March 31, 2007

Catholic culture

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday and I haven’t yet talked about the biggest Italian cultural mystery – the Catholic Church. Not the Catholic Church in itself, but the fact that Catholic culture is everywhere, like occult advertising, often invisible or in places you would never imagine (like public schools and the parliament). If you look closely enough, you can find traces of Catholic culture at the root of all aspects of everything Italian.

Holidays. Although a surprisingly large number of Italians do not know why, they gladly celebrate both December 8 and August 15 (respectively the Immaculate Conception and the assumption of the Virgin Mary). The only three non-religious holidays are April 25 (“liberation” day), May 1 (the day of the workers*) plus June 2, a recently dictated day to celebrate the birth of the Italian Republic.

Rites of Passage are Catholic: baptism, first communion, la cresima, marriage. Even non-practicing Catholics often participate in the above not only for the family, but also in recognition that these are sociological rites-of-passage. The only non-catholic rite of passage is the 18th birthday party (coming up soon for our family).

Hierarchy: You can’t get to God without going through an intermediary – a priest or saint or the Virgin Mary herself – this translates into a natural use of intermediaries also in daily life. To reach any public figure in power, from the school principal to the mayor or government minister you have to find the appropriate route.

Tolerance of ambiguity: You can consider yourself a Catholic, even a practicing and believing catholic, yet still use birth control, get divorced, live together outside of marriage, steal enormous amounts of money from stockholders (Parmalat scandal), or bribe public officials with suitcases of cash (tangentopoli). You learn to accept and quietly live ambiguity at church and then practice it, religiously, in every other aspect of life. The difference being that you can always confess and start all over again.

I grew up in a Protestant church, one with Puritan roots on the East coast and while I managed to skirt the whole issue for a few years, I finally hit the “cultural wall” when it came time to herd my sons along with all their school buddies to catechism classes. My husband is a non-practicing Catholic and I certainly didn’t feel comfortable picking up the ball on this one, so I let month by month by year pass until the question quietly slipped away…. I feel guilty, because they live in a Catholic country and should have some Catholic background at least, but they will just have to figure it out for themselves as adults as a consequence of their multicultural background. In the meantime, Catholic culture is at work – the crucifix on the wall of their classrooms, sports at the local oratorio with padre Pedro, l’ora di religione , Madonnas on street corners (picture from around the corner), scouts distributing palms (other picture at the local church) and magnificent churches and religious artwork everywhere.

A domani,

* Not to be confused with our day to celebrate work (Labor Day)

March 30, 2007

Just wanted to share our terrace with a view. Still a bit of snow in the mountains, but not for long!

a domani,

Sharing a hot tub with Trajan

Last Saturday I had a history lesson -- not that you have to go far for one in Italy.

My husband and I dropped off our son at the Fiumicino airport at 7:45 and headed north to the hot thermal waters of “La Ficoncella” outside of Civitavecchia, named for the large fig tree that stands at its center. We were worried that it wouldn’t be open yet but there were already quite a few people “taking of the waters”, a mixture of locals and overnight campers. While the nearby Terme di Saturnia are elegant and expensive, this little spot costs .52 euro a car and .52 euro a person (the old 1,000 lire). In terms of creature comforts you get what you pay for (like the hospital), but the water is the same (like the surgeons).

While soaking away ski injuries and cellulite with our fellow bathers -- many of whom could have stepped out of Fellini / Sordi films -- we learned that the Roman emperor, Trajan, sent his soldiers here to cure their battle wounds while the upper class soaked in the marble lined baths nearby (now the archeological site of the Terme di Taurine.) In the place of battle wounds, we met a 30-something Italian soaking his numerous motocross injuries (including a recent head trauma and coma) -- driving about four hours from Cretara with his camper for a weekend. Even the orthopedic surgeon for the Rome soccer team sends players here to recover -- must be pretty special water indeed.

