Tuesday, June 26

Italy by Numbers

Italians love to say that when someone is "driving them crazy" that "mi sta dando i numeri" -- like in Bingo, too many too fast so it boggles the mind.  Living in Italy, you often are boggled by the numbers: bus routes, highway speed limits, even the little signs posted to indicate overpasses (and not kilometers) on the roads, or the use of Roman miles vs English miles vs Kilometers on those same roads.
So on a recent trip on Trenitalia back home from Milan, I couldn't understand why, for no apparent reason, no one on board could figure out how to count.  Suddenly, people were found to be sitting in everyone else's seats.  It was playing out like a large game of musical chairs.  I would have chalked it up to tourists...but, something seemed truly amiss.
Things are looking up:
Trenitalia's competing numbering system (s)
I looked up and found the problem.  Trenitalia, in their unrelenting passion for providing no customer service, had decided to renumber all the seats.  Your ticket and seat were posted with a number.  Having done away with letters altogether.  Except that one look up on the wall, therein was the problem.  They had posted the new system without taking the previous one down.  I could not believe my eyes.
Reading the newspaper onboard, an Italian journalist complained how he witnessed two British tourist lose money when taking Rome's city buses:  The tariff had gone up from €1/ticket to €1.50. With swift Milanese planning, all of the ticketing machines on all of the buses had been tinkered with to accept the new amount and regurgitate a ticket in return.  Too bad, none of the machines had been painted over to change the €1.00 to €1.50, posted in extra-large digits. By the time the tourists figured it out, and started inserting more coins, it was too late -- their money had been swallowed up.  The journalist was embarrassed to overhear their epithet:  Leave it to the Italians for finding new ways to steal from tourists...
Of course, this episode may have occurred after the recent football win over England...and it was simply a case of sour grapes.  But as the journalist asked of his countrymen...
What would it have taken to just get it right the first time?!  
And Trenitalia is vying for the right to run the city buses of Florence.  Caveat Emptor, you Florentines.  

Wednesday, June 20

School's Out in Italy

Now that I have a couple of teens in my life, I am a not so silent observer to some of the most outrageous things that happen in Italian public schools.  This past year has been a real eye-opener.  I've been left speechless by some of the incredible stories in school politics; Amused by the teachers who are just trying to cope; Outraged at the lack of any sort of esprit de corps (aside from the copying en masse of homework and on tests); Amazed that when city buses go on strike, the kids simply stay home; Flabbergasted that schools get disinfested for bugs - during the school day; and Dumbstuck by the fact that there were no final exams covering the full year just past.
Nonetheless, I still believe that an Italian education (excepting for the oral exams and all the cheating), in terms of book-smarts, can still be superior to most anything the average U.S. school has on offer.  Regardless, when it comes to taking on some of the afore-mentioned issues, animated discussions ensue at the dinner table on most everything.  
This year, it was the posting of grades which tickled me pink.  On Thursday, a kid had taken a picture of the results for his friends and put it up on his facebook wall.  Because it was fuzzy, we called the school on Friday to ask when the grades would be posted (just to make sure it wasn't a photoshopped image).  In response, we were told "Monday."  So, this is when most of Italy catches onto the approximation of all public services.  They start 'em early.  Our teen replied, in perfect deadpan, "But if it's already on facebook?!"  To which he received the reply - Monday - kicking off a few lessons in Italian living, Italy's 3R's:  
1) Readying conspiracy theorists -- the friend had posted a mockup of final scores on his wall [he hadn't], 
2) Recounting untruths (or approximations) -- since the woman had no idea when the posting would be made and just said the first thing that came to mind and 
3) Responsibility - as in, not taking any / not getting informed / not venturing outside your own place of operations
picture from Printable Home School
When it comes to grades, I asked, with sheer naivete', "But, what's the surprise? If you don't have final exams, and you more or less know your scores throughout the year, can't you figure it out if you pass or fail?"  Once the laughter had died down around the table, I was surprised to hear that scholastic scoring had very little to do with objectivity.  In fact, our teen was shocked at how well he did in the end, seeing that he's at best a 'B' student.  "That's because, they had to raise my scores in order to get everyone else to fit the roster of scores. If I'm the best, but an average student, that means more than half the class would have flunked out."  I guess it's the Italian version of Leave no student behind - grade inflation.  The profs basically award you with a combination of acumen, simpatia, effort and how you rank with the other kids in the class.  
The kids had never heard of a 'bell curve'. 
Oh - and, in your ignorance, don't even try to ask if there was a year-end shindig to send them off into their summer festivities.  You will be patently dismissed as an Alien life form. What an education this school year has been - at least for yours truly.

