Mission Statement

So there is no misunderstanding, this blog isn't just another ex-pat site full of information and miscellaneous advice (unless you consider learning through my mistakes and observations a type of advice). My vision for this blog is to let people in on the truth of what it means to live in this crazy and lovable country. If you want to continue glorifying and romanticizing Italy, then some of what I have to say may be hard for you to hear. Consider yourself warned.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The English Student

     Here in Italy I have, through no particular effort on my part but merely thanks to my upbringing, a highly sought after and marketable skill. I speak English as a first language. That's why, after much deliberation, I recently joined the rank and file of so many other English speaking expatriates before me and became an English tutor.

      To be honest, I had been resisting this for quite some time due to my own feelings of inadequacy in being able to articulately explain the subtlety and nuances of English grammar, having spent only several brief months of my 18 year academic career actually studying it. Compare this to the average Italian curriculum, which includes grammar consistently up through middle school, and I couldn't help but to imagine the daily humiliation of student after student asking me to explain the past perfect, the present continuous, the gerund, etc. In the end the need for an income eventually outweighed my insecurities and caused me to bite the proverbial bullet. So now, with a little over a month of tutoring under my belt, as well as several years of Italian life to accompany it, I would like to share a few of my thoughts, observations, and experiences with regards to our language.

1. First of all, in non-English speaking countries there is a constant differentiation between British English and American English. This has, I believe, led to a degree of confusion amongst some and in my having to explain on more than several occasions that it is the SAME LANGUAGE with the same basic grammar and sentence structure. Only the accent is different. When given the opportunity I make sure to set people straight, but this distinction is perpetuated even in language schools where they often offer classes in both Inglese and Inglese Americano. The first time I saw this I was perplexed. I mean does someone really need an entirely different course in order to learn that in England they say “underground” instead of “subway” and “rucksack” instead of “backpack”? I personally think not. And even if someone has a preference for one accent over another, whether their teacher speaks with an English accent or an American accent, the chances are that they will regardless be speaking with an Italian accent. That being said, after several years of a futile crusade, I have lost my drive to correct people when they say that I speak Americano instead of Inglese. The one thing in which I hold my ground is that I refuse to speak with an English accent just because that's what someone is already used to hearing. And yes, I have gotten that request.

2. Whether you speak with an English accent, American accent, or Italian accent, spelling is something to be tackled. So all you English speakers out there, have you ever stopped to realize that the Spelling Bee is a phenomenon of the English language?... Well, now that you have, do you know why?... Here's why. Because languages like Italian have easily followed rules regarding spelling and its relationship to pronunciation whereas English is basically a free for all. When I took an intensive Italian class a few years ago and happened to ask how a certain word was written (the verb “to spell” doesn't exist) I got a very strange look from the teacher who simply repeated the word for me, but a little more slowly. That's because in Italian, even if you've never heard a particular word before, you should still know how to spell it based on the unchanging rules of pronunciation. This is so very very not so in English where words may be spelled differently but pronounced the same (ex. bare and bear), spelled the same but pronounced differently (ex. wind and wind), and possibly worst of all, straight out written in two different ways depending on your personal preference (ex. color and colour, or theater and theatre). Furthermore, in what other language can a single configuration of letters be pronounced in SIX different ways (ex. o-u-g-h: through, thought, though, cough, rough, bough)? Now, try telling a student who is used to a language with rules that that's just the way it is and that they will simply have to memorize spelling and pronunciation based on context. I assure you that, after their laughter has subsided and they realize that you're serious, they will look at you as if you're asking them to bend a spoon with the power of their mind. As my sister-in-law says, “You have 26 letters in the alphabet. For Christ's sake, use them!”

3. Then there's English as a spoken language, complete with its slang and distortion of official grammatical rules. This means that some things which are grammatically correct sound weird while other things that are grammatically wrong sound good. This is a dilemma for a language tutor. I have a student that wants to speak English like a native. That means that when she says “I have not an apple”, even though I can't tell her it's wrong, I still have to correct her because it just sounds weird. Or when I ask her how she is doing, if she says that she is “well”, I feel obliged to taint her grammar with the more commonly heard “good”. And let's not even get started on the double negative and the fact that if you mean it in one way it's grammatically sound whereas if you mean it in the other way it's slang for exactly the opposite (ex. “I don't want to do nothing”). I deal with these things as they come up and just have to hope that I'm not confusing her too thoroughly, though, despite whatever confusion it may cause, I will most certainly draw the line at “I would have went...”. People who say that should be shot.

4. Lastly, despite the fact that, when all is said and done, English grammar is actually far simpler than Italian grammar, students always manage to find those little subtleties that are just so hard to explain. What's the difference between “I have not” and “I did not”? When should one use “I have seen” as opposed to “I saw”? These questions lead to all sorts of discussions regarding the past perfect, the present perfect, the simple past, etc. that I feel only moderately qualified to answer. But in an attempt to not use “that's just the way it is” as my answer for everything, I'm now making a private effort to learn how to speak my own language.

      In closing I would like to take this moment to call to all of our attentions just how lucky we are to speak English. We can travel to almost any point on the globe and be more or less understood. For those of us that are native speakers, if/when we move to non-English speaking countries, we instantly have a priceless gift that others envy, going so far as to even pay us just to sit around and chat with them. Not too shabby a lifestyle if you think about it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mission Alfa Romeo146, the trilogy: Part III, the Final Chapter

      Let the day of fun begin!

Front view
      It was a little before noon when we bid farewell to Gaetano and his son. Though we had eaten breakfast at 5am it was still just too soon to sit down to lunch. So, since the Palace of Caserta (basically the Versaille of Italy) is located directly in front of the train station and it seemed foolish not to check it out while we were in the area, we decided to go there first and figure out the pizza situation in a couple of hours.

