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 d..th, 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,