December 30, 2007

Health and happiness

Back in Rome, salvi e sani, after a few ER runs while in Trento. One son has finally finished with 12 days of fever, one antibiotic following another, a couple of xrays (nasal/frontal and chest), various doctor visits (our ASL doctor even came to the apartment to check for signs of meningitis when his fever went over 40 and called us on Christmas eve to check up), a midnight call to the Guardia Medica and a Christmas morning ER visit. Total expense: five euro to rent a aereosol machine for a few days and the cost of a nose spray and fisiological water.

Then I managed to slice off a piece of my thumb along with the bread which led to another ER run, a two hour wait (Dec 26 was a big day for ski accidents), medication and sterilstrips in the place of stitches. Total expense: 0. Today I nipped down to the hospital to change the dressing and check the beast and they sent me to the Red Cross because the ambulatiorio was closed on Sunday. Total expense: 0.

Everyone was helpful, thorough, professional. No medical horror stories for today -- and this all took place between December 17 and 30. I know that national health systems have their problems, and in Italy these problems can be augmented by the posto fisso mentality that goes hand-in-hand with government lifetime jobs, but, when it works, it works, and today I feel like I got service for my taxes.

A Christmas gift?

a domani,

December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays

The Best to all for the Holidays.

I am enjoying my family being united for a few days, Christmas spirit, hot mullled wine, roasted chestnuts, way too many sweets and brindisi while re-charging my blog batteries. Lots of ideas are mulling and roasting too. Stop by after the 26th.

a presto,

December 16, 2007

History's roots

I've been away for a few days traveling by ski trail between the Alto Adige and Trentino regions up North. In Trentino, we felt like we were in Italy, lift workers spoke Italian and there were more types of pasta than just spaghetti al ragù on the menu. When we passed over the border into Alto Adige, we felt like we had gone abroad, lift workers (and the Hotel) spoke German and the menu carried many sorts of wurstel. Although we were always in Italy, we had touched first hand the effects of History. This area has its roots somewhere between "high" Adige or "south" Tirol and although over half a century has passed since it is officially part of Italy, part of its soul lies elsewhere.

a domani from Rome,

December 8, 2007

I'll have....

Jamie Oliver is everywhere: in the news, in the window of the bookstore at the Termini train station and just about every other bookshop in the city -- A Brit selling an Italian cookbook to Italians. Brilliant, chef's hat off to him.

The picture on the front cover shows a dishevelled 30-something blond guy in jeans slouching against an old Fiat 500, with a paint-peeled wall as a backdrop and a plate of spaghetti in hand. It screams "relaxed Italian food". He got it.

In the editors review, one phrase caught my cross-cultural eye, "... As an outsider, Oliver has great reverence for the traditions of Italy, and he offers some surprisingly deep insight about how a lack of choice and a massive working-class population have kept those traditions alive." As he traveled around the country, he understood the importance of food rules (that dictate when you eat, what, in what order and at what time of the year) and realized how important they are in maintaining what we know and love as Italian cuisine. The lack of choice that creates many a cross-cultural moment for travelers and expats, is one of the foundations of Italian lifestyle. The best small trattoria offer no choice at all, just dishes made from the freshest ingredients they found that morning at the market.

He also insists on including a "graphic and gruesome" photo of a slaughtered sheep. If you want good wholesome Italian food, you have to start with the freshest basic ingredients, including the beast. This also disturbs Anglo-saxon sensibilities for whom a freshly picked tomato is one thing and a whole lamb is another.

Happy cookbook hunting.
a domani,

PS just came across a great post on traditional Italian regional cuisine and a plea to support its origins, written by my wandering italy blogging buddy.

December 5, 2007

European stereotypes

I found this piece of an article by Richard Hill on the Dialogin site (link to your right)

Summing up the stereotypes

“A group of people meet at the National Geographic Society in London and decide that, for the next meeting, everybody has to present a treatise on the elephant. They all return the following year and present their volumes.

The German has a 700-page dissertation: Beschreibung des männlichen Elephantes in Ost-Afrika. 1. Teil (description of the male elephant of East Africa, Part I).
The Englishman has a small, sober, black leather-bound book entitled “Elephants I have shot”.
The American has an 8-page booklet in colour, “How to make bigger and better elephants”,
while the Frenchman has a small tastefully presented book on L'amour des éléphants (‘The love life of elephants’).
The Pole presents a book called ‘The elephant and its relation to the Polish Problem’,
while the Swede has a greyish book called Elefanter och hur man titulerar dem (‘Elephants and how to address them’).
The Dane presents a book of recipes: Elefant på 100 måder (‘100 ways to cook an elephant’),
while the Norwegian has a book entitled Norge og vi nordmænd (‘Norway and we Norwegians’).”

This is probably the most comprehensive cultural joke in existence. It was devised, I suspect, by a group of very imaginative Danes…

Richard Hill is a consultant specialising in intercultural communications and cross-cultural affairs.

December 4, 2007

All in a film

I have set up a google alert for "cross-cultural" and once in a while something interesting turns up. This is a story from the Khaleej Times in Dubai about a young woman film director and producer, Nayla Al Khaja, the first in her country. She grew up loving cinema because it let her see inside other cultures.

As a child I watched many films - Arabic, English and Indian films. I watched a lot of black and white Indian films like Anarkali, Boot Polish, Sindbad because my dad had a huge collection.

It helped me have a very open mind because when you are watching a film you see someone celebrate a Diwali or a Christmas. As a kid it made me curious about other cultures and opened my mind to them, that’s why I am very flexible with people.

I love the fact that life is full of life and through films you are exposed to a window to other cultures and that’s what really attracted me to it. I used to paint, do a lot of portraits of people in motion and that was where I fell in love with motion and film making.

When asked if she will go the way of Hollywood or Bollywood, she replies,

Bollywood makes more sense, as I speak Urdu and I am very close to that genre. I think it’s a giant market and if we do a cross-cultural film with locals and Indians, which has never been done before it will be great.

Locals and Indians have always been together in Dubai, I think it would have a great market both in India and the Middle East.

When asked about upcoming projects,I was surprised to learn that she has cultivated an Italian connection,

‘Once’ is my private project, a short film about a woman’s paranoia juxtaposed against her beauty and fashion. Italian company Independent Ideas owned by Lapo Elkann, is interested in this film because it highlights fashion, beauty and paranoia. It’s a purely product placement kind of movie so we approached Dolce Gabbana and they are really interested in working with us.

She received her training at a prestigious film school in Toronto.

People think documentaries are boring, I too had this misconception but in Toronto I realised that documentaries can be fun to watch and there is so much to learn from them. There was one about a guy who was a bus driver in Toronto and a king in his city back in Africa! These films make you think that there are so many ways of thinking.

This is what I love about films DIFF (Dubai International Film Festival) says “it is bridging cultures” and it is truly so. It’s a medium that can bring a lot of peace and understanding and that is what attracts me to it.

Her enthusiasm is contagious! Now that I think of it, although another medium, as a child my favorite record was one with "Christmas stories from around the world" and my favorite story was the one about La Befana.


a domani,

December 3, 2007

"livor mortis"

Mystery writer, Pat Cornwell, visited Rome last year while doing research for her recent novel that is being released in Italian this month as, "Il libro dei morti". While the Romans like seeing their city in print, or on film, they get a bit tired of the glossy, Americanized view that is shown over and over again, depicting only the places wealthy Americans visit: Piazza di Spagna, Trinità dei Monti, the Hotel Hassler and a cappuccino at a bar in Piazza Navona. This book is no different.

It seems that Ms. Cornwell had been very thorough in her interviews and research, asking detailed questions about who would be responsible for the case of a murdered girl found in a tub full of ice. How old would he or she be, what grade or level, what kind of characteristics and character. Despite what seemed at the time an open mind to accepting that there would be differences in mentality, local resources and law systems given that Italy is not the US, she still managed to offend by sticking to the old Italian stereotypes by setting Captain Poma up as a vain and argumentative latin lover who even flashes a red lined cape at one point -- something a carabinieri would never do outside of official occasions.

What really got this Italian book reviewer's goat was that the main character Kay Scarpetta, feels it necessary to explain to her Italian colleague, Captain Poma, that the expression "livor mortis" is Latin and not English!