The grounds had been privately owned before WWII but were subsequently bequeathed to the people (cittadini) NOT the city (comune) of Civitavecchia. It had been run by volunteers for some time (lots of discussion about how many years) before being taken over by a cooperativa that still runs the bar, parking lot and takes care of cleaning the tubs, one each day. A homemade rustic affair -- no massages, facials, mud baths and such, just the curative effects of timeless water.

In Italy, history runs along just below the surface, bubbling up into every aspect of life. The motocross driver, Trajan’s soldiers back from battle and I all enjoyed the same ancient stream. The past and the present. The future can wait.

A domani,

March 27, 2007

Who’s in charge here anyway?

One last set of questions for this week, then back to regular posts.

How big a role does fate play in daily life, decision making and planning ahead?

How many things in life can you control or change? Are there limits to what you can do or become?

How many things in life just have to be accepted because they cannot be controlled or changed?

Does “personal will” play a more or less important role over destiny?

Is lack of success partly a result of good/bad luck, or can you make you own luck and happiness?

Are people generally optimistic or realistic/fatalistic?

Is life what you make it or is life what happens to you?

To sum it up, do we have the power to impose control over how our lives will turn out or does that power come mainly from the outside, through external events and fate?

Italian women do not hold baby showers. Or wedding showers. Those parties we throw for our friends BEFORE the event takes place. Why not? By (arrogantly) assuming that no external event or force could intervene in the meantime, like the fiancée running off with his secretary to the Maldives or a stillborn baby, we would surely bring on the “evil eye”. I know a perfectly intelligent high level professional couple that never put their child in a baby seat or seat belt (back when this was an option), because, in any case, what will happen will happen and a seat belt could actually bring on an accident by somehow taunting fate.

Americans are on the extreme of this spectrum as well. We really believe that we can control the future, we say, “where there is a will, there is a way”, “life is what you make it”, “tomorrow is another day”, we produce the world supply of self-help books, and this empowerment is part of what makes American’s American. If we can just get it all planned out, all the possible pitfalls worked out, be really, really optimistic and believe in the power of ourselves, we can do anything.
Wow. This is a cultural imperative and it is hard for us to see that this is not the way things are for most of the world that flows along and drops off at some point of the spectrum. Somewhere at the other end, there is a Southern Arabian proverb that says, “Caution does not avert the decree of fate”.

A domani,

March 23, 2007

The group and the individual

Today’s questions:

In order to survive, do you believe that you ultimately need to depend on yourself,
Or do you believe that a group, the family or larger, is necessary for the individual to survive.

Which statement is more accurate:
If each individual is self-sufficient and looks out for him/herself, the group will thrive.
The well-being and success of the group ensures the well-being of the individual.

How large is the separation between an established group and those outside of it?

Does the greatest good come from achieving personal fulfilment or group harmony?

Should you teach your children to be independent and self-reliant or to depend on others, who in turn will depend on them?

Do people naturally prefer individual recognition or group/team recognition?

Do you consider your identity to be personal and individual, or more a function of your membership or role in a primary group?

American culture is generally considered to be on the extreme end of the spectrum which runs from an orientation towards the individual and that towards the group. It is very, very hard for us to recognize this in ourselves and we easily assume that this is just the way things are.

A few years back, I was encouraged by the head (US based) office to offer sales bonuses to staff – INDIVIDUAL sales bonuses -- and I nearly had a mutiny on my hands! How could they still eat lunch together followed by an espresso at the bar once the in-group mechanisms had been broken, and for a something as small as a sales bonus, no way. They wanted to reach our goals, working as a group, and then all share a nice bonus equally – perhaps over a celebratory lunch!

Every Monday the newspaper, Repubblica, prints an interview with a successful woman in business as part of its financial insert. Last week we heard a story that was not very unique. Father and mother founded a small company that grew and grew. Daughter does well in school, is sent all over to travel and learn languages as she grows up, goes abroad for university and/or post university studies and even does some practical first jobs in a different field. Then she receives a phone call, it’s papa. “I am opening a new branch/venture/company/department and I need you to come back and help.” She reflects for moment and then jumps on a plane and starts the next day, becoming very successful and growing the business beyond her father’s dreams. She knows deep down that the well-being of the family and the family business is ultimately her own well-being. Although self-reliant and extremely capable, she depends on her family and they depend on her. She is fulfilled and has a strong identity – which includes at its roots her role in the family.

