Tuesday, July 31

Some Great News from Italy

As usual, here is my monthly posting of some of the best news coming out of Italy -- just when the weather forecasts and ratings agencies and a few others seem to want to spoil a perfectly good summer holiday.  

Anyone watching the Olympics, would have noticed that in the first days of these summer games, Italy was trailing behind only China and USA in terms of medals (but who's counting?!)  We loved seeing the three women fencers (including one mom) up on the podium, having garnered the bronze, the silver and the gold.  My question:  did they play the Italian national anthem three times?  
I've posted this before, and will post it again, if we could just get the (often female) journalists to stop writing dribble on our bellissime and sexy athletes, and give them credit for all the hard work...we would truly have gotten some top honors.

Rome's Mayor announced that work would begin on the restoration of the Colosseum.  Of course, we know this routine:  They'll probably wrap the entire building in scaffolding, just in time for tourist season, and then go on holiday.  As humor columnist Dave Barry once summarized after seeing so many statues and buildings in wraps..."In Italy, even all the statues go on vacation..."
Actually, it turns out that they will smartly start the works after the tourist season - this coming December.  It will, however, go under wraps.  Now if they could just call in Christo.

The region of Liguria (with Genova at its heart) approved 'medical marijuana'.  This is terrific news, and hope that the rest of Italy follows.  It would be interesting, however to see the statistics of the numbers of people who suddenly turn ill...

Although I already reported it, the Beagle puppies from the Green Hill Puppy Farm were getting adopted in droves, so at least a few won't end up on lab tables and stuck with pins.  This does not mean puppy raising is still illegal, and, from reports, there are oodles of other puppies available from centers, illegal and not, waiting to be adopted after their rescue.  

And, back to sports, who didn't enjoy ASRoma soccer team as they went on tourneè in America.  A stroke of brilliance by our American owner (who also owns the Red Sox).  Everyone is looking forward to American player Bradley as he brings his touch to Rome this fall.

Check out my facebook page for more updates on fine things in the Bel Paese throughout the month -

Friday, July 27

Driving in Italy? Detour Ahead.

I dedicate an entire chapter in my book to the (non) Rules of the Road of Driving in Italy.  Lots of people are afraid to drive around Italy, but I am not one of them, unless of course, I am near a woman careening around a corner in an SUV while she's texting and smoking a cigarette.  But, for the most part, if you like cat & mouse chases, it can actually be fun.  Just don't get caught in the city centers with a car, even if you're simply trying to find your hotel.  Each time you go in & out, you'll be hit with a hefty fine.
But lately, it's been widely reported that around Rome (and I imagine other cities as well), there's a new ploy around to separate you from your money.  And it involves your car.  It also tends to strike at women driving by themselves, a category in which I find myself - often.  But since I got literally hit up twice in the last month, I thought I'd share the experiences with you:  Forewarned is always forearmed.
Essentially, people are coming out of the woodwork and hitting the side mirror of your car.  This can be a person, usually someone on a scooter, and like the other night, in another car - but that's a bit more outrageous.  You hear a rather loud 'thud' and are shocked, because you swear (and you are most likely very correct) that no one was even near you a moment before.  They tend to go after women who are meandering, looking for a parking spot, so not fully paying attention to their surroundings.  But the other day I was driving - fully in my lane - when it happened.  Once they have you totally on a guilt trip, they hit you up with a "Just give me 100 euro and we'll leave it at that."  Sure beats begging 100 people for a euro coin each.
They stop and signal to you to pull over.  I do not - ever - open my windows to engage in conversations.  This, is a precautionary measure I learned from living in the USA - where people come up to you and try to chloroform you to get your car, or worse.  And after seeing The Vanishing, well, call me 'better safe than six feet under'---alive.  And besides, if they can shout through the 3 foot thick windows at the post office to complete a transaction, their voices can certainly carry thru the window of my car.
The new pocket pickers - who just stand there patiently waiting
while you give them lots of your money - voluntarily.
In scenario no. 1 - the guy, appearing straight out of nowhere (between garbage containers) shows me his smashed watch.  Looking like someone who would chloroform me in a heartbeat if he could manage to get out of bed that day, he says repeatedly, "You broke my watch." Because of his sort of drugged state and insistent behaviour, I pull out my iPhone - a modern version of a Swiss Army Knife in times of need.  I don't call the police.  I start taking pictures.  I told him I was onto his ploy, and I'm happy to call the police to settle the matter now that I have photos.  Suddenly, his watch wasn't so important.  Here he is above, with the smashed item in question.  His mug suddenly out of my camera view.  Damn that iPhone for being so slow to load.
In scenario no. 2 - I was perfectly in my lane, on a wide boulevard at that.  The thud told me our side view mirrors just made contact.  Nonetheless...I followed him as he pulled over, because I didn't want to illicit road rage.  He comes over.  I tell him I can't roll down my window (which btw is the god-honest truth, it's momentarily missing its motor, causing me endless grief on toll roads..but no matter, I wasn't going to do it anyway - see The Vanishing reference above).  He tried shouting to me that I broke his side mirror...sees my absolute look of confusion -- I told him I was rigorously in my lane, and if he hit my mirror, it's his problem.  Then, pointing to my side mirror, he motions for me to come look - "You see, your mirror was hit."  
Yeah, right, I'm really going to leave my car and 'come and have a look' - I couldn't join him on the dark road even if I had wanted to, because I was too busy replaying scenes from The Hitcher.  Besides, my car is 15 years old.  If the side mirror was hit, it probably made an improvement.  Seeing he was getting nowhere fast, and just before I unsheathed my trusty iPhone camera, he gave up.  "Never mind, bella mia..."  and he walked away.  I opened my passenger window and called after him...to watch where he's going in the future.
I would suggest you readers do the same.

