Friday, October 30

Sex, Lies and Dvds

History has just been made: An Italian politician just went down for his sexual picadillos, in what is a very first for this country. I mean, we’re talking about the place that gave us Caligula, Popes with 17 kids, Caesar & Cleopatra and then Marc Antony & Cleopatra, and Emperors gifting sumptuous villas for their mistresses. It was the Italians who remarked upon seeing photos of Gary Hart on the ‘Monkey Business’ with a pretty blonde (who was not his wife), that he most likely would have lost his candidacy if he’d been on the Monkey Business and not tried something. And so, catching Marazzo, the Governor of Rome’s great Lazio region with his pants down and taking the fall? This is nothing short of monumental.

Has Italy suddenly become prudish? Not if you count the numbers of men (and women) who back Berlusconi’s affairs as a sign of his ‘virility’. No, with all the drama of an Italian tragic opera, it wasn’t one of your plain vanilla puritan American affairs; getting caught sleeping around, or paying for escorts, or getting blown in the oval office, or even chasing pages (these transgressions don’t even cause blips on the radar screen). He was caught – on tape – shacking up with transvestites. But that’s only the QuickRead version of the story. It grows more complex by the minute.

What started out as his ‘personal weakness’ for the likes of Natalí and Brenda, later involved four Carabinieri policemen who filmed him in the act (for whom?, one might ask). He tried offering them hush money. The film supposedly ends up, however, in the hands of one of the huge media outlets – who warns him about it, rather than publishing it. That person is also the one running the country, Berlusconi. Speaking of Prime Ministers, the building is the same one in which Aldo Moro was famously held prisoner before being murdered. The same neighborhood where Italy's Secret Service purportedly own 22 other apartments (begging the question...did they murder Moro?). Or, did the Carabinieri have ties to Rome's local mafia, the Casalesi, and is it true, they have other hot videos (involving other ex-Ministers)?
As the climax of Marazzo’s personal and professional life is spent as fast as a man after well, climax, he's taken a leave of absence from his job. Unfortunately, just when Berlusconi’s men are maintaining a public campaign to halt absenteeism for false maladies – Marazzo goes home and gets a note from the doctor. The opposition cries foul, and presses for new elections – surely to win.
And, speaking of Berlusconi, the spotlight's now off the uncannily quiet Berlusca and his escorts, and shining brightly on the left, where the dirt is so murky, his own affairs pale by comparison. Hmmmmm...those accusations now seem like fun foreplay when set against the after-glow of Marazzo's transvestite trysts.

Shakespeare set his plays in Italy, for all the intrigue and fascination the place obviously held even back in his day. But Shakespeare, if he were alive today, could never have predicted such a convoluted unfolding of events.
As for me, since the days of seeing Gary Hart's Presidential campaign go impotent, up to John Edwards' premature ejection from public life, I still can’t figure out for the life of me, why public figures don’t keep their privates private – at least for the time they’re occupying a public office.

p.s. You can read an update here:
In a great show of support, opposition politician and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi has stated that the video will not go published on any of his media outlets. Yet another genius move by the great Chess player.
Birds of a feather...

Tuesday, October 27

Traveling to Rome - Bus Tickets

The longer I live here, the more I am stunned that it is the British who brought us Agatha Christie, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and a whole panoply of other super sleuths, and not the Italians. I mean, the Brits give you careful instructions at every turn: 'Look Left', Mind the Gap, This Way To...It's no wonder they never found the Holy Grail - it wasn't spelled out for them. Life in Italy is nothing but a search for that Holy Grail inside the Labyrinth of King Minos. Just try to find the most simplest of info (like bus ticket prices) on any Italian website, and you'll see what I mean.
Stranded at Ciampino Airport (more on that another day), I came across a huge sign that indicated all of the tickets that one could purchase around town. It was the first I'd ever heard of it -- so, I immediately thought it was some joker who sold fake tickets to innocent victims (I'm joking, I'm joking).

So, to make things easier:

75 min. ticket = €1
(it's actually €1.20 to get out of Ciampino by bus, but that's only to inconvenience all the poor travelers who have no change and who are then forced to buy something at the bar or newsstand there in order to then get their ticket - on board, though).
Called BIT - Biglietto Integrato a Tempo - once again, an 'A' for marketing.

1 Day Ticket (good til midnight) = €4
Called BIG - Biglietto Integrato Giornaliero - getting better

3 Day Ticket (who knew?) = €11
Called BTI - Biglietto Turistico Integrato - just to confuse everyone.

7 Day Ticket = €16

Called CIS - Carta Integrata Settimanale - Lord only knows where you need to purchase them, and how many buses you must take to find them

I went online to verify the above amounts. True to form, on the official 'biglietti' page, it lists the 7 day ticket as valid for 3 days, due to the cut&paste job from the entry above...

