Thursday, October 25

Italy: A Four-Star Hotel & Tourism Experience? Sometimes, Short-sheeted

As I pronounce on my twitter feed, I like to hold the Italians to task when it comes to their self-appointed grandisement of being the purveyors of all things Quality of Life.  Certainly for travelers and residents alike, the food, the presentation, the style, and often the hospitality is, indeed, unparalleled.  [The scenery is left out of this mix intentionally, as that is a gift of Mother Nature while the museums and art, while nice to look at, don’t in my book, make for unbridled Quality of Life-look at the visitor statistics and you’ll know what I mean--they’re only enjoyed by the few].
The devil is in the details...
The bathroom of Rome's exclusive Villa Miani
When it comes to the quality of the experience meme, naturally - the hospitality industry is the calling card for any country as a whole.  And it shows.  Most establishments, large or small, take their customers quite seriously: starting with the suppliers of your coffee or pastry, to the barman who decorates a cocoa heart atop your cappuccino, to the gelato server who offers you a dash of whipped cream, right down to the cashiers who greet their clients by name. Heck-I’ve had plenty of wonderful exchanges with the guy who loads up the vending machines.
While the more modest mom&pop establishments will generally go out of their way for you, lately I’ve found, where and when I least expect it, that it’s the elite establishments that keep coming up short.  Despite their cost (and the doubling of their revenues post-Euro), everywhere you look, you see them cutting corners; most likely employing low-cost personnel, not painting their outsides, leaving heaps of trash in the cigarette bowls.  At the Ergife Hotel, a place that can host nearly 1000 guests, they keep the electricity turned off even while hosting int'l conferences in the only open lounge with natural lighting coming in - and, where people can go online.  Dozens pleaded with their staff to turn it on (to no avail), until I corrupted a cleaning lady who turned it on for us.  Their poolside changing rooms were so off-putting, I was afraid to actually go inside. 
Elsewhere, Staff Training is not usually a priority. As my (Italian) boyfriend exclaimed when leaving the bathroom of a fine restaurant, “What does it take to make sure there’s a roll of toilet paper in the stalls?”  And while the lobbies are showy and the menus delight, it’s right there, the lack of attention to detail by management where it shows:  inside the often questionable bathrooms where people take the time to notice the slights.
I was shocked when attending a glamorous reception at Rome’s Villa Miani, the place for hosting such evenings under the stars.  Before even the rush of guests, the bathroom was presented as above. That roll of paper would have lasted about 11 minutes once the 900 women arrived.
Growing up, I recall restrooms in Chicago hotels with well-dressed waitstaff who always made sure everything was spic and span. I’d love to see them make a comeback.  I used to see them in Italy as well; though for the most part, Italy has done away with the bathroom ladies. [I must admit, however, that they didn’t hold a candle to their uniformed brethren across the pond -- come to think of it, instead of being handed a nice hot towel, the only thing I got was the evil eye when I didn’t leave a tip].
Dining at the posh Peppino a Mare on the Ostia beach, you can imbibe in splendour on an exquisite fish menu.  And although they keep the curtains drawn so you can’t actually see the sea, it doesn’t really matter.  You’re too busy eyeing the fish fantasy platters set before you.  The plates of food may have been flawless, but the plates were not: every single glass and dish I was served was chipped or cracked.  I had to ask the wait staff three times for replacements which never came.  When the owner came by our table, I jokingly pointed out the infringement on my Quality of Life experience.  He joked back that the dishwasher in the back takes the dishes and throws them at the walls.  While we all had a good laugh, the fact is, the guy in the back room needs to be directed to take them out of circulation and not just carelessly toss them on the tables.
The Villa del Cardinale in Rome’s Castelli hills is a place that back in the day housed popes and cardinals vacationing when the Pope’s in residence.  Set high above the Albano lake, much of the antique furniture is original and provides the setting for many a wedding reception. With peacocks strolling the grounds, it is undeniably a very memorable place.  But heading up to my room, I was shocked to find cheap plastic cups in plastic wrap, rough toilet paper and tiny soaps as if I had been staying in a Motel6.
It’s the little things that count went it comes to hospitality.  And in a country placing their bets firmly on catering to customers, hopefully the proprietors will begin to take notice; because the customers, Blogging, Yelping & Tweeting away, already are.

