Monday, January 16

Italian Espresso vs American Coffee...What not to order on your next trip to Italy

I grew up watching those Hogan's Heroes episodes ... they'd stand around...wishing for something hot and then spit out whatever it was they'd be served, usually coffee. BC Comics called it swill. With all that bad press, it's a wonder how any of us grew up to be coffee drinkers. And while I'll take an Illy Caffè Italian cappuccino over any coffee in all 50 states (okay...well maybe excluding New Orleans), when you happen upon a good cuppa...it's really not so bad.

But ask any Italian, and for as long as I can remember...they would wince at the mere thought of taking a sip from that horrid cup of "extra long" used bathwater...And this, I believe, is the true reason why Starbucks didn't make such a swift move into the Bel Paese. In all these years, I never really got into the down and murky dirtiness...to convince Italians otherwise. Who was I to explain that the real reason they were disgusted by Caffè Americano had nothing to do with American coffee? At all.

But then, I was talking to a friend's teenage son who had just come back from NYC. When I asked him what he liked about his trip he said..with a note of surprise in his voice, "I thought the coffee was amazing." While I also think his tastebuds were distracted from the idea of camping out on a plush sofa with freewifi at a a local Starbucks...versus downing a 1 inch high sip standing at a bar counter...I could see his point. Up til now, his version of Caffè Americano was basically the water that is left at the bottom of my Bialetti coffee pot -- after I've already bubbled up the contents and poured it into my cappuccino.

So after 25-odd years, I'm going to finally come clean for the Italian people, and...for all the unsuspecting American tourists who come to Italy - begging for a super long Caffè Americano:

No...An American Coffee is NOT the end result of an espresso machine that's forced to urinate all the leftover water, calcium deposits and murky espresso bean slime until it's a faint yellowish piddle flowing into your cup.
Baristas still seem to think that that's what we do in America. Just add water. Instead, American coffees are left to soak up their Burnt Sienna grounds...percolate, so to speak. [We actually get a bigger hit of caffeine than from a standard espresso because of that.] So..you try an American Coffee at your peril. You begin to beg for something that represents prehistoric swill.

Recently, an American couple breezed into one of the bars on the Appian Way and asked for a big ol' cuppa Joe to Go. They grabbed their Monster-sized cups (by espresso standards, anyway) and took off before I could warn them that what they ordered...wasn't quite an American brew. I found their (full) cups in a bin not much further along.

And so I've now come full circle on the Starbucks in Italy idea...Because, if you could actually serve up real American coffee...who knows? It might just catch on. 

Sunday, December 18

Shopping in Italy...What are they thinking?!

I've said it once. I'll say it again. The entire country is in dire need of Marketing 101. While Customer Service has greatly improved in this internet world (tho' you can still read replies to complaints if you want to get a big kick out of things in the world wide web), I still can't for the life of me understand why people continue to trust GoogleTranslate - rather than a mother tongue individual, or just winging it on their elementary English (Elementary, because they were 8 years old when they stopped learning it). But then, the everlovin' Rebecca Winke over at Brigolante Guest Apartments in Assisi posted this. 

A new line of upscale, all-organic dog food hits the Italian shelves.
This will forever go down in the annals of consumer product marketing - right there, next to the place of honor - still holding strong decades long - and still the undefeated champ, SOFFASS TOILET PAPER*, the ultimate in 'straight-talking consumers'. My favorite comment on her thread following, each one better than the next was, So good, your dog will want to eat it - twice. My morning espresso shot straight out of my nose.

I'm convinced they had wanted to say B.A.R.K. I am also convinced, as with Soffass, that there is one highly disgruntled marketing manager, who definitely knows more than his boss (& Company owner), and most certainly knows English. Well. And this person...well, put out the Barf Bags, so to speak. On purpose.

It cannot be any other way. Just can't. Or, to think of another conspiracy theory, one commenter posted that perhaps they really just want to sell more paper towels...! I leave you with the Last Word posted by someone else: It seems dog groomers are to be found throughout the Bel Paese by the name of "Doggy Style". Maybe they know marketing better than I think.

*OMG-No longer undefeated...! It appears they have admitted humble defeat - And the Company has now demoted the best brand name in the marketing firmament and is now going with Sofidel, the Company name.