      Like Versaille, the back yard of this palace was utterly daunting in size, stretching back at least a couple of kilometers, where it ends in a beautiful cascading waterfall and fountain. We wound up exploring it via rickshaw and had a blast, but holy hell, I cannot express enough gratitude for the continuous ornamental pool accompanying the final uphill kilometer of the “driveway” where we stopped every so often to dip our feet and splash our arms and faces with the icy water, not caring how much we soaked the rest of our clothing. Were it not for that we would have been two cases of heat stroke just waiting to happen.

      When we returned the rickshaw a couple of hours later we were understandably exhausted and, more importantly, ravenous. We exited through the main court of the palace, purposefully ignoring the signs which pointed in the direction of the visitors cafeteria and snack bar, our minds set on bigger better, and less over-priced things... namely that famous Pizza Napoletana which had been rattling around in our imaginations for the past five hours. With that goal in mind we ventured back into the streets of Caserta.

      Perhaps it was the hour of the day, perhaps it was the time of year, or perhaps it's just the strangest city ever, but it felt like we were walking through a ghost town. It was inconceivable that just several hundred meters away the palace was alive with people and activity...and, most tauntingly, food. But every corner we turned only revealed more desolate streets and more locked up store fronts. Twice large “pizzeria” signs sticking out perpendicularly like beacons beckoned us from afar and spurred us on with new-found energy only to mock us in the end when we arrived at the locked door, our hopes dashed against the hot sidewalk. The only establishment we found open for business in the seven block radius we explored on foot was a Chinese restaurant which we disdainfully passed by thinking, Yeah, right. Like we'll get Chinese food when this area is famous for its pizza! Several more hours later we regretted our folly.

      It was too hot to continue on foot. We climbed into our new-old car and I hungrily ate a few cookies left over from breakfast. When I offered them to my husband he pushed them away.

      “No. I don't want to spoil my appetite.”

      “Okay. Suit yourself.” As you will read, there ended up being plenty of time for a whole new appetite to develop after that one.

      We began driving around but our knowledge of Caserta was limited to the area in which we had test driven the car. So we started turning here and there at random hoping to come upon the historic center where we felt certain we would find a pizzeria, even if only by the slice. I don't know if Caserta doesn't have a historic center and so is only the godforsaken area that we got to see, or if we just simply didn't find it, but after getting stuck in a loop of one-way streets and finding ourselves repeatedly in the same starting point as before like some sort of living M.C. Escher creation, we chose to bid farewell to the city and move on, counting on our next destination to deliver some sort of culinary delight...or at least a piece of pizza.

      When planning out our day we had decided to arrange for our drive home to take us through Sperlonga, a stunning beach town with an adorable historic center to explore on foot. So we set our GPS in that direction and told our bellies to hang on just a little bit longer. We assumed that upon arrival at such a popular vacation spot we'd have our pick of pizzerias. And I think we would have...if we had been able to get out of the car.

(minus the thousands of people)
      As we approached the town center the sparkling blue water of the coastline dazzled us even while the jam packed beach with its geometrically placed rentable umbrellas represented everything we find revolting about a beach vacation in August (see my entry August Hush). I mean you literally couldn't see the sand, just a sea of tan bodies and colorful bathingsuits filling in the spaces between the umbrellas like mortar. But we weren't planning on laying out or playing in the water...just exploring a little bit on foot and getting something to eat. So we started driving around looking for a parking spot.

      At first we didn't look very carefully since we were still moderately far from where we wanted to get to. However, once in the town center we found ourselves creeping along at a snails pace so that we wouldn't miss a spot or fail to notice someone pulling out of one. We made it through the entire town center that way and then some, until we were just as far away in the other direction as we had been initially when we thought ourselves still too far away to even start looking in the first place... and also significantly closer to sea level, which would have meant a steep uphill climb were we to finally find a spot. But that's moot anyway since there were no spots to be had. We turned around and decided to do another sweep going back in the direction we had just come from.

      Nothing had changed. Pedestrians wearing only bathingsuits strolled the sidewalks and shuffled between the cars continuously lining the street on either side. Maybe I'm remembering it wrong but it now seems to me that each one of them was happily munching away on something wrapped up in the classic white wax paper of pizza-by-the-slice. I admit that could just be my imagination.

      We explored every public nook and cranny of that stupid little town. Even the paid parking garage was full. At a total loss, we got back on the road and decided to head towards Terracina, not particularly known for anything and maybe just sort of the poor man's Sperlonga, but at this point we really weren't interested in the sights, just getting something to eat. So when we arrived in Terracina we parked in the first paid parking lot we found. Maybe we could have found something for free on the street, but we were done driving around aimlessly. Instead we ended up walking around aimlessly.

      There was a canal with what appeared to be a bit of a main drag running perpendicular to the shoreline, but when the first place on the corner was closed, my husband took it as a bad omen and insisted on heading towards the beach where one would think there would be a plethora of snack bars, etc. Well maybe down on beach level there were, but at street level there were only the entrances to the various and odious beach clubs on one side and the high walls surrounding the yards of private villas on the other. Plus, even though it was late afternoon at this point and the sun was well past its zenith, it was hot and we were walking (futilely in my opinion) down a shadeless street. Perhaps this is the specific point in which each of started to get a bit testy.

      “I really don't think we're gonna find anything down here.”

      “We've only just started.”

      “Well I can see that there is only beach and houses.”

      “The GPS says there's a right turn ahead.”

      “How much further?
      “About half a kilometer.”

      The Look.

      “Fine, what do you want to do?”

      “I don't know. That street is probably just going to be more houses. This isn't exactly a bustling commercial center.”

      “Fine, then tell me what you want to do.”

      “I want to go back to that main strip where we were before. I don't even know why we came in this direction....” I trailed off into silent muttering as we turned around and retraced our steps.

      The only problem was that that main strip turned out to be completely barren as well, just a few coffee shops, an ice cream parlor or two, a bakery, and a couple of small grocery stores. For the rest, the stores were closed or selling fresh seafood...to be cooked...and we're vegetarian. It was like the world was having fun playing with us in some very strange way. I mean, hello?!! We are in Italy: Land Of Food and, most notably, pizza! As my husband continued to traipse around growing ever more cranky, I started to dissolve into delirious laughter, just a chuckle at first but I quickly fell behind, my body wracked with uncontrollable giggles. Unfortunately my laughter was not contagious.

