Monday, August 31

Italy Travel Edition - What to do on holiday

Perusing my photos of one terrific summer, I thought I’d give you a brief recap of all the wonderful things there are to see and do in Italy, not that any of us thought otherwise. After all, we endure the petty inconveniences I write about in my blog, because they are made up for them in spades by the stunning beauty and wonder of such a country. So, even if you stay in the boot for August holidays, you will not be disappointed.

Although I missed out on my usual summer fare of open air concerts and cinema, I still beat the heat with Gelato in the Garbatella – it doesn’t get much better than this, with the tastes of Dark Chocolate, Tutto Nutella (basically, frozen nutella) and Apple & Cinnamon (admittedly, a very American taste) and delicious Mango on offer.

The Capitoline Museums – with the refurbishments, the history, and the excellent displays, we stayed all day.

The Colosseum – although the Vespasian exhibit wasn’t as promising as it would have made us believe, back inside the Colosseum was still exciting after all these years. But, for all, the Rome Rewind 3D show was more fun than any of it.

Of course, no visitor to Rome leaves without seeing my favorite museum, the ACEA Montemartini electric plant – juxtaposing 1st century statues with the huge generators which once lit up Rome. It is truly a sight to be seen. And, with no visitors, you have the place to yourself (with the exception of being shadowed by the totally bored guards who follow you as if you were going to sneak a 6 ft. high, 2 ton solid marble statue under your shirt on your way out the door).

Isola Tiberina – where you can lounge on comfortable couches like Emperors in days of old at any one of their riverside bars & restaurants and enjoy the people watching.

An Angels & Demons Walking Tour around Rome – even though I can’t fathom Dan Brown as good literature, he can at least tell a (fairly) good story.

And finally, visiting the Abruzzo where we explored an amazing cave, the Grotta del Cavallone, after having driven around gorgeous, winding roads, straight out of central casting for a car commercial, to discover this grotto – the highest cave around (see photo). We visited charming towns of Civitella Alfedena, Roccaraso, and Fornelli (a walled borgo). Interspersed with outdoorsy things like paddle boats around the stunning scenery of Lago di Barrea and trekking up those terrific hills.

But, to top it all off, a stay in the Sabine Hills with good friends, children playing, daily BBQ parties, pools and people and dogs of all ages coming and going -- need I say more? A good time was had by all.

Coming soon: The other side of the coin of tourism in the Bel Paese

Friday, August 28

Driving in Italy: Not for the weak of heart

I recall while on family trips Up North Michigan, every so often, and usually near a fork or exit ramp, you would spot totally smashed cars lying there as if cast off from some end of the world flick like I Am Legend.
My dad would tell us (as he put a faux police light atop the car and pressed the pedal to the metal), that it was to deter people from speeding. Obviously America, a country founded on bloodshed, needs to shock and awe people into taking action. Talk about scared straight (although that could have come about from our own attempts at breaking the sound barrier).

In nostalgic Italy, in what is at first unsettling, but then totally awesome in its commemorative appeal, Italians mark those hard bends, merges and major intersections with spontaneous flower memorials – infinitely more heartfelt than grave markers (out of sight, out of mind). As you wind along the roads of Italy, in bustling city centers or along the countryside, you’ll find flowers wrapped on the side of the bruised tree, or around the odd bent pole. You think of the person whose spirit sailed away that day, and, if you’re wise, you slow down a bit.

And, although it doesn't seem to have quite the same effect on drivers, I find these memorials so eloquent in their simplicity -- they literally drive the point home far better than leaving auto carcasses strewn along the roadside.
Rest in Perpetual Traffic

Wednesday, August 26

Banking in England: Or, How the other half lives

Staying in London has brought a welcome breath of fresh air. From the horror stories I've been hearing about the searing heat in Rome, I'm actually happy, despite having to wear my typical August-in-England outfits replete with tights, coat and bonnet (wool).
So, what does a paesana do in Londontown? I'm having an absolute ball checking out all of the brilliant ads, many of which I've photographed and will be posting soon. I also seem to spend hours in card shops; I feel like a drunk in a liquor store.
But today, I had the loverly experience of actually going into a bank, at 4pm no less, and conducting a transaction. The tellers, like in Italy, were few but friendly, even stopping to give me advice on what to do about my serious cold. Not only was it wonderful to be able to make a transaction at the hour of the day of my choosing, I did something which, 17 years on, seems almost like committing fraud: I actually deposited money -- with my very own signature no less -- into an account of another individual. It was truly liberating, to say the least.
I also managed to make a transaction with a bank that doesn't know me, and where, I'm happy to report, I didn't have to select a number (max waiting time: 6 mins). I happily filled out a deposit form at the counter, free of the anxiety of meeting about a half dozen people at my window asking for forms.
I even paused in the lobby to pick up a few brochures, cute and simple, and not with fine print so small about the various codes, rules & regulations regarding that same offer. And, even finer print showing that you will lose money, regardless (just check out the consumer associations about lawsuits against banks for their shady practices and mis-information campaigns, and you'll see what I mean).
August in London. A breeze.

