July 31, 2007

Rules and beyond

I started packing today and during a break I found some interesting information for our trip on my sister's business blog:

July 30th, 2007
This is priceless: Security expert Bruce Schneier interviews TSA Administrator Kip Hawley. And he asks some of the questions I’d like to ask, including:

Bruce Schneier: By today’s rules, I can carry on liquids in quantities of three ounces or less, unless they’re in larger bottles. But I can carry on multiple three-ounce bottles. Or a single larger bottle with a non-prescription medicine label, like contact lens fluid. It all has to fit inside a one-quart plastic bag, except for that large bottle of contact lens fluid. And if you confiscate my liquids, you’re going to toss them into a large pile right next to the screening station — which you would never do if anyone thought they were actually dangerous.

Can you please convince me there’s not an Office for Annoying Air Travelers making this sort of stuff up?

Kip Hawley: Screening ideas are indeed thought up by the Office for Annoying Air Travelers and vetted through the Directorate for Confusion and Complexity, and then we review them to insure that there are sufficient unintended irritating consequences so that the blogosphere is constantly fueled.

Then he takes his tongue out of his cheek and explains how TSA arrived at its current goo rules. No specifics, of course, due to security concerns, but Hawley gives it a good try.

To avoid hassles, we will embark on a 20-hour flight with small, liquid-free carry-on bags -- a sweater, shirt, book, documents to hand deliver and a toothbrush should be safe enough. I am daring fate with a mini tube of face cream and a box off melatonina (first time try). Let's hope our luggage arrives at destination.

The idea at the bottom of all this craziness is: if you analyze every possibility and make enough rules, you can control the future. Rules, in this context, equal controlling fate and destiny.

Then the tour packet arrived with a flyer containing "Important Guest Information" from the Department of Homeland Security. I will let you imagine. We will not be fingerprinted, but nearly, and we are going to the high risk wilderness of Alaska! Luggage must be tagged and can be searched at any time and our passport information had to be sent in 60 days before departure.

And I was worried about the bears!

To top it off, can you imagine my Italian family actually wearing those little whale buttons and name tags. Have you ever seen an Italian wear a name tag, anywhere, in any circumstance? It is against everything they believe in and have been taught since birth -- good taste, discretion and keeping distance from strangers. No first name basis on introduction. That privilege must be earned over a few days on a personal, not mass, basis.

Reverse culture shock is coming on, and I haven't even hit the airport yet.

Still a couple of hot and sunny days in Rome pulling down winter clothes from the upper rafters where they were exiled under the "cambio stagione" regime a few months back.

a domani,

July 30, 2007

Patrons and protectors

The Madonna del Terzito is a special figure for the inhabitants of Salina and her special day is July 23, complete with mass, fair, procession, band and fireworks. We were there, at her sanctuary in Valdichiesa, Salina for the celebration.

In 500 A.c., a Byzantine monk built an oratory on this site. A couple of hundred years later it was replaced by a temple that was consecrated by the Archbishop of Lipari just before one invasion after another washed through the islands leaving destruction in their wake (as often happened in Sicily in those days). But fate had it that on July 23, 1622, a young Shepard by the name of Alfonso Mercorella heard a mysterious bell ring three times and, enchanted by the sound, searched for its origin and instead found the ruins of an ancient temple.

Today it is a sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna del Terzito (Terzito for the three bell rings) and every year on July 23 there is a celebration to honor the town's patron saint. She wears a vest covered with jewelry donated by the local faithful and in her hand she holds a small bell. Her face is quite lovely as she pensively looks out over her followers.

"Oh yes", you are thinking, "these things take place all over rural Italy." True. But they are often performed more for the tourists than the locals. Our host, a retired bank director, has been vacationing on the island for nearly 30 years and adamantly confirms the population's true devotion to the Madonna del Terzito and the importance of this day. He even feels personally grateful to her after surviving a difficult run with cancer while his villa was being completed. In her honor, he named his new home "Il Terzitella" and never misses the annual procession.