Thursday, October 18

The Gladiators of Rome

a true-blooded ancient Roman
as portrayed in our evolved era of 2012
In Italy, whenever something is over-the-top spectacular, or the envelope is pushed a bit too far, coupled with the fact that it comes from the USA, it's called quite disparagingly, "An Americanata".  I love this term because it's usually quite accurate; after all, the bizarre creatures of Cirque de Soleil are the brainchild of Canadian minds, while we gave the world Barnum & Bailey and his vulgar cast of real-life characters all under a Big Top tent.  So when in Rome a few brauny guys got the bright idea to dress up for photo opps as Centurions and hover around the Forum & Colosseum to collect a few bucks, I, with my decidedly American sensibilities, thought for one that it was a pretty banner idea.  I could not believe that no one had come up with the idea sooner, 'tho I'm sure when Animal House came about I was not the only one who wanted to throw a toga party in the Roman Forum.  Tourists love the gimmick and lined up for photos with the Gladiators.
You would have thought these guys had let loose man-eating lions in the environs.  The intelligentsia complained bitterly that it 'spoiled' the image of the great monuments to mankind -- and when the City realized they weren't getting a cut of the pocket money in taxes, well, in came the riot police and the Centurions were vanquished.  It was then I knew the Fall of Rome would not be far behind.  Their capitulation was from being seen as 'cheesy', the same word people uttered whenever the cameras were unsheathed.
When the film The Gladiator came out and the movie series Rome burst onto TV screens, even more voices cried fowl.   People from every walk of life had to dismiss them handily for the wild exaggerations, the mistakes in costumes (and we'll never forgive the actor who was wearing a watch...), the criminal way a deranged Emperor may have been played.  Seemingly forgetting that it was just entertainment, and perhaps not a replay of Roots, I felt all the hullaboo was simply a matter of sour grapes.
So out came the Made in Italy version of the Gladiators of Rome, a Pixar-like film hoping to best the Americans at their own game; certainly plausible, given the number of talented Italians busy working their magic over in Hollywood.  Nowadays you can find outstanding Ancient Rome 3D reproductions on youtube] but as for Gladiators, while kids seem to like it, critics have been dissing it; giving the film about two stars.  Citing unfunny adult humor, not so plausible plot lines and the usual sexed up scenes with the Roman women taking their cues from one Jessica Rabbit.  I took one look at the trailers to see more of the typical Italian movie-making gimmicks; making sure we indoctrinate the kiddies young that men are gladiators and women are eye candy.  While I applaud that the heroine becomes the hard-assed trainer (in more ways than one), and I had to give that she was dressed like all the Western runners at the Olympic games, I didn't like it there, either.  Little did the movie show how women in Ancient Rome really were; dressed less like Barbarella (brought to us by Italian, Dino Di Laurentiis I might add), and more likely wielding more power than many of the gladiators who graced the fighting pits and the Emperors who watched them battle.
So, where is the chorus of voices now when the Italians outdo the Americans in giving the world an Americanata in Rome.

All films quoted above with links to trailers and more.

Sunday, October 14

Schools In Italy: Showing your team colors

One way to tell whether or not the school has started and teachers or buses are not on strike (a regular feature of scholastic endeavors pretty much anywhere on earth - we'll just call it a lesson in Civics and community organizing whereby kids learn that going on strike means a day off to play on playstations, xboxes and wii -- not unlike a day *on* in Parliament) ... is that in many countries, kids put school uniforms on the outside which seems to make for better learning the 3Rs inside.  In the UK, you can tell the sharply dressed private school kids (which I believe they once called public...) by these uniforms, which shake the bone marrow of most Americans.  These bear symbols and swords and all kinds of markings to show from what class they come, and I don't mean their grade level.  Waltzing down the street in ripped jeans and t-shirts of course, it's understood are the 99%.

