Wednesday, April 29

Francesca Maggi's...Strange But True!

Considering that you can't even get a telephone line hookup in Italy in under two months, Berlusconi's affirmation that Aquila will be rebuilt in time for the G8 session in July borders on hallucinogenic. Problem is, it will probably happen, and he will achieve his dream of covering once-picturesque Aquila in swathes of cement [I reference the urban sprawl that is Perugia nowadays]. This is only one of the more strange occurrences this month.

The City of Rome was plastered recently with posters showing the number of trees here, there and everywhere that had been pruned by the paid assassins working under cover at the Servizi Giardini. I thought this was a good thing (they numbered in the thousands), until friends pointed out, "What capital city boasts that they've pruned trees for the first time in 10 - 12 & 18 years?". Point well-taken.

And then there's the incredible situation at my favorite, the Poste Italiane. All of these state-run monopolies, were started to be, uhhhh, exactly that: State-Run Monopolies. Turns out, Italy's State-run Antitrust Office has decided to file a ruling against its own kin, for Abuse of Power stemming from their lofty Monopoly position.
So much for sticking to your Mission Statement.

But, the prize goes to the Comune di Roma's AMA - garbage office. Navigating on their site recently, I was utterly dazed and amused to find their own special pages dedicated to Italian Cinema. Turns out the Refuse Folks also run the cemeteries. And now I see why Italy is so bad at recycling -- absolutely next to no one gets cremated here.... And the Cinema connection was a tour of the tombs of the leading lights in the Italian film industry.
Or is it a not-so-subtle hint that most of the movies made here are just pure trash??

Picture by / Their terrific posting on the trees here.

Monday, April 27

Prendiamo un caffè?

I received a wonderful little write up in my friend Susan Evan's Umbrian Il Gusto del Paese newsletter of the various ways in which Italians can imbibe in their morning coffee. It is such a treat to actually watch the ordering in action on a busy workday morning (10am's a good time for caffè spotting), that it even caught the imagination of the ingenious cartoonist, Bruno Bozzetto.

A bit of research later, here's a full listing compiled by the magazine, If you go to their site, (just be sure to click the strange links at the article bottom instead of trying to do the right thing hitting next page), you'll see the listing topping off at 111 types, with Irish coffees, Sultanas, and, my very very favorite, the most amazing coffee treat you will ever have in a 3 second long sip, Torino's famous Bicerin.* And let me tell you, the Torinese rival the Viennese when it comes to wonderfully baroque coffee bars. In Naples you get a lemon slice (and a helpful glass of water to wash it down with), in Milan, we order 'Marocchini' (aka Moroccan coffees), which are mini-cappuccinos, and in Venice, Focus says, you can even find an espresso served with an egg inside, although I have never seen anyone try it. Might be a good cure for hangovers, however from your Venetian Happy Hours, something else to experience before one dies.

So, to totally plagiarize from Focus, here's their listing of what's on offer:

1) Amaro
 2) Ristretto 
3) Lungo
 4) Corto
 5) Alto
 6) Macchiato
 7) Macchiato caldo
 8) Macchiato freddo
 9) Decaffeinato 
10) Corretto 
11) Doppio
 12) Doppio in tazza grande
 13) D'orzo
 14) In tazza grande 
15) In tazza piccola
 16) Americano
 17) Cappuccino
 18) Cappuccino senza schiuma
 19) Cappuccino tiepido 
20) Cappuccino decaffeinato
 21) Cappuccino con cacao 
22) Caffellatte
 23) Latte macchiato
 24) Latte macchiato con decaffeinato
 25) Marocchi 
26) In tazza fredda
 27) Con latte freddo a parte 
28) Con latte caldo a parte 
29) Freddo
 30) Freddo shakerato
 31) Irish
 32) Frappé
 33) Caffè crème (Svizzera)

Rome's Sant' Eustachio caffè has a daunting list about three times the size of this one. But, don't try asking what things are. All the guys behind all the counters are the Italian equivalent of the Seinfeld Soup Nazis. In my opinion, the quality of the caffè does not outshine the frenzy of the unhappy drinking experience there.  You can find my writeup plus more Caveats & Carpe Diems in my Travel Tip Tab above.

