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For those not living in Italy what’s at stake in the coming election

23 Feb

For my friends not living in Italy, this weekend marks another national election. With the country mired in a seemly hopeless financial crisis, it’s an important one. And believe me, the day to day effects of the crisis in the USA and Canada pale in comparison to what people experience here. Italians are hurting.

And although it seems inconceivable to anyone outside of Italy, Berlusconi’s party is running a convincing campaign, promising to alleviate the austerity measures – like the much resented property tax increases implemented by Monte – that have in fact caused recent suffering & dissent here.

However, while the charismatic and successful entrepreneur Berlusconi was in power in the 2000s, the only countries that had worse economic growth during that period were Zimbabwe and Haiti (The Man Who Screwed an Entire Country) And of course it’s hard to believe that your prime minister has his focus on the well being of the country when his attention is captivated by “bunga bunga” parties and boasts of sleeping with 8 women in one night.

Beppe Grillo is one of the intriguing upstarts of Italian politics – a comedian who started out making jokes about politicians that increasingly started to look more like reality. Initially blocked by the mainstream media – much of it controlled by Berlusconi, Grillo has become a formidable contender in Italy by virtue of the Internet and town hall style rallies.

“You can’t ask an Italian, an entrepreneur, a family to make sacrifices when the presidency costs about 240 million euros a year. Our president earns three times as much as (U.S. President Barack Obama). An Italian ambassador earns 20,000 euros per month. Merkel earns 9,000 a month. You cannot expect sacrifices right now, because we should all make sacrifices right now or no one will.”

Full article

Sadly, there is a sense that no matter what happens in the elections, nothing will change. “Berlusconi is just another actor in the same play,” says my partner Alessandro. And I understand. What Italy desperately needs is not just new leadership but a new, innovative and creative way to look at solving its significant problems.

It’s true that Italian politicians are vast in their ranks. There are inconceivable layers of government and bureaucracy here, all of them making far more than their counterparts in the rest of the world, while salaries in other all areas – research, teaching, finance, business, etc. are a fraction of what the rest of the western world earns.

But when I comment that Italy would be healthier if it pruned away much of this over bloated government corp that seems to spend most of their time figuring out ways to entrench their power, Italians fret about the fate of the army of support staff…drivers, secretaries, etc. What would happen to the little people if the admittedly useless ranks of government were thinned out?

Many countries have restructured and reinvested funds saved from stagnant industries into development that will benefit the entire country. Italy has promising potential for solar power generation, for instance. What if former support staff of redundant government officials were retrained and deployed in a nascent solar power sector, developing Italy’s clout in alternative energy, while decreasing its energy dependence.

It’s my hope that italians will use their legendary creative genius to look toward the future instead of lamenting the lost glories of the past.


The REAL Rules You Need to Know – Driving in Italy

17 Jan

I am very fortunate that I don’t actually need to drive in Italy since I have my own dashing Italian chauffeur boyfriend. However, being a passenger has provided me with a front seat view of what drivers in Italy really need to know.  Sure, maybe that international driver’s permit will give you a sheen of legality — but these are the true moves you need to know to get you from point A to B.

1) The Wedge* – Trying to make a left hand turn onto a busy road?  Forget waiting until there is space for you to enter. What you need to do is slowly wedge your car in front of the oncoming lane on traffic.  Yield to super aggressive drivers, but otherwise keep on creeping  your nose out until you’ve essentially blocked both lanes of traffic and  have clearance to go.  People might give you “stinkeye,” but don’t feel bad – everyone does it all the time, and it’s probably the only way you’ll ever leave a driveway.

*Can also be done in reverse!

2) The Straddle – This move finds you driving for long periods of time, straddling the middle line between 2 lanes.  The purpose of this move is unclear to me, but it must be super important since everyone does it, all the time.

3) The Strategic Double Park – Why bother looking for a parking place when you can just park wherever? This move requires nerves of steel and the ability to analyze a parked car’s owner’s motives.  Are they there for the long haul or could they reappear in a moment?  This also requires an appropriately contrite or righteously indignant response depending on the demeanor and/or hotness of the person whom you’ve blocked in.

