in the Bel Paese – instead of TQM (Total Quality Management), we could call it Total Quagmire Management. Naturally, all of the usual suspects garner honorable mentions.

Turns out Alitalia has accumulated a nice little art collection of sorts over the years. So much so, it’s currently being appraised by Christies. It’s unclear whether that is for eventual sale, or if our new owners at the CAI want to know which are the best pieces to hang in their living rooms.

While over at State-run television RAI, a new President has been put in place. An octogenerian. So much for career advancement and bringing in new blood. Although one could argue that if the only people left watching state TV are Italy’s ever-aging population, perhaps he more than anyone could make the picks like the health shows and armchair travel specials. And just think: it’ll surely make things easier for actors looking to errr…rise to the top – I don’t think at that age even Viagra can help.

Meanwhile, an exciting new initiative has been announced in an effort to combat childhood obesity, which is taking on epic proportions over here: appropriately named SAFE, the program will supposedly help people get on the right track. It’s a shame that the acronym stands for: Stile di vita, Alimentazione, Farmaco & Esercizio Fisico (Lifestyle, Eating, Drugs & Physical Exercise). Pardon me, but since when are drugs to combat couch-potato bodies considered part of a healthy lifestyle? Probably not since those little chocolate ‘diet helpers’ came out in the 70s called Ayds (okay, they didn’t know what was coming down the pike)...

And finally, the doozy of the week: the government decided in their infinite wisdom to bring about a bill to help ‘stimulate’ (read: wreak havoc upon) the housing market. Their bill would allow anyone and everyone to build up and over across terraces, front lawns, and wherever they can build, much to the chagrin of the neighbors. In short, it proffers legality on practices that are changing cityscapes as we speak – just ask anyone in Rome’s (supposedly unbuildable) city center; new rooftop constructions blocking once perfect views are the order of the day.
This legislation (which may now be modified due to the outcry), is all the more audacious due to the fact that it favors the one category (outside the mafia) which contributes the least to the government coffers. Builders. The ones who hire all their workers under the table to avoid the social costs, who only declare about 1/8 of their income for taxes, who purchase materials (namely, cement) illegally to avoid the VAT, who build without permits (and accompanying taxes), and the list goes on.
At least lobbyists in America actually give money to government projects and politicians in order to get their way –

Needless to say, this is the outcome on business when government officials interfere with free enterprise.

Thursday, March 19

Excess Baggage

I’ve been accused of carrying a lot of baggage, both literally and figuratively. And trust me, it’s the literally that really takes its toll… So, traveling around these days to towns large and small, I was utterly flabbergasted to find that Trenitalia, in its eternal march toward (non) Customer Service, has decided to turn your own trip into a death march of sorts, having decided to make traveling with luggage a thing of the past.

Once the war has been declared, historians can always point to the little incidences along the way which in truth led up to the full blown affair – like the sinking of the Mesopotamia. In the new and improved Stazione Centrale di Milano (where they’ve removed almost all of the fast ticket machines – needless to say, I missed my train), they’ve installed huge posts to block anyone carrying anything larger than a lunchbox from taking the escalators. At Milan’s newly revamped Porta Garibaldi station, I was impressed, until I discovered they’ve done away with the luggage deposit altogether. I had to lug my bags (included Trevor's doggie bag) to my meetings.

Italy’s train company has always been hostile to travelers, and especially for those with bags. Even the fancy trains to the airports leave no room – anywhere – for luggage. Arriving in Naples, there were precisely 29 carts for 33,243 passengers per diem. Communist Bologna, preferring the workers over accommodating the customers, never even had carts – you had to ask for help (errr, make that beg, plead, cajole and probably pay off someone, if you could ever have found them). In my hundreds of trips there, I never did. In the rest of Italy's Grandi Stazioni, in the odd instance you actually snagged a cart, they were forbidden in the waiting rooms. Go figure.

And so despite the insidious signs over the years, I was still stunned to find in exceptionally organized, wonderfully run and just a fantastic place overall to visit, Torino, posters plastered everywhere complaining about the missing carts. Actually, these folks aren’t really concerned about customer amenities, they’re worried about their jobs. And while I don’t have much sympathy for the probably 58 luggage cart guys who do the job of 2, nonetheless, in war, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Now, if they really want to make traveling with luggage a thing of the past, they’d sport curbside valets who take your bag and happily hand it to you at your final destination – just like in Morocco.

