Wednesday, December 24

Away from the Manger-Christmas Eve in Italy

Christmas Eve is the night Italians often celebrate the birth of the little baby Jesus. This event is quite significant, especially if you are to judge by their crèche or manger scenes; something we Americans can only remember with nostalgia of days of yore.
But you see, Italians are nothing if not highly literal people; especially given their long history of language, discourse and oratory, starting with Latin and Lord knows what languages even before. And so it is with their manger scenes.
When I first came to Italy, I thought all those presepe showing an old Giuseppe and his young wife looking fondly down on a heap of hay, standard issue donkey, sheep and even the Three Kings in the distance, was simply yet another indication of Italians' poor planning: Someone clearly had forgotten the Baby Jesus!!!
Who stole Baby Jesus?picture from
After seeing this a few more times, I thought: 'Okay, who stole the Baby Jesus?!!'
But then, I finally figured it out: This is a country in which article after article, conversation after conversation, they feel the need to warn you prior to making a joke or a cynical statement, just in case the meaning is lost on you - so you don't take it literally.  [I always envision this practice much like the Robot in Lost in Space: “Danger! Guglielmo Robinson! Giovanni said, with a note of irony…”] In Italy, unless forewarned, and if no hidden meaning is implied, they take the sentence for what it is fully worth.
And so, little Baby Jesus never shows up on the manger scene until the stroke of midnight. Although, in their search for authenticity, something is always a bit amiss. You will always find him looking more like an 18 month old, than a cone-headed red-faced newborn; bright-eyed and chubby on Christmas morn.
Incredibly, to add to the veracity of the scene, I have only recently discovered that those three kings, though smaller in size, to represent distance, actually creep up day by day, until January 6th (the Epiphany, for you pagans out there) when they bestow their gifts on the Baby Jesus.
What I don’t get in all of this figurative placement is why, then, they don’t swap a very pregnant Mary for a less pregnant mamma (and perhaps decidedly exhausted one due to labor pains whilst riding a donkey) the next day, too. I guess they don't take it that literally, after all.

Buon Natale a Tutti!

F. Maggi @IrreverentItaly
(decidedly not Magi, like those three wise men!)

Saturday, December 6

Italian Fashion: Dressed to the Nines

Lately, I've been giving a lot of thought to what's changed in Italy - for better or for worse - since I first landed over twenty years ago. Sometimes, it's hard to say if anything truly is worse (although Italians & economists from all corners say it is).  Perhaps I simply hadn't noticed issues when I was younger and too busy traveling for both business or pleasure.  
With these thoughts constantly ferreting through my mind, I got a chuckle from a certain Dory on Twitter - when she posted @DFindingDory:
some bitch: omg you wore that shirt the other day me: yeah well in my house we have this amazing thing called a washing machine

It reminded me growing up in the U.S., you could never be caught dead wearing the same clothes two days in a row.  I swear in U.S. corporations it is still cause for dismissal.  So when I first arrived in Italy, I would be stunned to see those impressive men and women impeccably dressed, right down to magnetic blue high heels to match their acquamarine tailleur. I am still in awe whenever I see that mix. They were memorable.
So much so, that I believe large part of the rage against FIAT head Sergio is less about moving his profits to Holland and closing factories than his insistence on wearing sweaters instead of the mandatory stunning Armani business attire of his fellow countrymen.
Coming from the country that invented "leisure suits" - "sweat suits" and "casual Fridays, you'd face your coworkers, duly impressed.  But then, waltzing into the office the next day, you'd be struck by some bizarre déjà vu episode.  You could swear that that classy woman in the fabulous hot pink ensemble would be wearing the same thing again, going about her business as if nothing was amiss.  I would wonder if it was some sort of code of honour, basically spelling it out lest we glaze over its rich symbolism: "Wow--Did I have a whopper of an evening last nite! What day is it, again?"  When in reality, it was probably nothing quite so tantalizing. They just slaved over their outfit with a handy iron - something that I believe Italians are trained to use as soon as they are out of diapers.  And that's so they can iron their underwear.
Find the Canadian.
Over time, I, too, would adopt the practice of repeat dressing -- sadly, with or without the wild nights prior (okay, okay, mostly without).  And now I find it's a regular part of the repertoir.   But try as I might, it just comes off appearing more like homelessness than anything else.  That's because my outfit -- would be tossed mindlessly over a chair the night before.  As for Italians, much to my chagrin, they will look classy no matter how many times they put on the ritz - wearing the same thing as before.  Maybe it's that their clothes -- are wrinkle-free.

Tuesday, November 18

European Stereotypes from A to Z

Although the new cool 10 euro bills have already been issued, all of a sudden the internet is atwitter about the new ad released to help people understand that the bill is not Monopoly® money.  And that's because, while it takes you through some of the more basic stereotypes, Italians were particularly offended that they were depicted as a waitress getting her first big tip.
And while I think that Italians have a storied tradition of fine restaurants and glorious food the world over, the ad is offensive for three reasons:  First, Italians don't tip [and why they don't need to here] So that waitress is clearly working in a fancy hotel where the clients don't know any better, or she's in another country - scraping by - on her tips.  Secondly, the head of the European Bank is one prominent Mario Draghi, so why were the Italians depicted with such a menial job?  Heck-the Spaniard had at least gone fishin' - a nice portrayal since his king and all his king's men were busy taking or paying bribes when they weren't out shooting elephants and his countrymen senselessly torturing bulls.  And third, but not least important is...English?  Really?  I'm not sure why that decision was made since England is not in the Euro Zone - maybe it's for all the other countries whose language was not included.  But if they wanted to reach the masses, especially the thousands washing up on the Italian coastline -- perhaps Arabic would have been a slightly stronger language to include in the film.
So while the ad agencies were considering what people could do for their 10 euro, here's my listing that may have been more country-specific:
  • Sit down in a Roman Taxi  But don't go anywhere. 
  • Sit down for two scoops of gelato
  • Visit a Museum
  • Top up your phone 
  • Buy 10 cappuccinos in Rome (alas only 6 in Milan)
  • Rent a lounge chair on the beach just kidding, you couldn't get away with that little
  • Buy a pizza and a drink at lunch
  • Give to any of the dozens of homeless beggars or window wiping squeegees in a day
  • Have a happy hour & buffet apericena at your fave bar
  • Slide a suitcase of them for anyone involved in Milan's Expo2015 construction bid - Aquila reconstruction - heck - any construction project across the Bel Paese.
  • Buy a chunk of parmigiano (insert tears here)
  • Gift it to the post office since your package or letter won't arrive anyway
For the original brilliant film of Europeans -vs- Italians...look no further than Bruno Bozzetto 