So we followed along. The women, men and children were dressed up for the occasion. The band played. The strong local workmen lifted the figure high and carried her down the road and back up again. The mayor was there, the Archbishop from Lipari and all the local politicians and priests. All shops and activities were closed.

This island saw massive emigration in the late 1800s and again after WWI, mainly to Australia, and today there are celebrations to honor the Madonna del Terzito in Sydney and Melbourne. There is even a painting of her in a church in New Guinea brought over by a missionary. Wherever in the world they live, the people of Salina still ask her for protection and pay her homage in exchange.

The role of patrons and the need for protection from above is an integral part of Catholic culture, beginning with patron saints (also for individuals through their onomastico name) and continuing beyond its religious confines. Protectors and patrons, therefore, also play a role in politics, university and the workplace as Catholic culture reaches into all aspects of Italian life.

Is the insistent presence of university and hospital "baroni", the army of "raccomandati" and the indecipherable workings of Italian political parties a natural progression from the worship of patron saints?

a domani,

July 27, 2007

Tales of ricotta

Sorry that I have been away from my blog for so long. My excuse is that I have been on an island at a friend's villa without internet access and the nearest town a long and windy road away.

And what an island it was. Salina, one of the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily -- a dramatic volcanic masterpiece.

At the end of each day at the sea, my husband and I happily followed the island's moving feast starting with an aperitivo (at one villa or another or at the spectacular Capo di Faro hotel), dinner (always with a view) and drinks (at another villa or even with the restaurant owner). One evening, at an after-dinner drinks with gelso granita get together to watch fireworks honoring the Madonna del Terzito, the conversation turned to ricotta. We had enjoyed a wonderful cassata siciliana at a local restaurant that evening (Le Tre Pietre in Rinella) and were recounting its lightness and perfection, when the hostess, from Palermo, interrupted to clarify that it was NOT the cassata season, so we would have to come back and try another one (in Palermo at her favorite pasticceria) in the Fall.

Now I have experience with the cherry and strawberry season, and the puntarelli and asparagus season but the cassata siciliana is a man-made not nature-made dish, so how could it be "out of season". Well, it all has to do with the main ingredient, ricotta, and the fact that sheep do not produce as much milk in the heat, nor the same quality. The other guests nodded in agreement. Opps. Now I know that there is also a cassata siciliana season. Then I learned that the best ricotta is made in Sicily (Catania taking the lead) and Piemonte -- maybe ricotta is what holds Italy together from North to South, one unifying gastronomic tie.

Besides ricotta, the best granita is made in Sicily and the best Sicilian granita can be found at Alfredo's in the small town of Lingua on the island of Salina.

Be careful, though, to order the right combination. We went twice and each time asked the waitress to help us. Our host insisted that one of the two flavors had to be mandorla (almond) which limited the choice of a second flavor to either peach, pistacchio or coffee. An acceptable alternative, all concurred, was peach and gelso. I was taken by the level of concern and concentration on the part of our young waitress to make sure that we put together a combination that would exalt instead of negate the flavor of each individual selection. She would not have let us order just any combination, even if that was what we wanted. She had to guide us to a proper granita at Alfredo's experience.
It reminded me of the care taken to choose just the right shoes/handbag/jewelry colors and combinations when dressing. Striving for aesthetic and gastronomic perfection is a fundamental part of daily life and results in that intangible, undefinable something that gives Italy its beauty.

And in the Aeolian islands, this beauty is truly breath-taking.

a domani,

July 19, 2007

Starting over, again

I had lunch today with a friend who is visiting from the US after having lived in Rome for a few years.

I asked her about "return culture shock" as she and her husband are now living in a small town in the deep South. "Well, life is certainly is different than it was in Rome!" she replied, as she dug into a plate of bresaola e rughetta con gusto.

Her husband, though, is enjoying being back in the land of certainty with all its clearly defined rules and direct communications, especially on the work front. But when I told her about this blog entry on differences in "tolerance of ambiguity", she nodded and added that, for him, it is also a "lack of continuity" that keeps American businesses from investing in Italy. Potential investors often find that working with one company management does not guarantee that the ball will be passed to the next, particularly in the case of large mainly state-run companies. With long and complex projects, you keep starting over again and this can wear on investor's patience to the point where they take the ball and go home. "Just like in government," I inserted -- this frustrating way of cancelling the previous administration's good works in order to start from scratch with brand new program.

Is it a question of trust? After so many centuries of starting over and over again under new ruling kings and popes and countries, Italians have learned not to believe that a previous administration's work could flow into the present one in the name of pragmatic progress?

Complicated and long-reaching roots to a contemporary problem.

a domani,

July 18, 2007

The naming game

Baby names was the topic of a blog entry by Megan Fitzgerald of Career by Choice. She is a "branding specialist" and the post links to a Wall Street Journal article, "The Baby Name Business", which talks about how to "brand you baby for success" by giving him or her just the right name.

Come on....maybe I have been abroad way too long, but this seems over the top to me.

Then again, maybe not. In Italy parents pay (or at least, paid) lots of attention to choosing the right name for a baby, the right saint's name, so that Giovanni or Maria would have that special someone to watch over them -- branded for success in a different way, by giving them that extra supernatural edge. In the past, the child's "namesake day" was celebrated more than the actual birthday -- now foreign ways have won out and only Nonna calls to wish you tanti auguri. We all need a bit of help from our friends and when that help comes from above, why not take advantage?

Giuseppe, one of the workmen who recently renovated an apartment in Trento for us, told many stories over a celebratory dinner on Monday. He is the middle child of a family of 10 brothers who all emigrated from Calabria to Trento when he was a child. Although he speaks with a Trentino accent and has a Trentino wife, his old ways from the South still hold true, including his belief in the power of saints. Every time he buys a new car, he drives over 1,000 km. to San Giovanni in Rotondo (Puglia) to have his car blessed by one of local disciples of Padre Pio -- to have that extra edge, you never know, then he turns around and drives back.

With just the right name, or just the right blessing, we can all be branded for success.

a domani,

You can check out your onomastico on this site. My onomastico is May 11, Sant'Elisabetta, mother of John the Babtist.

Great cross-cultural book:
The Namesake, by Jhampa Lahiri. A delicate and powerful story about the legacy of a name.

July 13, 2007

What to wear

What's a girl to wear?

Seems like a universal problem, and it is, but in Italy it takes on monumental proportions. While wandering through cross-cultural communications sites on the web the other day, I read on a business site, that in Italy, appearances count, a lot, especially first impressions that are formed by how you are dressed, how you greet, the grace and elegance you emit in your every step. These first impressions are unforgiving and unforgettable.

And mine will all be put to test, in three hours. A dinner party for about 50 guests, in a large villa garden. Surely not a casual affair, these things never are. So, as I passed by a neighborhood shop, I glanced at the window and stepped in, just to have a look, perhaps get inspired.

I was. The three other clients and the store-owner all helped me out and I ended up with a new red and white jacket. Then they conferred on what I could and could not put with it, which color shoes would do, handbag and jewlery. I was yet again studied as a specimen under a microscope, analyzed in every detail. In the end, they were satisfied with my purchase and my choice of pants, top, shoes, bag and jewlery (I described everything in detail as they listened intently and nodded in approval). When I exclaimed, "the details of getting dressed up are so exhausting!", the store-owner agreed and added that, "doing it right is a full-time job."

With all their care and support (and cold-blooded scrutiny), I feel ready and confident -- watch out for this first impression!

a domani,

July 12, 2007

Words with no pause

I found it! A prize piece of verbose and obtuse prose. Right in the bathtub!

Exhausted and covered in dust (from cleaning out boxes of old stuff and lugging most of it to the trash down four flights), I fell into the tub with a brochure called "Il Senso dei Luoghi" that presents the 2007 regional summer festivals prepared by the Regione Lazio Assessorato Cultura Spettacolo e Sport . The opening page stopped me cold -- one paragraph filled the entire page. I couldn't continue after the first sentence, so I did a word count instead, just under 500 words in one never-ending paragraph. Wow. I am sure it is full of jewels of wisdom, but I just can't read it. It's an American thing, we need paragraphs -- we have short attention spans and organizational/spatial needs.

