The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Ciao Readers!

Today I delve a bit into cultural differences (though hopefully in a humorous and entertaining way).  While the title is meant to grab your attention, I’ll try and be a little less judgmental as I explore the things I appreciate about living in Italy as well as the “things I have yet learned to appreciate.”   As one commenter has pointed out, people in other cultures have been doing just fine for millennia – it’s our own perspective from a different culture that creates our discomfort.  So, when you hear my surprise/dismay (usually indicated by “seriously!?!!?!?”), please understand, as I do, that this is just one person’s attempt to understand a culture not her own.  (However, it is my blog, so enough with the disclaimers already!)   Onward.

THINGS I APPRECIATE ABOUT LIVING IN ITALY

  • Of course, the food (the Italian food) and the art (which are both fabulous and really big deals here).
  • The fact that I can walk the streets by myself at night and feel safe.  This is pretty darn cool.
  • My health card.  This is truly amazing – I’m an immigrant without a job and yet I have this nifty little card that entitles me to free/cheap health care.  I haven’t used it yet, so I can’t speak to the quality/wait times, but I can say that compared to the 450$+/month we were paying for employer-subsidized health insurance back in the States (not to mention the very high co-pays) it’s pretty darn civilized.
  • The fact that prices are what prices are.  For example, when I signed up for the basic 19 euro cable package I just naturally assumed that (like in the States) with the added inexplicable fees and taxes we would be paying about 31 – 33 euros/month.  Nope, every month I am equally surprised to see exactly 19 euros on the bill.  Not sure if it’s just Italy, or perhaps part of the Euro Zone strict financial laws, but I like it!
  • Not having to tip.  Almost everywhere we eat here we’re served by the mom & pop owners themselves, or, if there are employees, waiting is their real job for which they are paid a minimum wage.  Now I know your guide books may encourage you to at least round-up and leave the change, and maybe that’s expected in touristy places, but I promise you, I have never seen an Italian leave a tip and if you try to leave one they will yell at you (a habit I have adopted when dining with visiting Americans).  The only tips I have ever seen here are left by American tourists.  Which brings me back to my previous point – as long as you pay attention to whether there is a “coperto” (cover charge) listed on the menu (usually 1.50 – 2.50 euros per person), then you will know exactly how much your meal will cost as there is no adding tax and tip (exception being super touristy places like Venice where there may also be a “service charge,” though always listed in the menu).
  • Not waking up to news about another local or national shooting.  Since we’ve been living in Florence I haven’t heard of a single murder occurring here (In Albuquerque it is statistically a weekly occurrence).  There was apparently a murder of two African immigrants in 2011, but overall violent crime here is rare.  It’s hard to get exact numbers, but Italy has at most 1/7th the violent crime of the States.
  • The festivities.  It really is a treat to be able to walk out your front door and happen upon a street market, festival, musical performance and more just about any weekend year-round (and some weekdays as well).  I do believe the festivities (and the food and art) are what keep people (mostly) non-violent amidst the things in my next list….

THINGS I HAVE YET LEARNED TO APPRECIATE

  • To quote the Grinch – “All the NOISE NOISE NOISE NOISE.”  Seriously – people here are loud.  They yell.  And they honk.  And not the little quick tap of the horn to get someone’s attention, I mean the loud, incessant, you’d-be-too-embarrassed-to-honk-that-way-back-in-the-States (or too scared of starting a road rage incident) honk.  My latest theory is that all the honking and yelling is folks’ way of releasing pressure (as everyone seems friendly and happy a minute later), and when combined with the festivities, explains why the violent crime rate is so low.
  • The inefficiency of offices (post, government, bank, etc.).  You usually have to wait between 30 – 90 minutes to accomplish most things (much more for big tasks like immigration – I have heard stories from folks who waited 7 hours at that office), due to the fact that everything is run like a mom-and-pop operation without any thought for efficiency and other folks’ time.  For example – if it’s someone’s turn at the post office and they are trying to send mail in some special way, there will be 3 forms to fill out, but instead of having them stand off to the side while they do this, the worker will have them remain there at the window the entire time (I once clocked one person at a post office window for 25 minutes).  I suppose it would be too complicated to let the next person come up because then the “take a number” system will get out of whack – but seriously?!?!?!  Of course, when it is finally your turn, you will get to spend as much time as you need accomplishing your task, which may help deescalate all the “ARG” you’ve been building up watching those before you.
  • The fact that I have to be careful not to get run-over on the sidewalk!  I have seriously almost been hit by a car several times as I walked down the sidewalk, never mind the number of times by motorini.  This goes back to my “Sure, Park There” blog post where I shared that just about anywhere is fair game for parking here.  I can’t tell you how many mornings there’s been a car literally parked in the middle of the running trail (which is several feet off the street).   Trying not to get run-over crossing the street is a whole other level of challenge (think “Frogger”), though we’ve learned the secret – people here are very gracious to folks with baby strollers – if you cross the street with one you’ll likely make it to the other side unscathed.
  • And speaking of the sidewalk – the fact that there is dog poop all over it!  It really cuts down on my ability to appreciate the beautiful architecture as, should you take your eyes off the ground for a minute, you will surely step in it.  Between the dog poop, the traffic, and the fact that folks just stop suddenly and chat on the sidewalk, a leisurely “stroll” feels more like an obstacle course test for some very demanding military assignment.
  • Smoking.  I honestly don’t know why everyone here doesn’t just keel over from lung cancer.  Smoking here is so prevalent (though not quite as much as in Japan).  You can’t walk down the street without inhaling second-hand smoke (add that to your obstacle course), and even your own home will eventually succumb due to all your neighbors who smoke, including in the hallways.  Maybe pasta and wine counteract nicotine and tar….