Sunday, March 15

Alitalia's Three Card Monte

Just when Alitalia finally merged with AirOne (something I suggested they do since the onset of their travails), the skies started looked friendlier (even if the strikes of the ground crew did not), and I thought my days of dissing Alitalia were over. But no.
Turns out, for 40000 small investors (read: the ones that aren't SOB's -- that's Supporters of Berlusconi) are left holding nothing but the worthless titles to their stocks. These are, of course, stocks in the "old" Alitalia.
That's because last week, Alitalia was simply pulled off the Milan stock exchange; disappearing as silently as a jet over the Bermuda triangle.
And, even though all of the Consumer Advocate agencies are heating up for a huge Class Action suit, one could argue that, with its losses, their stocks were worthless anyway. But still, with the formation of the New Alitalia they demand a bit of upside.
Ahhh, nothing like breathing investor confidence and goodwill into the takeoff of a new enterprise -- the one claiming to be the "flag bearer of the Italian nation".

To see how Alitalia did it, just click here. The A is for Alitalia.

Thursday, March 12

Bad News for Travelers to Italy

Well, it looks like the recession is in full swing, taking its ugly toll on those that we love the most…the tourists. Italy depends on them for much of the GNP, and yet, here we are, shaking them down to their very last centesimo. As the school of thought goes, ‘what the heck, we’ll never see them again!’ Hardly. Given the ease of travel these days, and the even easier, internet-as-word-of-mouth, you’d think people in the hospitality world would be a tad more…hospitable.

Last week, my favorite satirical show, Striscia la Notizia went undercover in Venice and found (gasp!) that restaurants had two price levels -- one for Italians and one for tourists. Just like in Bangladesh and Nepal. Now every traveler to Venice knows that the gondolas are over-priced, and that the price is even higher for the unsuspecting Japanese tourists, but what they don’t always know is that you’re forced to pay in advance for your 30 minute ride, which then brings you back to terra ferma in under 20. Ditto for the boat rides around Lake Como. And the new head of Italy’s ENIT tourism board wonders why Italy has service issues.

A pizzeria across from where I have always stayed in Venice (and have been dozens of times), first refused to seat me and my (Italian) cousin, then, sat 6 tables of locals after us, then told us we could only order pizza, while they served meat & fish dishes to the others (and we were speaking Italian!). An article went on to explain that many a Venetian albergo ranks at the top of travel sites' Worst Hotels' listings.

Meanwhile, American friends in Rome frequent a ristorante just off Via del Corso. Each time they go, they find a ‘mistake’ in their bill, never to their advantage. And while I, for one, have more often than not enjoyed a sublime limoncello offered by the house, I still wonder why I’ve never gotten a bill where the error was in my favor.

Last week, I took my mother & her husband out to lunch to a charming Osteria in Frascati. Hosteria San Rocco. We were treated to an exquisite homemade cacio & pepe (my favorite Roman dish), good wine and great service. We ordered a pasta & contorno (veggie), posted on the blackboard for €8. Once the bill came, however, we found we’d been charged 10. When I mentioned the “error”, I was accosted (well, that was after I took a photo of the board), and unceremoniously told to get out & leave the country. But they did give me all my money back, although I insisted that was unnecessary. I guess a little Italian and a camera go a long way.

My conclusion? If you’re traveling to Italy, double check the tab, don’t be afraid to speak up (and for cab drivers who turn off the meter, just walk away). And don’t waste your money on a gondola ride unless it has been raining for 6 weeks and it’s your only means of transportation off the island. The bitterness of the ripoff will most likely eclipse the romantic 20 mins. you spent wandering the canals. Besides, there’s always Vegas. Oh -- and...don’t forget to have your camera handy.

Saturday, March 7

Expat Shopping Spree

My friend Annabel, accomplished chef, food writer & marketing maven came to Rome to work in an authentic trattoria. She blogged about her experience (and terrific recipes as well) here [Her past blogs include India: Who's Sari Now? and Tokyo: Vending for your life - where she left with no suitcase & decided to purchase all of her necessities from the ubiquitous vending machines which purportedly sell everything from underwear to electronics and more..]. Needless to say, the last time she came over, she ended up developing Tex Mex menus for Dixieland restaurants in Milan, training the kitchen staff to make Huevos Rancheros and Silver Dollar Pancakes (still on offer, I might add -- although they probably cost a silver dollar to eat them).

Her arrival sparked in me, however, a little Expat Shopping Spree. Having not been back to the USA for well over a year, I was in definite need of stuff. And, I'm very brand loyal. So, for any of you 'across the pond' who come visit us expats over here, here goes.  My brother, for one, stocks up on yummy granola, kids' toothpaste and vitamins. This is not to say you can't find the items here (and Carrefour gets our vote), but, at nearly $12 for a little bottle of maple syrup, well, it's a lot less trouble to go to and let your fingers do the walking (and your friends do the carrying).