4) The Highway Reverse – Take the wrong entrance onto the highway?  No problem.  Just reverse on the shoulder and back out of it.  Italians must have learned this from Minneapolis drivers.

5) The Hands Free – How else are you going to talk on your phone and smoke at the same time?  Or convey your heartfelt feelings to your fellow drivers? Better learn to drive with your hands in the air.

6) The Robert Langdon (aka Symbologist) – So you can figure out where this:

Italian road signs

…and this:

Italy Road sign 1

Courtesy FIA Europe Bureau

…will take you.

7) The Sheep Dodge – Just because you are 15 minutes from a city boundary doesn’t mean you won’t encounter local fauna.  My advice?  Relax and take pictures!

Cell phones, compliance & conflict in Italy

12 Jan

It’s been a while friends since I wrote here. But an event last night while landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport gave me lots to ponder.

First, I fly far more than the average person.  In the last 6 months alone I’ve flown in and out of the following airports (some multiple times):

  • Rome
  • Copenhagen
  • Gothenburg
  • Almaty (Kazakhstan)
  • Istanbul
  • Lyon (which gets my vote as the most beautifully named airport – Saint Exupéry Aéroport)
  • Paris
  • Prague
  • Cannes
  • Berlin
  • Moscow
  • Kiev
  • Boston
  • Los Angeles
  • Miami
  • San Francisco
  • Amsterdam
  • Tucson
  • Seattle
  • Munich

I know a thing or 2 about airplane safety and processes, OK?  And I am pretty good about following them.

Imagine my surprise last night when, after landing in Rome and taxing for 5 minutes (well on the way to the gate), I switched on my cell phone and promptly received a call from Alessandro.  I was astonished to the hear the elegant signore — from across the plane bellowing at me, “YOU are NOT allowed to use your mobile on the plane!” I looked at him, shocked by this fantastically outraged accusation.  “We have landed and we are taxiing,” I explained; getting back to my brief conversation.  He was apoplectic, insistent and stood up in his seat to call the flight attendant (a move much more dangerous in my opinion than using the mobile 5 minutes after landing), and continued to bellow at me until, incensed, I hung up the phone and fumed.

First, the practical side:

I concede that I may be speaking from a singularly personal perspective, but in my experience Italians are remarkably cavalier about following most rules (apart from the rigid dictates of cuisine and fashion).  And “cavalier” is the perfect word to use here – in Italian, a “cavaliere” is a knight, and there is a sense of bold nobility in the way that Italians disregard the foolish rules like speed limits, queues and taxation laws.  So that an Italian would so passionately enforce an outdated rule (what was going to happen on the runway, would we crash into our gate?) to the point that he was ready to make a citizen’s arrest, was perplexing to me.

BTW which country is the most fastidioso about airline safety and perhaps safety in general?  I think we can all agree that it is the USA.  And as soon as your plane wheels touch ground, the flight attendants announce that it’s fine to turn on & use your cell phone. And in fact this is the quote from the FAA website:

“FAA guidance does let airlines allow cell phone calls once the plane has landed and is taxiing to the gate.”

Honestly, if electronics were that dangerous to a plane’s operation they would be collected and confiscated at the gate.

Now, the spiritual side:

Goodness, I realized that I extremely attached to being “right” on this issue.  As someone with a commitment to healing, energetic balance and peace, boy was I ever triggered by this.  Have you every received a full-on righteous Italian scolding?  It’s a humiliating experience that is guaranteed to get your blood boiling.  I thought of all the cleverly insulting things I could say to put this blustering bully in his place. And then fumed again that I didn’t have the guts or the wit at the time.

Really, is this me?