So, that, dear Readers are a few of my (admittedly) ethnocentric thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly about living in Italy.  I have left out many things from both lists, so will look forward to sharing those in the future!

N.b. – after rereading this post about a week after I wrote it, something struck me as interesting that I hadn’t realized at the time…it seems many of the things I appreciate are huge (healthcare, lack of violence), and the things that drive me nuts are small (noise, smoking)….so you would think that the big good things would “make up” for the small annoying ones, but it doesn’t feel that way….hmmmm…….

Happy Holidays from Florence

Ciao Readers!  And HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!

The holiday season is upon us.  Here in Florence that means sparkling lights strung over all the main streets, Christmas markets, strolling musicians and Babbo Natales, and dogs decked out in their holiday attire.  Surprisingly, it doesn’t mean that shops are any more crowded than usual (if anything less so because the tourists have thinned out).  I have to say, it is a much less commercialized version than the one we’re used to back in the States.  It makes the season feel more festive and enjoyable (objectively, putting aside homesickness).  (Of course, you would have no idea it was also Hanukkah here, unless you ventured to the only synagogue in town [pictured in last row].)

The holiday season also means that here in Florence many things will be closed for the winter break (Steve gets 3 full weeks off – yay!), and that back in the States many of you will be away from work for a bit (though likely not 3 full weeks).  This also means that if I keep posting at my usual rate, your inbox will be flooded upon your return and some posts may go unseen.  So, in honor of everyone’s holidays and work breaks, I’ll be taking a short holiday hiatus and will return in January.  Since we have train tickets to Venice and Lucca over the break, rest assured there will be fun and photo-filled posts come the new year.

In the meantime, whatever your holidays and celebrations, I hope they are warm, peaceful and joy-filled!  HAPPY EVERYTHING!  Signing off with some festive scenes from around town, enjoy!:

duomo

A Tour of Palazzo Vecchio

Ciao Readers!

Today I am going to try my hand at being your tour guide.  Since I figure you can read the plain ‘ol facts about historical sights anywhere, I have my own approach.  This past Tuesday I went on a tour of Palazzo Vecchio with a group from my school – one of our teachers is a very knowledgeable guide and gives us great insights to the places we visit (all in Italian, of course).  The following is a sampling (based on my understanding of what I learned), with my own personal spin and additions.  Since I only get about 80% of what the teacher explains, I have checked to make sure I am not totally making anything up out of left field.  Fortunately, photos are allowed in the palace (though without flash, so excuse the lighting).  Enjoy your tour…

Row 1:

As you approach Palazzo Vecchio, you can’t help but notice the huge Neptuno fountain just to its left (an allegory for Florence’s dominion over the sea).  Now, this statue was supposed to be all that and a bag of chips when it was commissioned for a Medici wedding in 1563 (and the face of Neptune is in fact Cosimo I).  However, unlike myself, who thinks the fountain is pretty darn cool, apparently the Florentines at the time thought it was a monstrosity and called it  “Il Biancone” (the white giant).  Different strokes…