      “Listen, let's just go into one of these grocery stores and see if we can put together a sandwich or something,” I suggested, catching my breath with a final giggly sigh. Without any other apparent options he grudgingly acquiesced.

      After browsing three super (or should I say mini) markets we decided that we would not leave the last one without having purchased something to eat. So we got some sliced Swiss cheese, two rolls, a jar of pesto, and some plastic knives, found a bench outside, and ate as though we were refueling our bodies instead of enjoying some tasty nourishment. Then, totally over this town and this road trip, we got back in the car, programmed the GPS for home, and hit the road. As it happens the road out of town took us to the real main drag, bustling with people out for an evening stroll. My husband adamantly advised me not to, but I just couldn't help scanning the store fronts to see if we would have had better luck here, just five minutes away from where we had been. I'm relieved and puzzled to say that we would not have. I mean what the hell do people eat in these towns?!! Does everyone pack a bag lunch and go around with a cooler? I have no answer to this question but I do know that if I ever venture down to that area again in the future I will be far more prepared!

      We got home late. Our cats were hungry and pissed off. And we had an as-of-yet-still-to-be-satisfied hankering for Pizza Napoletana. But, when all is said done, the purpose of the trip was to go pick up our new-used Alfa Romeo 146 and so... mission accomplished. 

*If you are the copyright holder of one of the photos used in this post please contact me if you wish for it to be removed. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mission Alfa Romeo146, the trilogy: Part II

      Where was I? Ah, yes... On a train to Caserta...

      After a rather challenging morning it was pure bliss to be seated across from each other, gazing out at the quickly changing landscape and planning out what we could do in the afternoon. Even the three panhandling gypsies that managed to pass one at a time within the first ten minutes of us getting settled in our seats, each one with a similarly familiar (and most likely totally invented) lament about a sick relative, couldn't bring us down. And so it was that at 9:50, almost five and a half hours after getting out of bed, we found ourselves in front of the Caserta train station, blinking groggily in the already scorching sun.

      As we tried to get our bearings we waved goodbye to a fellow passenger who had kept us intellectually stimulated for the last half hour of the trip with his daunting and totally unexpected fluent knowledge of Italian history and politics, albeit laden with a thick Neapolitan accent. As he waved back he told us that we should go get pizza for lunch. “A surprisingly complete meal!” he called over his shoulder. These Neapolitans sure are proud of their pizza!, I thought.

      “Well we're in the right area for it,” I said to my husband.

      “That we are.” And so the seed was planted, a seed that would blossom into our final adventure of the day. (Part III)

      The seller of the car, accompanied by his son, met us out front with the car itself. And so we immediately got down to business, with me becoming an irrelevant bystander as my husband opened the hood to look at the engine and then prowled around the rest of the car examining all of its moving parts. After a satisfactory test drive in the vicinity of the station and some nonverbal communication between me and my husband, we gave the official okay that we would like to go through with the sale, assuming that we would immediately go to the nearest “DMV” offices and by 11am be free for the rest of the day of fun. Instead Gaetano (the owner of the car who happened to have the most Neapolitan name and surname you could ever imagine) informed us that first we would have to go to his mechanic for the inspection, which he had not wanted to waste money on before in the event that we chose not to buy. My husband casually looked at his watch while I snuck a peek at the time on my cell phone. We had about an hour and a half before the offices would close and decided to trust that Gaetano was aware of this limitation. So the four of us piled into the car with my husband at the wheel, still jerkily getting used to the new clutch as Gaetano navigated us out of the town center and onto the highway.

     As all human made structures faded in the distance and were replaced by a landscape of scorched fields and dry barren mountains with the occasional quarry carved into their sides and I became aware of the fact that the nearest towns were recognizable only as the mere blur of rooftops in the distant foothills, it occurred to me how very trusting we were to blindly follow into unknown territory these two strangers who knew perfectly well that we had at least €600 in cash on us. But since life so rarely resembles the movies, I shrugged that thought away and several minutes later Gaetano indicated, at the very last second, our exit, forcing us to cut off an SUV, the passengers of which were perfectly justified in the angry gestures they sent our way. Within another minute we were parked and getting out of the car and all previous cinematic adventures had faded from my thoughts.

      Unfortunately the person in charge of inspections had stepped out but was to return shortly so we milled about in the 85°F shade. The other mechanic, apparently not having anything more pressing to do and clearly on good terms with Gaetano, joined us and we soon found ourselves involved in another unexpected discussion on history, geography, and politics (thankfully, anti-Berlusconian and anti-Northern League). I hate to be someone who judges people based on stereotypes and appearances, but for the second time that morning I found myself surprised and also a little bit embarrassed regarding my own knowledge of the same topics. In the full half hour-ish that we waited there not once did anyone talk about soccer or reality TV or even (that I recall) light up a cigarette.

       But even for all the pleasant conversation, the minutes kept ticking by as I periodically grabbed my husbands wrist and covertly checked the time. When it was a little past eleven I gave my husband The Look, especially since we had no idea where the DMV offices were or how long it would take to get there.

      “The offices are open until 12:30, right?” my husband ventured as a non sequiter.

      “No. Actually it's until noon,” replied the son as he too pulled out his cell pone to check the time and raised his eyebrows in mild alarm. “Dad, it's past eleven. They probably want to get going. We'll have to come back here afterwards.”

      “Why, what day is it?”


