Thursday, February 25

Business in Italy: Business Weak

Today I was catching up on the goings-on in my neighborhood, considering I had been absent for so long.  I mean, in the two months I was gone, a whole new building went up, trees were planted along a 200 meter strip (while the other square kilometer went barren, but hey, it’s still better than nothing), and they took down the long-standing and city-block long OPEL ASTRA sign perched high above a huge building.  I mean, is Opel still making cars anyway?  I don't think after 25 years of seeing that sign, I've ever seen one.

In a charming little park in nearby (and even more charming – if you only look at the architecture and not the people), Garbatella, they launched a free wifi service.  In December.  On a trial basis.
While I’m hoping the trial lasts 'til the good weather comes, my conspiracy theorist in me thinks that looks may be a bit deceving. Most likely, the ‘winner’ of this deal came under the old government, the new government has to let them in, but by allowing them to set up shop in winter, thus no hits, they can close them down where an ‘amico’ of the current city government gets the contract – just ripe for the summer pickings like figs off a tree.

I had previously reported that Rome also launched last November, their fabulous Tourist Angels service.  These are people on wildly decorated modern chariots
(Segways in disguise) who will cart around Piazza di Spagna and environs hoping
to help tourists. Whether they’ll race after the pickpocket who just swiped
your wallet is another story: probably not in their job description.  This, like the wifi service, is great news and a long time coming (give or take 2000 years, I’d say—Imagine: if they’d had these guys in the day, the Pantheon may never have been stripped of its bronze in broad daylight).
But, November?  When there are precisely 12 tourists?  Not to mention the 68 days of rain and the snowfall that followed (the ads alone should have been removed for false advertising).  Lends more credence to my conspiracy theory by the minute.

And, if you don’t believe me, as the Rome n’Bike guys.  The Spanish company, Cemusa had won the favour of someone somewhere and gotten those red bikes placed strategically all around Rome. On a trial basis.   
Rome’s Mayor later came out strongly in favor of this great service for citizens and tourists alike.  As well he should:  It was unceremoniously taken over by the city-owned transport company, ATAC. You know, the guys who bring us buses.  You’d think there’d be a conflict of interest somewhere in there, but who's counting?

And, judging from the fact that the Red bikes were stopped to give the green light to Green ones, well, hey - maybe there's nothing to my conspiracies at all -- it was all just meant to be.

Tuesday, February 23

Cancelled Checks?

When you go to nearby Switzerland, you’re always met with a vast number of indicators which demonstrate that you’re truly far, far from home.  Like my 1985 Let’s Go Europe book once remarked, “Switzerland looks like Italy with a construction grant.”
So, you boldly step off the curb and onto brightly painted yellow cross walks, and cars stop (even ahead of time) to let you pass by.

There are the always-filled doggie bag posts everywhere you look, and the newly planted tree in front of my brother’s home where the remains of a properly cut stump (vis a vis a 3ft high one) was left for about 4 months (versus 24 years and counting)…

But, one thing Switzerland and Italy have in common are the ways we make payments.  When you go to the USA, nearly everyone goes shopping for shoes or groceries armed with their pen – and their check book. Dry cleaners even prefer them.  Living in Italy, I’ve forgotten how to write them, and finally did away with them altogether. 

Italians write checks (rarely), printing and stamping all over them, “Non-transferable.”  Problem is, even though cashing those stolen checks is harder than trying to pay for your groceries in large bills, your checks still don’t arrive at their intended destination. 
So, what did those uber-efficient Swiss do?  They went one better than the Italians – they didn’t just curb their check-writing habits, they went cold turkey (or cold swiss cheese on rye)…and stopped the practice altogether.

While my brother pondered how he would send money to the only person in the Helvetica nation without a bank account, I wondered if checks shouldn’t just be a thing of the past.  But then again, I recalled my IBAN number (or Swift code).  Mine, just to confuse all and sundry, has actually the letter O mixed in there with the 17 zeros. 

No wonder Italians don’t make payments swiftly. 

Friday, February 19

Tongue Twisters - la lingua storta?

