Tuesday, December 18

Rome Mayor for a Day

There's a political campaign going on around Rome asking you to post and click and join some movement or another and reveal what you'd do if you were Mayor for a Day.  There isn't a day that goes by in which I don't think obsess about that.   [If only citizen's suggestions were actually put into action, well, perhaps cities would be amazing places for all concerned]  So, in the spirit of the season, I thought I'd offer my wish list for my first 100 days; because I'd probably be run out of town or worse before the 101st.
Day 1   Internal Organization   
- Install a Cabinet of 50% women & a woman Vice Mayor (to top off that extra 1% of which we hold the majority)
- Toss out all the "advisors" and watch my budget grow (like the City 'on-staff' Doctor who never has to report into work but still gets paid approx €5000/month for services) - and with the extra money, open nursery schools and daycare for Altzheimers patients
- Make sure everyone uses their own unreimbursed mode of travel to their offices (and just watch how fast those bus services start working like a freshly greased wheel)
- Start enforcing absenteeism and docking pay

Before giving TrenItalia one red penny for their abysmal train 'service', they would have to first: a) provide airport trains with space for luggage and no additional staircases inside the train b) add additional commuter trains and staff to clean them c) add an elevator to the airport track at Ostiense Station.  Then, they would have to extend hours for commuter trains so people could actually use them after a night out on the town.
- Build commuter parking lots for those who might consider taking a train or bus into town
- Build a foot bridge over the Via Imperiale from the Colosseum so cars no longer have to halt every time one of 7 million tourists passes by, and another one on the Cristoforo Colombo so people can flow as easily as the cars.  I might add one over at the Capitoline Hill besides.
- Make sure night buses are small and electric.
- Put ticket agents on every single city bus.  Believe me, you would pay their monthly salaries in a week.

Long Term Infrastructure (which creates jobs, I might add)
Start a 'Big Dig' from the Pontina to the Cristoforo Colombo to stop the buildups at one of the most congested arteries in all of Rome.
Ask a tourist (or better yet, me) to travel around Rome and redo all the incorrect or missing signage - such as the entranceway to the Tangenziale; removing all the signs for Rome's Auditorium and putting them near the Auditorium where they might actually do some good.
Turn the abandoned buildings of the ex-Fiera di Roma into a Science Center for children and families
Actually fine and force people to remove their illegal structures in Rome at their expense or risk of jail

Cut Costs
- Police no longer used for political escorts - if you want to make sure you won't get shot up, maybe it's better to not draw so much attention to yourself in the first place with dozens of police postings, lights flashing and 8 cars before and after you.
- Police no longer traveling in three or more to a car
- Meter maids must work on their own and not in tag teams; Meter maids also employed to give fines to owners of dogs who don't clean up their crap
- Bring in night watchmen on dog duty and levy hefty fines for infractions

Increase Revenues
- Take away the dreaded 'Tourist Tax' and instead make the Rom pay for their garbage removal services and property squatting.  €10/person/day to live on City property and, campers immediately towed and fined €5000 if parked on city streets.
- Advertisers and Outdoor advertising companies fined €2000 per sign that goes up and is illegal, political ads must pay for the space
- Instead of allowing new building, people will get tax breaks for picking up the abandoned ones and turning them into places of business

Improve the City
- Actually enforce all the rules & regulations that heretofore have been put in place (e.g., squeegees, prostitutes, illegal building and the like)
- Stop all tree 'pruning' and ask the Finnish Park Service (they're in the EU right?) to oversee any future cuts
- Force the private companies who cut down the trees to take away - at their expense - the hundreds of thousands of tree stumps they leave in their wake and replant them with proper, tall, magnificent trees as in the rest of the neighborhood
- Discontinue planting of nano-orange trees and replant the beautiful Roman trees that give us oxygen
- Force the paving firms to guarantee that the crosswalks will be white for at least 5 yrs and they must repaint within 24 hrs or pay a hefty fine when they magically disappear
- Allow citizens to photograph license plates of cars who nearly run them down while crossing on crosswalks and/or who are on cellphones or worse, texting - or those that double park and block crosswalks and then charge hundreds in fines
- Give tax advantages to stores and offices who don't use or turn off florescent signage at night
- Build - keep up - and enforce contiguous bike lanes throughout the city
- Provide toilet paper in every single school and start painting and improving the facilities
- Turn off the lights on the Colosseum every day a woman is murdered by her partner or ex.

Santa, Baby...are you listening?