Friday, October 3

A Day in the Life of Italy-Customer Service Edition

March may come in like a Lion…but in Italy, it’s September that comes in like a jackal tearing its innocent victim apart, piece by piece, making sure to rip the flesh right off the bone.  And that’s not because you just returned from a fab four-week holiday in one or another gorgeous hilltown or seaside resort and feasted on figs & prosciutto until you could no longer breathe. No. 
It’s due to the rude awakening, after a lazy summer of virtually no traffic, little pollution, few beggars (if you avoid the tourist traps) and general sun-kissed bliss peppered by near-nightly fireworks displays, just celebrating summertime.  Suddenly, as you're standing there at the foot of what seemingly appeared to be a kind and gentle castle keep, you are met with the onslaught of hot oil poured out from every opening until you’re buried in burning tar.  The cars nearly running you down before double-parking you in, the trash strewn around your every pathway, the spit blobs and dog doo lining your once-pristine sidewalks.
For me, despite rejoicing each morning in the company of my amiable tribe of nearly everyone I meet at the dog park, exchanging pleasantries and wide smiles with the local retailers & restaurateurs and even my neighbours - heck - even the crusty ol’ nuns and lunatics planted on park benches always look up to crack a smile of hello (well, okay, both the nuns and the insane will only do it sometimes).  But this September was different.  I had the misfortune of having everything in my orbit simply break. All at once.  Perhaps it was the earth’s magnetic shift, or those gorgeous Super Moons, who can tell.  All I know is…I was suddenly that prey that nearly everyone I came into contact with wanted a piece of.
We don't really need who-knows-what
Grande Thing, or who-knows-which Great Men.
What we need is just more honest people.
It started with my washing machine leaking water all over the bathroom floor.  In a wild case of Cognitive Dissonance, I went online to the nearest repairman in my neighborhood.  Called & booked. He came the same day.  Efficient.  Friendly.  Taking one look at my old machine (and I mean, one look - he opened up the cover, nothing more), he said it couldn't be fixed.  Seeing I paid for the visit, I asked him about my dishwasher.  It just doesn't clean dishes. He got on the floor, opened the machine and said, "It'll work like a charm now - I pushed a special button down there."  To amuse myself, I asked him to show it to me...Assessing clearly I am from the 'weaker sex', not braun, but brain power, he said, with a straight face, "Oh no, there are far too many electrical wires there - I can't possibly allow it."  Charging me 80 euro for his trouble. 
So, my dishes were still dirty and my washing machine was still unusable. Until I recounted the event to my lovely tire guy, who sent over his elder brother, who got the whole thing working again, after spending over an hour in blood, sweat and tears...for all of 15 euro.
Seeing that the website of Repairman no. 1 screams, "Repairs guaranteed or your money back!" I thought I'd humour myself to see what, if anything, would happen if I called them on it.  Naturally, they lied. The man at the other end said he never heard of the repairman (whose name was on my invoice), that I could have called any one of millions of 800 numbers, and so on...My call to the repairman himself was met with, "I'll call you back" or, "I'll drop by in 15 minutes to discuss this." Yeah, right.  Before adding, "I've got a nice bridge to sell you." 
On the upside, I had enjoyed washing my clothes at the relatively rare laundromats, meeting the locals, bantering with the Bangladeshi, having a coffee with someone across the way. It was like being back at University again, without cramming for exams.
Next up (or down, rather) was my car battery. I end up replacing about a battery per year, at cost (since no one will uphold the mandatory 2 yr warranty).  That is, except for the time the amazing people at Bosch (Germany) intervened and got their fab Roman distributor to open his doors on a Sunday morning and install a proper battery that lasted 5 whole years.  After that, I (stupidly) trusted the repairmen at Honda-Papalia, whose father & son team got the banter down to such an art form, I swear they perform in updates of Stanley & Ollie in Trastevere after closing. So, before installing my third battery in 3 years, I asked for the Bosch battery - admonishing them not to install the one for compact cars.  It simply doesn't do the trick.  Naturally, that's what they installed.
Sig Papalia the Elder telling me (and I am not making this up), "They don't sell any other kind" followed by, "This one is just as good" and so on.  After going online to check what battery I truly needed, and after repeated calls to my Bosch Guardian Angel, Junior refused to make the change.  His excuse? "I don't care what they say in Germany and the USA - we're in Italy."  [Clearly, code for "Suck it Up."]   Calls to the Bosch people in Milan, proved...fruitless. With the guy up there saying he didn't even know about my Angel guy working the Rome market, and he'd been in the business for 30 years -- For good measure, when I asked him to please tell the Honda repair guys what battery would be ideal for my car, he fed me the first full sentence that Italians utter at about 10 months of age, and on a weekly basis for the rest of their long lives: I can't be held responsible.  When you get that line, you know the Case is Closed. So I hung up and went back to my excellent Bosch Officine repairman (near Eataly). And I am now the proud owner of a terrific battery that makes my car run well, and an extra battery perched neatly on the floor of my car.  Total charges: about 144 euro (for a 66 euro battery) plus the 107 euro on my new battery.