Blue for boys...A centuries-old business
Pink for Girls...(photo from Guarducci-Trento)
In Italy, it's less about community - team spirit - and boldly showing your heraldic symbols -- a practice that went out sometime during the Bonfire of the Vanities - I can imagine, but about leveling the playing field.  Tots gather up their pink or blue smocks (affectionately called, grembuili - aprons) and toss them on over their trousers, t-shirts and torn jeans.  Of course, they don't offer families huge smocks to toss over their automobiles, either -- as the ones with SUVs, Mercedes, nudge out the tiny FIATs for space in front of the school; a bigger indicator of status than the ripped jeans and underwear showing out from under them.  This practice tends to carry on thru elementary school, and...weirdly ends right at the age when tweens start removing all their clothes to show off butt cracks & belly buttons and other parts of the anatomy which you, as an adult, really shouldn't be looking at at 7:30am.  Some days I feel like throwing them a smock, pink or blue, take your pick.
I discovered that some schools stick to the uniforms of some sort, but they've now been mercifully updated to include sweat pants and hoodies, and other street smart paraphernalia -- just don't let on to your kids that you think it's smart - they'll be abandoning it for golfer's pants and pink&green whale belts before the term is up.
But I found out during my recent foray into Florence that the International School there had their very own supplier of school kids garments.  Owned by the family of an alumna (or two), the families were told to purchase their particular brand there; a helpful hint to families who lined right up.  I thought it a nice touch to support the Made in Italy brand and the local factories.  Until, that is, I discovered that the cost per student ran over $65 for a pair of sweatpants and over $500 for the entire kit and kaboodle.  Thinking that it was right up there with their American counterparts who are equally pressured into buying the $35 school sweatshirts -- I was reminded, however that those are optional.  And anyone who knew a punk rocker (back in my day) or an emo kid today, could certainly opt out.  As for the families who were surprised by sticker shock, I did not inquire just how many pairs of Nike's, Adidas or Vans their kids also had.
Nonetheless, it serves as a nice lesson to all those foreign kids -- straight from the Medici playbook on patronage and currying favor, and how that, too, is part of the fabric on which our society is made.

for a terrific blog spearheading the Italian schools (in Italian), and in particular, the psychological reasoning behind the smocks...go visit:
A scuole di bugie (!)  

Tuesday, October 9

Letter from Florence

One of the charming squares in Florence

Arriving in Florence is always a pleasure.  Not least for the absolute beauty of the place, for its ease in navigating, and for its stores.  I've come to the conclusion that Florence is like a miniscule Paris, where both the galleries and shops are brimming with shoppers and where the women dress so creatively; I even caught a guy walking down the street with a huge loaf of bread under his arm.  As far as I could tell, the only difference is that shopkeepers & waitstaff alike seem to actually appreciate you.  The city center is small enough to criss-cross on foot, and really, the only thing you need is a set of earplugs, for two reasons:  To muffle their homegrown noise pollution (narrow streets and motorinos do not make a fine mix), and to tune out the hoardes of people speaking English.

The old luggage shop has given way to a swanky coffee bar
a pleasant welcome to Florence Santa Maria Novella train station
Arriving at the train station, I was met by a fine crowd of people, distinguished from all the rest.  About 24 gypsies, making out like bandits while people scurried to purchase their tickets and hop a train.  Out in front, the Florentines have done away with their Bus Info Booth-which was one of the best things about arriving there.  I felt so sorry for the poor newsstand guy--I feel like petitioning the City Govt so he could draw a salary for offering Tourist Information.  Seeing that the last time I caught the bus out front seemingly going toward the center, I ended up 45 minutes from my destination in unbearable heat, I decided to grab a cab.  Even the Florentine taxi drivers have always been a joy to take a ride with (while they may be taking you for a ride...!).
In Milan, addresses stem from the center out down the spokes, so to speak.  But in Florence, after hiking many a mile, I knew this is not the case.   I learned from my cabbie that addresses start from the Arno River.  I thought there was something so poetic about that, although it didn't help me out -- what if your road is parallel to the Arno?  In any case, I ended up in a lovely section of Florence, down along the via Ghibellina and not so far from Santa Croce.  The streets in these parts are lined with cool shops & galleries, and not a chain store in sight.  I sat down underneath the archways of this tidy square (above), the Volta di San Piero.  A student hangout with a pub, a kebab place and a hole-in-the-wall eatery where I had a so-so ricotta & honey crepe, accompanied by a lousy cappuccino; but where the people & dog-watching was terrific, in compensation.

