Cycling in Italy

9 10 2008

Cycling in Italy is fun when you see the new Ferrari and the driver gives you a thumbs up

Cycling in Italy is no fun when drivers of crappy little Mercedes cars don’t see you

A Wilier like mine

A) a Wilier Triestina like mine

B) My Canada team kit

B) My Canada Olympic Team kit

I think I am noticeable with my flashy bike and cycling kit.
I tend to attract a lot of attention when I ride around town and in the country. The area where I live is one of the cycling meccas of southern Italy and there are many cycling tourists from around the world, especially in the spring, who want to chat about the local routes when we meet along the roads. Drivers will often wave from their cars as well. I have even had my picture taken by some hikers as I whizzed by.
like my Wilier, world championship Italian performance

Ferrari California: like my Wilier, world champion Italian performance

On Tuesday afternoon, I happened to come upon the road tests for the new Ferrari California. As I was pedaling home, I saw one red Ferrari after another – and not your garden variety Magnum PI models.The first driver recognized the spiritual kinship between our two examples of world-beating Italian performance engineering, slowing down on the curve to give me a thumbs up as I passed. The second driver went by at mach speed…
After all that excitement and 50 windy kms of exercise, I arrived back in town and discovered that I had become invisible. A couple of cars cut me off on the main road – one genius drove across from the other lane and parked in front of me at a 90 degree angle. Tired and irritated, I was glad to get on my quiet little street and relax for the final few metres back home…
Alas, as I coasted up to my front door, some clown in a Mercedes A-class roared down the street at full blast. There no place to hide – typical of a narrow Italian side street, there were parked cars everywhere. The car slowed down – to 30 kmh – but I was getting squeezed between the pretentious minicar and a parked Lancia. The only place to go was up.
Some gymnast like balance, honed over years of cycling, along with some choice Italian obscenities saved my skin (and attracted a crowd on the neighbouring balconies) but it was a close call. As they say, most accidents happen close to home.
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Wilier Triestina dominates Cycling World Championships

29 09 2008

New World Champion Alessandro Ballan and Silver Medallist Damiano Cunego ride Wilier bikes to Glory





Foreign Food at Lidl

26 09 2008

When you get tired of the very best Italian cuisine

Lidl -hooray!

Lidl -hooray!

Italians are convinced they have the best food in the world and, of course, they’re right. It is not always a pleasure to be told that your native cuisine is rubbish, however. On the rare occasions when I’m able to find exotic delicacies like cranberry juice, oatmeal, or baked beans, there’s always some friendly soul who comes up to me in the supermarket and wants to know what I’ve got in my cart and why I’m buying it. Often it’s the cashiers, eager to know what that mysterious product really is, or, even worse, some supercilious jerk who wants to give me extempore nutritional advice. (Sure peanut butter is fattening but I’m still a lot thinner than you amico.) You would think Italians of all people would understand the powerful emotional resonance of food.

The emergence here of ruthlessly efficient German supermarket chain Lidl has made my food based homesickness easier to bear.  This week, apart from the regular supply of baked beans, there is a special offer on Specialità britanniche, complete with all your British favourites like oatmeal, marmalade, fish & chips, corned beef, English mustard, and above all shortbread. The British food specials were preceded in July by an American Food week, featuring packages of pecans and hamburger relish.

When I got to Lidl, the pickle sauce had already disappeared but there was still enough shortbread and oatmeal there to fill my needs. Predictably, after a few seconds, a group formed around the display and asked my wife “ma perchè si compra questa roba?”

My only question is how long will it be before Lidl gets around to the fine foods of Canada: maple syrup, butter tarts, muffins, donuts, rutabaga, parsnips, oatmeal cookies, pea soup, poutine, and Kraft Dinner.





Things I like about Italy 1:

17 09 2008

The smell of the vendemmia (grape harvest)

Ciao paisani!

Ciao paesani!

If you get together a group of expatriates who live in Italy, all you will hear are complaints – complaints about the bureaucracy, the laziness, the bad driving, and even the food in this country. For a long time the main topic of discussion amongst the expats I met was the fundamental injustice of the lack of decent (ie. Heinz) baked beans around town. I am aware that this blog has not been an exception to the rule. To be fair, these are the same complaints that Italians tend to express themselves – except for the baked beans of course – but I never hear anyone talk about the pleasures of living in Italy. Sure there may be books on the subject but it doesn’t tend to arise in conversation.