[On a positive note, my tire guy Giorgio, who brings me my free papers each morning, fixed my flat tire in no time at all].
Falling for it again - and again
- and again.
Then, there was my cool Samsonite suitcase rip, the mark of a marvelous month 'on-the-road'.  And with it, of course, brings back images of Gorillas back in baggage claim [although admittedly, in Italy, the Gorilla is lurking inside your bag and comes in the shape of terrific taralli from Puglia, luscious green olive oil, and a bottle of 'quattro gocce' aceto balsamico].  Three year Global Guarantee.  And that's why I love Samsonite.  Until...Italy, that is. In Italian, "warranty" is synonomous with "fat chance".  Straight to the Samsonite store, I was told (after producing the receipt - the warranty in multi-languages - and the bag) that, "That's what you say...we don't have to do anything" followed by "It can't be repaired..." and another dozen barbs dusted off for the occasion.  Usually, I would take my bag to London and call it a day. But this time, I put into practice, my First Rule of Life in Italy: Never take 'No' for an answer.  Begging, pleading, cajoling...The guy took the bag.
But then, something strange happened.  He called me the very next day to tell me it was ready.  In fact, it was too good to be true.  Using it one week later, it ripped straight down the side of the original tear, but a whole lot worse. 
So, I contacted Samsonite directly, to try to preempt further discourse.  True to form, the website email Contact Sheet didn't work (no one's ever tested it).  But a tweet did, and I got a phone call from a wonderful customer service person within minutes.  
Duly impressed. Until she started in on the "We don't know what kind of warranty that is...Where did you purchase the bag?...Why don't you send me a photo and we'll see what can be done."  Very kindly, I informed her that the only words I should be hearing right about now were, "Fine. Three Year Global Warranty. If we cannot repair it we will get you a replacement."  She was nice enough to see things my way, adding that she would "try" to contact another store that "Just might repair the bag for me."  As if they were doing me a favour. 
Years ago, the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece on how smart, seemingly efficient, sensational U.S. multinationals, when they go abroad, sometimes lose the plot. To this day I cannot think of why that is (and nor could they, come to think of it).
As for my home phone, Wind/Infostrada now offers Time Travel: Having been returned to the days of climbing up a telephone pole in front of the Shady Rest in order to place a call to whomsoever I am lucky enough to speak with on the party line.  In order to work the landline, I must:  first send a Tweet to Wind/Infostrada, whose Customer Service folks are very efficient [but you know to do this only after spending the better part of 2 hours trying to find a contact or customer assistance form on their website].  Then wait about 72 hours for a return call, to tell someone to check the line. Then, before I get to the bottom of Dante's Inferno, I can make & receive calls.  Until the line goes dead a few hours later.  I keep asking them, if they think that this is truly a decent service in 2014...but that falls on deaf ears, only because the line has gone mute.  At least about once a month, when the moon is full and in non-Leap Years, I can call out.  
The view inside Rome's
Officine iPhone
(zona Marconi)
But I usually just thank God for cellphones.  That is, until my iPhone dropped.  And here, is the bright light in the firmament.  I went online (again) and found some cool guys over at Officine iPhone (via Marconi) who will repair your phone.  And as advertised, "In 15 minutes. No appointments" And, with a smile.  And, they do a brisk business. The cherry on the torta?  They even take people in the order they came into the store, and not by gender [Any woman in Italy who has ever walked into a telephone or electronics shop will know what I mean -- you can set yourself on fire, but if a man walks in 20 mins later they will rush to give him the blanket]...
I think I'm in love. Compared to the 230 euro that Apple wanted to replace the phone, these magicians said they'd return it as good as new, for less than half the price.  Since, in the meantime, I had purchased a new screen thru Amazon, I even got it for less.  Of course, cash only [My second rule for Life in Italy: Bring loads of cash - and even more change.]
I skipped out of the place, elated, and headed to my super parking spot, right out in front (although I had to fight for it...a driver lunging into the spot while I, with blinkers flashing, pulled up to park inside it--eventually she thought better of it and finally left, but not before a few choice gestures and 'the chin').  Suddenly, I was stopped cold in my tracks.  In the 15 minutes it took to get my iPhone repaired, a Vespa had parked me in on one side, and a delivery truck double-parked me in on the other.  How do you fend off the jackals, I wonder? 
My car in Red

