domenica 30 settembre 2007

Safety First

Last night, Luca and I were on our way home from the bar when his mum called to say that his dad had been knocked off his motorbike and it didn’t seem serious but they were waiting for the ambulance to arrive. We took off – almost literally – and sped across the city to find his mum, two friends, and various passers-by crowded around the ambulance, and his dad strapped into a neck brace on a stretcher inside. I’m not good with emergency situations at the best of times and following the ambulance to pronto soccorso was pretty scary, but after a couple of hours waiting outside the hospital, we discovered that he had a simple knee injury and was just a little shocked. Whilst we were waiting, a number of other motorbike accident victims were brought in, each with their worried families in tow. I’m started to have a genuine fear of the traffic here in the city. It seems that everyone has something to say about the general lack of road safety, people’s apparent incapability to follow the rules and the poor lighting and maintenance of the street system. Just the other day, following heavy rain, a hole appeared in the road outside our apartment which was certainly deep enough to throw any motorcyclist doing more than about 50kms an hour off their bike. A passing police patrol car stopped to have a look, and after much shrugging of shoulders they placed a road cone small enough that you would need a microscope to see it next to the hole, and went on their way. Whilst hanging around the Emergency Department at the hospital, Luca picked up a newspaper carrying the headline “Road Safety: new law could increase number of victims”. The article talked about the fact that the government is proposing to decrease the amount of time a new driver has to wait before being allowed to drive cars over a certain number of cylinders – from three years to one. Given the number of accidents that already take place as a result of teenagers driving powerful vehicles at excessive speed, I hate to think of the consequences of providing them with an even earlier opportunity of killing themselves and others….
As Luca’s mum provided her witness statement to the police (needless to say the car which knocked his dad down sped off immediately and nobody on the scene managed to get a look at its number plate), she commented on the fact that, despite being one of the main roads leading into the city centre, with three lanes of constant traffic, it is one of the darkest streets in the city. The policeman’s response was to shrug his shoulders and “I know Signora – my colleague filed a report about this exact problem six months ago following another accident, and nothing’s been done yet”. If the new law allowing new drivers to get behind the wheel of increasingly-powerful vehicles comes into effect, I wonder where the extra insurance premiums will be directed….

mercoledì 26 settembre 2007

Running on empty

It's fashion week. And what does that mean? Well, for many it obviously means lots of beautiful people meeting in over-priced, over-crowded venues to enjoy a free cucumber slice with their half a glass of post-catwalk mineral water... For me, however, it means traffic. Lots and lots of it. Take yesterday evening for example. My parents had just arrived so I skipped out of work early - at 6 o'clock - and jumped on the bus home, where I had to collect the car so that I could pick them up from their hotel. The distance from the office to my house is about 2 kms - 5 minutes by car or 15 minutes on the meandering bus. The traffic was already pretty awful, so the journey took half an hour. Hmph. Not good, but hey - now I get to jump in my warm, cosy car and in 10 minutes I'll be at my destination (Città Studi to Porta Venezia for those in the know - not exactly a million miles...). Except that when I get in the car, I find is has NO PETROL. I won't go into the anger and frustration that I felt towards my usually lovely BF at this point - suffice to say I was angry and frustrated. By this time it's 7 o'clock but no worries - the petrol stations around here are all open until 7:30. So I drive off with my fingers crossed and do a circuit of the one-way system, fighting my way through red lights and queues to get to the nearest one. CLOSED. How closed?? It's too early! OK don't panic - there's another station down the road and left a bit. So I get back in the traffic jam and head towards it. CLOSED - self service only. WHAT?? But it's only 7:15!!! No fair!! OK, so I can use the self service, right? Wrong! It only accepts 10 and 20 euro notes, and I only have a 50. Dammit! So I get on the phone to L, and he tells me where to go for another fuel station which DEFINITELY closes at 7:30. I switch the engine back on (slightly to my surprise) and drive off, repeating the mantra please don't break down please don't break down all the way. By this time the traffic is horrendous and it takes my a good 10 minutes to get 500m... but finally I see the petrol station looming in the distance, with the word APERTO (open) on the sign outside. Hurrah!!! I drive onto the forecourt triumphantly, only to notice that it's strangely quiet. And the door to the little hut is locked. And the pumps are switched off. NOOOOOOOOO!