Driving away, I recalled when my purse was stolen - right out from under my car seat - while driving in traffic in Naples.  They smashed the window and in my surprise (I thought an explosion had gone off next to me), I was stunned to see my bag floating right out of it and onto the back of a scooter.  Either way, I counted my blessings that none of these incidents transpired in carjack happy USA - I'd have been separated from a lot more than just my wallet...

Wednesday, July 25

Advertising Age: The ongoing saga of Italy's strained relationship with brand image

Every so often I post incredible advertisements that truly capture my eye.  Not for the wit and charm in attracting my attention (although, when I do find a decent gem, I post that too - clearly trying for positive reinforcement in the consumer goods & services dept), but for the huge bubble that opens up over my head with an even larger ? overtop.

No sooner had I snapped this gem of an advertisement, than I saw UnAmericanaaRoma  post her own views on the subject matter.  Rightfully so, Shelley posed the ad as a Quiz:  Try and figure out just what she's selling.

As I remarked on her blog, first they tried a more serious picture of the blonde all dressed in clothes and just indicating the Big News, like a smart newscaster (well, make that a smartly-dressed newscaster in most every other country than Italy where cleavage is in the job description).  Her message?  You have a one-stop shopping place for all your bathroom fixtures.
Clearly, the ad didn't bring in the hoards of customers they were expecting.
So, they decided to really sex up bathroom tiles and had her get undressed.
Next, I expect to see her naked in the shower.

Just think -- once you’ve installed your very own bathroom on a hot, sweaty July day…you’ll come out looking and feeling fresh-faced and blooming as a Bella Rosa!
The adverts may not work, given that women make the ultimate purchase decisions.  But, I'm willing to bet that the Advertising Age of this ad (my usual ranking in terms of actual years in emotional maturity of the guy who made it) is actually somewhere around 69 and older.  Who else but someone who seriously needs their plumbing revamped would base their purchase decisions on the babe flashing her bathroom eyes? 
In my humble opinion, this ad actually works -- it appeals to all the builders and contractors that have to go get their fixtures shined somewhere.  And what better to turn on your faucet than Gruppo Ediltirrenia?  With any luck, they'll be greeted by a pouty blonde to ask them how they'd like their tubes greased...

For more Advertising Age Posts, including the good, the bad, and the ugly, click on the links below!

Sunday, July 22

Getting an Italian ID Card - not for the feint of heart

The stories surrounding the Carta d'identita' process are legend, as are the stories of obtaining the mysterious Permesso di Soggiorno (resident's permit) in Italy. Mysterious, because your success doesn't depend upon the bureaucratic hassles, but by the mood of the person behind the desk wielding their power from behind thick glass windows. Switch people: the process is entirely different. Ditto for driver's licenses.  Following is a brief recap of one foreigner's experience in ID Card renewal (and he hails from "United" Europe - where this stuff should be a piece of cake).  Instead, he found it was no cakewalk:

I needed to go and renew my Italian Identity Card (Carta d'identità).  Everyone reassured me, "Oh! It's so easy nowadays! They just stamp it and extend it for another five years!"   Living in Italy, I should have known better--I discovered (the hard way) just how wrong they were...
I head down to Roma centro storico City Hall, armed with an entire file folder filled with every recorded document about my life history that would be an archivists wet dream.   This, as a preventive measure in the (not so uncommon) instance that the clerks suddenly require my birth certificate, my tax returns for the past 5 years, you name it.  Confident that I would make the grade today, I take a number at 10:20am. There are 28 people in the queue ahead of me. Only to be expected of course. So I go home, get my computer and some reading material, come back and sit down with a book. I am called at 11:55am.  I go up to find a grouchy blond lady behind the glass.   She takes one look at my expired ID card and says, "Oh, but we can't renew this one - it is in 'a deteriorated condition'"  [Not only must you have your paper i.d. with you at all times for five or ten years, it must be produced in absolutely pristine condition.]  Looking down, I could see that it had been dog-eared.  I challenged the verdict.  She replied, "It is unacceptable.  Y
ou have put Sellotape on it." 
[Her comment also begged the question, Who Cares??!  It's expired.  I need a new one anyway... But, trying logic proved useless.  Seeing that I was being sent over to PARKING, without being able to pass GO, I tried my hand to ply her for all the other information I may need to carry out all the Herculanean Tasks which would be delivered to me like a slow drip in an Intensive Care Unit.  She would have nothing of it, saying only curtly, "You have to buy the form to apply for a new ID card." "Where?," I ask.   "It's upstairs on the first floor," she says dismissively.  Game over.  Before it begins.
So on I go up to the first floor and wait in line at the CASSA (cash desk).  I count my blessings.  I'm only the tenth in line and it only takes me around eight minutes.  I pay €5.62 for the new id card module.  I fill it out, trudge downstairs and go back to the same grouchy blond lady (mercifully,  I didn't have to take a ticket again, and can go back up to her bullet- and sound-proof window).  Hurdle no. 1 surmounted, I hand over the form.  
As if seeing me for the very first time, and pretending to not have heard my foreign accent (Scottish, to say the least) through her solid window, I hear her say, "Oh, but you're not Italian -- in that case, you need to produce a new document, your "Attestato di soggiorno" (Permanent Residence Certificate).  With all the documents I had with me, this one I didn't have.  That's because, I had never even heard of the darned thing.  Turns out, it's a doc that I am entitled to as an EU citizen -- and as someone who has been in Italy for more than ten years.  Why don't I have it?  Because it came into existence after a law decreed number xxxx/yyy of 2007; only five years prior and pursuant to the time I last renewed my ID.  Again, I pull out my best tweezers and attempt to extract some information as to how I get one of these newfangled forms.   She refuses to give me any hints, telling me to go to the information desk to ask.  Hurdle no. 2 - non-surmountable, try your luck at no. 3.
Naturally, you have to take yet another numbered ticket to access the information desk.  Much to my dismay (but not surprise),  it was by this time past noon, and I discovered that the machine does not emit tickets after 12pm.   Not to be easily defeated, I simply barge up to two ladies who were actually very helpful.  They gave me a piece of paper listing all that's required to obtain the 
Attestato di soggiorno
1.  Two tax stamps (marche da bollo) of € 0.42 each (to be purchased from the cassa on the first floor - again!)
2.  Two tax stamps of € 14.62 each - to be purchased from a tobacconist
3.  Photocopies of my passport, last ID card, tax code and health card, VAT number certificate and my entire last Italian tax declaration
I had actually brought most of these docs with me, but still needed to pay the piper upstairs and up the road.  I decided to take advantage of the lunchtime closing (when pretty much any fulltime workers could, in the real world, get any of their transactions done).  It would reopen again at 2pm.   Hurdle no. 3:  In progress.
So up again I go to the friendly cashier at the CASSA on the first floor, and buy my two damn stupid tax stamps for 42 cents each.
I then leave the town hall and head for home to make photocopies of t
he missing docs, stopping at a tobacconist on the way to buy two more damn tax stamps for €14.62 each.  I make the copies and eat a bite of lunch and return to the beloved City Hall at 1:50pm.   There, I find a queue of 40 people already hovering around the ticket machine, waiting to take a ticket and (not) be attended to by the friendly staff.  At 2pm sharp, we're admitted and the machine starts spitting out little tickets!  I take one for my immediate procedure, one to pass GO later.  Incredibly, I am called up to a serious lady seated in an office behind the counters, who takes me almost immediately.  She swiftly issues me with my "Attestato di soggiorno" (permanent (yay!) residence certificate), making a photocopy for me to give her blonde colleague at the other counter who (doesn't) issue darn ID cards.  In the process, she also informs me that she could have done the entire deed for me right then and there, extending my i.d. card too, but at this point, and since I'd already paid the fees for the forms, I might as well carry on down the hall.  Down, but not out, I go to wait for the next window.  Hurdle no. 3:  Complete.  Onward to Hurdle no. 4.
Italian I.D. Card - Fill in the Blanks
Fortunately for me, I had already taken my afternoon ticket.  Wait time: only another ten or so minutes.  This time, I'm invited up to the counter by another grouch, a red-head.   She takes one look at my docs and says, "Oh!  But your old ID card is dog-eared and therefore invalid!  In order to proceed, you must stick (yet another!) TAX STAMP of € 5.62 on the application module."  I tried protesting--in vain.  Game Over.  Onto the next person to refuse service to.  I scale the stairs once again up to my newfound friend at the CASSA, with whom I am now on a first-name basis, and purchase YET ANOTHER measely tax stamp for € 5.62.   Hurdle no. 1 (or no. 5, but who's counting?!):  Still a work in progress.  The outcome?  Anybody's guess.  
I go back downstairs, but this time must face Grouchy Blond -- the same person that started all this trouble in the first place.  By now, confident of my document and tax stamp wielding agility, I give her a smug look while I slide all of the documents on hand directly her way.   It is by now nearing 3pm; a full five hours since my morning attempt at automated document renewal.   Miraculously, and without a further word (clearly seeing that five hours of penance at her hands, not unlike Juno wreaking vengeance on one of her ex-lovers), she...ISSUES ME WITH A SPANKING BRAND NEW ITALIAN ID CARD!!  I am elated by my success.  Unfortunately, my balloon was burst before I even had a chance to take a step away from her window of doom.
Standing there, watching her in earnest, goosebumps percolating on my skin, whilst she busied herself stamping and initialing all sorts of documents, I swear sixty million times,
I happen to notice - to my shock and horror - that the Passport Number on my newly-minted Permanent Residence Certificate is TOTALLY INCORRECT!  In fact, the number posted is that of my OLD passport which expired back in 2007.   They must have still had that number in the system...my heart sinks and visions of tiny ticket numbers and light-hearted conversations with Mr. CASSA come into my head.  I am crestfallen.  Hurdle no. 6:  In progress.
BACK AGAIN I go to the serious lady in the office behind the counters.  At this point, I simply barged straight in, going behind the counters with a vengeance.  Of course, no one stopped me (so much for 8 inch thick windows -- I could have been coming in there with a bomb,
 for all they knew - In fact, I am still amazed that there are no instances of wild-eyed foreigners 'going postal' in the Italian City Hall offices nationwide).  
I catch the lady walking back into her office and advise her that the passport number on my certificate is wrong.  She gets a worried look across her face.  I am losing all hope.  I can't believe my ears when I hear her say, "Oh dear -- I don't know what to do about that!"   She turns to ask a little man who is filing reams of paper files (in this day and age!) what to do.  He shows her how to make the correction [It goes without saying, on the system that SHE supposedly uses every single day].   BINGO!  Out comes the corrected certificate with the correct passport number on it! Hurdle no. 6:  Surmounted.
But once again, before I even have time to utter, Hip Hip Hurrah! I look down on my spanking new certificate.  I look over at the old one.  I see that they are different -- the old one bears two neat tax stamps -- and they are now stuck onto the wrong certificate!  Hurdle no. 7:  Another trip to the CASSA office in store?  Read on...
I tell her in no uncertain terms that I will be damned if I am going to go and buy any more tax stamps, especially since it was their error.  And, for the second time all day, Fate is smiling on me...The nice office lady takes her fingernails and gingerly PEELS THEM OFF.   She sticks them right onto the corrected certificate, and then rubber stamps them, initializes them, and does the hokey-pokey, for all I care...All is well in my bello bungalow of bureaucracy.  Hurdle no. 7: Done Deal.
But doing her duty to see that of course, no document shall be issued from her office with any ease, she then asks me to return the photocopy of the previous (incorrect) certificate.  I reply casually,  "I gave that to the grouchy blond lady who issued me with my ID card!"  Mercifully, she accompanies me over to her colleague across the room.   At this point, and upon seeing me once again,  the grouchy blond I am sure starts to wonder what the heck the fat Brit is doing back here again.  Eureka!  The old photocopy is replaced with the new photocopy... Hurdle no. 8: Hercules would be proud.
I thank both ladies profusely, who in response simply frown at me...And I finally leave, no longer an illegal immigrant, with my spanking new Permanent Residence Certificate and my new 10 year ID Card.  I am overjoyed at the prospect of not having to enter those hallowed halls until - 2023!  Maybe by then, things will be automated.
Eat your heart out Olympians.

