Saturday, March 31

Tante Belle Cose - Italy does some spring cleaning

Although today's headlines seem to decry the opposite is true, citing of all things, that Over one half of Italians declare earnings under 15.000 euro per year (that's about $20,000), certain corners seem to be taking a (cosmetic) hit on extravagance this month. Here's my quick guide to pruning the rotten trees that unfortunately have very deep roots (note: the rotten apples are still left to bear more fruit):

After Prime Minister Monti cancelled Rome's Olympic run, they actually went and closed the office. Of course, only after spending 300.000 euro in preparation of the preparation of the bid; which by some accounts amounted to three meetings in which nothing was accomplished (except, perhaps signing for their paychecks). 

The Rome-based pork-barrel political office of Arcus was also finally going to be closed, after years of lawsuits for their blatant corruption, heads dismissed while undergoing trial, and reams of denouncements by consumer's associations.   This office, supposedly created to support Italy's 'Cultural Heritage' put new meaning in the word, pork-barrel: one son of one politico received 500.000 euro just to hold a convention on the five races of pigs.  

A few past Parliament Presidents have decided to forego some of their "farewell benefits" which include an office, a number of paid staff, and of course, a car & driver.  Actually, they had already passed this law that would take effect in 2023 [better not to shock the poor suffering souls who already retire with more (legal) money & benefits than many a despot dictator, not to mention all the handouts] but a few have decided to tighten their belts and relax on their top salaries (double that of any other European country), benefits and other perks.

A public letter was penned by the Directors of many a museum in Italy, including the Uffizi Gallery, decrying the fact that gophers in Parliament (not to mention the barber who makes more than Barack Obama) make about ten times what they make.  Prime Minister Monti who believes he can usher in an age of meritocracy merely by waving a magic wand, was last seen still scratching his head.

And my favorite, Berlusconi buddy & TV News show Director & Anchorman, Emilio Fede, was finally sent packing from "leading" the news with his own brand of fairly hilarious reality TV commentary.  It wasn't enough that he was caught with his pants down in Silvio's villa, that he allegedly procured hookers for the sex shows in Sardinia, but that more recently, a Swiss bank refused him when he showed up with a suitcase of money.  In his defense, at 81 years old, he says his firing was ageism, pure and simple. Talk about meritocracy.  

As for our culture of tax evasion (at the top), it's no wonder why half of Italians feel it's their right to take a little off the top given the exemplary models in their midst. 

Monday, March 26

Pope John Paul II gets a stiff neck?

In my book I have an entire chapter dedicated to Do-Overs.  It comes hand in hand with an organizationally challenged populace.  I'll call the millions wasted in redoing things, from the website to the repaving of roads to removing hundreds of huge illegal billboards only to find them put up again, collateral damage.  After the wild polemic over Rome's Ara Pacis (although it has yet to be dismantled and redone), or the recent lawsuit in Venice over Calatrava's bridge, so it was no different for the imposing statue of our Pope John Paul II who in death helped unite Italy:  99.9% of Romans agreed that it was a monstrosity (that .1% represents the artist and the foundation which approved the commission of the piece).  You can cast your vote on what it looks like to you on my blog entry about the statue itself.
In any case, a recent trip by Rome's Termini Train Station, and I found the statue completely under wraps.  I immediately thought it mercifully had been removed. On the web, conspiracy theories (Italy's national pastime) of its fate (and our fortune) along these lines are running rampant.  Judging by some of the stories, it might well be that the artist is currently chiseling away to give our Pope a neck, as requested by the Mayoral committee selected to investigate the Jolly Green Giant in our midst. Without one in fact, the Pope looks like a massive refrigerator whose door has been torn off so little kids won't get stuck inside.
Picture from 
Other stories state that the statue is simply being restored (mind you, after only one year) since having been put in place as a gigantic pigeon coop in front of Termini Station.  In fact, driving by it a few weeks prior, I was stunned to see that the bronze had completely corroded.  The artist states he is not, in fact, carving a neck out, but only changing something that got bent out of shape "during transportation".  Yeah right.  Like the original design got melted down into the Hulk (sans bulging appendages-which includes a scrag of some sort) during a huge highway pileup on the road over.  I think the finish has much more to do with the tens of thousands of swallows that nest in the trees nearby each season.  
Either way, our artist seems to have taken notes on green finishes from my personal pick for ugliest work of art on earth:  the two armless lime green women decorating the McGraw Hill building on New York City's Avenue of the Americas.
Well, it won't be over 'til the fat man sings.  In the meantime, our Pope already well on the road toward sainthood may produce a miracle of his own: and get the statue removed altogether -- perhaps to the suburbs of Rome, our beloved Mayor's favorite spot for some of the other eyesores in sight.