*live links throughout the post

In my book, I dedicate an entire chapter to Customer Service:  The Customer is Never Right.

Wednesday, September 24

The Way to an Italian's Thru the Liver

Anyone who's been in Italy for about 12 nanoseconds knows that Italians love their livers - and I'm not talking about the ones heaped onto a gorgeous helping of polenta.  No, what most observers find is that while kids in America are forced to Pledge Allegiance to the Flag, hands over hearts, Italian bambini place their hands slightly further down (okay, the boys even further down) and Pledge their undying Allegiance to their livers, in Mamma's Cooking we Trust.
And so it came as no surprise when this ad campaign was released over the summer, that I swear...Pays homage to the liver - declared across all quarters as 'Un Grande Successo'.  
The Ad Agency that conceived this new logo
says that they have 'reworked' the heart.
It looks to me instead that they simply separated
the left lobe from the right - of your liver.
To a country that blames all stomach ailments on the liver, claiming, after a big meal, 'Mi sta sullo stomaco - literally, 'it's on top of my stomach' (and there's a lot of truth to that feeling for those times in which you find yourself totally bloated after gorging yourself on the gorgeous first-second-third courses followed by dessert and then a 'digestive liquor' as a chaser). Or those actual claims of liver enlargement, which most of the rest of us in the world blame on the gallbladder (that little feller' stuck on the bottom of your liver like a listening device under Berlusconi's or Angela Merkel's desktop) -- having relegated liver enlargements to raging alcoholism.  [When you mention the nasty ol' gallbladder, the 'Cistifellea' as a potential culprit for your malady, You know...the part of the human body that regulates fats and so on, you are met with seriously strange looks, as if you had actually said, with a total straight face, 'A basket (cesta) of fellatio.'  I think I'm the only person outside the medical community who can call it by its proper name; 'Cistifellea' a term so brutto to pronounce, it's no wonder the smooth talkin' 'fegato' gets all the credit.]  
Those two dark red pieces
(your left & right lobes) - knowingly reworked...
to resemble your heart...
In short, I have no idea what UniEuro does -- all I could think of was my guts, rotated for effect in photoshop to resemble my liver.  Perhaps they make kidney dialysis machines. On second thought I decided it was, indeed, an award-winning promotion -- of eating well in Italy...Although during this depression, it seems more like pizza-by-the-slice is the plate of choice for most everyone.  
Nonetheless, even Americans, with their fad 'liver cleanses' are getting on board. Perhaps they could pay a visit to UniEuro and let us know what it's all about.

Advertising Age: About 68 -- for the subtle sophistication of the photoshop techniques...and for the lovely heart imagery

For more Advertising Age Posts, including the good, the bad, and the ugly, click on the links below --

Friday, September 5

Rome's Tourist Tax - Are You Flippin' Kidding Me??!!!

Rome, out of money and clearly out of ideas has decided to double the Tourist Tax in Sept 2014 bald-face lying - errr --- promising "improved services for tourists" that somehow never transpire -- just like this summer, in the height of tourist season, buses were cancelled - garbage piled up - and of course, pickpockets ran the joint.  Here is my update to Rome's new Mayor, Ignazio Marino: 

Dear Mayor Alemanno Mayor Marino:

Certainly, we can all understand your point of view; trying to come up with ways to arrive at month’s end – just like the rest of us – with money in the bank.  It was a stroke of pure genius – hit the captive audience that won’t crowd your city center, block traffic and hold huge sheets with protest slogans in revolt.  It’s an even better idea, considering that "other capital cities" have been charging a sojourn tax for years [Let’s ignore the fact that other cities like London or New York have over 15 million inhabitants compared to your 3.5 million - with services to match - but, who's counting?].

Regardless, since you’re a Roman resident and you’ve never had the privilege of enjoying the city as a tourist, allow me to shed some light on the subject.  You’ll find that the Tourist Tax has been levied for some time now – paid in full by tourists – your "petroleum" – a tax so widespread, it’s like an oil slick on your country.

A day in the life of a tourist in Rome

Sunday, August 31

Travel to Italy - Booking Online Trains, Hotels & Automobiles

Rome, Sweet Rome
This past August brought me from Cefalù, Sicily up to Florence & Tuscany (to Il Grande Prato Agriturismo), to Milan, Como, Verona and onto Lucerne and Geneva, Switzerland and ultimately over to Annecy, France for a hearty helping of fondue. [Let's just say, between the inclement weather up north it was decidedly therapeutic.] So you can imagine my elation of coming home to Bella Roma, with its sunny days and empty streets and heck - even the hordes of dumpster divers appear to have taken August off.
While in the past I've picked on the places where this country dependent upon tourism makes continuous #touristfails, I'd have to say...I was pleased as prosecco during my travels, so I thought I'd share some of the Amore with you...Starting with the trains that got me to where I needed to go.
I love train travel.  And the trains are so spiffy, the waiting rooms with wifi and with Italo leaving right near my house, it's truly a pleasure.  Although, I'd gladly take the conversational compartments and the low fares back any day of the week.  And, the cellphone-less travelers, which is why conversations were being conducted in the first place.  ItaloTreno bent over backwards to help me with some ticket snafus, when they saw I had double-booked two tickets.  And most local trains I boarded including the glorious ones shuttling passengers back & forth from Palermo to Messina were pleasantly clean and air-conditioned.
On Trenitalia, the company I love to hate, as always their staff and conductors were the best thing on dozens of wheels. Their new Itinere food service providers even lowered the extortionist prices, and gave me a 5 euro coupon besides. Heck, they even mixed a Bellini for me during the drinks offering. Can you say, 'Benvenuto competition'?  And while I still have never successfully logged in on a train, and I still can't stand the blinding lighting, train designers have finally caught onto the concept that people actually tow luggage aboard.  Although it's Italo whose trains have the cutsie step that comes out so you don't have to hoist your bags like a Sherpa.