Sunday, August 23

Italian lingerie: Victoria's Secret or Rosa the Riveter's Revenge?

I’ll never forget the first time I came to Italy as an adult. Long before Victoria let out her Secret, I’m afraid. I was absolutely shocked by the store windows, littered with the sexiest silk and lace I had never seen. In places that would make people in Peoria start picketing, people just passed them by, not even feigning indifference. In the place of the Popes, La Perla was a household name.

And so, I would like to know, at what point, exactly, do woman who start out their adult life (okay, pre-pubescent life) wearing things like that (see above), morph into Aunt Bea from Mayberry RFD donning hot fashions like this:

Travel to any small town, you’ll see young tarts looking like the Veline they aspire to become, and yet there is not a market stall in Italy that does not offer a huge assortment of these flowered dresses. There must be a market for them. In fact, wander around those same small towns, and you'll find desperate housewives in all their flowery splendor. So, what gives?

If anyone can offer an explanation, I’d be appreciative.

Friday, August 21

An Italian Film Festival: Italy in a nutshell

I was recently invited to attend the CinemadaMare Film Festival, supposedly an international festival which takes place in various towns across Italy’s southernmost Basilicata region. I guess it’s ‘international’, because they invite young filmmakers from across much of Europe – probably the most foreigners these towns have ever seen since Emperors moved masses over to the area from Greece [although one could argue since Mel Gibson restaged his Passion of Christ amidst the gorgeous rocks of Matera].

Like the omnipresent Jazz Festivals taking place in every nook and cranny across Europe, it would seem that EU, Province or City funding is now turning any guy with (and in the case of Cinemadamare, without) a laptop into a wannabee Robert Redford and Sundance Festival. But the similarities stop there. Whereby one might expect organizers to strive toward making their event the preeminent platform – in this case mixing young filmmakers with perhaps established film industry old timers -- it would appear here that mediocrity is the name of the game.
Even in the country of Bella Figura, it seems Cinemadamare, as best recited by Clark Gable, “Frankly, could give a damn.”

The Festival bespeaks of such unprofessionalism, it brings incompetence to new lows.
You’d think that after 7 years of EU funding, one would at least make a small investment in spellcheck or google translator.
But no, the organizers (and I use the term loosely), obviously prefer to maintain the image of a backwater Basilicata hopelessly ko’ed in the global arena.

Let’s start with their catalogue touting, “The biggest gathering of young filmmakers in the world” (please gloss over persons listed inside, many of whom are well into their 40s)…

[their copy follows - all typos are theirs]

it’s last 45 days it’s 1700 Km long itinerant for all south of Italy films are shoting on the road..

In the section headed, Do you want to come to shoot a film? You will be invited…
Moreover, if you take a camere and/or a computer for the ending, you’ll also have a contribution in money.

First, you must figure out if it’s beds they’re giving you, and by ending, do they mean 12/12/2012? (in the Italian it was editing)

In Italian, they used the catchy English phrase, 'Shot on the spot' which gets translated into English as “Shot the Spot”. Obviously, for the Festival da Mare, you need to track down the girl in a teenie weenie polka dot bikini -- and shoot her.

The entire catalogue is riddled with a dozen or more typos per page. To promote the intrepid filmmakers, the synopses are written by young people on his staff who have obviously never turned on MTV, with all its English, lyrics, and subtitles; let alone traveled outside Italy enough to say, “My name is”… correctly.

Just to choose a few random entries for your laugh of the day…

- Antonio Beccari has a miracle when he is sleeping from a goblin.
- Booby Fisher when was 9 years old had his memory really prodigious…He’ll become a future chess’ champions. (In Italian, it was correctly written, Bobby)
- In a strett on a hills…the arrival of an airplane pushes all mans hiding in the grass
- Some love stories are sweet like a fairytale; others are accidented, like a roller coaster (you mean the one that recently derailed, killing the occupants?)
- Three tottaly different people, sunk in problems, driven from hate and anger, gather from the destiny in a rageous night.

