Saturday, February 25

Umbria to Florence-and Back Again!

Guest Post by Susan from Il Gusto del Paese - Umbrian Vacations
and launching her new blog, Umbria Uncovered

When I told Stefano that we were taking the train from Todi to Florence he laughed.  
"Any local that aims to venture to Florence, has to drive to the Perugia train station first.  The local train is not part of the regional/national system and thus the schedule and connections cannot be relied upon…"

We decided to take our chances. We arrived at the station - naturally, to find the ticket window closed.   So we hightailed it to the hunting/ticket shop next door (!) and were quickly advised that we would have to buy the Perugia – Florence leg upon arrival in Perugia - the cost from Todi to Perugia, 2.30 € per person. 

All went well with the Perugia connection, and just a few hours later we were at our hotel in the center of Florence.  Can you imagine leaving home and 3 hours later being in the heart of historic Florence?

After four wonderful days of sightseeing and shopping, we meticulously timed our Florence departure to meet the last train from Perugia to Todi.  By now, we knew the scoop:  it's not possible to buy through tickets, so once in Perugia we would quickly purchase tickets for the local train back to Todi. 

Disembarking in Perugia, we see the well-worn Todi train.  "Is that the train for Todi?"

"Si…subito!"   We race across three tracks but then remembering we don't have tickets.  We knock on the engineer's window, pleading, "Signore, non abbiamo biglietti!"

View of the Duomo from atop the Rinascente store
I'm not sure whether it was in sympathy or indignation, but he waved us onboard. Later,  when coming through the cabin to verify tickets, he just looked at us and raised his hands. Whew!  We would have gladly paid, but on this particular day, it seems it wasn't possible.

We quickly moved on to our next challenge – how the heck would we know when we were arriving in Todi.   There were no announcements, no outside lights, no signs…We couldn't even count the stops from Perugia, as it turns out the local train makes ad hoc stops along the track if requested in advance!

As we disembarked at the Todi train station platform, another passenger pulled down the window.  He started shouting who knows what at us...Had we forgotten something on the train?  No, this heretofore quite reserved gentleman was yelling to us to run for the bus 
– as
it was the last one to the centro and would depart immediately! 

Did you know...?

The magnificent duomo in Florence was built over a period of 170 years with the first brick being laid in 1296 AD. The cupola was finally completed in 1436. The height of the duomo from the street to the top of the cupola measures 90 meters (300 ft.). You are welcome to climb the 436 scalini to the top but be prepared for a rather narrow and arduous ascent. Be sure to take your camera as the views from the top are spectacular! 

But for the lazy ones (like me! Francesca Maggi) - do yourself a favor, and climb the few steps from the top floor of the Rinascente Store in Piazza della Repubblica, sit yourself down and have a drink and admire the Cupola and a 360 degree view from their rooftop instead!  Much more relaxing...believe me.

Wednesday, February 22

Mr. Monti goes to Washington

picture by Gianni Falcone
While Americans were dazzled by another Goldman Sachs exec in their midst*, the Italians were busy debating whether or not it would "be fair" to allow Mr. Monti to run for office in the next elections.  Basically, they wanted him to refuse to run for office, thereby denying a common citizen his rights under the law.
With no irony at all, Mr. Monti, who professes to usher in a new era of meritocracy, because of his merits in salvaging the Italian train wreck of government and reviving the economy in just a few months' time, was being denied what might be a nice reward for his efforts [it remains to be seen if he even wanted to run for Prime Minister in the first place].
Just like FIAT's Mr. Marchionne, who will do more than Garibaldi for heralding in a new era in Italy by thumbing his nose at the politicos who want to hold his puppet strings, Mr. Monti is being tied down by the very politicos who now realize he actually is the puppeteer.  
Only one party said they would welcome him to run - they weren't afraid of what that might bring.  Now, we're left with both left and right fighting to see which side Monti might choose.  
As for me, there won't be true meritocracy in Italy until politicians dismiss outright the idea that votes = favors.  It's high time they stop being involved with or on the take for every minor decision that gets made; from deciding on what art shows can come into the country, to who manages the ice skating rink, to who gets hired as a street cleaner or bus driver.  Without Italy's marked "raccomandazioni" (recommendations), it's not what you know, it's who you know.  Even Monti, who seems to know a great deal, seems to lack friends in the right places.  And no amount of laws he gets passed, until this very pillar of Italian society is knocked down truly, will assure that change has in fact finally come.
In the meantime, if you want to know about Meritocracy in the Bel Paese, try joining the discussion group of a former head of McKinsey Italy, who has penned many a rich tome on the issue:
As Berlusconi prepares his theme song to run for office come election time, saying that after 17 years in the public eye, he still needs time to bring in the much-needed change only a corporate man could bring, maybe someone will finally see that a meritocracy- based system indeed, has its merits.