*This bellissimo writeup from the place where it all started, at the Caffè Bicerin:

This historic drink of Turin, which has evolved from the eighteenth century “bavareisa”, was created right here in this café of the same name which jealously guards the traditional recipe. It’s an exquisite, hot drink- a mixture of espresso, chocolate ( the process is a well-guarded secret) and fresh cream. Served in a tall glass so you can admire the mouth watering melange of colours, the bicerin is a pleasure waiting to be discovered by those who love tempting the palate.

In 2001 the Bicerin was acknowledged as the “traditional Piedmontese drink” by the publication – Bollettino Ufficiale della Regione Piemonte.

Though “bicerin” means small glass, it is in fact packed with sustenance with its base of concentrated chocolate, topped with a layer of espresso, covered with cream. It is a power pack of energy.
(Lucia Sollazzo – La Repubblica)

Thursday, April 23

Marketing 201

Not so long ago, I was invited to a presentation of a book on Marketing, a book that compiled the best that the great minds in the Advertising – PR – and marketing fields had to offer. I learned loads that evening - but not about marketing. It offered all the elements of holding a typical business conference in Italy.

First off, of course to me, was the noticeable lack of women in the room. Well, that’s not entirely true, there just weren’t any on the panel. They were greeting guests, serving water, and relaying messages, bending over just so as a special eye candy treat to the presenters for their time. After about 30 mins., I still didn’t know why we were there, who the panelists were (and would never find that out), and why they were chosen to speak in the first place. I guess keeping the public in suspense ultimately keeps you from nodding off.

The presentation started promptly, only 15 minutes behind schedule, nothing short of a miracle on the order of Padre Pio. Because it was a creative crowd, we were thankfully not treated to a head-bowed read of one’s written presentation. But we did get to be spectators in a massive ego-fest, in which each presenter courteously fanned the ego of another, all the while keeping us insignificant onlookers in the dark over their little inside jokes. They liked each other so much that only a few actually took calls during another’s presentation, or chatted with someone else. This came as a nice surprise, extraordinary, actually in its audacity.

With all this testoserone, jokes, when offered, were inevitably of the locker room variety: The Pirelli calendar guy joked how women had the ‘raw material’ to be portrayed – this, an example of marketing genius [well, the calendar is, in some – no many, circles]. Another boasted how he had to cut out early so he could find what his wife had put on the table [He had such a sense of urgency, I'm certain his mistress was waiting directly in the car…]. He went on to say that’s where one eats best (at home, not the waiting hotel), and where one could find the women who were absent from the hall. Another regaled us with the cliché scenario of the boss who beds his secretary, but still directs her in the formal ‘lei’ form of speech.

The eldest in the group, no longer so worried about Bella Figura, got the greatest response when telling about training a marketing team for a major ladies’ lingerie firm. There were 300 men. Only. So, he offered that they get to know 10 women a bit better: the wife/girlfriend, the lover, the girlfriend of the lover…and so on.

An hour into the presentation, two had already run off (probably with those same lovers) and the old guy had nodded off (after all, he didn’t need to wait for the introductions).

It ended, as they always do, with no questions opened to the public, a brief summary of cars and soccer, and drinks on the terrace. It was probably my 6179th presentation, and I prayed, it would be my last.

You can read about Marketing 101 here.

Monday, April 20

Long Lasting Looks

This week we honor the 100th birthday of pretty much the only woman in Italy who is truly respected for her mind, Rita Levi Montalcino, Nobel prize winning scientist and senator for life. And to think that she did it in an epoch in which women could barely make it to the upper echelons of anything but the top shelf at the Esselunga Supermarket. And while she is a source of pride for all of Italy, she’s still, unfortunately the exception that proves the rule.

Our new token, the ‘woman of steel’ at Italy’s ConfIndustria must have graphic artists from Trieste to Trapani all atwitter – they finally get to type the letters, r – a after the Sig. on invitations. But that’s not even entirely true, as, the men are called reverently, Dott. (Dottore), while the women still get to be called Mrs. And even in this they got it all wrong; women keep their last names, so, even the Mrs. is a misnomer.

The European Parliament decided to take action, recently decreeing that those endearing suffixes, like Dott.ssa, Avvocatessa, etc. be removed from titles in an effort to finally achieve parity. I recall when a friend from an elite American media outlet was to sponsor a business conference in Milan. When he asked, ‘Why are there no women on the panel?’ He was laughed out of the room. ‘Parish the thought’, ‘Not Serious’, ‘This isn’t America.”. Well, he briskly got up and left, taking his toys (and his money) with him. He would have gotten in the last laugh if he wasn’t so darn mad about the whole affair.