But, this explanation was by far the richest:

Tickets are not sold on buses. In rare occasions, you'll find a machine at some bus stops. If it works, it surprises anyone with how complex a ticket sale can be with its encrypted initials and four languages. A better solution is to buy tickets at tobacco stores, cafès, and newspaper stands. Even so, not everyone sells them, so you might want to ask around. When you find them, they may carry the old tickets, or the new ones. Some metros and buses take the first type, others take the second one. They are planning to switch completely to the second type [this has been done, ndr]. The new high tech ticket crashes some validation machines, which might no longer react or may indicate that the memory is full... Some buses have both machines, which don't always work.
Fortunately, Romans did not organize the switch from national currencies to Euros.

I rest my case.

Tourist notes: Once you purchase a ticket, and some buses have little machines which spit them out, but, they're not always there or working, you must then go over to another machine and punch them in. I have known tourists who have used their first ticket for days on end, which in this case, would signify, 7 day pass = €1 !!!

Sunday, October 25

Happy International Pasta Day!

Wednesday may have been Prince spaghetti day, but, today is International Pasta Day! And, judging from the latest statistics, Americans are eating pasta even more than once a week. In sunny Rome, we had a beautiful day to celebrate, with all kinds of pastas being served in the shadow of Castel Sant’Angelo. Heck, they even had a kiddie area where they were making Colosseum replicas out of the boxes!

It seems everything’s happening in Bella Roma this fall: The Festival del Cinema, a Calder exhibit opening (can’t wait!), theatres filled with performances, even the Barnum & Bailey circus, museums at night…It’s no wonder that Rome was voted recently one of the most livable cities. I would totally agree, although there are those other studies which show for pollution, traffic, and, services (like no nursery schools)…it’s not so great. And, if you don’t count the hundreds each year who get run down on the crosswalks (they probably would have agreed, it was a great city in which to die, though)…I think those reports are spot on.

My friends called from Castel Sant’Angelo to tell me that the day was picture perfect, and the organization flawless. Of course, there were the curmudgeons who were wondering when they’d get fed their ‘secondo piatto’ (was it called International Roast Bif Day??!!)

But, a friend who went to the Dennis Hopper presentation of his new fab book of photos (at 500 euro a shot, it better be fab) had this to report: He was doing a book signing of sorts. Except that he was signing little slips of paper, promoting the book. There were no books on display, nor were they on offer. I wonder -- was that intentional (to avoid the embarrassment of him not signing any books since we’re in the throws of the Great Recession?) – or, were the books merely stuck in customs?

Thursday, October 22

Consumer Marketing 101

Here's a new approach to winning over customers that was tried out on me today by the illustrious Telecom Italia Call Center --

Granted, as soon as I hear from a Telecom phone salesperson, I tend to stop them right away -- as I would not sign up for their (dis)services if it were the only company operating on earth. In fact, even if they were offering unlimited bandwith and free calls worldwide, I'd probably opt for two cans tied together with a string.
Usually, I say so much and enjoy a nice chuckle with the poor soul at the other end, wishing them good luck, but, recommending (highly) they try to change carriers. The responses I get are nothing short of remarkable (coming straight from the annals of, 'It's just a job, Ma'am). None of those American Express Co. 'Customer and Company are always right' memos for these worker bees!

But today took the cake.

Interrupting my day, the woman said she was calling from Telecom. I simply told her straight away, "You're wasting your time." Usually they say, are you sure you don't want to hear about our offer, etc. etc.
This time, she answered adopting the 'Best defense is a good offense' strategy.

"No, you're wasting your time, you piece of shit foreigner." (for you English, that'd be, 'bloody foreigner', I believe.

I wonder when more companies will begin utilizing this new sales tactic. Considering the new Italian middle class is most likely filled with foreigners from every corner of the earth, it might just work wonders. For some inexplicable reason, though, I can't seem to find it in my copy of Dale Carnegie's, 'How to Win Friends and Influence People."

