Thursday, June 16

Life in Italy - #LifeHacking the Post Office

Anyone who comes to Italy for even about 36 hours finds out sooner, rather than later, about the notorious Post Office. Their misdeeds are the stuff of legend. Day in, day out when coming across Facebook posts of new arrivals unloading about the umpteenth miscarriage of mail justice that has befallen them, I sort of smirk to myself, smug in my knowledge that while it's cathartic to vent, they ain't seen nuthin' yet.
The Italian Post Office is a singular institution hellbent on making lives miserable. So much so, that I dedicate an entire chapter in my book to it: The Postman Never Rings Even Once. But I truly believe that desperation breeds innovation and it's why we now have email. 
And this is 2016. The Poste Italiane has been growing by leaps and bounds in efficiency, branding, banking, heck even free wifi - better to allow you to bide your time while dozens of octogenarians cash their pensions and then stand in front of the clerk for those 98 additional seconds to tuck away in a safe place their cash, or while people fill out the form - three of them - whilst standing at the counter, because to put them out would incite inmates, errr, clients to take and waste untold stacks of them. Things have changed so much that they're even charging us about 6 times other countries just for the luxury (and it is a luxury brand in my book) of mailing your letter.
But recently, like many of my compatriots, I had to submit my declaration that I do not, indeed, own a television. I went to the post office for the express purpose of mailing the registered letter. Let me just say that the clerk was super nice [another humongous improvement on the days in which she would have instead refused a letter because the address was written in green pen, or you stapled rather than slathered mucky goo all over the envelope to close it, or that your stamps were crooked, or that you wrote too many lines on a postcard, or you wrote below the line clearly demarcated on the postcard, or you requested far too many stamps, or the box was too big, or too small, or there was a slight bulge in the envelope, or that you wrote a note on the envelope, or you wrote England instead of Gran Bretagna...] I could go on. And on. And on. This is no exaggeration.
And so I was quite taken aback when she told me that I couldn't send my letter that way - meaning, in an envelope. I was quite used to the practice that if you sent a letter in an unsealed envelope, it cost less. So we all used to do that. envelope? This was not in my personal annals of inane postal practices. And then...she did this: Risking her electric blue manicure, she set out to carefully craft an envelope out of my letter, employing scotch tape, stamps & staples. It was an engineering marvel. Standing there, it was as if witnessing a surgeon put one final stitch into a dying patient, or Betsy Ross sewing that last star on the flag...It was pure poetry in motion (and I'm sorry, but my surreptitious video does not do it justice...Did I mention it? No cellphones allowed at the counter? You can imagine where they draw the line on actually videotaping employees.)
Italy often has a lot of wild workarounds for what in other places would be straightforward, standard practice. Like the traffic lights all flashing yellow at midnight (click here for Midnight Run post), to keep people from running red ones. Or, side streets  alongside major thoroughfares which I am quite convinced are so guys can pick up prostitutes with ease - without causing traffic jams (anyone riding up the Via Salaria will know what I mean). Recently, our Prime Minister decided that since so many people pat ignored the heinous TV Tax, he would simply tack it onto our electric bills. I don't own a TV and if you want to get my taxation without representation vibe going, this is a fairly good place to start. Thus my registered letter. 
Flummoxed, I had to ask the clerk, just what this was all about. And with a straight face she stated that otherwise, people would pay for and send the registered envelope, empty. Basically, it was nipping a he said / she said accusation assault in the bud. They'd have proof of having delivered a declaration, when in reality, nothing was truly signed and sealed. By forcing you to provide the contents via a document-cum-envelope, well, then it had to be legit. I thought it was so you wouldn't send anthrax or bullets to our friends at the tax office for this highway robbery of a TV Tax - I'm sure they get plenty.
As someone who once paid a car accident of $103 in pennies (which is also illegal, btw), I had to admit, this was one genius move on the part of government. Now, about those Panama Papers??!

glide your cursor on colored parts above for more!

Sunday, June 5

Fact Checking Michael Moore's Movie: Where to invade next? ITALY.

A friend living and working in Italy put it best to his Facebook followers: Michael Moore is, after all, a propagandist, not a journalist…He deals in hyperbole, which is why he’s a terrific social commentator and I am a fan. [Albeit by today’s standards in journalism, one could argue that the media's only currency is hyperbole]. And while his focus on Italy filled the collective with a shot of momentary pride, once the effect wore off, it was time to ask…Veritas?

As someone who has visited dozens upon dozens of companies, large and small, across the calf, heel, foot and toe of this boot, I feel the need to fully examine some of the holes that permeate Moore’s footholds. At first blanch, the piece felt a bit too canned, the people a bit too trite for ‘off-the-cuff’, and the supposed candid conversation so circumspect that it reminded me of a Barilla pasta spot, with Bella Figura just oozing out of every pore. Michael Moore is legend here. Knowing your footage might be seen by millions worldwide? Italians rarely show their pock marks and warts––you’d think with that kind of positive spin that Italians would be the happiest people on earth. So much for The Secret.

So, let’s get down to brass tacks:

We are a family — While I’m sure there are many family-owned businesses that treat their workers like a family (
so much so that they even share the same bed with a few of the office hotties during those fabulous lunch breaks), the “I love it when they punch out and take 6 weeks vacation - it’s good for business” is a pile of porchetta droppings. I had but one other person in my tiny office and when she’d bolt to the door every day at 18.01 like Barney & Fred, even in the middle of a huge deadline, I would have a mini-meltdown. No matter, I was the only one at the office who would see it. How do you say Yabba dabba doo in Italian?

