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? 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, 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.