Offending an Italian at his most intimate cultural roots.

a domani,

November 29, 2007

Strike's on

Tomorrow there is an eight hour transport strike: buses, trams, metro, trains and taxis starting at 8:30 (9:00 for trains). Everyone seems to have a plan to work around it, many are going into work early to have a coffee with a friend, while others have made arrangements to stay near work until 4:30 when the buses start back up again. The rest are staying close to home and putting off to tomorrow what could have been done today. The ZTL has been lifted to let cars into the historic center (abandoned by the buses) and the traffic will be unbearable.

No one seems particularly excited about yet another transport strike, and treat it as a mere nuisance, like a whining two-year old that you have to live with. What can you do about it anyway? Write to your local politician? Have a demonstration about being tired of strikes and create more havoc? Go on "Porta a Porta"? Write a letter to Corrado Augias? Or make do, grumble a bit over your morning cappuccino at the local bar, and get on with the day the best you can.

I had planned to take the 9:05 eurostar to Trento, instead I am on the 7:42 intercity train. Oh well, 45 minutes longer trip and not quite as nice a ride. What can you do? Boh.

a dopo-domani from Trento,

November 27, 2007

The power of history

We talked about the Italian Sense of History the other day as a dividing line between them and us, "being" and "doing", but where does it come from? In addition to the rich heritage left by ancient Roman philosophers, writers, politicians and orators, modern day Romans also inherited similar daily problems. As they say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." How true!

Albero Angela, in a book being released today (in Italian), Una Giornata nell'antica Roma (A Day in Ancient Rome), outlines the eight major problems of Rome back then: traffic, noise, commuting time, street filth, housing crisis and high prices, unsafe buildings, uncontrolled immigration and nighttime security. The traffic was so bad that the ancient Romans even installed a sort of ZTL to keep private vehicles out of the center during the day and like today, certain high level public officials had the equivalent of the "auto blu" which they used to circulate not only for work, but also for pleasure. The via Appia and Ostiense were the equivalent of our train station area -- filled with immigrants on their way into the city from the ports of Ostia, Brindisi and Pozzuoli.

When you have been living with the same unresolved problems for nearly three thousand years, change is daunting. To be sure, you have tried it all before and obviously nothing has worked -- the same old problems just keep coming back. The flow of history is strong, constant and like a river wears away even the best of positive and optimistic intentions. No wonder a certain fatalism sets in.

I wonder when a certain fatalism will sneak into American culture? Maybe somewhere between three hundred and three thousand years of history. See you then!

a domani,

November 25, 2007

Noi and the salon

This week I visited the source.

If you were an English-speaking woman new to a foreign city, where would you go to let down your hair and rant in peace? Your English-speaking hairdresser, of course, and in Rome this means Noi Salon in Piazza del Popolo run by Rick and Massimo. Originally from California, Rick Breco acknowledged that he has, indeed, heard it all, so I settled back and got the scoop.

The number one rant is food -- with comfort food that you can't easily find here, such as cheddar cheese, at the top of the list. Then comes Italian food rules and the timing of meals -- restaurants have the nasty habit of actually closing and re-opening during the day, as do shops.

A different idea of customer service comes next. As Rick put it, "This makes them insane," with the lack of personal space coming up close behind. What is defined as "rudeness" usually has to do with people not looking and smiling back when you cross their path on the sidewalk, and slow reaction time when you enter a shop.

What his clients love is "the dream" that has become Italy's trademark, branded by the romantic cypress-lined road in Tuscany (alla "Under the Tuscan Sun"). He has found the perfect backdrop closer by, near Orvieto, where he occasionally takes special guests just so that they can fulfill their fantasy and go home happy.

Many are fearful of communicating, integrating and even shopping. Italian ways are complicated and hard to fathom, so that sometimes it is easier to simply shut down and stick to the English-speaking community. For Americans with Italian husbands (that they met and married while in the US) there is the MIL factor and the fear of not only having your personal space encroached upon, but also your intimate values, beliefs and ways of thinking and behaving.

On the other side of the chair, Rick's strongest cross-cultural moments center around the concept of time. It drives him crazy that many Italian clients insist on just dropping in and expecting service without an appointment He sees this practice as a lack of respect. In fact, about 70% of their business is with the foreign English-speaking community.

So, "What is the secret of doing business in Italy?" I asked. "Forming personal relationships, the Italian way," he answered with certainty, "and finding your niche." On the personal side, he finds that having a sense of humor makes all the difference, "Feeling comfortable to tease and make a joke as a way to approach Italians, who then easily accept you for being yourself."

Ah yes, being particolare, the Italian way.

Thanks Rick!

a domani,
Noi Salon, Piazza del Popolo, 3

November 24, 2007

Pot luck

For the third year in a row, we were invited to share in a pot luck Thanksgiving feast. Global nomads Gretchen and Peter ordered two large turkeys and had them baked to perfection in the industrial oven at their local trattoria while taking care of the mashed potatoes and gravy. The guests brought the rest: a sweet potato casserole, an extra pan of stuffing, a spinach and raisin dish, my Brussels sprouts gratin and sweet and sour onions, various salads and more vegetables, homemade rye bread and cranberry sauce.
All 30 or more of us dug in, filling plates to the brim, not worrying at all about the various items touching each other and mixing their distinct flavors. An evening of freedom from food rules was a bit inebriating (in addition to the flowing wine).

Pot luck makes sense in a food culture that doesn't place much attention on food rules or organize meals around an endless flow of carefully orchestrated courses. Pot luck is democratic -- each dish has the right to a place of equal visibility and value on the table. It's competitive -- the best dishes go the fastest, for everyone to see and judge. It's egalitarian -- even a simple dish can shine in humble splendor next to an elaborate one. Every dish is an individual, with its own story and history. What the table lacks in elegance and orchestrated food order perfection, it gains in wholesome, friendly charm and great food, especially when it is all mixed up together under a cloak of gravy.

Then came the pies, and yet another grand American pot luck Thanksgiving feast had been enjoyed by all.

Now it is the day after -- minestra, then prosciutto and mozzarella, one after the other, never at the same time. Until the second to last Thursday of November comes round again.

a domani,

November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

to all!

For those of you who will be introducing Thanksgiving to the natives today, I would like to share some bits from a short story by Mandy Dowd, A Mediterranean Thanksgiving, Take Two which describes just this experience, but in Southern France. True to form, the guests she had originally invited cancelled at the last minute (not understanding the IMPORTANCE of this very particular meal) but she recuperated by inviting friends of friends to stop by and experiment this American tradition.

The food was ready and she was feeling like a proper host as she asked, "What would you like?" Her guests looked at the array of dishes on the table and replied,"I will try everything. Tell me, what does one eat first?" Only then did she realize what her guests were really asking, "Ah, I see. Well in the United States, we eat it all at once--I mean forkful by forkful, but there isn't really a starting place the way there is here in France. But, of course, we will have the pie after."

While the French feast is similar in many ways to an Italian one, the American feast is something quite different. They eat course after course while we bring it out all at once, overwhelming our foreign guests with the timing and mixing up of flavors. Mandy describes the French feast in which, "The appearance of gluttony is replaced with an idea of civilized dining." Instead she recalls her cultured and worldly aunt once following the Thanksgiving prayer with, "On your marks, get set, go."

So our crowning accomplishment of serving the entire steaming meal onto the table at once is exactly what confuses our foreign guests.

But the pie comes last, although her guests had eaten the baked yams at the end as a separate portion, assuming that this was the dessert. "The pie is special" explains Mandy, which her French guests interpret to mean "strange" -- never a compliment, "as what is strange to the French palate is on the whole unwelcome."

Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner and be kind to the natives by prepping them in advance on the art of the American feast.

a domani (after a long swim to work off the pumpkin pie),
(last Thursday from the Gianicolo hill on my way back from an American Women's Association Thanksgiving lunch -- the turkey in the photo that tasted as good as it looks. Complimenti to the chefs at the Grand Hotel Parco dei Principe.)

November 20, 2007

Murky waters

I have a couple of deadlines today. For those of you who have been following the conversation over the past few days, I am linking you back to a post I did last February on my friend, the iceberg. The iceberg in this case represents the visibile and invisible parts of culture which I hope helps clarify the discussion we have been having. Come back and leave me a note!

a domani,

November 19, 2007

Doing and Being

After such a wide reaction to yesterday's post, I thought I should take my American Culture bible off the shelf (American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-cultural Perspective -- listed in the side-bar to your right) and share some thoughts on the Being / Doing divide.

