April 29, 2008

happy to be home

I found this post on a blog by an American woman who lived in Italy for 15 years with her Italian husband and children before returning to her native Colorado, with the same husband and children.

There is a bit of re-entry culture shock and lots of relief at finally being able to "be herself" and not have to work so hard to "fit in".

She writes beautifully too, so this is my gift for today.

I will be away until next week and may not have online opportunities, so check back when the May flowers are finally out and the April showers are but a misty dream.

alla prossima,

April 16, 2008

Food rules begin

Have you ever wondered where all those food rules come from? Why Italians cannot eat pasta WITH a piece of meat on the same plate, or even worse, eat pasta AFTER a meat dish. Why certain foods can ONLY be eaten with certain other ones. Why they can't bring themselves to order a cappuccino after lunch and endless other rules we strive to follow or be caught in one brutta figura or another.

One answer came from a letter to the Salute (Health) insert to Thursday's La Repubblica newspaper last week. It was written by a concerned mother of an eight month old who will be accompanying her husband to the US for a week in May -- with the baby. SHe asks the pediatrician what she should do about the baby's food (actually she writes, "...ho dei dubbi, come dobbiamo comportarci dal punto di vista alimentari?" to be scientific about it all). In addition to milk, the baby now takes two meals a day of pastina or other cooked grains with either meat or vegetables. The questions was, "Should we bring homogenized baby food and powdered milk with us?"

I was sure the doctor would advise that this was not necessary and that they would easily find baby food and powdered milk in the US. But this was not the response. Instead the doctor advised that while they could find baby food in the US, it would not correspond EXACTLY to the Italian products to which their son was accustomed, particularly in terms of "palatabilità" that is influenced (I think he meant tainted) by the different gastronomic culture (different we understand to be have a negative connotation). Therefore, the mother should bring along everything the baby will need for the week, both homogenized baby food and powdered mild, properly packaged and sent in their suitcase, only bringing on-board quantities needed for the trip itself.

The doctor does concede that the baby could even vary his diet for the week, eating only dry biscuits (Italian ones) dissolved in (Italian) milk and (Italian) homogenized baby food that could even be served directly from the jar with a spoon (given the situation). The mother should not worry too much about any eventual imbalances in the baby's nutrition over the limited period of seven days.

And you wonder why Italy has the lowest birthrate of the Western World! What responsibility parenting presents and what stress to achieve such high culinary standards even while touring the streets of New York with an eight-month old.

So, that's where it all starts. As soon as mother's milk becomes a wistful memory, food rules step in to bring order (and good taste) to everyday life.

April 15, 2008

On the good side

The Third Republic is born.

To be positive, lots of new and exciting things came out of yesterday's election results.
1. No more itsy-bitsy parties that looked more like interest groups/lobbies than real parties to me. None made the cut and they will not be represented in parliament.
2. No more parties for the extreme left and extreme right -- ex-communists, radicals, and greens on the left and ex-fascists on the right have disappeared. The socialist party didn't make the grade and, amazingly, the Vatican lost much of its insidious political power.
3. We are moving towards two major alternative powers made up of only a few parties. Not a bad thing. Actually a very good thing.

There were even civil discussions on the TV last night. Each side respectfully acknowledging both the winner and the opposition and their respective roles. That's a change.

Now the PDL and the Lega will have to govern and if they don't do it well, there is now, for the first time, a viable alternative finally free of the reformed communists and other more radical left-wingers.

And the game begins!
I think I'll stick around and see how it goes, hopefully for the best of the country.

a domani (and another day),

April 13, 2008

Election day reflections

Well, the deed is done.

Just before lunch, I walked up the hill to our local elementary school, got in line for my electoral section and watched the various posters that lined the school hallway go by with their lists upon lists of names and party symbols to sort out. All those lists and names got me nervous and when it was almost my turn, I followed the eyes of the elderly man in front of me and started reading what turned out to be the school menu posted on the door thinking that it might hold the key to the voting process. We agreed that the week's menu looked good to us, but then again it was almost 1:00 and we were hungry.

It was my turn, the first name in my "seggio" (Abbot tends to be at the top of any list). I gave them my voting card and my identity card and received in turn FIVE color coded sheets.
One for the Senate, one for the House, one for the Rome mayor, one for the president of the Lazio province and one for the municipal government.

The Senate and the House sheets contained respectfully 14 and 16 symbols -- the task was to put an X on one of them. The symbols were very pretty and colorful, Italian design at work, and if you put your glasses on, you could often find the name of the "list head" somewhere in the graphics to help you identify who was attached to which symbol.

The other ballots consisted of both party symbols and names -- between one and ten symbols supporting each name. Here you could either X a name (without a preference for which party 's support) or just the party list (which includes automatically the name), or, why not?, put an X on both the list and the name (which becomes redundant with respect of the second choice). (sorry--running out, will turn photo later..)