*colored bits above are live links to articles

Friday, March 23

Made in Italy: A dying breed?

Walking down Rome's main shopping artery, I was struck by the signs plastered in the window of one tiny menswear shop, David Hamilton.  Perhaps named after the proprietor, or perhaps after the sort of Martin Luther King of the Virgin Islands, David Hamilton Jackson, I stopped to look.  Here there was, one person's response to the Chinese invasion of cheap imports which have now come to occupy every main shopping street across all of Europe (not to mention the gaudy tourist open market stalls and the stalls lining Assisi, Venice & other once fine Italian gift shops).  Looking for boots this winter in Paris, I could not, for the life of me, find one pair of boots that I hadn't already seen in the windows of three dozen identical shops just down the road, all at the same ridiculously low price.  I finally bought my Spanish-made boots in Barcelona.
Our hapless Colonello Budino (that's Colonel Custard in English), surrounded on all sides by the enemy, did not yet raise the white flag.  His white signs instead read:
This same shirt costs only €9 at Rome's Termini Station
These same shoes you can buy for a song just down the road.
He went on to inform us how the items in his store were all proudly Made in Italy.  And we consumers should all support the brand (especially if we want clothes that won't rip apart at the seams after six washings).  I thought this was a brilliant initiative at least from one conscientious retailer.  
Tourists flock to the all-Italians cashmere stores in Umbria, head to the tailor's for hand-made cotton shirts or linens, so...why not promote the quality of locally made clothes and keep the local producers in business?
Of course, this ignores the fact that many of Hamilton's peers in the rag trade have long ago moved production over to Bangladesh, Turkey or China.  Lending credence to the word "rag", which your Fendi sheets and fine silk lingerie, or Max Mara macks will look like in just over a season. 
The big names go abroad while the tiny leather producers have sold out their own children to make a quick buck: They send their kids over to China to teach our Chinese overlords how to make fine Florentine leather bags and Murano glass objects.  Sometimes, it's the Chinese who come here.  Set foot in Prato and you'll see what I mean.  Sadly, these kids will be the last of their long family line to work in the artisan trade.
If that's not enough, many manufacturers boast their Made in Italy claim to fame.  But they have merely applied the last few stitches on their items in Italy, you know, the ones that attach the label Made in Italy to the garment itself.

With bright yellow flyers distributed outside his front door, David Hamilton goes on to implore the last battle cry: 
Before buying, always ask where your article came from.  Help keep the Italian companies and small retailers alive.  EVVIVA!  MADE IN ITALY
*And as for my theory about the name coming from David Hamilton Jackson?  These Anglo-named shops sprouted up after the war - adding a sort of international pizzazz to the shopping experience.  But certainly, in marketing-challenged Italy, I never would have thought that they sold Italian clothes there as well.  Nearer the Spanish Steps, you can also find another fine Italian-made menswear store, Jackson.  

Tuesday, March 20

Skiing in the Dolomites - Are we in Italy yet?

Today may be a (fabulous) first day of Spring in Italy, but people are still bemoaning the end of the short ski season this year.  We did finally get a lot of snow, just in time for one of the most important features of Life in Italy:  La settimana bianca - like a white christmas, but better - it's an entire white week spent at the ski resorts which offer the most majestic beauty that all Italy has to offer.  
Recently, I had the privilege of meeting a terrifically fun group of people who spend part of their time in Italy.  This is the letter that one of them sent to his Italian teacher back in Seattle.  In the true spirit of all things Burnt by the Tuscan Sun, enjoy! 