So, here's my short list of things I absolutely, positively, cannot live without (it goes without saying that we're talking family-sized containers, a concept that has not quite reached the continent):

Maple syrup - because here it costs more than truffles
Imitation vanilla - bottles here are sold for a family of lilliputians
Arrid Extra Dry - incredibly, boiling hot Europe offers either anti-perspirant or deodorant, and never the twain shall meet. I won't go into the net effect of this most outrageous practice.
Brown sugar - not cane, but soft, packed, thrice-refined, imperative for cookies, brown
Ghirardelli Brownie Mix - I know a caterer in London who brings it in by the case full -- there is no greater product on earth.
Bisquick -- for those Sunday a.m. pancakes - and don't let them fool you, Europeans love American breakfasts if it's put in front of them.
Aveeno lotion-- this is sold here, and prices on toiletries are nearly the same these days, but I still hold out for the family-size
Ditto for Johnson's Baby Oil, Nivea & other sundry items including Aquafresh (which, anyone coming to Europe will find the 'minty' taste has been altered -- turns out, they hate our mint, we theirs).
Starbucks chai tea packs - they don't sell the loose stuff over here (and thankfully, there are no Starbucks in Italy -- I think even the Italians will balk at a 4 euro latte)
Brita water filters -- can't find them at those prices over here!
Marshmallows -- just because
Hand-held dish scrubber sponges -- make great gifts too!
Altoids -- they say they come from England, but you won't find them over there (believe me, I've tried!)
Coffeemate & Folgers Instant when you want a cup o'Joe that's "good to the last drop" and decidedly not an espresso with lots of water added!

And, for those of you leaving Italy, always pack a huge family-sized Nutella jar, 'cuz you won't find 'em even that large at CostCo. Touchè.

Thursday, March 5

Rome Airport: Disconnected

Just for the sake of curiosity, I thought I'd actually make a little Case History of my efforts in attempting to get the emergency phones at Fiumicino/Leonardo Da Vinci airport actually operational. So far, it has all of the elements worthy of a class in cross-cultural communications. To recap:

Returning from London, a friend & I got 'trapped' between two sets of automatic doors just off the exit ramp. Naturally, the emergency phone did not ring to the control center (well, it was Sunday eve after all).
Only after finding later one of the doors open to the upstairs boarding lounge, were we accosted by airport gate security and forced to redescend the steps. In a moment of bravado, he said he'd call the police if we tried to leave through the lounge...I said, Ben Venga! (bring 'em on!). We wanted to report the incident.
After finally being released through the proper doors, we later wandered from police station to police station in search of someone who might have an interest in knowing that the emergency phone didn't work; all to no avail.

I next set out to contact the illustrious Aereoporti di Roma SpA, to let them know about the incident.

After navigating for longer than my flight London - Rome (finding WWF info, archeological sites in Rome, and train updates along the way), I discovered that Aereoporti di Roma actually owns and operates their very own Telecoms company. Following the logic: phones don't work, call the Company responsible for operating them, I finally reached their Technical Offices who handle "complaints, problems, communications regarding telephone operations at the airport". I had hit the jackpot.
They picked up the phone right away, and I managed to talk to an informed person. Except that he said he only handled website problems. He had no idea to whom I should speak.
I then tried the operator at the Company. She had no idea who I should speak with, but she tried the emergency number and confirmed that it was, indeed "bloccato". I mentioned I was a writer & blogger and would be reporting the incident to other organizations. She said she'd look into it and I would receive a call back.

In the meantime, I sent letters to Rome's newspaper complaint line, a few Traveler Protection associations and the guys at Striscia la Notizia who uncover these sort of things.
A day later, remarkably, I received a phone call from the Aereoporti di Roma!  But, it was their Press Office, not their Security detail. The call went something like this:

- Pronto.

- I'm calling from AdR, are you a journalist? Who do you write for? What's your name? Give me the list of publications. Before we continue. I don't know what the problem is, but before we go further I need this information.

I fired off a few places where my blog and other articles appear, as if he would know them (Blogher, Life in Italy, WE Magazine...), explaining in vain, that this was of no consequence as I had contacted them as a standard citizen. I simply wanted to bring their attention to the problem [which, I might add, he was still unaware of and unwilling to listen to it's origin]. After barely managing to squeeze in the details (he talked over me the entire time...), I was told in swift succession (I think they learn this at school):

1. It was not true what had happened.
2. There are no phones in those areas.
3. Those phones are not for public use.
4. I dialed the wrong number.
5. The AdR has nothing to do with them.
6. He needed to know exactly where I had been otherwise there was nothing they could do, etc. etc. etc.