No, it’s not.  Why should it matter that complete stranger chooses to voice his (misguided) opinion of my behavior in front a group of complete strangers whom I’ll never see again?  I can look at his behavior as a reaction to frustrations and disappointment in his own life.  It has nothing to do with me. And yet if I were to reflect his behavior back at him in the same way would perpetuate a cycle of  brutta behavior.  One of the things I have learned to deeply appreciate  a society where people are sensitive to each other’s feelings.  And to treat people in a gentle way has a virtuous circle effect.  It’s not always easy in Rome, but I promise to commit to making each encounter in every day a little more peaceful.  Even at the post office.

How to tell if you are shopping in the Italian black market

10 Sep

The tendency of Italians to engage in shady and questionable financial practices is well known. Just recently it was reported than less than 800 Italians report an income of over a million euros. And this in a country where the tax arm of the government is actually a military division!

So how do you know if you are inadvertently taking part in an undocumented financial exchange?

Here’s a clue. Last night I took a city taxi from Rome’s Termini station, and asked for a receipt. Happy to obligate, the driver earnestly wrote out a receipt and handed it to me; with:

“Night club: 1001 lap dances”

at the top.

I kinda wish I had not insisted on an official receipt. I would have loved to see the look on my accountant’s face when I submitted a receipt for lap dances.

Ancient inspiration for a modern day environmental scourge

19 Aug

For the last week, temperatures in Rome have felt like a withering 40 C and above every day (that’s 104 F to my American friends).  In this kind of relentless heat, one has less appreciation for such celebrated fountains such as the Trevi and Four Rivers, and becomes endless grateful for the little, unnamed, under-appreciated fontanellas that dot the city. According to fellow expat-blogger Lazio Explorer, there are over 2,000 of these in Rome alone, and there’s a map to show you where they all are!

Papal water refreshment near the Vatican

Water fountain model Trent with a basic drinking fountain near the Roman Forum

Actually, although some fontanellas are purely utilitarian, many are fantastically unique and creative.  And all flow clear, cool drinking water for refreshment at any time of day.

And people – residents and visitors alike – use them; to refill water bottles, to wash fruit, to splash their faces and to give water to their dogs.  These fountains act as communal water coolers, where children play and adults interact and talk.  I have no idea how old Rome’s fountains are, but the source of their flow is its ancient aqueducts dating back over 2000 years, and many have deep depressions worn into the stone by the water flow over the centuries.

I started taking pictures just to document the wonderful range of drinking fountains in Rome and throughout Italy. But along the way, they made me start thinking about plain, boring drinking water fountains in Toronto and other cities throughout North America.  Not only are they completely uninspiring; from my own personal experience, 80% of the time the fountains in Toronto don’t work.  In fact, here’s an article in the Star validating my experience.

Regal flow near Piazza Barberini

At the same time, we have a massive crisis of water bottle waste on our hands in North America.  According to Mother Nature Network, “bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year…that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. And while the plastic used to bottle beverages is of high quality and in demand by recyclers, over 80 percent of plastic bottles are simply thrown away.” What’s more, the water in these bottles is, more often than not, just tap water.

Compounding the situation, according to Edge Outreach, is that “plastic isn’t biodegradable, it’s photodegradable. That means it’s slooooowly broken apart by photons (from sunlight) into teeny tiny little pieces that can easily absorb toxins and pollute our soil and waterways and even animals when digested. Nasty.”

Roman Fountain near Hadrian's Mausoleum

I’m not suggesting the fact that the scarcity, dysfunction and sheer boring-ness of city drinking water fountains are linked to the appalling dependency on bottled water and the alarming waste it produces.  But here’s my proposal….

What if municipalities around North America commissioned local artists to create functional and beautiful water fountains throughout their cities’ public spaces, indoor and out?

These would provide drinking water for all and add a visual meeting point to our public spaces.  Funds could be diverted from the costs to deal with the waste created by water bottles – or a tax could be placed on the sale of water bottles to fund this.  A friend informed me that in cities like Calgary, new building development is required to include an art installation – what if art installations could be functional and environmentally progressive at the same time?  Americans and Canadians would never face the fear of being caught without a refreshing drink of water, and would be less likely to keep buying new bottles over and over again.  In the meantime, a public relations campaign could coincide with the launch, further raise awareness of the issue while even driving a competition amongst cities to see whose fountains can result in the greatest decrease of bottled water sales?