I’m sure it will please you no end to learn that I've found some folks who speak Italian worse than me.  The odd thing is, they're Italian.  This has been wünderbar for my ego.  
The last few days we've been in the Dolomites, up above Tires, or as it's called here Tiers.  These people will not say a word of Italian.  Well, not quite.  They will say an occasional Italian word, but only if they can make it sound German.  
Martin and Margareth Damian, who own and run our swell hiking inn - Hotel Ciprianerhof - were born and raised right here on the Italian side of the border.  But, they sound like they learned Italian at Berlitz from Herr Berlitz himself.  When forced to say something in Italienische, Martin fires the words off in short staccato bursts.   I didn't realize until now that American rap artists may be the linguistic heirs to German.  
On the snowshoe trails we run into other hikers and chit chat.  All of them, or at least all the ones we've talked to, are from Germany.  When I try to speak to them in Italian, they inform me that they don't know a single word of Italian.  Like all Germans, they know English.  It’s as if every once in a while, someone goes out at night when nobody is looking and kicks the boundary markers a little further south.  The rule seems to be that you’re not supposed to notice.    
Up here, all rules are obeyed - including the ban on clothing in the saunas.  Quite a few people do more than the rule requires: they extend the nackt zone to the hallway and the open showers and the lounge with recliner cots and hot pomegranate drinks.  But, and there is a but.  This will surprise you; I know it surprised me.  Staring is against the rules.  First they make everyone take all their clothes off - this rule is in writing - then they have an unwritten rule that you can’t look.  
They shouldn’t expect an ordinary American who hasn’t eyed random samples of the naked female form in the flesh every afternoon to catch on to this one right away.  Especially if that ordinary American has been living the last couple of years in the other Italy - the one down the road where people break rules all the time.  In the other Italy, looking is a sign of respect.  It’s like saying something complimentary, but with your eyes.  In other words, it’s part of the Italian language.  If I were completely honest, I’d have to admit that my eyeballs sometimes wander in respectful disregard.    
In the morning at the breakfast buffet when you’re standing in line waiting for your turn to use the juice machine and the person in front is kind of slow, your reaction is completely different when you realize that you’ve seen her nackt.  
I wonder if the Italians who live down there in the other Italy know what is going on up here.  

Saturday, March 17

Gluten-Free Rome for Tourists

I often overhear Americans on vacation in Rome, the land of pasta, pane, pizza and wine state that they can't eat this or that during their Roman holiday.  For many with gluten allergies, a trip to Italy is synonymous with a sight-seeing trip of all the bathrooms in the Bel Paese.  I have had gluten and yeast allergies my whole life, and although you are tempted at every turn, I have found (much to my dismay) that you can still eat very well in Italy without imbibing in the carb-fest that will be sure to give you Montezemolo's Revenge. 
But now, the already health-conscious purveyor of fine eating, Italy, has awakened to the idea of gluten allergies.  And finally,it's beginning to catch on that while gramma's cooking might keep you trim, it might not keep you healthy and that a wheat-based diet is not what the Dottore ordered.  So you can now purchase excellent pastas made from corn and a wide variety of gluten-free items in stores across the country.
But when it comes to eating in Italy, of course, pasta is part of the package.  I cringe when guests are forced to bypass the pasta & pizza for a boring old plate of calamari (depressingly, not batter-fried) instead...But there seems to be a silver lining on your porcelain plate: Italian Celiac Associations have taken Italy by storm and are setting themselves up to change all that.  
You can now find lists upon lists of eateries, taverns and even gelato houses serving up gluten-free specialties.  Mark my words:  you will not be disappointed.  Unlike the faux-food Americans, if it's not up to snuff, the Italians simply won't 'go there' (just ask the frozen food companies who actually employ grammas and mammas in their test kitchens)...
So, aside from the usual (and unusually good) suspects listed on [including Voglia di Pizza, Arancia and Il Maggiolino], here are a few sources so you don't have to say 'No, Grazie' to the tantalizing treats for your tastebuds in Rome.  The site lists their exhaustive categories by city, so you can consult them for wherever you may be traveling, but here are links to lists for a buonissimo e bella gluten-free Rome:

and, since breakfast is the most difficult, 
with all the tasty treats at your corner bar