Now that we have women Ministers and Cabinet members, this situation could have changed, except that Berlusconi’s prerequisite -- that they be good looking to serve -- doesn’t help all that much. In Berlusconi’s world, Cabinet posts are car tops at automotive shows. But, we do have one thing to look forward to.

In Italy, women live so much longer than men, that eventually, we’ll get to hold the highest honors in the land and be esteemed from the top of the boot to the tip of the toe, just because we outlived the ones who couldn’t see our brains for our bosoms.

Wednesday, April 15

Knocking on Wood

Now, who’d ever want to do something so outrageous as that?
Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit morbid, I suppose, because everywhere I look, I seem to spot danger – So today, I was talking with my tire guy who brings me my daily paper about the health risks of where he works. On a street so clogged with rush hour traffic, (and where I begrudgingly had chosen to walk my dog), I imagined (out loud) that the exhaust fumes would have to affect his lungs in the long term. After all, I could barely breathe by the time I got to his doorway.
So, during the course of our conversation, he immediately had the second best response he could summon -- he reached over to touch the metal jack that lifts up the cars. Only because he’s an amazingly polite and humble guy who happened to be in mixed company; or else, he would have gone for his first response: touching his balls.
Now, I don’t know where any of this comes from: knocking on wood, iron, or your balls (if you should be so endowed), but, I suppose in a later entry, I can look it up. I imagine it might come from Major League Baseball...perhaps the team with the..errr... lighter touch, so to speak, loses?
But, what I’d truly like to know is…has it ever worked? Is there some documentation that, after touching iron in your car, your auto didn’t swerve back onto the road and not tumble off a bridge? In a country choc-a-bloc with saints and miracles, are there testimonials stored in the Vatican's secret archives that show how many 'miracolati' there are from Iron - Wood and Palle? Or, perhaps Italy's Centro Nazionale della Ricerca conducted a study and found that all groin graters never ever got heart attacks?
Nonetheless, it’s one of those curious cultural caricatures which comes up now and again in conversation (polite or not so polite, take your pick), which always leaves you wondering.

Saturday, April 11

Making Oranges out of Orangeaid

I remember back in the day when I taught nursery school, and each year, we’d ask the kids, ‘Where does orange juice come from?’ And we were invariably met with, ‘A Can. The Freezer,’ or some other variant [ask ‘em where money comes from…and you’ll always get, ‘A Machine.’]. We’d then proceed to make fresh squeezed o.j. with them. In Italy, where bottled fruit juices are the next best thing to drinking the actual fruit with a pour spout inserted, you know exactly where your juice comes from. Nothing comes closer to ambrosia than this.

So, it is not without some controversy that Italy’s government decided that orange or lemon drinks (aranciata) no longer has to include the actual fruit juice. As a staunch capitalist, I think this is wise. But, as someone who loves the pure juices without having them tainted with sugar, corn syrup and all of the other insidious ingredients which creep into American beverages, well, it’s a travesty. And the outcry has been huge.

One of my favorite columns, Lapis in fibula, from Epolis, penned by a satirist who calls himself Chicco Gallus weighed in on the subject. Here’s his take:

It’s just like an Aranciata – with Oranges

It is about to be permitted to sell orange flavored beverages without oranges, or rosé wines by simply mixing red and white wines together. It’s one of those curious laws that reenter into laws that everyone was happily living without.
I’ve never come across someone who was left horrified after having drunk an aranciata, only to be overcome with the horrible suspicion that inside, there might have been a trace of fresh squeezed something or other.
Foods proudly produced in order to avoid affecting those suffering from food allergies usually write, in bold letters, NO SALT!, Contains no glutens!, or Without fill in the blank. And obviously, they make you pay more for them.
Here we have instead the exact opposite taking affect:
It's up to the consumer to discover whether or not that which they just gulped is in some way related to what they perhaps originally wanted in the first place.
With the wine debacle, the issue is even more subversive; because, to make a rosé wine, you need an elaborate and costly system; cultivating the red grapes in a particular way. Mixing red and white wines together simply takes a split second.
In reality, however, this new way of making rosé even works in our favor: After all, up 'til now, to make a nice rosy wine out of your reds, all we needed to do was add a little tap water.
So now, we have to look forward to new permits of creative manufacturing, like, orange wine with no oranges, or fake aranciata rosé wine (all it takes is removing the fake yellow out of the fake arancione).
Heck – it could even turn into a new profession: not producing inventive beverages but, getting someone to drink them.

