Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Not Just For Stamps


I dedicate todays’s  blog to all Americans who complain about the so-called poor service provided by their postal service.

Today I have to mail a  letter to America. I dread this experience!  Postal workers in Italy do not pick up mail at homes, they only deliver.   Lines at the Post are long, and service snail-like, and I learn all over again to appreciate my postal service in the states.

Italian post offices are nothing like what is found in the states but a more complex affair, more than the  mailing and picking up packages.   It is a government mailing and banking system combined.   The colossal problem is that most everyone pays their sewer, lights, gas, water, and television tax bills at the post. Not only do we pay bills here  but while  standing in line, one can view a catalog of goods where they can be purchased through the mail clerk. Purchases, such as a cell phones complete with monthly service, a television set, bicycles, lawn furniture,and even kitchen appliances are offered.  The Post also receives the payment for a Bolletino Postale, one of which I purchased last week to take to my driving school as a receipt  for the test I will take soon.  (Much more on the driving test later on)

The progression of all these transactions is not streamlined, made worse by computers,  although semi new, run slowly, and so this battle royal, becomes a  human traffic jam.  You would think the populace would revolt, but this is not how Italians are wired.  They accept the tedium, the squandering of time spent waiting for their turn.   They all stand, stare at the floor and wait obediently for their  timely lucky number to be called.  We all have window seats on this ride!

The process for paying a  bill takes at least 4 minutes per bill.  The computer sucks up the bill, runs it back and forth  several times,  then it is printed on, and cut in half  The clerk signs the bill, pounds it with a slam of a rubber stamp, counts your money, and all paper money is run it thorough a  counterfeit checking machine.   People with more than one bill, cause a repeat of  the same process.  Imagine a line of 15 people waiting to pay  bills and you arrive as individual number 16. 
But wait, there’s more!   Retirees have their monthly retirement money held by the  Post, where if chosen this way, so they can withdraw money for their weekly expenses.   A post office and a bank!  Never go to the Post on a payday!  

My major grievance  with the postal system here is the price of sending a letter to America.  Ah the old days where buying a post card cost more than the stamp to send it to the states.  Nowadays the price of a postcard is 30 cents, and a  stamp for a  postcard to the states is $2.85 euros, which is close to the same amount in dollars.  A letter of two pages would cost even more as they carefully weigh a letter and charge accordingly.  If I get a letter or card from the states I notice that the U.S. stamp has cost a whole lot less.  

Another squabble I have here is that the  post is open on Saturdays but they do not deliver mail.  I won’t be hearing the  sound of my delivery lady’s motorbike.

Our post offices in the big cities are not user friendly.  Just last week I had to mail a letter in Padova.  Upon entering the office one must use  a push button to choose which of five services I needed and  then receive  a small piece of paper with a reservation number.  It is difficult to figured out which button to push.  I have seen Italians who, like me, also have some difficulty knowing  which button is correct.  There have been times when finally reaching a clerk, I have been told to go back and  try another button.

I hope more than a few dissatisfied and cranky patrons of the postal service in America who have the sudden inclination  to grab their pitchfork and get revenge  read this blog.  You’ve got a good thing going! 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Cutting It Up In The EU

In the past few years we have been able to watch Anthony Bourdain shows through our Italian tv provider.  Bourdain always reminds me of the nitwit who sits in the back of the class and mugs the teacher with zingers.  He is a smart ass and gets away with it.  He is honestly funny. Yet Bourdain, through his books and food/travel shows has become the Mickey Mantle of food and travel television, belting program homers that has built a pile of cash, some of which will open a huge New York food court, featuring foods of the world.

Travelling vicariously with him to Istanbul, Prague, Paris, and just about everywhere else on my own personal bucket list his programs make for great entertainment.   Last December while we were in Istanbul we actually made a pursuit of a few of his eateries that had a favorable impression after watching his program.  The few we found turned out to be a foodie windfall.

