Wednesday, September 30

Tante Belle Cose - Sept 09

September always starts out with a bang, and in our Buone Notizie category, September doesn't disappoint here either.

One of the best news in town is that the Attico (rooftop apartment/terrace) that a B star built overlooking the Colosseum was actually torn down. Let's see if the trend continues...or if, it's only valid for certain people on certain days.
Judging from the amount of buildings that have gone up all over Rome, she obviously didn't have connections in high places.

400,000 Romans had reason to rejoice when their parking tickets issued up until 2004 were given an amnesty, of sorts. They only have to pay the original fine.
Let's see if any will actually cough up the cash.

Thousands of Colfs (those wonderful women mostly from Eastern Europe and the Philippines) who spend their days and nights looking after old people and babies got registered to stay legally in Italy in another amnesty.
It's great to see that the Italian government knows that without these women (and some men), the aging population would be left to their own demise -- and, considering there are not enough structures to support the aged, well, it would be costly, indeed to provide assistance.

And, in a surprising sight to see, you can now purchase basic reading glasses (even a bit snazzy) at newstands around town.
Why does this make the news? Because a few years back, stores, seemingly market-driven, started selling the eyeglasses. The Pharmacist unions started striking and protesting and hooting and hollering about how it was 'unfair competition'...(Huh??!!) and threatened their monopoly status. The glasses went off the shelves.
It would appear that the wily news agents are either more powerful or simply pulling the wool over the pharmacists' eyes on this one. Either way, consumers have a right to rejoice. Oh -- and the best news yet? Yours for only €9.90!!!

Monday, September 28

You Go Frau!

In honour of the German elections, I thought I'd post a few campaign posters on my blog -- this, in the hopes that a few German photographers might take the impetus and, instead of suing me for posting them on my blog, just run down to Italy and start offering their services...

I for one would be happy to vote for anyone who finally came up with a shot of an actual humanoid & a slogan that said something...

Did I say human?

Saturday, September 26

Business Weak

Giving you the latest and greatest in the Italian business world...

Shana Tova!
Just in time for the Jewish New Year, the GS Supermarket chain store, released their fabulous new wines...labelled with the effigies of Hitler and Mussolini. Thankfully, it took a French tourist to file a complaint and they were removed from the shelves.
GS now owned by French company Carrefour, the French obviously still haven't come to terms with their past...

Italia's Lazarus
Providing equal opportunity for religions, Berlusconi has revived from the dead his 40+ million euro quagmire of a website, .
Wondering what his buddy, Stanca, and the folks at IBM got paid off -- errr -- paid to put this two-bit disgrace back online.

Fine Fiumicino
Looks like the baggage companies are being hit with fines of 2000 euro for bag mishandling, which, aside from costing the carrier, hits Rome's image, big time. So far, 150 have been issued. The administrator said that if it were up to him, he'd have given them fines of 100,000 euro to see to it that it would never happen again!
Too bad the company isn't allowed to videotape their employees nor truly oversee them for fear of union reprisal. Maybe the unions should be paying the piper.

Bank Robbery
Once again, Italy's banking fees have been singled out as the naughty boys of Europe, outpacing their European brethren by almost 6 to 1. Italians pay about 253 euro per year in fees and taxes on their bank accounts, while the next most expensive country, France charges just half that.
As a funny insert so appropriately depicted, the robbers now waltz into banks with their hands raised.

Thursday, September 24

Making Tracks

This in from my no. 1 fan, Davide - grazie mille!

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used. Why did 'they' use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England because that was the original spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those oddly sized rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Ancient Romans formed the initial chariot ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
Therefore, the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman chariot. Thing is, chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses (or, two horse's asses).

And now, for the twist to the story:

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, you'll see two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.

The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

In short, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass.

So, the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder, 'What horse's ass came up with it?', you may be exactly right.

I don't know if this story is true, but I love it regardless.

Saturday, September 19

Pubblicità - Publicity or Public Obscenity?

[Ad reads: Bring your kids to Ikea, and we'll keep them between the balls. Fra le palle meaning similar to ball-breakers].