My son doesn't. When he moved to the Italian school system four years ago, he showed me one of his first "temi" or essays. Before even reading the text, I said, "First, I would break it up into paragraphs." He replied that this was the way he was supposed to write in Italian and that the teacher wouldn't say anything about paragraphs (like his international school teachers would have done). In fact, it came back with a good grade and no mention of the missing breaks that I had been taught should occasionally interrupt the page.

Drives me crazy.

I zoomed on the center of the page and read, "L'obiettivo (the objective or goal, that's a good start) è andare ben oltre la mera valorizzazione: stiamo inaugurando nuove modalità di fruizione, affinché i cittadini possano riappropriarsi di luoghi caratterizzanti per l'identità storica e culturale della regione." I got lost, what was the goal? "To go beyond mere enhancement (of what?): we are unveiling/inaugurating new ways to use/enjoy (what?) so that citizens can regain for themselves places that characterize the historical and culture of the region." Hmmmm. Whatever. In any case, the program itself looks great!

a domani,

July 10, 2007

Happy meandering

A couple of questions from this not-particularly-technically-minded-blogger.

With over 100 posts to my name, I am wondering,

Is there a way to make a blog backup?
How would I go about copywriting the whole thing?

I would also love to hear your personal number one tactic for attracting readers.

Thanks to all!

This morning I googled "blog italy cultural differences" and found a few interesting posts to share:

one from a Finnish girl on Italian physical distancing.

another from a site on leader-values with a description of differences in European cultures according to Geert Hofstede's cross-cultural studies from the late 1960s.

and one last from a software geek about cultural differences in projects in which he quotes the following from a book called Agile Software Development by Alisatir Cockburn to illustrate a point:

"My early experience was with a consulting company in England, where the manager had set the project up single-handedly, developing the scope, objectives, strategy, plan, etc., and then get a team together and present the project to the team.

I tried to do this as a project manager in Italy. At the team briefing the message I got was: "That is your plan; you work to it. If you want us to work together, we plan together." Powerful message.

Then I went to Australia, where the prevailing corporate culture is that the managers make all the mistakesand everybody else just does as they are told.

I set up my first project the Italian way. I called the team together in a room with clean whiteboards, described the scope and objectives, and said, "Now let's work out together how we are going to do this." The response was: "You are the manager. You work it out, and we'll just do whatever you say."

This example made me think back to my experience at a heated school meeting. Everyone had a chance to say their own, although no conclusions were reached -- decisions were made in another context, behind closed doors.

Happy meandering.

A domani,

July 9, 2007

Learning ambiguity

If Italians live comfortably with, and even thrive on ambiguity, how do they learn to do so? We seemed to have missed this lesson as we grew up.

My older son passed his maturità exam up in Trento and has been sharing notes with his buddies from ginnasio in Rome who had a little exam adventure. Since the last maturità reforms, there has been an "unwritten rule" (his term) that the subject chosen for the second day of the three day written section of the exam is then not included on the third day short answer test. So since Latin was chosen for the liceo classico portion of the exam (a translation exercise), Greek, but not Latin, would be on the short answer test. He continued, "It is not a written rule, but the professors generally make the students understand that this will be the case." Instead, to their surprise, the students found questions on Latin grammar in addition to Greek and in the place of history. It seems that the history professor had an emergency and couldn't participate in the exam, so the Latin professor took her place.

The students can't complain because the practice was only an "unwritten rule" or more precisely, insider information that could be withheld at any time. In theory, the professors could choose any five subjects out the ten, in practice, they had an ongoing "arrangement" with the students. In the process, this group had an important lesson in how to live with ambiguity and its practical consequences.

So when they grow up they will do a much better job than I ever will at figuring out the unwritten parking rules at the auditorium. There is a pay parking lot (1.5 euros/hour during the evening) that stays empty until all the outside street parking (none of which is marked as "regular" places) is filled up -- on curbs, in the center triangle of a road fork, along curves etc. "Don't those cars get ticketed" I naively asked the men at the parking lot, pointing at the colorful tangle in the middle of the road. They shrugged and looked at each other, "Never seen a car get a ticket in the evening, but then again, the traffic police could come by and give out fines if they choose to do so."