My friends, it doesn't finish there.

OK, so it is now 7:25. I am not going to find a petrol station that is open for service - I am going to have to do it myself. I need to change my 50. Right, so in this street there are no shops or bars as it's completely residential, and even if there were, they'd pretty much all be closed at this time. I do however know of a cash point in the next street. I'm going to have to go and draw out 20 euros, then go back to the previous station and fill up myself. So I drive (well, actually I stick the car in neutral and coast) to the corner, dump the car in the middle of the road with the hazard warning lights on (as one does in these parts) and head for the bancomat. I am absolutely not kidding - FUORI SERVIZIO (out of order). By this point I am practically crying and have totally run out of solutions, so I think "F*ck it, I'm just going to continue to my parents' hotel, and hope that if I break down, it'll be after I pick them up so that they can at least provide moral support!" Mean but true. Amazingly I get there, collect them and start heading for Luca's bar, and about 200 metres from their hotel we find a damn petrol station, and my dad gives me a 20 euro note for the self-service machine (am loving the strong, independant woman lifestyle...). We then sit in traffic for the following 40 MINUTES as we attempt to make our way the short distance to the bar, where Luca and his family are waiting for us to join them for dinner. Yes folks, for me Fashion Week is no more than a pain the the (scrawny) butt.... Tonight we have a table booked at 9 o'clock. I'm leaving the office at 5:30.

lunedì 24 settembre 2007


I've been giving some thought to the types of blogs and bloggers out there in expat blog land. There seem to be those who recount their lives to entertain, those who use their blogs as some sort of cathartic outlet for the ups and downs of 'la bella vita' and those who have some sort of hidden motive which determines the content and style in which they 'publicise' places and situations. This post definitely does not fall into the latter of these categories, so if you are of a sensitive nature, or are one of those tireless 'bel paese' advocates, by all means stop here and go drink a nice glass of Chianti on your terrace. Otherwise, pour yourself an extra large glass and read on. It's been one of those Mondays; I promise I will be nicer in future....

1. Why is it that people insist on taking up the entire aisle in the supermarket, refusing to move, no matter how much effort I make to get by. Yet, if I leave my trolley unattended for more than half a second, somebody will start huffing and puffing and complaining about 'these people who have no respect'.....?

2. Why is the bank open for about 2 minutes per day and closed at lunchtime and on Saturdays – the only time that us poor workers can actually get there. Why do I then have to queue for 40 minutes to pay MY cash into MY bank account, and then pay 2 euros for the 'service' (otherwise known as the air-you-breathe fee)....?

3. Why when I run out of bus tickets, why do I have to trek 300 metres to the nearest tabacchi, despite the fact that the bus stop is outside my house, only to find that it is closed / has run out of tickets / only sells them every third Tuesday, if there's a full moon and a 'z' in the month....?
The same goes for scratch-and-park tickets.....

4. Why do I have to watch naked women posing for raunchy calendars EVERY DAY on the national lunchtime news....?

5. Why does everyone seem to think that they own the roads, in spite of having no idea as to how they are intended to be used? The concept of lanes appears not to have reached these shores....

I could go on but I shall stop here as I am starting to annoy myself. Why??

venerdì 21 settembre 2007

Everyone's an expert...

It's Friday afternoon in the office, and everyone is in full brain-storming mode. Ideas are thrown around, methods discussed and timescales defined. The conclusion? Giant prawns gently fried in white wine and lemon juice. Yes folks, the comunal brainstorm was the result of my simple request for ideas as to what to cook for dinner.
Italians are well known for being serious foodies, yet it never fails to amaze me just how damn expert they all are when it comes to cooking, regardless of age, gender or background. One of the major contributors to the discussion is the type of young guy you see hanging out in the coolest clubs on a Saturday night, D&G sunglasses surgically attached to his head, Negroni in hand - yet you wouldn't believe the way his eyes lit up as he described the perfect way to get the best flavour out of your scampi. "Oh, and don't forget the fresh parsley!!"Damn experts they might be, but what would we do without them?!

giovedì 20 settembre 2007

Fight! Fight! Fight!