      The two of them started muttering back and forth in a tight Neapolitan dialect, totally incomprehensible to me, but somewhat decipherable to my husband. So I was blissfully ignorant of the sudden panic that had gripped Gaetano when he remembered (wrongly as it turns out) that perhaps the offices don't handle this kind of paperwork on Fridays. After a few more moments were wasted, it was clear that we had no choice other than to go there and hope for the best. So we piled back into the car, this time with Gaetano at the wheel since he knew the way and time was of the essence. As he maneuvered to exit the lot, a small white two door hatchback passed us on its way in and instead of pulling out onto the road, Gaetano pulled a tight u-turn and skidded back into the spot we had just vacated. In a whirlwind of motion he got out of the car, ran to the mechanic's office, and within 30 seconds came back with the updated inspection papers in hand. Apparently that's how car inspections work in the suburbs around Naples.

      Luckily the DMV office was indeed open for business as usual and turned out to be just around the corner from the Caserta train station, an area we were actually starting to get to know quite well. The wait was short, papers were signed, money was exchanged, and the car became ours. We shook hands with the father-son pair and said we'd email when we got home to let them know how the car handled the trip. And that was that.

      Now that the car was officially ours my husband happily went to affix the temporary insurance paper to the transparent pocket of the windshield. That's when we noticed the faded picture of the Madonna, faithfully displayed in lieu of the non-existent insurance policy. Because near Naples if the Virgin Mary can't save you then nothing can.

...Stay tuned for Part III...

*If you are the copyright holder of one of the photos used in this post please contact me if you wish for it to be removed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mission Alfa Romeo146, the trilogy: Part I

     Ever since a car accident at the beginning of May totaled one of our cars we have been doing our best to make life work with just one. Though I would say that we've done a commendable job (from me driving my husband to work at 5am to him driving 50 km round trip to pick me up when I get out of rehearsal after the last train leaves), we both acknowledged that this could not go on indefinitely. So, having decided that a mortgage and a home improvement loan are enough monthly payments for us, my husband began to casually peruse the classifieds for a used car.

      That's when he found the 1998 Alfa Romeo 146 in perfect working order with 110,000 km (68,000 miles) for €600. The catch? It was near Naples, 243 km (151 miles) away, which meant that we would have to decide whether or not to buy this car exclusively based on photos and communication with the seller and that, if deciding to buy it, we would then have to dedicate a day to going down there and bringing it home, taking into account the possibility that something could still change our minds upon arrival. After much back and forth we decided to go for it and to turn it into a fun day trip as well. This is the story that I am about to tell you...

      Friday was the big day. My mother's apartment in Rome was available for us to crash in the night before so that we could get up painfully early and take one of the first trains down, arriving with ample time to test drive the car and legally complete the sale at the appropriate offices before they closed for the day at noon. We got up at 4:30 am, put the apartment back into rentable condition, forced some breakfast into our tired tummies, and at roughly 5:20am ventured out. We needed to be at Stazione Tiburtina for the 6:17am train to Caserta. For all of our planning ahead and maximization of what little sleeping time there was available to us, we had been a trifle careless regarding how we would be getting to that particular train station at an hour of the day in which not only is public transportation scarce, but so, as it turns out, are taxis. We proceeded to make every wrong decision.

      I have to admit that I take taxis so rarely that I often forget how different the taxi system in Rome is from that in New York. In NY whatever the time of day, whatever the area, you will always find a taxi within about ten seconds of turning to face the oncoming traffic and lifting your arm upwards (possibly a bit longer if it's raining). Not so in Rome. If you try to hail one of the few taxis on the street, it will almost definitely already be occupied or will be off duty. That's because contrary to NY, the streets of Rome are not rivers of white (taxis in Rome are white as opposed to the classic yellow of NY). The cab driver union, or some such thing, puts a cap on the number of taxis in circulation, driving up the cost of a ride and increasing salaries for the drivers. I guess this ultimately renders cab drivers less competitive amongst themselves and so less desperate for a fare and more likely to just park and wait for customers to come to them. Well, it works. So if you feel like splurging on a taxi, your best bet is to locate a big cluster of taxis, with their cabbies milling about on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes and chatting with their colleagues. Then whichever of them feels like it or has been there the longest gets the next fare. As an alternative, you can also call a hotline to have a taxi come and get you directly where you are, but in that case there's a charge for the call and the meter starts running from the moment the taxi leaves wherever it previously was. That means you start your ride with at least €5 to €8 already on the meter! So if you need a taxi, you suck it up and walk to the nearest taxi cluster.

      At 5:30am we didn't want to risk it with public transportation, knowing that there can sometimes be a half hour wait between buses at that time. Luckily my mother's apartment is a five minute walk from Stazione Trastevere, where there are always at least a dozen taxis lined up and waiting directly in front of the main entrance. Apparently not at 5:30am. As a tram rumbled past us, we ran to the nearest (and we soon found out only) taxi in the parking lot just as the driver was stamping out a cigarette butt and closing his door. When asked if he could take us to the station he shook his head and smiled apologetically. He had just gone off duty.

      As far as we knew, this was no cause for alarm as we were only about 20 meters from the entrance to the station and assumed that on the other side of the sea of parked cars in front of us we would surely find at least ten taxis eager to take us wherever we wanted to go. Clumsily sacrificing our hip bones on the side mirrors of numerous cars as we scuttled our way to the entrance, we soon discovered that this was not the reality. And that's when we started to get a little worried. Obviously having assumed that we would be taking a taxi to the station we had left the apartment according to a certain time frame...a time frame that rendered public transportation unrealistic. Our most viable option continued to be a taxi and so our next goal was to get to another taxi hotbed.

      Having ignored the tram of several minutes earlier and with no reliable way of knowing when the next would pass, we got on the bus which was already waiting out front and, amazingly, it left after only about another minute. The plan was to take it to the nearest metro stop (please remember to call it “the metro” and not “the subway”; a “subway” is the literal translation used for “sottopassaggio” which is an underpass) where, if we were lucky, we could first check to see if the first train of the day would pass in time to take us directly to the station or, if the world worked the way it normally does, we would otherwise be able to find a taxi.