If this is the output of Southern Italy, young Italians, and “International Film Festivals” staged in Italy, perhaps the EU should consider investing in basic English lessons rather than lining politicians’ friends pockets with money that serves only to drive the image of Italy’s backward Mezzogiorno even further aground.

The Director signs off, "Good Cinema" (whatever that's supposed to mean -- it's like translating Buon Appetito...)
So, I'll sign off in turn, Break a Leg!
And, leave you with that to ponder while you enjoy your holidays in the Maldives with the monies you pocketed at the expense of professionalism.

p.s. Caro Direttore, my editing services are available for hire.  Until then, you might wish to change the name to CinemadaMale.

Monday, August 17

Doing as Romans Do

Last month, I was fortunate enough to hear my favorite Edutainment guy, Alberto Angela (host of the show, Ulysse) who, along with his dad, Piero Angela (host of the Quark series) make it the only two guys in Italy (aside from yours truly, Caroline Lawrence and The History Channel) who make history entertaining. He regaled us with stories from his just published in English book, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome.
[for a funny version by Rick Steves, go here.]

What was at once totally wonderful and – admittedly – depressing, was that, in these 2000 years, not a whole lot has changed. After reading Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome series, boy, that point really hit home! Between the politics, the affairs, the theater, the filth, the intrigue...Basically the only difference I found between then and now was that, in the old days, actors were seen as only one rank above prostitutes and singers were usually slaves. Nowadays, actors not only are royalty, they even marry into Europe’s royal families. Makes you wish for days of yore…

But I digress. Here is a short list, alà Alberto Angela, of things people complained about in Ancient Rome (people like Marzio, who would have been today’s equivalent of a learned David Letterman or in the very least, a blogger):

Traffic – the Romans had strict rules for when you could come into the City Center with your mule, much like the ZTL zones today. Not only that, whenever a politician’s posse came riding through, all traffic was stopped to let them get ahead, just like those omnipresent and obnoxious blue cars of today. In addition, Roman roads were constantly filled with holes and in need of repair

Pollution -- While today it’s car pollution and small particles, in the day, it was the smoke arising from nearly every fire pit around town.

Immigration – everyone seemed to complain about the arrival – in an already crowded place – of more and more immigrants from across the empire. The higher up you went in the multi-storey building, the more people you’d find crowded into single rooms – not like the state of the poor immigrants of today.

Housing – there was a huge shortage of housing, with people speculating on the real estate and building, just as today. Although I imagine that they all didn’t enjoy ‘second houses’ while many flats were left empty due to fear of renting them out.

Justice System – there was a very long waiting list for court cases to go through the system; today, it’s an average of 5 years. They also had spectacular court cases like the current Amanda Knox case in Perugia, giving rise to Judge Judy and her ilk.

Misc. – Rome was a very dangerous place by day or night, and, along security was a huge issue back then as now. Graffiti was commonplace and an eyesore, except I think there’s was even more permanently carved in stone. And finally, as a sign of demise, of course, there were the low birthrates and the high divorces.

Pretty much the biggest difference was the advent of household appliances: fans, blenders, ovens, water spouts. You name it: in ancient times, these duties were carried out by slaves but today, these little objects still respond to the commands of the master of the household.

And who says history doesn’t repeat itself?

Thursday, August 13

Death in Venice: which way is right?

Last week, I am sorry to report, my uncle passed away. His entire family was by his side, almost all having flown in from across the U.S. Because he had all of his faculties about him, he spent his last days getting his final affairs in order – having consulted with physicians, the hospice facility and his family. He knew the end was nigh, and he wanted to make sure everything would be fine when he left. Always in control, he even sat down and chose his entire funeral arrangements, right down to the hymns and the guests.

In Italy, this same scenario plays out in an entirely different matter. Basically, your plain vanilla, denial. The terminal patient is almost always – always – kept in the dark of their diagnosis, and even darker in terms of their prognosis. They are told they have an ulcer when it’s really pancreatic cancer. Regularly scheduled chemo treatments - taking place in the radioactive part of the hospital are shrouded in a ‘don’t ask / don’t tell’ omertà. I'm surprised they don't label the corridors something like HappyLand. Sometimes, depending on the fragility of the wife or husband, the doctors don’t even come clean to them, either. I recall pleading with a physician to give me the straight talk on my 89 year old aunt’s paralyzing stroke; finally explaining that for the family, and with her extreme Altzheimers, a ‘not long to live’ would be a benefit to all concerned. He could barely choke the words out.