Wednesday, April 8

Feelin' the Earth Move Under My Feet

All of us are still reeling from the quakes felt all the way to Rome and from the horrific images of the damage done to one of the most pristine and picturesque places in Italy. The rescue and mobilization of volunteers and squads from nearly all of Italy was exceptional – the response was immediate, well-organized, and all those affected who could, pitched in to pull people from the rubble. I even saw pictures of Spanish rescuers with dogs searching for survivors. Teams of national guards are busy assuring that looting was at a minimum (besides, there was little left to loot) and the idiots who sent out an sms warning of future quakes to lure people from their homes will be met with more severe sentences than ever. In short, the coordination of departments, the exodus into nearby hotels, and the treatment of patients in field tents all went like clockwork.

But, no sooner have the aftershocks stopped than investigations have been called. The biggest question remains -- Why did the more recent constructions collapse like a house of cards? The answer usually lays with corrupt builders and city officials with greased palms and blind eyes. But, it could simply be that the force of the quake was simply too great for any building to hold up under.

The second story to make the rounds is of the supposed seismologist who predicted an imminent earthquake, until being trounced by pretty much every other scientist, technician, engineer and media advisor on the airwaves. This guy, it turns out, is the Italian cousin of Joe the Plumber - not truly a seismologist, he sounded the alert weeks ago, based on radon gases he was finding. He was unceremoniously jailed for his efforts.
A reality check: If we could predict earthquakes, everyone from Tokyo to Tahoe would sleep easily at night (well, they do anyway, but that’s besides the point). The best scientists in Japan and the USA can’t call ‘em, and neither can a hobbyist from the Abruzzo mountains.

But – and you’ve read it here first (and at the risk of being jailed for sounding a false alarm) -- the biggest – and heretofore – still unmentioned repercussion of this quake is the arrival of every sort of malady stemming from Asbestos. Every building in Abruzzo (and much of Italy for that matter), from schools to hospitals to households is made with asbestos in the roofs. Those apocalyptic scenes of entire blocks reduced to rubble are all the more scary because the entire area has been blanketed in the stuff. After the earthquake demolished my family’s Abruzzo town in 1985, I was told NOT to replace the roof, but to seal it so the asbestos could never get out. Lifting the roof off would have released a Pandora’s box. Just like the Twin Towers workers, we’ll be hearing about the effects in a few years’ time.

In the meantime, we get to look forward to an inordinate amount of corruption in contract procurement and the relative urban sprawl while the region rebuilds -- already Berlusconi has tipped his cards, on his idea to build 'new towns' thereby destroying the charm and countryside of what is left of the Aquila countryside. To get a picture of the future, just take one look at Perugia in the years since the Assisi earthquake.

You can send donations through the Italian Red Cross. Probably a fairly safe bet for your funds.

Sunday, April 5

Francesca Maggi's...Strange But True!

Here’s a bit of news from our neighbors to the north…

During this financial crisis, the French seriously mean business. After all, these are the ones who invented (and used, with relish) the guillotine. They’re also the ones, when angry at the government, tip over trucks to block the highways across the country. So it’s no wonder that they’ve taken up taking hostages in the forms of Company directors, each time layoffs are announced. A little vigilantism goes a long way…

You know you live in a “picture perfect” country when you find an ad asking for volunteers to – I am not making this up – scrub the sides of mountains to free them from bird droppings. Seriously. Of course, it’s Switzerland. But, couldn’t they force those same bankers to get the job done?
Click here for the promotional video. But one astute commenter noted: Gli svizzeri puliscono addirittura le montagne gratis. Berlusconi, per pulire Napoli usa l'esercito in Stato d'Emergenza Nazionale. The Swiss use volunteers to clean entire mountain ranges. Berlusconi, to clean up Naples uses the Army in a perpetual State of Emergency.

Meanwhile, in Germany, a woman won a divorce case against her husband because he was a maniacal cleaner. I’m wondering if mothers-in-law would qualify for the same treatment…

And in England, I ran into a sign (I believe it was at the airport) that read, “NO clubs, bats, darts, snooker cues, knitting needles”. Darn. I was really looking forward to a good game of snooker with my lucky cue.