In Italy, the Customer Service playbook often reads something like this:

- The best defense is a good offense
- Always deny responsibility
- Find a window of opportunity to fault the other party
- Double down on denying all responsibility
- Change topics
- Ignore original complaint

I managed to state (on deaf ears) that:
1. I was not a pathological liar.
2. The phones do exist.
3. They are for public use.
4. I merely dialed the number indicated on the panel next to it (posted in 2 langs)
5. I found it curious that the Airport Telecoms Company is not responsible for airport telephone lines.

Adding that they perhaps consider either:
a. Taking down the signs posting emergency numbers around the airport or
b. Reactivating the tel line

I also mentioned that I found it ludicrous that the Press Office would be interested in solving what was an obviously Technical problem. Not that I wanted to tell him how to do his job, but...
Regardless, as a writer, I was interested in knowing the outcome of their findings, as I had posted notes to all of the above media outlets.

To this last point I was once again reprimanded for taking that sort of action...That I should have waited for this phone call (from someone clearly out of his league) before going elsewhere, etc. etc. Once again, I was asked the title of my blog, other media outlets where I pen articles, and so on.

Nonetheless, we both thanked one another for our kind interest in public safety, and I would be informed of the outcome.
I, for one, am interested in knowing what the next exciting episode might bring.

From the Aeroporti di Roma website concerning Traveler's Rights:
Il sistema aeroportuale romano ha favorito, negli anni, la crescita dell' economia del territorio con un intenso flusso di scambi commerciali.Il piano di sviluppo e gli investimenti hanno trasformato i due scali a ulteriore testimonianza dell'impegno per il miglioramento della qualità dei servizi.

Rome's airport system has been a driver in the economic development of the surrounding area, and investments have been made which have consequently transformed the two hubs as further proof to our commitment to improving the quality of our services.

Tuesday, March 3

Tante Belle Cose for Travelers to Italy

You may have noticed I’ve been playing hooky for awhile, but, hopefully all will be forgiven as I have been picking up great experiences (and not so great – see left column) for the blog…But first, the good news (which does not include finding snackpack-sized Oreos in every airport and bar these days. Although it was seriously about time. I think Marco Polo even with his 20 year stint in China brought noodles here sooner).

While driving to and fro, the big electronic sign boards on Italy's highways have posted a new message (Heaven forbid they actually tell us about tie-ups):
Make sure you fasten your child in a child seat with seatbelt.

We don’t know what drove the authorities to come to their senses (pun not intended), much less if it will have any effect, but we still remain pleased. If it can just get one mother to reconsider holding la bambina in her arms, well, it will not be all for naught.

Of course, there will always be exceptions:
A woman in America was arrested recently for holding her baby in her arms – WHILE DRIVING. AND BREAST-FEEDING. AND SCRIPTING A TEXT MESSAGE. Talk about multi-tasking…

Also while making the rounds, I discovered Bagels being touted at the Autogrill!!! (sorry, couldn't resist the pun). Personally, I don’t like the idea of all these American treats on every thoroughfare, but I secretly rejoiced while downing one of their fabulous blueberry muffins…
Click here to find the Bleeding Espresso blog on where else to get awesome American goodies.

While in Rome, those monster buses have been rerouted out of the center. This is just one element of Mayor Alemanno’s drive to make the city center a better place and his work does not go unnoticed.
Although I found on those same buses a huge ad campaign explaining the new (increased) parking rates for those driving around…
Considering that the majority of bus passengers are immigrants, school kids and the elderly, I thought the message was a bit misplaced. Might have made more sense just to post the rates around the parking areas…

While traipsing through Fiumicino Airport (aka Leonardo Da Vinci) on a Sunday night, we were surprised to find the shops open (even if the exit doors were not). We don’t know if this is due to the recession, but, it was nice to see things lit up – even on Sundays – and in Arrivals. I also noticed that the airport departures lounges have gone silent (for the most part).
Great news for all of us iPod people…now we’ll really be in peace, but you really gotta keep your eye out for last-minute gate changes. I’ve nearly missed flights coming and going as a result.

And, good news for the train traveler, one of whom I used to be…but why bother when you can fly to London for less?? They now (actually for some time now) have a superfast train Rome-Milano.
But lest you get visions of bullet trains dancing in your head…Italy boasts the only superfast trains that go slow. But, they cut out the middlemen (Florence – Bologna) and now you’re on your way. Now, if they can only apply the concept to business…

Tune in this week for the Bad News for travelers.