I am often to be found ‘hanging out’ at the bar that Luca runs with his family in the city centre. I tend to go a couple of times after work during the week, and during busy times will occupy myself by working on my laptop, catching up on emails or updating my blog. This is what I am doing right now in fact, interspersed with the odd cigarette break or chat with the locals. About two metres to my right, seated outside is a couple who are fighting like cat and dog. I can hear them through the glass and it’s getting more and more violent by the second. They’re both wearing wedding rings so I – perhaps foolishly – assumed that they were having a husband / wife disagreement. When I heard “your wife gets everything and I get nothing”, I started listening in. “You stand up for her and you never stand up for me!” “She gets the best of you and I get the leftovers!” “You never acknowledge me in public!” and so on and so forth. It’s been about half an hour now and they show no sign of letting up. This is another curious cultural oddity which I noticed fairly on in my Italian experience when, aged 16 on holiday with my parents, my dad and I began having what my mum would call a “heated debate” in the middle of an outdoor cafè (I think my skirt was too short or something!). Part of the way through I realised that no one was taking any notice as most of the people around us were making more noise than we were, whether they were arguing or not. It was then that I realised if you want to get ahead in this country, you need to make our voice heard. Whether it’s yelling out “I’m next!” when the lady at the fish counter stops taking notice of the numbered tickets and starts serving her next-door-neighbour before you, or simply getting your point across in any discussion regarding politics, football, food, religion - well anything really - in Italy you must raise your voice; the louder the better….

mercoledì 19 settembre 2007

Miss Communication

At brunch last weekend, my girlfriends and I were at the till waiting to pay when I became aware of a certain amount of huffing and puffing from the girl behind us. It soon became clear that she was bitching about us as, in the chaos and confusion of the place, we appeared to have jumped the queue – completely innocently I might add. She was moaning to her friend (in Italian) that “these foreigners have no manners….” “They think that they can do what they like just because they’re American…” (I’m not American FYI). “Just because I’m Italian doesn’t mean I don’t understand what they’re saying…” (We hadn’t said a word about them). Needless to say, I waited for the perfect moment, and much to the amusement of my friends, turned around and said, very abruptly, in Italian “Did we jump the queue by any chance??”. “No no, it’s fine”, spits back the girl. It blatantly wasn’t fine, but I certainly enjoyed the moment.
This reminds me of when I was a student in Siena, and one day whilst walking through the town, a group of teenage boys directly behind me started making comments amongst themselves, in Italian about the “bella biondina straniera” ( I was ten kilos lighter and seven years younger, you understand). Again I gave them a chance to say all that they needed to (some of it was really quite rude!), before spinning around and yelling at them in my then broken Italian: “Don’t think I don’t understand what you’re saying!!”. I remember them looking a bit shocked, but not much else as I turned on my heels and sped off, slightly embarrassed at the outburst, particularly since I was still finding my feet linguistically. Should something like that happen now, I would probably hang around, but then again that’s what ten kilos and seven years of experience does for you....

martedì 18 settembre 2007

Aperitivo time

One of the great things about Milan is the aperitivo. From around 6pm to 9pm every evening throughout the city, almost every locale, from Joe's Cafe to the Armani Bar lays out a spread of anything from peanuts and crisps to plates of pasta and rice, pizza, salad, and roast chicken. Depending on where you go it can be a real feast, as long as you are willing to pay the 6 to 8 euros per drink in order to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet.
What really interests me about the aperitivo however, is the cultural take on it, and the way in which different personalities and backgrounds seem to shine through. When faced with a spread of free food, your average Italian will dive straight in, automatically reaching for the long toothpick with which to spear the various goodies lined up on the counter. We Brits are more reserved. I have actually seen a group of English tourists form a queue at the start of the buffet, plastic plate in hand, only to be stampeded by the passing locals. I remember when I was fairly new to Milan and my friends took me for an aperitivo in a trendy bar in the city centre. The fried olives were proving tricky to spear with the long toothpick, and following various attempts, involving chasing a damn olive around the dish to no avail, I finally picked it up with my fingers, and dropped it on my plate guiltily. I looked up to find one of my friends grinning from ear to ear. "You managed to catch it then?!".
I've decided that the best philosophy when it comes to l'ora dell'aperitivo is 'elbows at the ready', and if all else fails, just pick the stuff up with your fingers - chances are everyone else is too busy digging in themselves to notice....

