Tuesday, August 28

Summer in Rome: Who turned off the aqua?

Picture compliments of Travel-Leaf.net
check out their article for more on the nasoni
Ahhhh...those refreshing long-spouted fountains of Rome, the appropriately nick-named, nasoni.  Who doesn't love them?  Moreover, who doesn't particularly love them when the mercury tops 90 degrees?  I literally plan my walks around town just by way of the nasoni fountains.  And now, you can even download a groovy (and free!) app that will tell you where the nearest one is (of course, if you're roaming in Rome, it'll cost you more than the €2 mini-bottles of water you buy at the bars...)

But, as you leave your home or hotel where you no longer run the water when brushing your teeth, you see the water just spilling out 24/7 and down into the drains.  The claim is that the run-off goes toward watering Rome's agricultural fields; but I wonder if that's not just an urban legend.  The park near my house was hooked up to the nasoni with an expensive irrigation system that stopped working pretty much the day the water works trucks drove away.  Needless to say, of the hundreds of newly planted bushes there, only a handful have survived.

I have oft moped about the ludicrousness of dumping good, clean water right down the drain.  The EU fines Italy millions year after year for this wanton waste of a precious resource.  No one can comprehend why the fountains simply don't have taps (although Travel Leaf provides an explanation that holds water...the taps were vandalized).  But, with the economic crisis leaving city budgets blistering from the heat of Mr. Monti's debt management, turns out a solution could be found.  This summer, the water started spilling out more slowly.  I know that from how long I'm bent over, hands cupped so my dog, Arcibaldo, can take a drink (two dogs later and neither can drink from the tap?!).  Turns out, the city, in order to slow the cost of serving good, clean water to the populace (and multitudes of tourists, I might add) took the pressure down a notch or two.  Brilliant.  The cost savings is said to be in the tens of millions.
Of course, this, after they levied the evil tourist tax in order to 'improve tourist services' - so we get less water in return.  But either way, I'm okay with that since most tourists are aghast at the waste, and, it's a huge improvement on boiling hot and dirty Milan where they simply took away all the fountains.  Not as a cost saving measure, mind you, but because people were - horrors upon horrors! - actually using the free flowing water.  To wash their cars or, in the case of the homeless, to clean themselves.  The fountains were ruining the bella figura image of the city.  Although I would have liked to invite the Mayor to step out of her insulated car and walk by a stinking homeless man...maybe she would have thought better of it.

But as for me, I think it's a nice step in the right direction (both turning down the pressure and getting a town Mayor to mix with the hoi polloi).  
And, if you want to know how one actually should take a sip from these wonderful fountains, check out The Beehive Hotel's Cross-Pollinate charming How To Video.  Now, if I can only get Archie to look at the video, too.

Saturday, August 25

Italy: A Snapshot from the Past

I occasionally enjoy thinking back on 'how things were' in Italy, in the not-so-distant past, and how far things have come in terms of services and general quality of life issues.  In these overheated summer days, you can bet that the appearance of air conditioning is right up there in my top three improvements over the years.   And of course, whenever I can get close to an octogenarian, those old war stories or 'slice-of-life stories like when the most exclusive parts of Rome were once considered the dregs of the earth, or the earthquake that hit in XXX, or hearing tales of family outings on one single scooter... well, they provide food for the soul.  Occasionally, I post my own features here on the blog.

During the summer, many of the movie theaters in Italy take a hiatus.  It doesn't really matter, because you can go to any number of outdoor arenas that put the 1950s American drive-ins to shame.  Italy loves cinema, and cinema loves Italians.  You can find a wealth of movies for almost every taste at any number of movie houses, in a vast array of art houses, and at cinema clubs showing films dubbed to perfection.  Today, you can choose from films from nearly every country, and practically every century since celluloid.   But you don't have to go back as far as Cinema Paradiso scenes to recall what movie going was like before the age of mega-cinemas and Dolby Sound.
It may have taken awhile to get the refreshment stands in cinemas (something that most wise Italians will insist is not an improvement), and a bit longer to get them from stopping the film mid-reel (a heinous event that still takes place, much to the moviegoer's chagrin)  but, the comfort level at most places small and large has gone up in my lifetime exponentially.  Even in tiny cinemas, you can be seated in huge lounge chairs and treated to two hours of great cinema, some seats even sporting cup holders attached.  Under these conditions, I could even get through Bertolucci's 8 hr Novecento masterpiece.

After this charming specimen met its match and ended up as kindling wood, cinemas often were furnished with regular old folding chairs, carefully lined up in rows and rows.  This was circa 1980s Milan.
The chairs were not the issue.  The problem was, of course, the flow.  If a tall person happened to sit down in front of you, your viewing was impaired along with the blood flow to your legs.  I remember watching entire movies without the benefit of the right hand corner or mid-section of the screen.
It's a problem resolved only recently by the airlines with mini-screens at the back of each seat; and one in which I'm quite certain, if churches ever succeeded at tackling, perhaps more people would attend the sermons, concerts and other offerings - instead of winding up with an obstructed pew seat.
Nowadays, and only after extensive restoration work altering the slope of cinemas and inserting layered seating, can the Italian movie experience be rated four-stars.
And seeing that Italian movie buffs rarely interrupt their films with the sound effects of munching on popcorn and treats, if we can now just stop the darned intermissions countrywide, we would win the Oscar for movie-going.

Click here or Check out my 'Favorites' listed on the blog (right hand column) for my book excerpt on Cinema intermissions.

Friday, August 17

Driver's Ed in Italy: Your Handbook to Recklessness

It seems that almost everyone I know has finally buckled down, or, perhaps I should say, capitulated to facing the last great bastion of bureaucracy, after the id cards have been issued, the health certificates passed with flying colors, the social security numbers registered with authorities.  The Driver's Ed Test.  The very idea of facing the ESAME = Exam shakes the souls of lesser men.  You can read more about one expat's typical experience here.
But, what is the cause for concern?  Most of my friends have been driving for thirty or forty years.  Basically, the USA refuses to recognize Italian driver's licenses (after all, these are the guys who gave us the Ferrari, the greatest vehicles with the most outstanding drivers on earth...) - I think it's an extreme case of sour grapes - so Italy won't recognize ours (rightfully so).  We are then left to go through 'the system' in order to put the pedal to the metal and legally hit the roads.  Too bad that both countries happily accept drivers from places like, oh, inner Sudan or the Maldives - which I don't even think have cars on the roads.
But, the more you hear about the trials and tribulations of achieving your driver license, the more incredulous you become every single day that you happen to be in traffic.  As cars veer into your lane, a guy sends text messages at 100 mph, no one signals, and babies are carried on front seat laps, it's as if everyone crams for the exam, only to forget every single thing they were so preoccupied with learning after about 34 minutes.  And, judging from what it is I truly remember in college, I think this theory may hold a whole lot of aqua.
You not only have to cram for the oral exam, but you also need to pass the driving test as well.  Rightly so, you need to be able to regurgitate the speed limits for any kind of road (something that I do not know), understand who gets the right of way at most every type of intersection, and of course, put on your seat belt the moment you get inside the vehicle or it's an automatic fail.  Judging from the traffic patterns, I think the test is easy:  speed limits are whatever you can do without hitting the car in front of you, intersections are for rushing into even if it's a red light, and seat belts are for sissies.  But friends tell me that you must also know all the parts of the motor, how to change a tire, and various mechanical things as well.
You know that women pass that test with flying colors since in every roadside emergency, they are the first to tap out the road service phone number to come a running.  Why all this acumen goes flying out the window once they actually get behind the wheel is one of those mysteries of life right up there with the immaculate conception.  It doesn't matter, compared to the USA, Italians really must know their cars inside and out.
But I got a big kick out of a friend's story of his experience getting his license in the USA.  The questions are written, there are like 10 of them, and, along with the driving test the entire operation takes under an hour.  He said he was licensed to drive in Italy:  a car, a truck, large vehicles, a tank, and his own private plane.  On top of that, he had the best experience that anyone could ask for: He was from Naples.  Arriving at the exam, and meeting the 90 year old instructor, he decided to be prudent.  He utterly failed his driving test.  I believe it was a first in the annals of driver's tests.
The reason?  He went too far under the speed limit.  Turns out he averaged about 25mph in a 35mph zone.  Next time, he thought, he better put his Neapolitan skills to the test, instead.
Just as long as he doesn't try to steer cruise ships, like his fellow paesano, Captain Stecchino.

For more on driving in Italy (from my Travel Tips Page on the blog), click these links:

Deciphering street signs in Italy
Driving at night in Italy 
Getting a driver's license in Italy

Tuesday, August 14

Polluting our Pesto

foto from www.geekcasual.com

Some readers will undoubtedly recall the cult Wendy's commercial, Where's the Beef?  from the 1980s.  I'm hoping that in our multi-cultural 21st century, Where's the Pesto? will go viral -- all I need is video footage of a little Italian gramma, dressed in black, tasting the pesto they are currently touting in stores across the country.  Zoom in on her face: she stares at her linguini and shouts it out to the heavens.  Fade out.
Anyone who has ever made their own pesto -- and in basilico bountiful Italy, it's a sin to even think about buying the stuff in jars -- will know that like much of great Italian cuisine, pesto is nothing but the unbelievable combination of a few select ingredients.  He's not Italian, but, we'll take Jamie Oliver's word for the classic recipe:  

• ½ a clove of garlic, chopped
• sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 3 good handfuls of fresh basil, leaves picked and chopped
• a handful of pine nuts, very lightly toasted
• a good handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese  [some use Pecorino, ndr]
• extra virgin olive oil

• a small squeeze of lemon juice  optional

That's all you need for a perfect pesto concoction.  My mother makes it in large quantities and then pours it into ice cube trays so you only pop out the small bit that you need that very evening, without seeing the entire contents go bad in the fridge.  But, in a pinch, you could always waltz into the local grocery store and pick up a jar of the green ambrosia, restraining yourself from eating it with your index finger along your way back home.
But in my perfect pesto world, I started noticing that something was awry in my pesto dishes; and it wasn't the sometimes overcooked linguini.  I have a nut allergy, and wondered, if the pine nuts (which, along with a few others like chestnuts aren't really nuts and so don't actually affect people the same way) in my pesto were suddenly causing me miserable stomach aches.  My nose didn't know it, but my stomach could tell that peanuts were not far from my pesto stash.
I went to the store and checked the labels.  I fully expected to see that common and fairly ridiculous warning label, produced in a place that also produces nutty things.  Instead, what I saw was much much worse.  In a country that doesn't even grow peanuts, depriving entire generations of the pleasures of peanut butter (well, until now)...I could not find a single jar of pesto, even in the gourmet selection, that did not list peanuts as a main ingredient.  The labels now sport Gluten Free, as if someone who is in the throes of asphyxiation is going to care about the glutens in their stomach.  For good measure, most industrial pestos also use sunflower oil, and not the olive variety.

Stomach aches aside, I find this bastardization of one of the world's most perfect foods utterly blasphemous.  Italian producers go to great lengths to keep their foods pure and labeling shows it:  prosciutto di parma must be from Parma, wines from specific wine regions, the list goes on.  And while pesto doesn't necessarily have to come from Liguria, you'd think it would in the very least have Italian ingredients, and not some peanut pickin' pot-pourri from America's deep south.

So, how to handle this pesto imposter?  At the tiny corner deli shops, you can still buy the stuff fresh, but, going forward, I'm still going to ask for the ingredients.  And, if you're a traveler to Italy and happen to have a serious peanut allergy, I would just avoid the pesto altogether.  Unless you're sure they're making it themselves, there's no way to tell...perhaps until it's too late.

In the meantime, strike up the call, produce a viral video, do what you can, in order that PESTO, Ligurian Green Gold, stays true to its colors.

Saturday, August 11

Chrysler-FIAT...the real debacle

Most Italians cringe - and many expats just hold their tongues - when hearing Americans butcher cappuccino (CUP-oo-cheeno not CAP-a-cheeno), gnocchi (NYO-KEY, not GA-knock-ee), cringing all the more when they see their guests order that cappuccino after their rich gnocchi alla sorrentina dinner.  And, I've seen plenty of blogs and articles around the web discussing fun words of the day, Italian expressions which tickle us pink, and other such word plays.  But today, I'd like to go back a few steps.  To basic pronunciation.  Of basic names.

Try saying this out loud:  STEPHANIE
Granted, it's probably an outdated name, in a new world of Gen-Ys of Isabellas, Morgans, Tylers, and what have you.
But, try saying it anyway.
That's right, you got it.  STEH-fa-knee

Now, take a deep breath, and say this:  STEFANO
No, it's not steh-FAH-no.
It's - incredible but true - just like Stephanie, above.  But the word is STEH-fa-no.

So, why is it, that anyone with that name, upon meeting any English speaker, never gets to hear their name pronounced correctly?
Which leads me to FIAT & Chrysler, and the man behind the driving wheel, Mr. Marchionne.
Love him or hate him (and in certain quarters he's about as controversial as Berlusconi or Barack Obama as they come)...
And, despite the fact that he's actually Canadian, no one in his English-speaking realm of influence can pronounce his name correctly.

Me, like everyone else, pure and simply call him:  Mr. Marchioni.
Maybe it comes from maccaroni, I don't know.  But, that's his name.  And, whenever I'm engaged in heated debate with Italians over the future of FIAT (after all, I am a Detroiter)...I'm always stopped in mid-argument to get the name down correctly, before the quibble can go any further down the toilet.

So, repeat after me:  mar-key-OHN-Nay
And, although his first name isn't Stefano (did you say it right?! That was a test) it's Sergio.  Not Sir-joe, but Sayr-joe.

So, for future reference, please forward this post to the news media outlet of your choice.  
Because it's making the Italians crazy.

Tuesday, August 7

Italy's Post Office: a new service or a scam?

Having just recently reported about the new scams hitting up drivers in Italy, I thought I'd do my best Agatha Christie impersonation and uncover another trick which I am quite sure, in these difficult economic times, is actually a scam.  This one must be a fraud since it advertises new and improved services by Italy's Poste Italiane.  But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  It might not be a scam after all, I'll let you readers decide:

Plastered all around my neighborhood, and sometimes further afield, were these bright yellow, attention-getting makeshift posters.  Crowned with a downloaded logo of Poste Italiane, they caught my attention for a few reasons.  First off, I couldn't understand why the post office would be advertising their services on phone booths and trees and garbage canisters when they love to produce brochures of every shape, size and color and inundate your mailbox - seeing that they have your address and that of every other person in the entire country [could it be because the mail carriers can't be trusted to actually deliver the flyers?]  Secondly, I couldn't for the life of me, imagine why they wanted to introduce a service that requires total strangers to enter your home -- especially for the elderly, victims time and again of nefarious petty criminals, who go in and convince old folks to hand over oodles of money, sometimes drugging them in the process.  And third, why on earth would you launch a service for homes right when everyone was leaving them for the entire month of August, never to remember that this service even exists after three weeks frying their bodies and their brains at the beach.

The Posters Read:  From now on, you can pay your bills
in the comfort of your home
All you need is a credit card and then contact any of our
reps for your zone at the numbers below
Giving Poste Italiane the benefit of the doubt, I decided to simply see if this were true.  If so, it still behooved me to think that they would want to promote a service like this, when every other utility and phone company in town was busy plastering announcements with every bill shouting out that No one will ever come to your home to collect payment of any kind -- in a last ditch attempt to convince the elderly not to be so trusting.  
So off I went to my local post office, the central one in Rome's City Center, and its huge distribution hub near the Pyramid just to see if I could find some information on this new fab service.  Nothing.  No flyers, no one knew a thing.  Again, in marketing-challenged Italy, this doesn't necessarily mean that another office somewhere didn't launch the service without telling the rest of the people.  Internal communications is a rare commodity around these parts.
Online, I went to the source:  The Post Office website, looking for info on the new home-based service.  Nothing was posted, no announcement, no news, and, after a gazillion clicks, I couldn't find a whole lot.  I reiterate, that does not signify that the service is not legit.  It's August.  The web guy is probably on vacation.  I did come across a Poste Italiane web TV channel on youtube (and now we wonder why they run such huge losses -- like I want to watch programs about the post office...of course, I can always look at postal programs instead of looking at my mail which never shows up.)  There, they promote the service but say you can only pay a certain type of bill with only a postal debit card.  Not any card, anytime.
Finally, I decided to check and see whose number that last one, supposedly ringing over at an office, belonged to.  I didn't call it, because I figured they were just waiting for people to invite strangers into the home.  According to the Italian white pages, it was an unlisted number.  Calling it, it just rings before cutting you off, but this, too, is a common occurrence for most public service establishments.
At this point, if I am to believe that the postal service is a legitimate one (in fact, they provide a toll free number to call, not posted on the posters like the ones above), I take Poste Italiane to task and ask, in this day and age of cloning credit cards, why they would attempt such a service which opens up the entire country to thieves.   In addition, with so many elderly without credit cards, I could just hear even an honest employee say, "Well, okay, you can pay me in cash."  You would never be the wiser until your next bill comes due months later, and then, as usual, it'd be your word against theirs.

If instead, it's a scam, I'd be interested in knowing about the posting of all these cellphone numbers.  Do they belong to the same person?  Did they just want to try their luck at scamming a few dozen people, cloning the cards and then, the numbers would be discontinued as soon as they got enough cards in their hands?  Hard to tell.  

But either way, scam or not, somebody needs a crash course in marketing right away.

Saturday, August 4

Dog Days of Summer III

Please...don't leave me behind...Take me with you.

This weekend, millions of families are hitting the roads for their summer holidays, and hundreds of thousands of dogs are hitting the pavements.  They may start off their journey in the family car, only to find themselves left at the side of a road and, after a lifetime of finding food in a bowl each day, fending for themselves before finding themselves at the front of a car fender.  Due to budget cuts and a lack of sensitivity by certain governments to the problem, year by year the adverts are disappearing, almost as fast as your neighbor's pets.  
For more articles on this very Southern European phenomenon (France, Greece, and Spain are in on it too), which I understand in economically challenged America is a growing one, too, click on the links below.  
And, enjoy your holidays -- along with your pets.  Most places in Italy accept them. 

Some Pet-Friendly Resources for holidays with Fido