*there is a stupendous graphic floating around the web...Showing how 1) the Banks' predatory lending & derivatives caused 2) the financial crisis, which provoked 3) a political crisis, which then allowed 4) the very bankers who caused country's to fail in the first place to come in and act as the country's saviors...

Sunday, February 19

Ciao, ciao bambina...

I always cringe whenever I see the latest advertisement sporting English words.  I walk into my bank and find them advertising a M'Honey account, replete with a jar of honey - as if any of their 2+ million pensioners would even know that honey = miele and what either of the terms have to do with money (maybe it rhymes? at least in English).  The Telecoms cos. are no worse off:  you can now go to VodafoneYOU or open a TIM Young package.  I often wonder if any of the customers even know what the words mean.  Adverts aside, I do now get a kick whenever I hear Italians answer each other with a resounding "Yes" - just for emphasis.  

But if I had to pinpoint any single word, it's "Ciao" that has taken the world by a storm.

Everyone uses Ciao seemingly everywhere.  Little did I know that it was handed down from the Venetian Republic, and meant pretty much the opposite of what we would ever think its meaning would be:  s-ciào su literally meaning, "I am your slave".  The closest thing I think that comes to this is the original meaning of the Hindi Namaste = I bow to you. 

And while Wikipedia indicates that it was Ernest Hemingway who first introduced it into the English lexicon, I would suppose that Italian immigrants were saying it long before that happened (1929).  But it was probably not until the 1960s when Jerry Vale crooned with his big hit that people started using it, with gusto.

In any case, not only could you once find a Ciao eatery in Italy, you can now find one as far away as Kuala Lampur or read from Ciao! an Australian trendy rag, or even watch a love story movie about two gay men.  But you really know Ciao has gone mainstream in the USA, following in the footsteps of pasta and cappuccino, when a restaurant in downtown Scottsdale, Arizona is called Cowboy Ciao Restaurant.  Incredibly, this establishment even poses the WTH question on their very own web page -- asking why they would call themselves in this way, when they offer up good American "eclectic" cooking.  According to their website, one reviewer called it Addams Family meets Old West bordello...As they say back in Northern Italy, "Ciao" indeed.*

*From Wikipedia:  The word ciào is still used in Venetian and in the Lombard language as an exclamation of resignation, as in Oh, va be', ciào ("Oh, well, never mind!").

Wednesday, February 15

Rome's Villa Borghese: Sights to See

I have a very good friend who brings her young son regularly to Rome.  Although living in park & activity-filled London, if it were up to him, he'd spend the entire vacation at the Villa Borghese.  One smart lad, if you ask me.  
Anyone who lives or visits Rome has heard of Villa Borghese.  For newcomers or tourists, the first thing to wrap your head around is that while we have all come to know the word villa, Villa Borghese is not one big palazzo or palace that brings to mind the Borghese Gallery.  The villa of any town, large or small, is often the central park.  Where my family comes from in a miniscule town in the Abruzzi National Park, the villa is about the size of a postage stamp. 
In Rome, Villa Borghese, once the hunting grounds of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew or nipote of Pope Paul V (and where our word nepotism comes from), has so much on offer, that would make the Cardinal proud even today.  He had wanted his land and edifices there to be a sort of multi-sensorial amusement park of the natural sciences, astronomy & the arts and, despite wars, building, snowstorms that damaged the trees, it has succeeded.  But Villa Borghese has so much more than just the rental go-carts, mini-trains or Segways, and the sumptious gallery of art filled with Bernini sculptures and extraordinary masterworks.
the hydro-clock in Villa Borghese
Starting with the Borghese Gallery, you can see to either side, the gardens filled with orange and lemon trees and tulips in the summer.  These were rare and exotic plants back in the day, and Scipione wanted to show them off.  Further down, with its airy fanciful tops, you’ll see what was once his aviary.  Along the way, and in much of Rome itself, you will also find buildings and walls sporting dragons and eagles, the heraldic symbol of the Borghese.
Further on, Scipione housed his horse stables, a planetarium of sorts, and kept a zoo for the exotic animals of his day, most likely where the current zoo or Bioparco is, a great place to visit with kids.
Enter Villa Borghese from Via Veneto and you’ll come to the Casa del Cinema, which shows an ecletic programming of exceptional films.  With its expansive terrace opening to the park, it's also a great place to enjoy drinks on a summer night.  Further on, there is a statue of Goethe, who once enjoyed strolls around the gardens here.
In summer, the park comes to life with a perfect copy of London’s Globe Theater offering Shakespeare in the Park.  I love it, because it’s performed in Italian, so I can finally understand what’s going on!  They offer cheap tickets in the ‘standing room only’ section on the floor, just like back in the day.
A magnificent horse show is held each year in the Piazza di Siena, also open to the public, and, during World Cup matches, I am always here for the large screen viewings, quick eats and drinks. 
New museums have opened or old ones revived and reopened in the park as well. 
The Museo Carlo Bilotti offers user-friendly and highly interesting art exhibits in what is now called the Orangerie, but was once actually Scipione’s House of Water Games.
The Pietro Canonica museum is located in what was called the little fortress, or Fortezzuola.  Before it burnt down and ultimately transformed it into a museum, it was the Hen House, filled with ostriches, peacocks and ducks used for Borghese hunting parties.
Of course, any visit to the Villa Borghese means a lookout on the Pincio hill above Piazza del Popolo (where all the vehicles of every kind are for rent).  For less bustling activity on wheels, head over to the little pond, where you can also rent boats and laze on the peaceful water, watched over by beautiful goddesses and swans.
In need of a pit-stop?  You can use the clean public bathrooms near the Pincio near the tavern of the Hydro Clock – totally run on water – Alas, during my last visit, it was displaying the wrong time.  When it's fine-tuned, it's an amazing feat of science, I can assure you. In the ladies' room there, they've taken to covering with tons of tape the ceramic plaque which is misspelled, rather than get a new one.  