Lots of family-run businesses here in Italy – even Lapo Elkann (grandson of Fiat founder Gianni Agnelli) will eventually be back.

A domani,

March 22, 2007

Rules and their application

Rules, rules, rules. All societies have them whether written or unwritten, detailed or general, firmly or leniently executed -- rules and their universal or particular application.

So, here are today’s questions.

Is “what is right”, always right,
Or is “what is right” depend on the circumstances?

Is there room for exceptions,
or should you try to apply the same rules to everyone in similar situation?

Is being consistent important,
Or is consistency simply not possible?

Are in-groups and out-groups easily distinguished?

Should you try to objectively examine situations and minimize the influence of personal feelings,
Or should you rely on them?

Does “fair” mean treating everyone the same,
Or does “fair” mean treating everyone uniquely?

Can you expect life to be “fair”?

The eminent American sociologist, Seymour M. Lipset, identified two great themes running through American history, achievement and equality. But when Americans use the term “equality” they really mean “fair opportunity”. Amazingly, we believe that it is possible to achieve absolute fairness – that this is a reasonable goal. We expect life to be “fair” – this is an American cultural value.

Fairness and rules are intertwined and it is cultural values that moves the arrow back and forth along the spectrum the runs from applying rules in a universal fashion (treating everyone the same) and applying rules in a particular fashion (treating everyone uniquely).

The Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo has just been released from the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are political troubles brooding. The U.S. and other nations currently based in the area are not happy about how the Italians didn’t stick to the rules – they negotiated with the Taliban and conceded prisoners in exchange for Mastrogiacomo’s life. On the one hand, rules are rules and should be applied universally, on the other, as my son said, “if he were my uncle (as in the case of one of his classmates), I would rather have him come home alive”. Is consistency possible? Or sometimes do you just have to rely on feelings and do “what is right” given the circumstances instead of doing “what is right” according the rules.

No easy answers, ever, and each culture has developed over time its own unique way of addressing the questions above.

A domani,

March 21, 2007

My time, your time

The problem with cross-cultural tools is that most people (well, let’s say most Anglo-American people) want answers: “how to do business with the X “ and “the dos and don’ts of dealing with the Y” and such . Cross-cultural tools don’t provide checklists, guidelines and rules of behaviour – the tip of the iceberg stuff. Instead, these tools help you chip away at the part of the iceberg that lies below the surface -- the “whys” of visible behaviours. They provide questions that help your eyes and ears and mind open up just enough to let in a glimmer of cross-cultural understanding.

Take the concept of time.

Simple, you think: Day/night, yesterday/today/tomorrow, history/present/future, breakfast/lunch/dinner, work/play, deadlines/schedules, 9am/9pm, one thing after another, minute by minute, hour by hour the clock clicks away. Or is it that simple?

Here are some questions.

Is time limited and people need to bend to fit into its rigid confines?
Or, is time flexible and can expand or contract to meet people’s needs?

In any given situation, on a scale of 1-10, which are more important, the needs of people or the demands of time?

Is there always more time?

Do you identify alternative solutions for various possible future events that could interfere with your plans?
Or do you plan to address future events (should they take place) by making adjustments along the way as the need arises?

Are deadlines and schedules sacred or easily changed?
Are plans hard to change or fluid in nature?

Are people generally too busy or generally have time to see you?
Is there such a thing as an interruption?

Do people tend to live by an external or internal clock?

Where do you stand on these questions? Do the answers seem obvious? They are not. The answers depend on cultural values -- not simply the way things are.