He attempts to convince his audience that when venturing abroad it is most important to seek the food of the people.  Skip the lines to people stoppers as the Eiffel Tower, the Vatican and  Empire State Building.  Blow off the famous paintings, and  museums and get down and dirty with street food, food made from momma’s recipe from years ago, and especially get serious about food made from parts of animals not usually found on menus in American restaurants..  
We see Bourdain’s congenial gathering of food lovers circling a hot fire as we see the butchering of a squealing pig or other bleating beast.  The beast is  twirling on the spit and a blackened encrusted part is ripped off by hand and voraciously relished by all.  On another show from Prague viewers watched the Champion of Sausage Makers, form and fill the sausages with a quick squirt of his hand.  This type of scene is repeatedly produced for our viewing eyes, and stomachs.  Hey, I want to do that too!

This is where I must pull the plug on his presentation, and I will spin my personal story to illustrate.
Now that I abide in Italy, after reading his books and watched his programs, I decided to take part in the annual butchering of the pig at a tourismo farm run by Alfonso, a good friend of mine.  It was a good time to take advantage of my best Italian to explain to my friend my endeavor to take part in his slaughter of the pig and also to help make sausages.  At any rate couldn't I at least watch?  
Alfonso informed me of the rules of the EU, that my attendance would be as welcome as a case of herpes, because they are not allowed to have persons in the same room with the government overseer, the butcher, the pig owner and his hired workers.  The butcher has to follow the laws that were made when the EU was formed.  Apparently if you do not go by the law you can lose your license to be operating an agritourismo where a farmer serves the food he produces.  
Being a positive thinking and resilient American I  thought there must be another way, so I tried several other farmers who raise pigs and got the same answer.  No!  I guess that unless I hire a camera crew and have my own television program this is one undertaking that I will have to leave up to Bourdain.

(You can see Alfonso and his sausages in the accompanying photo)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Day Is It? Was It August?


     Today is Wednesday and I need to remember that, especially this afternoon.  The reason is that in my village and throughout the Veneto almost all the food shops will be closed in the afternoon.  I can’t tell you how many times I have forgotten this hard and fast rule, walked to my supermarket and found it closed up and dark inside.
     This fundamental decision by shop owners is a tradition followed so that the workers could have a half day off, mostly as they also work all day on Saturday.  Therefore, after 12:30, one can expect to find a closed shop and if you are out of butter as I am today, you better head to the store in the morning.  
     Another tradition is that on Monday mornings the stores that sell clothes, appliances or mostly anything except food will be closed in the morning.  The same reasoning holds here, that the workers and shop owners need a half day off since they work on Saturday.
     The workers in shops mostly contend with long hours during the day without complaining.  There is not much of the 8 hour work day rule as found in America.  These workers are in this job for the duration of their working life.  Not many of them are working temporarily as they are paid a fairly good wage.  The system makes sure that they are covered by a great health coverage and that they are working towards their retirement called pensione.
     Workers also receive at least a two week paid vacation, sometimes three weeks, and a huge majority of them can be found at the beach in August as this is the month traditionally for all factories and businesses to observe vacations.  
     Think about this, all the factories and businesses in Italy are closed for three weeks in the month of August you will see a country of quiet towns, looking deserted, with few people walking the streets.  Only in tourist towns such as Venice or Rome will you find open  shops.  
    But also consider that every beach in Italy is lined with rows of beach chairs, thousands and thousands of them.  If you don’t believe me try Google Earth and take a look.  From Pescara to Venice, which is 478 kilometres (297 miles) there are beach chairs.  There are few open beaches in Italy. If there is flat sand you will see them taken up by chairs that you must rent if you want to enjoy the beach.  Two chairs and an umbrella between them for 15 euros a day.  People actually rent them by the week!   Don’t forget parking!

