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.
videoAnd 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

Monday, May 9

Sidelined at Komen Race for the Cure

...or, why I won't be racing in this Main Event of the Year. 
The Italians have totally embraced the incredible importance of the Komen cause. Its branch is the oldest international organization in the league, and I believe pretty much the most successful. If nothing else, the Komen race did something absolutely Herculean (or Amazonian, rather) It raised awareness of women and their breasts from both women and men alike [Plastic surgeon's office and reality TV aside].
All in all, we get a magnificent day out, with families, sponsors and lots of smiles - starting at the Circus Maximus and pretty much winding thru the main sights of Rome before ending with ice cream, games and loud music. It doesn't get much better than that.
Except for one thing.  A recent article - to cite support for the race and underline the importance of the dire situation and promise of a cure - suggests that breast cancer cases in Italy will go UP by about 50% in the next few years. Making it all the more important to run our butts off so sponsors will donate more money, right?
Wrong. I believe we should be Racing Against the Cause not racing for the cure.

Untold millions have been spent annually on funding research trying to come up with a cure. But until Komen puts their oodles of money into fighting Monsanto protection laws, removing the lead in our lipstick, cutting the flow of rivers of antibiotics poured into our poultry, combating the cancer-causing ingredients in most everything we put in and on our bodies, they can and will - continue to raise untold amounts of money - which we'll always need more of as cases rise, and rise and rise.
So no. I won't partake in this un-Merry-go-Round of receiving hush money from sponsors and support from survivors while mad-with-greed multinationals carelessly (or is it carefully?) pour cancerous agents into our skin, onto our products, over the soil, high in the skies and down into the seas. 
[A major sponsor is Johnson&Johnson. That's right, the Company now found to have convinced millions to put talcum powder on our babies, in their diapers, in our panties and panty liners...and who is now facing an onslaught of lawsuits on behalf of the thousands of Ovarian Cancer victims. It's one thing to allow Philip Morris to support the Arts. It's quite another to have as your main sponsor a company causing the very thing you are up against.]
Komen needs to put an end to this rat race to the bottom and put their money into politicking and policies that will stop these nefarious profit-driven societal cancers right in their black-ribboned tracks.

Sunday, May 1

In Vino Veritas? Not in Italy

For a fully wine-producing country (whose output has just outpaced France), truth doesn't seem to flow out of the carafe all so easily. In fact, anyone who has read my book will know that I entertain a number of theories on why Italians play so fast and loose with the truth [Spoiler Alert: I think it goes back to Judas or Brutus...and their lofty place in history]. And while these attitudes flummox newcomers and tourists in equal measure, I must say that decades on...It sometimes gets the best of us old-timers, especially when you're faced with a flurry of truthiness all at once.
And so it was, when I woke up and went to my wondrous bar and noticed they no longer touted my brand, Illy Caffè, which is the only reason I would pay as much as a bag of espresso beans for a single, solitary cuppa. No more snazzy cups, no cute little lists of ways you can drink a flavored Illy coffee that would put Starbucks to shame. And worse, the coffee sucked. So I mentioned that I noticed the brand had changed...Emphatically, they insisted that no, it had always been this coffee...but maybe a while back under previous on and so forth. So earnest was their protest, I started thinking I had the wrong coffee bar.
Returning home,  the doorbell rings. It's one of a posse of faux Energy Utility guys telling me that my contract needed to be revised if I would just sign the dotted line...I rebutted that if the Company had something to tell me, they knew where to find me. By mail, or email. Then, in a case of 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em', I lied. I said it wasn't my contract to begin with. At which point he threatened me saying that if I didn't sign up a new contract, I'd be paying four times the amount and it was illegal to have a contract not in my name...and so on. I shut the door, called my utilities company who told me to --- shut the door on these jokers.
My neighbor's pipes broke, staining three walls of my office. Upstairs I go. She admitted it, but raising her hands in the air and giving me 'The Chin', said she wasn't the one responsible. Or, that she'd get someone to look at the damage the next day. Or that it was the building admin's job. Or... We'll see how long it takes to get someone to repair the damage. Italian DOC
Photo by Walt Disney Studios
Out again at the marketplace, I surveyed some clothing items, on sale at season's end. Some items looked nice, but on closer inspection, I found the stitching  coming out on each piece I happened to pick out (okay, they were on sale, after all). The retailer, like a hawk, swooped in to tell me how fabulous these items were. When I pointed out the problem with them (aiming, I admit it, for a hefty discount...) I was met with, "No, these aren't defective! This is just how the items are made!" She was insulted that I would dare suggest that her custom may be somewhat, say, of low quality [did I mention I was at a market stall?].
I walked away...scratching my head and recalling the words of my former
[Italian] boss who loved to quip that Italians didn't quite beat you at the game, as much as simply wear you down...

Friday, April 1

Nuns on a Bus

Picture from Treggia's Blog
I've said it before, and I'll say it again (and again!), Italians have a lot of superstitions. Some of them are endearing only 'cuz it reminds you of your granma...or the case may be. Others, because the Italians - having had to put up with all sorts of indecencies over the centuries, heck, millennia, always seem to find the wherewithal to pull through, perhaps laughing about the matter along the way.
And so you hear that 
if you step in dog poop, it brings good luck.
If your pooped on by a brings good luck.
If it rains on your wedding brings good luck (naturally)...
but I think these are all just to make one feel better about their apparent pitfall.