As for me, as a dual citizen, I've never encountered any of these problems, save for having to buy a few extra forms because on one my middle name was left out, or, like Tony above, my expired i.d. was one form, the fact that the paper doc was torn was another...Nonetheless, I have found out (the hard way) that my officially issued by the City of Rome i.d. is still invalid in many circles...Although sporting all the official seals and stamps, it was handwritten in pen.  Which since its issuance, is no longer accepted.  Each time I get pulled over or go thru customs, I am told it's not valid and asked, "Why is it in pen?"  My reply:  Try asking your colleagues in the office that issued it - not me.  I should hardly think I'm the one who requested "pen only".   

Saturday, July 21

The Colbert Report...brings Thought to Food

America the Beautiful...soon to be renamed, America the Big Lattes...Once upon a time it was a special occasion to go out for an Ice Cream Social.  Now, every single event in every town is celebrated by food-eating contests, pig-out sessions, and Super-sized food vendors.  Even at funerals, Americans can't keep away from imbibing for the 40 minutes of the service.
So FIAT and Lavazza, not ones to miss out on capturing the American zeitgeist, just introduced a car that can make espresso while you drive.  Although ask any American who orders cappuccino after their Italian meal, we're not really espresso drinkers.  But, I'm sure they'll come up with a milk steamer in there as well.  The whole thing is truly un-Italian...Italians are appalled by the American way of eating or drinking while - doing pretty much everything and anything else except eating or drinking.  Food is there for your enjoyment, and your digestive track should be treated with respect -- not as some receptacle for gallons of crap.  

This segment from the Colbert Report perfectly sums it all up - hysterical. Just mute your pc until Stephen comes on to avoid the annoying ad...


The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Thought for Food - Caffeine Edition - Funeral Home Starbucks & Car Coffee Makers
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Thursday, July 19

Tourism in Italy: Handle with Care

A few years back, I penned a blog post summing up all the things that had sort of gone wrong on my sister's long vacation. It caused quite a stir, especially from Italian readers, who of course did not bother to comment the post of all the amazing  things we had done on vacation.  No one denies that Italy isn't one of the best countries on earth to visit; for its food, the scenery, the people...But, I post these commentaries to beg the question:  Can't Italy do Better?  This is a country evermore dependent upon tourism.  But it's also a country that doesn't inform tourists of the fines levied should they try and reach their hotels - with all their luggage in tow - by car; it's a country with mind-boggling websites that rarely lead where they say they will; it's a place that didn't accept credit cards until just a few years back, forcing tourists to travel with bundles of money, that in short order would be purloined by some fancy fistwork from a local gypsy.
Nowadays, we have Rome's Mayor Alemanno (followed in suit by Florence, Venice, et.al.) who robs tourists with a 'tourist tax' more efficiently than all the gypsies in all of Europe combined; claiming it's to remake "tourist services".  He neglected to say, his own: he and his cronies can enjoy the wealth with vacations far and wide, while tourists (and residents) alike can't take a subway car from point A to point B; or can't reach a track at the station due to no escalators, overcrowding, or, no trains.  On the ristorante front, even Italians have seen that most kitchens are now insourced to the Maghreb and counter girls and waitstaff to Eastern Europeans who, sadly for us, grew up with a wholly different idea of service.  So, yes, I believe Italy can - and must - do better.  What follows is a look at a few days in Bell'Italia with friends visiting from London.