Sunday, June 17

Italian Mammas: Get the Right of Way

I used to buzz around town with my great-aunt back in the day and we'd ride the public transport of Rome.  Looking 20 years younger than she actually was, she would always complain (and this was back in the 1990s) that men never gave up their seat for her anymore.  In her eyes (and I suspect she was not mistaken), the age of chivalry was decidedly over.  I always quipped that she should count herself lucky; after all, no one thought she was in her 80s! She should see it as a blessing that she was forced to strap hang with the best of them.
But over the years, I see that it's true.  Generally, it's only other women on board who give up their posts for the elderly, and those pregnant women or women with children just have to stand through it all.
But back in the 1990s, Milano started a trend with its Pink Parking or Strisce Rosa - parking spots reserved for pregnant women. It's a great idea, but implementation (and the hobgoblin of life in Italy - enforcement) has proved about as illusive as staying on an 'abstinence only' program.  After all, the system runs on honor -- basically, the honesty of others - especially SUV drivers - who can't wait to find an oversized empty space to park their mini-cruise ships on streets originally made for mules.  
You can't get a traffic ticket for parking in the spots, and no one is truly standing there waiting to see if you have a bulge - other than your very own pot belly from all the time spent driving around in an SUV trying to find a parking spot - when you get out.  So naturally, by the time the trend arrived in Naples, people think it's akin to spitting in the wind.
In an effort to allow the mammas-to-be to go about out their business without too much hassle, some places are taking things into their own hands.  First, they post signs "Pregnant women get the right of way."  But then, they found that women who may not be pregnant were cutting the line.  So now, at the Red Cross hospital, for example, the sign reads: "ONLY VISIBLY pregnant women get the right of way." 
At the Carrefour grocery store, they are now introducing the right of way to wheelchairs and pregnant women - probably visibly pregnant - as well.  I can just hear the cashiers now: Instead of, "Are you a card member for extra points?", they now ask, "How far along are you?" quickly followed by "Are you sure you should be eating that stuff, in your condition?"
I think it's a terrific measure, but thought about applying this in the USA, where first-off, people still have kids and a lot of them and mega-stores like Target or Wal-mart are filled with obese people and the elderly spinning around in their electric golf carts.  Yielding to that army of users means, you'd never get your turn at the till..

Wednesday, June 13

Italy's Zimmerman...

I'll say it before, and I'll say it again...Tutto il mondo è un paese - the sage Italian proverb indicating that no matter where you go, the story being played out is still always the same...Judging by the power-hungry politicians giving themselves perks on both continents (and probably everywhere, really) while in the midst of a crisis they were accomplice to...well, it certainly begins to stink with veracity.
So I was surprised when the Italian headlines were screaming out the story of the day (another American import - loud & non-stop fake coverage - or maybe it's an Australian import from the hysterical halls of Murdoch's Empire):
In Italy's case, Amigoni (pictured above) was on duty in Milan's Parco Lambro, to sniff out illegal trade & commerce. Seeing an unarmed Chilean man in the distance, he went into full Rambo.  The illegal immigrant had taken off in order to avoid being checked.  Marcelo Valentino Gomez Cortes was shot at point blank range right through the chest.  
Our hero claimed that Cortes was armed and that he had shot him at a distance.  Fortunately for justice, Amigoni's own patrolmen testified that neither was true and, from the hidden shot shells found in the snow, Amigoni seemed to want to cover the evidence and his butt besides.
Sadly, this story reminds me of the over-excitable London police who shot (8 times) and killed the unarmed Brazilian immigrant, Jean Charles de Menezes just because he was dark-skinned and carrying a backpack [think about it: that description fits probably half the tube riders in London].  
Yes, indeed, tutto il mondo è un paese.

