Eminflex: Italy’s Favourite Infomercial

6 07 2008

With constant tv advertising, sooner or later everyone succumbs

Expert counsellors know that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Like many people living in Italy, foreign and native, I have went through these stages in relation to the omnipresent mattress producer Eminflex. When you watch television here, never a pretty sight, it is impossible to miss the televendite (infomercials) for the company, promising extraordinary beds at bargain prices complete with fantastic accessories like pillows, sheets, bedspreads, frames, and headboards. Especially in the morning, as the following you tube video shows, it is common for almost every channel to be simultaneously devoted to celebrating the unique qualities of the company’s products and the incredible generosity of its special limited offers.

Resistance is futile

Given that Eminflex’s epic televendite tend to interrupt programs for five or ten minutes at a time, unlike conventional 30 second tv commercials, this means that local couch potatoes end up enduring several hours of bed and pillow talk every month. While the most logical response would be to turn off the set, people tend to begin to take a perverse pleasure in the sheer crassness of the shrill and repetitive advertising copy and, after a certain point, find themselves phoning the friendly operators standing by to take their orders.

Yes I have an Eminflex bed (I also have some really bad neck and back pain at the moment but that is surely just a coincidence). When we ordered our letto matrimoniale (the largest Italian bed size), the special offer was two separate luxury bed spreads of silk and cashmere that could be attached together. The various fading stars shilling for Eminflex every morning raved about the generosity of the company’s decision to give away such exclusive products with what was already the top value bed on the market. We were confused therefore to find that the only bed spreads we received along with our mattress were two very ordinary looking Chinese made polyester versions. After a quick call to customer service, where my wife was told that “everyone asks where the cashmere and silk are,” we discovered that the precious materials were hidden away inside the lining of the bed spreads

Call now!

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Don’t Complain, Just Run!

22 06 2008

Not much space or consideration for pedestrians in Italy

My brother, a noted coffee-mug connoisseur, had a cup that warned “If you don’t like the way I drive get off the sidewalk.” There’s no question that bad drivers are everywhere – it’s just that the proportion here in Italy seems to be higher; a consequence of the cult of the guida sportiva where every Panda owner tries to take the racing line into sharp curves on ancient roads. When she went to Canada for the first time, my wife was surprised at the high percentage of people who would crawl through deserted streets at a snail’s pace, respecting all the four-way stops, and even using turn signals.

In particular, crossing the street in Italy is always a challenge. The tendency of the average driver is to estimate your expected progress at the time they will pass the intersection so that the car is able to pass 4 cm to your left or right without stopping. The problems come when the driver is distracted, especially by one or more of their cellphones. I’ve seen people controlling their Mercedes with their elbows while speaking on two mobiles simultaneously.

With all the potential perils, I tend to be very assertive when riding my bike or crossing the street: a loud “attenzione” tends to wake up the inattentive conducente. However, such an approach seems to have its dangers. The newspaper La Repubblica is reporting this morning that a pedestrian who complained about an aggressive manuever by a driver on the outskirts of Milan was grabbed by the occupants of the Audi, carried away in the car, and beaten with a baseball bat. The lesson seems to be that if they don’t hit you, just be thankful.





When in Genoa, Bring your Baby Supplies from Home

8 06 2008

Travel Heavy

One of the constants in our marriage has been excess baggage. As we departed on our honeymoon, I discovered that two extra-large suitcases jam-packed with designer apparel, shoes, handbags, and jewelery were travelling along with us. My new wife was determined to act as an “ambasciatrice della moda italiana.” Notwithstanding her commitment to such a patriotic duty, we added new luggage filled with emergency fashions from Gallerie Lafayette after Alitalia temporarily lost everything on the way to Paris.

When we started to go on short trips with our new daughter, prepared for every eventuality, the proliferation of suitcases began to spiral out of control. Nonetheless, I resolved to travel light on our recent weekend break in Genoa. Our daughter is older, more mobile, and (almost) toilet trained – I argued – making it unnecessary to carry everything around. Anyways, there’s a food store every 15 metres in Italy so we could buy any urgent supplies for baby right there in Genoa – or so I thought.

My discovery that there are no children in Genoa started, ironically enough, on the morning that we were supposed to go to the Città dei bambini, a science discovery centre for small children. Determined to do a bit of shopping for myself, I went early to see the Olmo Bicycles factory store and some local bookshops whilst Mamma and figlia had a relaxed breakfast. I promised to get another package of diapers for nighttime and some of the Mio baby yogurt that my daughter craves in the mornings. No problem, I thought, there’s a big supermarket right near the hotel.