While Ikea ads remain -- at least for me -- The Gold Standard in Italy, with their tongue placed firmly in their cheek, lately, there's been a wind of change - albeit still only a mild breeze - based on some of the ads I've seen posted around town. This is good news.
In the last month, I've seen a number of articles on the downfall of Italy's ad business and its been a constant thread in dinner conversations (I swear, not of my own doing!). Spontaneous generation, I'd say.
I think this occurs every September, after Italians return from their holidays abroad and realize - even subliminally - what an eyesore ads are here compared to most places. [The verdict of late: it's not based on lack of resources -- poor Brazil reportedly has the most creative ads on the planet).

September in Rome and we were treated to this Back-to-School ad, (although one could make the case that perhaps it'd be a tad more appropriate before the summer lovin' school break). So smart, obviously, it was not approved by any governmental committee. Sheer brilliance in its audacity, its ability to get you to read it, and probably, to think upon it long after you've passed it by. [It reads: Have you installed your Anti-Virus?]

So successful it was, like the anti-anorexia ads before it, it's now been censured.

And so we're left with what amounts to the brilliance of political action committees. From the PD, black ads seemingly marking the end of days, state simply, "Ciao, Ragazzi". Wow. That's enough to get me to motivate - politicize & demand Change.

ciao, ragazzi.

Attack of the Killer Pandas

There was a very smart article in what is arguably the best journal for all things Italian and most things Rome to be found in print or online. I'm talking about The Roman Forum, of course. The brainchild of Company, WalueEurope (don't ask -- well, I'll go ahead and just tell you...While 'W' in America means former President, George W. Bush, 'W' in Italy is often called 'V', pronounced 'Vu'), its Director is Chiara Di Pietro, with Editor-in-Chief, Brit, Anthony Smith. And kudos go out to Art Designer, Eugenio Catalano. This trifecta, giving us so much on things Roman, I wholly expect them to be wearing laurel wreaths when I happen to run into one or the other around town.

Anyway, in the September issue, you'll find the article about Driving in Italy, penned by Robert Shipley, clearly a man after my own heart (although I was saddened to learn upon reading it, he's married).
the notorious killer panda
He goes on to provide a perfect listing of things to watch out for if you're driving on Italian highways. Now, it's a 2 part article, so, I'm afraid to preempt his listing, but, I'd like to add a few more caveats:

- It is not my experience (and I used to drive over 5000km / month) that people pass on the right, except in city centers. But on those 3-lane highways, you will find absolutely no motorist worth his salt (and I stress his), in the far-right lane, dedicated to slow vehicles. Truckers and slow pokes will simply not take a blow to their masculinity and be caught ever in the slow lane, forcing all other cars going over 80km/hr to pass in the left lane, risking to be back-ended by the approaching car coming in at 160, before being able to make their way to the middle lane.

- As I mentioned in a previous post, those white pandas nowadays are as rare as the real things (and they're undeniably just as cute); They've been upgraded to SUVs, pulling all the same maneuvers, but now, seriously posing a life-threatening risk.

Of course, no rules apply to motorinos. Foreign visitors are left mouth-gaping the way they drive down the center lane, weave in and out, pass all over the place, and then jump the gun. I'm used to it, but utterly shocked the death rate for them is not infinitely greater.

As for Shipley's query about driving down the middle lane? That's easy to figure out. Staking out the middle means you can take your pick literally, down the road...

Thursday, September 17

Italian Language Tips: Getting Lei-d

A friend was bemoaning the new casualness in today’s schools – no more Sigra. or Signorina when addressing La Maestra (and I’ve yet to discover a male out there – although I’m sure they exist in the same way we know white tigers roam parts of India). In part, due to the youth of today’s teaching corps, and, according to a study which found that 52% prefer using the informal ‘Tu’ rather than the ‘Lei’. Their reasoning: in part due to the immediacy of email and friendliness of social networking sites.

Just for the record, this same friend, after marrying her junior high school sweetheart, having grown up practically next door to each other – both give the Lei to the parents 30 years on. In a gesture of sheer chutzpah, clumsiness, or both – I don’t use it for either set.
For us English-speaking natives, using the familiar 'Tu' is decidedly more friendly, and we sort of avoid and abhor pulling out the 'Lei' when we find ourselves in a pinch – we absolutely cringe from its formality, although it does not hold that same weightiness for Italians. It’s simply what’s used. I suppose, if you’re from America’s South, where the term Ma’am is oft-used, addressing someone with the 'Lei' is probably not that big of a deal.