What would you rather have?


One-forth of Rome's intersection of the Quattro Fontane

Or this + this?

Dried up drinking fountain at Withrow Park...image courtesy of The Star

Water bottle waste...image courtesy of Edge Outreach

Think about it.  Suggest this to your local representative.  Tell a sculptor. Steal this idea and let it flow!

In the meantime, here is a selection of groovy Italian drinking water fountains for your own inspiration!

Rustic and Teutonic in Chienes

Avante Garde in Bressanone (yes, the fountain spouts were labeled for drinking)

Modern and Chic in Verona

Veteran water fountain model Trent demonstrates how to operate and share a tricky 3-pronged flow

Insight into how to successfully follow the rules in Rome

17 Jun

This an actual, word-by-word conversation occurred when Alessandro and I were arriving in Rome’s bustling night life district of Trastevere the other evening.  This tightly packed, medieval neighbourhood presents a challenge to park a scooter; never mind a wagon.

We found a place to park after circling for 20 minutes, and noticed that on the other side of the street, 2 men were walking along the parked cars and appeared to be writing parking tickets.  Alex had a quick conversation with them, and then proceeded to park in the precious spot we had found.

As we walked away from the car….

Me: “So, weren’t those men giving parking tickets?”

Alex: “Yes, they were.”

Me: “Why?”

Alex: “Because those cars’ parking had expired.”

Me: “So, don’t we have to purchase a ticket then?” as we walked past the parking meter.

Alex: “No.”

Me: “But those other cars are getting tickets for expired parking.  Won’t we get a ticket too if we don’t even buy parking?”

Alex: “No.”

Me: “Why?”

Alex: “Because we parked on the sidewalk.”

La Mia Picola Casa

13 May

Those of you who know me in Toronto may have heard me saying some not-so-nice things about my new flat in Rome.  It is true that it’s small; and far, far away from the famous sights of the Enternal City. And Alessandro and I required a heart-to-heart to convince him to give up a fair share of his closet space (we are still negotiating on shoe space). However; returning this trip with the intention of moving in, I’ve developed a new perspective and fondness for my little oasis.  Sure, I’d still rather have a dishwasher in the kitchen than a bidet in the bathroom, but I’ve realized there are many ways in which my new home mi piace (pleases me).  Here are 8 things for a start:

1) It comes with a live-in Italian chef.

2) Sunsets from the neighborhood look like this:

3) The road I live along, Nomentana, was an important ancient Roman road that once led through the Colline Gate (Porta Collina). Porta Collina was allegedly built by # 6 of the 7 kings of Rome in about 550 BC, pre-dating the republic of Rome and centuries before the Roman Empire; and was the site of an important civil battle in 80 BC, just before the era of Julius Caesar. Although its possible that today’s road has not been widened in 2,500 years since its inception, it’s thrilling to imagine who walked along its path. There are actually ancient Roman ruins in a neighborhood park nearby, casually ignored. “Yeah, we know, MORE of these piles of stones from antiquity, yawn…” No plaque, no marking in a tour guide, they look like remnants of a guard post overlooking the countryside, protecting Rome from barbarian invaders like me.  I’ll get a picture up shortly.

4) Careening on the back of a speeding scooter swerving through traffic to get anywhere reminds me of my reckless youth in Taiwan.

5) There is a great place to hoop.  I’ve come to realize that open green space is quite rare in Rome and deeply appreciate that this is right at my doorstep.  Beyond having room to hoop, I require time in nature to calm and restore myself.  Besides, the neighbors appear to be curious, but not hostile, about the hooping antics.

6) I’m in Rome!

7) The wall of night-blooming jasmine that surrounds the building.  The fragrance precipitates an instant swoon walking in or out of the apartment, and wafts seductively up to our terrace on the 3rd floor. Mmmmmmm. All fences and walls should be made of jasmine flowers.

And #8: my love lives here: