Wednesday, October 29

Cinema Paradiso

In honor of Rome's fabulous Festival del Cinema currently taking place, I thought I’d offer my own little ‘movie-watching guide’ to the Bel Paese. After all, Italians are great movie buffs and the dubbing is exceptional, save for the super strange voice that crops up now and again (like hearing a high-pitched Cary Grant, or an L.A. gang member speak perfect Milanese). But, once you get over the fact that mouths don’t move quite in sync with the words, you’re good to go. You settle in your chair, and today, you can even enjoy a bucket of popcorn to munch on right by your side. It’s as good as it gets, or so you think.

Until comes that moment, somewhere halfway into the film, at that crucial point where scriptwriters, directors, costume designers and casting agents, actors and accountants, having spent literally millions to get you to extend all critical judgment, follow the story, hit the climax and actually... Believe.. in the magic of movies…
Suddenly, you are transported -- into a bright-lit auditorium, people chatting and flitting about as if in a cafè, and, if you’re lucky, you'll find a vendor wandering around offering you Coca Cola and ice cream.


You find yourself staring at the screen in absolute disbelief. It's like watching the last frame of Gallipoli, where the screen goes pitch black. You look up anxiously to the cameraman, hoping he is obviously taking care of the problem. Surely there must be a problem. I mean, the film just cut out – just like that – and in mid-sentence, no less. But then, in this split second of sheer panic, you are suddenly transfixed. On the screen, like a scene from Friday the 13th, something horrible has just appeared. Huge letters cross the screen: INTERVALLO.

And you spend that intervallo pondering the serious lobotomy of the person who could ever – ever – have actually thought this was a good idea. You place your bets on the candy seller, obviously the son of the cinema owner, who needed a leg up with his livelihood. You wonder if the floor can just open up underneath him and have him fall into a bottomless pit just like in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then again, you think about how charming this all truly is, kind of reminding you of a Norman Rockwell painting of theater-going days gone by. You wonder how you could petition movie directors from Hollywood to Bollywood to get them to stop this virtual decapitation of their films.

Your mind continues to wander, but now the house lights are dimmed and the film is back on. By now, you have forgotten the entire plot. You pray they rewind a bit - just like at home when the phone rings while watching a movie. You struggle to find your way back to Siriana or Fargo, you try to be let back in to Willy Wonka’s factory and what was Wall-E doing 5 minutes ago? Finally, mercifully, you sink back in your chair and beg your brain to turn off the conversations going on in your head.

Sixteen years on, and each time, it hits me like I’ve just come face to face with Sigourney Weaver’s Alien. Enjoy the show!

Monday, October 27

If I Could Turn Back Time

This weekend, Italians changed their clocks (well, many of them...mine are still all wrong). Around Rome, where the public clocks are right only twice a day, this event will have little bearing on our movements. In Milan, on the other hand, with Germanic timing, those clocks lining nearly every street at the stroke of 2 slip back to 1am.

But what really intrigues me about this event is what must transpire to get people (City of Rome excepted) to go on board with the whole rigamaroll. After all, they could, like the State of Arizona, just not do it. So, while in America, clock-turning is cheerily branded, 'Daylight Savings', Americans buy into the concept pretty handily...after all, who wouldn't want to save, and get the extra bonus feature of extra daylight?!! It's a 2-for-the-price-of-one special if I ever saw one.

In Italy, it's drearily called, 'Ora Legale' -- basically, stating, as most everything here,

"This is a Top-Down decision which you have no control over and since it must be this way, we're going to confer legality so any rogue provinces can't get away with doing without it. Got that? It's Legal. We mean it."

It's the daylight version of those ubiquitous 'VIETATO' signs which are stuck to nearly every single surface around...in an attempt to scare people into servility. My favorite?
The new "Welcome Passengers, enjoy your trip!" sign plastered in 8x10 humongous lettering at the entrance to Rome's Train Station. (I will remind you, it's almost entirely open air):

Thursday, October 23

An Italian Bailout

A lot of people have been asking me how America’s financial meltdown is affecting us over here in the Bel Paese. And, the true answer is, not much, thank you. And while they’re predicting a sure recession and all that goes with it, the sound you hear of the gears of productivity, growth and fiscal levity grinding to a slow halt have been resounding long before America’s blood bath.