I folded up the ballots, placed each one in its color-coded box, picked up my ID card and voter card and skipped out.

At least I had done my duty, but not with a lightness of spirit. There is a sad state of affairs and I fear my vote will not stop the tsunami of Berlusconi and his impossible media-driven machine. What can I do, but vote.

The foreign press is up in arms and truly bewildered this time around -- how is it that this man can come back for a third term. A true Italian mystery. If Italy is a county based on appearances, he is certainly the showpiece. Contrary to all logic and common sense, people believe his superficial slogans, youthful appearance and wildly improbable campaign promises.

Calls for reforms come and go but change does not take place. The country is too divided to agree on anything as overriding as constitutional and electoral reforms. So they are discussed but never come to form.

But I digress and all this has been said before and is being said again in the foreign papers. (the German paper Spiegel had this interesting article -- sent to me by a German blog follower).

What perhaps I can add is a few observations on the possible cultural roots of the Italian political system's morass.

Ministro Amato stated an important truth the other day, Italy was formed in 1860 as a state, but not a nation. It is still today struggling to find a common identity from the myriad of localized (and often historically feudal) realities. Anna Finocchiaro, leader of the PD in the Senate and a Sicilian by birth, has been given the task of preventing the whole of Sicily from going to Berlusconi. She states, "Voters here are as tied to the bosses as in the days of feudalism." The ties are formed through an endless network of favors and connections that feed on more favors and connections until this web becomes a voter block. This kind of intertwined relations and reciprocal connections does not favor nor facilitate change and this is the key to Italy's stagnation on many fronts.

Unwritten systems that have grown out of centuries of "si fa così," cannot be changed, because, on paper, they do not even exist!

While we all love and appreciate the distinct differences in Italian food from one region (and even one town) to another, this desire to covet interests close to home spills over into a need to defend small and local interests in the form of parties in the name of every imaginable sector of society.

The innate need to be particolare in all aspects of life also lends to the development of multiple parties. Everyone has to get on a particular bandwagon to achieve personal identity.

The only problem is that national identity behind a political system that works for the common good instead of defending localized and particular interests, is still to be achieved.

And reforms that would allow for such an identity to be formed, are resting in the wings, hoping to one day walk on stage -- to the applause of the rest of the world.

a domani,

April 11, 2008

Prof. Amato for lunch

Do you know where your Minister of the Interior was yesterday at 1:00?

I do.

Despite busy pre-election days and the hoopla that has been going in the news over ballot forms, from 1-2:15 he was enjoying a leisurely lunch of: risotto con zucchine, pollo al limone accompanied by mixed grilled vegetables and a slice of cake, followed, of course, by an espresso. He was scheduled to speak for the American Women's Association of Rome and the American International Club of Rome at their monthly luncheon.

I had assumed he would rush in (late) long after the lunch was over, escorted by blue-suited, blue-toothed body guard types, and instead he simply showed up at 1:00 and thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance of the Hotel Savoy, the company and the food before getting up to speak at 2:20.

He was delightful, witty and had many interesting and intelligent things to say -- just what I had expected and why I had paid for the extravagant mid-day meal. He had studied comparative law at Columbia University where he is now on the faculty and has spent enough time on both continents to have a good sense of both countries (and good English as well!).

He prefaced his talk by saying that he was more interested in the upcoming US elections than of those in Italy, but would not tell us his preferred candidate, noting that in any case, a change for the better was in the air.

To explain the tie that binds the US and Europe he drew a lovely analogy, "Although the US and Europe are different, America is like a daughter for me." We are different, indeed, and the daughter can grow up to be stronger than the father, but the tie binds, especially for the Italian family! In terms of the new world order, "This in not a time for empires, but in the context of global alliance, the Western world shares common values on which the battle of market forces takes place." Although we are different we are closer to each other when compared to the rest of the world.

Italy he described as, "A bizarre country" and "A summary of the world."

"Of course we have beauty, then we tend to be inefficient yet wonderfully efficient when we want to be. We present ourselves worse than we really are and we are very open to others while being scared of others at the same time."

"Italy is the problem and the solution. We lack a basic platform and a sense of common identity -- Italians had a state, but not a nation when it was formed. It was missing common values shared by everyone, instead tied to minor and localized identities.

But, he summarized, "somehow we always end up among the winners."

And its true! Now how do they do that I wonder...

a domani (for a special Italian election treat),

April 9, 2008

A match unmade in heaven

Will Air France take over Alitalia in the end? Deadlines come and go, negotiations and posturing continue, and the final answer is still to see.

Italy's premier financial newspaper, Il Sole 24 ore, carried an interesting article yesterday that looked back to Alitalia's failed marriage to KLM over ten years ago for some insights into today's venture. It seems that, with hindsight, the numbers didn't tell the whole story. Just as the joint venture was taking form after a two-year trial period, the two companies put together a pre-nuptial agreement regarding the soft-side of their future life together -- the cross-cultural differences that needed to be addressed.