All in all, an amazing time was had by all.  I posted our excursions in the Dove Sono? section of my blog (right hand column).  We had outstanding meals, shared gorgeous vistas, toured big cities and tiny hamlets alike, swapped history stories, were met with hospitality that was over-the-top (the hoteliers in Anzio even gave my friends lifts to the station, and us a discount on the quoted price)!   We visited museums, had enriching conversations with the locals in each locale.  In a nutshell, it was superb.  But, just for the record, what were some of the ways that the trip fell short?
On time arrivals -- Planes now land "early" due to extending flight times lest they get hit with fines, but once in Customs, the lines are epic.  This is not an Italian problem, just land anywhere in Europe, and the USA (off the charts), and you soon come to realize that all that talk of a unified Europe and being able to breeze right thru security checks was just that -- a lot of talk.  40 minutes to get through customs on a random July day.
Eataly & other fine eateries -- I already penned my opening week experience here, but the real issue isn't the crowds.  Across the country, shopping malls, water parks, theme parks - heck even an electronics store in Rome - gets opened, thousands upon thousands descend upon it in a retailer's dreamland, and then find...there's nowhere to park the car.  It got so bad that for the electronics store opening in Rome, traffic was blocked for hours all the way outside the beltway.  Eataly has managed a fairly nice parking scheme, but the one-way / one-roadway routing system makes for intsne traffic jams.  This should hopefully die down, or, we could all just take the subway which goes practically straight to the Ostiense Station.
Museums -- The next morning we headed over to one of my favorite places; the Museo delle Mura on the Aurelian walls of Rome.  You can climb up inside the walls and see most of the history of the building of the defensive fortifications, before heading down the Appian Way.  Sadly for us, the Museum was on strike.  We imagined all of the City Museums were on strike as well.  Judging by the lack of taxis, we wondered if they were, too.  The next day, we ventured to another favorite museum, Museo della Civilta' Romana in Rome's EUR district.  An interesting exhibit was on show of airplanes, but we weren't allowed in due to lack of personnel.  We complained that the day before it had been on strike, so it stood to reason...Couldn't they let us in to view stuff today?  We were met with a resounding 'No'.  We couldn't stay long anyway, due to the intense heat inside.  So we tried our hand at museums on Monday - it had been announced that for the summer months, they'd be open on Mondays as well.  That, sadly, was a case of false advertising.
Taxes -- Aside from the heinous tourist tax (which most cities levy on unsuspecting tourists worldwide), lunch came with a few extra taxes of its own.  We're not sure why, but suddenly, it wasn't just the bread charge you're paying for when sitting down to eat.  That evening, enjoying drinks at the gorgeous Fontanone, on the Janiculum Hill, we were treated to excellent service and terrific drinks.  Although they charge Happy Hour Prices (approx €8/drink), no appetizers come with them as in most Happy Hours around town.  Dinner followed at one of Rome's oldest pizzerias in Garbatella, Il Panonto.  The pizza was superb, the staff turns tables faster than in the USA, and the buffet table is loaded with every sort of Italian delight.  Afterwards, we tried our luck at my favorite gelateria nearby, but found a mob scene.  With only two gals behind the counter (on a Saturday nite, no less), they had the brilliant idea to install automatic numbering systems (like at the Post Office).   Unfortunately, just like at the post office, or at my bank, or at the rail station, or pretty much everywhere that purports to use the system, it wasn't in use - or broken - or whatever.  So after the 18th tween got between me and my extra dark chocolate gelato, we left.  Note to self:  No gelato eating right after dinnertime.
Taxis -- Leaving for the train station, we called the new 060609 all-in-one Taxi number.  The first one never picked up.  Looking for tickets to Anzio, which you can get at any newsstand, we tried four of them (all sold out) before going to the machines.  Once in Anzio, we found that taxis were non-existent, or on siesta during mid-day.  No matter, friends had a beautiful time at the hotel with a beachfront view, exceptional husband and wife team serving even better breakfasts, and - in that spirit of generosity you can only find in few places, even the barman took my friends in his car back to their hotel after lunch.  Dinner in Anzio of surf & turf specialities was out of this world.  But my friends' recommendations?  Best to go to Anzio by car.