Part 2/Telecom Italia Calls
Just 4 1/2 hrs. later, I received a call - incredibly - from the Customer Service office of Telecom Italia (I know, I know..they have a customer service office??)This, after my very specific missive entitled, "Zenophobic insults from Telecom employees". After a long discussion with a very charming man who expressed his sincere apologies, I was left with:

- the call didn't originate with them, so they can't do anything
- if they find which of their subcontractors has my number, they will issue a fine. Too many complaints, they cancel the contract.
- he's sorry, because being a foreigner shouldn't even come into it

He also said that the 50000+ employees of Telecom is a 'specchio dell'Italia' ('a mirror image', and here, we're in dangerous waters), but he's doing everything he can to assure that these events don't occur. Problem is, his range of action is only w/Telecom employees.

I asked if my tel. number (and it's this that I desire most) can simply be canceled from their lists. I offered to be a 'secret shopper', but, he said, I'd have to join Telecom to do so (!) and so I left him with this little anecdote I once read in a marketing manual:

"Pepsi never gained customers insulting Coke drinkers"

Part 3/Telecom on the Line
Less than 5 minutes later, I receive another call from another Call Center looking to offer me Telecom Italia services. She refused to give her name, nor mention the company she works for, but, I did manage to convince her that it's in their best interests to lose my number - and fast. She said she will take me off her list, but that doesn't preclude someone else from contacting me.

The battle was hard won, but not the war...

photo by

Monday, October 19

Travel to Germany: Alice in Vunderland

There were a few more things about Frankfurt that gave me pause…like seeing Frankensteinplatz on a map, and the temperatures that kept me frozen in my tracks upon arrival. Note to self: Don’t visit northern countries after September, and don't even think about England in August.
Staying with friends in a pristine area outside of Frankfurt (so far outside, there was an Ikea nearby), her 11 year old daughter was in a play where she was the Assassin. I asked her who she had to kill – she answered, two girlfriends and a couple of others. Now, I don’t want to seem a prude, but…isn’t Germany right up there with the USA on school shooting sprees? It seemed a strange play for elementary school, but, she assured me, not as strange as the other one, all about Zombies – in a sort of Night of the Living Dead reenactment.

Speaking of Zombies, the most incredible sightings to be had in Frankfurt were the hundreds of high schoolers (?) that were sent by some strange underground force, or else on their own collective volition to appear at Saturday's Book Fair. Judging from their looks, they did not seem of the book reading type, although, I’m sure Nightmare on Elm Street definitely figured in there somewhere. The costumes were your basic Punk variety, mixed up with Halloween costumes (like Little Bo Peep and Witchy-Poo). In all, I enjoyed the spectacle, because I felt like an extra in Lidsville.

They strolled around in groups, their multi-colored fluorescent hair standing out, I decided they weren't the underground types -- so they must be there to entertain the guests of honor, (or our next overlords, rather) China. The entire week in fact was dedicated to China, including films, books, museum shows, and even the rickshaws taking you to and fro…! Talk about German organization.

But, I couldn’t help but think what the Chinese, with their gold-trimmed robes and pageantry, and their wonderful theatrical masks and precision choreography might have made of it. Here was Punk Glamour Donts meets the Last Emperor – The Chinese I’m sure must have thought it was early Halloween – or so I hoped.
No, Dorotea, you are not in Bella Roma anymore!

Friday, October 16

A funny thing happened on the way... the Frankfurt Fair Forum.

These last few days, I've purchased my share of double-the-money cappuccini, water, and snacks. But, I have not received one single receipt for my efforts in return. With visions of a sort of gestapo asking me to show a receipt upon exiting the store, today, I finally asked for one at the little convenience store down in the subway. You would have thought I'd asked for an original copy of Barack Obama's birth certificate.
He slowly dug around in drawers behind where he keeps his pc, adding machine, video surveillance cameras and other high tech items for a receipt book - last seen used by monks in a 16th century monastery. He walked around to gather up a newspaper to check the date on it. Returning to his counter, he sistemated the date on his stamp thingamajig to then dip in ink. Then he wrote it out. Joking about this ordeal, that was approaching the gestation period of a dog, he told me 'no one gives out receipts here'.

Now. This came as a total surprise. Here we have it, just like the no smoking laws, where the Italians are the ones obeying the rules--and to think that in cash-strapped Germany, they don't even have the threat of random checks! I couldn't believe my ears.
Turns out, the government has decided that if you run a certain enterprise, you pay so much tax. Italy has also adopted this practice. If you think you're being overcharged, you can start issuing receipts. Obviously in Germany, the tax rate seems to be pretty darn accurate...

I had lots to think about in Frankfurt, since I could not be entertained in the subways -- here, there are almost no ads at all -- contributing further to the dreary flourescent glow look. But they do have a semi-genius way of placing the intricate subway maps up on the ceilings of the cars, but you get so dizzy looking at them, you have to sit down before identifying your destination.