Americans are doers. We believe that we can achieve just about anything if we just "do" enough (which generally means setting goals, making a plan and enacting every step of it with perseverance and dedication). "Doing" is very high up there on our scale of values. People are evaluated by what they do and they are valued for their results. We are unfortunately convinced that this a universal value, whereas, in fact, it is a cultural one. Most cultures also value "doing", but, along a spectrum, not quite so highly. They leave more space for the role of "being". We have a hard time intimately accepting that for people of other cultures, we are not (mainly) what we do, but also (even mainly) who we are. "Who we are" is often something we cannot "do" anything about (from caste systems of various types to being European). This is the base of in-group, out-group systems. We Americans join groups (as an individual) and leave them at will. In other cultures, you often simple "are" part of a group that you cannot join nor leave (even if you really want to and work really hard at it with perseverance and dedication).

Emigrants from all over the world flock to the US and quickly become Americans in every sense, even after only one generation. Becoming European is more difficult. All my long-term expat friends agree, even after 20-30 years here, with Italian families, friends, citizenship and language, we will never be considered Italian.
It's a Being / Doing thing. There is nothing you can Do in order to Be. You just Are or Are Not. Americans, with their individualism and belief in the power of personal will, have a hard time acknowledging this cultural difference. One of the hardest of all!

a domani,

November 17, 2007

Uncultured Americans

Last night I had a cross-cultural moment, in my own home. Our dinner guests were what the Italians would call "left wing intellectuals" and artistic types. What often strikes me is how being cast in this role as an intellectual can blind from individual and critical thinking and cancel all curiosity. I hear the same old phrases about America and Americans repeated word for word, over and over again. They must all refer to the same, "How to Act Like an Intellectual" manual for the text. Although they have never actually talked to one, due to a lack of spoken English and a fear of integrating with the locals when visiting other Italian intellectuals living in the U.S., they have very clear ideas about who and what Americans are. In a word, uncultured, which for a left-wing Italian means not being well-versed in Italian (or European at best) culture. Tit for tat with Condolezza's firm belief that American values are universal.

Sigh. It is true. We are uncultured (in the Italian definition of cultured) and there is nothing we can do about it. It doesn't matter how many degrees and what level of knowledge, understanding and expertise we may achieve, even in a cultural field, we will never have that odor of intrinsic culture that Italian left wing intellectuals developed from their mother's milk. It is an in-group, out-group thing. We are out, by the very nature of being American. We have no history (only some odd hundreds of years, not thousands) and cannot, therefore, have a real sense of History (capital H). We do not have that culture gene in our DNA. A Fulbright scholar and internationally acclaimed expert in Medieval Italian studies, once confided her frustration at always having to defend the fact that it is indeed possible to study Italian history as a non-Italian and actually be really, really good at it, even the best! This is often received with a shaking of the head in sheer disbelief.

As usual, I listened, nodded and very diplomatically explained that, we do not receive the same bulk culture that Italians do because we have a different educational system that trains us to be forward looking, practical, pragmatic and productive, with critical thinking skills, clear, linear communications and project oriented thinking that serves our countries needs.

"Ah yes," Guilio replied, "you are not taught culture, only to be consumers and to produce," while puffing on his cigarette in our smoke-free home. Clearly not part of a left wing intellectual's ideology. In the meantime, he doesn't produce a new generation of wealth, but lives off the management of family properties.

Just a rant.

a domani,

November 12, 2007

Alberto Cribiore's soft skills

Today I happened upon an article about Alberto Cribiore. His resume would take up pages -- it is enough to note that the long list of his achievements and roles concludes with, "he is the Italian that is most in view in international finance," currently covering the position of interim non-executive president of Merrill Lynch in charge of identifying a successor to Stanley O'Neal.

In the U.S. since the mid-70s, he talks about how Italian managers are appreciated abroad for their "soft skills" -- skills that are increasingly important in the globalization process with its decentralized organizational models. These skills are of a psychological instead of quantitative nature, such as the ability to adapt to other cultural and economic contexts and to build networks of personal relationships. Italians develop these skill because they have had to learn how to get around inefficiency and bureaucracy and other very real obstacles to get anything done. Their Anglo-American colleagues haven't had quite as many opportunities to fine-tune these skills.

The article concludes that the new generation of Italian executives in the U.S. are rapidly rising in the ranks, also because of their Italian "soft skills".

To paraphase a Japanese saying, "When in Rome, understand the behavior of the Romans and thus become an even more complete American (British, Australian, German or whatever)." Maybe we all have something to learn from the Italians and their noteworthy skills in building networks and adapting to other cultural contexts.

a domani,

November 9, 2007

Service with a smile

I reached a milestone today, my local supermarket became home.

A GS opened nearly two years ago just a few blocks away and I am a faithful client (when I need things that Pina doesn't supply). I have passed through one of the four cash registers hundreds of times that are manned by the same cashiers, day after day, week after week, month after month, and now year after year. No one had ever noticed or acknowledged my consistent presence across the bar chart reader -- never a "have a good day" or "can I help you" or any one of those quaint phrases. Nothing beyond, "card?" "change?" "how many bags?". Never any direct eye contact, nor interest. Any conversation took place among themselves, talking through you to the cashier on next line over.

Until today. The gum chewing 20-something year old with the black and blond streaked long hair and lots of eye-liner that makes her look slightly Egyptian suddenly looked up as the last item beeped passed the bar-code reader, actually saw me, and asked, "How do you cook this?" The item in question was a bag of mixed greens (cabbage, spinach, escarole and such). After recovering from the shock of this intimate interaction, I told her that I usually just boiled it, like spinach. She turned the bag over, looked at the ingredients and continued, "Could I also pass in the pan with some oil?" Suddenly having become a mixed greens expert, I responded slowly and with authority that she could also do that. But it didn't stop there (although the line was getting longer), "What does it taste like?" she continued as she turned back make a total. "A bit tart, with the cabbage, but not too much because of the other vegetables. I like it, my kids a bit less." She smiled (!!) and that was that.

It has taken over a year, but I have slowly, silently created a "relationship" with my local supermarket cashier just by regularly showing up in front of her. Who knows what may come of this new development -- maybe she will even keep the line open for me when it closes for everyone else, or whisper in my ear that she is going to open a new cash register so that I can discretely be the first in line.

Creating relationships takes time, but they always pay off. You rarely receive (what we would consider to be) service on first sight, you have to earn it by becoming a regular, day after day, week after week, month after month....

a domani,

November 8, 2007

Thursday and gnocchi

This is Italy and it always comes back to food and food rules.

This morning Paolo, my 30-something hairdresser, interrupted the drying process to ask his colleague, "What day is it today?" When she answered, "Thursday," he nodded, turned back on the hairdryer and made a mental note outloud to himself, "gnocchi today and fish tomorrow." I smiled and asked if he always had gnocchi on Thursdays. He thought for a moment and acknowledged that he foregoes the routine in the summertime (because of the heat and potential digestion problems), but for the rest of the year he faithfully has gnocchi on Thursdays, and fish on Fridays -- this is just the way things are.

This evening I stopped by Pina's shop -- the social center of Monte Verde Vecchio -- to pick up some bread. She had castagnaccio out for the first time and everyone in line was a buzz -- Fall and castagnaccio go together and we were all excited at the novità. Then a nicely-dressed woman popped her head in to change her order for tomorrow, "Pina, no mussels for tommorrow, just the clams -- if they are small and sweet." Ahhh yes, tomorrow is Friday and orders have been placed.
We may find Starbucks in the piazzas of the historic center as a sign of change in our coffee habits, but when will Italians stop eating gnocchi on Thursdays and fish on Fridays?

a domani,

November 7, 2007

Risky business

Just when you think that risk-taking, innovation and optimism had disappeared under a coat of raccomendazioni, there comes a breath of fresh air and signs of an Italy that is moving forward, free of the shackles that the raccomendazioni system imposes.