Looking at Palazzo Vecchio you see where Michelangelo’s David used to stand (and where a replica now stands).  There is also a replica of Hercules and Cacus by Bandinelli (symbolizing power [and?]).  While the original statues date from the 1500’s, the Palazzo was begun at the very end of the 13th century and was the seat of government and community affairs in Florence.  (You can still go there to wait in lines for official business to this day!).  Apparently when it was built, it was more practical – for instance, notice how small the windows on the bottom level are – it was built for protection, not beauty.  However, after the Medici family moved in during the Renaissance, they went about enlarging it, decorating it, and basically taking over.  Through this time it didn’t have a fancy name – just the town hall.  It became “Palazzo Vecchio,”  not because it’s really old (which it is now), but because the Medici decided to move down the road to Palazzo Pitti as their new home (thus this became their old “vecchio” one).

Row 2:

The inside of the palace is insanely ornate.  Check out the detail on a single column in the entryway, the main room and a small part of the ceiling in that room.  As with most everything in the palace today, these things were added by the Medici during the Renaissance.

Row 3:

You may notice that one wall does not look pretty at all – it is covered by some industrial-looking tarp.  Well, this is one of the more interesting things in this room – it may – or may not – contain a missing DaVinci painting!  As the story goes, Leonardo was commissioned in 1503 to paint one long wall with a battle scene celebrating a famous Florentine victory. Depending on what version you read, the painting (“The Battle of Anghiari”) was either accidentally destroyed or purposefully painted over.  In any case, National Geographic has undertaken a project to try and discover this lost masterpiece.  Another cool thing in this room is a Michelangelo statue “Genius of Victory” (1533–1534) – from what I gathered, Michelangelo wasn’t very found of working on this statute and it was actually a nephew who decided to give it to the Medici family as a present.  If you notice the bottom figure, it is unfinished – it looks very similar to the “prisoners” at L’Accademia (but you’re not allowed to take pictures there, so here’s the closest peek you get).  Michelangelo believed the sculptures were already inside the stone and his job was to “free” them – so once they were “free” he didn’t always feel compelled to finish them.

Row 3/4:

Now we’re upstairs in some of the private chambers.  The next 4 photos are from the room of Lorenzo the Magnificent and represent “grotesques” (and my favorite art in the palace – you know how I love weird old art!).  Okay, what I understood my teacher to say (I was taking notes) was that either the owner (or the artist?) was playing ball as a kid and fell (in a well?) and hit his head and had weird dreams, and these pictures represent the things he dreamed.  Since I was pretty sure I didn’t get that quite right I have done some actual research and this is what I found out (I got it about 60% right): In the 15th century, a young Roman fell into a hole and found himself in a cave with walls covered with weird frescoes (the “cave” was actually a room in an unfinished palace complex started by Nero in AD 64), inspiring him and many artists to follow to paint in this very fanciful style, baptized “grotesque.”  (I think the secondary lesson here is that while my Italian can be trusted with minor tasks, do not rely on it for matters of life-or-death!).

Row 5:

In this last set of photos, we have one wall (“water”) in the room of the 4 elements.  Apparently this room was decorated on each side with an allegory for the 4 elements (fire, wind, water, air) because by working in this room the powers of the elements were harnessed and it increased your mojo.  And if you’re asking “hmm….did the artist ‘borrow’ the ‘Birth of Venus’ idea form Botticelli?’ the answer is “yes.”  There is also a beautiful old courtroom with a clear shot of the Duomo through a window behind where the judges sat.  If I understood my teacher correctly, this was done purposefully to keep the head of the state mindful of the head of the church, but I haven’t been able to verify this anywhere (in any case, it makes for a cool view).  Finally, there’s a shot of the Medici map room – an entire room filled of maps of the world – all impressively drawn by hand and from travelers’ recollections back in the 15oo’s!  (While they are amazingly accurate for their time, I would not set sail by them today.)

So there we have my first official “tour” of Florence.  I hope you have enjoyed the view and maybe learned something (and that most of it is accurate!).  Thanks for coming along!

Fast Food, Italian Style

Ciao Readers!

I think now that ferie is over and delectable things to eat are popping up all over town, I will stick with the food theme for a bit.

