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

- Arriving at Rome’s airport, you’ve already paid the ‘airport tax’ in spades.  The service you receive instead?  Forced to wait in an un-airconditioned arrivals area holding pen 40 mins or longer for your bags, that is, if they arrive in the first place.  Check to see they're not missing objects handily withdrawn by the baggage handlers--the cause for the delay.

- You first run the onslaught of nefarious Taxi drivers - the Welcoming Committee that most major cities have marginalized.  But don't worry, if you don't end up getting shaken down by one of them, you can still get 'taken for a ride' by City Taxi drivers and pay a small ransom just to get to your hotel, bags intact.  I won't bore you with the litany of excuses they will make to separate you from your money above and beyond the 48 euro flat fee.

- So, you decide to be courageous and make your way to the train station where you have to pay 14 euro - $17 for a ticket to Rome's Termini station.  Just like in ‘other capitals’, except for the fact that in London the trains arrive every 4 minutes while in Rome, you might have to wait 40 minutes on a urine-filled platform (where else to void the toilets but in a closed train station), on a good day for the ‘next train’ to arrive.  At least your nose will be prepared for the onslaught of the Calcutta scene of homeless immigrants who live at your arrival station.

So, you decide to try your luck on the local train?  Terrific – except you have to be a soothsayer to know that the train marked for ‘Orte’ actually makes stops in Rome's center. You have no idea what stop to get off at, but you recognize Trastevere and go with that.  Then, you have to know how to buy a ticket – you can wait in a long line where the ticket vendor charges an untold €1 ‘tax’ on it, just for fun.
The 20 min train ride used to cost a reasonable € 5.50.  Overnight, the price was raised 45% to €8, in view of an improved service.  Mercifully, Trenitalia has weeded out the old luggage-less train cars (it’s an airport train, after all) and provided some modicum of modernity.  But don't worry, for nostalgia, you'll find wandering gypsies day in/day out also trying to improve their quality of life - with your pocketbook and cellphone.

Jetlagged and drowsy, you suddenly need a PhD to know about stamping your ticket in the little machines.  In ‘other capitals’, trains come with conductors who take your ticket.  But Rome is one giant tourist attraction – and on arrival, ‘You’re the protagonist!’ You get to play conductor, just like at Legoland.  In case you missed the ticket machines, a conductor will come by – to charge you 50 euro for boarding a 20 minute train without a stamped ticket. 
If you’re lucky, they’ll let you out instead – only to find yourself at a station with no personnel, no ticket machines, and the only other person is the gypsy who just stole your camera out of the front pocket of your suitcase as you dragged it behind you up the flight of steps to the street.

- Or, perhaps at the airport you decide to take a taxi.  Know that, like in other capitals, you have become a lovely fish in a tank of great white sharks (the color of Rome’s cabs).  They put the meter up a notch, or charge you tariffs for items you didn’t know exist.  At the end of the trip, you’ve spent 60 euro for a 48 euro ride, but the driver doesn’t declare his ‘extra’ income on his tax returns.
Take a taxi in the city, it’ll cost you $7 just to sit down.  But, that's not an option because you can’t find one anyway.  In ‘other capitals’, taxis roam freely, people take them regularly, and, the price stays low. I guess Adam Smith was right. Incredible how that works.

- Not wanting to deal with trains nor taxis, you rent a car instead.  Don’t forget your airport tax for that audacious request.  Get the car at Termini Station, you’re charged a train station surcharge.  And after navigating between the drunks, drug addicts, crazies and homeless beggars (Benvenuto a Roma!), you start thinking that you should be paid a Tourist Tax to go and retrieve your car out of the dank urine-stained area that is Stazione Termini Terminal (clearly suffering from an incurable disease).  While loading up your car, you discover someone has just made off with the bag you left on the seat – running right by the policemen who are busy chatting in a crowd.

- You head now to your hotel, 6 bags and all, less the one that just departed.  Near the Pantheon, you manage no problem.  Except that you just got hit with an automated-traffic ticket to the tune of 70 euro for passing through the city center, naturally - where most of the hotels are located.
As every Mayor in Italy knows and banks on, forget the 6 euro tourist tax – it's 70 euro each time they go in/out of the hotel.  Cha-ching! What a nice souvenir postcard from Bell'Italia -- in their mailboxes by the time they get home.  This perk for city coffers is kept conveniently although they could easily allow rental cars to pass right through, just like cars for the handicapped.  And those poor bastards with luggage? Let ‘em walk to their hotel (or take a taxi, who takes them round and round prior to shooting over to their nearby hotel).   

- Once you're on the open road, let’s not even consider the gas charges (5 times the USA) most of which are taxes (but payable to the State) and highway tolls.  Like ‘other cities’?  Let me explain to you the meaning behind the word, ‘freeway.

