Monday, August 26

What's the world coming to? The Anti-Bronze Age

Years from now, when archeologists are sifting through the detritus of our era, they'll collectively scratch their heads; trying to determine when, exactly, it was that homo sapiens started using all those tools they had worked out to their favor - to unravel civilization as they had known it. By way of example, there are a couple of 'indicators' - which seem to stand out for their malfeasance, adding to the proof of such a civilization taking root in these trying times, at least in my corner of the world.
First off, we hear almost daily reports of trains being stopped in their tracks provoking huge delays for passengers and cargo due to the wanton theft of copper wiring along the rails.  It would appear that people are stealing the wires for resale on a mass scale, causing thousands in damages for Italy's train company.  And in the one instance in which I feel sorry for the totally fallible FS, the problem is so rampant, my suggestion would be to post police near the copper shops to question those that bring in lengths of wire that they suddenly don't know how they came across.  I suppose running CCTV cameras the length of Italy would be out of the question, but imagine the kick-back you could redeem if you so desired to try this fix. 
Closer to home, there are the trials and tribulations of the lovely monument in my piazza, for which I harbor a serious soft spot.  And even though Rome the Second Time bloggers listed it as one of the nominees in their post of 'Rome's ugliest monuments' [clearly missing the horrendous thing up the road, which you can read about here], they did remark that it has some nice qualities to it.
May the wheels of Resistance be constantly churning
 picture by bloggers Rome the Second Time
I lauded it in one of my earliest posts from way back in 2007, when I (tried to) attend the inauguration of the charming piazza they worked so hard to install, which, to this day, invites old people on park benches by day, and groups of teens by night; adding to the fabric of the neighborhood. I went back to it again, when the promises of those lofty speeches made in the piazza came to naught and again, when the President of the Municipio made good, eventually and the piazza finally was cleaned.  Through thick and thin, the monument has stood - sadly, not unscathed.  After all, those bored teens mock it up with graffiti, add to the (intentional) dents, and take their energies out on it, just because (I consider us lucky: that's a whole lot better than American teens, who take potshots instead at innocent passers-by).  To the City's defense, I have seen restorers working there repeatedly, trying their best - against the odds of teenage rebellion (post-pasta served up hot each night at 8pm) - to keep the monument largely graffiti-free, and maintain its status as a work of art that commands respect.
But this summer of discontent was too much, even for our sturdy monument.  And, this is how it appears today:
Note: Nearly all the metal has been taken from one side causing the frame
to fall in & the baskets have been wrenched away from the frame

I haven't determined whether this act of vandalism was pure malice (but if so, remnants of the destruction would have been left behind), or if someone, like with the train tracks, has decided it was a great source of metal. Either way, this sort of destruction is unconscionable, whether you think the monument is one of Rome's ugliest - or not.

Wednesday, August 21

Business Weak...Italy's Trains, Planes, & Automobiles

I've read all those Economic posts. Italy's economy is weak because of poor institutional environment, labor market problems and finances.  And while I could say that the most solid institution being the Mafia is going great guns (a concern estimated at $80 billion in revenues - of course, they don't pay taxes, but heck, neither does Silvio's Mediaset), I'd like to venture forth with an entirely different take on the matter.
Italy's economy is the 10th largest on God's Green Earth, no. 5 in the Euro Zone.
Although stagnating since oh, about 1992 (funny, since I got here), and with a Debt to GDP ratio over 100%, I love to fantasize what I'd do if I were Minister of Finance (That's where the Trains come into this post as in Train Wreck).  In my wildest dreams, I would propose a two-pronged economic formula:
1) Flexible hours & ability to have sales would boost the economy three-fold.  In my neighborhood, I can't bring clothes to the dry cleaners on a Saturday. Talk about pent-up demand. I hand-wash instead.  Now, they've tried the liberation of store hours in Rome.  Thousands of businesses closed anyway, because retailers all teamed up and decided NOT to open at lunchtimes and on their "off" days (don't ask), and on Mondays and weekends [that's due to the labor costs].
But, take a look around you.  Those business-savvy Bangladeshi guys are open morning - noon - and night.  And I'm sure by now more than a few of them have returned home very wealthy men.  Every day another Italian shop closes only to be re-opened by the Chinese trinket guys or the green market Bangladeshi.
2) Employ True Customer Service.  No, not the gals & guys working the phone lines that cannot for the life of them go off a one-word script of "NO!", but real customer service.  I'm convinced that people don't buy things anymore knowing that nothing will come of it if something goes wrong.  When everyone is cynically ripped off, they become cynical shoppers.  I, for one, would prefer to order by mail everything - even trusting that it will arrive thru that true customer service provider, The Italian Postal System.  This worked fine until the Italian govt caught up with us, and levied an automatic 21% sales tax on everything we were bringing into the country.  I started a courier service thru friends worthy of a Colombian drug lord.
Need more proof?
- The vacuum repairman convinces you you need a new motor. Still doesn't work & then tells you you have a 'new' issue and, of course, he 'never would have changed the motor if it hadn't needed it in the first place.'
- Your electricity bills are inflated or your phone co. overcharges and then charges you $1.50/minute - putting you on hold for over 28 minutes - just to tell you that they can't help you.
- Or, in my recent spat with SIXT CAR RENTAL, who charged me a nominal 25 euro above & beyond my confirmed cost on the car, ignoring my a) proof of rental agreement b) my email requests and c) their very own Customer Service line, which, to their credit was at least a free call. To get an answer, an accommodating gentleman in the UK office working the twitter lines is helping me resolve the matter.
-  When I was given the wrong battery for my car, the shop guys refused to exchange it.  I contacted Bosch headquarters in Germany, and was given a VIP treatment - on a Saturday no less - by their head tech guy in Rome as if I were Mrs. Mercedes herself.
- When my router didn't work, I tried everything.  I was told to pay about $100 for a technician to come and 'see' what the problem was, when the entire time I insisted it was because I own a mac [The Apple guys / the Telecoms guys and the router guys all said "That had nothing to do with it."]  I finally contacted the Tech guys at D-Link Australia who finally sorted me out giving me the correct codes over the phone (a 25 cent phone call).
Must one really resort to going to the UK or Germany or - gasp! - Australia to get some requisite customer service?  In the Capital City of the 10th largest economy on earth?  People have stopped partaking in the process because they think it's futile. Why pipe up about the trash or the gypsies or the graffiti or the roads or whatever when you know nothing will be done?  You simply shrug your shoulders and move on.
Product picture
From Premier Portfolio