Online Bookings - Caveat Emptor or Carpe Diem?
In Sicily, you couldn't find a rental car if your life depended on it-which leaves me wondering why fleets aren't upped in the summer months there, but the trains and stations were so terrific, I didn't really care in the end. And while the proprietor didn't show up for a last-minute booking in Cefalù (and lied about it to, getting a morning ice cream-filled Sicilian brioche made it all better.
In Milan, I rented a car thru Economy Car Rentals
which was efficient and inexpensive, although they said the price included the 'after hours pickup' - which I didn't have since Maggiore was open til 11 pm each night (what a change from years ago!)  They didn't cut me any deals on grace periods either but, I love them anyway. The convenience of picking up a car right at the train station is fantastic.
I used DirectFerries - UK for my ferry crossing from Salerno to Messina.  I was a bit nervous that I'd arrive at the boat and they'd say, Direct Chi??!!  Instead, an air-conditioned bus took me from the station straight to the port, a mini-bus came and picked me up at the entrance to escort me round the truckers loading up the ship, and the driver even ran and got me my ticket, while everyone welcomed my little pooch Archie with open arms (okay, I confess: the boat was practically waiting for me to board -- I hadn't read the fine print about arriving 2 hrs prior).  The ride was delightful with the only glitch: the woman purser who didn't want to let me have my dog with me on the deck (when everyone else said it was okay...).
It was the Swiss Train online system (sbb cff) that was the most difficult to work around when attempting the supersaver fares [Hint: they're offered only once you've committed to the train & time, like some wild teaser].  I spent over 10 hours booking tickets all around Switzerland (three times) and in the end, I never received a confirmation.  Thus the rental car when I got to Milan.  A friend says there's a Swiss train office right in Milan's train station - next time, I'll try there.
And, the icing on the gelato?  If you take Italo and you end up in Rome's Tiburtina Station (the boondocks, for most of us), you can imbibe in a terrific GROM gelato & shopping before your trip, and with a simple €1.50 bus ticket you can hop a ride on the railroad, over to any of the other Rome train stations...!  And at my beloved Ostiense station (where Eataly is to be found)?  Some lone, intelligent soul (or fatigued traveler) at Trenitalia has finally figured out that the airport train could use an elevator up to the platform - it's still a work in progress, but hey...Read here for what life has been like without it.
Now...if they would just re-institute the baggage handlers...Perfetto!

Sunday, August 10

10 things that have changed Life in Italy

It all started when Italy Mag published a few terrific photos taken in the 1980s by photographer Charles H. Traub for his new book (try to get past the godawful name), La Dolce Via (click name for link).
I first came to Italy as an adult in 1982, and again for a year in 1985. So I started thinking about all things that have changed since those early days of wonderment, hot summer nights and pasta binges. But one thing that hasn't changed: those Speedo-style bathing suits you see in the pictures.
From Charles H Traub's book, La Dolce Via
photos from 1980s Italy

§ 10 things that have changed the essence of Life in Italy §
  • Shaken, not Stirred - I remember asking - no, begging - for some ice - even a single, solitary cube of it when ordering a drink of any kind.  I was clearly playing Italian roulette, what with ice and being stricken on the spot, right up there on the charts of health superstitions.  Time and again, I would be served a gin&tonic or screwdriver - warm (after walking the barrista through the ingredients and preparation).  Nowadays kids earn 'mixology' degrees, make mean mojitos, and, taking a cue from my fellow countrymen, serve up a huge glass of Coke - with almost nothing in it but ice.
  • Tourist 'Attractions'? Really?! - Who doesn't recall those heady days of seeing thousands of tourists scratching their collective heads for something to do after lunch? It was Walter Veltroni around 1997 who finally freed museums from the clutches of govt unions who did not want their employees to work more than half a day, and we're all better for it (except maybe the scores of lovers who were now left languorously waiting prostrate by the nightstand half-cocked, so to speak).
  • What do you feel like for dinner? - Granted, anyone coming to visit Italy only wants the Real Maccheroni...but for the rest of us, we used to dream of a decent plate of Pad Thai, or a genuine American burger.  Chinese eateries started the trend but then sushi came in the roaring 90s with the Japanese tourists.  Now, you can feast your eyes and please your palate on anything and everything from Argentinian beef to Tex-Mex to Moroccan, without having to hang out at the ubiquitous Kebab joints.  Not to mention something I may have had a hand in...muffins, cookies and cheese cakes served in Autogrills and bakeries and supermarkets across the country.  As a former New Yorker, I'm still waiting to 'Order In', however.
  • Mad Max Parking - It used to amuse me to come across any number of cars pulled right up to the coffee shop or newsstand or phone booth-solo un minuto. Once cities finally figured out they could make loads on paid parking spots the gig was up - and enforced. But then came SUVs. So now we're just double-parked in by big egos who insist you need to wait for them to finish their cup of espresso or conversation before you're allowed to go on your way. Ahhh...the good old days...when you could at least pull off the sidewalk and out of your own parking spot.
  • (Un)Happy Hours - and...what is now known as Apericena [Aperitivo + Dinner (Cena) where you can pig out at the bar with a drink and bar food for about 8 euro a head]  Only the Venetians had (and still have) their unique form of Happy Hour - served with Spritz, but what started with the fashionistas in Milan, finally spread across the Boot.  So mixed drinks are now served (with ice!) but as for collateral damage: Watching Italy go from wine-only, conversational soirees to drinks, drugs, pole dancers to open air Bunga Bunga frat parties is something that I never thought I'd live to see.
  • Sayonara Siestas - I long fought for the opportunity to actually make purchases when I had time to do so: lunch hours and weekends. But now that shopping malls and continuous hours are the norm, with the advent of chain stores replacing the mom&pop shops, makes me a bit nostalgic for the times when demand was as pent up as a pressure cooker with Arborio rice inside.  I used to think that Italy's economy would be on a roll with longer hours; but with our triple dip recession in play, well...clearly this hasn't helped.
  • How a DJ Changed My Life - It used to amaze me that in Italy, djs would talk right through the songs they played On Air.  In a country with more conspiracy theorists than types of pasta, I was told that this was so people couldn't record the songs straight off the radio; something, we all did, of course. I guess youtube and iTunes put the kabosh on pirated songs over the radio but hey, we can still buy pirated movies on any street corner.
  • Money lenders in the temples - It wasn't so long ago that churches charged money to visitors who wanted the lights shined on an artwork or two.  But in the late 1990s, they wisened up, and many took the bold step of charging to get closer to God...or at least to the gilded altarpieces with Venice - Verona - and Pisa leading the way. And while sometimes you still need to drop a coin in the coffers to see where you're going, you'll find churches - like the Bocca della Verità - charging for photo opps, or putting up scaffolding for inordinate amounts of time to make an honest buck [a plan that sometimes can backfire...when Benetton's priest & nun kissing or some very heavy cleavage covered 3 stories of an important Roman parish...] As funny as that was, churches are laughing all the way to the Banca di Santo Spirito - which leaves me wondering, 'What would Jesus think'?
  • Mad Men & Movie Ads - There was a time when I knew all the RAI jingles and could settle in knowing I could enjoy a film - all the way through and without interruption. Then came Silvio Berlusconi, who imported that American-style of TV ads and everything changed (starting with burlesque starlets - maintaining a perpetual loop of 1970s Love, American Style crossed with Hee-Haw). And even though we all pay the loathed TV Tax (promising 'no ads'), well, even on the State-owned channels there they are.  On the flip side, movie theaters have mostly done away with the (hated-by-foreigners-only) INTERVALLI - breaks - during screenings [you can read my own heartfelt recollection of the horrific experience here or in my book].
  • A Breath of Fresh Air - Last, but certainly not least, especially during the sweltering summer months, it was the Summer of 2003 that did the entire country in.  A place so fixated on the ills of a/c that they didn't even have it as an option in vehicles.  Today, although I may find myself covering up with newspapers in trains on occasion, I enjoy entering a bus that is refreshingly cool (unless there are older people on board who have opened the windows).  You can read here about that fateful heatwave of 100+ degrees that changed a nation - from my book, Burnt by the Tuscan Sun.