In fact, Italy, has spawned an entire generation of mammonis whose only skill is how to live (well) off of mamma & papà (mamma for the cooking, cleaning and clothes, papà for the dough, expenses and fabulous cars and trips). Rather than be entirely productive, Italy is having a problem playing catch up with the rest of Europe, if not the rest of the world. The 1970s boom allowed parents to invest in properties, things, and all sorts of trappings, leading to the coddling of offspring to the point of inertia. From time to time, reporters enjoy getting the boy/man-on-the-street interviews, asking them how they’re coping…astoundingly, most proudly declare, they live off of daddy. So, with the low productivity, high competition, and out of control inflation (post-euro), the economy was already well in free fall long before Wall Street was.

Then, there’s the housing/mortgage crisis. Again, while cheap mortgages did take Italy by a storm, here it didn’t blow so hard and so fast. Italy still has a long tradition of home purchases for the kiddies; rarely do parents take out those mortgages. Defaulting on your mortgage? Italians don’t need the nanny state to bail them out, they get it from their own mamma state (tax and interest free, no less). I know dozens of mammas who currently fork over (from their retirement savings) the monthly mortgages, cars, and vacations of their adult kids. Call it an umbilical cord of credit.

The problem is, and I’ve been asking myself this question for years, how are these kids – with low savings, nonexistent means, under-employment, and high costs going to provide for their kids once the Boomer Generation (and I mean those who lived through the 1970s boom) are gone, along with their savings?

You want a bail out? The Italians are currently using buckets with holes in them in order to keep this ship afloat.

Monday, October 20

A Place Where Time Stands Still

This past weekend, there was an amazing Flea Market here in Rome. Amazing, not for its size or scope, but for the fact that it took place in the first place.

You see, Italy still remains unwaveringly beholden to the Bella Figura lifestyle, in all its forms of expression. And, selling your used belongings is one of the last bastions. In fact, for Italians, they believe that the Mercato delle Pulci means that the stuff most certainly is full of fleas. Basically, you will never find great pickings perched curbside in Italy. For us New Yorkers, rummaging down Madison Avenue was almost a weekly pastime. I have furnished entire kitchens, recovered gorgeous sofas and resurrected fine chaise lounges from the pickings.

In the U.S. suburbs, signs even on the haughtiest of boulevards call out ‘Garage Sale’. Almost everyone takes a drive by to see what's on offer.
In Italy, these signs are tantamount to declaring, “My husband ran off with his 20 yr. old lover leaving me unemployed and penniless and my children in torn rags playing in the gutters, so I have nothing left but to sell my dishes."

There is, however, another reason for this madness. The Tax Man. Basically, the government wants to get its hands on “unofficial business” or, the 20% Value Added Tax receipts (even though you already paid in spades at the cashiers' for the items in the first place). So, if you wanted to hold a garage sale, you’d have to first obtain a permit (5 years), then open a business (another 2 years and $48000 later), and then issue receipts for your business engagement. In fact, since the advent of Ebay, the government continues to wrack its collective brains about how they can ‘stick it’ to all these mega-millionaires out there selling their Spiderman action figures, old Topo Gigios and outdated Readers Digest cassettes.

Thus, in building after building, apartment after apartment, people confine in sort of makeshift museums the hordes of grandma’s china, huge ugly-as-sin dressers, clothes, nightstands, videotapes and every sort of object inherited over the decades – never to be thrown out and certainly not to be sold. Italy's housing shortage is not due to the fact that apartments are filled, but rather, that they are left empty as warehouses of generations of belongings.
In the event that you actually do find an apartment rental, you are forced to live with the cheesy junk as it was left, circa 1947. And I ask, what kind of Bella Figura do you cut when friends come over for dinner?

Friday, October 17

Those Dastardly Brits

Once again, I am compelled by the absurdity of the situation to look beyond my borders to bring you some news: A quick look through the local papers, and it would appear the Brits like making as many inane laws as the Italians. Whereas usually in Italy it's the judges who bring down wildly incomprehensible sentences...like when one said a woman who is raped while wearing jeans is obviously consenting to the act...for the difficulty of taking them on/off (never mind she might have a gun to her head)...Or, that 36 year olds living at home are entitled to an allowance.


But these days, it's the UK that seems to be taking the cake.

- First they are toying with a ruling that would allow -- I repeat, allow, teachers to have sex with students, even minors. Or, not make it a felony, in the very least.