Monday, July 16

EATALY comes to Rome: from one Hungry Blogger

Some friends visiting from London came to Rome on route to moving to China, in a sort of reverse Marco Polo.  Let's face it: Marco may have seen some mighty fine pasta noodles in his day, but when it comes to a hot dish of Pici al Cacio e Pepe, you gotta go straight to the source:  Bella Roma.  And now, because of Eataly, you don't have to be confined to just mouth-watering Roman dishes, but you've got the whole breadbasket of Italy to choose from:  from De Cecco Pasta (Abruzzi) to Illy Caffè (Trieste via Brazil), to Nutella (Torino) -- showcasing a host of bilingual cookbooks to do more with it than just eat it from the jar with a spoon, alas - that presupposes it gets as far as your countertop without actually leaving the palm of your hand; something I've heard of but have never experienced myself) -- In short, if it's gourmet, and Italian: Eataly's got it.
On the way over to the fabulous reconverted gorgeous train station buildings of Rome's Stazione Ostiense (a stone's throw from the Pyramid - I love it when I can type stuff like that)we debated if it wasn't a bit like bringing coal to Newcastle.  I mean, you can get wonderful treats - I imagine at a fraction of the cost  (after all, their motto is 'High Food') - at your local grocer's.  My Vote?  Put it all in one place, with easy-on-the-eye merchandising and exceptional customer service (okay, make that so-so customer service, we'll still take it), and it'll be a winner -- if nothing else for the novelty of food courts that have nothing to do with the American-style of grazing, pigs-feeding-at-the-deep-fried-trough style.
Eataly, now open at Rome's Stazione Ostiense area
(right near the pyramid)
Judging from the crowds, I felt as though I were going to a Rolling Stones concert in the '80s; sadly, without the pot high.  You certainly needed to smoke something to numb the nerves after the long queues just trying to get into the parking lot.  I didn't care, really, new life had been breathed into a moribund area that up to now had been a holding pen for economic immigrants being offered open-air bathrooms with gypsies managing makeshift campgrounds.  You'd also find meandering tourists wandering around, wondering how to haul their Iuggage up to the track to the airport.  I absolutely loved all the hustle-bustle of people driving about who didn't call their cars 'home'.
Parking was actually easy as people were coming and going at a nice clip. So were the cars trying to run you down in the final 10m sprint to the entrance.  Gazing up in awe at its cathedral ceilings reaching up to the heavens and sparkling white dècor, Eataly may have looked like a modern shrine built in a post-war part of Rome, but the cat-and-mouse game with car bumpers brought you back down to the netherworld.  Real fast.
Once inside, fairly good bilingual signage conceived by seemingly ex-Ikea graphics teams seemed to do the trick nicely.  Although it was still a bit confusing...we couldn't tell if you could sit and order from anywhere, or if you could only order from the section nearest where you were seated (we believe that is the case - I don't know for sure, for reasons that shall follow).  The idea of mob seating and then waiting for orders to be taken was highly disconcerting to me and my fellow anglo-saxons -- It may work in New York City where waiters take tips quite seriously, but I don't know how it will play in the piazza...where no one stands in line, and waiters usually take the "wait" part verrrry seriously.  So, you had to either hover over a table and try your luck at grabbing it, or, in some places join a line being formed.  I would have preferred the "go up to the counter / get your food / bring to table" type of food court, but, of course, I'm used to food courts sporting stadium seating for the 24-hour grazer (in the good 'ol USA).  The problem with (or, actually, benefit of) places like Italy is that the dinner hour is quite precise (even though in Rome it's much more flexible than say, Milan).  So, it looked like all of Rome had descended on Eataly - all at the same time.  Let's just say, there wasn't stadium seating for these stadium crowds.  
Needless to say, after three of us cruised tables as if looking for a hot pickup in different sections and across different floors, drooling at the bit for some of the gorgeous meals being heaped on plates and delivered by young Italian versions of Mercury riding up and down the escalators, we called it quits.  We hoped it was opening week crowds, but...I have a feeling, it'd be best to go early or much much later - always.  Entire families seated there, young trendy couples, and everyone - everyone - sporting a smile on their face.  It looked like so much fun, we wanted to pull up a chair and join right in (alright, alright...that was our stomachs talking)...
All told, seeing thousands of people wandering up and down, in and out, it did bring to mind my favorite Berlusconi quote:  What economic crisis?  The airlines are overbooked, and restaurants are full...and he hadn't even heard of Eataly yet [well, if you don't count the heaps of monies paid out to politicians in bribes for contracts and illegal bids and buildings which the Italians like to call...'Eating' - an Italian speciality, so, Eataly works too].
We decided to drown our sorrows at a wonderful trattoria in nearby San Saba to enjoy a meal, but it was so over-crowded, we only did get served a delicious meal well after 10:30 at night...a full 90 minutes from our first sprinting steps (at the crosswalks) into Eataly.  I had never seen so many people at my locale.  We wondered if they were the 'Eataly reject crowd'.  Nonetheless, it did cause my friend to provide his own recap of our evening:
First, you take us to a place with tons of food and no tables.   
Then, you take us to a place with tables but no food.
I couldn't have said it better myself.