Move your cursor thru post for live links to more fun stuff...

Friday, August 1

Summer in Italy - Jumping for Joy

This video has had nearly 31 million views
showing a dog's sheer joy after being reunited with his owner

I post it here, at the start of the summer exodus. When people from all over Europe, travel to places far and wide, leaving behind their furry ex-friends. In Italy alone, it's estimated that over 300,000 dogs are abandoned each summer on the streets and highways, usually to end up as roadkill. Others are mercilessly tied to lampposts in the hopes that a good samaritan will pick them up - they usually die of thirst. While puppies are routinely tossed into garbage bags and into rivers or garbage bins.
Seeing that dog above reminded me of my old dog, Trevor, who I found zig-zagging down a highway near Trevi in Umbria (hence the name). I managed to coerce him into the car with hot dogs, but most dogs run away from fear. For 2 -3 years after I picked him up off the roadside, every time he saw a woman approaching with a baby stroller or heard baby sounds, he would have the reaction above. It was heart wrenching. Because, while we can amuse ourselves on the internet with zillions upon zillions of dog & baby videos, unfortunately, in Italy - and I think elsewhere - a new baby is reason enough to abandon your four-legged family member. Actually, pregnancy is reason enough.
And while I know most of my readers probably wouldn't think of abandoning their pet and that we are not the ones we should be watching out for...I post this message every August 1st - just because.

Here's a link to my dog park in Rome - the best thing ever - and a bunch of newly abandoned dogs we're trying to find homes for.  PARCO SCOTT

And here, a few more past posts - feel free to share the photos!

Sunday, July 27

The Costa Concordia Pulls an All Nighter

What, me worry?!
Captain Schettino pulls an all-nighter
to show his solidarity with the victims who
senselessly died the night he was - literally - at the helm

As the Concordia was pulled into the Genovese harbour, its former Captain was caught living it up an a White Party on the island of Ischia.  Obviously, his supposed tethers for In House arrest can cross bodies of water, just like the ones that hoisted the Concordia up the coast.
For my satirical view of the events...please check out my post on Irreverent Italy.

The boat is docked right at the edge of - repeat after me:  Genova.  NOT Genoa where it will be broken down at the very place it was first made.  And, while you're at it...Torino not Turin and Firenze not Florence and Venezia not Venice...!

A few sad stats about Schettino's horrible act of bravado to impress his on-board - and illegal - squeeze who escaped the tragedy by taxi (!) which is why our Captain Coward found himself abandoning his ship to begin with.
32 deaths
110 injured
damages affecting the 4197 passengers who survived

1.5 billion euro (over $2 billion) spent on salvage operation
 12 million euro in damage to the island of Giglio
not counting the loss of sea life
But on the bright side...The salvage operation created

921 days of 24/7 work for hundreds of engineers, divers, workers and sea men

Tuesday, July 15

Berlusconi - A report card on his trials & tribulations

School may be out for the summer, but I thought I'd give you a Report Card on the judiciary woes that have our favorite Prime Minister currently "working" (albeit only a few hours a week) at a Senior Citizen Home as retribution for one of his many prickly peccadillos.   
Just in case anyone wants to keep track:

1 - Found GUILTY for the Mediaset Tax Fraud case, in which he was sentenced to 4 years in prison, later reduced to 1 year for a law to reduce jail overcrowding, reduced to community service since he is now over 70 years old.  
He was also banned from public office for 5 years, but has managed to get that 'under review' as well.
1 - ABSOLVED due to his party changing the law so it would no longer be illegal
2 - Cases DROPPED due to a govt amnesty (surprise, surprise)
3 - Cases DROPPED - usually for statute of limitations.  To many, this is nothing short of incredible. In Italian trials, the clock keeps ticking even once you're on trial, so...your smooth lawyers can stall and stall and Whoa, really?! I'm off because we didn't try my case in time? Funny how that works. 
7 - Cases going to TRIAL

So, where does the "most persecuted man in history" stand on his many trials today?