So, I wanted to ask, where should I park? But I didn't, because I knew that the answer had to do with my risk tolerance level, and, having failed yet another "tolerance of ambiguity" test, I parked in the lot.

a domani,

July 5, 2007

Living with ambiguity

Yesterday was the fourth of July, American Independence Day!

No fireworks, flags flying and barbecue in the backyard for us. The only vaguely American thing we did was a trip to the Auditorium for a concert by Dee Dee Bridgewater, called "Red Earth - A Malian Journey". The musicians -- all from Mali as she has recently discovered her African roots -- were fantastic and it was a great show.

The US Ambassador to Italy, Ronald G. Spogli, instead held a party at Villa Taverna for over 2,500 Italian and American dignitaries and friends. Today's news reports on his speech for the occasion. "Investment conditions for American business in the Italian economy are not favorable.... Without trying to deny this fact or identify the guilty parties, we should instead work together towards finding ways to improve the situation and put an end to this sad chapter of our history." One initiative he has enacted is an embassy sponsored program Partnership for Growth.

Why are American investors so cautious and reticent about investing in Italian companies? Below the surface of obvious obstacles connected to overwhelming bureaucracy, shifting politics, closed-minded "national interests" and undecipherable company law, there are lots of cross-cultural issues at work. The first (and foremost I believe) is a gap in tolerance of ambiguity / uncertainty. While that of Americans is very low, Italians comfortable live with and even thrive on ambiguity. In the end, the best of intentions fall between this crack. In a previous editorial the Ambassador states that, "Investments don't arrive where they are not well received. When the rules of the market change continuously without warning, the level of risk increases making it very difficult to program for the future." Sounds reasonable, to an American. I like that idea of programming for the future too, even in my daily life! And AT&T up and left town empty-handed citing "uncertain rules". They just couldn't see a straight line to the future.

Many years ago now, John (American), the Director of a small NGO in Rome, wanted to hire a part-time receptionist. A lawyer friend of mine stopped by the office one day to visit and John took advantage to ask, "Can I hire her off the books -- she will only be here for a few hours a day -- or not". Roberto gave what he thought was a clear and comprehensive picture of the situation by explaining that this would depend on John's comfort level with risk. Did he believe there was a high risk that this girl would eventually sue him for back taxes, or was he pretty sure she would not. In the first case, he should hire her on a regular contract and pay all the taxes and benefits, in the second, he could consider splitting the fallout with her and hiring her off the books. I looked back and forth between the two. Roberto seemed pleased at his job well-done, his clarity and precision regarding the situation. John's eyes glazed over and there was a minute of silence before he spoke, "So, can I hire her off the books, or not?"

a domani,

P.S. check out Shelley's post for pictures and a great story about her day at the Villa Taverna July 4th celebrations. Makes you crave a hamburger with the works!

July 4, 2007

Rogito ergo sum

I met with Alex yesterday for my Italian lesson. Not having done any homework.....I brought along my "Cross-Cultural Tools" workshop presentation to translate into Italian.

We started with the word, "tools", hmmmm, could be strumenti or abilità or capacità. We decided on strumenti because I try to get across the idea that cross-cultural concepts can actually be used, like hammers and saws, to build understanding and cross-cultural competence.

We decided to use cononscenza reciproca for "understanding" and threw in sviluppare le vostre capacità di dialogare con altre culture. Nice.

And so on. I am going to write it up for our next session.

Last time we talked about how Italians consider their language. He called it, "il culto del bello", that phrases have to sound nicely. He said that I have to concentrate on the "musicality" of the language when writing, not just the sense of the phrase, but its sensual impact. "Musicalità dà efficacia".

Then we got into a discussion on rules. "English", he said, is free yet not anarchic at all, while Italian is full of rules yet anarchic in practice." Seems to me that language both reflects and nourishes Italian social and political life! I read somewhere that Italy has more laws on the books than any other industrialized nation, not to much effect.