- Then, in a country in which dozens of young men have died by knifings, a fashion house decided to take advantage of the exploding market and sell a coat with a knife already in the pocket...I guess they're putting new meaning to the word pocketknife. They're looking into a law against this one.

- But, to moderate the violence, they passed a law that it would be a crime for parents to hit children which leave marks. But, many lawmakers don't think that goes far enough, so they want to include slapping in the bill, too. So, who's going to tell the tots what their rights are? And, how to dial emergency when it should happen?

- And lately, the government has been entertaining the possibility of introducing (or not) Sharia law in the UK. Considering that the number 1 name over there is now Mohammmed, perhaps that wouldn't be such a hot idea right about now.

And the UK Independent newspaper actually had the nerve to whinge...(and directly quote Byron I might add), "that in Italy, if it's fun, there's probably a law that outlaws it"...
At least Italy appears to be going in the right direction!

Tuesday, October 14

Francesca Maggi's...Strange But True!

It's not only the markets that are behaving erratically...it seems everyone is losin' it these days...

- In an unprecedented display of pent up hostility, a man hopped over the counter and started pummeling a Post Office clerk.

I say it was probably for refusing to sell stamps or take a letter because the address wasn't written in black ink. And, his frustration was probably at the hands of the same teller who attempted to refuse my letter because I wrote UK instead of Gran Bretagna.
So now we know the real reason behind those thick glass windows...it's not for the oodles of money they handle on a daily basis, it's to prevent incidents like this one from occurring. Or, as a clerk smugly responded when I said I could not hear her through the glass, "That's what it's for".

- And, speaking of being pummelled, a High School Prof of fine arts was socked in the face by an irate student. After 32 years of service, he has decided to quit his job.
Now I'm not one to incite violence, but...have we perhaps finally discovered one way to get these guys to relinquish their positions so that younger people can finally step in and make their way up the ladder?

- They instituted at the Office of the President of the Republic, turnstiles to track employees' comings and goings in an effort to reduce absenteeism. Already, absenteeism had gone way down.
But one guy who had gone hunting with a friend (not Dick Cheney) during office hours and was shot in the leg, later claimed it had happened while at work and tried to claim workman's comp among other things.
Thankfully, they have since proved him wrong and are throwing the book at him. He may -- I stress may -- even lose his job.

- A woman who nearly missed ending up paralyzed by work from a fraudulent dentist went and filed a complaint with the 'authorities'. Their esteemed response? 'Take your case to the satirical comic show, Striscia la Notizie (a sort of SNL of Italy) and you might get faster and better results.' Well, that's what she did.

- And finally, in the ultimate test of sheer chutzpah, two on-duty taxi drivers were caught on film jumping out of their cabs just in time to steal two vespas and hide them, before going back on duty...They too, will most likely get to keep their jobs...

Saturday, October 11

The Hospitality of Hosting Ospiti

I’ve had wonderful friends from Milan staying with me this week; quite a houseful with their two little kids. Needless to say, it’s been great and very unstressful.
That’s because, when you have Italian house guests, you really don’t have to do anything save for a pot of espresso each morning. Most Italians don’t even do breakfast, and if they do, it consists of a few cookies dunked in their milk or bambiniccino (my word).

But, even better, you don’t have to do any tidying up prior to arrival. In fact, you can remove every single thing from every single surface, including the pillows on the couch, sterilize the kitchen counters, shine up the fixtures until they glow, and banish the dog to the balcony – with no effect whatsoever: No matter what you do, when they first walk in, the house will still be considered by all an absolute wreck ready for demolition. In fact, your guests will appear a little nervous thinking that homeless people will be at the door at any moment to rifle through the rubble. No matter what you do, your house will never ever come close to the cleanliness bar set by a typical Italian household.

The next advantage is, you don’t ever have to do laundry. Incredibly, considering that this is the land of high-thread-count Frette sheets, Armani towels, and hand-spun linens, you can just save your money. That’s because, Italian house guests come with their own linens. At first, I thought it was a most-outlandish practice, especially since they don’t know my bed size (U.S. sizes no less). But now, I kind of revel in the lack of work involved post-visit.

And, finally, if you cook in, since no Italian worth their sale fino would ever entrust an American to cook their pasta (and rightly so), you get time off on that front, too.

I have now understood why the word Ospite in Italian means both “host” and “guest” -- they are one in the same!

Wednesday, October 8

Attenzione Tutte le Mamme!

