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.

Advertisements




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!





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!





Maniac Bus Driver

22 05 2008

On the last bus home no one can hear you scream

Night Bus - the film

“Why don’t buses have seatbelts?” the former American comedian Arsenio Hall asked rhetorically. His answer was simple: “if you’re riding a bus, your life isn’t worth anything”.

I hate taking the bus – it’s crowded, bumpy, and here the locals have a visceral hatred for any form of ventilation. The minute the feeble air conditioning goes on, people start running up to the driver to demand that it be turned off. Now that summer is coming it’s like riding in an old running shoe.

The standard demoralizing experience gets worse when I end up taking the last bus home. You have to be at one of the main stops because, in a frantic rush to finish their shift, the drivers have a predilection for ignoring those pesky passengers wherever possible along the less brightly lit points of the route. You have to pick your seat carefully: too close to the front and you’re listening to the bus driver’s selection of 70’s Italian pop favourites for the next 2 hours – too far to the back and you feel the wheels bouncing up and down as the driver tries to reach warp speed.

Tonight, after an endless day at work, I had the bus trip from hell. Things started off predictably: the bus lurched forwards, accelerated out of the piazza, and began to sway back and forth as we took the curves at excess speed. Bags flew out of the racks above, purses rolled down the aisle, tired commuters ended up sprawled in contorted shapes – everything seemed normal. But our driver was in a real hurry this time.

After the first stop in a small town halfway along the route we were almost an hour ahead of schedule and the driver decided to press his luck. The bus plowed through the medieval streets of the town, sparks flying as it grazed parked cars on its way back to the highway.

Then we heard a bump. And how that bump made us jump! After passing along on the sidewalk – in the driver’s pursuit of the racing line for a particularly sharp curve – the rear end of the bus smashed into a balcony of a house. We all ran to the back window and saw a big chunk of bus roof lying in the centre of the road, surrounded by fragments of masonry and iron railing.

After checking the situation the driver set off, slightly chastened, at a more moderate speed and began to follow the route back to the highway. Then things got stranger.

When we were almost at the on ramp, he swung the bus around and began to retrace his route at high speed. Nobody said anything – people just looked at each other and moved their hands in signs of despair – until we came to the fateful curve for the second time. At this point, one of the passengers demanded an early release.

The rest of our ride home went smoothly but I have had it with public transport. Let Al Gore and Sting give up their private jets and take my seat on the bus, I’m driving the car to work tomorrow.