November 29, 2007

Strike's on

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

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

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

a dopo-domani from Trento,

November 27, 2007

The power of history

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

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

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

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

a domani,

November 25, 2007

Noi and the salon

This week I visited the source.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah yes, being particolare, the Italian way.

Thanks Rick!

a domani,
Noi Salon, Piazza del Popolo, 3

November 24, 2007

Pot luck

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

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

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

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

a domani,

November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

to all!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 20, 2007

Murky waters

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

a domani,

November 19, 2007

Doing and Being

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

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

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

a domani,

November 17, 2007

Uncultured Americans

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

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

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

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

Just a rant.

a domani,

November 12, 2007

Alberto Cribiore's soft skills

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

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

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

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

a domani,

November 9, 2007

Service with a smile

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

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

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

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

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

a domani,

November 8, 2007

Thursday and gnocchi

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

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

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

a domani,

November 7, 2007

Risky business

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

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

Quite an impressive guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a domani,

November 5, 2007

The "recommended"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Che peccato.

a domani,

November 3, 2007

The Northern divide

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

a domani,

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