Monday, March 25

Train Travel in Italy: Riding back in time

I recently took the cool, cozy GoldenPass Classic train up into the Swiss Alps.  It was superb.  The huge (clean) windows, the 1940s dining car, the scenery...It was a blissful trip into the past while riding up into the clouds.  Anyone who has followed my blog or read my tweets knows that I love to hate the Italian train company. So much so, I’m expecting defamation papers being served at any moment.  And while they still have a way to go before they understand that web design is actually a profession, and not something you leave to your lover’s young son, I had a few laughs swapping stories with a cousin of mine over how far we have truly come in terms of train transport.
[Let me make a disclaimer upfront:  America absolutely sucks when it comes to train travel, their collective thrust of Amtrack under a Greyhound bus is both a disgrace and a tragedy from which we perhaps will never recover. So, by comparison, any country that can take you from a small town to a major metropolis in almost no time at all, and fairly inexpensively at that, is by my standards making magic.  It’s just that I travel often to Switzerland.  And when I come back to Italy, I almost always feel well, not like Dorothy returning from Oz, but a bit more like the Wicked Witch who got the house dropped upon her].
My cousin and I were reminiscing about our trips from Milano down south, just 20 years or so ago, by train. Sure, they cost a fraction of today’s prices, but we would be situated in cattle class.  Going home for the holidays meant standing in a crowded entranceway with a dozen or more other people, three-quarters smokers, or sitting on your luggage while all the other smokers on board made their way into your crawl space to cop a smoke when they didn’t just light up in the carriages themselves.  Hundreds more per train car were crowded in the aisles, again sitting atop of luggage, or on little collapsible seats.  When a conductor or the beverage cart had to pass, it was like whack-a-mole with seats and bodies popping up and down, luggage moved aside; as if we were participating in a musical chair marathon, only that there were no chairs to sit down upon. 
And that was because the compartments, made for six, when they didn’t carry entire families and luggage filled with every sort of amenity and gift imaginable, carried two people -- stretched across the seats as if a couple of bizarre modern-day emperors on cushiony litters.  If you dared knock and ask them to make room, they would hiss that they had reserved those seats [if they were polite].  And in actual fact, they had. 
TrenItalia - (then known as Ferrovie dello Stato - one of the many names their website still defaults to although no one on God’s green earth can actually type ‘Ferrovie’ let alone search it on Google) would allow people to reserve a zillion places, even though they only purchased one ticket.  The conductor refused to intervene in the skirmishes emanating along the 20 odd cars.  So there you were, standing all night long on an 11 hr train trip just to get to Rome for the holidays. 
Salerno further south was a 15 hr ordeal that not even sardines are put through on their way into their proverbial cans and I’ve since deleted from my memory banks all recollection of the heinous trips taken from Milan to Sicily in a combination of trains and all-night ferry boats, no cabins available for the ill-prepared.  [Although I must admit, the inconvenience made for a wonderful adventure usually having to do with long animated conversations, singing on deck, and brief flirtations--sleep is overrated anyway.]
On the bright side, you could take a train from the tiniest little town to pretty much anywhere on earth. And sometimes, you still can.   Although that prospect found you, like Spike, waiting for some sign of movement that wasn't a freight train passing at full speed in the middle of nowhere, your sights planted firmly on the horizon in the hopes that one might just show up before nightfall.
In short, today's three hour sprint - even with the standard delays - from Milan to Rome is a joyful breeze.  It almost makes you forget that you arrived sweaty up to the tracks due to lack of working escalators, or without a wallet given the pickpockets loitering behind you at the ticket machines.  But with their imposed ‘no standing room policy’ at least once aboard you’ll be sure to get a seat.  

You can find many more train insights on the TRAVEL TIPS section of my blog
and for a rundown of the EUROSTAR experience  Click Here
Rome's Airport Train Odyssey Here
and my quick review of the spanking new cool kid on the block, ItaloTreno

Sunday, March 17

Goodbye and Good Luck - An Italian Journalist Bids Farewell to Italy

I came across this heartfelt 'exit interview' posted by a freelance reporter who decided to write a farewell letter to Italy.  With each and every day, people---young, talented, and more importantly, with a burning desire to 'do something' with their lives; prove themselves or just make a buck are moving out of their beloved Italy and on to greener pastures. One that's ripe with opportunities, and more importantly, paychecks.  Sadly, her story could be about any profession.
You can find her original post in Italian here:

Twenty years rising through the ranks, because you never finish attempting the peak in a world of notepads and tape recorders. Twenty years in which you come to the realization that each day that passes your condition is ever more aggrieved.  Because journalism is a disease that gets worse with time, that corrodes your soul, that doesn’t let you sleep at night. 
When the Libyan crisis hit, I tossed and turned for hours. Unable to get any shut-eye, I had to just get up and go.  In the name of that passion that burns inside--that makes you feel that every piece of news you don’t go and see for yourself is a lost piece of print.
I left for Tunisia to follow the Libyan conflict from a different perspective. There, I became specialized in Defense and Armed Forces, touring from one theater of war to another, often reporting alongside dyed-in-the-wool reporters.  I found out firsthand that I had what it took: “A purebred on whom no one would ever have placed a bet,” reiterated a good friend and war correspondent-the first colleague to ever have faith in me.  I found myself on the front page while at the front. For 50 euro an article, even from Afghanistan, even from worse places.  Or free.  Because some papers just couldn’t even pay that.  Because it’s come to this; between the newspaper crisis and a ‘system’ run by huge interests that they don’t dare to break.
I’m nearly 40 years old and a freelancer. At times I was kept on low-paid forced leave, followed by unpaid unemployment.  When I do get paid, I get paid after 6 months.  This part I’ve never even mentioned, but I believe it’s the right thing to do, especially as a monition to young people venturing forth to start a career as a journalist.  But also for those who believe that journalists are ugly, mean-spirited and ultra-paid; for those who see reporters as someone who sits at a desk and writes stories thanks to the news agencies.  I for one have always gotten my butt off my chair and gone off to touch things with my very own hand, to verify what was happening.  I’ve suffered, I’ve sweat blood for my job, am I’m still here, despite everything.
My lexicon now serves to report that after so many years, I’ve decided to take the only option open to me: emigration.  Because in Italy, there’s the economic crisis, because politicians sue you regularly for libel [I myself have two open lawsuits, one with Gianfranco Fini (former President of the House of Reps) and Enrico Rossi--maybe they’ll be so thrilled to see their names here that they’ll sue me again]; because in Italy, only the mediocre get ahead, or the ones with 'recommendations' from high up, or those who ‘report’ without ever leaving their desks, or, as I’ve seen awhile back, reporters like those from Corriere della Sera who arrive accompanied by chauffeured limousine, or those who like to think of themselves as A-list reporters just because they’re officially hired or others from the 'privileged class' because their salaries get them invited to every single opening or event, while we poor freelancers only make the cut every so often and even then, we still must pay our own fares.
As of today, I say Basta! (Enough already!) and I’ve decided to emigrate.  I’ll keep reporting and writing in English, seeing that no one wants Italian from me.  Because writing in Italian no longer pays the bills.  So, “Goodbye and Good Luck.” This, for all of you who are true journalists, to those who suffer yet never give up, to those who write for their life’s purpose.   
To everyone else, I say, change jobs.  Or follow my lead.  Because Italy is buona - but only for its pasta.
- Chiara Giannini

