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 ownership...so 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.
Pinocchio...an 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 nonna...as 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 pigeon...it brings good luck.
If it rains on your wedding day...it 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 out...it'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.

 

Saturday, December 26

Italian Fashion for Kids in Italy - Seriously Mini-Me's

Even Benetton's World of Colours are often muted.
A friend of mine with a newborn was opening some gifts left at the office. She said, Now wait for it. They will be the most gorgeous clothes you've ever seen - but all in greys and blacks. I mean, the clothes here in Italy are so beautiful - you can seriously imagine yourself wearing them. But...what if I want some rainbow colors on my kid? I had to laugh. So I started paying attention to store windows, and in fact, the clothes are so stunning...but she's flat-out spot on (not polka-dotted). Greys, blues, blacks, mini-scarves looking less like Winnie-the-Pooh on a blustery day and more like what the guy was wearing in UP. Just try and Google Armani Junior: Okay, okay...It is Armani but, they are kids, aren't they?
No wonder Benetton flaunted all of their myriad colors. And it was such a break from tradition. One look around (well, okay, if you happen to be in any other city than Milan), and you get to feast your eyes on our Eastern Europeans and Latinos brightening up any dark day's color palette with their unbridled embrace of anything bright - from head to toe. It's as if you've waltzed into some sort of Alice in Wonderland at the mall moment, but in your looking glass you get to gander the gorgeous fabrics more reminiscent of the days of Soviet Empire threads.
In the end, of course, the Italians are weaned on these stunning ensembles. Once grown up, they get to strut their fabulous linen stuff to the awe of all who behold them. While we Americans, with our bold colors and outrageous get-ups, and items that double as pajamas, or throw-ons (or throw-aways) as fashion, end up with People of Walmart sites instead.

Fashion for the whole American family! At Kohl's
Word: Style. 

Saturday, November 28

It's the Great Pumpkin - Or make that...The Grande Watermelon in Italy!


Halloween may have come and gone, but for many of us who want to relish the gorgeous fall weather (even if we can't enjoy the trees changing colors before our eyes - we still have umbrella pines - ha!), it's never too late nor too early to love Peanuts. On a recent trip to Milano I visited the outstanding Comics Museum, or WOW! Spazio Fumetto, worth going off the beaten track just for their bookshop alone. They were hosting an outstanding collection of Peanuts old and new, with amazing interactive tables revealing past cartoon strips and movies, original prints and letters from the inimitable Charles M Schulz, the first "Chuck", as Peppermint Patty would no doubt have had the audacity to call him to his face. 
Italians have always loved Peanuts - even producing their own catalog of cartoons, Linus. Not as popular as Topolino (Mickey Mouse & friends), but he's a tough one to beat: I believe it outsells the Bible 'round these parts - with or without our beloved Pope Francis.
So the collection also revolved around Italian lore in the world of the tiny characters. And as the Curator took me through the rooms, I was stunned to learn that the Big Great Watermelon - Il Grande Cocomero as it were - was not a mistake in translation, but actually intentional. 
This was disappointing for two reasons: First, because I have long held up the Grande Cocomero as an example of what gets lost in translation...We can only guess what the Bible stories originally held for the masses...When it went from ancient Aramaic, to Ancient Latin, to Ancient Greek and back again before going into Italian then English. I mean, pumpkin to watermelon? I shudder to think of the generations of young children who saw pumpkins here and there, and insisted they were watermelons. To say nothing for the mistaken seasons. I mean, watermelon in November? It reminds me of my college Italian prof - who I am convinced delighted in leading us seriously astray - telling us to always ask for the gabinetto, when we needed to go to the loo. Turns out, I asked many a hostess if I could use her outhouse until some good samaritan finally corrected me on that account.
Secondly, the translators actually chose it - because they wanted a masculine version of Babbo Natale, or Santy Clause...and thus they sneered at the Grande Zucca (feminine). They felt they had to come up with a macho veggie that grew in patches in the great outdoors. I find this explanation quite ridiculous. First and foremost, for the visual cue that is hiding in plain sight, much like the Great Pumpkin himself. Green watermelons / orange pumpkins, but hey, who can tell? But I'm irked by the fact that Italians, much earlier and more prominent than ol' jolly-faced St Nick, an import, have always celebrated their own gift-giving lady...La Befana. Clearly they could have made the Zucca a Zucca and everyone would have been the wiser.
Anyone who follows my blog or Twitter account knows that I am relentless in sticking up for the invisible women of Italy. Our society chooses to ignore them unless of course it's mealtime (Master Chef excepted) or when they feel amorous, or worse, like killing someone.
So, just like Linus learned...an in
visible force of women...is much like the Great Pumpkin: Everyone says you don't exist...but I believe in you. So to the publishers in 2015, I would say, bring us the Grande Zucca once and for all.