*note: colored areas are often live links

Wednesday, July 11

Italy's Beaches And other life-threatening dangers

Italian newspapers don't run 'The funnies'.  It doesn't matter, because every summer, we expats get to amuse ourselves by perusing the headlines that do their very best at imitating that very American import, scaring the beejesus out of anyone for the slightest possible cause.  In Italy, the main victims are those who dare to enjoy themselves at the beach.  Fortunately for the seaside resorts and beach property managers, most of the 60 million or so who spend their summers on the Adriatic or Mediterranean coasts, are not really paying that much attention.  Nevertheless, every summer, I put on my shades and comb the papers to gather up the year's threats, as numerous as seashells washing up to shore.
Eat at your own risk
photo from:  The Idea Girl Says
Today, (and of course, this is not funny), a 46 year old man drowned and his girlfriend nearly drowned after having gone in for a dip on a beach in Anzio.  The article quoted the head of police saying, It was a lethal cocktail of - [insert music from Jaws here]  venturing in the water shortly after lunch...that tried and true method of being swallowed up by the ocean as quickly as you downed your last piece of pizza and...not knowing how to swim.
A lethal mix?  How about just placing your bets on that last minute detail, inserted in the article as a sort of afterthought?
Turns out the sand under the water is not just one long knee-deep adventure.  Like most swimming areas, there are hills, holes, dropoffs.  But, if we are to believe the press, the culprit was the spaghetti misto di mare, and not the mare itself.  Unfortunately for the two waders, they were not in an area supervised by a life guard.  But, judging from my life guard from last summer, I don't think it would have helped.  Here he was, giving errrr mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for hours on end with a seriously lifeless babe (I mean, what else could it have been?), while the tiny babes splashed wistfully in the sunshine.  Hopefully, their parents knew to keep a close eye on them, because up in his perch, his eyes were surveying a different kind of horizon.
As for the Italian man who drowned frollicking with his Romanian girlfriend?  I wonder how his wife will be taking the news.

Sunday, July 8

Rome's Metro: Not a pretty sight?

I don't take the subway - or underground - around Rome, and generally, not around most places because I like to actually see where I'm going (except Milan, and then, well, it's better to be underground). And I seriously don't dare go into the underground in the summer, when I understand that it starts to resemble a trip straight to Hades.  But, I was curious about the opening of Rome's new subway extension, part of the METRO B line, inaugurated in June by our Mayor Alemanno.  Although the stations it serves look mighty spiffy, it's been paraded out all over the press and internet as the symbol of all that doesn't work in Italy.
First off, to build those spiffy stations - three, to be exact - it took seven whole years.  I'm not sure if that's going at a good clip or not, but certainly, lots of public works are held up because of archeology digs.  And when we consider that in thousands of years we've only uncovered a third of Pompeii, well...you do the math.
Turns out, since it became operable, on June 13th, the metro has also only been running successfully for seven full days.  Last Thursday's delays were due supposedly to a track switch engineer out on vacation - that was actually the message that the ATAC metro people put out on its loudspeakers.  Gotta love a place which puts holidays above customer service - so, I was all for it.  But again, I wasn't one of the people trapped for two hours in the bowels of the earth.  On Friday, it was a general strike which is actually, business pretty much as usual, so no one was caught out.
Perusing one of my favorite sites, www.romafaschifo.com [a hugely popular site called 'Rome Sucks' and attracting the attention of politicos and legal offices threatening defamation at about the same rate], I was amused to see the pictures of the inauguration.  Of course, the photo opp in the press showed a sleek new train and stunning stations just in time for the ribbon cutting.

If I am to believe someone's post with regard to the cars of the Metro, this line has 39 cars; 8 of which look like the above, also mercifully sporting air conditioning.  Of the remaining 31 cars, 2 were restyled on the outside, and 1 totally revamped.  So, the remaining 28 present themselves a bit more like the cars we ride in day in/day out.  Rome doesn't have the corner market on graffitied up cars, scary stations, and un-airconditioned vehicles, by any means.  One post even went so far to claim that for just €1.50 you can catch a ride back to New York City in the 1980s!!  But that was a small price to pay in NYC to have trains running 24/7.  I noticed in Barcelona, they were uber-amazing as long as you rode in & out of the airport and around the central city.  Trains to the suburbs were a bit more shabby, indeed.
In any case, I did get a big kick out of our photographer's point of view as to the trains rolling in & out of the station on inauguration day  (click on colored section above for a stream of fun pics!)  Too bad for the riders, the free-flowing of cool (or rather, hot) graffitied cars didn't last long enough to catch anyone's attention.  To mirror the transportation fail, the head of ATAC, making over half a million dollars per year, gets to stay put as well.
Instead of fixing the problems, ATAC every now and again is happy to supply bandaids for their client's misery:  they hand out bottles of water to the poor souls who lose half their body weight just trying to get from point A to point B.

The Picture of the Day Win for me?  From www.paesesera.it  
Our Mayor Alemanno, looking a bit p'oed over having to wait on a train...