Many Americans move to Italy because it feels “more relaxed”, there is more time, the pace is not so frantic. Yet at the same time they feel very put off when in a meeting, an Italian answers the phone in mid-sentence and holds a long conversation with whomever is on the other end. We consider it an unforgivable interruption (to our linear time frame), he doesn’t (in his poly-functional time frame). After ten minutes, he puts down the receiver, turns around and continues as if time had simply taken a detour and was now back on the main road. He doesn’t understand why you look upset…..the person on the line would have thought him terribly rude if he had told them to call back because he was in a meeting – what’s more important, the timing of a meeting or ongoing relationships? What loss is it of yours to wait for ten minutes in the context of our relationship. Maybe next time you will be the person on the phone and how would you feel if he brushed you off. Time and relationships, relationships and time -- not that simple after all.

A domani,

March 20, 2007

What is culture anyway?

I have called this blog “cultural moments”, but I haven’t yet defined “culture”. This is not a simple task as there are hundreds of definitions of culture out there, but I like the following two:

To begin, I appreciate Craig Storti’s succinct definition, “Culture is the shared assumptions, values and beliefs of a group of people which result in characteristic behaviors” -- the kind of definition you can carry around with you in your back pocket.

David S. Hoopes offers a more complete definition, “Culture is the sum total of ways of living, including: values, beliefs, esthetic standards, linguistic expression, patterns of thinking, behavioral norms and styles of communication which a group of people has developed to assure its survival in a particular physical and human environment. Culture is the response of a group of human beings to the valid and particular needs of its members. It, therefore, has an inherent logic and an essential balance between positive and negative dimensions.” This definition acknowledges that a culture makes sense to its members in its historical and social context and will therefore never completely make sense to anyone from the outside. It also recognizes that the positive sides of a culture always have a backside (no utopian dreaming allowed!).

He concludes with,” Culture and the people who are part of it interact so that culture is not static.” This part acknowledges that culture is like an ecosystem -- behaviors influence values and beliefs and vice verse in an ongoing dynamic process that brings change to a culture over time.

Cultural moments come about when we encounter these differences, not just the big ones that easily stand out (food, ways of dress, greeting), but especially the small, insidious, invisible ones that lie below the surface (see the iceberg) – the different way a society is organized, its values, behaviors and ways of thinking. Our sense of who we are gets confused. We lose our sense of orientation among conflicting cultural clues as to how to behave and think.

This week I am going to dedicate each day to a different aspect of culture: time orientation, degree of individualism, rules and their application, role of fate. Then I will get back to my personal reflections on “cultural moments” in Italy, but I will be able to hyperlink back to these posts when a particular concept comes up.

Stay with me for a ride on the cultural moments train!

A domani,

March 17, 2007

Birthday obligations

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
And Happy Birthday.

One strange part of living in Rome is that no one celebrates my birthday by drinking green beer. I once shared an apartment with an American artist of Irish descent and that year we threw a birthday/St.Patrick’s day party complete with shamrocks, green icing with clover and such. The Italians did not get it, but managed to smile politely -- the Anglo-Irish-Americans instead had a great time.

Although all but two Italian holidays are of a religious nature, St. Paddy's doesn’t make it alongside the immaculate conception and subsequent ascension of the Virgin Mary.

So I celebrate my birthday in a sober fashion. Today by a nice lunch on the terrace with my husband, one son (the other called from Trento) and a large bouquet of flowers that they brought home for a surprise. The only touch of green were the new earings from my mom.

Funny thing is that in Italy YOU are expected to OFFER on your birthday instead of being the recipient. So if you go out with friends – bring along lots of cash, tocca a te! This has always felt a bit strange, like you have to buy off friends to get them to celebrate with you instead of it being their turn to make the day special for you. I would guess that it has to do with both the bella figura concept and the unwritten “tit for tat” social obligation rules – the others give you presents, so you have to put on a show for them. Anyway, my MIL always takes the whole family out to dinner for her birthday and today tocca a me to prepare a special lunch.

Spaghetti al nero di seppia (dried homemade pasta with squid ink from Naples), with a sauce of only fresh pomodorini (so as not to overwhelm the flavor of the rich black pasta). I sliced the tomatoes and put them in the oven for 20 minutes with a bit of oil, salt, garlic and basil – much more flavorful and less runny that doing them in a pan. Of course, the final success depends on the quality of the tomatoes, so for this sort of dish, I go to Sig.ra Pina (a post on her and lazy left-eye Leonardo coming up).