While I'm focused on language learning these days, with the launch of Up Your Bottom! I came across a real fun website from the BBC:  Your Say!  And, while perusing the site, I came across Italian tongue twisters.  I never knew these sorts of word games to be a part of the culture, as I've never come across them -- but, it makes perfect sense in a country as literary as Italy.

When I once taught English, I used to (try) to make my students learn the 'TH' by having them say, very fast:
There were thirteen thieves who threw the thing.
Needless to say, we all had a good laugh.  So, here's the best from the BBC.  Try them out for yourself:

Sopra la campa la capra campa, Sotto la panca la capra crepa.
On the field the goat roams, Under the bench, the goat dies.

Trentatré Trentini entrarono a Trento, tutti e trentatré, trotterellando. 
Thirty three Trentonians came into Trento, all thirty three trotting.

Tre tigri contro tre tigri. Trentatré tigri contro trentatré tigri. 
Three tigers against three tigers. Thirty-three tigers against thirty-three tigers.

Sul tagliere l'aglio taglia. Non tagliare la tovaglia. La tovaglia non i aglio. Se la tagli fai uno sbaglio.
Cut the garlic on the cutting board. Don't you cut the tablecloth.The tablecloth is not garlic. If you cut it you make a mistake.

Dietro a quel palazzo c'è un povero cane pazzo. Date un pezzo di pane a quel povero pazzo cane!
Behind that palace there's a miserable crazy dog. Give a little bread to that miserable crazy dog!

Apelle, figlio di Apollo, fece una palla di pelle di pollo i tutti i pesci vennero a galla, per vedere la palla di pelle di pollo fatta da Apelle, figlio di Apollo.
Apelle, son of Apollo, made a ball of chicken skin and all the fish rose to the surface to see the ball of chicken skin made by Apelle, son of Apollo.

*the question mark above is because I don't know how one calls tongue twisters in Italian...

Monday, February 15

Everyone's got a funny - no, make that embarrassing - story to tell

My latest project...Working with Berlitz Publishing hide this™ series, we want to collect all of your funny language faux-pas in one spot...So, click there, share, read & weep (with laughter)...!

Saturday, February 13

Italy gets a sense of humor

Well, that title isn't exactly correct.  Italians have a great sense of humor.  You just don't usually find it in their ads posted all over town.   Say what you will about the eye pollution of ads posted everywhere the graffiti is not (and sometimes where it is), but at least the City of Rome is doing something about it -- They've hired a crack ad team to come up with most of their public service announcements -- and we're all better for it.  Not only have they started campaigns about children's car seats, fast driving, and drinking & driving, but, don't look now, irony has finally found it's voice.

These are for making sure your car tags are up to date:  they read, 'The Bollino Blu is not an accessory'.



Tuesday, February 9

Northern Enlightenment

I was following the big snowstorm of the Mid-Atlantic states that recently hit the U.S., but not really from a meteorology standpoint, but rather an etymology one.   As a geographically-challenged American (you know, the ones that end up in last place against even the Albanians, who did not even know up until 1999 that there was a world outside their borders), I started thinking about the mid-Atlantic and where, that was exactly.

Taken literally, it would appear they’d been squawking about Bermuda – it’s in the middle of the Atlantic…isn’t it?  Now, that would have been news.  But, I wonder, to pass your weatherman test, do they give you a list of impossible terms that only you and your brethren are supposed to know?  I think it’s the closest thing to Dan Brown’s secret societies truly in our midst.

In Italy, I was okay with orientale and occidentale to mean East and West.  When back in the States, of course, you gotta learn real quick to zip up that ‘oriental’ bit real fast when speaking of those who hail from the Far East.  
But, then, I turned on the weather.
And I heard there was a big snowstorm in Italia settentrionale.  First time I heard that, I thought for sure it was one of those missing little regions you can never name, like Molise or Basilicata. 

And, of course, you always hear about the meridionale (often disparagingly), meaning, southern.  But then again, it’s also called the ‘mezzogiorno’.  Twelve noon?  You start thinking, High noon – like the Far West because of the Camorra, but then again, it’d be occidentale, no?  So, you think meridians – as in those lines that in your fourth grade geography class you kind of remember lining the globe.  Are we truly that near the equator?