Gluten-free Bed&Breakfasts in Rome

Gluten-free Gelaterie  

Here's a superb list on Rome eateries & outside of Rome for a gluten-free holiday, tested out by one of my favorite bloggers, Aglio Olio e Peperoncino

And for a nice write-up on a trip to Italy from a Gluten-free Girl, click here.

Thursday, March 15

Thumbs Up for Italian Conspiracy Theories

I have oft-repeated how Italians love conspiracy theories.  In fact, it seems to be the oil that greases the entire Italian machine.  Nothing is taken at face value - ever.  Sometimes, I not only buy into the ones floating around the coffee bars, I make up my own as well.  From the closing of a factory to everything political to Rome's 2011 snowstorm and cleanup, you will find dozens of theories to go around with them.  
But I always thought these were innocent remarks representing a way for the everyman to sort of get a one-up on the powers that be.  Watching a Pixar flick recently with some teens, I realized just how ingrained the David & Goliath mindset is solidified right to the heart of my paesani.  
When David came back from his mission, he ended up King for years & years, fathering a zillion offspring for all of his efforts.  In short, he was lauded and rewarded for the deed (or as Mr. Monti would say, Meritocracy).  Had the fight happened in today's sarcastic world (from which, I confess I am a by-product), David would have returned holding the giant's head and the scriptures would have been filled with rabble-rousing commentary the likes of:  He obviously had help from our enemies, It was all a ploy and David & Goliath were in cohoots so he could rise to power, He didn't really take his life in his hands, he had secret weapons ... and so on endlessly.  
Mantova's Palazzo Te
showing off 25 years of the
 Art of Pixar
(until 10 June)
So, there we were, watching the little old man from the movie Up -- in it, the grumpy guy refused to leave his home while skyscrapers were going up all around it.  A pudgy little boy scout comes to offer him help, he slams the door. Next thing you know, a truck slams into his old wooden post box, one of his most beloved items and the flag carrier of his life with his wife.  He storms out of the house and raps the driver on the head with his crutch, knocking him out. In lawsuit-lusty America, he was naturally sued.  Forced to give up his home, he sets out for his lifelong dream of adventure.
I grew up in an area in which this very scenario had transpired. In Troy, Michigan, you can still visit the bucolic farmhouse set right smack in the middle of luxurious shopping malls, 3M corporation and the K-Mart headquarters.  Thankfully, the corporate suits turned this historic plot into the Kresge Foundation, promoting environmental goodness.  Whether the former owner just faded away, or whether she set off for her own Argentinian adventure is unknown, but either way, it seemed like a Happy Ending to at least this viewer.

But, before my good-feeling goosebumps could fade away, I heard from a corner of the room:  Of course!  The construction company people knocked over his mailbox on purpose so they would have a good excuse to evict him.
And thus, the problem of conspiracies:  Let's assume the accusation is true.  How they would have known that the fender bender of the mailbox would have set off a series of events starting with the little ol' guy getting up from his rocker, wielded his cane, beaten the truck driver senseless, and not simply have set out to repair his trusty mailbox and go back indoors for some prunes?
I had a good chuckle until I realized there are those who say the Brothers Grimm were packing in the subliminal messages in all their fairy tales.  As for our modern day fables, maybe there's more truth in fiction than meets the eye.

Monday, March 12

Meet Francesca Maggi!

For those in Rome, or with friends or tourists in Rome, I will be presenting my book on the following occasions, answering your queries and generally hanging out at some of my favorite places in Rome:


near Bocca della Verita' offering one of the most spectacular views in all of Rome!
Starting at ore 19 / Readings at 19.30
Drinks €10 + appetizers

-------------------------------  THURSDAY APR 26th ore 20 TEATRO ARCILIUTO

SUNDAY APR 29th ore 17 and ore 20
MONDAY APR 30th ore 20

Performing Scenes from an Italian Restaurant as part of the English Theatre monologues show "CONSEQUENCES"

And...a Garden Party at Rome's fab Beehive Hotel is in the works! 
Watch this spot...