This afternoon I visited an on-line chat with entrepreneur Luigi Orsi Carbone organized under the US Embassy program, "Capturing Creativity". (mentioned also here).
Following a Bocconi business school degree and Columbia University MBA, he worked for a few years in management consulting before founding several companies in the telecommunications and internet sector between 1996 and 2001 -- Planetwork SpA ed ePlanet SpA (renamed as Retelit SpA) -- and participated in the start-up of a European hedge fund (Lansdowne Partners Ltd.). Currently he is working for another start-up, this time in the area of microcogenerazione (Heat and Power, Srl.) while also advising and serving as an "angel investor". All of this in Italy.

Quite an impressive guy.

The "chat" consisted of real-time interaction between Luigi Carbone and listeners who wrote in questions.

What struck me were the questions -- many centered on the issue of risk-taking culture.

Alessandra from Milan. "How important is the perception of bankruptcy as a penal offense(and the absence of a Chapter 11 equivalent in Italy) and did this influence your activity as an entrepreneur?

Letizia from Trento. "...Isn't it important to give incentives to the culture of risk, experimentation and failure. Isn't it part of the game? What about the difference between failure and bankruptcy (fraudulent as is often the case in Italy)?

Davide from Rome. "After your first failure, how did your re-invent your professional career?"

Paola from Bologna. "Isn't there a risk that a good idea proposed by a group of young people is stolen by the potential venture capitalist to whom they turn?

Silvia from Genova. "How much does the negative perception of temporary work influence entrepreneurship in Italy?"

Sergio from Ancona. "How do you go beyond the culture of the "posto fisso" and accept the risks involved in setting up a company?

Venanza from La Spezia. "How can we change the way to do business in Italy and spread the culture of entrepreneurial risk?

Several listeners pointed out how well Italians do when they transfer their skills in a foreign context -- there is certainly not a lack of highly qualified potential entrepreneurs. So what is missing? Besides the venture capital.

From a cross-cultural point of view, risk and trust are intimately entwined. The lack of a risk-taking culture is therefore tied to a low-trust culture. So, you have to work both sides. Young potential entrepreneurs must trust that the system will support them and carry them even when they fail, so that they can get up, try again and this time, win. Otherwise, they will look for the "posto fisso".

a domani,

November 5, 2007

The "recommended"

Everyone complains about the TV, but there are a few noteworthy programs. One of them is Ballarò in which Giovanni Floris gathers politicians, experts, journalists, professors and such and tries to get them to stay on subject and say things of interest to the public for a few hours without scratching each others' eyes out. He has such an engaging smile and polite ways, that the guests generally behave and do as they are told. Amazing man.

He also keeps an "opinion" column in the Saturday magazine that comes with La Repubblica newspaper and this week he talked about "Raccomandazioni". He says that the system works because the country loves to make it work and then proceeds to give a few stats from various pieces of recent research.

* One out of every two Italians declares that he or she found their current job thanks to friends.
* Seven out of 10 young people think that "a little help" is necessary in order to get a university degree within a reasonable time frame.
* "Recognizing merit" is considered to be "very important for the functioning of society" for just under half of Italian citizens.
* A surprising 44 percent of young people (interviewed) declared that "working better than the others" does not justify an increase in salary -- a company should give an equal raise to all workers, not just to a few on merit.

It is easy to brush off the above, "oh, those Italians", but as Giovanni goes on to say, it is not as superficial and simple as it may seem.

The one who is "recommended" may be incompetent (as we would tend to assume), but he or she may actually be very competent but feel unsure, inadequate, or afraid of the unequal playing field. He or she may not feel confident about the integrity of the people on the other side that will decide his or her future, and assume that someone illegitimate will get his or her position if they do not take pre-emptive action -- "recommendation as legitimate defense" that guarantees equal footing with the other "recommended" candidates. In the end, "if you want to play, you have to accept the rules". As one candidate for a university post-doctoral research position put it, "What person in their right mind would participate in a university "concorso" without a patron?"

What makes me sad is that chasing down recommendations takes up so much energy that young people could put to better use -- in risk-taking, new ideas, innovation. Instead their talents and youthful exuberance get wasted in trying to work the system.

Che peccato.

a domani,

November 3, 2007

The Northern divide

Today I can only reaffirm a well-known fact -- Northern Italy is different from its Central and Southern cousins. There are certain traditions that unite the two ends of the boot -- ricotta, the language (more or less), mid-day shop closings, an obsession for shoes-- but there are many others that set them apart. The differences are rooted far back in history -- that in Italy tends to divide instead of unite. Before 1860 (1870 if you live in Rome), Italians had to look back to 300 A.C. to find a common historical base under the Roman empire. Even today, pre-1860 history works its way into many aspects of daily life and helps define the North/South divide.

In search of traditional local cuisine, we left Trento this morning and wandered up past Pergine and into the Valle dei Mòcheni to find the family run trattoria, L'Aquila Nera. The day was spectacular -- sunny and filled with crisp fall air -- and we wound our way up curve after curve, maso after maso, view after view. Along the way we found an elderly woman walking with her dog and stopped to ask directions, later we did the same of an elderly man further along the road. We couldn't understand a word they said, although they smiled and nodded with comprehension while kindly responding. They were speaking the Mòchena language -- one that only exists in this valley, even in 2007. The Mòcheni people have ancient origins in this area and still carry with them a language that is based on "medio-alto bavarese" german . It has survived since the middle ages as an oral tradition through schools, regular commerce with Germany and mainly a practice of inter-marriage among locals (maybe that is why the two elders we met were smiling). The guidebook says that the language is currently under protection.

At the other end of the boot, down in Basilicata, there are communities up in the mountains in which the locals still speak a version of Albanian. Both of these mountain areas are part of Italy, but their historical roots lead to other places.

Being an East-coast native, US history for me while growing up centered on the American revolution. On a trip down South and a visit to historic Charleston, I discovered that history for them centered instead on the Civil War. Then this summer while passing through Santa Barbara, I discovered that history in California began with the Spanish missions. Then there are the local Indians, with their pre-US history. So we also have our different historical bases, but they grew one out of another and are all part of a common whole, US history. Instead of dividing, they unite.

At a recent Sunday brunch I joined a table of Americans from California, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas, plus one Italian (my husband). While I can spot a Californian immediately by their certain way of being, a Southerner by their accent and hospitable ways, a Mid-westerner by their solid and planted stature and Texans as, well, Texans, I didn't feel the same kind of distinctiveness that I would find between a Sicilian and a Milanese. Our cultural roots as Americans (in addition to those of our origins overseas) are very closely intertwined and they don't go back quite so long and far away.

What do you think?

a domani,

P.S. lunch was indeed a typical Trentino feast -- salad and local salame, then cannederli and strozzapreti, followed by an assortment of: stinco di maiale, coniglio, cervo, luganica (local sausages), crauti and polenta. Finally came strudel and....., un espresso. Whew. I must say, we did a good job on it all.

October 30, 2007

The Starbucks' saga continues

One of my personal characteristics is taking an idea or cause and going with it. Sometimes this is a strength when I don't give up and keep digging deeper until I get enough information to form original conclusions; other times it just drives people crazy because I don't stop asking questions until they run out of the room screaming, BASTA!

Anyway, having popped-off the plastic lid on the question, "Will Starbucks open in Italy?" last night I had to google it. Two little words, "Starbucks Italy" and I discovered that this is a favorite blogging topic that has produced some really interesting and fun posts.

Here are a few, some in English by Americans, others in English by Italians (who are living abroad) and others in Italian (by Italians). The mix gives a wonderful overview of all aspects of the question. If you are only going to read one, click on Matteo Bittanti.

innovation zen A Bocconi trained, Brazilian innovation management and business strategy expert talks about the potential risks to Starbucks of landing in Italy.

Wandering Italy An interesting look at the big business machine behind the coffee king.

Starbucks Geek This is an Italian blog dedicated only to Starbucks!

Big Brother Blog
An Italian in London who wants to bring Starbucks back with him to Italy. In Italian.

Matteo Bittanti
Great open letter to the President of Starbucks by an Italian in California. Very funny and intelligent at the same time.

more from Matteo Bittanti

So, if you feel like digging deeper, the question is still open -- Will Starbucks open in Italy? The Italian point of view above gave some new light on the subject. The answer? Boh. I guess we will have to wait and see.

a domani,

October 29, 2007

Considerations on dignity

I finally got down to it this weekend and worked my way through the last of my mother's care package of newspaper clippings.