Turns out, ladies with a sense of humor were adding their own bathroom humor just like in ancient times...
But, Caveat Emptor!  Don’t be tempted to sit down for a cappuccino & croissant at the bar, that’ll take you out 18 euro for two!  Instead, when you get hungry, cross the park over to the Via delle Belle Arti and the GNAM: Rome’s Modern Art Gallery.  Aside from the splendid works inside representing every major Italian artist of the 19th-21st centuries (and much, much, more) there’s a terrific cafè and restaurant, serving exquisite brunches on Sundays.  In summer, eat out on the terrace for one of the best experiences in Rome.  Or, if you have kids, walk down off the Pincio and into Piazza del Popolo and thru the huge gateway there.  Across the busy road and off to the right is a great take-away place, serving pizza by the slice and other delectable treats. Although I'd put my money on the kids preferring the Burger King right there instead.
Nonetheless, Villa Borghese is heart-shaped, and it definitely wins my love in being a great place to visit anytime of the year.

Monday, February 13

The Born in Rome Conspiracy

One of the hallmarks of Life in Italy is the wild conspiracy theories one can relish for an unlimited source of entertainment.  Believe me, it's better than TV.  Chat with total strangers over an espresso at the coffee bar, engage a taxi cab driver, meet clients over lunch, and you will find a terrific theory to explain every single happening in your world.  Some of my favorite conspiracies were being bandied about last week to explain our 'wildcat snow emergency' response in Rome and environs.
Intermingled with "snow day" theories was one theory that totally caught me by surprise.  Even moreso, it had nothing to do with the media rush to make news while terrorizing people who did not have the good sense to simply look out their windows.  As more reports came trickling in on the Concordia accident, this particular theory had to do with Captain Schettino and his big crippled boat.  It turns out that the truth behind the events (sheer bravado, a hot babe on board, jumping ship) did not hold enough muster on their own to explain this totally preventable tragedy.  While Costa Co. pointed fingers at the Captain and vice versa, in the end, they all settled on who would be held truly responsible.  No shock there.  
Instead, I was told, with no hint of irony by the relator that "Captain Schettino was most likely paid off by the competition to sink that boat."  
Like a soccer player caught betting against his own team, I can see the origins of this line of thinking.  But I can't think of a more ridiculous explanation than just chalking this up to sheer stupidity and gross incompetence on a grand scale.  Nonetheless, conspiracy theories tend to foment when the situation is so intensely risible that it begs a better explanation than what meets the eye.