      Now, another element of city life that I had always taken for granted in NY was the convenience and reliability of the subway system's 24 hour grid. After ten years I had learned how to play its game with studied efficiency: the most convenient transfers, which train car would leave me closest to my exit, how to leap frog a local with an express... I have developed no such technique here in Rome as I almost never take the metro. Yes the buses are confusing and somewhat inefficient, but with only two meager metro lines crossing Rome in a giant X, it's hardly the most convenient way for me to travel. So before Friday, I had possibly never before been affected by the fact that the system shuts down from 12:30-5:30am. We walked into the station at around 5:40, technically after the official start of service. However if the first train has left the first stop at 5:30 that doesn't mean that it will be where we need it to be by 5:40. We asked the guard at what time the first train going in our direction usually passed and he gave a very ambiguous answer of “Um...I'm not sure. Maybe in another ten minutes.” After a quick calculation of 5:40, plus a ten minute wait, plus a ten to fifteen minute ride, plus finding the ticket counter at the station, plus purchasing the tickets and finding the track... it was a little too close for comfort (and incidentally a similar calculation is the reason why we had decided the day before that it would be a better idea to take a taxi).

      Once again, we went out front and once again there were no taxis to be seen. What had begun as a slight nagging worry was creeping not-so-slowly to full fledged alarm. Running out of options, we started walking to Stazione Ostiense, another five minutes away and another relatively big station where we were nonetheless increasingly less sure of finding the much needed taxi. Of course as we were walking away and already past the point of frantically running back, we heard the metro pull into the station... and leave. For our own sanity we chose to imagine that it was the train going in the opposite direction, but secretly we both knew that that probably wasn't the case.

      Stazione Ostiense: our third station of the pre-dawn morning and by far the most desolate. As we approached, like a distant and taunting mirage, a shiny white cab sped by outside of the periphery of the parking lot...and then it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. Not surprisingly, there were no other cabs in sight though several buses were lined up about to start their routes. My husband, in a final desperate attempt at public transportation, thought that perhaps from this station there could possibly be a train that made a stop at Stazione Tiburtina, or even maybe Caserta directly... No and no. We were completely out of ideas as we wandered back through the main lobby, empty apart from the standard unsavory-train-station-characters, and were starting to consider the possibility (and necessity) of taking the later train from Stazione Termini (which would leave us with an uncomfortably short amount of time to test drive the car and complete the paperwork) or of simply rescheduling for another day. But we weren't quite ready to give up on our 6:17am train. Not yet.

      Not knowing what else to do we found ourselves veering towards the buses. They were not routes that we were particularly familiar with and as we wondered which to take, two of them shut their doors and departed right in front of us, encouraging us not-so-subtly to make a decision. Unenthusiastically we got on one at random and asked the bus driver what his general route was and if he knew of taxi stands along the way. He told us to try in front of the station... No comment.

      As luck would have it, the first stop on his route took us past the same metro station mentioned earlier, where suddenly there were about seven taxis lined up and where if we had just waited a moment longer in the first place we could have saved ourselves a good ten minutes of anxiety. So we clambered off the bus and booked it to the nearest one. Ah the relief of sitting in a moving vehicle, speeding through the deserted streets of Rome in August at 6am, wizzing past the Colosseum still lit up by the night time flood lights, and in no time at all arriving at our very own personalized destination.

      You think the adventure ends here, but unfortunately it does not.

      We still had about ten minutes to spare before our train, but we didn't feel we could relax until the tickets were in our hands and the track was in site. Stazione Tiburtina has been under renovation for quite some time, so scaffolding and roped off areas make it a bit more challenging to get your bearings and find your way around. Even so, we managed without too much difficulty to find the ticket counter, which turned out to be inexplicably and unapologetically closed, forcing us to blunder our way through the neighboring ticket machines. Finally, with tickets in hand, we headed in the direction of the tracks. The only indication we saw pointed us towards tracks 24 and 25. Not yet knowing what track we needed we helplessly followed the arrows in that direction, hoping that something would soon be made clear. Almost immediately we did indeed find the digital display with its constantly changing arrivals, departures, and track numbers. (At this point it occurred to me that there may even have been a train directly from Stazione Trastevere to this station here, but we preferred not to dwell on that.) Every train had either a 24 or a 25 next to it. Only when we located our train and scanned horizontally to see its corresponding track number we found, instead of the expected number, “CAN”. “Canceled” or “Cancellato”... different languages, same abbreviation. You would think that, having purchased our tickets only two minutes prior, the stupid machine would have known that the train was canceled. You might further think that somewhere in the entire station one might find a human being employed to assist travelers who have just wasted €26 for seats on a non-existent train. As it happens, you would be wrong on both counts.

      Not wanting to reschedule and sacrifice another day, we grudgingly accepted that we would have to take the later train from Termini at 8:20am and be rushed upon arrival in Caserta. We couldn't help but resent the extra two hours of sleep that we had lost as well as the €15 wasted on a totally unnecessary cab ride.

      From Stazione Tiburtina we took the metro B line to Stazione Termini, fully ready to demand that we be put on the next train to Caserta at no extra cost. We were not hopeful that this would be granted. In fact we were pretty sure that they would force us to purchase new tickets and then have us mail the other ones in along with a complaint form for reimbursement by mail. But we were tired and cranky and maybe kind of looking for a fight.

      Customer Assistance was, despite a big sign saying open 24 hours, closed. Big freakin' surprise. So I plopped myself on the already long line in front of the open (!!!) ticket counter while my husband looked around for someone assist-full. Instead he noticed someone starting to move around and organize things at the customer assistance desk and so I went there to join him. In that two seconds of wasted time we had already become third in line. Plus, that brief moment of activity had clearly been a red herring because as the minutes passed, the sliding glass door remained infuriatingly closed. Every so often someone on the other side of the glass wall would meander over to the desk, raising the hopes of everyone, and then meander back away, leaving us all more restless and disgruntled than before.