The man who stated that these incredible workers’ rights were fought for with blood, sweat and tears speaks the truth. In the 1970s, anarchists were cutting down company heads and just a few years back a leading economist was struck down for merely suggesting labour reform. The consequences of business’s antipathy toward workers has lead to Italy’s amazing automation of factories, from Torino to Detroit. My (Italian) boss would quip that America, with its millions of workers, was effectively pre-industrial, while Italy had brought robots in to do the job of dozens of people - post-industrial. Stop to take a look at garbage collection, with 1 guy in 1 truck pushing a button versus Americans pitching bags into the back of a truck and you'll see there is a lot of truth to that.

Photo credit: Daniele Leone / LaPresse
Factory upon factory, owners would proudly claim how technology had allowed them to replace 70 people with just a single robotic line - and with this technology, came a 50% jobless rates besides. All in the quest to avoid the cost of hiring employees who later can't be fired - even if they end up in prison.
Lunch Breaks
- While it’s true that companies still break for lunch and provide veggie-laden cafeterias, go to Milano, where it’s far more commonplace to wolf down a sandwich with an espresso chaser. Street food has taken off here for a reason, and not just because it’s all people can afford now that unbridled tourism has heralded in $18 pasta plates. Notwithstanding, it still beats the herd of employees across the USA waddling to their cars to drive across the 5 lane highway to McDonalds & KFC drive-thrus on a daily basis.

Salaries — The young couple was correct. Their paltry salaries may allow them a modicum of quality of life, but let's face it: the average city councilman in a lovely hill town makes the same as Barack Obama, while the 600 strong bloated parliamentarians (in every way) take home two or three times as much, and that's before bribes, lifetime pensions (that carry to spouses and children too) lining offshore bank accounts well before retirement age. It's no wonder most youth aim to "enter politics" - it's the only money-making scheme in the country.
Just as in the USA, wages have been stagnant since 1992. Nonetheless, Italians manage to live better than your average American working three jobs. I believe it's due to their sharing of living quarters with mamma and papa’ up into their 30s. Salting away their pay, while someone else covers all your living expenses (even clothing and Thai resort vacations) and then coughing up the down payment on your house or buying it outright, definitely allows for handy disposable income with which to treat yourselves benissimo

As for the 13th paycheck? Yes, it’s true. Sometimes it’s even 14 (an extra one in August in order to enjoy your 4 week holidays all the more). But it’s a psychological tactic on the order of David Copperfield: Your annual labour-contracted salary is divided into 13 slices; allowing for gift giving and holiday meals all together as a family. I always liked the concept, but I still beg to differ when people quip how they get an “extra” month’s pay. No, you don’t. Pure and simple.

Labour laws providing for honeymoon time off is a wonderful family-friendly practice. You’d think that Italy would have transformed itself into a Mormon colony just to get those extra 2 weeks. [I mean, this is the place where the “legally blind” are regularly caught behind the wheel.] But pregnancy benefits have gone way too far. A new mother needs two months off before the baby is born? To what end? In Italy, it is oft-seen as bad luck to buy baby stuff prior to the birth, and baby showers are unheard of…All this time off means that young women are not welcomed with open arms into companies that is, unless it's into the open arms of the Company owner. 

The rub is, that while Italian women have given up on giving birth altogether (another sign of economic distress), they still don't get hired. Go figure.

Health Care - I haven’t seen enough of the movie to weigh in on whether or not Moore tackled Italy’s healthcare, but it was recently reported that it had one of the best in the world. Not sure about that (living in Italy, I'm healthier than the average American and don't have a general practitioner) but certainly, Italy’s physicians are top-notch and ply their trade worldwide, saving lives in both research and in the operating room. Not a day goes by that another Italian research team doesn’t come out with yet another amazing discovery. When an esteemed Italian doctor I know living in the USA needed a liver transplant for his son, he came to Italy. Imagine what they could do if they were actually funding R&D instead of lavish homes of politicians and government bureaucrats. Nonetheless, it makes it all the more risible when Berlusconi, waxing prolific on the wonderful health system we have, jettisoned straight to the USA the moment a cancer cell appeared on his sun-kissed skin (or maybe we just have better plastic surgeons in the USA? I mean, compare the stunning Sharon Stone to Donatella Versace...)

It is my experience that Italy does, indeed, take quite good care of its citizens, offering them regular checkups and so forth (it’s what the elderly do instead of playing bridge). On the downside, it is said people needing a mammogram may have to wait months, and beds are allotted to the highest bidder--an illegal practice which I hear goes on in the USA as well. But at least, people do not have to sell their house to undergo life saving treatment. Physical therapy - and even spa treatments - are considered part of recovery. In a country where a slight breeze or air conditioning unit can cause every sort of malady, people are allowed to stay home when they are sick, with no reprisals (other than the surprise doctor visits to make sure you're not in Capri instead). In the USA, you have to use up your ‘sick days’ and vacation time to bring a new life into the world. Sure, old people are lined up in hallways on stretchers, families need to bring in bottles of water, and waiting rooms are eerily reminiscent of an Iranian torture chamber, but I suppose you can say that on the whole, national health care in Italy is as humanitarian as can be.  Americans should only be so fortunate.

Live links in color above