So it was with the Snowstorm of 2012.  Men on the street starting offering up wild explanations as to why the Rome Mayor (and others around), would choose to ignore weather reports, not wait for the snow to actually start falling before making a decree which could cost the city untold millions, and preempt Mother Nature by closing schools and city offices days before we were (not) hit with much snow -- and on a Saturday, no less. So, here's a brief offering of explanations heard about town:

- Mayors closed schools & city offices in order to put people in a panic and get them to stock up on fuel and groceries, giving a boost to the economy.
- Rome's Mayor closed schools & city offices in order to grind the economy to a halt so they could blame our technocrat govt.
- Offices & schools were closed to keep everyone home so they wouldn't see how ineffectual the cleanup might be (this, I'd say, may have some merit)
- Everything was shut down so only those who needed to travel could, given the conditions (and for those stuck on the Ring Roads and highways for hours, the closures could have helped).
- The Mayor wanted to look like he was doing something, so as not to be caught out with ineffectual planning (a case of an 'ounce of prevention') - likely, the most probable explanation
Rome's Mayor is in the pocket of the petroleum companies...with the gas prices so high, they weren't selling anything and now look at how many chains and snow tires he must have sold.
- If he declares an emergency, the City won't have to finance the cleanup (in fact, in towns around Viterbo, the military was called in for snow removal in huge dump trucks like they do with the trash removal in Naples).

As I stated on my facebook page, Captain Schettino tried to convince 1000 passengers that islands don't have rocks around them and Mayor Alemanno tried to convince millions we were totally snowed under.

Let me know if there are any other conspiracies out there, or what your favorite might be!

Thursday, February 9

Internot: Snow Emergency

While the flurry of snowstorm response criticism continues to avalanche the airwaves, with everyone on all sides of the political spectrum participating in a virtual snowball fight, all I know is - as usual - it was the lowly Roman proletariat who got buried by the blizzard.  With schools shut down on perfectly clear days, parents scrambling for vacation days in order to stay home, Rome slowly came back to business as usual, aided by the typical Roman sunshine which did more to clean up the city than anything else the political sycophants could accomplish.
Even more incredible to me was the fact that, with everyone homebound for a full four days, why the cleanup crews weren't out in full force, repairing the pot holes left behind and removing all the downed branches from the street sides.  Virtually no one was on the roads (except Detroiters & Germans, by my calculations) so they could work effortlessly. Instead a (German) friend posted this terrific photo of the City's snow emergency response:  
pic from
just use googletranslate to read about Bettina's adventures in Rome
It's a reverse Home Depot strategy, whereby the supplies are supplied, but you have to put it together yourself. Strewn in the park near the Colosseum (and littering every so often the sidewalks around town), the city dumped salt, alright.  It's just that they left the salt in tidy plastic bags.  Those who dared walk their dogs could spread it around, just like the cute little Morton Salt Girl - except she was walking in the rain and her box only weighed 1 kilo.

A friend recounted, instead, his own response to counter the ineffectualness of our corporate & political overlords:
Trying to find out if trains leaving Rome for the suburbs would be running that fatal evening, he started following the FS Twitter Feed [Ferrovie dello Stato or TrenItalia since Italians are brand name challenged].  In fact, an astute tweeter started posting answers to the common query, Is my train running?

Dozens of messages were flowing in, and dozens more were coming out -- all of them stating the very same thing:  Go to this link to see about your train.
Problem was, the link went simply to the FS Home Page, which only gave (untimely) info on whether the trains from Rome to Milan were on schedule.  At the cost of that train ticket, talk about catering to the richest 1%.  More tweets.  More links.  For thousands of tech-savvy commuters, there was no way to know for sure, other than standing on a freezing train platform and hoping a train would arrive in under an hour or at all.
My friend, a content mngt professional, along with some buddies, starting bombarding the FS tweeter.  Trying to get him to stop chirping away and offer some real time info with real value for travelers.  Hours later, the automated tweets finally stopped.  The tweeter confessed: Although employed by Trenitalia to Tweet, it was his first time in the nest, so to speak, and he really hadn't earned his wings.  He had no real idea what was going on snow-wise, what to tweet, and how he could have been of any help.

We're now preparing for Friday's snowstorm.  Putting all his trust in the professionally negligent weathermen, the Mayor has already cancelled school for the day.  Of course, he will also state on Saturday, when it comes to having no salt on hand to cover the glistening roads, "I didn't know the storm was coming or would be so bad."  