- For the brave souls who manage to take a bus, drop in your €1.50 in coins and out spits your ticket.  Again, who’s to tell them that they then need to pass through a wall of people to the other end of the bus and ‘validate’ it in another tiny machine, different from this very unit.  That is, until the vigili grab hold of them – and charge them a fee for not having a valid ticket – payable immediately.  Of course, the meter maids won't hit up the other passengers, illegal immigrants with no tickets nor i.d., nor money; Roma Capitale counts on their tourist prey to always pay up with capital-and fast.   
Of course, the city spent upwards of 1800 euro each for thousands of their little stamp machines, lining the pockets of who knows how many politicos along the way.  Their real cost? about 23 euro - 56 if you count the installation. No wonder they're looking for more money.

- Visiting the monuments, you pay exorbitant prices for every activity that are proving out of reach for most Italians (even the ones who don’t pay their taxes). At least Italians get discounted tickets and students often go for free.  You fork over 7 euro just to take the elevator up on the big white Vittoriano monument, not to mention the $9 coca-cola you’ll drink once you’re up there.  For an entire family (and I don't need to remind you - since you lived in Pennsylvania - that unlike in uber-Catholic Italy, Americans still have children), things start to add up.   
And, what do you get for your 8 or 12 euro ticket entry price?  Hours standing in line at the great (and open air & uncrowded) Forum & Colosseum, longer still at the Quirinale and the Vatican Museums.  Go to the Borghese Gallery, and bouncers unceremoniously throw you out (!) after 2 hours, in order to protect the 15% that the ticket company makes on every single reservation.  Exceptional services like these certainly justify the Tourist Tax.

- You want to stop for a snack?  Caveat emptor!  In some countries, the motto is, ‘You break it, you buy it.’ In Italy, ‘You sit down, you shell it out’.  While sitting and eating is sort of standard practice the world over, in Italy, you pay double for the privilege.  No matter, you didn’t know that (you’re a tourist), so now you’re stung.   
At dinner, you pay more than the Rossi’s next to you, the bill is hand-written and unitemized, and there's a (supposedly outlawed but not enforced) ‘cover charge’ before they’ve even added in ‘service’ charges – and taxes.  Americans foolishly leave tips - I call them 'guilt tips' - besides.  Naturally, the restaurateurs don’t issue a receipt and don’t declare their income.   
You want a Tourist Tax, Mr. Mayor? Start getting ahold of your - now 22% VAT tax paid on every plate of pasta sold.  Tourists don't know it, but they spend 22% sales tax on everything they buy - but that money from gelato to jazz concerts rarely makes it to the tax man.

- You set out with your guide – She earns 15% on everything you buy – from the little rosary in Saint Mary Major to the normally 9 euro cutlet for which you were just charged 16 euro.  She earns in tax free income over 50,000 euro per year; all contributed by the ‘tax paying’ tourist.  But that doesn’t mean she’ll pay taxes on it herself.
All of these products and services for tourists offered by the very same citizens who don’t want to pay for their City services, but who then insist that roads are smooth, garbage is removed regularly, schools are open and hospitals are free for all and sundry.
Instead of forcing these people to pay up, just go after the ‘easy prey’ – A simple surcharge on tourist hotel rooms.  After all, tourists can’t vote.

Of course, looking for the tax evaders amongst your dear citizenry takes work.  But, watch out.  Tourists can – and do – vote.  With their feet and their wallets.  Take a look, Mr. Mayor, at (only available from your home or office, after all, wifi services for those out and about are such a bureaucratic nightmare, no one uses them - unlike in 'other cities' where you Click N Surf seamlessly), and you’ll be inundated with people who say, ‘Never Again.’

Have a seat in Piazza Navona and ponder this, Mr. Mayor, over a bowl of gelato for two.  If it weren't for your citizens paying your bills, that luxury would run you close to $30 – you are practically renting the table, as if the proprietors, after centuries, still have to make good on the bill to Bernini for the gorgeous fountain nearby.

Rome still manages to keep tourism alive, despite the worst financial crisis since WWII.  But, instead of prizing your tourists, better to punish them; the ones who provide so many with their livelihoods. Keep going down this track, you’ll not only lose the little income the token few honest proprietors pay in taxes, you also won’t find any tourists to tax either.  You'd think the lesson of the backlash with the Japanese tourists overcharged for their meals would have been learned.  Obviously not. Since then, it's hit the U.S.  & UK press alike - you even openly apologized:
But when the tourists stop flowing in because of this cowardly and cynical manoeuvre, let’s see what your voters then have to say about it. 

From the moment they arrive to the moment they leave, the Tourist Tax is in play – just as it has been since time immemorial when they first set up toll booths in every gate going in and out of Roma Caput Mundi. 

Sadly, nearly every city in Italy, large or small has now followed suit - levying the traffic fines as well on cars in their city centers.  In any case, I have updated this post to take into consideration all the price rises over the last two years:
20% airport taxis, 16% train fares, 50% rise on bus fares and a 1 point VAT Tax raise a gift from the Monti govt.

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 (and in Rome, it was the brain child - or at least the pocketbook of - none other than the wife of the Mayor Rutelli - cough - choke) 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 was put up on 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