**Items in gray have live links.

Thursday, December 13

Milan Stock Exchange: A Sign of the Times

Even Milan has it's own 'Talking Statues' like in Rome*
On my recent trip to Milan, I was surprised to see this 'Temporary Installation' to modern culture erected for - two weeks only! - during the Milan Furniture Fair still standing.  After all, it was mounted in September of 2010.  Supposedly, City officials didn't want to host it then and yet, here it is proudly proclaiming what the world already knows.   As much as I (sort of) like the statue, it's yet another provocative Fuck Off to the citizens of Milan by "artist" Maurizio Cattelan who seems to have convinced more than a few people that the city is his canvass, and to hell with you if you don't understand "art".  His last cool 'bad boy' maneuver in the name of 'creative license' was hanging a bunch of life-sized children from trees around a major thoroughfare.  There was such an uproar the City finally gave in and had them taken down.  If he thinks he's leaving a legacy to the city of Leonardo, I'm sure Da Vinci is laughing his ass off in his grave.
The statue is well-constructed, almost appealing, and many believe the artist was flipping off the bankers at the Stock Exchange.  But if you look at it closely, that hand is facing us.  And this reason only is why the statue passes muster with me.  I would love to see it in the center of Wall Street as a symbol for the occupy movement.
Not one to be a prude, I don't think it doesn't have to be shown.  But when we're still censoring swear words on Comedy Central, an openly City-approved 'bird' is, in my humble opinion, not kosher.  If I want to see Cattelan's dead children or his fuck finger, I'll pay a ticket and see it on exhibition.  Forcing men, women and children to lay their eyes on his 'artwork', or forcing them to take another route on public property to me is undemocratic and unacceptable in modern society.
If you look closely at the fascist figures in relief adorning the front of Palazzo Mezzanotte (figures, I might add, that nobody can say precisely quite what they're doing), I have read that they represent the "Four Essential Elements of Modern Economy".
Leave it to Cattelan to give us the fifth.

For more views of the Milan Stock Exchange, it's article and Cattelan's work, click here.

*For Rome's Talking Statues - Earth's First Blogger - read here.

Sunday, December 9

Italy Taxes: #IMU I Miss U

This title will not have much meaning for those outside our Bell'Italia shores, but this week most of the country is paying up begrudgingly on their reinstated property tax holiday that one Silvio had brought on, to wreak economic havoc on a country in badly need of tax revenues.  So, the standard property tax - that most City governments count on in order to line all kinds of pockets implement all kinds of services was brought back in (under Berlusconi & Tremonti, I might add) ---and no one is happy about it, except the Finance Ministry, of course.  It was probably done purposely, because it's Mr. Monti who is getting the blame.
Problem is, the State govt did away with the tax.  City govts were left high and dry, so they instated a new tax. Now that the old tax is reinstated (stay with me here), with a brand new name, the IMU, cities have left their new tax.  So as usual, the burden is left to fall on the honest tax payers come Dec 17th.
So, I went to find information online about how to pay the IMU [which in my opinion should never have been cancelled in the first place, but this was only a swift maneuver that many an ancient emperor tried out successfully, in order to curry favor with the populus - so we can say Silvio was just following tradition].
On Twitter, I searched #IMU - and I soon realized it did not mean what I thought it did.  Here's a brief compilation of pertinent tweets.  You'll soon bear witness that it means a number of things to a number of people [feel free to ponder the creation of mega-piles of manure bytes filling up the bandwith only to be sorted out someday by archivists who find themselves in hell]:

We'll see if the money comes rolling in...(it has)
Miss Lavender@LavenderLowe
Only time will tell... #imu

The tax man cometh...
"You say?" "say something" "anything else?" #IMU

Alas...me too.
I think about the same thing 24/7< 

Someone whose papà must have paid the IMU:

People will go to all ends of the earth to hide their money
It has been announced by @ISAFmedia that an insurgent from the #IMU was arrested in Kunduz province yesterday. #Afghanistan

Clearly trying to make the best of a bad situation
Wen u have a good girl like mines... All u can do is be good nd hold tight nd love the mess out of her. #IMU

The President of a prominent Italian University telling his son to move abroad - by open letter in the papers
A diet for those who want to both live and study.   @ Iowa Memorial Union

Mr. Monti counting the spare change...
Cierra Collins@cc_nichole6
Love you more! #IMU

Mr. Tremonti, former Finance Minister celebrating his creation

you can find me sprawled out on a couch nomming on a cranberry bliss bar, drinkin a salted caramel mocha & pretending to write a paper 

All the rest of us, coughing up the tax.
a part of me just went away....... far away #imu

Tuesday, December 4

The Perfect Gift of Electronics (kids only)

A friend came to visit one holiday season a few years back and told me she met someone on the street who showed her fine camera to buy - for just 50 euro.  Thinking it had been stolen, she couldn't believe her luck.  She negotiated him down to 30.  She insisted she had been offered a gorgeous (Canon, Olympus, fill-in-the-blank) for her bucks.  She handed the money, and the next thing she knew she was the proud owner of ... an empty camera case.  To this day she did not know what sleight of hand he pulled on her in order to affect the swap, but, when she showed up at my house with her empty case, she was fit to be tied.  And she is Italian.  I told her those ploys - in any country - are reserved for tourists...how could she have been so silly?!
In NY, 42nd street was famous for making the swap in the electronics shops and their policy was No Returns Accepted (and no credit cards).  I'm not sure if this is the case today, but in the digital age, it would seem a folly given that any missteps in the face of consumers would end up on the web before you could type out Yelp!
But in this last case of camera swapping, I had heard the tale many times before, but I finally met someone who had succumbed to the wily ways of the streetwise savvy swindler.  These guys aren't just small-time crooks, they're darn good actors besides.  Because their elaborate thievery has them convincing their target that they know the family, the kids, and all kinds of personal details.  The only thing that can trip them up, especially in a country of single children, is that they only stand a 50/50 chance when first approaching their mark to guess that the person has a son over a daughter, or a child at all.  But, it's a miniscule margin of error in order to rake in hundreds on every single transaction.  And besides, I'm sure they've figured out a cover story for every sort of mishap they came across.  They're so smooth that they even get the prey to thank them for their trouble besides.
How I ended up with a fabulous baby gift for burgeoning photographers...
Taken all together, it looks fairly real - but the weight should
give it away immediately as a scam
This is my favorite part
Baby can play as hard as he wants at becoming the next
Man Ray... Even the lens is plastic
The elderly gentleman walked out of the Post Office (this is one of the main Points of Interest in Italy for anyone over 55 and where they usually go to collect their pensions - so they have ready cash-in-hand...).  A man approaches and the conversation goes something like this:

"Oh-how are you doing? What luck!  I've not been able to get ahold of your son and I have the camera he wanted!"
"You mean, Francesco?  I don't know what you're talking about!"
"You see, Francesco put a downpayment on this camera (takes it out of the bag).  But, he still owes me 160 euro. Perhaps you could pay me and get the money from him, instead of me trying to reach him again and again."