      In the mean time the line had continued to grow behind us and people were not only glaring at the employees on the other side of the door while exaggeratedly indicating invisible wrist watches, but were starting to lash out verbally at their fellow in-need-of-assistance line companions. Now I realize that it can't be very appealing to whomever has the job of dealing with pissed off customers to open the barricade and let the avalanche of complaining cascade in. That person has to deal, day after day, with anger being directed at him/her for something that he/she has nothing to do with and I appreciate that that job must really suck. But when these people allow the customers' frustration to ferment even further by opening blatantly and lackadaisically late, then they deserve what's waiting for them on the other side just a little bit.

      Finally a middle aged woman seated herself at the desk and pulled out a remote control to open the automated sliding door. She pointed it at the door and, in the most anticlimactic way, nothing happened. Unphased, she pantomimed a request for assistance to the first customer on line who started desperately trying to pry it open, like he was on a stuck elevator dangling twelve floors above ground level, before, with a collective sigh of relief, the doors gracefully slid open and he plowed his way in. Luckily the line moved relatively quickly, though as the American woman ahead of us left I caught a just barely audible “fucking bitch” uttered under her breath. I feared that this did not bode well, but tried not to enter with a negative attitude. I let my husband do the talking.

      “Hi there. We bought these tickets for the 6:17am train from Stazione Tiburtina from a machine at the station and then found out that the train was canceled.”

      “It wasn't canceled. It left from here,” she responded taking the tickets from my husband's outstretched hand to confirm the situation.

      “But I checked the times on the website and it told me Stazione Tiburtina. That's also what printed out on the ticket.”

      “Well Stazione Tiburtina has been closed for a month due to renovations,” she continued casually as she typed a few things into her computer.

      “How would I know that if I don't ever take the train and both the website and the ticket machine are wrong?” he responded doing his best to maintain an ironic and pleasant sense of humor in the face of totally illogical adversity.

      She shrugged. “I can put you on the next train, which leaves at 8:20 and arrives at 10:36,” she said while making (hopefully official) notes on the tickets. Then she thought for a moment and looked something else up. “Or you can take the 7:39 train which has one transfer but will get you in about an hour earlier.” That's the option we chose, sort of kicking ourselves for not having known about that option in the first place. All things considered, apart from the incomprehensible failure to update the website and the ticket machines after an entire month of schedule changes, customer assistance managed to come through for us. And so we boarded our train and hoped that the rest of the day would be a bit less Italian...

*If you are the copyright holder of one  of the photos used in this post please contact me if you wish for it to be removed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August Hush

       There is an eerie calm in Rome. The streets are silent save for the occasional ring of a tram's bell or the whine of a distant ambulance. Entire stretches of store fronts are shuttered and barred with iron gates while children play soccer in the middle of wide, deserted intersections. One could half expect to find two cowboys (or shall we say gladiators) facing off at opposite ends of Piazza Navona, as a hot, lonely breeze scatters discarded newspapers across their path. First-time tourists look around themselves at the empty metropolis, sweaty and baffled.

      Unless you're Italian or have previously visited Rome in August, you may be one of these baffled tourists and begin to suspect that a plague of epidemic proportions has annihilated half the population and sent almost everyone else to Las Vegas with Randall Flagg... or perhaps something less apocalyptic. Wherever your imagination takes you, you will certainly get the sense that you are seriously out of the loop. But don't worry. It's just August. Rome is away on vacation.

      In August you cannot take for granted that any of your favorite stores or restaurants will be open for business. If there's road or track work to be done, it will be done at this time, so you also cannot take for granted that public modes of transportation will be functioning in any reliable way. What you can take for granted is that it will be about 97°F and humid under the blazing sun and that the rare bus that finally passes will most likely be un-airconditioned and crowded with smelly tourists. So you may be surprised to hear me say that despite how unappealing that sounds, now that I've lived here for a few years and have gotten to experience the full spectrum of seasons, I actually find it to be one of the most enchanting periods to be in Rome.

      Not counting the totally unmemorable first three years of my life, until the age of 28 I had only been in Rome during or around this time of year and therefore lacked a proper comparison. To me the eternal city was eternally hot, hazy, and just about empty. “Chiuso per ferie” (closed for vacation) is and was the common hand written sign taped to the portcullis of most of the privately owned businesses in the city, making me wonder whether everyone leaves because everything is closed or if everything is closed because everyone leaves. But who cares? All I know is that when the cloud of chaos lifts, the drone of the city turns off in a rather spectacular way and makes life audible again; the wind in the leaves, the squawk of seagulls over the river, the pitter patter of individual sandals on the sidewalk... People even seem to talk in hushed tones so as not to disrupt the unexpected tranquility.

      Where is everyone, you ask? Well, clearly there's another and, if you think about it for a moment, obvious side to this scenario... When the residents of Rome pack up their cars and their RVs and hit the road like one giant organism, they all seem to go where almost everyone else has gone: to the seashore, where one square meter of sand-space is at a major premium and where you're guaranteed to get elbowed and kicked by children in the water. As much as I love the Mediterranean beaches, you might have to actually pay me a substantial sum to convince me to go there during these last two weeks of August because my idea of a relaxing day does not include listening to other people's screaming kids and getting sprayed with sand every time my neighbor, mere inches away, adjusts his towel. Luckily, for most of the summer this is the situation only on weekends, so if I want some beach time I make sure to go between Monday and Friday. But, as of yesterday, the beach is off-limits to me everyday until September.

      Yesterday was August 15th, Ferragosto, the summer holiday of holidays and the peak of the exodus. No other country that I know of has such a clear-cut national vacation time. Yes, in the US we have Memorial Day Weekend and Labor Day Weekend to help us define the start and end of summer, but apart from those two crowded weekends, the rest of the summer is spread out pretty evenly. In Italy, however, everything gets condensed into the two and a half weeks between August 15th and September 1st, so what would otherwise be a slow trickle in and out over the course of a few months, becomes instead a tidal wave of humanity crashing upon the coastlines, leaving behind it a barren calm and the best parking spots ever.