But the fun really starts when someone speaks, and you look over your shoulders to see who, in fact, they must be talking to – you automatically hear 'She' not 'You'. Even more mind-boggling for men, when they use the 'Lei' (She/Her) for You – in the single documented case of Italian gender parity.

But, my big question remains: What’s up with the Lei to signify an insult? When arguing with a fellow driver, I used to address them in the 'Tu', thinking, ‘Hah! I don’t treat them with respect’. Turns out I was totally off base. I used to shop religiously at an exclusive store in Rome. For years, the wonderful proprietor gave me the 'Tu'. Until that fateful day when my credit card did not go through. Attempts to contact the fraud office followed. Suddenly, and in front of the other customers, I was getting the 'Lei' – the verbal equivalent of the Cold Shoulder.

But my favorite is the standing joke in Italy: After the boss and his secretary enjoy a nice shag, they go back to their respective offices and right back into using the Lei. I find this practice so outlandish, that it causes my brain synopses to backfire. Although, while I could see Monica saying, Mr. President...I still can't quite conceive of him calling her Ms. Lewinsky. But, ask any boss who’s similarly sowed his oats – they will tell you something I’ve known for years – that there’s a lot of truth in humor.

Monday, September 14

Desert Storm

It finally rained in Sunny Italy*. I know this not because I went out to walk the dog and saw wet pavements. In Rome, those telltale signs dry up almost instantly. I know this because, when out with my dog, we walked past my car (well, actually all the cars parked along the way), and found them covered with dirt. Toxic rain? Depends on who you ask.
But, common thought goes that, storm clouds gathering over the Sahara scoop up a lot of sand particles. The wind transports those clouds across the Mediterranean, to dump their dirt on unsuspecting Italy. I have no idea about the validity of this story, but, I can tell you, after a rain storm, your car will look like it came right out of the Marakesh-Moputo Road Rally.

I would try covering my car with dish soap before it rains, but I suppose that’d work only if the weather forecasts were a bit more precise…! I can just see the Palmolive ads now...

*As an ex-Milanese, I can personally attest that the above term is to be used for anyplace well below the Po River.

Thursday, September 10

Tourism in Italy - Petroleum or Quicksand?

Italian Customer Service (see sign upper left) - in the old Stazione Tiburtina
Just ask the guy on the floor for info, or... pray.

 A lot had been made awhile back over the Japanese tourists who got taken for a ride in Rome at the Passetto ristorante near Piazza Navona:  They were overcharged for every item on their meal, and then the proprietor added a random 135 euro tip for his efforts.  In typical Italian fashion, the restaurant was shut down until the dust settled, and reopened a few days later – just in time for them to pull the same trick on another young Japanese couple. They learned their lesson, though – they did not put in a line item called tips, but changed it to 84 euro in misc. taxes. So much for repentance. The Japanese press had a field day -- so much so, Italy's Minister of Tourism offered to have the travelers back...(at taxpayers', not the Passetto's expense--they demurely declined the invitation).

In fact, while millions each year have a wonderful holiday in the Bel Paese, the more vocal ones will often admit that the country was sensational, the food and people even better, but the hassles of navigating the constant barrage of ripoffs were frustrating at times. Sometimes, if you visit travel Forums, you’ll find the odd person who says, “Never again.”

My sister has been coming to Italy since she was 2 years old. Since she was 16, it’s a biannual occurrence, never faltering even after the birth of four children. She loves this country, speaks the language, and will continue to come back (except Venice), as I’m sure will her kids. She knows to expect the almost daily ripoffs as part of your tourist experience. This particular summer she spent a phenomenal 40 days traveling through Italy – this is a brief recount of some of the ways Italy is a bit less hospitable. (see Tante Belle Cose for the great parts):

- Contacting the luxury homes to rent in the center of Florence, the place they rented 2 years ago responded to her emails after 3 weeks’ time and after they had already negotiated on a wonderful flat – and it was even less. With a family of 6, in Italy, they are often quoted a per person fee, rather than a per room charge, which could signify upwards of a $450 per night price tag on a room with 2 beds anyway. In the end, the agency came up with a series of excuses so as not give her back her deposit on the apartment. She is still waiting to see if the money will be credited back to her account.