"I don't have that kind of money, and (growing suspicious) besides, how do I know that it's my son you're talking about?"
"Well, why don't you give him a call?  If you ring him, I can tell him I have the camera, I ran into you, and then we're squared away, okay?"

Fumbling for the phone, and feeling a bit uncertain (you know, when that sixth sense we all love to ignore kicks in) 
Dials the number.
Upon hearing a responce, he says, "I have your friend here who says he's got the camera for you -- you talk to him about the money, and just let me know what to do."  (Incredibly, he passes the cellphone to the crook - who could just make off with it and call it a day).
Francesco, at this point, is shouting, "No, papà, it's a scam, don't do it!" But to deaf ears.  That's because our Actor-Thief has now disconnected the phone and carried on his own version of a conversation in which they're squared away. 
"Okay, so he says he'll pay you back the 160 euro he owes me."
"But I don't have 160 euro, just €120 or so..."
"Va bene, va bene...I'll take the 120 euro just to put this thing to rest."
"Very well. Grazie tante."

Judging from what you read in the papers, this scam is so prevalent the thieves could form their own actor's guild.  But the real mystery remains, Why are the best, most efficient customer-oriented, demographically savvy, target-marketing people the scam artists?  The world may never know.

Thursday, November 29

What's Up in Italy

While the nasty weather, the economy, and Mr. Monti, our Prime Minister, seems to have everyone in a foul mood these days, I take my monthly inventory on all good things Italy.  I might as well start with some of the stickier parts.

  • First, the weather:  As tweeted in @newsfromItaly, buckets & buckets of rainfall everywhere, means loads of snow in the mountains--The Ski Season has opened in the Dolomites!  Now, if people other than the politicians could actually afford to get there...
  • In his blog assessing the Italian financial situation, Economist (& Nobel Prize Winner) Paul Krugman thinks that Italy's finances might not be in as sad shape as one thinks.  He doesn't take a stab about the future, with jobs going, businesses closing, and things costing more for the ever-eroding middle class, but still good news is good news.
What's The Matter With Italy? nyti.ms/10ZG9AAMore About Italy 

  • In Politics, the left-wing Democratic Party held their American-style primaries and a debate between the two big hitters: old-guard politician Bersani -vs- young & aggressive Mayor of Florence, Renzi.  Even more refreshing was the amicable atmosphere during the debates vis-a-vis the shouting that usually goes on on talk shows.  And, on an even more refreshing note, Berlusconi continues his they-love-me/they-love-me-not flirtation with forming yet another party & giving it a go in the Spring Elections.  But, so far, his Big Announcement seems to be playing out as successfully as Donald Trump's.  As long as he's into resurrections, perhaps he should use the Margherita party name - whose symbol is the Daisy.  Or even a pizza Margherita for a logo.
  • In November, Rome's Christmas market opened in Piazza Navona, which draws lots of crowds.  Those who need a nice new figurine for their manger scenes can get them there in the festive atmosphere of the piazza.  And, speaking of figurines, of course those wily Neapolitans have come out with Obama and Romney - the perfect figures for your manger scene-what they have to do with the birth of Jesus, remains to be seen, but it looks like Romney has since been discounted, and we can only hope that Berlusconi goes the same way.
  • Not only have the fresh-pressed olive oils come out this November (and it seems to be a banner year), the Vino Novello has hit the stands and restaurants as well!  Many wineries and olive oil companies (I personally love forays into Umbria) open over the weekends and provide wonderful tastings of all the bounty.
  • And finally, in Rome's Torre Argentina area, it looks like the humans running the Cat Sanctuary are getting the boot, but the cats will be allowed to rome the area even as it is opened up to the public.  This is an ongoing saga, so watch this page.