And so, it came as a surprise when I discovered that it has become somewhat legendary that should a Green Prinz car cross your path, it brings bad luck. That is, if it's full of nuns. These nun buses in fact are legend, long before Nuns on a Bus became something of a Big Deal in American politics and culture. [They even have a twitter account and hashtags, right up there with #PopeonaPlane!]
So, just one more thing to worry about on the roads of Bell' Italia...! Or as the picture I recently posted on my @IrreverentItaly Facebook Page read – ADULTS ON BOARD...We want to live too. 
Buona Fortuna!

Sunday, February 21

One of Life's Great Italian Mysteries....Solved!

Well, this is embarrassing. For 20-odd years I have invented every sort of superstition known to man in my head to explain the odd practice I found in every town from top to toe of the Italian Boot: That is, the placing of plastic water bottles - full of water - in front of one's doorway. Aside from the flag it waves reading "We're not home! Come in and make yourself at home!" I couldn't - for the life of me - figure out what those bottles meant. I asked little old ladies, even my own great-aunt who - religiously placing them out the front door - couldn't tell me why and what for. I was flummoxed, to say the least.
Okay...It's usually just a bottle or two, but these guys must seriously mean business
(photo from Tenace Concetto Blog)
And, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I never actually thought about asking Siri what she thought about it. I mean, really? She can't even pronounce Giuseppe or Stefano properly - what would she know about it? In any case, while running around Deruta (home of gorgeous Umbrian ceramic works), I was gifted with a personal tour of the Antica Fornace Maioliche & Museo of Giovanni Baiano (The Ancient Kiln of Umbrian pottery - and thru the outrageous museum in his store choc-a-bloc filled to the rim with pieces and sketches of the works since man first found fire and then heated it up to a few thousand degrees...)
Leaving the premises, I happened to ask casually, not truly expecting a real answer, what the bottles were doing there on the doorstep. And Giovanni's wife stated, "I know what they're for!!!".  Incredibly, I discovered a superstition that never made its way into my book (look out for a new print run...!)...Drum Roll, please....

Turns's to ward off kitty cats (or their pee, to be more precise).

As an unbridled cynic, of course, I couldn't just let that simple explanation stand for itself. I mean, really. Twenty-plus years, and that's all there is? [Cue Peggy Lee here]. So off to google I went.

To lighten my dismay at not googling it in the first place, I was heartened to find that the question is debated as vigorously by Italians as what the best cut from a pig is or whether or not you should add oil to your pasta water (you shouldn't). So, not even Italians knew what was up with the cat bottles. But, you can't blame them. After all, plastic water bottles haven't been around all that long (and they gotta compete with the 10 million- plus other superstitions already on file).

In my search I found that many
vets thought it was a silly waste of time. And...I gotta admit, I'm pretty much on their side. I have had cats my whole life, and I have never seen a cat want to pee on a doorway - like never ever. I mean, how would they cover their tracks? But hey, ask anyone who side-steps a ladder or a black cat...What can a few bottles outside the door hurt? Right?

Sunday, February 14

Advertising in Italy - A Course in Cross-Cultural Living

Seeing that it's awards season, I thought I'd bring one of my periodic Advertising Age round-ups on where Italy stands in communicating their special gifts to the masses. I'm afraid to say that if it weren't for plastering posters all over every single surface in town, no one would pay attention to any of it, really - Even moreso now that they're no longer allowed to show T&A just to sell fruit juice and bathroom fittings. So, here are a few of the most recent adverts to catch my eye and tease my brain:

Now, I get this ad, I really do. But that's because I know English. Since I first came to Italy and was old enough to notice these things, Italians putting English script into every ad they make has always behooved and bewildered me. I mean, very few people know all that much English so so well; least of which the now grannies who do most of the food purchasing and cooking. As for guys looking to join the Navy? Maybe. After all, the Italian word, nave - meaning boat - is quite a close match. But I just hope these job applicants aren't thinking they'll be joining a cruise line and get to play laser tag or paint ball in the evenings. 

This ad promoting Pope Frank's special Jubilee Year in Rome definitely did the trick in grabbing my attention. Especially in this season that countries - Italy among them - are  engaged in controversial and often heated debates over gay rights and civil unions and all. So while vatican blowhards, spokesmen run off on the abomination that is homosexuality, while getting caught time and again in a host of scandals from pedophilia to, defacto liaisons, well, this image basically drives the point home -- on  bus tickets and posters on all the buses besides. The two popes, cuddling so joyously in a horizontal frame...leaves very little to the imagination.
Personally, I think the genius who came up with this ad is the same guy who thought up the name Soffass for a toilet paper line and entire personal products company. There simply is no other explanation.

Make Payments, Don't Make War
I love this company. And their brilliant adverts. In fact, around the world funerary companies are making the most sense (or, given the costs of funerals, the most cents, rather) in their witty ads. Taffo is the gift that makes anyone's morning commute come alive, so to speak. Ikea used to have ads like these, and so did the City of Rome - but both now have a serious sense of humor failure - don't ask me why. But, really? How poor can advertising be when the best ones are for no laughing matter? Regardless, this wins the day along with a lot of their other ones. You decide.