Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy Anus to all!

Dear Readers,

When I first moved to Italy and was in the throes of learning the language, I made quite a few rookie mistakes (actually, I still make rookie mistakes, though--I like to think--with a certain amount of flair). One of which was in wishing those around me a 'Happy New Year.' Buon anno, as you can see, has an all-important double 'n' in the second word of the phrase. Italian is a lovely language, but one of slavish pronunciation--if you don't get it exactly right, you risk morphing the entire meaning.

To wit: you must absolutely and emphatically enunciate that double 'n' sound, or you are--in reality--saying "Happy Anus" (single 'n' = ano = you-know-what). So that first capo d'anno in the Bel Paese I went around wishing pretty much everyone's nether orifice well.

But, you know, after ten years here, my early malapropism seems strangely prescient. With the recent austerity measures ('austerity' being a euphemism for 'screw you'), many Italians feel they're being forced to, ahem, take it up the derrière. Nowadays, wishing someone a happy anus doesn't seem like such a bad idea after all.

Well, let's not dwell on the negative--best to face these things with a champagne flute filled with good cheer, no? So let's raise our virtual glasses and have a toast:

My very best wishes for a Happy New Year (she said)
Though it's likely we'll be buggered in the months ahead

Counting my blessings,


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lessons of via Faentina, part 4

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the fourth installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

The usual mayhem continues. Last week, while walking home from school with my children, a large panel truck--when faced with tight oncoming traffic--decided to jump the curb right alongside us without consulting his side-view mirror, nearly flattening us into American pancakes. My hearty curses rang out along via Faentina, the crossing-guard vigili down the street a-ways glanced in my direction--and did nothing.

Recently, this sign appeared on our little 33-inch sidewalk:

It says "sidewalk in disorder." Indeed. And no wonder--heavy trucks and buses routinely avail themselves of it, making it perilously pockmarked and uneven. One of these days some old Signora on her way to the pharmacy is going to stumble and wind up under the wheels of the 1A. I don't know why this sign should suddenly appear--the sidewalk has been in ruins for the ten years I've been living here. Could it have something to do with my recent letters of complaint to the City? (Ha! That's a good one). Are they covering their precious Florentine asses in case someone does, indeed, get maimed or killed? Of course, some nincompoop didn't notice that the sign itself takes up half of the already miserly sidewalk, rendering it even more pericoloso.

No one cares about how you experience your neighborhood or your city, so why should you?

The great civic apathy of this place has been one of the most difficult things for me to adjust to as an American. And it creates a vicious circle: the city doesn't give a ripe, flying fig about the daily livability concerns of its citizens, so the citizens in turn treat their city like a lawless dump--graffiti, garbage, litter, dog droppings, and vandalism are rampant. Traffic and parking laws are wilfully, routinely--even gleefully--ignored because it's quite clear it's every man, woman and child for themselves out there in the Renaissance jungle. Citizens who do voice their concerns are ignored or even denigrated. I've seen other parents expressing their anger and frustration to the vigili over traffic problems in via Faentina and the flouting of the no-vehicle ordinance for the alleyway during school drop-off and pick-up times. The vigili either nod vacantly or argue defensively. Years ago, residents of via Faentina fought to get pedestrian crossing stripes painted on the street in front of the little church of Santa Maria del Fiore a Lapo so that old ladies wouldn't be run down on their way to Mass. They created a petition calling for greater safety measures on the street and sent it to city hall--to little avail. They were granted the pedestrian crossing (which is all but ignored by speeding traffic anyway), but nothing else. 

Here are a few snaps I took this morning, on my way back from walking the kids to school. The images are far more eloquent than I could ever be in describing a neighborhood street that was never meant to bear such heavy, ferocious, two-way modern-day traffic.

The vigili were nowhere to be seen.



For more Lessons of via Faentina, click on the label below.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Priorities, Italian-style

Dear Readers,

As many of you are aware, the whole country is going to hell: we've been royally buggered by Berlusconi and we're teetering on the brink of an economic abyss; a raft of unpopular austerity measures were passed which seem designed to decimate us plebeians while the Vultures of Rome continue to gorge on our carcasses; in protest, the union bloodsuckers have launched a blitzkrieg of strikes which further cripples the peons and, of course, does nothing to ruffle the feathers of the old buzzards in charge--who, naturally, remain untouched by any discomforts caused thereby. Our parliamentarians are dancing on our (early) graves with their bloated and sacrosanct salaries (which they resolutely refuse to reduce in these belt-tightening times), expense accounts, retirement packages, etc. that rank them as the highest paid parliamentarians in Europe (but who, interestingly enough, log in the least hours of actual labor). And consider this: if these onerous onorevoli don't show up for work at all--that is, for meetings and votes and such--they're only penalized up to a paltry 30% of their government salary, meaning they still take home at least 70% of their €144,084.36 ($187, 669.36), or €100,859.06 ($131,368.56). I'd like to know of anyone else on planet Earth who gets paid a shitload for not turning up for work, while the toiling masses are being asked to suck it up for the greater good.