"In addition," he continued, "it is important to add "salt" to a text, use precise terms and when possible throw in a few Latinisms (to show your social and educational status). We would call this "putting on airs".

I found an example in yesterday's La Repubblica newspaper in a letter from the public on "l'abolizione dell'Ici e un libro di Tolstoj" or the abolition of property taxes and a book by Tolstoy. It was a nice letter saying that we should all learn a lesson from Ivan Ilic and worry more over our souls than the "ici" tax. In the middle of the text, I found, "siamo il popolo dell'immaginazione al podere, del rogito ergo sum e spendiamo i fine settimana al centro commerciale." There it is, a Latinism -- love it!

a domani,

July 2, 2007

The Flow of history

Back from Trento, tired and busy. Until I get back to blogging... I will leave you with a short piece I wrote last year, yet another cross-cultural vignette.

"My son’s will was stronger than ours and that week we brought home a baby dwarf rabbit. Along with a cage and a water bottle, I bought a book called, Il Manuale del Coniglio Nano (or The Dwarf Rabbit Manual) and ordered another manual from the US. While both books introduce rabbit care and feeding to new owners, they each do so from a different cultural perspective.

The Italian manual begins with a chapter entitled “A Brief History of the Rabbit” which introduces my rabbit’s ancestors and his cultural heritage. I learned that rabbits first appeared in Northern Europe a million years ago during the Pleistocene era, migrating south during the ice age to what is today Italy and Spain. During the 12th century, Portuguese and Norman navigators then carried rabbits to various Mediterranean islands and England, giving rabbits access – with just a quick hop -- to the rest of Europe.

I also learned that the first pet rabbits appear in accounts by the Greek poet and philosopher Senofonte between 430-455 B.C. and that their Greek name (Oryctolagus dasypus) is attributed to Aristotle and their Latin one (Oryctolagus cuniculus) to Plinio (23-79 A.C.). These are relatively recent accounts -- the oldest record of a pet rabbit is a drawing on papyrus of a man with a long-eared animal. It seems that in 1100 B.C. the Phoenicians found and tamed wild rabbits in the Pyrenees.

The ancient Romans also bred rabbits in captivity (not for pets but for banquets) and up to the medieval period, newborn rabbits on the grill were a delicacy. Later they became the prize catch of hunters and in 1309 Canterbury a rabbit was even sold for the price of a pig!

All I wanted was some practical advice on the feeding and general care my new pet. Instead I received a lesson in Rabbits Across the Centuries. Around page 35, following another chapter on scientific classification, the “manual” part begins.

The American book, The Essential Rabbit, begins with a chapter entitled “What about a Rabbit” and the first sentence reads, “A rabbit is a fairly easy pet to own.” Subtitles in the first chapter include “The Right Pet for You”, Rabbit Responsibilities” and “the Joys of Rabbit Ownership”. I have to wait until chapter nine “Rabbit Facts” to learn a bit about the history of the rabbit -- clearly an aside to the task at hand.

In Italy, the past weighs on the present. Everything starts from the beginning and that can go way back.

My son’s high school humanities professor (Italian, Latin, Greek, history and geography) exasperated after an unsuccessful interrogation of a student, exclaimed, “You are just like President Bush -- you and he know nothing about ancient Mesopotamian politics and society!” She clearly sees a direct connection between ancient history and current events.

The undercurrent of the past runs just below the surface and bubbles up into all aspects of society. Americans find constant referencing to the past as quaint yet superfluous, “Yeah, that’s neat; now let’s get down to business”-- that is, the future – for getting things done is always a question of the future. Italians repeatedly tell me that we do not have a history; America is a mere dot on the timeline. Worse, we have no sense of history. We scanter on ahead like newborn pups while Europeans watch with the wisdom of age-old Lassie.

Today, as I watch my playful rabbit scurry about the terrace, I muse on his ancestral roots and I feel a connection with the man on the papyrus and his long-eared friend. I represent the most recent generation of a long line of rabbit owners and I feel connected to that past. Today the future will just have to wait."