Then we enjoyed gamberi saltati in padella, salad and strawberries. In the end, I offered a very nice lunch indeed for my birthday! Good thing it only comes once a year.

A domani (one year and one day older….),

March 16, 2007

One square kilometer

Today I overheard a conversation between two friends. One needs to move to a larger apartment, her son is turning 12 and he needs to have a room of his own instead of the couch in the living room. She and her husband had just visited a perfect two bedroom / two bath apartment with a reasonable price, terrace, parking place. What’s the catch? Her mother now lives down the street, a 5-10 minute walk. This other apartment would be instead a 10-15 minute drive – much too far away. How would she manage when her son is sick, or if her mother just wants to stop by and help out?

I have seen figures that range from 80-90% of Italians that live within one square kilometer of their parents. They help each other out, up and down the generational scale, like Renzo and Anna. The smallest unit of Italian survival is the family, and it is best to have its members close by. From the figures above, most Italians do not feel their individuality and independence as adults threatened by having their parents next door, downstairs or just around the corner. How many of you expats out there moved to be near your parents-in-law? How many of your US friends would do the same? Our smallest unit of survival is ourselves, as individuals, and at the end of the day, we both seek out and are affirmed by our self-reliance.

A domani,

March 15, 2007

Bureaucracy blitz

Today was the day, too much paperwork had been put off for too long, so I made a morning of it, a Bureaucracy Blitz.

First stop, the Ufficio Entrate (which means where the money enters never to be seen again). I picked up a number and double checked all I had to do with the Information Man.

Next stop, the tabacchi to get three marche da bollo for each of the three copies of a rental contract to register for my MIL.

Then, onward to the bank, to pay 2% of rent income for the upcoming year with the appropriate form dutifully completed.

Finally back to the Ufficio Entrate to fill out a registering form while waiting only 10 minutes (you remember the number I had picked up earlier). I held my breath as the woman behind the desk carefully reviewed the contract, asked for my marche da bollo (without looking up like a surgeon to a nurse during an operation), typed a bunch of stuff into a computer and handed the lot back, “go to the desk over there to have it stamped”. Whew! Three stamping machine blasts later, I was free. Not that bad.

Next stop the Ufficio Permessi to pick up a permit for the car. Another number and a short newspaper read before entering. My husband had given me his Carta d’Identità with a delega that morning, but the delega was not complete, “who are these people?” she asked, “there is no date and place of birth on the delega...” But then she slyly passed me a white sheet of paper and a pen, “I’ll just go over there to get the file while you see if you can find your husband in the waiting room to do another delega.” So I prepared a proper one with my husband’s signature. She returned, took the delega, check our respective Carta d’Identità and handed over the car permit.

So, it wasn’t a bad Bureaucracy Blitz day after all!

If you are wondering about why you always have to dictate your place and date of birth, think about our use of middle names – they serve the same purpose of significantly reducing the possibility of mix ups between two people with the same first and last name.

A domani,

March 14, 2007

Dining "al desko"

As if on cue, my Mom’s monthly care package of newspaper clippings arrived yesterday afternoon, together with a birthday present for Saturday.

Among the mass of political topics, I found a NY Times article* on the changing art of the lunch hour that acts as a sequel to yesterday’s blog post – the little blond boy grows up. At lunchtime, instead of staring at his mini-computer screen while popping gummy bears, he now sits in his work cubicle and types away between scoops of take-out Chinese.

Joseph Gibbons, research director of the Future Work Institute – a consulting firm in Brooklyn that focuses on workplace issues says, “I see it all the time. We’re used to eating alone and having everything we need right there and being very self-sufficient. That carries over to the workplace.” The practice even has a its own new term, dining “al desko”. The lunch hour itself has been reduced to 31 minutes that are not even dedicated to lunch, but more often to running errands and making personal phone calls.