- They rented a car to visit Volterra, where they had filmed the Twilight sequel. The gas gauge was broken, so, they actually had no idea how much gas was in it to start, and were worried they’d be charged extra for filling the tank when they returned the car. In fact, from the amount of money they put into the tank, it would appear the car was given to them on empty. Naturally, there was no way to return the car after hours, and they hoped that they would not be charged an extra day as a result. They are still waiting for their credit card bills to verify all charges.

- In Venice, of course, you are forced to pay close to $100 in advance for a 30 minute gondola ride. The thing is, the gondolier pulls in after only 20 minutes, and you cannot protest nor get a refund on being shorted your ($33) 10-minute excursion.

- In Rome, she pulled out a 5 euro bill to purchase three €1 bus tickets. The tickets were marked in large red print, 5 euro, but as a promotion for Zoomarine, although this was unclear. The cashier told her it would be 15 euro. She asked, for 75 minute tickets?? Sì. 15 euro later, she had her three 1 euro tickets and change from a 20 euro bill.

- Travelling to Sicily, they needed to pay (cash) for their beach apartment, which was exceptional in every way. They decided to change their dollars at a local bank. The first bank wouldn’t change their money because they didn’t know them. The second wouldn’t change their money in its entirety, and so on, until they finally managed – going to three towns in over 3 hours -- to change their (obviously laundered) dollars.

- On Lake Turano in the Sabine hills, the proprietor was too busy chatting with his buddies to rent out peddle boats. The only tourists there, after about 20 mins, we finally pleaded with him to let us take them out.

- Back in Abruzzo, the kids couldn’t wait for their biannual pilgrimage to the Roccaraso crepe man. Obviously angry they asked for crepes, he refused to hand over extra plates or napkins (try that with nutella!).
- At the wonderful family movie theater there, there were no reduced prices for young children. She managed to convince them to give her a discount, and, in a case of showing true Italian hospitality (and recognizing that 4 children families are a rarity in Italy), they obliged her for the two youngest.
- The fully equipped and excellent service provided by the tourist office was great, except that it’s hidden away in a Comune office or library, far away from the spots where a tourist might actually be seeking information; although there were plenty of cute wooden shacks lining the main strip, calling themselves Tourist Information – all closed.

- To meet my sister, I arrived by train to Sulmona, to take a fabulous bus service to Roccaraso. Run by the FS, by the looks of it, I was unsure whether I was actually getting a lift, or getting kidnapped (having jumped in an unmarked van with two guys and a piece of paper stuck in the window indicating the wrong destination). Although they arrived late, I arrived early to my destination – faring better than the English couple who had tickets for a similar service; the locals told them the service no longer exists and they ended up calling a taxi (the newsstand guy took pity on them, after the FS ticket guys feigned ignorance, and made the call for them).

- Attempting to enroll her youngest in a Summer Campo Sportivo, she called the number posted on (the few) posters there. The woman said she had nothing to do with it, couldn’t give us information and never called back to give us the number of her business partner. Despite sending various sms messages, we never got a call back and we never did enroll Luca in tennis camp.

- The fireworks displays (usually something that children enjoy), scheduled for 9pm, were stunning – but the show went on well after midnight.

- Following signs for the Giornate Medioevali in Fornelli (Isernia), we arrived to discover that events took place at night (perhaps Notti Mediovali would have been more appropriate?).
True to form, most promotional posters of events across the country do not indicate phone numbers, websites or tourist info like starting times on them, so, it was truly anyone’s guess. We used internet and read articles about past events in order to get the idea; migrating to google maps to identify the locations.

- After an amazing day going up to the awesome tourist stop, la Grotta del Cavallone, we had to take the lifts back down. Waiting our turn, the kids were greeted to the monty of Italian women – nude posters straight out of a Harley mechanic's garage -- in full view. Enjoy your trip!

