Sunday, January 31

Tante Belle Cose - A new decade dawns in Italy

January may have just ended, but the New Year is ushering in all kinds of new & wonderful happenings here in Italy:

I returned to Rome to find a new building had gone up within the shopping center they’re building in my neighborhood.  Generally, I’m against such constructions (especially since…do we really need another shopping mall in Rome??), but I was nonetheless impressed.  The shopping center itself has taken years to erect, and so, to find a whole spanking new building (nicely designed, I might add) where a huge pit had been just two months previously, well, I thought was pretty cool.
After all, given the recession, it could have gone the other way and ended up as yet one more eco-mostro cement skeleton littering the landscape.

Then, I saw they had roped off the nearby thoroughfare – presumably to cut down the rest of the trees City Officials seem to find so offensive.  Instead, there they were, bulldozers.  Ripping out the patchwork of tree trunks from those they felled the year before.   
And, miracles of miracles, actually replacing those stumps with new trees!
Too bad these trees will not reach the heights of their predecessors (the city is sick of paying for damages when branches fall), but they’re a definite improvement to the mini-forum of 3 ft columns lining the roads.
But why they did not turn the corner and replace a few of the nearly petrified forest of tall stumps (they've been that way some 20-odd years) on every other nearby street is beyond me…

And, to top it all off, the ciliegio sulla torta...(drum roll, please)...While at a dinner party, I discovered that Minister Bersani (a while back) had succeeded in passing a law whereby the banks are no longer allowed to charge 80 or 100 euro or more for you to close your bank account!!! 
For every expat on earth who ever fled Italy, refusing to close your accounts -- you can come out of hiding!!  Close them with relish and never see another mountain of bills – errr, I mean bank statements – from Cassa di or Banca del ever again. 
Yes, the decade is off to quite a nice start.

Thursday, January 28

Cleaning Casa

Hillary Clinton asserted (somewhat unsuccessfully) during her bid for America’s top job, that “Perhaps it takes a woman to clean up all the messes that the men have gotten us into.”  And from natural disasters to war zones and through economic crises, she is right on.  Traditionally, it’s been the women to pick up the scattered pieces, raise the children, and grow communities. 
Coming back to Italy, it would appear that things have gotten so out of hand that even the Italians are looking at an A-list of women running in elections across the country.  After seeing so many women in the USA as on talk shows, talking business, the economy and politics, I thought for a moment all of the posters were like hazy mirages from my jet lag.  Turns out, I was wrong.

Running for the Region of Lazio's governorship (or Presidency, I haven’t quite worked it out) of Rome & environs, are two welcome faces:  Emma Bonino and Renata Polverini.  It seems they battled to the top against a few others, like Loretta Napoleoni and Paola Binetti.  I’m not sure if this is some weird fad, or if in Italy, women finally are going to have their say.  But either way, I just hope that the ladies are here to stay. 
And although Polverini is half Bonino’s age (and experience), do I dare say it, we may have Berlusconi to thank for this unlikely turn of events? 
In the worst case, at least party officials can rest a bit easy in the knowledge that they won’t be muddying the party name – being found out cavorting with transvestite prostitutes or underaged call girls around town.

Saturday, January 23

The Roman Calendar: Through its desserts

Now that it’s a new year, and everyone is hanging up every version of their calendars, I came to the realization that I really didn’t need one.  Living in Italy, you can practically set your clock to the food cycle. And I don’t mean just the in-season fruits and vegetables:  I’m thinking desserts.

It’s January and nary a Panettone can be found far and wide.  All windows and grocery aisles are filled with the wonderful sights of Castagnole (donut holes, by any other name still smell as sweet) and Chiacchiere or Frappe (in Rome) baked or fried, in preparation for February’s carneval festivities.

By March, we’re treated to the Easter dove of peace, in the form of a sort of panettone without the raisins—if it weren’t for the great care in making these Colomba, you’d have thought they just took the leftover Pandoros and kind of squished them down just so.  They’re so delicious, though, they bring you right into April licking your lips from that chocolate frosted or cream filled treat you bought for dinner, but eat for breakfast instead. 