My word of advice to my Italian friends?  Load up your car with kitty litter. It will get you out of anything, and then, enjoy yourself tooling around town to see Rome's beautiful white mantle - because no one else will be out on the roads.
As for Mayor Alemanno?  Take a cue from someone who knows what she's doing:  The Morton Salt Girl.
photo by Noemi de Santis

Saturday, February 4

The (snow) Fall of Rome

This week, hysterical reports from weathermen in rapture finally got their day in the sun, or in this case, the rain.  The pouring rain.  Taking their clue from the terrorize-your-viewers-24/7 meme of U.S. media, we were told (incessantly), that the mamma of all Siberian snowstorms was coming to Bella Roma, and we all better watch out.  Instead of preparing for the worst, with snowplows on call, and salt trucks filled to the ready, what we got instead was a pre-emptive strike against mother nature.  And anyone who's from the USA knows how well pre-emptive strikes work in our favor.
So as not to be caught like more than a few Detroit mayors with residents stuck in chain car collisions and buses stuck tire-deep in snow drifts, Rome's Mayor decided he could best deal with the concept of an impending snowstorm by just not allowing anyone to go out in it.  So, as the rain beat down for the better part of a day, school children were stuck pressing their noses disappointedly against house windows, hoping, praying, that the snow they expected and which granted them a grace day of no school, would actually fall.  It didn't. Or rather, where I live (right in Rome), it rained.  Just inside the city walls, it slushed.  Restaurants and shops closed their doors, and I found myself wheeling around town, thrilled to be the only car on the very wet Roman roads.
Attending a stupendous Happy Hour for the American-International Club of Rome at Piazza Farnese's Camponeschi Wine Bar, only a handful of the bold & the brave came in from the cold to be served food to the gills that had been prepared for dozens and dozens more.  Turns out, we were Germans, Dutch, French and Americans (Northerners only).  We laughed at our plight of having to trudge through 3 centimeters of slush to get to our cars which seemed like sitting ducks in large puddles.  
I zoomed off to the airport in record time.  Rome's Mayor not only had closed the schools, but shut down all public transportation, and, unfortunately for my brother-in-law, all the taxis in town decided not to take advantage of a golden opportunity and went home clearly to drink hot cioccolato instead. 
sledding in the Circus Maximus
After picking him up around midnight, the snow did, indeed, finally start to fall.  So we drove all around Rome watching it get blanketed in a beautiful white mantle.  I was here during the huge storm of 1986 and knew that this may be our only chance out the door to see Rome snowed under.
Whoever said that Italians don't plan ahead?  The next morning, we awoke to a beautiful city, shut to a screeching halt except the clean-up crews busying themselves with shoveling and removing all the downed branches from the umbrella pines.  Too bad for our prescient Mayor, he was a day late, and, considering the cost of the shutdown from the day before, well more than a dollar short.

Wednesday, February 1

Tante Belle Cose - Italy gets off to a New Start

With our Prime Minister Monti receiving the (sham) recognition* from the Paris journal Trombinoscope as "European of the Year", it's not surprising that things are looking up for Italy, despite the crippled Concordia stuck on its side in troubled waters [insert your metaphor here].

There appears to be a new tide of taking on the tax cheats, petty criminals and those bad apples who seem to ruin the entire barrel, if you are at least to believe the newspapers.  Regardless, it's a welcome sight to see the mainstream media finally bringing to light the Corruption of the Day blasted right on the front pages.  Hopefully, this pace will keep up. 

- This month, we saw the Financial Police (something akin to the IRS) go in to nightclubs all over Milan.  Once the proprietors saw that they were being watched, incredibly, receipts and income rose by 44%, in some cases up to 200% in one night alone.
Of course, it could be that suddenly a lot more people just wanted to party before the end of the world in 2012...

- Rome brought out a fine of €250 for those caught not scooping up the poop.  Surveying the lofty Via Veneto, one woman in a fur said, "Give me a ticket - I can't pick that gross stuff up."

If that's the case, why don't you (and all your paesani for that matter) simply "curb your dog"???

- Italy's new Minister of Equal Opportunities blasted Rome's Mayor Alemanno for playing three-card monty with his City Council members.  Forced by law to have equal numbers of men & women (he has 10 to 2), he simply dissolved his cabinet the day before it was to take effect and re-employed them all.  That way, those who oppose his number-challenged mind, have to start the judicial process all over again.
In his defense, he said he "canvassed lots and lots of women but no one wanted the job"....Really?!  I could name a few, starting with Yours, Truly.

- And, in a case of citizen watchdogs run amok, the Consumer's Associations (for whom I usually nurture unbridled love), retracted their lawsuit against Mr. Della Valle of Tod's shoes for offering €50 million to restore the Colosseum. 
It was an unprecedented case of corporate or, in this case, personal philanthropy, something sorely missing in European society, and these jokers wanted to block it.  Providing this observer with an extreme case of hives from scratching my forehead in utter disbelief.

* A sham given that he started his new job at the end of November 2011.  Just like Obama before him & the Nobel Peace Prize, since when do we now give award for promises and not for deeds well done?  It also stands to mention that in his last year as President of Italy's MBA University Bocconi, it fell from 28th place to 42nd.  Hoping that'll not be the case for Italy as well...