May 31, 2007

Puzzles and mysteries

I often refer to Italian “mysteries” when talking about cultural moments, so when I ran across an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the Jan 8 issue of the New Yorker (recently passed on to me by Shelley) that discussed the distinction between puzzles and mysteries, my ears pricked up.

A puzzle, national-security expert Gregory Treverton sustains, requires additional information in order to be resolved. A mystery instead, requires “judgements and the assessment of uncertainty” often in the face of too much information. The article uses this distinction to analyze the Enron case as a true mystery, the information was all there, in the small print of accounting footnotes and in the mountains of publicly disclosed documents, the skills to decipher and make sense of it were not.

So what does the Enron case have to do with our cultural moments? Not much, except for the mysteries they both carry with them. Cultural moments can be puzzles. Sometimes we are just missing an essential piece of information in order to make sense of a situation and eliminate confusion. Once we have that piece of information, the “moment” slips away because we suddenly, “get it”. We take a deep breath, shake our head and even have a good laugh. But more often our cultural moments are a function of our inability to observe carefully, process and interpret the information around us. Mysteries are “receiver dependent”; they depend on the skills of the listener.

That’s us. We are the listener on the receiving end of the new culture in which we live -- a grand mystery that is up to us to solve.

So, let’s work on our listening skills. The information is out there, an overwhelming amount of it. We need the tools to be better able to listen, process and understand.

A domani,

May 27, 2007

Election day

Tomorrow is election day for the local administration in Sabaudia and it showed -- posters with faces and slogans for the various candidates lined the streets. example: "se lo vuoi onesto, scegliere Ernesto." As we passed one large poster for a certain named Antonio, my husband exclaimed, "look at the guy, he is practically saying,"elect me so that I can take care of my cousin's land rights, my uncles legal problems and make a bunch of money for myself." He concluded that none of these candidates had any interest in the town and the people in it. A rant.

Then we got to the beach, our stabilimento, and I chatted with Titti, who basically said the same thing. I didn't respond -- best not to get involved in these rants as an outsider.

Not much faith in local politicians here, I can only suppose for good reason. I asked Salvatore, the stabilimento owner, why he didn't run for office and he shook his head, "and mix with all those thieves and no good scum..." He is not even going to vote.

So who is going to run the show?

a domani,

May 23, 2007

Soccer priorities

Sciopero or strike -- a word that always sends a chill down your spine.

Yesterday it was the air controllers for a true "black Tuesday", 500 flights cancelled, only a third Alitalia, the rest other Italian and European carriers.

I immediately ask, "why", but the newspaper only tells me "who" adhered to the strike. The Atm-pp (that includes the Sacta, Licta, Anpcat, e Cila-av) says that 70% adhered, others estimate only 15%. Boh. It was about the "signing of an agreement" which was never further specified in the long article.

In any case, do not fear, the "tifosi" or fans of the Milan soccer team were guaranteed flights to Athens for the final match of the Champions League that took place this evening (Milan won).

Gotta keep your priorities straight and appease the crowds, even under a strike. Sorry, but I have to say it,..."only in Italy". I guess it has to do with the "rule thing",rules and their particular application -- a strike, yes, as long as it doesn't effect the Champion League Finals fans. Rules, but in moderation, applied to some but not to others

a domani,

May 22, 2007

Happy hour

I took my son to volleyball practice today on the other side of town, and there just wasn't enough time to go home and get back by 8:00. So I headed to the auditorium instead, Rome's newest wonder by architect Renzo Piano, where I sat at a very chic bar with an ice tea and concentrated on my "Italian composition". When I looked back up, the tables were occupied with....happy hour. WHAT! yes, happy hour has conquered Rome.
But with a difference. Food accompanies the booze. After 6:30, for 10 euros, you can get a drink with a plate of buffet food - not just chips and peanuts, real food, pasta and rice salads, little shrimps, sandwiches and such. It's not called "supper", although that is what it is for those off to a concert, but an "aperativo", thereby circumventing the "non si fa" rule about never putting all of your food on one plate, which is ok for an aperativo but not for a meal -- marketing genius.

Eating and drinking still go hand in hand. They haven't been separated into eating and then going out with friends to drink (at a bar) or drinking (happy hour) and then going on to eat.

THe question is, will we learn from them or will they (unfortunately) learn from us......see you in 10 years!

a domani,

May 21, 2007

parole, parole, parole

This morning I had my first private Italian lesson. After twenty-five years of speaking, reading and listening, I want to work on my writing skills, presentation/formal language and get rid of the kinks that have wormed their way into my speech while fine tuning the rest. Un corso di perfezionamento. What do you do with a student like me?

Well, we started with a dictation, that I completed with only a few errors on the accents. Then while she tried to size me up, we reviewed the use of the congiuntivo and experimented with ways to improve various sentences of the dictation text. Homework: a composition.

We talked about the different "concept of style" in Italian with respect to English. How it is not as important what you say, but how you say it -- a question of style. She told me that it is just a cultural difference that you have to accept if you want to write well in Italian, you have to work on being ornate, not succinct. Circumscribed, not direct. Pay attention to the sounds of the phrases, the rhythm and flow. It must sound good (like the Capo Gabinetto at the school meeting).

Quite an assignment. I'll have to put aside all that I have ever learned about writing and enter into an Italian state of mind. Pompous prose here I come. Wish me luck!

a domani,

May 20, 2007

Lazy spring Sunday

Just a lazy Sunday on the terrace.

Last night, though, I did enjoy my favorite Roman activity -- riding on the back of my husband's motorino through the center. I should feel scared, but instead I just sit back and take it all in with wind on my face.

a domani,

May 18, 2007

The doing thing, cont.

I received two great comments on yesterday's post, so I thought I would take today to share some thoughts on the American propensity towards action as a cultural value.

I picked up my "American Cultural Patterns: A cross-cultural approach" by Edward Stewart and Milton Bennett and opened to the chapter on "Forms of Activity". Here are a few salient points.

Americans assume that decision making is localized in individuals, even in groups the individual participates in reaching decisions as a person, as a vote, or as the occupant of a role.

So, if the individual the locus of decision making, he or she is also held responsible for the decision and any resulting action....."who did this?" or "who is responsible?"

If the locus of decision making is not the individual, or at least to a lesser degree, the question of who is responsible does not have the same degree of importance -- as is the case in cultures where there are stong ties to a group or which tend to reach decisions by consensus.

Americans tend to emphasise "problem solving", conceptualizing the world in terms of problems and then looking for obstacles that need to be overcome. In other cultures that are more group oriented, this labeling of obstacles can seem unduly negative and critical of people in their group that should be supported. Instead, "somehow things will work out." The information at hand may not even be organized in terms of "problems" that require "action".

"The idea of problem solving seems to be rooted in the American concept of a rational order in the world that explains events and determines particular occurrences. The rational order is based on the assumption that the world is mechanistic and that things worthy of effort are material. Such a world is saturated with facts, figures and techniques -- the stuff of a reality brimming with problems to be solved."

The book is not an easy read....but is well worth the effort.

Well, I must be off in search of problems that need to be solved.

a domani,

May 17, 2007

The doing game

I had a cultural moment this evening. In Anagni, about half way to Naples where I had accompanied my son to his B2-series volleyball game. Three grown men, in their 50-60s, were sitting on the other side of the bleachers with two drums (normal) and a "tromba" in a box-like container that made the most annoying, loud, very loud, screeching, ear-shattering noise. Not just occasionally, he hung onto this thing like a baby to a bottle for the entire game, never letting up.

I had to get up and leave during the third set (in any case, we lost), either that or walk over, pick up the box and throw it out the window.

Funny thing is that everyone I talked to after the game agreed that this noise was 1. excessive (even for a game), 2. "exasperating" 3. even damaging to their eardrums.

But no one considered taking action, or that taking action was an option. There was a certain distance from the whole issue -- pazienza e basta. What can you do about it anyway? Nothing. So why get heated up. My son agreed -- "mom, lascia stare" although it had even bothered him, while playing.

We are not very good with the "pazienza" thing. We are doers, we take action when we feel wronged. We get offended, outraged, we make reports, call lawyers, do something -- even invade another country (oops, no politics please). But in any case, we feel a compelling need to "do".

And it is hard for us to understand that this is an American cultural trait -- the doing thing -- and that not all cultures share this compulsion or, at least, not to the same extent.