But meanwhile, despite all this, my inbox has been filled with emails from PTA moms regarding the never-ending merenda debate (should kids be allowed to bring mid-morning snacks? But it ruins their appetite for lunch!), and the commissione mensa. I'm talkin' long, l-o-n-g emails, emails with articles and codicils, emails drafted in the arcane language of the Constitution (aside: nearly all school district-related emails are inexplicably like this). What, exactly, is the commissione mensa, you ask? It's a volunteer squad of parents who show up at school every day to report on the quality of food served in the cafeteria. Taste-testers, in a word.

I was sent a form emblazoned with the official seal of the school district (I didn't even know our school district had an official seal) which I was to fill out and sign--with an appropriate flourish--should I wish to become a Taste-Tester. I was also sent a three-page Code of the Taste-Testers document which outlined the grave responsibilities and solemn duties of those who choose to heed the call and become one of the few, the proud, etc. And then, finally, I was sent a four-page form which the Taste-Testers must fill out upon every inspection. Ahem--four pages.

On this form, a Taste-Tester must rate the following:

--Punctuality of arrival, as the food is cooked off-site and brought in. (Because Italians, of course, care so very much about punctuality)

--Organizational aspects. (And they care equally much about being organized at all times in all things)

--Whether or not the day's menu was pleasing, and whether or not the quantity was sufficient (I'm reminded of the Woody Allen line: "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." "Yeah, I know, and such small portions")

--Does the menu served match the written menu which was sent home to parents? If not, how did it vary? (Altering the Gospel According to Paul might carry fewer repercussions)

--The flavor and quality of each course/item (that is, primo of pasta, secondo of protein, bread, side of veg and fruit) and whether or not it was rejected/wasted by the students. (Budding food critics, all)

--The cleanliness and orderliness of the table-settings, the service staff and their uniforms, and the kitchen area. (Italians are obsessed with cleanliness, except when they're being pigs)

--The staff's behavior toward the children. (They'd better be treated like the half-pint deities they are, or it's off with your head)

An ample area is provided on the form for the comments and suggestions of the Taste-Tester (one assumes an essay and critique along the lines of Ruth Reichl tackling Tavern on the Green is called for. If only political analysis in this country was as probing and cogent).

Greenjeans the Hungry Wino:
the school cafeteria rabbit and mascot

I confess to finding all this utterly hilarious. In a country suffering the economic equivalent of the Black Death (and where tax evasion and corruption are as rife as the disease-spreading, bubo-inducing flea), where the quality of political representation resembles something out of Titus Andronicus--people are deeply, profoundly concerned as to whether or not their child's penne al pesto is palatable.

But maybe these Italians have it nailed--maybe other things are more important and more relevant to the realities of everyday life. Maybe I should just quit harping, look on the bright side, eat my fill of the glorious Tuscan bounty which surrounds me, and go bury my head in the sand, too.

Sounds like a plan.



Friday, December 09, 2011

Lessons of via Faentina, part 3

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the third installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

If you've travelled much in Europe, you know that those charming old cities--with their twisting, Medieval streets and historic centers--have had to come to terms with modern life in the form of population density, traffic congestion, and pollution. Many of these European cities (think Munich) have used ingenious methods to provide cutting-edge solutions to these problems, and have demonstrated a commitment to making their cities more livable places. Their priorities are clear: rather than privilege the automobile, they instead give precedence to public transportation, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

This past January, Legambiente (an environmental/cultural watchdog group) named Florence the most polluted city in Italy among those in its survey. The picture is grim, and thus far, not much is being done to alleviate the situation. The Mayor has closed off many streets to traffic in the historic downtown, but this has only served to funnel that erstwhile congestion in other directions--creating some really dangerous traffic "corridors" out of previously peaceful cobblestone byways--and making the viali which circumnavigate the city practically boil with the overflow. The Mayor has introduced bike-sharing--but this is like putting the cart before the horse: there aren't enough bike lanes in the city to make this yet a viable option. Those bike lanes that do exist are disjointed and sporadic, often poorly marked, and typically hampered by illegally parked cars, delivery trucks and other obstacles. And because of the very real traffic problems and the speeds with which it is allowed to travel, most people view biking around Florence as a fool's undertaking.

True, there is the new Tramvia which heads out to Scandicci from the city center, and there are plans for a second line--but this is too little, too late. Florence needs more. Now.

This video, presented by La Nazione, discusses Florence's rating as the most polluted city in the country. It's in Italian, but the images are worth watching if you don't understand the language. In it, city residents talk of poor air quality, the unreliability of public transportation, and the difficulty in getting around after the Mayor's recent traffic hocus pocus. It highlights the futility of things like bike-sharing when other problems have not yet been addressed. As one man puts it, "Everyone wants to get around by car and so to me it seems absurd to then talk of pollution--it's like a dog chasing its tail, no? Let's make a decision." *

I've lived here long enough to see that via Faentina's problems are Florence's problems. Traffic issues are endemic and citywide, affecting all residents, all the time

Let's make a decision, indeed.