Sunday, November 25

Italian Cooking: Taking it with a grain of salt

I dedicate many an entry in my book to Superstitions for Science that I conjecture have no actual basis in scientific methods.  But in actual fact, the more time you spend around these tried and true rules & regulations governing much of your Italian lifestyle [walking around in bare feet, catching a draught, making sure your hair isn't wet], you start to sort of come around to the idea that maybe, just maybe, some of them are founded in a grain of truth.  Perhaps it's like the game of 'Operator' - things just got a bit twisted as they were passed on down through the generations.
Personally, I chalk up my edging toward agreement with the lines of reason to the immense power of simple suggestion.  But, on another level, it might just be the 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em' resignation at work.  And even though I may humor the Italian grandmas (and all their descendants), nodding my head vigorously when hearing of the perils of sleeping near an open window, and other such transgressions, deep down, I know I'm not a true convert.
This is why the amusement is so great when I come across a Healthcare by Hearsay "fact" that I find I am totally on the wrong side of.  In the age of Google, no one can truly let a slight query ne'er a bold statement stand on its own anymore without someone reaching for their phone and 'checking the source'.  So, when it came to adding a pinch of salt in your pasta water, I should have known not to argue with an Italian who happens to be quite proficient in the kitchen.
Picture from A Pinch of Salt cooking classes
serving the NYC Metro area
Since I was a little girl, I was told to put salt in the pasta water, as you brought it to a boil, because      "It made the water boil faster."
It made perfect sense.  I may not be smarter than a fifth grader, but I do recall that 5th grade science experiment about salt and boiling temperatures (100º celsius).  And I have stuck by the salt = faster boil ever since.  If you ever find yourself cooking with Italians, they will, on the other hand, insist that the water gets boiled first and then you toss in the salt - which has nothing to do with boiling temperatures, but rather flavor.  Some go so far to state that the salt in the water may actually slow the boil process.
Judging from wikianswers or knowswhy.com, the mound (of grains) of truth is, salt doesn't make water boil faster.  And, just to add salt to my 5th grade ego's wound, to get that increase in temperature kick that the supposed salt could provide, you'd need upwards of a bucketful, so a pinch won't quite do the trick either.
There is no sense in beating around the bush on this one, so I will offer up a neat, clean mea culpa (or, since we're in Italy, mia colpa):  They are right.  I am totally not worth my salt on this issue (sorry, couldn't resist).  
A lifetime of making sure you pre-salted the water prior to boiling is down the drain as fast as those little rigatoni pieces that slip out at the bottom of the pan.
All is not in vain, however.  I am elated to know that I have provided this important public service announcement to all and sundry who may find themselves in a kitchen with an Italian and who are pondering those huge life issues of -- just the right moment to throw just the right amount of salt in the pasta water.  But, of course, we all know that a watched pot will never truly come to a boil.  So look away, and toss that salt over your left shoulder.  That should do the trick.

Sunday, November 18

Italy: from SIP to SIM Card Supremacy - a look at telephones

As part of my occasional series on Italy: The Way We Were, I was spurred to ponder the history of Italy's twisted (as in spiral cords of way-back-when and recharging cords today) relationship with their telephones. Whenever I go to the movies, I find some joker busily texting or checking messages throughout the 96 minutes that a film director takes to attract your attention. But it used to not be this way.
Italians boast the greatest number of SIM Cards per capita worldwide. You can't walk down the street, or pass anyone in your car (and I don't mean the pedestrians) who you do not find gabbing away on the telephone. Incredibly, like many technical innovations, from faxes to Google, an Italian may have invented the telephone, but once it made its debut, authorities went out of their way to keep users disconnected.
Picture compliments of Ghismunda
Listening to a terrific radio show about phones, the presenter went thru its earliest forms, much like in the USA, starting with the use of an operator in order to place a call. Americans may recall (from the 1960s TV series, Petticoat Junction, no less) the use of the 'Party Line' - whereby the local operator would listen in on all the gossip (and no one seemed to mind about invasion of privacy back then).  In Italy, the party line morphed into the duplex line.  In order to save money, two apartments in a building would share the line.  People would bang on ceilings and floors in order to get someone off so they might make a call.  Thankfully, people couldn't listen in, and phone lines within homes remained dead up until the 1990s.  That was very different from my childhood when we could hold true parties, all talking from different rooms in the house.  In Italy, I'm sure the dead lines were a special feature meant to keep any prying ears out of earshot.
But generally, no one worried about burning up the phone lines - the cost was so prohibitive, Italians generally spoke for a few minutes max before hanging up furiously.  This was the case up til the 1980s and anyone over say, 80, still today will hang up in a rush while you're in mid-sentence.
Aside from the astronomical - and decidedly un-itemized - phone bills, companies and even families put padlocks on the phone just to make sure you didn't have the urge to 'let your fingers do the walking.'  Whenever I see Italians checking their messages incessantly, even in movie theaters, I can't help but think that this 'pent up demand' isn't somehow in their DNA due to decades of repression at the hands of the phone companies and family patriarchs that kept you from using your phone.
It wouldn't be until the 1990s that consumer's advocates finally forced Telecom Italia's hand to itemize bills.  Since then, Telecom Italia (& now their competitors in mobile phones) have done everything they can to pad your bills with untold 'charges' and other  shenanigans. [This is the case in the U.S. as well, except in Italy, we actually are afforded much better service when it comes to mobile phone lines.  The USA blundered with 'pay to receive' and then again by not providing the kind of coverage we are accustomed to in Europe.] Not to be outdone, even when you get your bill, companies only show a few digits of each tel number - for 'privacy' issues -- as if you hadn't dialed the number in the first place.
When cellphones came on the scene, phones finally came to fill their respectful place as a non-stop megaphone on which you could broadcast to complete strangers your most intimate secrets, business deals, you name it.  In old times, the SIP Telephone Co. produced a user's manual which talked about telephone etiquette.  Every now and again they crop up in the press, and they are quite welcome.  Admonishing young guys never to pull it out on a date, or others to leave it on the table, hoping it will ring.  I know plenty of relationships that never got off the ground for this annoying habit alone.  A recent etiquette guide said that restaurants are (finally) making them no-phone zones, just like the smoking bans of days gone by.
But, maybe restauranteurs are too late.  Now that people no longer actually speak to one another, we need people to get over the texting-while-driving era of our telephone use.  As for me, I'm still waiting for people to stop shining their displays to all and sundry when at the cinema - and just focus on the film.

