Sunday, May 10

Good Form

Why are you out and about? I'm out of paper and toner from printing out self-declarations...  

A fab way to get around printing the forms...
From the folks who gave us t-shirts with a
seatbelt printed on it (used in Naples!) ;)
In the time of coronavirus, the Italian 'bella figura' has taken on new significance. No, I'm not talking about those designer facemasks coming out from Gucci or Prada. But the forms that have accompanied us during the crisis. Rather than simply asking a driver, "Where are you headed?" when the crisis hit, bureaucrats from the island of Lipari to Lodi in Italy's north (and the epicenter) quickly came up with 'the form'.
I have an entire chapter in my book dedicated to the 5-dimensional one-sided chess game that is Italian bureaucracy. In it, I describe how I believe these administrative contortions actually do a better job than the BrainWell app. They keep our Italian octogenarians as sharp as tacks. 

And because Customer Service is also a challenge in the Bel Paese, every so often, out would issue an addendum to the previous form, essential to brandish should we have the temerity to exit our homes. Now that we're relatively free to roam in Rome, a new form accompanies our excursions.
I used to muse about the poor blokes in the back office of the Italian post office – the ones that took our 4 copies of receipts all duly signed for no apparent reason when we retrieved a registered letter. Who were these guys forced to match signatures with the i.d. cards that the poor clerk would take a copy of somewhere between the window and the break room (and from the time lag involved, stopping for an espresso along the way)? I'm certain they kept monks in monasteries well-employed for centuries. So who's checking your 'self-declarations'? I long for the days the cops could just pull you over and inquire, "Where are you going?" Because these forms - and, judging by the increase in traffic and pedestrians over the past week - are thankfully not putting a dent into our newfound freedoms. Just a furrow in our forests.

Collect the first volume of your Self-declarations! 

Sunday, March 22

The Coronavirus Blues

As the cases rise and rise and rise some more in Italy, the tragedy that has befallen our Bell' Italia has certainly made headlines the world over. The loss of life and systemic stretching of all our healthcare resources belies comprehension. Healthcare personnel, often paid less than your average Walmart worker, are in full force working 12 or 15 hour shifts, meaning they're getting paid even less than an elementary kid's corner lemonade stand earns, hour by hour – just to be where they were trained to be in our time of need. Tirelessly trying to save the predominantly elderly of our nation, a place where nonni – often the main caregivers of the country's bambini – are as revered as the Statue of David itself. 

I count myself lucky. As a dog owner, I get to go out and about, to take in the stillness, and watch as some of my elderly neighbors brave the unknown as they make their way to the pharmacy or corner store. Ever defiant, they refuse to be stuck inside.
I cross the piazza, with ease and grace. For the first time in my nearly 30 years in Italy, I am not afraid of being run down by a distracted driver, who then gives me The Hand after nearly flattening me or my dog as they race to the red light ahead. That's because, there are almost no cars on the streets. And now, road blocks with police stops are keeping it that way.
The feeling in Rome is not unlike feeling as though you, and the handful of others who cross your path, making sure to avoid each other's gaze, are survivors of an H-bomb... which left buildings intact but disintegrating on impact most of the people. You don't know why you've been spared, but here you are, picking up your mozzarella at the corner store as if nothing had changed at all.
And while my life has been for the most part unaffected, with dog walks and remote working prior to the pandemic, there are many things I miss of my Italian existence pre-Covid19 
(with trash strewn along all the streets and sidewalks not one of them).
Please feel free to add yours.

- Gaggles of old codgers lined up on benches engaged in vibrant conversations, day in, day out. It behooves me to think what they have to talk about 362 days a year, but there you have it. 
- The old ladies, in the sun, not so far behind. This is a relatively newer trend over the last decade or so. As they were usually to market in the morning and then preparing il pranzo, cleaning up afterward. I think that between male mortality rates and women living longer have given them some liberties to afford bench sitting. 
- The contented silence of the neighborhood. When it is this quiet, it usually meant that that the Roma team was playing soccer somewhere. And then, from the quiet, would spurt the occasional geyser of cheers or groans, or mostly shouts after a ref made a bad call or the other team scored. These days, no cheers ring through the condo complexes. Just silence.
- The hair stylist guy hanging in the doorway to have a smoke. We have watched our hair color change over the years, and I can't help but think each time I pass he wants me to step inside for a treatment. He's still waiting for me to become a customer.
- The florists burst of colors in the piazza. I don't think a day has gone by when I don't wonder how, exactly, the money laundering scheme on cut flowers works. Because these guys, open 24/7 have been my cold case for 30-odd years. Gone. 
- The farmer's market, where everyone has their favorite market stalls. Where they still address me with the formal greeting, 'Lei', despite my having seen them grow from middle schoolers to vegetable sellers in their own right. A quick recipe suggestion and a handful of parsley thrown in for good measure. 
- People watching at the post office. These days, people approach with trepidation (although I must admit, some things never change...). Their 6 inch thick windows made to block any productive conversation from ever transpiring, are deemed not thick enough. We now have tape to stand back even further. Just hand over the envelope and hope you don't need a pen to sign a document (4 times over) that no one will ever return to to actually verify your signature.
- The sound of coffee grinding in coffee bars across the land. If we could stand in a line for groceries, I don't know why we couldn't for cappuccino. But certainly, fewer people at their jobs reduces the rate of infection for all. 
- And finally, grandparents escorting their grandchildren around, engaged in animated conversation, no matter how old they are (both parties, intended). Now, the kids can't see the nonno...or as one exasperated young man confessed, "If I can't even give my nonna a hug, then I'd rather just sit it out and not go over there for the duration of this lockdown." Of course, he shouldn't anyway.