  • RUBY RUBACUORE - the heart stealer who got him 7 years for sex with a minor - he is now getting it up in appeals.
  • RUBY TER - some of Berlusconi's illustrious Brat & Rat Pack got jail terms for basically running a prostitution ring at Silvio's playpen in Arcore (Sardinia), Berlusconi is going to be tried on corrupting witnesses, since he was paying his call girls - err... friends - nice stipends the whole time leading up to and during the trial [€5M to Ruby and 2500/month to others].
  • BARI ESCORT - more girl problems for Silvio from top to bottom of the Boot. Again, abetting prostitution and then lying about it.
  • BUYING VOTES - In Naples he's on trial for "convincing" a certain Senator (Sergio De Gregorio, who has confessed) to switch parties during a crucial vote; thereby impeding the govt
  • LODO MONDADORI - This coming October, Berlusconi is being asked to pay further damages to his biggest competitor, a certain De Benedetti to whom he was already forced to pay 494 Million euro. They're asking for about 90M more for the legal fees and interest payments.
  • DIVORCE - Ahhh yes, sometimes, when you're caught once too often with your pants down and with minors no less, your wife might say, Basta! Enough is Enough.  So now, the courts need to come up with a tidy alimony payment for her own public embarrassment and with the richest man in Italy.

* A terrific synopsis by the BBC on these cases here
You can find more on my favorite Italian, at The Silvio Show here

Sunday, July 6

Roma Termini Train Station - a place where living comes to life

Longtime readers of my blog will know that I have a few select memes regarding Life in Italy - one of them being, that the entire country needs a crash course in Marketing 101. Heck-they can even choose one of thousands online and free! And so it was, when I caught the new Rome Termini Train Station ad - website - and marketing program.  But, I'll be fair.  Their website is truly terrific.  Thought out nicely, excellent graphics, and even user-friendly.  So on that front, kudos to you web designers!  One trip over there, and you can see all that Rome's Central Train Station has to offer. 
But then there it was...front and center, their cool new moniker. I can't decide if it is tongue-in-cheek like the Brits would do, or if they are totally serious about this.  It reads, literally, "Roma Termini: A place for living."  
Check out the Home Page - there's more to Rome's Train Station
than meets the eye!
I imagine that what they mean by this, is in reality, "A place to experience the joys of life" or something along those lines. But, really? Because, when I think...a place for living, the hundreds of people actually living there come to mind.
picture from Il Tempo newspaper
Here, thanks to a mix of outstanding volunteer associations, our guests at least are treated to breakfast in bed - even better service than most of us get at home.
Volunteers help to do what they can for the homeless
in Rome's Termini Station
Adra Assoc
The other association that runs Binario 95 - a place that helps the mentally ill or infirm and locates beds around Rome does incredible work.  But their name?  Europe Consulting. Perfect for a marketing consulting firm in Brussels. Marketing 101 anybody? 

Sunday, June 29

Rome Tourists find sights hiding in plain sight

Picture & slide show from 
Satirical columnist Dave Barry once penned in one of his most memorable columns, when describing his trip to Italy with his family, that as far as he could tell, "Each summer in Italy, not only do all the Italians empty out of the cities to the beach or the mountainsides, but so do all the statues as well." This summer, almost on cue, it's not the statues but rather all the big monuments that tourists are wont to view. Considering the lack of money Roma Capitale govt claims not to have, it looks instead that we are building for the next Olympics.
So, for tourists, here's your quick guide on what you may or may not be seeing this summer:
• They may have closed all the roads leading to the nerve center of Rome, so tourists can have a leisurely stroll up the Fori Imperiali, but still the Colosseum looks like it's wearing braces while it gets the deep clean of a lifetime [with financing by footwear magnate of Tod's]
• Over near the Spanish Steps clean-ups are a double feature what with the Barcaccia - the little boat - fountain that spouts much-needed cool water in the summer by Pietro Bernini (dad, not son) under wraps so tall they nearly cover the Spanish Steps.
Photo & slide show by
• Peep around the corner of the wall there and look up.  At the top of the hill sits the convent and church of Trinità dei Monti but you won't see a thing. I believe it's part of the facelift of the entire Spanish Steps compliments of Bulgari but I can't be sure.  Let's just hope we don't end up with a rubbery-looking staircase that looks like it came from an Italianate Smurf Village, like the lips of fashion models who parade down them each spring. Supposedly it will all be back to its original splendor in two years.
• And finally, on everyone's wish list is to run the gauntlet between the hoardes of tourists, pickpockets, street mimes, counterfeit vendors and beggars toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain. Well, not so fast.  Although it is still a sensational masterpiece with its wild horses, it too is under wraps.  But this project gives us something for the money -- the City just completed a walkway that will allow tourists to get a nice view of the restoration works in progress.  That is, if someone is actually there working over the hot summer months.  Nonetheless, it might keep you out of the way of the pickpockets long enough to enjoy a unique vantage point on gorgeous art restoration.

All links live above for cool slideshows of the works

Sunday, June 22

e-Harmony Italian style - Davvero?

...Really?!  I received in my inbox an invitation to try out eHarmony online dating. I think it was in Italian, and I thought, I would check out the types of guys they thought might be my perfect online match. After all, stranger things have happened. 
Now, I don't know if it was because I selected to receive their barrage of questioning in English, but, certainly, my country choice was Italy. So, I went in to face their 1375 questions that might identify that perfect person to spend the rest of my life with, or, in the very least, once mamma had been laid to rest.
The questions clearly did not change algorithms to your demographic. Suddenly, I felt like maybe it was a site for tweens trying to find someone to join them at a One Direction concert.  Who do you prefer? Madonna or Lady Gaga (citing one of the questions in which there was a minimum of name recognition)...Incredibly, None of the Above was not an option. If you chose one or the other, you received a quick, cheery message that chirped, "Great! You want to meet someone who likes Madonna!" Well, actually, no. But let's move on.
The queries were far too American-centered for my taste - and for Italy. And while I'm the first to admit that...if I've got a problem with the dating website, one can only fear for the actual date itself...One question after another referenced U.S. TV stars or movies I'd never heard of. Or shopping malls or other bizarre American traits.
So, I don't know if there's an Italian version of questioning out there, or if eHarmony just translates from that original set.  Skimming thru the questionnaire, I realized I needed a Red-White-Green version that would help me suss out the opposite sex and, pronto. 