The Colomba cake has a curious history:  they showed up in medieval times just after the Barbarians tried to take Pavia.  I don’t know what this means.  Did the locals resist by living off of yeast-type bread?  Did they make and throw large versions at their would-be conquerors?  Did they offer them up as a sign of peace? No matter, the rest, as they say, is history.

Starting in May/June, you have to start hoarding all of the Mars Bars and little Lindt chocolates like a squirrel readying for winter.  When that sun starts to melt sidewalks, well, no retailer will be carrying black gold.

Summertime of course means only one thing:  gelato to your heart’s content.  You have come to see it as both a life-saving remedy for its cooling down factor, as well as something dietetic; It surely must have fewer calories than Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough or Haagen-Dazs’ dulce de leche.  Every day I cop a gelato cup, I thank my lucky stars they haven’t started posting calorie counters like in New York City Starbucks.

Come September, you can meet your favorite chocolate again in its every manifestation.  You buy double just in case there’s ever another run on chocolate again; you consider making a makeshift chocolate-filled bomb shelter pantry. You just never know when the shelves will go barren again.

In November we find the first Marrons Glacé, which, they’ve now decided to wrap in cute little one-mouthful mini-packs.  Again, you believe that if you only eat a few mini-packs a day, it surely cannot be like eating a king-sized Butterfinger!  After all, aren’t chestnuts fruit?

Which brings us into December, when Panettone and Pandoro have free reign.  Not good enough to simply eat as is (with the powdered sugar ritual poured over top), Americans have come up with “Italian” French Toast (wouldn’t eat be easier to just rename it ‘Italian Toast’?  Like French fries, I doubt either group truly eats their eponymous treats).   
So slice the pieces, dip in egg batter, and fry up those cakes before dousing them with maple syrup – making sure not to forget the powdered sugar over top - it's tradition.  Other serving suggestions are, swimming in chocolate fondue, or smothered in zabajione sauce. I swear it’s the Italian equivalent of Krispy Kremes.  And nothing gets better than that.

So, now that you have your calendar, you might as well start considering the New Years’ resolutions -- Now how is it that Italians stay so fit and trim?

* recipes posted on many of the hyperlinks

Thursday, January 21

Dogs in the USA: Unwelcome

There is one person* who is truly grateful to be back home in Rome and that’s Trevor-the-dog. Sure, what to the rest of us would appear (justifiably so) as mini-obstacle courses as you walk down the sidewalk, and pock-marked palazzi stained by jet streams of spray, for a dog, it’s pure heaven.

After spending 2 months in the USA, Trevor is determined to make sure his scent is left on every curb, car tire, tree and tree stump far and wide. America may have a love affair with dogs, but you’d never know it – canines are truly to be seen and not smelled.

In the USA, there are approximately 77.5 million dogs; that’s nearly 30% of the population and with 39% of U.S. households owning at least one dog.
But, you’d never know it. People walk their dogs, but, the dogs are not allowed off a leash, so they can’t roam the huge park – it’s like inviting a dehydrated person to a pool and then not letting them jump right in.

In the city, every tree is fenced in so no peeing allowed.  While in the suburbs, dogs can’t pee on trees or in yards, even if said yard contains a hydrant. People would rap on the windows if they so much saw my dog sniffing the grass on their lawn. I personally think Trevor spent two whole months ‘holding it’. Not only that, I still cannot tell how it is that large dogs in the suburbs get to run – it’s simply not permitted. We are probably modifying their genetic makeup with this practice; soon we’ll have the dog equivalent of penguins.

Trevor’s elation of his newfound freedom of being allowed into restaurants, bars and stores is truly palpable. What a treat! He gets to eat the crumbs left by the croissant & cappuccino eaters and beg for more. Many people may find this practice barbaric, but I still attest that dogs are as dirty as the bottom of your shoes; although that’s not to say that I’d want an Olde English Sheepdog drooling on my dining table.

And so, you’d pass people – in cities or in the burbs – talk about your dogs, admire them, but never allowing them to leave their mark, so to speak, even if it was on the trunk of an old oak tree. It was like a fashion runway of pets; dogs here and there, making their turn and taking off; not a single one stopping to smell the newly baptized roses.
They couldn't: they were as dry as a dog bone.

*term used loosely

Sunday, January 17

Travelers Advisory-Avoiding Cellphone Charges Abuse - Evitare le fregature Vodafone & Co.