After two days here, I may never complain about Italian ads and prices again.

Wednesday, October 14

Modern (in)Conveniences

I just watched this terrific video about the ways in which we have developed in things technological and what have you, in absolute leaps and bounds, and, when there's a slight hitch, everyone gets upset. Comedian Louis CK really gets it right.

Click here to watch, and then read on...

I realized a few things about Life in Italy through his standing in awe of certain conveniences most of us truly take for granted:

- Italians will usually break into applause upon landing. I think the applause is either a moment of rejoicing air flight, in a sort of nod of thanks to Leonardo, or else, a spontaneous cathartic reaction that they have lived to tell about it. It's one thing I have always loved about flying in/out of Italy, but sadly, as cabins become far more mixed, people don't clap as much anymore. Either it's because Bella Figura trumps all, or perhaps because I don't fly Italian airlines.

- The phone system was so totally messed up until the advent of cell phones, it is no wonder that Italy is the most popular country for cell phone use, despite the exorbitant costs. Not only did you have a rotary dial, but "the line has dropped" was a phrase uttered at least once -- and often much more -- in every single conversation. When it happens on cell phones, people barely notice the inconvenience.
After all, it is going up to outer space -- and provides much better service than our standard phone lines.

- And while banks in Italy are still unbelievably inefficient, (the elderly still wander in to cash themselves a check and banks are still open only about 3 hours), I've gotta admit, we've really come a long way, baby, in a very short time.

Monday, October 12

The Prague Fall

I now realize why City governments believe that the opening and running of airports is such an important element for any city. Aside from attracting the obvious numbers of travelers making their way there, they often cite the airport as the Welcome Mat for the traveler – an extension of what they’ll get upon arrival. And, the more I travel, the more I see that this is so very true. So, why is it, that they choose to muddy that mat so often with the lack of basic organization?

In the least, as I stated in a previous post, they’re figuring out here in Rome that bad Baggage Services costs them dearly in terms of the brand—and this is a good start. Returning from Prague, I waited 50 mins. for my lonely bag to hiccup onto the belt (a different one than previously indicated on the monitors). In Prague, a city not fully dependent on the tourist dollar, the wait was something closer to 10. Nonetheless, when it comes to signage, they’re taking their cues from the Romans in numbering and lettering their terminals.

But, it really didn’t matter. An express bus straight to the metro line was fabulous, even though on your way back, you have no clue as to which terminal you fly out of. [They offer ‘Non Schengen flights’, which is fine if you’re a European, but…], and the bus (un)naturally goes from Terminal 3 to 1 to 2 for some odd reason I haven’t quite worked out. Terminals 1 and 2 were simultaneously indicated with Terminals A, B, C & D – in an effort to outdo the Romans on confusing the tourists.

But, once on the subway, you’re treated to electronic signs which actually tell you your stop (and not just the final destination), and, that most enigmatic of modern conveniences, elevators that take you up to street level. Riding the escalator, you find that the Czechs prefer their ads tilted slightly, just like you. I can’t decide if I liked them better that way, although I’ve been known to watch movies on my mac lying down, screen sideways. I think the angled posters added a nice touch, although I kept tilting my head so far, I almost fell down the stairs - twice!

One thing that surprised all of us attending the WIN CONFERENCE in Prague, was the level of smoking. We’d all forgotten all about that. Incredibly, at the Prague Hilton, boasting an atrium so high, it makes the Pantheon pale by comparison, you’d think you’d never ever get a whiff of the stuff. Turns out, heat doesn’t rise after all. The absolutely beautiful place was filled with cigar smokers and their stench.

Going into smoky bars & restaurants was a sort of walk down memory lane – and, I must admit, it kind of added to the atmosphere (in more ways than one!).

Wednesday, October 7

Letter from Milano

Returning to Milano is always a wonderful experience. It seems here, with the swanky clothes and the bustling vibe, everyone is on a mission, and even 'la crise' (economic downturn) doesn't seem to have an effect, judging by the outfits of the hundreds of people flocking to all the cafès & bars in the center.
Each time I visit, I find something new. This time, they've announced their own bike rentals -- carrying the appropriately cool moniker (as per my previous entry), Bike Sharing and accompanied by an advert that was actually very very good. Dare I say it? Milan, if you ignore the fact that you have a grey ceiling overhead, is a breath of fresh air.