Saturday, March 10

Italy: Coming in from (or going out into) the Cold

After having a few weeks of cold weather and (outside city centers), plenty of snow, it looks like spring has already sprung in Italy.  Flowers seem to be blooming, people going for walks outdoors...T-shirts being pulled out of the upper echelons of closets which house all our summer clothes.  The ritual being the swapping of winter/summer closets which takes place at every solstice.  
Of course, the funny thing about this ritual is one shirt that is never allowed so much as a single day of reprieve: la maglietta della salute - the A-shirt of good health - a fixture of Italian culture as strong and revered as the Pantheon itself.  It's an undershirt that is used as a talisman to ward off colds, back aches, even the dreaded cervicale - the stiff neck curse.
Foto from Umarells
What I love about the undershirts is they're used from about the time you issue from the womb right up to the day you're laid to rest in the tomb.  Mammas wrap their bambini in them, women's sites chat about the necessity to use them or iron them, journalists ponder its benefits and cultural impact. So iconic, I even found a band called La Maglia della Salute...!

As for me, they always leave me with the idea that underneath that tidy, pressed-white shirt is a layer of Vicks Vapo-rub just sticking to it, better for you to inhale its healing ethers...But whether or not wearers truly get fewer colds and illnesses has yet to be tested by the National Center of Research.  

Nevertheless, incredibly, even vampires seem to wear them to ward off something...perhaps garlic?  Scroll down on that page for image of Twilight star with his undershirt sticking out...while above, all colored sections are live links.

Tuesday, March 6

Tante Belle Cose - What's new in Italy

As short as it was, in February lots of new, exciting things happened in the Bel Paese. 

First, was my re-discovery of Calve's Peanut Butter on Roman supermarket shelves.  Brought to you by those trusted purveyors of cheap imitation condiments beloved by junk-food Americans (like Mayo, ketchup & mustard), I don't know how this fell off my radar (although a peanut allergy might have something to do with it).  Or maybe it was because I was keeping a lookout for Burro di Arachidi instead of the real McCoy?

But even better than finding peanut butter would of course be finding Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.  Alas, instead, I found Italy's State-run TV, RAI backing down on its quest for our TV Tax dollars.  They've decided not to send the rottweilers of Equitalia after anyone peering at any transmittable image; meaning placing a user's tax on computers, mobile phones, tablets, and anything that actually shows 'talkies' (or, in a nod to this year's Oscars, even silent films).  They will only expect the tax on computers sold as TVs (think: AppleTV).

And, while things are coming down (except gas prices and taxes), there's talk that the divorce law will finally come in line with normal country standards.  You still won't be able to nab a Vegas divorce, but you might be able to break the ties that bind within 1 year, 2 if you have kids.  In the old days it was something like 7.  Lately, I believe it's three.  Let's hope for the sake of sanity that this is one law that actually gets enforced.

In Aquila, three years after the devastating earthquake, musicians & composers got together and put on an opera in the house.  They've been performing in Teramo & Chieti, but gave a concert for their hometown that had the misfortune of being adopted by Berlusconi & the Italian State just after the G20 show held there.  Let's just say that Berlusca's showgirls Ruby & Co. got a lot more money and a lot more facelifts than nostra povera Aquila.  Check out the foto here.  But what was really terrific about the show, was a piece written by a young composer, Frecciarotta (Broken Arrow), a piece that takes the piss out of the Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) Italian train system.

And finally, anyone longing for days gone by can find real-life emperors being lifted about in their litters while enjoying the sights of Rome right next to the Centurions who want to get your tourist dollar for a nice photo opp.  Well, almost.  I had heard that the City of Rome was inaugurating a service to carry tourists on a sort of litters into the least accessible areas, like the Forum.  It may be on offer, but no search engine could find the news in less than two days after it broke.  Ahhh...some things never change -- like keeping the disabled out of sight and out of mind.