Thursday, November 8

Obama's Election and the women behind their men

This picture released practically at the same moment that CNN called the election was picked up on practically every newspaper in Italy.  It hadn't even crossed my radar, really.   I initially thought the Italian's love for this photo and the accompanying latte & miele - milk & honey - headlines was simply a wonderful romance with - well, romance, but also with the Obama's.  But what was more striking, I believe, was the image of a fairly important politician without his dark suit on the eve of his reelection,  with his wife front and center.  And with her back to us, it was as provocative as Caravaggio placing a butt-naked cupid smack dab in the center of his picture of the Holy Family on their Rest from the Flight to Egypt.  For Italians, The Audacity of Hope is taking the stage on election night and hoping you don't stumble through her name when mentioning your wife whilst publicly declaring your undying love.  But generally, when pronouncements are made, they're dedicated to la mamma (like during the Oscars) or la mamma of one's offspring, but rarely the wife, partner, and wedded lover.  Needless to say, she's hopefully at home with the HD TV on -- that's about as close as she'll get to the real stage.
In Italy, politicians are rarely seen in public with their wives, and when it comes to women (or men) in their lives, the press practices a long held tradition of omertà -- a pat refusal no matter what the scoop to shoot pictures with mistresses in waiting limos outside public engagements.  Let's just say it's job insurance.  We've endured decades with Berlusconi before his wife told him to take a hike, almost never with her by his side.  Once twice-divorced, however, the "Catholic" septuagenarian couldn't wait to release photos of the hotties standing by his side.  Granted, Silvio & his second wife (who's name now escapes me - and Lord knows who the first one even was) were on different sides of the political spectrum, but so were Arnold & Maria Shriver.  And I don't think anyone could ever pick out the wife of Andreotti, a man who's been in politics since before the formation of the Republic of Italy.
While the Obama photo opp may be titillating, the travesty is that women in Italy since ancient times did actually wield great power, despite being shielded from the public eye.  Today, they're most likely desperate housewives you wouldn't recognize if you met up at the local bread shop.  This, of course, is the practice save during international exchanges when, of course, other wives are present.  Then (and unless you're Sarkozy showing off his Italian model), protocol forces them to bring out the wife to prove she does, indeed exist.  It's a rare newspaper that publishes the exchanges - and I found the practice only come into form with the arrival on the scene of model & singer, Carla Bruni.  American men trot out their wives (unless you happen to be married to Bill Clinton) like show horses as a very feature of the campaign trail.  Heck--often they depend on their wives to take the campaign trail even apart from the husbands, racing from city to city in a sort of divide and conquer-the-hearts strategy.  In Italy, where wives only separate from their politician husbands in August, leaving them to "work" with their secretaries in private, it's just not part of the playbook.  I sometimes wonder what Italy would be like if the women, too, could go back to calling some of the shots; allowing them entrance into the cigar parlor - like Margaret Thatcher - not Monica Lewinsky.
They say that women bring a different world view to business, politics and government.  Going back again to ancient times, women in Greece were hardly involved with their men, both in and out of the bedroom.  Perhaps today, Greece would be a different place if women had been allowed onto the front of the stage over there from the onset -- But could Italy, while melting at the sight of the Obamas, consider letting women in front and center before the country melts down?

For more of my mentions of the Obamas, just SEARCH in the above left-hand corner, "obama".
For my writeup upon Obama's first historical election (2009), click here and 
for my thoughts after his inauguration, click here.

Thursday, November 1

As American as Baseball and Apple Pie

The Giants throw their weight around against the
Detroit Tigers in America's playoffs:  'The World Series'
Back home in Detroit, I had the privilege of seeing the entire city all geared up for Baseball's greatest faceoff:  The World Series.  After growing up with a whole lot of 'winning' teams from the Detroit area, I was thrilled after all this time to see our guys step up to the plate, in more ways than one.  But, one look at the lineup and I couldn't help but think how baseball is truly, the all-American sport.  First, it's the title:  World Series, being played out across these United States.  With few exceptions, even the players come from as far afield as Puerto Rico.  The arrogance.  There are excellent teams in Japan, of course, and I've met many a ball player in Parma; So what's preventing them from either a) making a true 'world series' or b) changing the name.
Next, were the "athletes" (term used as loosely as the outfits that need to fit around their ever-expanding waist lines).  It may be that baseball is losing its standing as far as competitive sports are concerned due to the fact that it's akin to watching sumo wrestlers in funny tights ply their trade.  Or then again, it's the ideal sport for the couch potato:  You, too, can eat bags of chips and down 6 packs of brew and make it to the big leagues!  It's the beer drinker form of American Idol - people practice eating and adjusting their balls in front of the mirror, then spit a few times while squinting into the sun--they may, just maybe, have what it takes.
Seeing these guys up to bat, it was an American dream come true: eat all you want, you don't need to even run to first, we'll just see if you can knock the ball out of the field.  Heck, if your knees feel like they can't hold up your girth, we'll do like we did in little league softball and give you a runner to make their way around the bases for you.  I don't recall body mass making it's way into the Moneyball calculations.  No wonder Boston hasn't made the grade.  They forgot to figure in that the team members were on the New York Policeman diet.  New York's finest couldn't catch a thief if they had to run after one, but they're not paid to do that anyway.  And just like their boys in blue, these guys couldn't catch a ball and make a play if they were paid -- oh. except they're paid millions to do just that.  Like much of America, it's a sport that still thinks it's great, even though it's lost it's footing and is drowning in the gluttony of its ways.  