This is so serious, I've decided to make my very own PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT. Of course, it's a weak attempt on my part to change centuries of Fear of Air in the Italian mamma psyche. But, there is one thing that trumps all the superstitions and unfounded fears: Health Issues. Take one look at the hordes of people visiting the local pharmacies here, and you'll see what I mean. But I digress.

This little bit of news, not picked up by any Italian newspaper, lest it spark a mad rush on pediatricians' offices, hospitals, psychologists and, not least of which, appliance stores, is earth shattering in its boldness:

PLACING FANS IN AN INFANT'S BEDROOM WILL REDUCE THE LIKELIHOOD OF SIDS - SUDDEN INFANT DEATH SYNDROME.

I'll write in Italian, just for good measure in the hopes that just one mamma out there actually reads my blog:

UN VENTILATORE NELLA CAMERA DI LETTO DI UN BEBE' POTREBBE PREVENIRE LA MORTE IN CULLA (SIDS)

Obviously, that implies that the fans are turned on each evening.

And of course, for you Italians out there, that would also imply that the fan goes on in your bedroom since that's probably where the baby will be for the next 12 years of his life.

Hopefully, this Public Service Announcement can stop the shutting of all windows, doors, sealing of cracks and other means of restricting all air to the little bambini of the Bel Paese.

Click here to read full report (or see side panel Notizie).

Friday, October 3

Italian Traditions: something to die over

I’m sorry to report that the old lady upstairs passed away. She was 89. How I found out about this of course, wasn’t from the fact that I no longer heard her drag her daily chair across my forehead each morning at 6:25am sharp. Nor, was it the sudden drop in centimeters of dust and threads that she enjoyed shaking out over my balcony each and every day.

I discovered the event upon coming home to find the front door of our building layered in 29 ft. long grey velvet drapes with gold trim. I naturally figured that either the Pope was coming to visit or that Liberace had just moved into that empty first floor apartment.
Turns out, I was wrong on both accounts.

In Italy, you will not find the traditional funeral parlours as depicted in “Six Feet Under”. The funeral parlour comes to you, so to speak. They decorate the doorways, and for a few days you get to contemplate the sands of time passing; along with the bonus of feeling like you’re going to either meet your maker or the Wizard of Oz each time you bring home your groceries.

Thankfully, people aren’t laid in state in the home anymore. There’s a nice little room right at the hospital for these sorts of activities. Very cold and uninviting, people congregate in the corridors as if waiting to give blood. I almost expected to get some cookies and juice after paying my last respects. Actually, I believe this is either seriously poor marketing, or a strong case for unusual efficiency.
Think about it: “Mamma, look on the bright side! If the operation doesn’t go so well, we’ll all be waiting for you just downstairs near the lobby!”
Funerals themselves are much the same as in the U.S., if they take place in big cities. But in little towns, everyone walks to the cemetery behind the hearse with singing choir people bringing up the tail. It may not be Six Feet Under, but, it sure can feel a lot like the Godfather Part II.

Wednesday, October 1

Tante Belle Cose - Sept08

Well, this month has been filled with good news--largely because in September, my free papers returned to print, so, I've been able to find the good news to begin with! But, above and beyond the fact that Alitalia got it's flight license renewed (and you know, in some circles, that's not such good news), here are a few choice pickings:


TrenItalia caved to pressure and rescinded its dog ban...Trevor is quite pleased about this one. And don't worry, all you non-dog people out there, he still prefers traveling in his doggy bag.
In the meantime, no one over there can truly explain how those dozens of dogs wreak more havoc than those millions of passengers...

Speaking of cleaning things up...my very own late night drives around town can confirm that the prostitutes are out of business (at least the street walkers, anyway). Rome's mayor started giving fines to those who stopped for a "chat" and, lo and behold...business was down.
Not that he truly resolved the issue -- turns out they've just set up shop outside the city limits.

The EU has brought down the ax on the Telecoms Companies -- stating that the charge for text messaging (sms) is out of hand and out of line. Naturally, Italian sms msgs cost even more than the rest of the Europe. So, look for declining phone bills shortly.
Perhaps because Italy is the land of Dante, Cicero, poets and priests...could it be that our messages are just longer, thus justifying the cost?

And, Italy finally joins most of the real world, in that little children can finally take their mothers' last names. This is Big Stuff and all the more important given the divorce rate.
Although, it did lead one commentator to speculate, 'what with the Mamma-society we already are, what will be left now for Dear ol'Dad??'