Wednesday, July 4

Life in Italy Top 10 Reasons You've Not Got Mail

Anyone who lives in Italy knows that the Italian Post Office in all its forms (from mail clerks to carriers to delivery to home banking) is the bane of one's existence.  Simply put, it's the flip side of the frittata to stunning scenery, passionate people, magnificent monuments, unbelievable food, events, culture and more.   I'm amused daily by tweets and facebook postings on people's Italy post office blues.  I often repost them in the right hand column of my blog, under Overheard or on my own fb page, but I dedicated an entire chapter in my book entitled, The postman never rings even once.
After the mail carriers (supposedly) shipped back 100 copies of my book rather than bring them to my doorstep -- I have bets placed that I will never live to see their shiny Burnt by the Tuscan Sun covers -- and yesterday's defeat at the hands of the despotic desk clerks, I have decided to share with you my very own David Letterman moment:  The Top 10 Reasons Why We Refuse to Take Your Mail.  But, unlike Letterman, each and every one is an actual response I've received from the people who I am by now quite certain live out their measly existence by wielding power in their pat refusals to provide you, the person keeping them gainfully employed, with this most basic service.  Giving you stamps.

The Top 10 Reasons Why the Italian Post Office Clerks Refuse to Take Your Mail

10.  You've written the address in green pen  [note:  the same applies to red pen as well]
9.    Your envelope has been stapled [and the metal staples might cause harm to our carriers]
8.    It's ten minutes prior to our ten minutes before closing time and we won't take any more transactions [ignoring the fact that you've been inside the place for over an hour]
7.    We have a new order that only 5 transactions are allowed at a time.  You have seven envelopes requiring postage.  I will give you postage for those five, but you'll have to take another number and wait to do the next ones
6.   The USA has stopped accepting packages
5.  Waiting for my number to be called so I could post three letters, I found out they had closed down the letters & packages window altogether to provide for more windows to the hundreds waiting for their financial transactions (avg transaction time:  12 minutes per customer).  I can't reopen the window - it's the system that closed it down - you'll just have to wait til all others before you are helped [note: term used quite loosely]
4.   I can't weigh the letters at this window to determine the postage - you need to go to the window across the way and get them weighed [implying taking a new number and waiting hours in line] / [postscript to this entry: I did just that, the co-worker penciled in  the postage amounts, to wit the clerk then said How do I know that you didn't just write them in yourself and they, indeed correspond to the correct postage?
3.   You wrote 'UK' for United Kingdom on the envelope, and it should be Gran Bretagna (Great Britain) 
2.   [No explanation] They just left you standing there and went on their coffee break
1.  We have no stamps here [this excuse comes in many other forms from 'we don't have the right denominations', 'you want too many stamps', the meter is down, the meter can't post to the USA, the list is endless]

For anyone attempting to apply logic as in...Why don't they just give us postage stamp machines?  The reasons are two-fold:  
a) It would imply someone filling them up with envelopes, money and postage labels to keep them running, which, after day 3 would no longer be in service and 
b) in a country in which the second favorite national pastime is beating the system, they would need someone to check that the postage on the package was accurate, as everyone would simply weigh out boxes empty, get the stamps, and then and only then fill up their boxes with leaden materials and pop them in the mail.  

Sunday, July 1

Tante Belle Cose: Italy Travel Edition

June always means kicking off the summer and with the heat wave that came along with it, we knew it was time to be kicking off our heels and soaking our feet (and paws) in the fountains.  This month, I spent a week immersed in what Italy does best: the indescribable scenery, the gastronomic specialties, the special events, the overwhelming hospitality, and of course, the people (and dogs, like Giotto at the cafè inside Florence's Palazzo Strozzi).  Extra bonus was watching Italy arrive in the finals of European cup.
I'll be posting our day-by-day visiting Italy on my Burnt facebook page.

In June, after navigating the treacherous waters of Roman bureaucracy, because bringing jobs, great food, and new life to a degraded part of the city, wasn't in their mandate, the City of Rome finally realized they were getting an awful lot of bad press and allowed Eataly to open in Rome.  Eataly will also be the caterer on Italo trains, so, for a lot of us, not to mention owner Oscar Farinetti, life is buono
Located right near Rome's Ostiense Train Station, so, you could always skip the non-stop train to Rome's Termini Station, and hop a ride on this one and enjoy a welcome drink in their food hall. Click here for an article on the deliziosi treats on offer.

In Genova, I discovered a pretty nice deal of Bus Tour - Lunch - and a temporary exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale.  It might night be Eataly, but in Genova it's hard to go wrong on the food front.

In Florence, Palazzo Strozzi was hosting an outstanding exhibition of Sargent and the Americans in Florence, but the works of some of the Italian artists who painted in that same genre, most remarkably Segantini were a real treasure to behold.  While in Milano, air-conditioned trams and subways ruled the roads, providing all of us with great relief and a breath of freshly recycled air.

On the way back to Rome, I discovered they finally took down the joke of a speed limit from the Highway Toll Booth and into the ring road (GRA) circling the city.  Without any exits, and now an enlarged three lanes, the limit was 110.  It's now up to the standard limit on highways which you usually need to divine by communing with the spirits of 130.
I lost a bet over the speed limit on the GRA.  With often only two lanes, traffic merging, right, left & center, exits, shopping malls and truckers, the speed limit is, like a highway 130.  I bet a great sushi dinner it was 110.  Since it's not posted anywhere, and there was not one official website mentioning the slight detail, how could I have been so foolish as to apply any logic to the speed limit system in Italy?  All other ring roads in the country are 110.  It's no wonder that the GRA is listed as one of the most dangerous roads in Europe.