Talk to any Italian, and they will state adamantly that my Uncle’s scenario is unreal, unhealthy and just plain sadistic at best. They firmly believe that patients perhaps fight harder, or don’t lose faith, if not told about their illness. Talk to an American about the Italian way of leaving this earth, with no goodbyes and your forms not in order (although one might contend that dealing with the bureaucracy would be the kiss of death – imagine that – having to revoke your own ‘certificato di esistenza’); basically departing without even knowing what did you in, and they will be left wide-eyed with incredulity and horror.  I wonder if they are Last Rites, or Last Wrongs?

Studies should probably be conducted to see whose way works better.

Monday, August 10

A Royal Flush

My 10 year old nephew, visiting from the United States, burst out with a pretty amazing observation, after we checked into a wonderful apartment in the foothills of the Abruzzi National Park. Obviously following in the footsteps of his dear old aunt (and with a hint of exasperation in his voice, I’d say), he remarked, “Why is it that every single toilet in this entire country has a different way of flushing??!!” According to Giancarlo, he has yet to flush the same way twice. In fact, even in our rental apartment, each bathroom had a different system.

Here’s his list:

- Sometimes, you have to pull a sort of plug upwards into the air that you find on the toilet tank.
- Other tank tops have buttons which you have to press down on (only after you’ve tried pulling them up)
- On trains, you have to press down on a pedal if you can find it (but only after you realize there is no other way to flush)
Sometimes it's not a pedal but a little rubber thing in the floor
- On superfast trains, there’s actually a light switch that flushes the toilet like supersonic speed as in airplanes
- Old apartments have chains you pull down like old light switches
- Some have buttons you have to press real hard on the wall, which have no relation to the toilet area itself
- Then there are those plastic plates on the wall, divided in two, and it takes a moment to figure out what the two sides mean...he usually presses either one, both seem to do the trick, but not always
- And, finally, some have buttons hanging down from the tank which you have to push up, and then hold it there, in order to assure proper flushing

Coming from a country in which everything is standardized, down to the light switches on the inside right as you walk into that very bathroom, I can see why he was a bit perplexed. Part of the beauty of discovery, I suppose.
I can’t wait to hear his uptake on toilet seats.

Thursday, August 6

Advertising Age

It’s been almost two years since I started this blog, and since that time, I’ve longed to have a special column, replete with my rating, of the ridiculous ads which litter my field of vision here in Italy. Now, I’m sure every other country on earth has pretty stupid ads, but, it just seems to me, that there’s an immense wealth concentrated here in a country that prides itself on putting its best face forward (La Bella Figura). Every time I go to London I actually stop to take in all of their brilliant ads before proceeding to the next swathe in the tube station.

So, to start out what will be a regular feature in the left hand column, of course, I have selected what is probably the worst ad campaign in the history of advertising: Binacci Arredamenti. This guy is so in love with his looks, and that of his wife? lover? secretary? he regularly features himself on every single ad, one cheesier than the next.

They go in themes, running the gamut from a Star Wars (complete with light sabers) series, to James Bond (with the Asian lady looking a whole lot like Lucy Liu), and everything in between.
One guy commented in the blogosphere that the ads are so abominable that the company should be sued for eye pollution.

His latest campaign, in an effort to appear less insipid, actually deviates from this course offering us all a breath of fresh aria, of sorts. He has spared us one of his ‘come hither’ looks while the babe vapidly looks on. Instead this summer, he’s decided to desecrate Rome’s most beloved monuments with his sorry attempt at witticism.

One trip over to his Ad agency’s site, who, even more unbelievably actually claim to be the brains behind this barrage of garbage, and you can see what we’re dealing with. Their home page is so weak, you cannot, without aid of a magnifying glass that would burn envy in even Galileo, read what they offer. So much for mass communications.

I have devised a ratings scale: 1 (infantile) to 45 (at the peak of brilliance), following basically, the likely age in years of the person who created the ad.

Binacci Arredamenti / Advertising Age = 8

Some quotes from the blogosphere:

- Binacci ha sempre fatto pubblicità pessimissima, a livello di TASSO ZERO. Roba da burineria. Contribuisce all'inquinamento visivo di Roma.