      In all honestly, it shocks me that I've become someone who so shuns the hustle and bustle of city life. Of course I still appreciate the cultural gifts that a city like Rome has to offer, but after ten years in New York City and another two in Rome I now have a highly soluble, rice-paper-thin layer of tolerance for traffic, smog, litter, and general human behavior and can only be submerged in the whole mess for several hours at a time before starting to totally lose my mind. August is just...different.

      Of course it's not like the entire city is completely devoid of human life. Just stroll past the Colosseum or the Vatican and you'll see the vibrant fannypack-wearing, trinket-buying throngs, blissfully unaware that they're being shown a highly censored version of Rome. In fact if you're looking for a real slice of life, then absolutely do not come in August. If you want to experience the adventure of trying to cross a busy Roman intersection while motorbikes swarm the streets like flies, or if you want to go shopping on Via Dei Giubbonari for some unique Made In Italy fashions, or if you want to go barhopping and people-watching in the crooked streets of Trastevere, then, I repeat, this is not the right time for you. For you there are eleven other months to choose from that should suit you just fine. Leave this one to the misanthropes like myself.

*If you are the copyright holder of one of the photos used in this post please contact me if you wish for it to be removed.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Once Upon a Time In Italy

      I'm late. Rehearsal started at 8. What was I thinking stopping to browse in that shoe store?! I knew I wasn't going to buy anything anyway. Now I've over-killed my time! Which would have been okay if the bus had been conveniently waiting for me, but it wasn't and I made the wrong decision. I waited for it! I waited long enough that it made no sense to stop waiting and walk instead, like I should have done from the beginning! So I became one more sardine, packed in and marinating in the unairconditioned Roman heat. Now, after elbowing past passengers trying to get on the bus before letting me off of it and after a Berlusconian motorcade interfered with both pedestrian and vehicular traffic for a solid five minutes, I can finally see the entrance to the rehearsal hall. My legs, despite the intermittent jog, just can't carry me any faster. I'm out of breath and a drop of sweat is trickling down the back of my neck while I battle with a bag that slips off my shoulder every time I pick up the pace. I'm already dreading my entrance, worried about interrupting the continuity of the rehearsal, or worse getting flashed a withering more-effort-next-time-please glance from the director. I pause for a moment as the final pangs of the cramp in my side pass and then gently push open the door....
      About 15 of the 55 members of the choir are milling about chatting casually. Our director is still nowhere to be seen. A few people turn and greet me as, uselessly breathless, I walk in. It's 8:13pm.

      Every. Time.

      This is, of course, a simulated and more or less generic scenario. I have lived through various such permutations involving ice cream, bicycles, scarves, and political demonstrations, to name a few. Each time is as horrifyingly stressful to me as the last because I suffer from self diagnosed (and self invented) OCPD: Obsessive Compulsive Punctuality Disorder. This causes me to feel lateness as an actual physical discomfort that begins somewhere just behind my bellybutton. The more tardy I become the further the discomfort spreads until my feet are tap dancing on their own and I start singing chromatic scales while making beebledy-beebledy sounds with my index finger on my lips. Whoever is with me will not be spared the anxiety as I ask them the time every thirty seconds while obsessing over everything I could have done differently to avoid this. But here's the kicker. Every single time, after enduring painful running cramps and near collisions with slower pedestrians, I arrive at my destination... and I'm still the one who ends up waiting.

      So, a word from the wise: It's really difficult to be late in Italy. Oh, I'm not saying it's not possible to miss a plane, train, or the first five minutes of a movie. I'm talking primarily about person to person appointments. It's difficult. Really. Because I have found that no matter how late I think I am, the person or people that I'm meeting almost certainly arrive later than me. I'm sharing this tidbit of information in order to spare whomever reads it (and subsequently moves to or visits Italy) the stress and strain that may accompany any effort to be on time. Basically, appointment times, much like traffic lights, are simply more of a suggestion than a hard fast rule.

      I, however, slow down for a yellow traffic light, so where does that leave me? I'll tell you where that leaves me. That leaves me OCPD-erring on the side of caution. If a bus ride takes roughly ten minutes, I also plan for the waiting time of the bus (which could be double that) and the potential traffic or weekly worker's strike that it could encounter. So if I have to meet someone at eight, I'll leave no later than seven twenty-five. And that means that I'm more-than-frequently tragically early.

      As you can imagine I may be one of the only people in the entire country who actually organizes her travel-time this way. Most people leave late to begin with and plan for the perfect transportation scenario (something that, here in Italy, exists only hypothetically or when you don't actually have to be anywhere by a given time) therefore compounding their lateness and my irritation. The bizarre thing is that ultimately this seems to work for them because when someone says “eight-o-clock”, what is actually understood is “roughly eight thirty”, and so each arrives at “nine”, precisely and punctually late. It's not that I don't understand the theory of this trick or the stress that it could (always in theory) spare me. It's that punctuality is so ingrained in my psyche, that even if I plan to be late, I'm often still on time. 
      Then again, I've only been living here for a few years and sadly, despite my OCPD, I have recently become aware of the fact that scenarios such as the one stereo-typified at the start of this entry are becoming more and more frequent in my life. I hadn't really taken the time to notice it until a friend of mine and her husband came to Rome about a month ago from the US. Each time we were to meet up, I somehow arrived late. It was nothing drastic. Ten minutes here and there. Ten minutes that would have gone unnoticed were I meeting Italians because they would have shown up at least five minutes later than that anyway. Ten minutes that spoke volumes to me.

      Evidently Italian lateness is not something that one is born immune to, nor something that one can be vaccinated against. It is a rapidly mutating and highly contagious virus that begins to infect you the moment you board your Alitalia flight one hour behind schedule and which then continues groping it's way through your system with each speed bump you must slow down for. A fifteen minute wait for a train here, a half hour wait for a restaurant reservation there.... Before you know it you're automatically adding at least ten reckless minutes to the time on your watch. The only cure I know of is to get out of the country...fast, which is why tourists suffer no permanent damage.