A couple of years ago, I spoke on cross-cultural communications at a meeting of the International Women's Forum of Bologna. Following this evening, they started a "cultural moments" forum on their website ( One woman wrote about an incident in her gym in which the instructor(male) made some very inappropriate comments of a sexual nature aimed at one of the women in particular during the lesson. Afterwards, the locker room was a buzz, but only she (the American) said, "but you must DO something, report this incident to the management". She said that she was the only one to get enraged and demand action. The rest of the women just shrugged their shoulders, "ma, che si puo fare." She had a cultural moment -- a "doing" vs "being" one.

Anyone else out there had a similar experience?

a domani,

May 13, 2007

It all works out

While reading the newspaper on the beach today, I discovered that I was right to have faith.

The parent committee sat at the table with the political interests and worked it all out! No more door on the piazza, no more corridor to ministerial offices taking space from the school. An alternative solution was found -- in two days, after five years of projects and interests and such. I guess last minute consensus building through active confrontration worked.

Ministro Rutelli is even HAPPY to make the announcement.

Now try to figure that one out -- I think I'll have a swim.

a domani,

May 10, 2007

How things work

Yesterday afternoon parents were invited to a school-wide meeting assemblea straordinaria in the aula magna. Subject: The recent visit by Ministro Rutelli to announce renovation work soon to take place in this important historic building to meet school safety regulations and provide access for the disabled.

Sounds fairly straight forward. But it was not. Never is.

I got a seat up front (simply by arriving on time) and listened carefully and attentively for over two hours as various political representatives (a capo gabinetto del ministero, an assessore della provincia), parents, teachers and the principal spoke. In the end I understood that there are three sides to this triangular question.

The school side: the school needs (and wants) to meet necessary safety regulations (fire regulations were the only ones specified) and provide access for the disabled (a ramp to get up the front steps and an internal elevator seem to be the two issues at hand). The school also desperately needs a few new spaces as several rooms that are now serving as classrooms are grossly inadequate.

So far, all is clear and no one disagrees (politicians, parents, teachers, students, principal).

The principle side: the building, originally owned and run by Jesuits priests as an educational institution, was donated to the Italian state in 1873 (soon after Rome had joined the rest of Italy) on the condition that it continue to be used for this purpose, giving birth to the first state-run liceo in Italy – Liceo Ginnasio “Ennio Quirino Visconti”.

Things are still clear but although the politicians do not disagree, they do not agree quite as enthusiastically and we will later see why.

The political side: the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali has its headquarters just next to the school and shares the same complex. It wants (needs?) another entrance and has incorporated the re-opening of a door on the front of the building, that has been closed for centuries, into the school renovation project. This new door will then require a hallway to allow for access to the offices and this additional space will come from the north wing of the school.

Wait, could you repeat the purpose of this renovation work again (fulfill safety regulations for the school and access for the disabled and the need for new classrooms) and clarify what the Ministry’s door has to do with it? No problem, new classroom space (in lieu of that being taken away) will be provided for by dividing a few current rooms in two vertically by installing metal lofts.

Now I get it -- why so many parents showed up, the cat calls, shouting and wild applause. Can you imagine those desks, chairs and lively adolescents all moving about on a metal floor above the heads of another class. Ma che succede?

I listen more carefully and attentively.

First to the Assessore della Provincia di Roma. Lots of very nice words, but not very much information.

Then a student spoke, concluding with, “Prima la storia dell’istituto, poi tutto il resto” (First the Institution’s history, then the rest). Ahhh History (with capital “H”) bubbling up there again.

A father followed finishing with his “fear of politicians – first they put their foot in the door only to then take it all”. Wild applause – the crowd was warming up.

Another father then came to the microphone to state, “I will not accept the arrogance of the strong, we must educate our children to respect the rules”.

Yet another father returned us to the question of space and safety followed by an impassioned mother, the first to highlight Side Two of the question – the destination of the building by the Jesuits for educational purposes (not ministries and public officials).

Finally came the moment for the architect and project designer to speak. He was whistled at as he wafted on about Ministro Rutelli’s sensitivity to cultural issues. Someone cried out, “keep to the technical side”. So he proceeded to outline the two essential needs, that of the school to be put “a norma” and that of a second entrance for the Ministry, but he never did get around to the technical side. Someone finally yelled out, “tempo!” and he sat down.

Things were certainly heating up.