Heart Graphic | Heart Break | Forward this Picture
So, eHarmony, here's a teaser for you to help you get a jump start on the Italian dating market:
  • Do you still live at home?
  • How old were you when you left your home?
  • Do you think it's okay for your mamma to do your laundry?
  • Do you believe that socks and underwear must be ironed to the point that they can stand up straight in a drawer?
  • Ironing is only for women, true or false?
  • Do you agree that courses served for all meals must be planned well in advance? And, perhaps in consultation with your mother?
  • Your ideal living situation is in the same apartment building as your mamma?
  • Laughing out loud is not good for women, true or false?
  • Animals are part of the family, or filthy beasts?
  • A kitchen is not fully cleaned until all bacteria is removed from every visible surface
  • Pizza shall be eaten with a fork and knife always? Or just under duress?
  • Sundays are for watching football? Being with mamma? Or relaxing at home?
  • Just because you're married 'doesn't mean I'm dead' - true or false?
  • Plastic surgery? Or botox?
  • Berlusconi or Beppe Grillo?
  • An 'open marriage' is only disrespectful if your partner finds out, true or false?
  • Do you think bare feet in the house causes warts?
And, if you're going to give me musician choices, let's hear: Pino Daniele? Jovanotti? or Ligabue?

Anyone have any more to add?

Tuesday, June 10

Italy: Bribe City & More - Same Time Next Year

Per quest'anno, non cambiare, stessa spiaggia stesso mare...
Per poterti rivedere...per tornare quest' estate insieme a me.
E come l'anno scorso....Sotto gli ombrelloni, lontano, lontano nessuno ci vedrà

This year, don't change a thing...
Same sand - same sea
So to see you again and relive this summer again with me.
This season, like the last one....
Under the large umbrellas, out of sight, out of sight, no one will see us...

This summer the headlines have been filled day by day of the titillating stories of the millions upon millions in bribes that our dear political hacks and their cronies have been pocketing over the large construction projects going up around Italy. Especially scintillating, since Milan ("Bribe City" of yesteryear) and Venice, the supposed scandal-free serenissima, are the locations of such sculduggery [for Milan's Expo2015 and Mose - Moses water divider project in Venice].
And while people seem to be aghast at the breadth and depth of these particular scandals, I am always astonished by them for a number of reasons:  

First off, it is not the untold millions stolen from hospitals, or school kids, or the elderly that I find stunning: It is the fact that people still find it surprising when it happens (or maybe, justifiably, that they get caught at all with their grubby hands in the till).
Secondly, that people actually believe that pursuant to the events of 1992-1996 Tangentopoli-Bribe City that took place in Milan and (supposedly) rid the country of a rotten political class, that the country was on the mend. I, for the life of me, cannot fathom the extent to which Italians live in such a state of marked denial.  And they say we're pessimists here. Al contrario, this is either raging optimism or, I'm afraid, hopelessness and lack of faith in our institutions; the first symptom of a failing State.

I mean, this is a country where you have to pay a bribe to get your driver's license.
• Where families pay off doctors to get a bed in a hospital room.
• Where the clergy have been shown (thru Vatileaks) to be on the take from everything from catering a concert to running illegal funds for deposit in Switzerland.
• Where people I know, from someone selling pencils to companies or someone building bank branches, have to pay someone off in order to seal the deal, large or small.

Moreover, people still are wont to believe that if we pay politicians (including low-life city councilmen) twice as much as U.S. Presidents, more than every other European country, shower them with perks, per diems, apartments and chauffeurs, that this would dissuade them from stealing from the pot. Not so.
As a former Wall Street trader put it, the more you rake in, you become addicted to getting even more, by any means possible.

But the one thing that irks me no end, is that, with all their oodles of money, (almost) nowhere do you see Foundations, University Chairs, Hospitals, being named after someone who cashed it in. At least our Robber Barons left us a few choice universities, innumerable foundations, hospitals, even abroad.  In Rome, even the founder of Kodak built a dentistry hospital. Do you see anything but villas and a generation of women with fishlips that Berlusconi has left as a legacy? He's just a regular Bill Gates, alright. Except that instead of vaccinating Africans, he started his very own training program: to teach Ghedaffi's Woman Guard how to Pole Dance.
No, these criminals and, sadly, the public at large, expect 'The State' to take care of it all. Really? After you've stolen all the public money? Again, citing a recent article about America's 1%:  The problem is, these people, with all their money, will still only be able to buy so many shoes (unless, of course, you're Imelda Marcos). By taking the money from millions, millions of sales are lost. Companies fold. Everyone loses. I've been inside Senator's houses that could be free-standing museums. Sadly, the works stashed away and hidden from cameras are never bequeathed to the public when the patron's free-wheeling ways and days come to an end.  And yet, we still believe. Year in and year out.
- Wasn't that Moses contraption supposed to divide the waters?
-  Yeah-but for now, it's only divvying up the bribe money.
The Fiamme Gialle financial police who uncover these crimes deserve a Shout Out from each and every honest Italian. But still, check out the bank accounts of any purchasing dept head in any company in Italy; there's still more to find, year after year, after year.
And, now, I'll close with another song lyrics that aptly portrays this new rendition of Bribe City:

Second verse, same as the first -- but a whole lot louder and a whole lot worse!