Syndicated writer, David Ignatius, wrote an interesting piece that is relevant to our cross-cultural considerations, called, U.S. Neglects Dignity. It opens with a comment made by Lt. Col. David Kilcullen at a recent seminar on counterterrorism,

"We talk about democracy and human rights. Iraqis talk about justice and honor."

David I. calls this, "The beginning of wisdom for America....that not only applies to Iraq but to the range of problems in a world tired of listening to an American megaphone." He continues by saying that it is the issue of dignity, not democracy that vexes billions of people around the world.

The implicit message we send is that, "other countries should be more like us -- replacing their institutions, values and traditions with ours. We mean well, but people feel disrespected." Condoleezza Rice in particular loves to talk about, "the universality of American values."

Continuing on the "dignity agenda", he also quotes from former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski's new book, Second Chance. "In today's restless world, America needs to identify with the quest for universal human dignity, a dignity that embodies both freedom and democracy but also implies respect for cultural diversity."

So today I will send my dear readers off into their expat lives as ambassadors of this respect for cultural diversity -- we are in the trenches and although we don't always like the behaviors and "ways of being" that we see in another culture, we have to take on the task of trying to understand where they come from, their cultural roots, out of respect for their (and our) dignity.

Where to start? Recognize and accept the humbling fact that our values and beliefs are not necessarily universal ones. How is that for a cross-cultural moment!

a domani,

October 27, 2007

Food fears

The ethnic menu has arrived in the Roman elementary school lunchroom. The first day had mixed results -- with a few adventurous children trying the Bangladesh vegetable Biriani, fishballs, yellow lentils and rice and milk pudding while the majority turned up their noses and ate only bread. Mothers are already petitioning for an Italian alternative on the menu for ethnic-lunch days because their children, "can't be expected to fast until 4:30 pm."

A teacher called it, "An interesting test in which we could clearly see the children's' fear of new things and stereotypes coming from the family." Another teacher acknowledged that the experiment was useful, "but that it needed to be better explain in advance not only to the students, but also the parents."

One student talked of "strange fish" and said that he didn't like the yellow rice. Another student echoed the first, "the pudding wasn't good at all, it was strange to find rice in it, not like I am used to at all." Another even tried all the dishes, but the flavors were "too sweet" and therefore he didn't eat much. He then conceded that he was sorry to see so much food thrown away because there are lots of children in the world who don't have anything to eat. In any case, he is game for trying another ethnic-lunch day.

I have so many stories about Italian children's' diffidence to foreign cooking (foreign often being defined as, "not prepared by my mother."). I have been put to test many times by a tableful of children as they very, very cautiously dig into a pasta with tomato sauce prepared by an American (come sarà mai?). They had been warned by their mothers about pasta scotta prepared by the infidels.

Food rules are taught very young and by the time an Italian reaches elementary school they are well ingrained. To soften the chaos created by the Bangladesh menu, it was presented as a first course, second course, side dish and dessert so that, at least, it adhered to the Italian food-order rules.

Next on the list are meals from: Romania, Albania, Poland, Peru, China, Morocco and the Philippines. Will the children survive seven bread-based lunches or will they break down and have a taste?

Important lessons for becoming Italian: Change is hard. Having choice (or innovation) is not necessarily desirable. New things are rarely better and often worse, so it is best to stick with your usual plate of pasta.

a domani,

October 25, 2007

Paternalistic medicine

What happens when an Italian doctor becomes a patient? It happened to Gynecologist Carlo Flamigni in Bologna last year and now he knows both sides of the Italian health system. In an interview, he talks about the experience.

He passed from reanimation to long months of rehabilitation while knowing the mechanisms of the medical profession, the jargon and the tricks of the trade. He could see through the facade and, from a patient's point of view, he didn't like what he recognized. In particular, he found the very Italian tendency of not telling the patient the whole truth about his or her condition to be very annoying. He only found out that he had no sensibility in half of his body when he asked the nurses why they hadn't washed his left side -- but they had. He calls it the "Paternal model of assistance." He also noticed how doctors get easily bothered by patients' questions and brush them off with, "guardi che il medico sono io." (look, I am the doctor). What he wanted most was compassion and instead he found doctors that glanced at their watches while visiting his bedside.

It all sounds pretty familiar, except for the paternalism. We like "straight talking", directness, no "beating around the bush", to "tell it like it is". We do not believe that mentioning the possibility of bad things happening will attract the evil eye's attention and actually make them happen (like, disa...l.ty, ca.c.r and t.m.r, those things that Italians never name directly and always speak of in a whisper). We "can take it." We are pragmatic. We make wills and take out life insurance.

Fifteen years ago, while spending nearly three weeks with my then three year old under observation in the pediatric neurosurgery unit of a large public hospital, the head neurosurgeon waltzed in one day with an entourage of foreign doctors at his heels to whom he spoke English. When he got to our bedside, he flipped out my son's various exams and proceeded to "tell it like it was" -- which, of course, I had not heard in quite such clear and direct terms. It never crossed his mind that I might understand English, but before I had absorbed what he had said and could manage a question, he had turned on his heels and left.

a domani,

p.s. no fear, it all worked out in the end.
p.p.s and with no hospital bill. Only about 10,000 lire (5 euros) for a copy of the "cartella clinica".

October 24, 2007

Fashion rules

Continuing the apparently frivolous but actually very serious question, "what's a girl to wear?" I window-shopped my way back home from the Via Veneto area today and this is what I learned.


That is this winter's color. You have to flaunt something grey, or you will find yourself feeling just so ever slightly out of step with all those "put-together" Italian women strolling down the cobblestones in their high heels. Purple and Bordeaux are also good,
and even a kind of Valentino red. Instead, I didn't see much of that rust color that was everywhere last year. Luckily, I have a bit of grey and Bordeaux around to pull out from exile in the depths of "cambio stagione."

At the end of her book, Mother Tongue,An American Life in Italy, Wallis Wilde-Menozzi describes this aspect of Italian life (dated 1997),

"The windows of the shops are filled with the beige and white, taupe and black clothes that have been declared in fashion. The pale desert look is put on dutifully by the old and young, the frail and fat, with an effect that shows in the center of town (note: Parma). Everyone is in the group, looking as if a glamorous safari of wealthy people from the 1920s had strayed into town......Ask in a shop for red, and a young girl will put you in your place. "No one is wearing bright colors this year. Not here." A woman who runs her own shop told me that she would like to carry light colors but she doesn't wish to insult anyone....I asked, "Why don't you just offer some bright sweaters if you like them?" Her reply: "Who am I to do that? Who am I to question the designers? I am no one."

So, we all wear what fashion dictates, or feel a bit shabby and out of place. A few years ago it was long black quilted down coats, this year it is grey wool short ones instead.

The rules are set, si fa e non si fa, I follow.

a domani,

October 22, 2007

Dressing for the bleachers

If you were going to be on your feet for three hours showing people to their numbered seats in the bleachers of an A Series volleyball match, would this be how you would dress? Hair done, thick make-up, and 8 cm spiked heels? Amazing. She could be on a TV program!
Then again, the coach is looking pretty spiffy too.
And check out those boots -- just the right touch for a Wednesday evening game.

You can never be overdressed, anywhere, on any occasion in Italy.

a domani,

October 21, 2007

Lazy Sunday

A clear day with a view out to the mountains....

but with a cold wind, time for tea and "paste" from "Desideri pasticceria" -- the best.

a domani,

October 20, 2007

Starbucked in Italy

Your mom is always your Mom, even when you have a few grey hairs and your own grown children, and mine still sends me "care packages" like when I was away at sleepover camp. Back then it was full of sweets, comic books and small necessities, while now it comes full of newspaper clippings with her notes on the side and lots of yellow highlighter.
Among the politics, culture, local news and quirky pieces, I found an article from the magazine Psychology Today on Starbucks by the author of a recently released book called, Starbucked. So here is some of the psychology behind the phenonmenon and a peek into the reasons why Starbucks may not manage to capture the Italian market afterall.