Then a woman came to the mike, a mother, and what a mother. Tall and imposing, thick, long overflowing reddish hair, grey low-cut stylish tunic, lots of strings of white and gold colored things around her neck, tight jeans tucked into leather boots with heels. As in other occasions, looks can be deceiving to the foreign eye. She was a professional, a civil engineer that has sat on various government committees for public works safety – a powerful woman who could afford to be particolareand freely express her individuality, no conservative suits for her. She asked very pointed questions of the architect, demanding clear answers and as she made an eloquent and passionate speech it was clear that she had done her homework.

A few other fathers followed, one calling for a “stato di agitazione” and my favorite father, a lawyer, who ended up mediating a three way discussion at the mike with the capo gabinetto and the architect to whom he asked pointed legal and technical questions (to which they did not actually respond). As the architect raised his voice, the lawyer/father stepped back, “don’t be so aggressive, I am a timid person” followed by a round of applause and some comic relief.

The Capo Gabinetto spoke so well that I got lost, “what did he say in the end?” Boh. But he is open to dialogue and confrontation.

Final result: A representative group of parents (made up of lawyers, engineers, architects, art historians etc.) was formed and will sit down at the table with the various ministry representatives to talk about reciprocal needs before the project proceeds further.

Can someone explain why this didn’t take place at the beginning of the process instead of now when there is a “progetto esecutivo” in hand and a renovation company already chosen and ready to start on June 15?

A true Italian mystery. But in the end, I have faith that the process will work – certainly in a different way and by a different route, let's call it consensus building through active confrontation.

In any case, it was a great show.

A domani,

p.s. sorry no pictures, I brought my camera, but was too intimidated to actually set off the flash, irritate the speaker and have everyone look at me as a of those blogger skills I need to work on.

May 9, 2007

Home grown

Today’s entry is on a topic everyone loves: food, Italian food, what else.

My question is, if Americans go so crazy about Italian food when they come here, what is stopping them from just eating better at home?

The answer came this evening, its all in the ingredients – certainly not a profound observation but one that hit home as I made my way through a new recipe.

It all started with an overflowing bag of fave beans that my husband picked up along the roadside in Maccarese (north of Rome) – the Roman mecca for fava beans in the spring. We cracked open the pods and munched our way through quite a few of them one evening with a chunk of pecorino romano on the side and a bottle of wine from Montepulciano (with a little help from our friends). Then I made a pasta with fave, pancetta, lattuga and pecorino – that was good too. But there were still some left, so I dug out a few old May issues of the La Cucina Italiana magazines and found this:

Insalata di polpo, fave e pomodorini. The picture was great and I had a bag of frozen cooked and diced polpo (octupus) in the freezer thanks to a BoFrost special. Then I blanched the fave beans, eliminated the skins by pinching the darker green insides into a bowl, sliced open the pomodorini and put them in the oven with some olive oil and fresh origano for 20 minutes or so. Next and last step was putting all three into a large bowl for serving. A huge success.

Back to the ingredients:
Polpo – never seen that slimy (and tasty) beast in the US.
Fave beans – lima beans do not come close and I have never seen anything else similar.
Pomodorini – those watery, plastic cherry tomatoes can never compare to the jewels I pick up at Pina and Lazy left-eye Leonardo’s shop that come straight from Puglia.
Olive oil – ditto above
Fresh origano – from my Calabrian neighbor who grows her own.

So how would I make this dish in the US?

A domani,

lazy left-eyed Leonardo having his morning snack, prepared by Pina.

May 2, 2007

Primo Maggio a Trento

Greetings from Trento.

I guess my cultural moment for the day is the odd inclusive feeling I am having as I intrude on my 19 year-old son's life. Over the past few days, we have been out to dinner one evening, an ice cream another and several walks about town -- all with one or more of his friends, meeting up off on as kids do. He is fine with having me hang around and so are his friends. They may leave me off before continuing the evening, but no one feels uncomfortable. Although this just may be a personal thing, I think that there is an "Italian family" component that leads to a different process for becoming independent.

In the meantime, I shall just enjoy my last day.

One note on "il primo maggio" that celebrates the worker. Like all non-Catholic holiudays, this one is also often full of tensions -- the relationship of the worker and society as both change over time. This has always been a day full of demonstrations on one side and concerts in the piazza on the other (to appease the masses).

Our "labor day" is instead a celebration of "work" not "the worker" -- the difference is subtle, but significant.

a domani,