I'm not an anthropologist, but there are certain classes of people that are universal in their behavioural traits: Taxi drivers, politicians, despot dictators and cellphone companies foremost in my mind. Their collective drive toward lining their own pockets at the expense of others, even the elderly and infirm, is truly remarkable in its audacity. How many don't know a kindly old nun who was literally taken for a ride by the kind cabbie? I know a few too many.

Each year, the Telecoms companies meet up in places around the world like at Barcelona's GSM, not to discuss important consumer features like a universal charge socket, but to figure out more ways they can sneak a few good ones by their customers who they know they are holding ransom. Having just spent two months in the USA, armed with an American cellphone, but still equipped with my Italian one, I thought I'd provide travelers with a quick guide to keeping more of your money away from the Vodafone and other Telecoms vultures whose practices border on the extortionist ways of Italy's finest crime families:

Vodafone offers a great deal called 'Passport' - you only pay an extra euro ($1.48) for every call, and you are charged at your same Italian rate. That works okay if you don't take a quick call, but surely it saves you in roaming charges. Vodafone's system works great because, unlike telecoms between the US & Canada, you can actually make and receive calls whilst traipsing around in Europe.
Just know that Passport does not apply to the USA.

So as not to rack up roaming charges, I picked up the phone twice for 7 seconds each, and once for 23 seconds. Total charges: 10 euro ($15). They charged me 3 euro per call, for the first 3 minutes. Had I known this, I at least would have gabbed for those 180 seconds.

Not to be outdone, I then decided to let the answering machine pick up my calls. I'd call people back later from an inexpensive Vonage phone line. Again, I was charged 3 euro per message. "It's as if you answered the phone," offered the helpful woman at Vodafone. Next time, I'll be sure to turn off my answering machine.

In the UK, I loaded up my phone at a Vodafone store. Fifty pounds. That would have gone far, except Vodafone took nearly 5 euro on the exchange rate. Before leaving, be sure to load up your phone so you don't take that sort of hit.

Leaving the USA, I still have charges on my phone. As has happened many times before, the policy in place (just like New York's Subway System), 'Use it or Lose it'. If there's inactivity on your line for awhile, they simply take the money and run. Try leaving your phone with a friend to place a call every so often, rather than leaving your phone credits with 3Mobile and company.

[My apologies for the delay in posting, but jet lag has seemingly gotten the better of my brain].

Wednesday, January 13

Just (Don't) Do It!

Today is the last day of my American sojourn. And, I can't wait to go back home (to Rome). Not that I haven't had an amazing time...But, it just seems that every time I come to the USA, it's like ageing: Every day, there's something new I can no longer do.
The information comes in a variety of ways; a trip to the grocery store, and you discover the evils of flouride, fats and now, soap. Who knew that perfectly good bars of soap would be lurking under their foamy surface, just waiting to suds up its evil? (You might say, lyeing in wait -- sorry, another bad pun...) Every shampoo and soap product boasted 'Soap Free!' banners. The world has been using soap for a very long time, now what's the matter with it?

Then, there are the news reports. Forget the Chinese lead in products, things you thought were okay, each day get ruled right back out. Like so many of those fad diets, one day it's good for you, the next it will kill you, you discover: Antioxidants good, now too many break down another feel good chemical in your body. Coffee has been a yo-yo for so long, I need a quick cup of Joe to clear my head and figure it all out. Anti-bacterial soaps are perched on every doorman's counter - but wait! Aren't we making the microbes multiply? But the big clincher this month was breast feeding. Granted, it wasn't an American study...but, 'science' is now showing that baby formula works just as nicely. You mean to tell me, all those years without a Nestle' Crunch Bar, and the Formula's A-OK?

At my nephew's school, kids now are seated in little coffee clutch circles. Knowing how much I used to talk and cause trouble growing up, I cannot for the life of me imagine this arrangement being good for anyone, especially in a position to learn. Just the idea that you were hanging out with your friends rather than sitting at attention to the teacher at the 'head' of the class, would have put me on the fast track to double-secret probation faster than anyone from Animal House.

Add to this, the numerous warning labels on every little package (except, I might note, ironically, those Chinese toys, dog and baby foods); the kids now skiing in helmets, the seatbelts, the baby-proof cupboards and so on.

After two months in America, I still can't figure out how we all made it to adulthood. Back in Italy, where crosswalks aren't labeled, trucks don't have signs to stand back, soaps & detergents are used liberally, irregardless of their effects and babies are happily perched in lap tops, I may actually be able to relax. Or will I?

Sunday, January 10

Ponzi Schemes, Madoff & Other Geniuses

I recently happened upon an interesting article in the New York Times about the false start in releasing a new game show, Our Little Genius. It appeared that the show was going ahead, despite some controversy; mostly about the effects of putting children under pressure to win life-changing money in these difficult times. But there was another sort of controversy stewing behind the scenes. The producer himself, to his financial detriment, pulled the first shows, paid out the winners anyway, and decided to re-record entirely new episodes. Why? Because the contestants may have been fed – not necessarily the answers, but the questions. He determined that the show must not go on -- at least for now.

Anyone familiar with Italy’s satirical news show, Striscia la Notizia, will know that almost weekly, they catch the Endimol (UK-based company) game shows rigging the games, the winnings and even the contestants (some appearing on multiple game shows - of all the luck!); with winnings logged in well above the European average.
Although for contestants this might appear like a good thing, it feeds into the national psyche of a non-meritocracy and further fires the flames of conspiracy theories already endemic to the country; touching everything from politicians to portinai. But, at least for this game show, to avoid the debacle so poignantly portrayed in the film ‘Quiz Show' – when game show cheating nearly brought down television itself, “Fifty million people watched, but no one saw a thing,” they're trying a preemptive strike in order to untarnish their reputation.

In the real life game show played out every day on Wall Street, in New York, Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi ilk are still ‘sulla bocca di tutti’, as well they should be. People (New Yorkers, in particular, never mind the proverbial ‘Main Streeters’) are still waiting for the hammer to fall on the cheaters who wrought economic terrorism on the rest of the world. As we know, some have been tried and convictions handed down –in Madoff’s case - to the exemplary tune of 150 years.

Tanzi (nearly rhymes with Ponzi), like his American brethren, and all of his Tangentopoli buddies from Milano of the 1990s, simultaneously denies any wrongdoing, blames others, protects his family, and ends up with a slap on the wrist. Although presiding over the biggest financial fraud in history (pre-Madoff), he recently made headlines again after officials found his masterworks collection hidden in a garage (he denies any knowledge about their existence - obviously, a case of being 'framed' (sorry, couldn't resist).

And while there is still no cleanup in sight for the Wall Street thugs, slick businessmen and politicians here and there, wouldn’t it be great if, starting with the game shows, someone finally would be held accountable, admit responsibility, actually spend real time in jail (without being rewarded with choice political postings upon release), and forced to sell off their master works, and determine, like the game show producer, that, “I want my show to be beyond reproach.” Now that, would be a stroke of genius.

Wednesday, January 6

Bowl Games & Branding the Colosseum

To any brand marketer, putting your label on a bunch of stuff is simply good business. But now that the New Years' day (and beyond) football bowls have come and gone, you really can see what a crazed consumer-oriented society we are. It's not enough to see every part of every soccer jersey ablaze with every sort of sports moniker in existence, take a look at a Formula 1 car: you can hardly tell the car & driver from underneath the sheets of sticky labels.
But ever since Milan's concert venue started changing names from one bad business label to another, (and in Rome we now boast the ridiculously-named Palalottomatica), I knew we were on a slippery slope: Like a good European, I blame it on America.

Judging from the baptising of our prized bowl games, I don't think I was far off:

Utah played California in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
A gentleman's game was surely played in the Roady's Humanitarian bowl.
Air Force -vs - Navy was played in the very appropriate Armed Forces bowl, now named the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces bowl.
I have no idea why AT&T would sponsor the Cotton bowl (other than what's in their ears when it comes to customer complaints), but Tostitos struck gold when they picked up the Fiesta bowl.
And one day, I'd like to see the Little Caeser's teams battle it out with the in a pizza bowl -- winner takes the dough (sorry, couldn't resist).

As Italy continues it's push for corporate sponsors of some of it's greatest monuments, I for one do not wish to live to see the day that we go to the Fendi Forum, or Pomodoro Rosso Pompei. As for the stadiums, they've all been taken (save the one I renamed above)...

But then again, as we Detroiters bemoan what had been the late great Pontiac Silverdome (home of the Detroit Lions), sold off to the highest bidder ... Maybe if they'd have found a sponsor and changed its name it would have outlasted the Pantheon.
Doubtful, but nice to think about, even though I can't bear to think of what it would have been called...

Monday, January 4

Tantissime Belle Cose or 8 Reasons why living in Europe is better than living in the USA

Let’s start with the obvious: The Food. While America may be the Horn of Plenty, the additives and polyunsaturated fats and corn syrup by the gallon in almost everything you eat, makes for an entire country of Pillsbury Doughboys and girls (think: Wall-E), all with diabetes 1 and/or 2. If those 'no global' Europeans could just rebel against the real culprits: Nestlè and Coca Cola onslaught, and go back to offering homemade iced teas and all that – (think: Italy is still Starbucks free) well, then, we’re in for a lot longer life than ever and one that’s pretty much fat and sugar free.

The Cars. Hopefully, gas prices will get so high in Europe that people will stop driving altogether. But not having to see 9 out of 10 cars as an SUV or hiked up pickup truck is certainly an eye-appealing, global warming of my heart, and simply (as a miniscule Honda civic driver) safer.

Nationalized health care. Say what you will about the breakdown in the Italian (or European) health care systems, but people still receive treatments relatively inexpensively and even long term without fear of bankruptcy. Sure, it’s stress-inducing to wait 10 months for an RMI after discovering a lump, or longer for a basic physical, but, it’s even more horrific to wait for your zillion dollar bill after services, too. I don’t partake in the national system, but I can tell you plenty of long-living Europeans do – cost free.

Vacations. For those of us who stay behind, we might find the cheery ‘Chiuso per Ferie” signs pretty dismal (I haven’t been able to reach anyone at my bank since before Christmas), but, let’s face it: Europeans know that with hard work comes some pretty good downtime. In summer, beaches become blackberry free (except the edible kind), as things shut down and people tune right out. And while families relax and explore places together, and the city prostitutes wait longingly for their clientele to return home, that sort of mentality really lets everyone go about their vacationing care free. I’ve even heard of an entire paese that goes on holiday together, they like each other so well (although I’m not quite sure it’d be wise to publicize this little known fact, for the amount of looting that could take place next August).

Then there’s the cell phones. While I’ve discovered that pretty much everyone hates their carriers here in the USA (with AT&T taking the lead in customer dissatisfaction), Telecoms companies seem to be international in their pursuit of profits thru dodgy practices. But, one thing’s for sure: in Europe, we do not pay to receive calls nor texts. Here, they get you coming and going and it ain’t pretty. With these kinds of practices, it’s a wonder how the Americans (10 years behind the Europeans) ever got off of hold in the telecoms revolution.

And, while I’m at it, I might add the phone line debacle. Two months in the USA, and I’ve been feeling like it’s 1999 (and sadly, not enjoying a party line). You can hardly complete a call without the ‘line dropping’ at least once. Unbelievable. We’re supposedly the most advanced (technologically speaking) country on the planet, and you can’t place a call from Michigan to Ohio without retrying three times.

Air Travel. Yes, you read it right. Air Travel. Europeans still offer the most comfort for the dollar, if you count in FlyBaboo and discard RyanAir. It’s an outrage that the shoddy RyanAir practices are pretty much standard fare for every major US Airline (charging for luggage, drinks, skip the lines, etc.). But we still have Baboo and Virgin and even BA and ClickAir to look forward to (sorry, Air One – my former heartthrob - you’ve sold your soul to the devil). Americans get to look forward to paying for reclining seats or go Greyhound.

Knowing your retailer. While it does happen (often), in major metropolises, that you would know personally your coffee barman, dress shop, or pet shop owner, out in suburbia this is simply not the case. On one hand, it gives you that terrific sense of anonymity, which makes you feel somewhat invincible in a Clark Kent sort of way as you go about your daily errands. On the other, you kind of wish you could stop a moment to enjoy a nice chat with the store owner sitting outside his/her front stoop.