Thanksgiving in Italy-Fine Feathered Friends

For Thanksgiving, I bring my annual tradition of posting one of my earliest entries on celebrating this very American tradition as an expat...Today, or often over the weekend, people are breaking bread (well, actually stuffing) with their native friends, and many foreign faces as well. So, wherever you are, enjoy your own Festa di Ringraziamento!

Spending time in the USA during my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, well, makes me think about all those wonderful Thanksgiving Days celebrated by all us 'expats' in our adopted countries. In much the same way that Italy (and Europe, for that matter) have adopted Halloween as their own, well, in industrious Milan or places like Geneva or Lausanne, even the store owners get ready when Thanksgiving comes around the corner.  It's so popular, you now need to order the bird in advance.  Those same stores stock their shelves with many items that ordinary Italians would probably have fed to their pigs if they had them.

Although Italians eat lots of turkey, they seriously don't eat - much less prepare - the 15kg. version -- whole. But, right around the last week of November, you could ask the butchers to purchase and then hold onto the whole bird. And this was terrific. Aside from providing the butchers and cashiers a bit of holiday entertainment, you (along with your bird) would be the center of attention. One year, they were so confused by our request, a friend ended up with an 11kg bird for the price of one kilo: 3euro95. Even after questioning the amount, they insisted the price was right...let's just say given the cost of things here, we had lots to be thankful for that year!

Surprisingly, Thanksgiving in Italy brings one lots closer to the original Thanksgiving feast. First, there's the shipping of all the canned foodstuffs, probably not unlike the stuff our forefathers brought in huge wooden crates to and from the New World. Americans start filling up empty suitcases with goodies like cans of pumpkin and cranberry, Stovetop stuffing mix, and packs of Jiffy cornbread (because polenta just doesn't do the trick).


Me with one bird that doesn't need
de-feathering!
But, in a nod to those original pilgrims, I must say, it's the turkey. While we don't have to quite break its neck & clean out its gizzards (although, if you forget to request it, you might just end up with the whole thing, head and all), we all get a bit tripped up by something never quite seen in an American home -- all those feathers. Or, feather tips, rather.
While in America, you get something that very remotely resembles the animal from whence it came; here, you're reminded that this was, in actual fact, a bird -- feathers and all. And so, you learn how, exactly, one rids oneself (or one's turkey) of his down without actually peeling the whole skin off, feather tips and all. I can just imagine those early pilgrims trying to figure this one out: the Indians furious that their guests tried cutting away the feathers along with the tasty (and fatty) skin. No wonder so many died of hunger. So, ignoring old traditions of plucking, you find your best gas-powered flame thrower, and start burning away.

Although no matter how long you painstakingly go about de-feathering, there are always a few tough ones left over-- kind of like those grey hairs you try so hard to dye. And, while I must say, this process does not make me nostalgic for the huge butterball turkeys with a self-popping thermometer inside, it does add a bit to your preparation time.

The last problem you must face in serving your feast, is that, contrary to popular belief, Italians do not feast, least of which during a non-Catholic holiday, and especially, in the evening. So, that annual pigging out fete sort of falls a bit flat, with each Italian carefully choosing their primo (mashed potatoes & stuffing), the secondo (turkey), and the contorno (veggies), and questioning why one must eat 'family style' and not one dish at a time. They barely fill their plate, never mind second helpings. Stuffing is seen as an alien life form and desserts, well, whoever heard of a dessert made from a vegetable?

So, while the rest of us heap up our plates again and again, and then start loosening our belt buckles, well, judging by our girths, we can see why Thanksgiving is a wholly American phenomenon.