Ahhh...but I mentioned planes.  On the flip side, I purchased a tiny model plane of this snazzy Virgin Atlantic Boeing jet at WH SMITH in Luton Airport (London).  It was on sale.  Back home, I discovered why that was. It was missing the body and the fuselage, along with it's cute little stand.  I didn't contact WHSmith because I didn't really want a refund, just another plane body (I was now the proud owner of the wings & tail fins).  So, I contacted the suppliers on the package, Premier Portfolio instead.  And without even having submitted my sales receipt and photos of the missing airplane body, within about 3 hours I received a return email:  Sorry to hear that you have had problems with our Scale Model Plane.  A replacement will be sent today via standard Airmail.  Apologies for any inconvenience caused.  Kind regards, 

I teared up.  Truly.  With this kind of service Italy would set the world on fire.  But first, I just need to make sure the customs officials don't charge me 21% tax and service charges on top of it.   

Sunday, August 18

Et tu Brute? Italian names & their creative origins

Every so often someone brings up the conundrum of the Chinese population and that notwithstanding billions of people on the planet, almost all of them share something like the same 25 last names.  I'm not sure if they have White Pages phone books there, but, it would seem to me that'd they be a terrific waste of time consulting.  Back in Italy, many of us get a big kick instead of the variation in last names you may come across - the total numbering over 300.000.  I have penned a whole post of some of my favorites here.
But, I've since come across a brilliant book (sorry, in Italian) by Enzo Caffarelli entitled, Tell me your name & I'll tell you Why that is [Dimmi come ti chiami e ti dirò perché].  This urban anthropologist has painstakingly mapped out most of the last names found throughout the country and their curious (or far more banal) origins.  He even takes on some of my favorites.  Here's a brief recap: [note: my info comes from an exceptional write-up by - no jest here - Paolo Di Paolo in Il Messaggero but unfortunately, the article - like most of their news - is not easily accessible thru search engines.]
Picture from Giò Magazine
- Who'd have thunk it that Rossi - the most common name in Italy - stems from the red-haired & most likely freckled skin of the person who bore it?  Talk about adding insult to injury: In Italy, red-heads are already thought to be off their rocker.
- Some names [and I find it interesting that the Italian cognome = last name comes from the Latin for nickname] showed just how thrilled the new parents were in the arrival of another mouth to feed:  Malavolta - Aggravio - Maldonato - Nontivoglio (this last name meaning, I don't want you just in case there was any further debate).
- If you ended up with a bit of a lousy last name like Suino or Lardo (Swine - Lard), you can rest easy knowing that they were just shortened versions of other names like Ansuino or Ilardo.  Why in the world that happened is again anyone's guess.
- Some names like my favorites, Bevilacqua or Mangipane are action verbs (DrinkWater or EatBread) while others, like Grillo or Leone come from the animal world.  Still others, like Gambarotta or Zoppi (Brokenleg - Limp) note physical attributes.
Running down the list, it's no wonder that Italy, made it almost impossible to change your name.  Authorities were most likely worried that names would take a turn for the worse.  There was a case in which the parents, clearly fans of the Addams' Family, were not allowed by the courts to call their baby Venerdì - Friday.  I wonder what they would have said to Gwyneth Paltrow and baby Mela.
Greco, Romano, Russo, Messina, Ferrari...It's not hard to guess where these stem from.  Regardless, I guess I'll have to read the book to find out how those rare redheads came to have the most common name in Italy; perhaps instead of being nutty, they had highly fertile nuts; thus the personal slurs...And as for China? Well, Hu has made the list of the most popular first names here.