Yours as always,


* Anecdote: an Italian mum in the neighborhood told me that--rather than walk six minutes to the elementary school--she prefers to always drive because "there's so much pollution on via Faentina," and she doesn't want her son breathing the foul air. On behalf of the rest of us, who do walk, I was tempted to thank her.

For more Lessons of via Faentina, click on the label below.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Lessons of via Faentina, part 2

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the second installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

Having just survived another morning walk to school with my children, I thought I'd share some more images and thoughts from our daily life on the Autobahn via Faentina.

Since traffic is typically bloodthirsty, it's helpful--to say the least--when the vigili show up to help children and their parents cross the street to get to the elementary school without becoming road kill. I don't have to tell most of you that, when left to their own devices, 99.8% of Italians do not respect pedestrian crosswalks. Or any other traffic rule, for that matter. (One wonders what indeed goes on in those scuole guida).

From via Faentina, there's a small alley which leads to the school, and which is also the road leading to a busy private sports center, a scattering of residences, and eventually the via Bolognese.

Problem is, during school drop-off and pick-up, the alley is supposed to remain clear of vehicles to ensure the safety of the children. Many times we've rounded the corner here only to have a car or moped brake suddenly, missing us by mere inches, and thus adding a few more gray hairs to my head. But if the vigili are there, they sometimes keep the road free (it would be asking too much to have them consistently and vigorously uphold an ordinance)--which also helps.

There is, of course, a sign saying use of the road is forbidden during school entry and exit times, but--surprise!--it goes completely unheeded....

....unless there are vigili there willing to enforce it. What is perplexing to me--but not really, given Italian menefreghismo (roughly: I could give a shit-ism)--is that many of the cars and mopeds careering up and down this alley belong to parents dropping their kids off or picking them up from the school. On some days it's a real slalom: I struggle to keep my kids close and maneuver the alley while an outsize moped bears down on us from the front and another is revving its motor at our backs, jockeying to pass us on either side. Apparently only the safety of their own children matters to these blockheads--the rest of us can just kiss their tailpipes. And so we come to the crux of the matter: attentive vigili are desperately needed in order to ensure the safety of the schoolchildren in this neighborhood.

But most of the time, they don't show up, and we're left to fend for ourselves. For a long time, in the mornings, they'd show up after the last bell had rung (at 8:30)--after the majority of kids were already safe in their classrooms--to assist the departing adults in crossing the street, I presume. Having observed this odd phenomenon for years, I recently spoke up and said something about it (rather politely, I thought) to these uselessly tardy vigili--and was treated to the most disgraceful and wrathful abuse I've ever encountered. To hear them shout out their excuses like defensive and petulant children, you'd never guess that they were public servants--or grown-ups, for that matter. Thus in a fit of pique, I forgot for a moment what country I was in and wrote a letter of complaint to the city, and one to the director of Municipal Police--outlining my concerns over traffic problems in the neighborhood as well. Naturally, I never received a response from either.

While Italians generally adore children, as pedestrians, they, too, count for little in a city where seemingly it's every man, woman and child for themselves

In a country where babies are cooed over--even by grown men--and children and teenagers are coddled and made much of, I am always surprised at how little is done for them on the civic level--whether to ensure their public safety, provide them with free or low-cost wholesome activities (especially during the interminable summer months), or develop more school enrichment programs. But civic-mindedness is not one of Italy's strong suits.

If it were, perhaps a street scene like this would be a rarity instead of the norm.*



*Now throw in some off-leash dogs and sidewalks littered with their droppings, and the picture of civic bliss is complete.

For more Lessons of via Faentina, click on the label below.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The best revenge

Dear Readers,

I have written before about my father-in-law's penchant for peeing in the garden, here. Regrettably, this bizarre habit continues apace, and I'm seriously considering filling my kitchen window in with cement so I don't have to keep seeing that old fart unzip his trousers and spray the area like some feral hound. It seems like every time I pause to rinse my teacup at the sink and gaze thoughtfully out into the little olive grove, I get an unwanted glimpse into octogenarian hillbilly depravity.

Lately my mother-in-law--a champion of decathlon nagging, a harpy of Herculean proportions--has been persecuting the FIL even more than usual. I can hear her from my place. Honestly, in the 17 years I've known this ill-starred couple, I have never heard her say a kind word to him or speak to him in a tone of voice that was nothing less than lacerating. But the past few weeks have seen the normal floodtide of criticism swell into a tsunami, to the point where I almost feel sorry for poor, hapless FIL.

So I guess, in a way, I can understand the thing that happened.

One mid-morning not very long ago, I was at the sink and heard my father-in-law's truck pull into the courtyard. I looked up and saw him get out. The door to the in-law's lair was closed, which meant the MIL had gone on her daily pilgrimige to the Coop for her little cloth bag full of groceries. FIL plodded over to the side of the house to where my mother-in-law keeps her potted flowers and plants--which she lovingly tends (unlike her marriage)--in a long, neat row. He unzipped his pants and very carefully--and quite lavishly--urinated all over her roses.

Then he went inside the house.

"That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"--Shakespeare
Well, at least it shouldn't smell like your husband's pee


Campobello (I swear I'm not making this stuff up)