When I finally entered the supermarket, on my way back, I couldn’t find anything for small children. I wandered around the aisles confused as both my cellphones began to ring. It was time for daddy to come back so we could all go out together. I pleaded with one of the staff for help – surely there must be a section for baby supplies that I was overlooking. He directed me to a solitary shelf with some Pampers for newborns and two or three tins of infant formula.

“What about size 5 diapers, baby cookies, and Mio yogurt,” I asked naively.

“We don’t stock them here.” Then, turning to the curious locals who were keen to overhear everything, he decided to make a political statement: “What kind of a father comes all the way from New York without any baby supplies?”

This angered me. “Aren’t there any parents here? Don’t children eat yogurt here? What’s the story, are you all impotent in Genoa?”

No one denied it. Indeed, as I frantically ran around to the other food stores, the result was the same – nothing. I had to return to the hotel empty handed.

Genoa: not exactly the città dei bambini

On our way to the Città dei bambini, unconvinced by my account of the local shopping scene, my wife decided to take things in hand. She finally found the diapers after pleading with a clerk to rummage through the back room of the supermarket at the ferry terminal.

Now we are preparing for a trip to Canada this summer. My wife is threatening to depart with a suitcase full of bottled water just in case.

“But Canada has the most water in the world,” I say.

Si, si come Genova. Adesso ci penso io!





More Shakespeare Authorship Silliness

5 05 2008

Ex-director of Globe Theatre doesn’t believe in Bill

Mark Rylance signing the so-called Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.

A side effect of the ingrained cultural tradition of praising the unique greatness of Shakespeare is the question of the “real” authorship of the plays attributed to the bard. The idea is that, if the literary and intellectual qualities of the plays are so far beyond that of any dramatist before or since, someone much more sophisticated than a mere actor from the provinces must have written them. The element of snobbery in this debate has always been blatantly obvious. Hence, even before the proliferation of misinformation brought by the internet, there have always been efforts to promote the authorial claims of various court figures and aristocrats like Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Lady Mary Sidney, James I, Michelangelo Crollalanza, and – why not – Lord Peter Wimsey or Yvette Mimieux.

The authorship question is in the news at the moment because Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of the Globe Amusement Park and Ye Olde Gift Shoppe in London, has recently made apparent his own scepticism about the Shakespeare myth. In a recent feature in The New Yorker, to promote his appearance on Broadway in the classic tragicomedy Boeing-Boeing, we discover that “He thinks now that Shakespeare was likely a front for a small band of writers, perhaps headed by Francis Bacon, which included, among others, Lady Mary Sidney.” Indeed, he claims that his challenge to received ideas, along with his opposition to the Iraq war (a political stance unique in theatrical and academic circles), made his position at the ersatz theatre untenable and obliged him to resign.

What’s so special about Bill anyway?

Of course, if Shakespeare was seen as just another dramatist, we wouldn’t feel obliged to come up with elaborate explanations for his presumed greatness. In working on the representation of Italy in early modern drama, I have come across the authorship question a lot because many people seem to think that Shakespeare’s plays display a distinctive knowledge of the literature, history, and geography of the peninsula – a knowledge that only a widely travelled aristocrat or renowned period intellectual could have attained. Even among professional scholars who would feel embarrassed spouting crackpot historical conspiracy theories, we get grandiose claims about how Shakespeare must have visited Italy and spent an extensive amount of time in Venice in particular. However, it is worth remembering that we are talking the dramatist behind The Tempest, a play which depicts the landlocked city of Milan as a seaport (I have seen Italian productions of the play that silently changed the locale to Genoa to avoid inappropriate laughter in the stalls). What comes to the fore in looking at Shakespeare in the context of early modern drama as a whole, as I will do in my forthcoming book Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the Jacobean Stage, is that everyone in the theatre was writing about Italy – and, for the most part, they were doing it by cribbing from books readily available in England.





Italian Tax Returns Online (briefly)

1 05 2008

State Privacy Official Ruins the Fun for Gossips and the Curious

Don’t put down anything

you wouldn’t want your neighbours to see

In a move that the outgoing Italian vice-finance minister Vincenzo Visco described as “an act of transparency, of democracy, similar to what happens elsewhere in the world,” the country’s tax office placed the names, addresses, birthdates, and above all incomes of everyone who filed a tax return in 2005. With obvious concerns about privacy and identity theft, underlined by the rapidity with which millions of curiosi caused the website to crash, the national Garante per la Privacy Francesco Pizzetti intervened to block the circulation of such confidential information. Indeed, despite Visco’s declarations, it soon became clear that there was no precedent for making tax records public in other Western countries like the US and Britain. Representatives of the incoming center-right government declared that it was a vendetta against the nation inspired by the loss of Visco’s party in the recent elections.