Wednesday, November 16

America Votes...and the World Trembles | #TheTrumpEffect on Italy

I watched, stunned, from my balcony window as the streets started teeming with protesters, heading over to the American Consulate nearby. I was nervous my car - bearing  Michigan license plates - would be vandalized in a day that left “Fuck America” writ on the Consulate walls. In seemingly a matter of minutes, the compassion that the rest of the world had had for the United States was far less durable than those graffiti marks. Down went the American flags that had been displayed in store windows and homes across Europe. Gone were passers-by spontaneously hugging my dog donning his American flag bandana…Heck, gone was the bandana itself. Just eighteen months after September 11th, 2001 America, under its simpleton of a swaggering president, would stumble into Iraq and moor us in the deepest quagmire of our existence. Capturing hearts and minds of the Iraqis? If we had, they’d been traded in from those of the entire population of the rest of the world.

Elections have consequences.

This usurper, who narrowly lost the popular vote, had become President of these United States. A mediocre student and “businessman president” (who was never successful in business) asked daddy to help him live out his boyhood dream of being town sheriff. What could go wrong?

Americans abroad know all too well the effects of America’s own decisions. So much so, each time there’s an election, headlines ponder the results if the entire world could vote right along with us. The Economist did as much during the Obama election (he won by a landslide). When Obama finally reached office, Italian kids in Obama buttons, t-shirts, and dog lore shared their love with the first family. A trip to Italy by Michelle and the girls with photo opps of them wandering out of the Pantheon and later bringing home a doggie bag from a top restaurant added to the panache -- and crushed yet another barrier for Italians; if FLOTUS could take her food back to the hotel, heck so could all the rest of us. Doggie bag shaming would end up in the Italian trash heap of history. But most incredibly, little girls across the continent would quip that when they grew up, they wanted to be President of the United States. Kids of all ages were engaged fully in the U.S. political process.

After Bush & Co.’s policies had not only tanked the U.S. economy, but along with it, Europe’s and most of the world’s…we breathed a collective sigh of relief - so cathartic that Barack Hussein Obama received an undeserved Nobel Peace Prize - his take home trophy just for showing up onto the world stage.

But this brief moment in history would prove to be as ephemeral as gelato under a scorching sun. It would not be long before women were being rated by their looks, added to political gatherings for eye candy, and fish-lipped hotties with bulging breasts and ultra-thin resumes were cropping up in European parliaments and city councils across the country. With their 6-figure incomes, expense spending and jet setting, they shined in the media spotlight - an Italian Miss Universe Barbie goes to Brussels. Parents were thrusting their daughters into the poltical lair, and girls not quite 18 were in line for boob lifts and nose jobs by the hour. It was an epidemic.
A media mogul, and the man who gave us desperate housewives stripping off their clothes on prime time became Prime Minister. There are plenty of posts comparing Silvio Berlusconi to Donald Trump but suffice to say, it appears that Silvio has bequeathed his personal How To List to The Donald directly. Berlus - errr — Trump even announced he would not take a stipend for his civil service. Silvio had done that. Kept his Milan Villa, check. Kept his beach hide-away. Check. Spoke highly of Putin. Check. Paid bribes (in the U.S. they’re legal) to make his troubles go away. Check. All Donald needs now is to adopt a little dog and we’d check that, too.
And just as beauty is more than Melania’s shiny complexion deep, the damage visited upon a generation of children being raised in this testosterone-laden brave new world, will be keeping historians busy for millenia to come.

While Donald and all his brashness and lousy sense of humour makes Silvio look like Gandhi (Beppe Severgnini says Churchill), this tag team built on media might and white blight are (almost) one in the same. Although divorced playboy Silvio did not even pretend to be on the religious side of things…he did take pains to line up a girlfriend to take out on public appearances, often dressed in white for the visual effect on voters.

Aside from the cosmetic similarities, hair-plugged Silvio hated being harassed by the media, comedians and random bloggers. He tried and succeeded on passing Gag Laws for bloggers and attempted a fire wall on journalists who might cross his path. He was embroiled in all kinds of lawsuits and claims (some his own) of ill repute. Berlusconi’s brother heads a newspaper that would smear anyone who opposed him, reaching right up to the very thin line of defamation but never crossing it (a right defended much more vigorously in Italy). Silvio flew in his own plane back and forth from Rome. Silvio never did make a blind trust (allowing his kids to run his businesses, as if, over a plate of pasta “How’s business?” might never come up in conversation.) But while calls for his daughter to run in his stead were made, even his kids had the good sense to stay out of politics.