Thursday, June 7

Meet Italo - Italy's Newest Train

I finally had occasion to try out the competition to Italy's Trenitalia FrecciaRossa service.  I gave it the white glove treatment, and on the whole, it came out in flying colors, namely red, like the Ferrari it purports to be.  Only time will tell if it's the hullaboo of a big opening, or if their idea of putting service back into the train system will work.  We can monitor their five-star opening, and see if the star eventually falls out of the sky, piece by piece, like the Red Arrow before them, or see, unlike Trenitalia, they're able to keep up the promise of You deserve better when you travel.
So, let's take my experience on the spanking new Italo train from the top:  
Anyone who's lived in Italy knows that Italians love to have two wholly different brand names for any major thing -- like Fiumicino/Leonardo Da Vinci airport, or the Mona Lisa/La Giaconda.  I'm not sure where this practice started, perhaps with Popes taking new names when they became the Big Formaggio.  So with Italo TrainsThe website says Italo, the trains are called Italo, the trains, company and other communications shout out NTV (which always makes me think that they're competing with MTV - Music Television and not Trenitalia/Ferrovie dello Stato). 
The website reaches near-nirvana, with its easy-on-the-eye graphics, fun things to see and do, pages that actually go where they say they will, and the ease of making a ticket purchase without having to have a PhD in deciphering hieroglyphics just to see your options.  I got two low-cost tickets for about 20 euro each to my destinations (Rome-Florence/Florence-Milan), half price on most fares.  The English website, while needing some touch-ups, is pretty much as good as it gets.
At the Rome Tiburtina railway station, a greeter welcomed us in the bowels of the station and sent us seekers of all good things to the lovely waiting room up in the piazza. Open to all travelers - not just those who have paid an annual Club Card fee.  Their friendly, informative staff helped all and sundry - and the best part was, dogs were welcome!  I would imagine that if we still had luggage carts, they would have allowed them in as well, unlike the competition.  Huge clocks right in the doorways made everyone's life easier as did the setup for laptops and recharge stations. 
[A note about the new redesign of Rome's Tiburtina train station:  Someone finally made the connection, only after 160+ years, that people traveling by train actually carry luggage.  They have built RAMPS up to the platforms. Traveling with a huge bag, doggy bag, computer bag & and other sundry items, there are no words to express my gratitude.]
On board the train, it thankfully had none of the features of the miserable Eurostar.  Seats were comfortable, made for real people under 6ft 1", and bathrooms were clean (although, they are new).  I'll update this in a year's time. Internet on board was a work in progress, but at least you didn't need an internet connection, four aliases and a papal decree in order to log in and run it.  
We arrived in Milan about 20 minutes behind schedule.  Which made me wonder about the NTV logo sporting a speedy hare.  After all, even Italians grow up with the fable of the tortoise and the hare...But, I've said it before and will say it again, Italy is nothing if not brand image-challenged.  Nonetheless, even if NTV did use a tortoise logo, I will look forward to never having to venture into a Trenitalia website nor on board a Trenitalia train again.  Now, if NTV could just open up in the USA, offering hey - MTV videos as well on board, life would be a dream.


Postscript:  While I love all the creature comforts, I pray that little by little they don't whittle down all these features as their TrenItalia brethren did.  Back in the day, we were offered a banquet of customer perks from private meeting rooms to welcome drinks and free luggage check; only to see them all removed, one by one, once the customers came on board.

Pictures of my train experience will be posted on my Burnt by the Tuscan Sun Facebook page.

Friday, June 1

Tante Belle Cose - Great things about Italy

When it comes to good things that happened in Italy, this month started out with a real bang - the bang being the sound of all those cages being opened by four courageous animal rights activists who set a number of pooch prisoners free.  They went in like Seal Team Six to the Beagle Puppy Farm whose name Green Hill makes it sound like it was a franchise run by Snoopy and his brother, Spike, both of whom came from the Daisy Hill puppy farm. 
SAT 30 JUNE
MARCH TO CLOSE GREEN HILL & 
STOP VIVISEZIONE - MONTICHIARI (BRESCIA)
foto from nocensura.com
Within its walls, the American pharmaceutical company, Marshall raises them in cages and readies them for testing; having chosen Italy as one of its outposts since Italy has yet to pass the law making the practice illegal [despite having a very active anti-vivisection league].  Former Tourism Minister Brambilla urged her colleagues to finally pass Article 14 - outlawing raising animals for testing purposes.  Sadly, it will only be a battle won.  The Company will be sure to move on to the next country they can find to practice their Dr. Mengele experiments on man's best friend.  
My expedient?  Sue Marshall Pharma for having sullied the great name of the Marshall Plan that saved many war torn countries after WWII. And maybe Charles Shulz' heirs can get into the act too.
the new Roman columns
Speaking of dogs, this month I got checked for carrying pooper-scoopers when out with my little dog, Arcibaldo.  Too bad, they check at the dog run with all the women at the park in midday.  They need to come 'round my neighborhood at 11 at night and hit up all the macho guys with their huge beasts that drop equally immense piles on all the walkways, only to pretend it never happened. 
And speaking of parks, after this year's incredible February snowstorm felled many a fine tree, Rome's Villa Borghese received an implant of sorts with dozens of new tall pines brought in. Now if they would just go all around town and remove all the tree stumps left behind from all the times that trees have died or fallen, we truly would have a beautiful cityscape all around Rome.
And finally, the best news to come out of my neighborhood in a long time:  The arrival of Ben&Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream sold in some of the coffee bars.  Sometimes, globalization just plain rocks - as hard as Rocky Road-ish.  And, at nearly $7 a pint, I won't even have to worry about it affecting my girth.  Special occasions only (but I still get the whole pint).