With the combination of new work schedules that don’t allow going home for an extended lunch period and low pay, lots of young Italians bring their lunch to work, but with a different touch. When I directed an office of seven 25-30 year old Italians (actually one French and one Dutch), they would close up shop at 1:00 sharp, clean off a communal space, cover it with a tablecloth, share large bottles of water and coke and condiments, microwave their individual leftovers and all dig in at the same time, conversing about anything and everything non-work related. Then they tidied up and went out for an espresso at the bar across the street. Time permitting – they would also make personal phone calls and emails until 2:00 came around, but never while eating. (keep in mind that the 1-2:00 hour is not paid and that an eight hour work day is from 9:00-6:00).

Meals, wherever and whenever they take place and with whomever, are a social gathering. Eating alone is not seen as being a sign of self-sufficiency or even of dedication to the company, it is simply viewed as being sad (and weird). The best way to alienate yourself from your colleagues and take two steps back on the trust scale (even with your boss), is to eat alone in your cubicle while multi-tasking on the computer.

A domani,

* NY Times, Sunday, February 18, 2007

March 13, 2007

Ravioli with computer

I am back from a week up north -- a combination of family and fun, too much of both to be caught online!

On Sunday, we passed through Verona for lunch with my PMIL at a lovely restaurant* near the casa di Giulietta where we enjoyed exquisite homemade pastas to start, fish dishes on next, some local white wine and espresso to round it off. The place was full of Veronese families on Sunday outings, a post-baptism festa downstairs (a boy judging from the blue ribbons lining the stairs) and a few tourists – two American women with a small child.

“Oh no” I thought as they settled in at the table next to ours, but the three-year-old made no fuss or noise, nor did he whine, run around or roll about under the table as his mother and friend dined on pasta and fagioli and pumpkin ravioli respectively, salads and sweets. I peeked over my PMIL’s shoulders and saw the reason why: he was on his knees with his elbows on the table and eyes transfixed on a small Sony computer. He was in another world, that of the screen. He didn’t even drink the glass of milk his mother had ordered and ate only a pack of gummy bears, groping for the bag and distractedly popping them one by one into his mouth.

Mega reverse cultural moment! I didn’t like this American cultural assimilation process. The boy was learning that meals are not necessarily a time and place for social interaction. He did not have to deal with other people, converse, listen, be bored and watch the walls, fidget and be reprimanded for doing so. Instead it was OK for him to be off in another virtual world instead of participating in the one around him. I have never seen an Italian mother allow a child that luxury at the table.

Lunch with the family in a public place is a painfully slow and tiresome experience for small children where they learn the importance of interdependence -- their inevitable and irrevocable roles in the family. When they get older, they cannot opt out of family dinner by grazing through the kitchen on their way out the door or holing up in their rooms with a nuked burrito. Family meals must be reckoned with and even enjoyed, even in adolescence. Meals in the company of others, at the table is still a cultural imperative, for Italians, not for the little blond three-year-old passing through Verona. He will choose to be a part of family meals or not, as he wishes, at his choice, as he did in Verona where his mother taught him that it is OK not to participate, if it is not to his convenience and desire.

a domani,

*Ristorante Greppia
Vicolo Samaritana, 3
tel+39 045 8004577

closed on Mondays

March 6, 2007

Rule for Rule

I recently had the occasion to participate in a reading and presentation of Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure led by Oxford professor and errant gardener, Rory Stuart.

No, the play is not set in Italy – I can see you straining to remember back to your last English literature course – but Shakespeare, being the genius of the human psyche that he was, touches once again on the timeless topic of how hard it is to apply justice to do what is right, which got me back to thinking about the American “rule thing”.

The main character, Angelo, is set up by the ruling Duke of Vienna to take over the role of judge and make order in the city, particularly in the area of human love and in its most natural manifestations that were taking place “un-naturally” outside of marriage. Angelo takes the task to heart and applies the law to its most absolute degree, making no exceptions and nearly putting an “innocent” man to death. The problem presented is that by ridding the city of sexual promiscuity, he may just kill everyone off!