What are you missing? Maybe tomorrow I'll give a tidy list of the things I hope and dream will never come back. 

*If you would like to help out the medical personnel fighting on the front lines of the Coronavirus pandemic, here is a fundraiser for the hospital in Italy's northern town of Bergmao to go toward buying masks and ventilators. GOFUNDME BERGAMO HOSPITAL ASSOC.

PHOTO CREDIT:  Patellani, Federico (1911/ 1977), fotografo principale - Roma (RM), Italia, 18/04/1943

Meet Italo - Italy's Other Train Line

I have long preferred Italy's sleek train line, TrenoItalo or Italo Treno (depending on their web master's viewpoint) to Italy's Trenitalia FrecciaRossa service. I still stand by this rave review (below), although I *wish* they would add to their groovy announcements to shoo people away from the doorways when they come into the station. The smokers stand - even on the steps - to cop a quick smoke, making you walk through their disgusting nicotine haze just to find your seat.

Back in the day, I had given it the white glove treatment, and on the whole, it came out in flying colors, namely red, like the Ferrari it purports to be.  Only time will tell if it's the hullaboo of a big opening, or if their idea of putting service back into the train system will work [still going strong!]  We can monitor their five-star opening, and see if the star eventually falls out of the sky, piece by piece, like the
Red Arrow before them, or see, unlike Trenitalia, they're able to keep up the promise of You deserve better when you travel.
So, let's take my experience on the spanking new Italo train from the top:  
Anyone who's lived in Italy knows that Italians love to have two wholly different brand names for any major thing -- like Fiumicino/Leonardo Da Vinci airport, or the Mona Lisa/La Giaconda.  I'm not sure where this practice started, perhaps with Popes taking new names when they became the Big Formaggio.  So with Italo TrainsThe website says Italo, the trains are called Italo, the trains, company and other communications shout out NTV (which always makes me think that they're competing with MTV - Music Television and not Trenitalia/Ferrovie dello Stato).  
Note: They *finally* got the memo and stopped with the NTV nonsense. So now up on the board you will see ITALO, as it should be.
The website reaches near-nirvana, with its easy-on-the-eye graphics, fun things to see and do, pages that actually go where they say they will, and the ease of making a ticket purchase without having to have a PhD in deciphering hieroglyphics just to see your options.  I got two low-cost tickets for about 20 euro each to my destinations (Rome-Florence/Florence-Milan), half price on most fares.  The English website, while needing some touch-ups, is pretty much as good as it gets.
At the Rome Tiburtina railway station, a greeter welcomed us in the bowels of the station and sent us seekers of all good things to the lovely waiting room up in the piazza. Open to all travelers - not just those who have paid an annual Club Card fee.  Their friendly, informative staff helped all and sundry - and the best part was, dogs were welcome!  I would imagine that if we still had luggage carts, they would have allowed them in as well, unlike the competition.  Huge clocks right in the doorways made everyone's life easier as did the setup for laptops and recharge stations. 
[A note about the new redesign of Rome's Tiburtina train station:  Someone finally made the connection, only after 160+ years, that people traveling by train actually carry luggage.  They have built RAMPS up to the platforms. Traveling with a huge bag, doggy bag, computer bag & and other sundry items, there are no words to express my gratitude.]
On board the train, it thankfully had none of the features of the miserable Eurostar.  Seats were comfortable, made for real people under 6' 1", and bathrooms were clean.  I'll update this in a year's time (still fairly clean, especially in a Covid world). Internet on board works well, and you still don't need an internet connection, four aliases and a papal decree in order to log in and run it (see: Trenitalia).
We arrived in Milan about 20 minutes behind schedule.  Which made me wonder about the NTV logo sporting a speedy hare.  After all, even Italians grow up with the fable of the tortoise and the hare...But, I've said it before and will say it again, Italy is nothing if not brand image-challenged.  Nonetheless, even if NTV did use a tortoise logo, I will look forward to never having to venture into a Trenitalia website nor on board a Trenitalia train again.  Now, if NTV could just open up in the USA, offering hey - MTV videos as well on board, life would be a dream.

Postscript:  While I love all the creature comforts, I pray that little by little they don't whittle down all these features as their TrenItalia brethren did.  Back in the day, we were offered a banquet of customer perks from private meeting rooms to welcome drinks and free luggage check; only to see them all removed, one by one, once the customers came on board.
A 2020 Update: Well, they took away the waiting rooms and fab outlets in all the more greeters either. Their staff still remains friendly as always, and the smokers still perch in the doorways...

Pictures of my train experience can be found at Irreverent Italy Facebook page.