To begin with, he states, "the Starbucks' worldwide explosion wasn't fueled by coffee; it was the way they sold it. Starbucks closely tracked consumers' desires, their hidden needs, even their favorite colors and music. This awareness of customer psychology has netted Starbucks 40 million loyal customers per week." So, what do Starbucks' customers desire and need? The "Starbucks Experience", or in other words, a place to hang out, to "ease the problem of social disconnection" while offering something comforting to make people feel "coddled and tranquil. " Americans were feeling the need for a public gathering spot, a "third place" (after home and work). In the end, Starbucks is not about coffee at all, but a place "to bring people together thorough the social glue of coffee", a place that counteracts efficiency ("X" number of customers in and out in an hour kind of efficiency) and concentrates on feelings and an atmosphere of relaxation, warmth and luxury, a "coffee experience."

So that is why Starbucks doesn't concentrate on the quality of the coffee. Instead it has developed an innovative Starbuck proprietary language to add to the "experience". Ordering a "tall", "grande" or "venti", a "doppio", "a latte", or a "grande caffè misto" makes you feel like a Starbucks' insider and soooooo European and sofisticated. The subdued and gentle colors, curved countertops and warm materials have all been studied with care. Even the colors of the coffees -- a few years ago, the "hot" summer color was white, so they put out a "vanilla and coconut Crème Frappuccinos" to capitalize on this trend.

Oh dear. You probably thought that you just liked to have a Starbucks coffee now and then, instead you have been lead by the nose by one of the most powerful brands in the world, on the same level with Apple, Google and Ikea.

But for all its attention to psychology, the Italian market is going to puzzle the Americans -- its a cultural thing.

1. THe Italians know their coffee -- the taste, acidity levels, the difference between Brazilian and other beans, the art and experience required for its proper preparation. In the end, the quality of the "coffee experience" depends in great part on the quality of the coffee itself, not just the atmosphere.

2. Italians love to be particolare and coffee is one of the areas in which this attribute reaches its highest expression. It might be difficult to get everyone to drink the same substance out the same standard paper cup (click on the green writing for a fun cartoon, to move forward, click on the arrow at the top).

3. Italians have places to "hang out" -- their "public gathering places" are in every piazza and along the main Corso of any small town on a Sunday afternoon -- and there isn't the same level of "social disconnectedness" to be addressed. People are "coddled" and made "tranquil" at home (by their mothers, even at past 30) and don't need to seek comfort in a paper cup while sitting on a comfortable chair, alone.

4. Italians don't feel the need to counteract an overabundance of efficiency. The choice to linger in bars and restaurants is the norm -- leaving quickly is a challenge.

5. Italy is in itself an "atmosphere of relaxation, warmth and luxury" even without a "coffee experience."

6. I just can't image Italians getting used to ordering a "latte" with a straight face. THey would have to do something with the fake Italian lingo, maybe substituting it with exotic American names. "A meeelka, pleeeze".

I think I'll go have a tea.

a domani,

October 19, 2007

The coffee war

While the front pages talk about the ongoing war in Iraq, a possible return of the cold war with Russia and the shadow of civil war in Pakistan, the economic pages reported on the coffee war with an article entitled, "Offensive Anti-Starbucks by the Caffè Made in Italy". The "enemy" to beat is Starbucks in this economic and cultural war.

The Italians have launched pre-emptive action. Lavazza is aiming to bring coffee-shops to every street corner in Europe, starting with Spain, France and Portugal, and even as far as India. Illy, instead, has chosen the route of culture (through founding L'università del caffè in Trieste) and diplomacy (an agreement with Coca Cola to launch a joint line of high-end coffee products) and Bialetti is opening a chain of stores selling its famous moka coffee makers, together with a cup of cappuccino. The real coffee king, though, is the Zanetti Beverage Group which already runs a franchising of over 700 Italian coffee shops around the world.

The question is, can they hold the Goliath at bay? Maybe not elsewhere, but hopefully in Italy, which already has a well-defined coffee culture rooted in everyday life and intimately connected to the concept of "your local bar" with its endless morning conversations, meetings and memories. I can even see my local bar from my balcony. It is run by Mario, his wife, two of his three sons and one daughter-in-law.
In addition to homemade muffins for breakfast and a good selection of wines to take home for dinner,
they also have a small trattoria in the backroom with a few daily dishes.

Besides running a bar, Mario is a local figure full of historical knowledge. He recently published a book in which he recounts the lives of various characters that lived our neighborhood during his childhood, a tribute to Monteverde poco fa.
Personally, he has given me a great running route in Villa Pamphili, passed on keys to guests and messages to friends, and told me many stories.

Why would I want an over sized, over priced, milky, sweet, syrupy concoction in an over sized plastic cup in an environment that is the same all over the world in the place of a cappuccino da Mario?

A true global mystery.

a domani.

October 17, 2007


To your right is a button "Blogger's Choice Awards, Best Educational Blog". My blog has been nominated and to date has received 16 votes. It won't make it into the final top three by November, but I would love to see it move from halfway down page three to page two with your help -- only seven votes!

So, if you find this blog thought-provoking and in some vague way "educational", clic on the logo, sign up for the site and vote. If my mother could do it (and she can barely turn on a computer), so can you.

I did receive one comment in addition to votes:
This blog manages to take the universal and make it personal, and vice versa. She does a terrific job of digging deeply into intercultural disparities, and the places where we all intersect as human beings. Always has good food for thought.

Thanks to all and

a domani,

October 16, 2007

win some, lose some

When things just don't seem to ever work out for someone, we call them a "loser". The equivalent in Italian is "sfigato" or unlucky.

The first is part of the win/lose paradigm, the second acknowledges the role of fate.

a domani,

October 15, 2007

The American parabola

Megan Fitzgerald is a "personal branding coach" and ever since I met her last year I have been wondering what exactly that might mean. In the name of curiosity and friendship, I overcame my acquired European-style aversion to "americanate" and excessive American optimism, and signed up for a presentation in Rome by Personal Branding Guru, William Arruda.

The room was full -- Megan had done a fantastic job of organizing and promoting the event -- and 1.5 hours of power point later, I got it.
Personal Branding is about the "unique promise of value" that we each must "extract", then "express" and finally "exude". At the end of the "1-2-3 Success! Personal Branding Process," you find a personal form of success that comes from your "unique promise of value." I must admit that my thoughts wandered to the NPR reported study on why "Americans Fail Self-assessment" as I wondered if Americans also easily fail at identifying personal uniqueness. In any case, it was all very interesting and inspiring. (Megan, me, William Arruda)

Putting down William's book, Career Distinction, on Saturday afternoon and turning to the newspaper, I found an article by my favorite Italian journalist,Vittorio Zucconi, on Al Gore's ride to his Nobel Peace Prize -- a study in personal branding! Following his trials and tribulations, Al dug deep down and found that his vocation/values/passions all revolved around enviromentalism, and he was reborn, as himself, with a "unique promise of value" that carried him all the way to the prize of all prizes.

Vittorio Zucconi calls Al Gore's trip, "The American parabola of second and third chances to reinvent and redeem oneself after falling off and being humiliated -- one of the most admirable and vital of American cultural characteristics." The parabola gets its initial force from optimism and self-confidence, belief in both the future and in our "unique promise of value". Although adding a bit of Italian"c..o" never hurts!

a domani,

PS -- and why do you read my blog? What is my "unique promise of value" that brings you back? Just curious. One of the steps is finding out what other people think of you, which is, in fact, what "branding" is all about anyway.

October 13, 2007

The dark side of optimism

Living abroad gives us a bit of distance from which to view our own culture while also giving us that odd sensation of reverse culture shock when back "home". One important American cultural value that always hits me as "different" is that overwhelming and ever present optimistic spirit which often leads to amazing self-confidence and self-regard. In other words, we toot our horn without embarrassment. We have been taught to do so, to stand out, win first prize, go for it in the face adversity, be optimistic, set outrageous dreams and then make them come true. This all takes an enormous amount of optimism, self-confidence and regard.

The NPR (National Public Radio) recently reported on a study that documents the particularly American tendency to be over-confident in the area of personal skills and competence that often leads to unrealistic optimism and self-regard -- NPR, Americans Flunk Self-Assessment.

By celebrating and exalting the good that is in us, we easily overlook the "dark side of optimism."

Europeans and Asians (and really the rest of the world) understand this intuitively. On the other side, they can be so engrossed in the dark side of optimism that they forget to celebrate and exalt the wonderful possibilities inside each of us.

Thanks Gillian for this great link!

a domani,

October 12, 2007

Expat call to arms

Sunday, October 14 is your day to enter Italian politics. The Partito Democratico is holding its primary and you can vote if you are resident. You do not have to be a member of the party.