Does applying rules in a rigid and absolute way (a very American cultural trait by the way), sometimes lead us to miss the point end up actually doing injustice by upholding justice? Luckily, the Duke returns from his dark corners where he has been hiding in disguise and saves the day. No one dies, so I guess it was a comedy after all and we can all sigh a sigh of relief.

Shakespeare implies that sometimes rigid, absolute laws that are applied with no consideration of the particular situation can do more damage that repair. In the end, Angelo (and the other rigid character with absolute values, Isabella) grow and learn to be more flexible and in the end they apply justice in a more just (and flexible) way.

I feel another blog entry coming on…..this time about “cheating” in schools – I ran across a very intense expat online forum discussion about this recently. The issue is connected to the question of rigid application of fixed rules or their interpretation according to a particular situation.

But….it will have to be when I get back online next Monday,

A lunedi,

March 3, 2007

Pot luck

I have been working on an article about book clubs in Rome for a local magazine and in my research I came across a few book clubs that finish their monthly discussion with a “pot luck” meal. I even went to a book club meeting a few weeks ago with a pot luck supper and thoroughly enjoyed the anarchy of the eclectic spread on the kitchen counter. It felt slightly naughty, not eating things in the proper order, or better, there not even being an order to eat them in – the joy of pot luck.

Last Saturday I went to hear a friend who sings with a choir that was performing a couple of Baroque oratories, accompanied by original instruments. The church was packed and while sitting on the steps to a side altar, I overheard two 30-something Italians discussing their version of a pot luck dinner for the next evening. While everyone was bringing something, the menu had been orchestrated and its parts carefully assigned, nothing being left to serendipity. The woman carefully and intently itemized the list while her partner listened with attention, analyzing the situation and seeing where he could jump in for a solo part – ahha! He got it, some appetizers. His mother could even make up some of her famous deep fried vegetables (she had, of course, offered to help out).

No anarchy and eclectic spread on the counter for them, but instead a carefully planned and integrated program for the evening. Shhhhh, the concert is starting, we’ll get back to the desserts later.

A domani,

March 1, 2007

Walk a straight line

While on one of my internet meanderings, I found Deidré Straughan and from the depths of her site, an article from August 2003 by British journalist, Sebastian Cresswell-Turner. It seems that he had the misfortune to live (and work) in Italy for a few years. The article is entitled “When in Rome, Plan to Go Home,” and I would guess that he was having a mega cultural moment at the time.

“….What is a nuisance socially, though, is a major problem professionally. I routinely get asked to drop everything and do a fortnight's work in one week; and I was recently contacted at six o'clock one evening by Rome's newest exhibition centre to translate a long and complex text on Dante's Divine Comedy by 10am the next day (16 hours' notice to do 14 hours' work, it turned out).....

But there are moments when you cannot help fuming at the amateurishness of this way of working; moments in which you suspect that when the Italians boast of their ability to improvise brilliant solutions, what they really mean is that they prefer the quick-fix to getting their act together.”

He wants to enjoy all that Italy has to offer while working in the Anglo-Saxon mode. Oops, that ole utopian dream popping back up again. He is right of course, Italians often leave things to the last minute only to be completed in a mad and creative rush with a dramatic finale. The concept of time being linear and neatly divided into fixed units is ours; Italian time is a bit more flexible which allows it to be stretched to unthinkable limits when needed (for example, 16 hours’ notice to do 14 hours’ work – I’ve done that too).

Flexible time drives all of us mad at some point. Maybe at the base of the iceberg there is a different way of perceiving the environment -- the uncertain and ambiguous Italian one. If you plan too far in advance, something is certain to come up and you will have to start all over. Instead, if you wait until the last minute, there is a better chance that the necessary elements will be in place for you to proceed – with a flurry of activity and a large dose of creativity, cutting the edges and making it just in time to the finishing line. The miracle of Pope John Paul II's funeral arrangements comes to mind.

On flat land with good visibility, the best way to get from point A to point B is to walk a straight line. On mountainous terrain with torrential storms and fog, the best way may be to wait for the morning's weather report before deciding how to proceed, with what equipment and along which route. Hurry up though, before the weather changes!

a domani,