Alitalia managers described KLM with terms such as: "decentralized, planning, methodical approach, rigid, arrogant and agressive, propensity towards partnership, English-speaking." In addition, they were accused of eating dinner too early.
KLM managers described Alitalia with terms such as: "strongly centralized, priority attention paid to relationships, non-English speaking. Management is chaotic and not structured. THey enjoy life too much and excessively use cell phones during meetings."

THe match went ahead in any case, with the Italians reducing their cell phone activity and the Dutch eating later in the evening. The forces of the market were too strong and they needed to stay together to fend off surrounding sharks. The marriage though only lasted a year, finally spliting over the question of Milan's international airport, Malpensa. KLM had invested heavily in its development as a hub only to see growth in air-traffic blocked by government intervention following protests by Milan's local government and competing airlines. KLM (as AT&T and other multinations since them) was scared off by "those untrustworthy Italians" and the high level of uncertainty around the future of any agreement.

Will the French be patient enough to see this one through? Can they stand the uncertainty and ambiguity? Travel the complex and unfathomable route to a long-term relationship while patiently waiting for their counterpart to kindly finish his cell-phone conversation?

Un chappeau if the do!
We will have to wait (and wait) to see...although some real deadlines are coming up.

a domani,

April 7, 2008

Bold or mild?

Fighting a jet-lagged daze this afternoon and going through stacks of papers as I wait for my luggage to arrive. I made my very tight connection in Paris for a 7:15 am connecting flight -- my bags did not.

Once home, showered and after my first plate of pasta in 12 days (!!!), my husband made the espresso....ahhhhh, another first pleasure of being home. Although I do enjoy a mug of American coffee in the morning when I am in the States, that post-pranzo espresso zing cannot be reproduced anywhere beyond the alps to the same effect.

To compensate,I indulged in a few Starbucks moments during my trip -- notably one while waiting for a mall to open on a very rainy cold morning to pick up Brooks Brother shirts for my brother-in-law.

I carefully studied the menu and found something based on a surprisingly simple concept: coffee and milk. It was called Caffè Misto and consisted of brewed coffee and steamed milk. To accompany such a delight I decided on a multi-grain muffin.

Confident with my uncomplicated choice, I ordered, only to find more choices thrown back at me! Did I want "bold" or "mild" coffee? Did I want the muffin on a plate? Did I want "utensils" with that too?

Choice, choice, choice, everywhere, all the time for every item ordered: type of salad dressing, cooking length for meat, potatoes or rice, cheese on top, it never seemed to end. How exhausting in general but really too much to ask before you have even had a cup of coffee!

a domani from warm and summy Rome,

April 6, 2008

Flexi time

While visiting friends and family, I discovered the obvious -- the US labor force is more flexible than its European counterpart and new technology has made it even more so. Everyone is on-ramping after off-ramping, working full or part time from home, job sharing and mixing odd skills together to explore new horizons in creative ways.

One friend has on-ramped to a full time VP position that includes a daily commute after many years of job-sharing an executive position with a colleague: 2.5 days / week plus a conference call or two. It worked for years and they both moved up the totem pole in the process.

Another friend is on-ramping into the creative art world after years of part time commercial art and being a stay at home mom. Our old group of college friends gathered for an opening with one of her works -- Brava! She is setting up a studio at home to start giving art lessons too.

A sister works from home as an editor, popping into the office once a month or so.

Another sister set up a business from her home.

The sister of a friend moved from Maine to Oregon and kept her job! By her choice she works a twenty hour / week schedule online as she keeps an eye on toddlers.

The other sister of the same friend makes money off a website and the friend herself works for a large pharmaceutical company, three days from home and two in the office (over an hour's commute) while her husband works four days a week from home in IT and checks into the local office only on Fridays.

The husband of yet another friend works most days from home, dropping by the office every so often for meetings. Then again, he travels a lot too.

Another friend has managed to keep a three day / week schedule as a doctor at a large medical center to be able to raise her children as a single mom.

My husband (a libero professionista) even wrote that he worked all day Saturday so that he can be free to pick me up from the airport on Monday.

The world of work is changing -- but at a much faster rate in the US. All those cumbersome labor laws and contracts based on categories of workers make this flexibility a dream for us. There is no way we could ever sit down with a boss and work out an individualized and mutually beneficial arrangement. It would have to fit into a pre-ordained state-dictated category of salary, obligations and benefits.

But as is true of everything Italian, there is secret route to flexibility -- the family business. It seems to me that this is the real reason there are few big businesses and a multitude of small and medium sized family-owned and run enterprises. Whatever stays in the family eludes the crippling inflexibility of outside forces. Your Dad would certainly let you attend your son's (and his grandson's) school play, increase and decrease hours as needed over the years -- while programing your growth in the company and prepping you for its management.

Ah yes, where there is a will, there is a way.

a dopo-domani from Rome,