The Italian version of "You made your bed, now sleep in it" is, "You wanted the bicycle, now pedal it"

While there, I attended the opening of the fab Boscolo Hotel (I didn't rent a bike, but got there in a Maserati, compliments of Elite Rent). I hadn't seen that much black and glitter and heels since the funeral of the Godfather. Wandering around the gorgeous architecture of Itala Bota, I felt we were all extras in a refilming of Bonfire of the Vanities but this time, with a 1950s view of how 2010 should look. We were treated to a cast of characters straight out of Cirque de Soleil, a woman with a live owl, another launching a falcon outside, and near the unbelievable pool (also from Woody Allen's Sleeper), a stunning mermaid.
Although I couldn't find very many handsome men as eye candy (if you don't count the bouncers and security detail, all looking like Men in Black), it was a pretty amazing spectacle, or, to use the very appropriate Italian, spettacolo.

The only thing that goes counter to all the hustle and bustle of Milan is the dead end you hit after you rush off your train, run to the welcoming staircases and are stopped in your tracks as you look over the railing as if at the Grand Canyon, to gaze at the vast emptiness where the snazzy escalators once were...You back up, turn around, and make your way down the 20 minute zigzag maze. Which leaves you ample time to ponder where you'll be deposited on your way down...
Nonetheless, a good time was had by all.

Friday, October 2

Win For Life

The Lottomatica people just announced this terrific new lottery game, with three winners on Day 1 garnering 4000 euro/month for 20 years (let's just say, we hope the lives of the Win For Life winners don't come to an abrupt end in around that time -- not that that wouldn't make a good thriller plot). But then, I think the term was used just to coin a phrase, and I wonder, how many of Italy's main players -- those aging seniors (and even a lot of youngsters) really know what those words mean. It never ceases to amaze me how much of English is used to sell anything, from the ridiculous M'Honey Bank card (from my nemesis, Monte dei Paschi) to cars to the very Italian Todd's.
And then a reader sent in this witty piece to put it all into perspective:

The English tend to struggle with foreign languages – which may be why they made the rest of the world speak theirs instead. So as an Englishman of a certain age, the five years it’s taken me to learn Italian have put, well, years on me.

Blunders that still make me grimace? Confusing ho scoperto (“I discovered”) with ho scopato (“I screwed") – on one of my first meetings with my future mother-in-law. Even worse was my asking at a restaurant what to do about la mancia (the tip). Only it came out as la minchia (a quite vulgar term for the male genitalia).

All that trouble to learn the world’s most romantic language and what do I find? Half of Italy has replaced it with “Anglo-Italiano”, a curious mix of English and Italian.

Accommodation for your vacation to Rome? If gli hotel are booked, lo staff may recommend un bed and breakfast nearby that is one of i top in the capital and comes with tutti i comfort. Staying for a few weeks? Then think about un residence or un loft with un big open-space.

The media is no better. Il Premier Silvio Berlusconi has allegedly been sleeping with le sexy escort after using il suo private jet to transport i VIP and le showgirl to i party at his home. It’s un altro gaffe by il tycoon and il feeling between him and voters has never been worse. Now he’s complaining about lo stress and il suo privacy.

Following il summit di G8 – which brought altri leader such as Barack Obama and le first ladies to Italy – Berlusconi called un meeting of his cabinet to settle un budget. But the newspapers have un scoop – during un briefing, he blamed Il Ministro del Welfare for the deficit reaching un record.

Or how about the soccer in La Gazzetta dello Sport? There was il derby during il weekend between i due club di Milan, AC Milan and Inter. Because il match era sold-out, i fans found it hard to buy i ticket. Milan’s No9 was il matchwinner with a goal from un corner. It led to scuffles among gli hooligan, which gli steward soon dealt with. Leonardo, il mister di Milan, was just happy to win.

But gossip and beauty magazines are the worst. Madonna non è piu single la superstar now has un boyfriend and she and il suo partner have been spotted in un resort. Or fancy un po’ di restyling? Read all about il beauty, gli accessory-must and i color this season – sono black and white. By the way, il new look is un T-shirt extra large with un paio di jeans.

Then there’s una showgirl from un reality show, downing i cocktail in un bar, before a spot of il clubbing and then heading off with un pop star from un boyband.

But surely Italian is a rich enough language with words of its own that do the job perfectly – un albergo, not hotel; impiegati rather than staff; spuntino instead of snack.

Last year the prestigious Dante Alighieri Society launched a campaign to curb the erosion of Italian by English words. Tough job – Anglo-Italiano is now il nuovo trend

Mille Grazie! to Ainsley Okoro for his terrific commentary on this trend...

Ainsley Okoro works for Homes and Villas, a property website and specialises in Calabrian property and property in Tuscany.