More hilarious Italian last names - Click Here

other sources:
The most popular names in Italy as reported by the White Pages [tho' this can no longer be a trusted source since most people no longer have land lines and no one uses the White Pages anymore...] CLICK HERE
Map of Italian last names 
Link to book

Sunday, August 11

Dog Days of Summer II

Most Italians take the traditional month of August off for summer holidays -- It's all part of our Quality of Life that we've come to know and love.  But for our furry friends, summer doesn't go so well.  I reprise a mix of my usual August entries below.  I hope the day will come when I won't have to post it.  

Today marks the Official First Day of Summer for most Italians. It marks the day in which shutters go down, ‘closed for vacation’ signs go up, and streets go empty for the entire month. But it also marks the day in which over 300,000 dogs (600,000 by new estimates), sitting on death row, can no longer count on having their death sentences commuted just one more season. They didn’t know it, but since being given as gifts at Christmas, they’ve been living on merely borrowed time.

As a dog-owner, I find Italy to be the most dog-friendly country on earth; after all, they’re accepted in restaurants, stores, hotels, taxis, heck—I even took my little Trevor to concerts and Museums!  Each October 4th, in honour of St. Francis, churches hold special masses for your animals—in attendance.
But in what is one of the many contradictions of this wonderful place, when surf’s up, and the days grow long, well, Italians figure that it’s a good time to dump their best friend at the side of the road, hoping he’ll get ‘picked up’.  He usually does—by the front bumper of an SUV going 95 miles an hour.

The Italians (and they do not have the corner on this barbarian trait, as the problem is rampant throughout the Mediterranean), simply don’t consider animals as ‘pets’. They are beasts-- and no amount of unconditional love, company and dedication will change the fact that they can be disposed of as an empty pack of cigarettes--tossed carelessly out a car window.

While many of us animal lovers fret over the annual great dog massacre, some activists and City officials thankfully try to do something about it. Usually, by putting up poignant posters showing sad little doggies abandoned to meet their fate. This year, however, dogs got hit twice: no ad campaign was launched in Rome, and I fear elsewhere as well -- so dogs go abandoned due to the crisis & abandoned by those who might have helped sensitize the public to their plight.

Of course, they're hit a third time: when chained to lamp posts or criss-crossing major highways, before they starve to death or are mercifully hit.  Each year, abandoned dogs cause nearly 7000 roadway deaths (to humans) as cars swerve to avoid them. Wouldn't that have an impact on the rest of us?

As for me, August usually means running across motley packs of newly wild dogs: Poodles, golden retrievers, Dobermans, Beagles and every other mix of breed in between…it’s almost a charming scene right out of 101 Dalmatians, except for one thing: they don’t get saved in the end.

In 2009, controversial photographer Oliviero Toscani (from Benetton fame), 
brought his talent into the never-ending annual campaign.  
What race (breed) are you? Human or Inhuman?

The subtitle reads: 
Leave me with a friend, a relative, at the pound, in a kennel, 
but don't leave me on the side of a road. Abandoning a dog is a crime.

Please share this post.  This year, I did not see the usual ad campaigns anywhere - in a last-ditch effort to protect Man's Best Friend.

Sunday, August 4

You say croissant, I say cornetto

Every morning in Italy, millions of paesani head weary-eyed over to their favorite bar for their morning cup of espresso or cappuccino and their choice of bread-item to go along with it.  Any innocent bystander will hear the routine request made to the barista or cashier madly ringing up the sales throughout the morning rush, only to be bombarded again at around the 10am coffee break.  And what they ask for is ‘A caffè & a brioche.’  If you take the time to notice, what they get served on the other hand, is a tidy twisted version of an actual brioche, much to the dismay of the French who are quite particular about their vernacular getting bastardized in any way, shape or form; they receive the conical croissant, around some parts also more aptly called the cornetto or cornet.
Picture from
While on holiday in the Piedmont mountains, nestled just a few kilometers from the French border, well, they took the original brioche and made it even better: stuffing it with creamy gelato, three flavors take your pick.  But the picture on the poster actually showed the real McCoy (or perhaps in this case, The Macaron...) a real brioche with its button top.  
In Sicily, it's served up with lemon granita, just like this
picture from Non Solo Pizza &
I’m not sure when it was, exactly, when brioches in the rest of the Peninsula morphed into croissants.  With the close ties between France and Italy, when they weren’t fighting wars, well, you’d be forgiven for thinking that many more words should have French roots and not just in Italy’s northern Valle d’Aosta. 

I mean, it’d be like calling the stupendous Spätzle that you find trickling down from Austria into the Trentino region, not gnocchi (their sister food), but goulash -- made from a wholly different pasta-item hailing from Austria, if they so much as had one to offer.

Clearly, the pudgy brioche didn’t have an entire food association bestowing it with DOC labels and seals of approval to keep its lable pure and its branding unblemished like the prosciutto or parmigiano lobbies.  Nonetheless, I wonder what the folks over at Slow Food have to say on the matter.