Friday, April 3

Airing Dirty Laundry

I received a charming email from a friend, an ‘ode to the clothesline’. It was prefaced by the fact that they were now a thing of the past, due to the arrival of automatic clothes dryers. Well, not in Italy. In fact, I’ve gone without a dryer for so long, that I’m now considered avant-garde for having a ‘Green’ household. The Italians knew long before the rest of us, just how much energy it cost to heat those clothes up to fluffy. And we’re all the better for it.

Not having a dryer was one of those things you sort of just accepted as a way of life in Old Europe along with store closings and lack of ice cubes. The ever-clad Italians in their all-natural cottons and linens when coming to America are always fearful that the dryer will shrink their clothes (they’re right). But, to that they would insist it also destroyed the fabrics. I, for one, would rather risk wrinkle-free, soft and perfumed clothes for fabric maintenance any day of the week.

I’ll never forget when a friend, traveling on business for a few weeks dropped in and asked if she could wash her clothes before moving on. No problem. When it came time to dry them, she asked, innocently,
“So, where do I dry them?”
I responded, “Oh, it’s in the other room.” Innocently thinking of the metal rack on which to hang her outfits.
“But I can’t find it!”
“It’s right there. That big metal thing.”
“What are you talking about?!!”
“It’s behind the door!!! You gotta open it up!”

Dead silence. I finally understood that we were having a ‘Who’s on First” episode of our own making and I could no longer speak from the peels of laughter.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, blew a gasket. It was December 15th, after all.
“You don’t have a dryer??!!!! My clothes will NEVER EVER DRY!!! I’ll be traveling home in wet jeans!”
“Well, do like I do and put them over each of the radiators. They should be okay in a few hours. They better be. The heat goes off at 10pm.”

Needless to say, she ended up wearing sweat pants on her next leg of her journey, swearing she would never ever come to Europe to live.

BASIC RULES FOR CLOTHESLINES: from the email, although I've put it in present tense.

1. Wash the clothesline before hanging any clothes - walk the
entire lengths of each line with a damp cloth around the lines. Mine are covered in pigeon poop.

2. Hang the clothes in a certain order, and always hang "whites"
with "whites," and hang them first.

3. Never hang a shirt by the shoulders - always by the tail! What
would the neighbors think?

4. Wash day on a Monday! Never hang clothes on the weekend, or
Sunday, for Heaven's sake!

5. Hang the sheets and towels on the outside lines so you could hide your
"unmentionables" in the middle (too bad my neighbor doesn't abide by this one)

6. It doesn't matter if it was sub zero weather . . . Clothes would
"freeze-dry." My update: use the radiators and dry away while the heat's on!

7. Always gather the clothes pins when taking down dry clothes! Pins left
on the lines are "tacky!"

8. If you're efficient, you would line the clothes up so that each item
does not need two clothes pins, but shared one of the clothes pins with the
next washed item.

9. Clothes off of the line before dinner time, neatly folded in the clothes
basket, and ready to be ironed.

10. IRONED?! Well, that's a whole other subject!

Wednesday, April 1

Tante Belle Cose - March 09

At face value, it sounds almost too good to be true: Trenitalia has announced that it will offer cheap train fares just like the discount airlines. This is great news, except that will probably signify that traveling around Easter or Christmas could cost you the equivalent of a round trip airfare to Sydney.

I haven’t determined whether and by how much I’ll get penalized for being a last minute buy-at-the-station, but, I can imagine it won’t be pretty. And, considering that the online bookings don’t accept foreign credit cards, tourists will most likely seriously be hit right in the wallet.

I am not making this up: Those ever-inventive Italians have come out with a low cholesterol cheese. How’d they do it? By feeding their cows low cholesterol foods! Grains, seeds, the works.
All I know is, I now have free reign to eat formaggio with wild abandon…and if they could work their wonders on the heavenly (and outrageously fattening) Burrata (read: milky white butter) well, all my cares will be free.

And, again, what’s good for the passengers fares less for Trenitalia…A guy won an incredible lawsuit (payment: 1650 euro) for being forced to travel in an unheated wagon on his commute. While I don’t agree with the cost of his 30 min. discomfort, by these calculations I should be a millionaire. In any case, considering the number of times I’ve traveled in ice cold compartments, on my feet, or in sweltering hermetically sealed cabins, this is nothing short of a Miracle on the order of Sant’Irene di Lecce.
Thanks to the folks at the Associazioni Consumatori, it looks like legal recourse is finally going to be settling in to stay. Those thousands of commuters who sit on the tracks to protest the drastic conditions, disgusting bathrooms, and immense delays may finally get their day in court.
It’s a new world.