Thursday, March 1

Letter from Barcelona

Barcelona...Flying High
People love to say that the US & UK are two countries separated by a common language.  I would like to wager that Spain & Italy are two countries separated by their "mediterranean-ness."  Sure, on face value, gorgeous art, warm people, unparalleled food, magnificent scenery...would seem to keep them both centered on anyone's compass as the 'best place on earth' to be.  I couldn't agree more.  But on my recent visit to Barcelona, there were some indications, large & small, that made you think, No, Toto, we are not in Calcata anymore...

Rome Airport's TAXI stand over here
Upon arrivals at the spiffy, new airport terminals, you had the feeling you had mistakenly landed in a shopping mall.  Not that anyone wants to stay in the airport that long, but hey...The black & yellow taxis were parked just outside the door, easily distinguishable, and a quick - not expensive shot into town.  We watched the meter without having to discern whether or not, as in Rome, we were heading inside or outside the Aurelian Walls  (last mentioned in a tour guide for Cleopatra's trip down the in...When you reach the Aurelian Walls our boat will dock and Caesar will greet you on the shore). Nor did we worry whether or not the taxi driver had set his meter on the tiny 2 or the tinier number 1, over-charging tourists who, in their jet-lagged stupor, have no idea what this means...

Barcelona's idea of London's "LOOK LEFT"
one in three die at cross walks.
Walking around town you discover vast boulevards incredibly not lined by dog poo to demarcate your path, but rather with pedestrian malls, and spotless bike paths that promise a contiguous flow all over town.  Bikers abound as does the bike rental service bicing, but you don't get the sense you might die in the enterprise.  As for the ubiquitous motorinos, they reminded me of home, but I did a double-take when they all stopped meticulously well before the pedestrian crosswalk so people, dogs, and baby strollers could actually get to the other side without performing their zig-zag dance of death.
Both countries were mired in protests by pretty much every category on earth: the hospital workers, the baggage guys, the teachers, and yesterday, the city seemed under attack while the police came out in seriously full force to monitor anarchists marching down the Gran Via.  Subways and the Arena Shopping Mall were closed down immediately, carefully monitored while shoppers hesitantly made their way in, single file (talk about putting a spin on greeters!).  Groups of police were everywhere, but not once did I see them copping a smoke or talking on cellphones, and only rarely talking with each other; a regular feature of police duty in Italy.  Someone remarked that after all, Spain was once a dictatorship.  Although I had to giggle as protesters sat down in the middle of a major intersection, stopping traffic in every direction, and the electronic sign above their heads read, "Gran Via - Fluida".
The subways and airport trains are extra-large, clearly designed for people with luggage.  Great glass elevators right out of Charlie's Chocolate Factory carry you up and down from platforms on every street corner.  Once in the bowels, the halls & platforms sparkle; making even Washington DC's lines look worn out (of course, one can always make the case that the DC trains look so great because the lights are dimmed to the point you can't actually see the dirt surrounding you).  We never waited more than 3 minutes for any subway to pass.  Back above ground, the Wifi system worked nearly everywhere, and you didn't need to sign away your first-born baby and wait for passwords to be sent to you (that incredibly you need an internet connection in order to retrieve them).
But for me, one of the biggest stand-outs marking the difference in our supposedly like mediterranean ways was the total absence of advertising posters showing naked or near-naked women in all levels of disrobing.  Not a one. In her video documentary, Il Corpo delle Donne*, Lorella Zanardo insists that this is a unique & sickening feature of the Italian landscape.  Up to now, I was never quite convinced of this.  But after having combed the entire Barcelona cityscape, I couldn't help but think that something seemed to be missing.  And then I realized what that was.
And while in Barcelona, you still see graffiti pock-marking the plazas and pick-pocketing is a national pastime and cappuccino costs more than caffè col leche, it seems a small price to pay for a fairly flawless tourist experience.

*scroll to bottom to find it in your language