For the past 2.5 weeks we have peered in the empty window of  the neighborhood “Rosticceria,”  anxiously awaiting their return from ferie on Tuesday, August 28.  In way of explanation of our waiting-with-baited-breath: 1) this particular rosticceria is directly below our apartment on the ground floor of our building (can you say convenient?!) and 2) a rosticceria is Italy’s gourmet answer to fast-food.  Rosticceria have all kinds of prepared foods – from salads to pastas, to a wide variety of fried foods, to meats slow roasted on an open grill – most of which are cooked on the premises.  This is the go-to place for busy people without time (or people without the space) to cook.  The quality of course varies, and we had no idea what to expect from the humble/empty looking space downstairs.  And then it began…

Early Tuesday morning we could swear we smelled someone already cooking…and we had… And boy, did it smell good….  Now, according to one of the proprietors, the selection we saw today (Tuesday) was nothing, because it was their first day back from ferie and they are just getting up and running.  To give you some idea of what “nothing” consisted of – they were roasting whole chickens on a spit, there were all sorts of pasta dishes, including a rich and scrumptious-looking lasagna, and there were several different salads (veggies, cous cous, and more).  Those were a few of the things we did not try today.  The things we did try included a delicate fish filet that was divine (poached in oil I think), roast beef that was perfectly rare, oven roasted seasoned tomatoes and savory cooked (but still dark green and al dente) spinach.  Admittedly, we ordered in Italian-sized portions (1 “etto” of each – 100 grams or about 4 o.z.), but this entire spread was only 12 euros.  I had earlier picked up a loaf of fresh-baked bread (didn’t know they also sell that [though I suspect they get that from a bakery]) and we had the most fabulous lunch!   Now, I was trying to make a good impression on these folks (who I am guessing we’re going to get to know well over time), so I suppressed the urge to photograph.  However, I think by the third or fourth time we go back this week, it should be okay…

So, today I returned downstairs and had a nice conversation with the proprietor.  I told him (in my baby-Italian) that I could smell the food cooking in my sleep (this morning we could smell roasting onions, and sure enough, there were whole roasted onions today).  I went on about how delicious everything was and he commented about how hot it must be on the top floor of the building (and as you know, it is; and, in case you are wondering, no – the a/c repair men still have not come).  I asked for a suggestion of something new to try today and ended up with a delicious piece of spinach-ricotta pie (think spanikopita) and some sauteed broccoli-cauliflower mix.  By now I felt comfortable enough asking if I could take a few photos, which I did.   Enjoy them, and your weekend!  Ciao!

Easter (and Passover?) in Italy

Today is Easter (Pasqua) here in Italy.  There has been quite the build-up over the past few weeks – people shopping for food, churches giving out palm fronds on Palm Sunday and beautiful windows filled with giant chocolate, prize-filled Easter eggs.

On the other hand, I am pretty sure that no one here other than me (and the couple from NY) had any idea it was Passover or even what Passover is.  One day at school we were discussing “our” Easter traditions.  When it came to my turn I explained (as best I could, with the help of the teacher) Passover – to a completely perplexed looking group.  I was surprised that with all their worldliness (amazing how much they know at age 20!), the young women from Budapest and Latvia, and the young man from Austria had NO idea what I was talking about!  Anyway, in a nutshell, the teacher and I explained “le dieci piaghe d’Egitto” (the ten plagues of Egypt, as it is called) as best we could, and I suggested they get online and watch The Ten Commandments to figure it out (which Steve said he watched last night without me, but it was no fun to heckle cause I wasn’t there – usually saying “shhhhh,” because even after 45 years I still love that movie!).

In any case, I was a bit jealous of all the beautiful chocolate Easter eggs (from what I gathered from Italian tv commercials, kids put a real egg next to their bed at night and in the morning it becomes a giant chocolate one filled with surprises!) Low and behold, the place I am staying gave me my own egg earlier today!  Below….

Sundays in the Park

Every town in Italy (and in Europe from what I’ve seen) has these wonderful parks… The park is beautiful, for sure (I forgot what the color GREEN looks like!), but is so much more…

The park is the gathering place for friends and family, old men playing games, couples smooching on benches, friends sharing a coffee at the park cafe, and diversions of every kind.  I have gone to the park on several Sundays and have admired the life therein from afar – sometimes venturing to take a jog, but not wanting to sit at the little cafes alone.  I can’t wait until Steve and I are here together and we can walk to the park and sit at one of the little tables with flowers and have a cappuccino (only before noon) and people watch.

Here are a few shots from earlier today – Spring is here and the flowers are blooming, the performers are performing and there are little horses for children to ride…  Oh, and the occasional “Bella” from an Italian passerby doesn’t hurt either…

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