     I miss the California, Oregon and Washington beaches where you bring a car full of umbrellas, cooler, chairs and claim a piece of the beach for the day for free.  Near Venice there is only one beach open for this kind of activity and we call it the “wild beach”.  We have been there are few times, but it is not  so popular as the water is grungy looking because the current brings water from the river and canals there.  You will see lots of floating things on the surface, a lot of scummy, environmentally unsafe looking particles.  It is not possible to see the bottom when you wade over your ankles and I don’t see swimmers putting their heads under the water.  I must say that the area where those beach chairs are the water is a lot more clear.   So in August you have two choices, murky water and few people, or clear water, rental chairs and a beach very crowded with a parking fee.
     The photo above is  the weekend fish houses south of Venice.  Some are rentable and you can lower the fish nets in the water, wait awhile and then mechanically bring them up to a point where the fish actually roll towards the house and you can collect them and cook immediately.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Stereotypes In Our Heads

                    Take a moment and picture a bottle of wine on an Italian table.    

     In this vision do you see a red and white checkered table cloth?  What could be more Italian than that?  The bottle, is the bottom partially covered with woven straw? That bottle of chianti is sold in the states, and you have seen that red and white checkered table cloth a hundred times in movies and restaurants in America.  These are the symbols in our minds of Italy.  We can almost smell the food!
     Funny thing is that in 6 years of living in Italy I have only seen one red and white table cloth for sale.  For 6 years I kept my eye open hoping to find it, and finally in my "Thursdays only" village market it appeared.  
     Let's talk about that romantic bottle of wine, wrapped in straw.  It is the symbol of past days where life was slower,y et identified as one of the worst Italian wines sold in America.  In the Veneto where I live, that bottle can be found, but no one buys it.  There are too many better wines for the same price.  (another subject later)
     While on the subject of wine I have to confess something.  I had expectations.  I imagined that large family dinner tables would have multiple bottles of wine.  I expected that Italians would drink  more than one glass, maybe three at least, but this is not the custom here.  In fact, I have never seen a drunk Italian.  I am sure there must be some, but I have never seen one.  (Yes, I do get out of my village often)  They just are not big drinkers.  They don't  lift their wine glass and give it a swirl, and you never hear the gurgling and sucking of wine tasters.   That is wine snobbery.
     Keep in mind that driving laws here are strict.  Tested with alcohol of more than one glass of wine in your system and your car is taken away.  For the first three years of driving, cars are taken away if a person is tested with ANY alcohol in their blood.  This is serious for persons moving to Italy and getting a new license as their old license is only good for one year here, especially serious when for three years you cannot have a trace of alcohol in your system when tested.  
     And now to my first Italian home cooked meal story.  I have brought a bottle of Silver Oak  to Italy to bring to dinner.  We are having lasagna freshly made and rolled out by hand.  I  present my bottle and it is opened to breathe, while we enjoy some cold cuts and cheese as the lasagna with fresh mushrooms picked that morning is baking.      
     Later we pour the wine.  The host, an old fellow,  pours half a glass and I watch in horror  as he then  picks up a bottle of water with gas and adds it to his wine.  Silver Oak and fizzywater!  Yes, I had already explained a little to them about the Napa Valley and its wines, so I did not expect it to be watered down.  He just wasn't your typical wine visionary!  He is a good shot!

     The old fellow grew up "without".  He was used to adding water to make the wine last longer, but he also explained  that  he is not used to full bodied wines.  I have also seen other Italians add water to their red wine.  He took me a week later to visit a farmer friend who makes his own wine and sausages.  I was  proudly shown the attic which had at least a hundred sausages hanging.  Taking another ladder down to the wine room, I saw three cement tanks for wine making.   Cement tanks was an old method for ageing the wine before stainless steel and fiberglass became the way.  Old ways die hard.   I was just glad to get to see how they used to make wine here.
     Next time you see a movie and there is that table cloth and that  bottle of wine, know that Hollywood is trying to fool you, and they do a pretty good job of it.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Real Italy

                           Busting stereotypes!  

Those romantic views, created by Hollywood and the media, the red and white checkered table cloths, the romantic accordion player in the piazza, the huge pile of sauce on spaghetti, the heavy use of wine at gatherings, all are illusions that now litter the  floor of my reality. They are busted like a frozen 45rpm dropped from a 20 story building,   If you are old enough to know what a 45 was.
My new reality is where this blog will be, through my life in a small village near Venice.  This blog will be about the Italians I know, how they think, how they live, eat, travel, see and celebrate their life in our world.