Thursday, October 25

Italy: A Four-Star Hotel & Tourism Experience? Sometimes, Short-sheeted

As I pronounce on my twitter feed, I like to hold the Italians to task when it comes to their self-appointed grandisement of being the purveyors of all things Quality of Life.  Certainly for travelers and residents alike, the food, the presentation, the style, and often the hospitality is, indeed, unparalleled.  [The scenery is left out of this mix intentionally, as that is a gift of Mother Nature while the museums and art, while nice to look at, don’t in my book, make for unbridled Quality of Life-look at the visitor statistics and you’ll know what I mean--they’re only enjoyed by the few].
The devil is in the details...
The bathroom of Rome's exclusive Villa Miani
When it comes to the quality of the experience meme, naturally - the hospitality industry is the calling card for any country as a whole.  And it shows.  Most establishments, large or small, take their customers quite seriously: starting with the suppliers of your coffee or pastry, to the barman who decorates a cocoa heart atop your cappuccino, to the gelato server who offers you a dash of whipped cream, right down to the cashiers who greet their clients by name. Heck-I’ve had plenty of wonderful exchanges with the guy who loads up the vending machines.
While the more modest mom&pop establishments will generally go out of their way for you, lately I’ve found, where and when I least expect it, that it’s the elite establishments that keep coming up short.  Despite their cost (and the doubling of their revenues post-Euro), everywhere you look, you see them cutting corners; most likely employing low-cost personnel, not painting their outsides, leaving heaps of trash in the cigarette bowls.  At the Ergife Hotel, a place that can host nearly 1000 guests, they keep the electricity turned off even while hosting int'l conferences in the only open lounge with natural lighting coming in - and, where people can go online.  Dozens pleaded with their staff to turn it on (to no avail), until I corrupted a cleaning lady who turned it on for us.  Their poolside changing rooms were so off-putting, I was afraid to actually go inside. 
Elsewhere, Staff Training is not usually a priority. As my (Italian) boyfriend exclaimed when leaving the bathroom of a fine restaurant, “What does it take to make sure there’s a roll of toilet paper in the stalls?”  And while the lobbies are showy and the menus delight, it’s right there, the lack of attention to detail by management where it shows:  inside the often questionable bathrooms where people take the time to notice the slights.
I was shocked when attending a glamorous reception at Rome’s Villa Miani, the place for hosting such evenings under the stars.  Before even the rush of guests, the bathroom was presented as above. That roll of paper would have lasted about 11 minutes once the 900 women arrived.
Growing up, I recall restrooms in Chicago hotels with well-dressed waitstaff who always made sure everything was spic and span. I’d love to see them make a comeback.  I used to see them in Italy as well; though for the most part, Italy has done away with the bathroom ladies. [I must admit, however, that they didn’t hold a candle to their uniformed brethren across the pond -- come to think of it, instead of being handed a nice hot towel, the only thing I got was the evil eye when I didn’t leave a tip].
Dining at the posh Peppino a Mare on the Ostia beach, you can imbibe in splendour on an exquisite fish menu.  And although they keep the curtains drawn so you can’t actually see the sea, it doesn’t really matter.  You’re too busy eyeing the fish fantasy platters set before you.  The plates of food may have been flawless, but the plates were not: every single glass and dish I was served was chipped or cracked.  I had to ask the wait staff three times for replacements which never came.  When the owner came by our table, I jokingly pointed out the infringement on my Quality of Life experience.  He joked back that the dishwasher in the back takes the dishes and throws them at the walls.  While we all had a good laugh, the fact is, the guy in the back room needs to be directed to take them out of circulation and not just carelessly toss them on the tables.
The Villa del Cardinale in Rome’s Castelli hills is a place that back in the day housed popes and cardinals vacationing when the Pope’s in residence.  Set high above the Albano lake, much of the antique furniture is original and provides the setting for many a wedding reception. With peacocks strolling the grounds, it is undeniably a very memorable place.  But heading up to my room, I was shocked to find cheap plastic cups in plastic wrap, rough toilet paper and tiny soaps as if I had been staying in a Motel6.
It’s the little things that count went it comes to hospitality.  And in a country placing their bets firmly on catering to customers, hopefully the proprietors will begin to take notice; because the customers, Blogging, Yelping & Tweeting away, already are.