Back to settentrionale, you finally infer that it means the North.  But, what does that have to do with seven?  And is that some bad thing like in the movie ‘Seven’?  As if you’re not confused enough by this time, you look it up – and boy, what you find really sheds light on the subject:

Turns out, it’s derived from the Latin, “septemtriones" meaning "seven oxes".  From here, we stay in the Animal Kingdom to find those seven oxen are stars in the heavens that make up Ursa Maggiore – and in there, the North Star.  And, while you rejoice in your leap of logic, you still are left to ponder over what the oxen have to do with the bear.

If someone would just let me in the secret society I, too, can be one of the enlightened few…

Friday, February 5

Food Fight

Just when we thought it was safe to enjoy ethnic cuisine…It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t find a thai eggroll or a piece of anago anywhere in the boot.  The Italians with their fine gastronomic sense, liked it so much, they even ate Italian whenever they were abroad – complaining between courses that it just wasn’t ‘buono’ like home. 
And so it comes as no surprise that in this age of intolerance for things ethnic (think: economic immigrants), that the battle would rage right in one’s pasta plate.  Not long ago, the fascists decided to purify the Italian language, using propaganda and posters in order to convince the population to follow suit (much like they do in France and Quebèc today).  Today, the poster child for this new intolerance is a McDonald’s burger no less.  But, hang on -- that’s American! 
Yes, but the burger pictured – just in case you didn’t read the writing – has the map of Italy seared right onto it.  Telling us that the meat at mickey d’s is red white and green (which, after that fine meat is added to all the mixings – well, there might be some truth in advertising after all).

Next thing you know, falafel and kebab (think: gyro) shops are being banned from city centers.  With all the flack about how they are ‘un-Italian’, people forgot that those juicy Italian burgers have been banned from many a centro storico for a long time.  Mostly, for the bright fluorescent lights, ubiquitous advertising but, even more so, the odours. Although I’m all for it, frankly, I think it’s more for the fact that they take away business from the panini shops nearby.

What Italians have forgotten altogether is that back in the day, Italy was a very diverse country with people flocking here from all ends of the empire.  You would probably have seen a falafel guy cooking right next to the burger dude – kind of like a New York City street corner.  Spices, meats, heck, even people were traded all over the empire.  And, where did those traders stop when they got a bit peckish?  At one of the many ‘take away’ stands lining the streets. 

So maybe someone needs to spin this story the right way.  It was Ancient Rome who brought us ethnic food and take away service.  And in a country that loves its traditions, what can be more traditional than that?

Wednesday, February 3

News from Prague-London-Rome-St Louis!

Some of this is a bit old, but I loved the 'news' so much, I thought I'd share with you some stories from far and wide...

Il piccolo mondo...A St. Louis family posted their photos on the web.  Their friend, on vacation last June in Prague, happened upon their mugs posted on huge outdoor advertisements for a store there.
But...notice who's advertising...although those kids look anything but Italian, it's an Italian grocery store.

While in the UK, those Brits love to talk about the weather. But now, they have a whole lot more to talk about!  The snow?  Well, kinda.
Turns out, the BBC got so mad at the weather "forecasters" (quotes totally intentional), when they didn't predict the huge snowfall - they put at risk the fishermen who depend upon some measure of accuracy.  As a result, they want to shut down the office and replace them all.  There's talk of using the Swedes instead. 
I guess from Lapland, they know a snowstorm when they see one.

And, back in Italy, Rome continues its march to turn the once-prized 'Most Green City in Europe' to the 'Most Green City near the Sahara'.  Instead of bothering to spray the tall palms in the EUR region, they decided to simply do away with them instead.  And again, along the once-beautifully tree-lined via Trieste, we now can have uninhibited views of the graffiti and smog.
And yet, the city continues to wring their hands over what to do about the small particle pollution and relative high incidence of asthma and other costly maladies.  Couldn't we get the pollution guy in the same room as the parks guy?  I sometimes feel it's like Arafat & Sharon...