Before the plug was pulled, the financial records of many Italian public figures were recorded for posterity and are being openly cited by the international press. The domestic press has hastened to take their league tables of VIP earnings offline but the details of the biggest names are still available on numerous blogs and gossip sites. For the nation’s wealthy, as represented by blogosphere icon Beppe Grillo, the release of such information threatens to expose them to the attention of kidnappers and organized crime. Nonetheless, as tax police Colonel Umberto Rapetto put it, the criminal classes “probably know very well that Italian tax returns do not reveal the real wealth of taxpayers, given the high percentage of evasion.”

“Now I know why Enzo still drives that 15 year old Fiat Duna”

Despite all the remaining details about vips, gossips with more local concerns have been left frustrated by all the problems accessing the site before it went down forever. It is all very well finding out about tv stars, footballers, and fashion designers, but what people really want to know (as many conversations I overheard at a bar this afternoon made clear) is what their neighbours, colleagues, and relatives earned (or at least declared) in 2005. Thanks to the outlaws of peer to peer file sharing, the people who brought you mp3 music files and pre-release Hollywood blockbusters, the Italian press is reporting that downloaded copies of local and regional tax records have already started to circulate online.

Just don’t look at mine.





Messina: The Forgotten Home of Shakespeare

21 04 2008

Tourist trap

What does Verona have that Messina doesn’t?

A fake balcony and lots of tourists

What does Stratford Upon Avon have that Messina doesn’t?

A fake house and lots of tourists

When Kenneth Branagh filmed his film version of Much Ado About Nothing in a romanticized version of Tuscany, rather than the Messina chosen by Shakespeare, he deprived the Sicilian city of yet another chance for it to cash in on its association with the bard. Verona has long shown that Shakespeare can be a powerful stimulus for tourism – especially when it is associated with starcrossed lovers and the literary pretensions of would be visitors. The northern Italian city is the profitable home of the Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s house), complete with a photo opportunity balcony added in the 1930s. For although it is hard to match the romantic appeal of Romeo and Juliet in the Shakespeare canon, surely the much perkier Messinese story of Beatrice and Benedick must come close – and, to be certain, it is much more popular than The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

There are some balconies and houses in Messina just waiting for historical significance

Indeed, there is a theory that Shakespeare was actually from Messina. The story goes that young Sicilian nobleman Michelangelo Crollalanza (Italian for shake spear) emigrated from Messina, found his way into the emerging Elizabethan theatre, and secured an English outlet for his writing by marrying a brilliant translator by the name of Anne Hathaway. Apart from the Messina connection, it is appealing to think that Mrs Shakespeare may actually be responsible for the language of the plays.

A bit of initiative from the Messina city council and a random old looking building nominated as Shakespeare’s ancestral home could change the Bard tourism biz for ever. Why go to dingy Stratford Upon Avon and eat putrid bangers on mash, when you can bask in the Sicilian sun, enjoy great pizza and pasta, and see an equally authentic Shakespearean residence? The enterprising Veronesi and Stratfordians would have done it years ago.





A Very Quiet Election

15 04 2008

Italians Vote for a Change,

but without much expectation of getting it

Decidi tu 2008 / You decide 2008

I was looking forward to enjoying my opportunity to vote in an Italian election for the first time. With memories of the hectic campaigning of the past, when every surface of the city would be covered in posters, mailboxes would be stuffed with flyers and you could not walk down the street without being assailed by passionate pleas for support from the candidates and their surrogates, I expected to spend a lot of time engaged in heated political debates before making an informed decision that would determine the fate of the entire nation. Yet the only electoral discussion I had this time around, when I could really make a difference, was about the inadvisability of bringing a videophone into the voting booth.

The anti-videophone measures were in place, complete with hefty fines for the unwary, to ensure that people engaging in voti di scambio (vote buying) did not take advantage of the latest technology to provide a live feed of their unscrupulous electoral choices. No such illicit activities were detected during my visit to the polling station on Monday. Apart from the electoral officials enjoying a picnic lunch alongside the ballot boxes, complete with an excellent selection of local wine, cheese, and particularly enticing pastries, I was the only member of the public there.

Despite the obvious importance of this election, coming at a time when Italy is undergoing a severe economic crisis accompanied by rampant inflation, what struck me is how little effort any of the parties made to gather votes. No candidate or political activist tried to speak with me – let alone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Over the course of the campaign I collected a grand total of 3 leaflets for specific candidates – 2 tucked under the windshield wipers of my Fiat and 1 from the counter of a bar. I saw few posters and didn’t notice any ads on tv. Indeed, it would have been easy to forget there was a national election going on at all.