Thursday, October 18

The Gladiators of Rome

a true-blooded ancient Roman
as portrayed in our evolved era of 2012
In Italy, whenever something is over-the-top spectacular, or the envelope is pushed a bit too far, coupled with the fact that it comes from the USA, it's called quite disparagingly, "An Americanata".  I love this term because it's usually quite accurate; after all, the bizarre creatures of Cirque de Soleil are the brainchild of Canadian minds, while we gave the world Barnum & Bailey and his vulgar cast of real-life characters all under a Big Top tent.  So when in Rome a few brauny guys got the bright idea to dress up for photo opps as Centurions and hover around the Forum & Colosseum to collect a few bucks, I, with my decidedly American sensibilities, thought for one that it was a pretty banner idea.  I could not believe that no one had come up with the idea sooner, 'tho I'm sure when Animal House came about I was not the only one who wanted to throw a toga party in the Roman Forum.  Tourists love the gimmick and lined up for photos with the Gladiators.
You would have thought these guys had let loose man-eating lions in the environs.  The intelligentsia complained bitterly that it 'spoiled' the image of the great monuments to mankind -- and when the City realized they weren't getting a cut of the pocket money in taxes, well, in came the riot police and the Centurions were vanquished.  It was then I knew the Fall of Rome would not be far behind.  Their capitulation was from being seen as 'cheesy', the same word people uttered whenever the cameras were unsheathed.
When the film The Gladiator came out and the movie series Rome burst onto TV screens, even more voices cried fowl.   People from every walk of life had to dismiss them handily for the wild exaggerations, the mistakes in costumes (and we'll never forgive the actor who was wearing a watch...), the criminal way a deranged Emperor may have been played.  Seemingly forgetting that it was just entertainment, and perhaps not a replay of Roots, I felt all the hullaboo was simply a matter of sour grapes.
So out came the Made in Italy version of the Gladiators of Rome, a Pixar-like film hoping to best the Americans at their own game; certainly plausible, given the number of talented Italians busy working their magic over in Hollywood.  Nowadays you can find outstanding Ancient Rome 3D reproductions on youtube] but as for Gladiators, while kids seem to like it, critics have been dissing it; giving the film about two stars.  Citing unfunny adult humor, not so plausible plot lines and the usual sexed up scenes with the Roman women taking their cues from one Jessica Rabbit.  I took one look at the trailers to see more of the typical Italian movie-making gimmicks; making sure we indoctrinate the kiddies young that men are gladiators and women are eye candy.  While I applaud that the heroine becomes the hard-assed trainer (in more ways than one), and I had to give that she was dressed like all the Western runners at the Olympic games, I didn't like it there, either.  Little did the movie show how women in Ancient Rome really were; dressed less like Barbarella (brought to us by Italian, Dino Di Laurentiis I might add), and more likely wielding more power than many of the gladiators who graced the fighting pits and the Emperors who watched them battle.
So, where is the chorus of voices now when the Italians outdo the Americans in giving the world an Americanata in Rome.

All films quoted above with links to trailers and more.

Sunday, October 14

Schools In Italy: Showing your team colors

One way to tell whether or not the school has started and teachers or buses are not on strike (a regular feature of scholastic endeavors pretty much anywhere on earth - we'll just call it a lesson in Civics and community organizing whereby kids learn that going on strike means a day off to play on playstations, xboxes and wii -- not unlike a day *on* in Parliament) ... is that in many countries, kids put school uniforms on the outside which seems to make for better learning the 3Rs inside.  In the UK, you can tell the sharply dressed private school kids (which I believe they once called public...) by these uniforms, which shake the bone marrow of most Americans.  These bear symbols and swords and all kinds of markings to show from what class they come, and I don't mean their grade level.  Waltzing down the street in ripped jeans and t-shirts of course, it's understood are the 99%.

Blue for boys...A centuries-old business
Pink for Girls...(photo from Guarducci-Trento)
In Italy, it's less about community - team spirit - and boldly showing your heraldic symbols -- a practice that went out sometime during the Bonfire of the Vanities - I can imagine, but about leveling the playing field.  Tots gather up their pink or blue smocks (affectionately called, grembuili - aprons) and toss them on over their trousers, t-shirts and torn jeans.  Of course, they don't offer families huge smocks to toss over their automobiles, either -- as the ones with SUVs, Mercedes, nudge out the tiny FIATs for space in front of the school; a bigger indicator of status than the ripped jeans and underwear showing out from under them.  This practice tends to carry on thru elementary school, and...weirdly ends right at the age when tweens start removing all their clothes to show off butt cracks & belly buttons and other parts of the anatomy which you, as an adult, really shouldn't be looking at at 7:30am.  Some days I feel like throwing them a smock, pink or blue, take your pick.
I discovered that some schools stick to the uniforms of some sort, but they've now been mercifully updated to include sweat pants and hoodies, and other street smart paraphernalia -- just don't let on to your kids that you think it's smart - they'll be abandoning it for golfer's pants and pink&green whale belts before the term is up.
But I found out during my recent foray into Florence that the International School there had their very own supplier of school kids garments.  Owned by the family of an alumna (or two), the families were told to purchase their particular brand there; a helpful hint to families who lined right up.  I thought it a nice touch to support the Made in Italy brand and the local factories.  Until, that is, I discovered that the cost per student ran over $65 for a pair of sweatpants and over $500 for the entire kit and kaboodle.  Thinking that it was right up there with their American counterparts who are equally pressured into buying the $35 school sweatshirts -- I was reminded, however that those are optional.  And anyone who knew a punk rocker (back in my day) or an emo kid today, could certainly opt out.  As for the families who were surprised by sticker shock, I did not inquire just how many pairs of Nike's, Adidas or Vans their kids also had.
Nonetheless, it serves as a nice lesson to all those foreign kids -- straight from the Medici playbook on patronage and currying favor, and how that, too, is part of the fabric on which our society is made.

for a terrific blog spearheading the Italian schools (in Italian), and in particular, the psychological reasoning behind the smocks...go visit:
A scuole di bugie (!)  