- Finally, on her way out of Rome, ordering a taxi to the airport, the taxi arrived with 12 euro on the meter (we had reserved ahead of time and after much pressing to get the fee base straight, were told they are not allowed to do that – information given begrudgingly by the taxi operator). Stating that we called for 5am and not 5:15, he refused to start the meter over. At an extra 8 euro per passenger, these fees do, indeed, add up to huge profits for the drivers.

Not a day goes by without a politician or business person acknowledging that Tourism is Italy’s Petroleum industry. By the looks of it, at times it would seem that Italians in the tourism industry are digging for their petroleum using sandbox shovels.

Monday, September 7

Travel in Italy: The good, the bad, the ugly

Francesca Maggi's...Strange But True!

Returning home to Rome from Venice yesterday, a very strange item caught my eye (and I don't mean one of the godawful exhibits from the Biennale): Since Venice seemed to have hit the trifecta what with the Regata Storica with the Corteo delle Barche Storiche, the Cinema Festival (with appearances by Nicolas Cage, George Clooney & even Michael Moore -- not that he's something to look at...but...) and the Biennale of Art, turns out that a number of additional trains were added to ease the pain of the journey. In fact, a friend most likely missed his train, but there were about 4 more shortly thereafter to choose from. So what's my beef?
These trains were paid for by the City of Venice and not quickly added because of a swift move by an astute business manager at Trenitalia. I know this should be an entry in my Business Weak column, but I just couldn't wait. Too bad the City probably doesn't make the money back on the train tickets.

There's been a lot of talk about the Vatican these days, but, what was really interesting, was the little piece of news this summer of the parish priest who went on a hunger strike in order to drum up parishioners.
Perhaps instead he should be looking at some outreach programs to actually attract his flock rather than doing the religious equivalent of sitting on a railroad track while hoping someone higher up solves the problem.

While in Milan, they continue their mad drive to brighten their image. Incredibly, even for a vocal non-smoker like me, the City has made a move to ban smoking in public parks. Whether this molto Big Brother move actually passes, I can't say, but...I think it's a bit over the top.

And finally, I finally got to see and use Venice's spanking new bridge over the Grand Canal! [that's because the boats were stopped due to the Regata...]. Stunningly designed by the sometimes-talented Santiago Calatrava, it was a sight to behold. It links the parking structure place (Piazzale Roma with it's dozens of bus lines and transporters) with the railway station. Calatrava obviously let the anti-luggage geniuses over at Trenitalia dictate the design -- for anyone who needs to schlep their luggage, or glide over on a wheelchair, just forget it. No center ramp easing your way up the incline for you. (just ask me or any Japanese tourist, who needs a sherpa when traveling).

Thursday, September 3

Life in London: Advertisements and Culture Shock

Whilst in Londontown, I am currently pondering two burning issues about British life, namely:
How in the world did the country that brought us high teas, the unparalleled changing of the guard, the management of great swathes of Africa and India, and children in uniforms (and liking it), could get their basic plumbing so totally ass backwards (errr--scratch that, I mean, nix that -- they don't even have bidets) and, worse yet, continue to use their fit-for-Queen Aragon of Spain (est. 1500s) as a viable system today? And two, How does a city as big as London (pop: approx 15M) with virtually no garbage bins remain so impeccably clean?
Regardless, I will post a few more great things about British Life, and that’s their ceaseless delivery of tongue-in-cheek ads: from the Underground to the Mayor’s office, to selling auto insurance (, to furniture stores, flights, and fun things to do, riding the subway here is akin to spending each and every day in a comedy club.

Here are a few which I offer up to my Italian paesani, in the hopes someone's taking notes. Even though this kind of humour is very un-Italian, I’d still like to find an Italian in all the world that doesn’t smile at the Brits' sales tactics (and, who always -- always remembers the ad). Only Ikea stands alone – all of their ads are at once memorable and successful. And oh --- Not to be a prude, but, I must also say that in Britain, these past 2 weeks I’ve eye-balled probably over 40000 adverts, and not found one nude yet -- except on the little stickers attached to the phone booths, but, you get my drift. Come to think of it, Ikea doesn't use them either. So now there's a third pressing question upon which to ruminate: Is there a correlation between high creativity and unclothed women???

The furniture one, while not witty, is a gift for Mr. Binacci -- Lesson #1
How to Sell Furniture