Apart from all the inconveniences and dietrologia of everyday life, Italy offers remarkable aesthetic experiences – sounds, sights, and smells that you can not find anywhere else. One of the things I really enjoy every September is the hustle and bustle of the vendemmia (grape harvest). There are trucks, little Ape (the three wheeled Vespa truck shown in the picture) and trailers everywhere filled with fresh picked grapes on their way to the local cantine. The actual work of harvesting the grapes, as I recall from helping my father-in-law once, may be back breaking labour but the fragrance of the grapes as the trucks pass by on the roads is heavenly. Even when the acrid odour of diesel fumes and the increased traffic are taken into account, the grape perfume makes September the best time of the year to go cycling in the country.

Too bad I’m busy working on my final book revisions this year.





Buying Toothbrushes in Italy

6 09 2008

You can have any type as long as it’s Medium

One of the things that amuses foreign residents in Italy is the fascination of the local people with ugly big box stores and malls. As more North American style shopping centres begin to appear, even in the provinces of the south, Italian consumers have been quick to abandon those picturesque urban piazze filled with charming small shops. When a miniature version of a mall opened where I live a few months ago, with all of 20stores, entire families would come down from the mountains to gawk at the glamour and luxury of modern retailing. The German discount chain Lidl cannot open stores quick enough and there are long, disorderly queues in front of their doors every Monday and Thursday morning for the biweekly specials. The reason for all this excitement is simple: traditional Italian retailers are overpriced and arrogant.

I have just come back to Italy with a suitcase full of soft toothbrushes. Why? In the area where I live (but it seems to be a nationwide phenomenon from my brief attempts to find them elsewhere in the country) the supermarkets and pharmacies only sell medium toothbrushes. No soft toothbrushes, no hard toothbrushes, no choice.





Italian Manufacturers Move Relentlessly Upmarket

14 07 2008

The business model for Italian manufacturers has changed completely in recent years. The introduction of the Euro, the first time in history that a country has simultaneously devalued its currency and priced itself out of export markets, coincided with the emergence of China as the new workshop of the world. Ten years ago, when I moved to Italy, my brother and I used to marvel at the stylishness and sheer brio of the clothes and housewares on offer at a department store chain like UPIM. Now even iconic Italian products like Moka coffee pots and pasta makers come from overseas for the most part.

Italian manufacturers abandon mass market products

While many companies have taken the “if you can’t beat them, join them approach,” as elsewhere, a popular business strategy of Italian manufacturers is to move relentlessly upmarket. For example, Bialetti has completely redesigned its range of coffee pots to separate them from the cheap copies of their traditional products. It’s unclear, however, whether the mass-market Italian shopper is willing to pay 10 times the price of the copy for a mechanically and aesthetically superior product. Recent market data seems to suggest they are not. Indeed, many stores where I lived have stopped selling them because they are too expensive.

The famous television producer Brionvega, notwithstanding a recent bankruptcy and frequent ownership changes, has persisted in moving upmarket. Why buy a regular tv when you can get a €2150 individually numbered oggetto d’arte? With its optimistic production levels of 199 sets per product, the current management is making the high-end strategy of the previous manifestation of the company look down-market.

Save Xenon and Mirage!

Addio cari amici

Addio cari amici

In the latest example of this strategy, the famous bicycle component producer Campagnolo recently announced that it is abandonning the so-called “entry-level” market for road bike groups to concentrate on the high-end and professional markets. The step comes after the company previously abandoned the markets for city bike and mountain bike components, giving competitor Shimano a de facto monopoly in almost every sector of the business. The groups Xenon and Mirage – popular for giving a touch of Italian flair on cheaper racing bikes -are on the way out.

Instead of Xenon and Mirage, Campagnolo will introduce the Spinal Tap inspired ultra-expensive 11 speed Super Record system:

These go to eleven, it’s one faster innit?

The hope seems to be that cycling posers will pay big money for one more gear, permitting the company to make up for much lower volumes by concentrating on higher margin products. Vediamo.

 





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!