Wednesday, March 13

Wow! Genova's New Science Center uses its Brain

This last week I attended the inauguration* of a new, awesome attraction in Italy in a place that already brings millions of visitors to wind their tiny medieval streets: Wow! Genova's Science Expo Center a place where kids of all ages can explore their world. The opening took place in a gorgeous refab warehouse in the Porto Antico [Ancient Port], just a meatball's throw from the terrific Aquarium.  Revamped years ago, the Porto Antico now includes other fun venues including a new museum, MuMa, a pirate ship & submarine, an outdoor ice rink and even a spanking new Eataly
Due south, along the same coast and in the same week, we all bore witness to the devastating fire that reduced the Naples Science Center [Città di Scienza] to ashes.  I often remark that Italy is nothing if not a country of contradictions; These two events revealed just how brutal two sides of the same coin can actually be.  Both committees knew full-well that a science center can inspire, thrill or even challenge people of all ages [like me trying to figure out how actually to see the 3D optical illusions at Brain]. The burning down of Naples, like the burning of Venice's La Fenice opera house or the bombing of San Giovanni Basilica in Rome is as tragic as the Taliban's taking out those Buddhas of Bamiyan.
- Picture from La -
But stepping off the expansive promenade of the old port of Genova and into the Wow! complex, reminded me just what it is that the politicians in Italy have long forgotten: The extent of the talent and unbridled potential of so many of its citizens, the brains, capacity and audacity of so many, and how incredible things would be in Italy, if the feudal lords would just get their greasy palms, hand-outs and abject mediocrity out of the way.  It can be done: just take a look at Italy's fashion houses from Armani to Benetton, to Ferraro, Illy Caffè or Luxottica that are the envy of the world.  These companies prove that when Italians are left to their own devices without the interference of the political class, well, Wow! 
Come to think of it, almost every struggling company from Alitalia, FIAT, to the big utilities & defense contractors, from the Post Office to the plethora of City "services", even the oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi, once the personal piggy bank of the Medicis (and we've seen all the politicians thereafter), are all bastions of political patronage, payoffs and nepotism in the extreme.  Political hacks consider these and smaller off-shoots for their own personal festivities where one plays a backwards musical chairs--the chairs just keep getting added; not for hard-working, honest employees, but for an army of unqualified yes-men (and they're all men), lovers, relatives and incapable friends.  Filling up fake companies and real ones in exchange for votes, inexperienced mediocre cretins pretend to do managerial jobs while the guys at the top siphon the public funds.  The higher up you go, the more place holders (prestanomi) you'll find.  Million euro stipends are the order of the day, to keep the palms greased and the currency pushed into envelopes.  Middle managers and workers barely eke out a living with their meagre pay--and it is only thanks to them (and the legions of slave workers) that keeps the company afloat at all.  
Back in Genova, I had originally pitched the idea for a science center to an astute businessman.  He in turn, cobbled together more private business people to consider the concept.  We went to the Port Authority to check out the space.  It was perfect.  A contract could be signed.  The only delay was when the City, finding themselves slightly sidelined, lobbied a few faux regulations their way--the equivalent of making sure they had stables for unicorns handy, just in case one turns up.  Once again, instead of rejoicing the new tenants of a half-abandoned building, new life and new money for the City coffers, the civil servants did what they could to first foil the deal.  Thankfully, they have seen the light.  
It reminded me of the building of The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.  Multi-billionaire Adelson showed up in Merano with bucketfuls of cash and took back home marble specialists, architects, even buying up an exclusive textile company so his hotel would have a real Venetian feel in their fabrics.  Venice Mayor Cacciari was apoplectic.  How could this rich, obnoxious American just come here and buy up our artisans?  And not ask for our blessing first?  How could he refuse to pay homage first with the Doge himself?  He tried suing Adelson for patent infringement of the image of Venice.  He was made a laughing stock when the Mayor of Paris, darting across the Atlantic to the opening of Paris Paris for the ribbon cutting, chimed in that it was an honor to see the Eiffel Tower recreated in Sin City.  And we all know what the Parisians think of Americans.  Adelson laughed all the way to the bank.
Regardless, from that first meeting in August 2011, the Science Center was opened in record time, by anyone's standards.  Wow! had gone into high speed, awarding contracts to capable architects, graphics firms, ad agencies, technicians and suppliers of every color.  Compare this with the re-opening of the State Museum, the Borghese Gallery in the '90s.  Fourteen years under "restoration" under various Ministers until Walter Veltroni, then Minister of Culture said, Basta!  He picked a date and it opened to the public to great acclaim. say...but he is a politician!  So effective was he, his party threw him out.
Wow! opened like clockwork--and opening up with it, jobs to a group of exceptional young people, all college graduates, each and every one oozing passion for science from every pore.  Families, school kids, the city itself will all reap the benefits of our work there.  And who knows?  Perhaps one day one child will become the next Rita Levi-Montalcini or Marisa Bellisario The surrounding attractions will benefit as well, as will the gorgeous palaces, museums, and other cultural events that Genova offers on a regular basis.  It is no accident that Genova was voted European Capital of Culture back in 2004.
As I like to quip, having long ago co-opted someone's piquant quote, Italy works despite its government, not because of it.  If we could only get the politicians to keep their noses (and their grubby hands) out of private enterprise, we could truly light this country on fire.

* [Full disclosure-I represent the opening exhibition and I refuse to refer to Genoa, Turin & Milan as cities in Italy-and have a hard time using Florence as well].

Friday, March 8

A Horse of a Different Color

The lastest craze driven by the media to make us all crazy is the “scandal” of - gasp! Horrors of horrors! - finding horsemeat in pretty much every meat and meat-related item in and around Europe.  You would think they found, oh, I don’t know lead in baby and pet food from China.  I am a horse aficionado, I (try, at least to) ride them, and on my palette of palatable plates, horse meat is right up there alongside cow tongue, tripe and on most occasions, Thumper (except when hiking in the Alps and served with polenta).  So, the question on everyone's lips, if not in their mouths is, “Where’s the beef?!” 

I thought the media-driven fear fomenting the public outcry was sort of strange in a place (and by this I mean all of Europe, east, west, and central) that regularly offers up horse meat on menus and in the meat aisle of your local grocers.  I am assuming that people were upset to learn about horses in their stew for a number of reasons, foremost being the labeling.  I imagine it’s because many people, like me, just don’t fancy equine meat as something they feel like sending into their digestive tracts unwittingly and on a daily basis.  If they are going to consume it, they want to know upfront that it is the side of a nice stallion they were sinking their teeth into.  Like Martini&Rossi, people who regularly nosh on Nellie have to ask for it by name, starting with Whoa!
The greater scandal as I see it has everything to do with the food processors, who seem - if you are to trust the reporters - to assume the Lipizzan stance: frozen in mid-prance and caught totally by surprise.
As cute & innocent as it looks, I don’t buy it for a minute.  A collective - “Whoops! How could such a thing have happened?”  As if their in-house butcher can’t tell the difference between a cow carcass and a horse one when they offload them at the factory.  Not to mention that State officials routinely run tests on all manner of food products -- We are lead to believe that there was a sudden overrun of horses so processors decided to cull the stocks and use them for meat filler?  In the last week or so?  I don’t think so.  Like a pedophile or philanderer, if they’ve been caught this once generally means they’ve been at it for a whole heckuva lot longer.

In the very least, if this stinky spate of horseshit makes for better labeling, then great.  I, for one, only hope that people stop their steeple-chase of purchasing pre-fab sauces, meatballs, ragù and other processed products that they just don’t need in their kitchens.  Unless, of course, they need to feed an army of people as hungry as horses.  

*many live links in text above