If you live in Rome, in the areas of Parioli, Pinciano, Salaria or Trieste, you can even vote for the "lista Partecipazione, Territorio e Solidarietà con Veltroni per Zingaretti." One of the six list members is my friend and fellow American long-term resident abroad (expat), Rebecca Spitzmiller.

How did she get involved in local politics? She had made a political name for herself a few years ago by campaigning for toilet paper and soap in her son's middle school and later for "dog-poop free sidewalks" -- complete with posters and fliers. Her name came up in a meeting to help bring in votes from the local foreign community and she accepted the challenge

Last Saturday I stopped by to visit and accompanied her to the first electoral campaign activity in a local piazza. The scheduled meeting time was 5:00. It was raining and the piazza was already occupied by another organization, S. Egidio. "Why", we wondered out loud, "hadn't someone checked that the piazza was free?" At 5:20 she finally got a fellow candidate on the phone who said, "We are deciding what to do because of the rain." Ten minutes later, two of the other candidates strolled in with a carload of fliers -- but they decided not to set anything up due to the rain, "People don't appreciate being approached with fliers when they are carrying umbrellas."
Rebecca collected a pack of fliers for a sunny day and we all exchanged good-byes.

The Italian democratic process in action -- a bit disorganized, but flexible. For the first time there is even a list made up of immigrants and citizens of Chinese origin supporting the candidate Piergiorgio Gawronski in the electoral college (collegio) for the Prenestino area of Rome. Marco Wong, the list spokesman, says, "The intent is to demonstrate that the foreign community is interested in contributing positively to Italian society; they are not just a separate enclave."

If the Chinese can participate in the democratic process in Italy, why can't we? The excuse, "I can't understand anything about Italian politics" is really not a very good one, especially if you live here.

So, jump in there, ask around, figure it out, and, if you would like some things to change, even vote!

a domani,

October 8, 2007

Context and meaning

I received an email from a man who edits this website on the Basilica of Saint Peters. He had wandered into my blog and took the time to send me a personal note. I was curious and clicked on his website where I found an interview with Elizabeth Lev, an art historian and expert Vatican guide.

She first arrived in Rome after finishing her undergraduate degree to study at the University of Bologna and learn "how Italians taught art." In her US education, she had been taught a "very formal vision of art" while in Italy she found that it was "all about the context and meaning of art, and most importantly the placement of a piece of art."

Context. There it is again. Americans have a direct communication style, so clear and direct that we can even understand art by reading books and looking at slides. Italians need context in order to achieve meaning. Both words and works of art must be interpreted in and by their context, which gives the nuance of meaning.

So Elizabeth came to Italy to stand in front the Caravaggio paintings in the Contarelli Chapel in St. Luigi dei Franchesi where she came to understand, "How the paintings worked around the altar." With this knowledge, she walked over the St. Peter's and looked at the Pieta, which was originally designed to be around an altar, and "a whole new world of meaning in art opened up for me." She couldn't go back to slides and books.

As she delved deeper into sacred art, she came to understand another level of context and, "how much the sacred and liturgical aspect affects a work art." At this point, she understood that she, "had to throw out 60 percent of what I had been taught in college, and do it all over again." She was looking at things through a very different lenses. The lenses of context.

A domani,


October 7, 2007

What he left behind

Big Luciano has left us, and lots of lawyers and accountants are at work sorting out what he left behind -- an estate of dimensions that are still to be quantified. The big question is what to do about his very last will in which he asks that all his US holdings be placed into an existing trust -- a complication to the inheritance question.

He leaves an ex-wife (out of the picture by now), three grown children by his first marriage, a second wife (Nicoletta) and their young child (five-year old Alice). By Italian civil law, at least half of the total inheritance must be left to the children in equal amounts and the other half to the wife. The US does not have such pre-set percentages, Granddad Hilton is threatening to disown his wild granddaughter Paris and cut her out of his will -- not possible under Italian law.

The power of the family, just as Luigi Barzini described it 40 years ago, still stands, also because of inheritance laws. You are born into a family and you always remain a part of this legal entity. Even if its members fight bitterly, don't speak for years, lose touch or whatever, the family stands as a island onto itself, forever, as a unit of survival which passes on power, wealth, prestige, connections, positions in addition to DNA.

The family is at the center of the "in-group" cultural imperative. You are BORN into groups to which you belong and can never leave, just like your family. We, instead, choose to join groups, as an individual, and leave them when we like, just like we move out from our families at 18 and choose whether to remain a tight-knit group or not.

a domani,

October 6, 2007

Rules of the game

It is hard to figure out the rules of the game here. Italians are much more flexible than we are in accepting odd rules (odd to us at least) without questioning why. Well, they learn this skill at school.

Today my son got back an Italian test. Grading runs from 1-10 with a 10 being an A+ anything below a 6, a failing grade. While handing back the test the teacher said that the highest grade on this particular test(for a perfect job)was a 7.5 which means that that no one could receive an "A". Why? Because, "It is too early in the year and we haven't covered enough material for this test to merit a full-value."

Does this hit you as being strange? and arbitrary?

Tests are often given (at my son's liceo in any case) on this sliding value scale. Sometimes a test is worth a full "10" value and other times (if it is an easier exercise) only a "7". The first time my son came home with a 7 on an English test, I asked, "What did you get wrong?" "Nothing" was the answer. A "B" was the highest grade for a perfect score.

Along with Dante and algorithms, he is learning cultural skills that will serve him well in this world: tolerance of ambiguity and how to navigate among uncertain rules.

a domani,

October 5, 2007

Eleven lucky students

In the middle of lunch, after a long pause in the conversation, my son looked up and announced, "today was really a strange day." As my mother antennas went up, I calmly replied, "in what way, strange?"

M -- "We had way too much homework for today and "interrogations" in Philosophy, Art History AND Science. I wrote my Art History essay and studied an impossible amount of philosophy text, but I didn't have time to look at science."

("oh no, he got interrogated in science -- Murphy's law," I thought to myself)

M-- "Instead, only eleven students came to class."

Me -- "I bet the teachers were angry."

M-- "So angry that they didn't interrogate us at all! We just went ahead in the text and the Art History teacher took our essays. The philosophy teacher told us that when he does pull names out of his bowl for the next interrogation he will skip over our eleven names until he picks one of the absentees."

His cell phone rings and he tells the friend on the other end what he has just told me.

M -- smiling, "everyone is calling me to find out what happened today."

Me -- As I try to draw a lesson from all this, "I guess it pays off in the end to go to school even when you haven't been able to finish everything."

M -- Thoughtfully, "Not always, sometimes it actually does pay off to stay home, you have to know how to manage the workload and skip a class, go into school at the second hour, leave early or stay home when you are not prepared." He has done it too in the past, but he happened to play his cards right today.

So, the lesson is: to get through liceo, you have to learn the subtle Italian art of "risk management" in the ambiguous jungle that is the Italian classroom with its surprise interrogations, or planned interrogations but for only a few students (picked out of a bowl) and teachers that do not coordinate workloads. The final results will not mirror a "fair" playing field in any case, there are too many capricious factors that raise obstacles along the way. As the science teacher told the lonely eleven, "You have just had an important biology lesson -- the survival of the fittest." Or the furbi, or the just plain lucky.

By the time he finishes his maturità exam this summer, he will be well prepared for what lies ahead in the Italian university, starting with medical school entrance exams! (click and look for September 10 post)

October 4, 2007

Consume to live or live to consume

I always suffer reverse culture shock when I travel to the US from the sheer volume and diversity of what I can BUY. This summer I didn't even have to land on American soil before it began. In the pocket in front of my airline seat, I found the summer issue of Sky Mall magazine. Since it says right on the cover, "Free copy -- Take it. We'll replace it!" I did. Just inside the cover is a pull-out sheet with instructions on how to "Fly, then text to buy" (someone actually gets paid to think up these rhymes). I kept my cell phone off when we landed so that I wouldn't be tempted to take them up on it, but I did pass the first hour of my flight enjoying a leisurely stroll through the pages full of tempting items -- things I would never find in Italy.