Burnt by the Tuscan Sun
Signed copies now at B&M Books

From there, I window shopped along the near traffic-free street, heading straight for Piazza della Repubblica - a place I like to go up on the rooftop for a drink with friends and a very fine view, indeed.  I stopped in at The Paperback Exchange to check on my book sales, before heading over nearer the Arno to B&M Books, a place selling an amazing selection of books old and new, and often hosting authors & artists.  I took advantage of their €1 and €5 book corner, and signed a few copies of my book which they had admirably placed, front & center.
At the nearby Palazzo Strozzi (one of my favorite places in Italy), an exhibit of Italian art from the Fascist period (hands down my favorite period for Italian art) is going on.  They have an outstanding cafè and a peaceful courtyard when you walk into the building.
Heading back over to the station, I caught a glimpse of a slight advertising fail for another art show (longtime readers will know it's one of my pet peeves of Life in Italy - just do a search on my blog for the word Advertising to have a hearty laugh).  I can't for the life of me think how anyone could have simply walked away from this job, thinking, Sì-That's a job well done!   I actually stopped to ponder if it was a ploy to get you to go to the exhibition, since there were more than one done up this way.  I don't think so.  Then again, maybe the poster guy needed to catch his train - or catch a thief making off with his wallet.
A show on Gothic Maolica?
Or, advertising a show on mosaic pieces...

For related posts on Florence, click below or just look at the tag cloud off to the right.

A Day Trip to Florence ... From Umbria Uncovered

Thursday, October 4

Rome Improvements

During the month of September, there was (some) good news coming out of Rome, which has been riddled with scandals on the level of Caligula & Co. of late (and - alas - Rome's not the only one capturing headlines when it comes to siphoning monies from the public funds).  In any case, it looks like Rome is trying to clean up its act, so to speak.
It started with the new paint jobs of the white lines (a regular feature since they fade so quickly - talk about siphoning public funds).  This was followed by a few new sorties over the Roman walls by Retake Rome & Fondazione Garibaldi (find them on facebook - their next stop: Ponte Milvio on October 13th).  And, speaking of walls, a few organizations in the fall take University students or other groups around the entire Aurelian walls surrounding the original city limits of Rome.
It's a beautiful way to experience the city.

Next, I heard that the Chamber of Commerce along with RomaCapitale have instituted a toll free number for citizens to indicate disservices in their area.  You can call 800.912.760 and let them know if places are filled with trash, perhaps graffiti and other such complaints.
My wish is that this initiative lasts a bit longer than most of them that come and go with the political winds...

Not to be outdone, the City's Bus Service ATAC decided to bring in their own complaint dept.  This is via email to the President of Security of some sorts [email:  sosatac *AT* fabriziosantori *DOT* com...]  They (or he, rather) want to know if buses don't come by, or pass you right by, if they're dirty, or even receive suggestions on line extensions and improved services]  -- Click here for my cheat sheet on bus travails...Fifty ways to leave your rider...
Again, I hope these complaints actually get a response unlike others I've tried and heard in response, 
"Well, we really can't help you out.  We just take the complaints."

And even the Vatican (besaddled with their very own 'What the Butler Saw' now playing Live! on the Via Crucis) got into the act.  The Vatican Museums have added a few roaming priests to help people out in their moment of rapture while viewing the works, with questions on the clergy, on the artworks, symbolism and more.  
They're the live version of Siri - maybe they can call themselves, Cyrus - after the Great Persian King...

*Most of the entries above contain live links