- Io brucerei le fabbriche di binacci solo per l'idiozia della sua pubblicità

Monday, August 3

Life in Italy: from Wine to Florence to Fiat to Telecom

What do you get when you mix the Vatican, FIAT, and Rose' Wine?  A terrific cocktail on wheels...

This month the Vatican Museums announced their evening opening hours. Aside from giving us all a cooler experience (in many ways), so you're not in the infernal lines in the scorching sun, perhaps it will alleviate the crowds.
Of course, it could mean that visitors will just double in numbers, too! But, either way, it's a very good thing.

FIAT, with their wonderfully designed cutsie cars, has reported an uptick in sales over 13%. That should be good news for a lot of people.
(I'm a fan of the design, not the repair record).
The Mayor of Florence, in a HUGE move to finally side with the citizens, has decreed that they will no longer be going after the populace, issuing tickets right, left and center for parking and traffic violations. And I quote: "The City coffers shouldn't be dependent for income on fines."
While this is great news for the locals, once they finally allow the rental car companies to issue cars that would allow tourists to arrive at their hotels - without paying the hidden tourist tax (tickets for driving in the city center where all those tourists are headed), then we'll really be onto something.

Due to negative growth, it looks like inflation actually went down in a few cities.
Of course, that was reported on Page 3 of the newspaper. Turn to page 7, and another article said it was up in those same cities. I'll place my bets on the first scenario.

The EU has declared that making rosè 'wine' by mixing reds and whites of dubious origins does not a wine make.
Maybe they can just call it 'wine spritzer', and we can call it a giorno.

And, drumroll please...

The best news ever, the Death Star that is Telecom's TIM (their mobile phone division), has reported subscribers down 628.000 this month alone! Italians flocking in droves to the competition.
Maybe they'll finally stop preying on their customers and instead provide services...Until then, hope the hemorrhaging continues...

Saturday, August 1

Traveling with Pets in Italy: A resource guide

Here we are, at the onset of the summer onslaught – not due to the traffic jams of millions of autos piling up on Italy’s highways, but to the number of dogs that get abandoned unceremoniously on the sides of those same roads, only to have the last sight they see, the oversized rubber wheel of an SUV.
It would appear that government budget cuts and a general lack of funding has left us without even the guilt-inducing posters all around town in a (vain) effort to get people to stop this annual act of cruelty inflicted on man’s (purported) best friend.

But, I bring you good tidings: There are two things to be happy about this Summer of 2009:

One, I’m thinking that the economic crisis is forcing so many families to stay put, that little Fido doesn’t have to fend for himself in front of the fenders.

And, starting on the internet but coming soon in a book, conscientious citizens, hoteliers, beach fronts and other tourist businesses are busy bragging about the fact that they accept dogs. This may also be due to the idea of attracting customers, but hey, anything that could reduce the number of canine casualties is a good thing. The government seems to believe that the old posters probably didn’t do much anyway, so they’ve set out to promote all of the places that makes pooches portable instead.
[Once we got around the absolute fools at Italy’s TrenItalia who wanted Rufus off the rails and consequently on the roads, they, too, can be included in this listing]. Even the Autogrills set up – in cohoots with volunteer organizations – little doggie parking lots at highway rest stops so people don’t leave Lulu in a 200 degree car, thinking they’ll ‘be out in a minute’ (you try going through those awesome mazes once inside from front to finish in under 12 minutes…!)

The internet is also full of many of these people admonishing the abandonment although I simply don’t think many people who are setting out to be an accomplice to murder are actually surfing sites labeled Your Pet – Your Prince or Traveling with Dogs or Happy Pets Inc…

Here is a list of terrific sources as reported in the Corriere della Sera’s CITY newspaper:

FINALMENTE, ENTRO ANCH’IO!  [You can supposedly search dog-friendly facilities, but I think TripAdvisor might be a better bet, since the site doesn't seem to be updated since 2010 - like most great initiatives, never followed through after the initial launch].

In Rome’s Ponte Milvio ‘beach’, dogs are welcome at the Villa bau village, complete with activities for you to enjoy with your pet.

Need to take Trixy in a taxi? (they even pick up corpses - you know, after they've had a heat stroke on the beach above)
Although, I must say, only in Italia would you find that the article loaded with excellent info on traveling with Toto offering some sage words of advice to all those dogs (namely, all of them) who stick their head out of car windows: Attenzione! for the Colpa d’Aria!
Whether that admonition is for Oscar or his owner, that’s for you to decide.