For example,
-- For the barbecue, A talking wireless belt-clip monitor that announces ("almost ready", then "ready") when your entrée is cooked to perfection from up to 300 feet away. There are eight different food settings and it only costs $75.
-- For those who tend to doze off in class or at meetings, A "SlumberSleeve Pillow". You slip in onto your forearm as a pillow. It's special system promotes unrestricted circulation and allows you to sleep in any position. Only $19.95.
-- For the kitchen, A "Mill & Brew" Weather station / coffee maker. While the machine grinds and brews your coffee, the LED screen displays the current conditions and gives you a 3-day forecast and more. $199
-- For your dog, The Precise Portion Pet Feeder. It dispenses precise pet portions at set intervals so that you animal can follow his/her recommended diet, even when you are away. $69.95

-- For the oversleeper, The Runaway Alarm Clock. It rolls away and hides when you hit its snooze button and then continues to emit a random pattern of bleeps and flashes until you get up and turn it off. It is even shatter-resistant (for those occasions when you manage to find it and throw it at the wall). $49.95

-- For the squeamish, The "Keep your distance" bug vacuum. A cordless vacuum that quickly captures bugs from up to 2'away. I won't tell you what then happens to the bug, you will have to wait until your next flight to the US, Sky Mall pg 42. This is also only $49.95
-- One last item for $49.95 is a "Pop-up Hot Dog Cooker" -- a must for any well-equipped kitchen that prepares two hot dogs and two buns in just minutes.

And I have only gotten to page 49, there are another 134 pages left.

Have ever wondered how America got to be such a credit-hungry country? Well, the answer is above. How can you go on living when you know that all those wonderful things are out there just begging to be brought home to help make your life more comfortable, efficient and easy.

Sky Mall is the bible of American style consumerism -- there is really no limit to what you can be taught to believe you need.

I will keep this lesson in mind as I wander the streets of Rome, inventing ad-hoc solutions for the problem at hand -- a winter cover from the rain for the rabbit cage that we have decided to leave on the terrace. The plastic table that now shelters him has a hole in the top for a sun umbrella and although I have tried to cover it in several ways, the water finds its way in through the small lines on the table and drips down. I found a place that makes all kinds of plastic items and I have returned three times for a 100 x 85 cm sheet of a basic 1 cm thick plastic, but they kept telling me "arriva domani" only to discover that I can only have a 3 x 3 meter sheet or pay double for a 6 cm thick sheet. Forget that. Now I am back to stuffing the umbrella hole -- someone suggested a cork top, like those for the old wine jugs. And where would I find that? A casalinghi? A ferramenta? Brico?

Let me check my Sky Mall magazine, they are sure to have a rabbit cage cover for all cage sizes....sigh.....

a domani,

October 3, 2007

Seduced and abandoned

Two down.

Worn down. Pragmatic. Realistic. Sorry. Confused. Worried. Sad.

I met them again, after nearly a year, at a recent event through the American Women's Association. They are both in their mid-twenties. American. In Rome for a few years trying to make their way -- one in fashion design, the other in business or an international organization. Both want a "future" for which they are willing to work hard, start at the bottom, learn, stretch, grow. Instead they struggle by with English lessons, secretarial tasks and translations while Rome captures and lulls their spirit. Both have Italian men to leave behind.

One talked to an Executive search agency, an international company with an office in Rome. The woman didn't smile. She leaned over her desk and told the smart, educated, energetic younger one to get out while she could. The expert was not encouraging at all -- "a prestigious BA is incomprehensible to the locals and even an MBA would not open doors on its own." Her only suggestion was to get some work experience back in the US and then try again, with a specific skill to sell. "This is not a place to start out" was the final sentence, which my young friend has sadly taken to heart.

The other is not so definite, but has already shipped back most of her things, at least for now. SHe has found opportunities elsewhere.

Arrivederci K and C.

a domani,

October 1, 2007

Anti-politics continued

The "Anti-politics" discussions continue on the front page of la Repubblica newspaper -- yesterday la Repubblica's founding father Eugenio Scalfari responded to his disciple and current Director, Ezio Mauro (Political Castes and the Race of Patrons).The day before, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, head of the Confindustria (the industrialist's organization) put his word in too (under the title Italian Capitalism and the Waltzer of Anti-politics). Today the discussion was elevated to a European level with an editorial by Joaquin Navarro-Valls on, The Wave of Anti-politics in our Democracies. Just as Sandro Viola said it would, the discussion has evolved into one among the various powers to be, with little consideration for the audience.

Basta. It is a beautiful day. Summer has returned. I took the time for a coffee with my international friends from the pool following our early morning acquagym class -- a mix of American, British, Italian/American, South African, Russian/American, French Canadian and Belgian women that help me keep my sanity. We laugh, consult, listen, confide, advise -- isn't that what friends are for?

Today S. put forth her dilema. This time, it was not about men, but work. She teaches part-time and has been asked to serve on an ad-hoc committee that would take up tons of time over the next 4-5 months at no extra pay. In any other country, serving would eventually pay off, it would show interest, dedication, seriousness that would be taken into consideration in the future. Here, she would be used as slave labor, lose out on freelance opportunities and kick herself when they shake her hand and say "thank you so much for helping us out" before turning their backs. As they say, "da cosa nasce cosa" -- HA! I know several university adjunct professors at the Univerisity of Rome (lettori) that get asked to do things like translate 500 page documents for the barone at hand, at no pay and with no reward down the road (career advancement). It takes them awhile to figure it out -- all work, no reward. The rewards go to the league of raccommandati.

Which takes me back to the old Antipolitica discussion.....

a domani,

September 27, 2007


Everyone is talking about the big A, "L'Antipolitica". It started with Beppe Grillo's "vaffa" day and doesn't seem to go away.

Today, Ezio Mauro, the Director of la Repubblica newspaper wrote an editorial entitled, "Anti-politics, for Whom the Bell Tolls", which is a bit rhetorical as it goes on about the "decadence of the country...and the loss of cultural identity" before exploring how this has led Italians away from change and towards rebellion, as if,"Changing Italy was an impossible task, or worse, a useless one." He cites the static quality of the political class as leading Italy into, "An atelier of the West, or a home for its elderly." The Antipolitica is just "an outward sign of a diminishing public and national spirit, a lost sense of citizenship, identity, cultural reference point."

Not an uplifting editorial and really not a very thoughtful one either. I think I have already heard all this. Blablabla.

Instead, a few days ago, I read another editorial -- train rides are condusive to this kind of activity -- one by Sandro Viola, called "What Feeds Anti-politics." This was more interesting. He first acknowledged that while there has been lots of talk, no one wants to dig deeper to the roots of the problem. He instead addresses the role of the media in the Italian people's growing sense of nausea at all that smells of politics. At the top of the list are the TV news programs, so full of comprimises, starting with the practice of "the sandwich" (they actually call it "sandwich" as the practice has Anglo-saxon roots). First politicians from the governing party speak (or have their declarations read) for a pre-set number of minutes, followed by those from the opposition, finishing up with a summary by the governing party's spokesperson. The end result, Sandro Viola calls, "fried air, an avalanche of words." So we see the same faces, every evening, year in and out, that do nothing but repeat the same empty phrases. "The Italians need air," he concludes, "they can't breathe anymore. They don't want to see or hear these people anymore."

The newspapers are not much better as they put out an average of seven or eight pages dedicated to internal "news", of which only one or two pages are of any pertinence or interest to the public. The rest is a repeat of the TV news programs -- detailed analysis of every empty phase pronounced the night before, long declarations, interviews that go on and on. In other words, a dialogue between journalists and politicians with no distinction between what is relevant and what is not. The Italian people are exasperated by this deluge of nothing and have developed an allergy to all that tastes of politics.

The Italian people, he concludes, are no longer divided between "us" and "them" (as in left and right political leanings) as had been the case for over a hundred years. Now, previous enemies march together in disgust of what they see on both sides, while chanting Bebbe Grillo's slogans, abandoned not only by the political system, but also by the media.

Anyone want to rally Italians to a nation-wide TV strike? Maybe for a week or even a month. Where is Beppe when we need him? I know you don't get to hang out in the piazza with your friends or throw a walking street party as you do with a normal style strike and demonstration, but you would get to read a few good book. I read Suite Francese by Irène Némirovsky for the September meeting of my book club and I am halfway through Terrorist by John Updike for the October meeting -- both qualify as a good read. Why not just turn off the traitor and tool of political jibberish and cuddle up with a book.

a domani,