      I fear it may be too late for me though. Since my mother is Italian it's probable that I was already exposed while in the womb, making me all the more susceptible now in adulthood. Even my father lived here for years, at one point apparently stating that if one really thought about it, why should a train arrive at any particular time. So let's face it, I never stood a chance. For now I still appear chronologically healthy within the framework of this country, but I'm afraid that there are too many signs indicating a slow and steady deterioration. I have found myself running to catch the train one too many times, I experience a rush of relief when I arrive late to meet a friend and she isn't there yet, I've heard myself blame fictional traffic jams for my delay... just isolated symptoms that, when put together, indicate a larger dysfunction.

      Despite the fact that perhaps this trait was misleadingly dormant in me all along, I can't help but blame Italy. I mean, what is it about this country? The Mediterranean sun? The passeggiata culture? The unreliability of the sidewalk clocks? All I know is that it is becoming ever more difficult for me to show up on time for appointments, social or otherwise. I can't help but worry about what the future has in store for me. Will I eventually become so throughly Italian that I will be able to casually walk into choir rehearsal half an hour late without batting an eyelash, confident in the knowledge that there will surely be someone who shows up later than me? I sincerely hope not. I don't think my OCPD could take it. In the mean time I leave you with this. They say that when Mussolini was in power the trains ran on time... I guess I can buy that, but I imagine that those were some very empty trains.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

These Italian Shoes Are Made For Walkin'

    There is almost nothing that makes me feel more like an American... no, like a New Yorker... than going for a walk in Italy. I lived in New York City for ten years and during that time walking was a mode of transportation, a way to get from point A to point B. I'm sure I'm not the only New Yorker to develop a kind of personalized walking technique. Mine involved long strides, always looking at least ten feet ahead to allow for maneuvering time, efficient use of crosswalks, keeping to the right of the sidewalk in heavy pedestrian traffic, and using Broadway's diagonal trajectory as a kind of worm hole through Manhattan space-time. The rules of NYC pedestrian etiquette are many and unspoken, which is why to an Italian tourist, suddenly thrown into the swarm of millions of seasoned city walkers all at once, I know that it comes across as chaotic and stressful. But I guarantee that there is an order and a beauty to it. An order and a beauty that that same Italian tourist will interrupt when he stops at the top of the subway stairs to get his bearings, or when he slows down to look up at the skyscrapers, or when he holds hands with his family of four, forming an impossible-to-pass human chain. You see, he is not walking.... He is going for a passeggiata.

    Passeggiata translates literally to “a walk”. But culturally it's so much more than that. It's a social event, it's a date, it's a way to relax. It is, most importantly, NOT just a way to get from here to there. Allow me to explain. On a summer night, after dinner, people may go for a passeggiata. If they live in a small town that means they'll stroll through the town piazza, chat with neighbors, get some ice cream, stop on a bench to look at the stars. If they live in a city it means they'll people watch in the windy streets, enjoy the music of street performers, buy watermelon from a vendor, relax on the steps of a fountain. Sure they may stop at a pub for a drink or decide to get some tiramisù at a sidewalk cafè, but that is all part of the passeggiata.

    A passeggiata can also be a hike through the woods or a day spent exploring nearby towns. It can be for exercise, to kill time before a movie, or to help you digest a big meal. It can be a solitary, meditative moment, a romantic date, or a group excursion with friends. There are no rules for the passeggiata save for one: there is almost NEVER a clear cut route or destination. And that is the very part that I struggle with.

    In New York I was a walker. I would regularly link together various errands, creating a strategic and efficient connect-the-dots of streets and avenues. I might glance in shop windows as I passed, but for the most part I was focused on my next goal and on getting there as quickly as possible. If I was going to the pharmacy, I was going to the pharmacy. If I was going to the park, I was going to the park. What I passed on the way was of little importance, partly because New York City “landscapes” tend to be repetitive and lacking in what I consider pause-worthy wow factor, but mostly I think because the “goal habit” is hard to break.

    Either this is just how I'm programmed or living in New York City for ten years has really taken its toll, but it turns out that I now have no idea how to go for a simple pleasure stroll. I need a destination and I need it bad. Often on my husband's day off  he will propose going for a passeggiata somewhere and I truly wish that I could muster more enthusiasm for something that I know he enjoys so much. But tragically, the idea of wandering for the sake of wandering does not stimulate us in similar ways.

    The difference between walking and passeggiare is evident not only in our perspective on nature walks, but also in the way we walk through the city streets. I'll never forget the first time I showed my husband my Manhattan walk, the walk that I had been forced to stifle for months. I released myself into it, like a strong dog finally being let off her leash, and when after several moments I finally turned to see his reaction I found him about twenty meters behind me, bewildered and running to catch up. I immediately slowed back down and have gradually been losing that walk ever since. It's just not feasible in a country of passaggiata-ers.

    Ultimately my question is this: Is it an Italian vs. American difference or is it a world vs. Jessica difference? I find it hard to imagine that I'm the only one and am inclined to believe that this must come from having grown up in the instant-gratification-seeking, summer-blockbuster-watching, reading-the-last-page-of-a-book-first (I don't actually do that) turn of the millenium American culture. It's a journey vs. destination way of living life. It's the difference between working to live and living to work. And when I think about it like that I obviously choose the former.

    It's now officially summer which is prime passeggiata season. Down in Rome the evening street fairs along the river and under Castel Sant'Angelo will be in full swing every night while all of the small towns in our area will start having their own individual weekend festivals, complete with truffle tastings, fried pizza, and group dances at sunset. Outside our house the temperature will be mild in the early evening when the jittery silhouettes of bats start swooping low in the sky and the subtle scent of jasmine hangs on every breeze. When my husband suggests that we go for a passeggiata, maybe get some ice cream, I will have to overcome that old familiar feeling that without a point B there's no reason to walk away from point A, because by now I should realize that I'm always so happy when I do.