In what may serve as a horrendous premonition (who says things in Italy occur well after America?) Silvio and his rubber-stamp parliament started passing laws that benefited his businesses or media interests, or more blatantly, kept him out of jail. In something that I am sure would not be below The Donald, he attempted at every turn to achieve immunity from all prosecution.

The demeaning of women rose to such a crescendo that the usually passive women of Italy came out in the millions to protest him - just for being Berlusconi.
He would flippantly tell students, at the height of Italy’s brain drain, that to get ahead, they’d need to “marry one of my sons.” (only PYTs need apply). His bunga-bunga parties, underage harems, taped recordings, misogynistic comments and idiotic jokes…thankfully, finally garnered him his walking papers. He is far less a public figure - while Bush dumped his Texas ranch stage set, Silvio dumped his “fiancèe”. 
 
But Italians have never truly had the racial tensions that other European countries have. Italy has historically been quite a welcoming place, very Christian (and not in the American hypocritical sense of the word). They now complain they’re being overrun with immigrants (they are), but in a country with 46% youth unemployment, there are no jobs for immigrants to take away. So Silvio never quite turned up the anti-immigrant sentiment to full throttle Donald.
 

Berlusconi may have been a pit bull with his adversaries, or maybe not (he is rumored to have paid many of them off) - but he was not a bully. He was personable. He enjoyed a good joke (albeit usually on women). But by the time he was heading out the door, we were disheartened to discover that little girls were now saying they wanted to either “go into politics or become a showgirl.” In Italy, post-Silvio, they were one in the same.

People always inquire, when they find out I’m American, ‘Why do you stay here?’ But now, I think they know why. The country that to all and sundry seems like a giant movie set, with its bad guys firing automatic rifles, its music superstars, its 'can do' attitude that would make Ferris Bueller proud…has descended into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Italians, who have kept the American Dream alive for well over a century, have finally been shaken awake. From the lore of the "Uncle in America” posting dollar bills to relatives in war time, to the success stories of Grom gelato and Luxottica eyewear…This most recent election has snuffed out the pipe dreams of each and every Italian, no matter where they are and how many generations they've been there.

Elections have consequences.

What will be the lasting legacy of a cast of white supremacists and bullies making policy for an entire nation? And what will be the ripple effect (or tsunami, rather) on those of us abroad? Finally, after these less-than-perfect Obama years and the regeneration of our economy, people were optimistic. Today, as I'm stopped in the streets by my African, Middle Eastern and Bangladeshi acquaintances, even Italy’s own immigrants feel the struggle ahead is palpable. And once again, I am overcome with shame.
The writing’s on the wall.



*Coming soon: what America can learn from running elections the Italian way

Friday, November 4

Italian Fashion: Dress for Success

A woman recently posited over on Facebook:
Why do I dress 'nicely' for a quick trip to the market just to go out for some bread? I mean, I love dressing up, but really? When you just need to step out for a second? Does anyone know what I'm talking about?
Bella Figura. That's what she's talking about. 
As I state in my book, if *only* Americans took the time to get out of their pjs to go to Walmart, KFC or - heck - on a plane...Italians look good even when they're wearing faux-ripped jeans and a pair of Vans. So, they've let their guard down when it comes to honoring their dead...but, I still enjoy the whimsical scarf-wrapping which 25 years later I am still unable to replicate. A friend now living in Malta says that she used to ask an Italian neighbor to "do that thing you do" every time she went out of the house and wanted to wrap a scarf round her neck.
I saw an elder woman leaving her low income housing unit the other day. There she was, with her green loden wool skirt and matching jacket. Perfect hair and shoes to match. I stopped just to admire her as she got into a waiting car. It's the last vestiges of an age where unemployed men would don hats and berets in fine silk suits just to queue up for the unemployment line. I was watching history turn a page.