lunedì 17 settembre 2007


My colleagues are comparing toothpastes. They are actually crowded around a desk, each with their toothpaste of choice in hand, comparing the benefits of the green one over the yellow, and whether this brand contains more fluoride than that one. This is all part of the daily post-lunch office ritual of comunal teeth-cleaning. I know this is not specific to my organisation because I once walked in on a lady cleaning her teeth in the toilets at a client's office, and it all fell into place - something else to add to my rapidly-expanding list of cultural oddities.
Dentists must have tons of free time here...

Big city life

It has been brought to my attention that the previous posts may have been ever-so-slightly negative in their tone, so in an attempt to redress the balance, I have decided to share with you a few of the reasons why I like living in Milan. Let's get one thing straight from the start: Milan is not typical of your average Italian city. In many ways it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the country whatsoever. It feels at times like you are forced you to endure many of the negative aspects of city life - endless traffic jams, pollution, dirt, extortionate prices - whilst being deprived of the potential benefits - efficient public transport, shops open at all hours, a cosmopolitan mindset... At the end of the day, Milan is a bit like an over-grown provincial town which struggles to accomodate its growing population, and doesn't seem to have learned from its other European equivalents. Look at me, I'm bitching again.

So anyway, reasons why I like living in Milan are:

1. The weather is almost always better than in the UK - you can eat lunch outside practically every day from April to October.

2. Places like Florence, Rome, Venice, The Alps, Switzerland, the Ligurian coast are just a stone's throw away.

3. Good quality food and wine at reasonable prices - both in the supermarket and when eating out.

4. The Milan aperitivo - purchase a drink and you can help yourself to food from the buffet until you are fit to burst.

5. Saturday brunch à la New York style (-ish) - this is catching on fast, and gives you the opportunity to stay in bed until midday and still make it in time for eggs and bacon.

6. Truly great cappuccino - my personal favourite is to be found at Bar XXI Secolo in Via Procaccini...

7. Shopping. Say no more.

Wow I made it to seven! Maybe city life isn't so bad after all..... Or maybe I should write a list of the things I dislike about Milan. I would probably get to seventy-seven, so I shall quit whilst I'm ahead.

domenica 16 settembre 2007


A traditional way of congratulating the bride and groom at an Italian wedding is to say something along the lines of “Congratulations and may you be blessed with male children”. What??!! Say WHAT?!?! Its use may be rapidly diminishing, but it does make you wonder about the mentality of a nation where “mamma” is everything but the true blessing is to have boys. I’m told that it’s to do with maintaining the family name, but did nobody worry about where the next mamma might come from? I say be careful what you wish for!

Luca has two young nieces, one who is two and a half, and the other just seven months. I have witnessed the progress of the first since she was one, and participated in the pregnancy and arrival of the other (not literally!). My experience of children is quite minimal, being from a very small family and not having siblings myself, and whilst at the start I would hold them like a football and panic at the merest whimper, I realise that I am actually now quite comfortable in the company of these little people who never fail to amaze in the way that they view the world, and the reaction they provoke in complete strangers. Italians are famous for their love of children, and they don’t appear to have yet adopted the paranoid, fretful method of parenting which is so popular where I come from. Here, people take their children to expensive restaurants on a Saturday night, allow them to play in the streets, and let them scream incessantly on public transport without fear of reprisal, no matter how much the little angels continue to annoy other passengers (i.e. me!). On the one hand I think it’s great that babies and children are included in everyday life, and not packed off to bed at 7pm every night, and that they generally have hordes of family members on the doorstep to love and spoil them. On the other hand I fear the consequences of a generation of young people who are so used to being centre-stage and too cute to be disciplined that sometimes the practicalities of sharing the world with those around them seem to be overlooked. Maybe it explains the reason why Italian “children” stay under their parents’ roofs until they are about ninety three…