Tuesday, October 9

Letter from Florence

One of the charming squares in Florence

Arriving in Florence is always a pleasure.  Not least for the absolute beauty of the place, for its ease in navigating, and for its stores.  I've come to the conclusion that Florence is like a miniscule Paris, where both the galleries and shops are brimming with shoppers and where the women dress so creatively; I even caught a guy walking down the street with a huge loaf of bread under his arm.  As far as I could tell, the only difference is that shopkeepers & waitstaff alike seem to actually appreciate you.  The city center is small enough to criss-cross on foot, and really, the only thing you need is a set of earplugs, for two reasons:  To muffle their homegrown noise pollution (narrow streets and motorinos do not make a fine mix), and to tune out the hoardes of people speaking English.

The old luggage shop has given way to a swanky coffee bar
a pleasant welcome to Florence Santa Maria Novella train station
Arriving at the train station, I was met by a fine crowd of people, distinguished from all the rest.  About 24 gypsies, making out like bandits while people scurried to purchase their tickets and hop a train.  Out in front, the Florentines have done away with their Bus Info Booth-which was one of the best things about arriving there.  I felt so sorry for the poor newsstand guy--I feel like petitioning the City Govt so he could draw a salary for offering Tourist Information.  Seeing that the last time I caught the bus out front seemingly going toward the center, I ended up 45 minutes from my destination in unbearable heat, I decided to grab a cab.  Even the Florentine taxi drivers have always been a joy to take a ride with (while they may be taking you for a ride...!).
In Milan, addresses stem from the center out down the spokes, so to speak.  But in Florence, after hiking many a mile, I knew this is not the case.   I learned from my cabbie that addresses start from the Arno River.  I thought there was something so poetic about that, although it didn't help me out -- what if your road is parallel to the Arno?  In any case, I ended up in a lovely section of Florence, down along the via Ghibellina and not so far from Santa Croce.  The streets in these parts are lined with cool shops & galleries, and not a chain store in sight.  I sat down underneath the archways of this tidy square (above), the Volta di San Piero.  A student hangout with a pub, a kebab place and a hole-in-the-wall eatery where I had a so-so ricotta & honey crepe, accompanied by a lousy cappuccino; but where the people & dog-watching was terrific, in compensation.

Burnt by the Tuscan Sun
Signed copies now at B&M Books

From there, I window shopped along the near traffic-free street, heading straight for Piazza della Repubblica - a place I like to go up on the rooftop for a drink with friends and a very fine view, indeed.  I stopped in at The Paperback Exchange to check on my book sales, before heading over nearer the Arno to B&M Books, a place selling an amazing selection of books old and new, and often hosting authors & artists.  I took advantage of their €1 and €5 book corner, and signed a few copies of my book which they had admirably placed, front & center.
At the nearby Palazzo Strozzi (one of my favorite places in Italy), an exhibit of Italian art from the Fascist period (hands down my favorite period for Italian art) is going on.  They have an outstanding cafè and a peaceful courtyard when you walk into the building.
Heading back over to the station, I caught a glimpse of a slight advertising fail for another art show (longtime readers will know it's one of my pet peeves of Life in Italy - just do a search on my blog for the word Advertising to have a hearty laugh).  I can't for the life of me think how anyone could have simply walked away from this job, thinking, Sì-That's a job well done!   I actually stopped to ponder if it was a ploy to get you to go to the exhibition, since there were more than one done up this way.  I don't think so.  Then again, maybe the poster guy needed to catch his train - or catch a thief making off with his wallet.
A show on Gothic Maolica?
Or, advertising a show on mosaic pieces...

For related posts on Florence, click below or just look at the tag cloud off to the right.

A Day Trip to Florence ... From Umbria Uncovered

Thursday, October 4

Rome Improvements

During the month of September, there was (some) good news coming out of Rome, which has been riddled with scandals on the level of Caligula & Co. of late (and - alas - Rome's not the only one capturing headlines when it comes to siphoning monies from the public funds).  In any case, it looks like Rome is trying to clean up its act, so to speak.
It started with the new paint jobs of the white lines (a regular feature since they fade so quickly - talk about siphoning public funds).  This was followed by a few new sorties over the Roman walls by Retake Rome & Fondazione Garibaldi (find them on facebook - their next stop: Ponte Milvio on October 13th).  And, speaking of walls, a few organizations in the fall take University students or other groups around the entire Aurelian walls surrounding the original city limits of Rome.
It's a beautiful way to experience the city.

Next, I heard that the Chamber of Commerce along with RomaCapitale have instituted a toll free number for citizens to indicate disservices in their area.  You can call 800.912.760 and let them know if places are filled with trash, perhaps graffiti and other such complaints.
My wish is that this initiative lasts a bit longer than most of them that come and go with the political winds...

Not to be outdone, the City's Bus Service ATAC decided to bring in their own complaint dept.  This is via email to the President of Security of some sorts [email:  sosatac *AT* fabriziosantori *DOT* com...]  They (or he, rather) want to know if buses don't come by, or pass you right by, if they're dirty, or even receive suggestions on line extensions and improved services]  -- Click here for my cheat sheet on bus travails...Fifty ways to leave your rider...
Again, I hope these complaints actually get a response unlike others I've tried and heard in response, 
"Well, we really can't help you out.  We just take the complaints."

And even the Vatican (besaddled with their very own 'What the Butler Saw' now playing Live! on the Via Crucis) got into the act.  The Vatican Museums have added a few roaming priests to help people out in their moment of rapture while viewing the works, with questions on the clergy, on the artworks, symbolism and more.  
They're the live version of Siri - maybe they can call themselves, Cyrus - after the Great Persian King...

*Most of the entries above contain live links