Photograph by Alexander Beyer of an Italian lady 'vestita di tutto punto" - dressed to the nines - as featured in the street fashion blog Advanced Style.
The rant continues:
I was completely casual and comfortable and about to run out of the house but then stopped myself. I knew I would get "the look" from everyone had I done so. I turned right round to put on some make up, change my shirt, slap on a blazer and cute shoes...Only because this is the norm where I live. Honestly, in LA you could wear your pajamas out and no one gives a crap. But, here... I had on jeans, a t-shirt, sweater, and ugg boots and still had to do a double take and just say No.
The outdoors of any neighborhood all look like it's gangland territory. But the people behind those graffiti-splayed walls....well, I pray they never let that go..even when just stepping out to pick up a loaf of bread. But speaking of bread, just don't get me started on the French and how they look with a golden baguette tucked ever so neatly under arm...

Wednesday, October 5

Italian Weddings: Three Weddings & a Funeral

In Italy the film went by La Sposa Cadevere
I always like to see what's in Italy's "basket of goods" pegged to track inflation in the country...the basket changes almost yearly, to make good on items going in and others out of fashion. Like say, adding SmartPhones and removing land line-type telephones. Or adding little robot vacuum cleaners instead of the famed Folletto (little elf) sold door-to- door [a necessity for sure, so Italian housewives can keep dust from gathering even under the usual 24 hours on their floors.] Announcements of the new and improved basket of goods generally makes headlines. 
And so it was, a few years back, when women woke up to the fact that not even Armani's shoulder-padded power suits of the 1980s was bringing them any closer to power...that we collectively ditched our tailleur - or fabulous-fitting work suits.
Year in / year out, I usher them from closet to closet when I change over for the seasons, another tried and true Italian tradition; Hoping beyond hope that they make a comeback lest my treasured Chanel herring bone ends up in the trash heap outside my door.
But the other day, I heard of the most uncanny of traditions - it was so amazing on so many levels, that I couldn't believe it:  
Up until not so long ago, on her wedding day, the mother-in-law to be would gift a beautiful tailleur - by Ferragamo - to the bride. Understood by all as something quite wonderful, so that she may have a one perfect outfit to wear at said mother's-in-law funeral.
My Italian friends stated emphatically that it had always been a wonderful thing to receive; after all, couples starting out would not have that kind of disposable income. So for formal events (like funerals) the young bride would always look impeccable. More recently, I have been stunned to see that this particular practice in the land of Bella Figura has more or less gone the way of Americans wearing pajamas on airplanes.
Friends were asking if it was true that Americans still wore black to funerals. I don't think so, but I do think they still don their Sunday bests. In Italy, I have seen ripped jeans and tennis shoes galore...and that was the family of the deceased.
But moving back to dear old mother-in-law, I couldn't help but think up a Saturday Night Live skit for the practice: I mean, here it is, the happiest day of your life, and La Mamma hands a giftbox to you. Marking her death. It sure gives new meaning to the You haven't lost a son you've gained a daughter platitude. The hidden message being, I want you to look good now that you've driven a spike straight through my heart. But don't worry about me...
So now that the tailleurs are no longer in fashion...and marriage is no longer as well, what's a designer - or a mother-in-law to do?  Please share your gift ideas for a mother-in-law to give to the bride...in our very own update of a basket of ungodly goods!
Sophia Loren visits the Chanel tailleur show (okay, so they're not Ferragamo)
but thanks to the blog, Come Eravamo

Friday, September 23

Italy's Fertility Day Gives Birth to Brilliance

After years of proffering their unique brand of slap-stick humor (reaching its zenith with Johnny Stecchino, Alberto Sordi and I'd say, La Messa è Finita) it took an inane piece of legislative propaganda to make an entire nation find its sarcastic funny bone. Italy's Fertility Day may not have created the bump it was aiming for, but it certainly made for a nice bump in Twitter stocks. 
Here's the best of the bunch - delineating the best uses for a woman out there -- after which I'll break down the whole insipid debacle bit by bit:


Basically, Italy's Minister of Health (headed by a woman whose closest brush with laws and healthcare was in reading the Patient Bill of Rights once in a doctor's waiting room), decided that - instead of working with her buddy over at the Ministry for the Economy to improve work conditions and markets -- they would just give women a job to do: make and raise children. 
So, Fertility Day was planned. Italians scratched their heads on the terminology used for this piece of fascist propaganda, wondering if this meant that Brexit hadn't pulled out fast enough. For everyone else who figured fertility was close to fertilità, they either went out and watered their plants, or tuned into Pope Francis to see why he issued the statement- in English.
Women soon took umbrage at the idea that they were being asked to basically, lie back and think of Italia. Infertile women, single women who would like to adopt but can't, couples wishing to use surrogates (and can't) and all the other categories of ladies-in-waiting were irate...and not only because of the hormone imbalances as they shot themselves up hoping this time they'd fall pregnant.
Italy has cut 15% in education spending. There aren't enough day cares to meet even a fraction of the demand. And wage stagnation (steady since 1992) has eaten into incomes, with many couples struggling to make ends meet; and those are the ones with two jobs. Women's work is extremely low-paid, and the only fringe benefits are for the boss.
Women who strive to get through college (over 60% of the degrees, though our Minister isn't one of them) find themselves shut out of the job market due to plain and simple discrimination, or baseless fears that in the country with the lowest birthrate on earth, they'll be putting buns in the oven one right after the other. Like China, the single child home is a feature of the Italian landscape.
Men were not considered part of the solution, although my book illustrator, Gianfalco, offered up a pretty good one himself.

click on photo for full post redirect

The commentary was endless...and most of it was sheer brilliance. Except for the (men) naysayers who chose to rant on women who spoke truth to the power of the ill-informed.


So, after backtracking on their misconceived missive, they next double downed to issue  a pamphlet on the topic of substance abuse. 

Again, the Twitterverse was on fire: Showing sparkling white good families having fun in the sun, compared with the bad things that might happen if you surround yourself with dark people of course doing dark drugs.
It appears our Minister has let go of her communications specialist at this point.
And with that newfound Italian wit of days of yore, Italians offer a terrific turn of phrase which admirably sums up the entire fiasco:  

The mamma of imbeciles is always pregnant.

Friday, August 19

Italy Road Trip - Travel Warnings

Italians have consistently thought up *everything* from oh, I don't know, the discovery of the New World, to the fax, the telephone, right up to the Google search engine, but then lost it when some clever marketeer took it up a level, declared native Americans, Indians, and just went with it. Ask Galileo. Heck even the popes were in France for a time.
If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times...Italy is seriously marketing challenged. After all, these are the folks who gave us Malpensa (ill thought) Airport and Soffass toilet paper, the likes of which always puts a smile on my face. So lately, traveling a whole lot up and down the gorgeous Italian highways criss-crossing the boot like lovely laces (which, I might add, would put any roads to shame the world over), I can't help but be perplexed by the road signs on every digital board brought to you by the Road Guys responsible for our smooth rides.
This one reads Drive Safely. But sometimes they invite you to go online (whilst commandeering your vehicle at 90mph?) to check out road conditions - which would be seriously messesd up if you took them at their word, started searching the web, and ended up rear-ending the truck ahead of you. Inevitably, you are gifted with a Fasten Your Seatbelts sign when in fact, 5km up the road there's an accident and you just blew by the only exit that would have mercifully allowed you to avoid it. But I digress.
During my umpteen years of driving around the peninsula, nearly every time I see the ANAS logo up above, I get a mini panic attack. That logo (again, at 130 km/hr) looks to me like a car on fire every time I whiz by it. In fact, it tells me there's an entire line of cars on fire in a mass brush fire, just as I plunge headlong into the upcoming tunnel.
Coming face to face with this dot matrix logo is always a good way to get the adrenaline going on long drives. But, taking a closer look (when you're home and online...not calling it up on Siri while careening a curve) and the logo isn't so bad after all.
I'm guessing that it represents Mercury's helmet speeding down the highway, but not so fast -- that block above is basically our Mercurio stumbling to a complete stop in order to pay the extortionate tolls. Or, it symbolizes the long rest he'll take at the rest stop after miscalculating on gas and a glass of water at 1pm, feeding time for the entire country. My personal favorite is that it's Mercury looking for toilet paper. 
I play this guessing game in my head just like back in the days before devices were a common feature on car trips...You had to spot the first cow / farmhouse / diner there from the back seat. 
For everyone who will be sitting in traffic on their return from the August exodus, well, count this as a marketing freebie. So, thank you ANAS for the graphics. But I'm just wondering how I'll ever come to know when a car is up in flames just around the bend.