In any case, this post is dedicated to my friend Maria, who discovered a couple of days ago that the little person who has been kicking her in the stomach for the past few weeks is in fact, a girl. Congratulations and may you be blessed in spite of the fact that you are not expecting a boy… :-)

sabato 15 settembre 2007

Dub dub

I’m watching Ugly Betty in Italian. To be honest I much prefer to miss the TV broadcast of UK / American TV series, and get them on DVD but on this occasion I’m too into it to stop watching, even though the dubbing is making my ears bleed. OK, so this is a subject which has been expat- blogged to death – along with bureaucracy, waiting your turn (or not), the Italian healthcare system, etc.etc. I’m going to talk about it anyway. Firstly, the fact that many of the greatest, most well-known Hollywood actors are dubbed by the same voice really bothers me. The first time Luca and I were watching a film together and he came out with “this is usually Al Pacino’s voice”, it took me a while to work out what the hell he was going on about. Isn’t a major factor in what makes an actor great the way in which they deliver the role, their timing, tone and intonation? If you understand Italian, try watching the dubbed version of friends. “Could I be wearing any more of your clothes?”, delivered with perfect comedy timing by Joey, and followed by genuine audience reaction just does not work when conveyed as a serious question, and met with stony silence (audience laughter doesn’t seem to have been imported into the dubbed version). For those of you who, like me, grew up with The Fresh Prince of Belair at teatime every weekday, the clip that I found on You Tube at will either make you howl with laughter or cry with pain – these are the opening titles for the Italian version. Note the fact that Will (or “Willy”, as they call him here) is dubbed by some guy who must be at least 60 years old, and who is to rapping what Eminem is to flower-arranging. I guess if these programmes are going to be broadcast to a non-English speaker audience, there really is no alternative, and, when challenged on the subject, most Italians will bore you with a long, in-depth lecture on how talented their dubbing professionals are. Maybe that’s just what they need to do to convince themselves of the fact. Or maybe they just don’t know what they’re missing, and that’s rather a shame when you think about it.

lunedì 10 settembre 2007

Highly "recommended"....

This, my friends, is the first of what I fear will be many, many ramblings / rants / observations (I'm being as polite as I can be) on the "joys" of living in the "bel paese" (sarcasm starting to creep in already you notice). I fully accept that it was MY decision to move here, MY decision to stay, and I can damn well leave if I don't like it. I know all of that, and don't get me wrong - there are plenty of positive aspects to living in Italy (ummm....errrrrr....we'll come back to that later), and then there are the negatives. As you can probably sense, one of the negatives is on its way.
A new girl started at work today. Her first words were more or less these " Hi, my name's Giulia, my dad builds hotels." OK, they may not have been the exact words, but that was more or less the way she presented herself. This is something that you get a lot here and I have to say it drives me crazy... It's called "Raccomandazione" and basically involves daddy's golf buddies being Chief Executives / Managing Directors of multinational organisations, which completely coincidentally just happen to be looking for someone just like little Johnny / Jack / Giulia, to be cunningly inserted in some job which the rest of us have had to sweat blood and tears to get anywhere near.... It's just accepted in Italy that if you know the right people, pretty much regardless of your education or qualifications (although chances are, daddy had a hand in getting you into the best schools / colleges anyway...) you can expect a nice cosy job, straight out of university, bypassing all the slaves on stage contracts, to which you can drive your brand new car (bought for you by daddy), carry your Prada handbag (grazie papà) and totter around in your Gucci shoes and obligatory matching Gucci belt (guess whose money....). And at the end of the day it's not even like you need your salary to pay the extortionate rental prices here in Milan - after all you'll be going home to sleep under mamma and papà's roof....
No wonder you get treated like someone from a planet far far away when people discover that you live a thousand miles from your parents (shock horror), earn your own money from a job that you obtained out of your own merit (mamma mia!), and have been feeding yourself since you were eighteen years old (Dio Mio!!!). Rant over.

"I do"...or do I?

Yesterday we went to our friends' wedding in Lodi. It seems about a hundred years that they've been planning, preparing, attending those awful 'marriage preparation' classes with the local priest (eugh!) etc. etc., so I think we were all pretty relieved that the day had finally arrived, even if our collective desire to spend the afternoon doing the funky chicken and being polite to aging relatives was about... well, zero. Strangely enough, I have never been to a wedding in Italy before, despite living here for five years. I guess I just never moved in the 'marrying' circles until now, but in any case I was curious and fairly excited at the prospect of a 25-course meal, or whatever it is that you get at these occasions.

We arrived late, and by late I mean... LATE. The ceremony was long gone, and the guests had already finished their antipasti by the time we rolled up with Luca's brother and his girlfriend. Ah the joys of being in a relationship with someone who runs their own business..... I should probably get used to being four hours late for everything.

The first thing I noticed was that, despite the first course not yet having been served, the musicians were already in full swing, as was the dancing and...wait for it... KARAOKE!! I am assured that this is not typical of all Italian weddings (actually Luca's words were "solo quelli dei terroni" - ouch!) and being from a nation where nobody gets up to dance until at least 6 units of alcohol have been consumed per head, it was to say the least, a little bit bizarre. They actually arrived at the Conga before the meat / fish course had been brought out, and by the time we got to cake, it was complete chaos. At one point, the bride's cousins started attaching helium balloons to their baby sister in an attempt to launch her into autonomous flight... and I'm talking adult cousins! It was all very amusing, although by the time we got back to Milan, the copious amounts of sparkling red wine (yes you read that right!) were starting to wear me down...In any case, Auguri Andrea e Betty!!!

domenica 9 settembre 2007

Lost my luggage, lost my mind....

I guess it had to happen sooner or later. After many years of dragging myself and my suitcase(s) from A to B, via C, D and E, and back again, mostly without any major problems, I now find myself sans suitcase. Annoyingly it happened on the way to our destination, where we had just 7 days to 'relax', 'unwind', and think about all of the clothes we could be wearing had the suitcase managed to make the trip with us. Malpensa airport is well known for bags that miraculously jump from the luggage trucks and make a bid for freedom, although it's little consolation for the fact that - in my opinion - somewhere there is a baggage handler's wife / girlfriend who is very pleased with her new handbag and matching shoes....
Anyway in a final attempt to shed some light on the mystery, I made the 50km trip to the airport in Luca's dad's car (desperately trying not to scratch / scrape / break it in some way), arriving at Terminal 2, where I parked in the '15 minutes for free, over 15 minutes for about 200 million euros' carpark. In the terminal I met a nice, helpful (excuse me while I pass out from shock) security lady, who escorted me to the deposito and let me search through the mountainous pile of unidentified bags. Needless to say, mine wasn't amongst them. The kind security lady suggested that I have a look over at Terminal 1, as you never know, può darsi blah blah... So I head back to the carpark, insert my ticket in the cassa, and what does it tell me? SIXTEEN MINUTES. Cazzo!! Oh well, call it bad luck, pay the hundred million euros and head off. Fine.
Terminal 1. I park in the '15 minutes for free etc. etc.' carpark and head to the lost luggage office. Only this time the security guard doesn't look too friendly. He asks me for the paperwork, which I have. Good. He asks to see some ID, which I have. Great. "Er, Signora, I'm afraid I can't let you pass." "Why not?" I ask. "Because the name on the paperwork doesn't correspond with the name on your ID" "MA DAI??!" It turns out that at check-in they put Luca's name on both bags, and so his is the name on the paperwork. Dammit. I protest to the security man that I have all of the paperwork in my hand - the original airline ticket, the luggage receipt, the PIR form etc. and that surely if I was looking to locate and ultimately steal a suitcase not belonging to myself, its true owner would be pretty stupid to provide me with all of this documentation. O no?? So the security guard caves a bit and tells me to wait while he consults his female colleague. At this point I know I've lost the battle, and infact she totters over, wiggling her ass in the security guard's direction (just to make sure he knows who's boss, i.e. the ass is boss...) and promptly tells me to send the person named on the ticket, or return with a 'delega' - an official letter from the named person, authorising me to collect the bag in his place. My damn bag!! I argue a bit, before I start to worry they're going to do something awful like use their 'powers' - ha - to have me escorted from the building, so I retreat of my own accord. I get back to the carpark, and guess what.... SIXTEEN MINUTES!!! Cazzo.