domenica 23 dicembre 2007

We're off!!

Well, the bags are (almost) packed, the gifts are (almost) in the (almost) packed bags, and we are (almost) ready to go! Actually, I've been ready to go for about six months now....
We're off to England to spend Christmas with my mum and dad, and I've never been more excited. It's been a long, stressful year here in Milan, and I'm feeling a serious need to go back to my roots - even if it is only for four days. It just doesn't feel like Christmas to me until I'm in my mum's house, eating mince pies and listening to Christmas music on the radio. I've been very disappointed at the complete lack of Christmas music here, and no Christmas films on TV at all - it's just not festive!! OK, that was my last little moan about living here until next year....
Merry Christmas everyone!!!!!

mercoledì 19 dicembre 2007

La Scala & Rinascente hell

If you suspect that some of the anecdotes I tell on my blog are made up, or in some way elaborated, I can assure you that this is not the case! It occured to me on Saturday, just when I was thinking "this is one for the blog!" that some of the situations I get myself into are so ludicrous that they must seem fake, or at least embellished in some way. Take this one, for example.
On Saturday afternoon, I went to La Scala for the first time. Despite living in Milan for two years, the opportunity simply hadn't presented itself, and given that my friend and I both have other halves who would rather walk across hot coals than sit through a three-hour opera or ballet, we decided to go together. It was a Christmas performance of Swan Lake. The dancers were a bit wobbly (that's a technical term you know) but the setting was - obviously - spectacular, and it was nice to do something a bit different. However, I still found that I couldn't get away from my increasing difficulty in tolerating other human beings. We were in a box of six people, two of whom - a mother and small daughter - arrived 20 minutes into the performance. Having made their grand entrance, little Anastasia (really!) decided she didn't want to be in the theatre, and spent much of the entire first act moaning "I want to go home" loudly. This is obviously fine - small children don't understand theatre etiquette - the problem was that the mother kept engaging her in high-volume conversation, even when she was sitting quietly. When not attempting to distract little Anastasia, the mother would be writing a text on her mobile, or - unbelievably - answering a call. She received a total of three text messages and two phone calls during the performance, and on no occasion did she think it might be a good idea to switch her phone off, or even put in on silent!
Following the ballet, I decided to suck it up and head for Milan's largest department store, Rinascente, to buy gifts for Luca's young nieces. I was fully prepared for the two-saturdays-to-christmas hell, and in fact it took 20 minutes of crowd-surfing up the escalators to the 6th floor to reach the toy department. Not being all that experienced in what might appeal to a 2 year-old child and 8 month-old baby, I grabbed an assistant, and having considered and rejected practically every item in the department, finally settled on a set of animals that fit together and make noise if you get it right for Carolina, and a plastic mushroom thing with different buttons for Maddalena. All I can say is, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Having waited 15 minutes in the queue to pay, I got to the front only to discover that the credit / debit card machines in the entire shop had stopped working, and so they were accepting cash only. This is a store where you can buy items of clothing that run into four figures - I don't know about other people but personally I don't carry that amount of lose change around in my pocket! I was 5 euros short so their suggestion was to find a cash point and come back later. Great! The largest department store in Milan, 2 weeks to Christmas, and they can only take cash! Since there was no one to take my frustration out on (the poor assistants were getting it in the neck as it was), I calmly headed for the lift. 50 people. So, I headed for the escalator. 150 people. Six long escalator rides later, I was out the door and heading for the nearest cashpoint. 200 million people!!! A mere THIRTY FIVE minutes later, I had my money and was back on my way to the store to purchase my gifts. Having done so, I headed for Luca's bar to proudly show him the fruits of my first solo expedition to buy presents for the girls. "Can I say something?" says his mum, as she looks over our shoulders. "Carolina already has that".
I haven't summoned up the strength to take it back and change it yet, but I will have to at some point before Saturday. Wish me luck!

martedì 11 dicembre 2007

Strike it (not so) lucky

For the past two days, Italy has been subject to a transport strike by Road Haulage firms, whose lorries have been blocking motorways and sliproads, and causing general havoc up and down the land. The latest news is that 60% of the country's petrol stations are without fuel (a grossly-exaggerated figure if you ask me, and asking for trouble, given the increasing queues to fill up) and supermarkets are running out of fresh produce. The thing is, here in the 'bel paese', you can't walk ten metres without running into a picket line of some sort. Most of the time, no one has a clue what it's all about, or takes any particular interest other than being mildly annoyed at the inconvenience, and nothing ever seems to change, as the same sectors continue to strike year after year. Over the past 12 months, the following industries have walked out on strike for one reason or another:

- Water distributors (great start!)
- Practically every railway company in the country (no surprise there...)
- Lawyers
- The Naples office of the Ministry for Justice (!!!)
- Water purifying companies ( I haven't quite understood this one - it's something to do with making land viable for crop growth)
- Italy's largest bank
- Pharmacies (very bad)
- Hospital staff (worse)
- Surgeons (excuse me??)
- Anaethetists (say what??)
- Italy's main electricity provider
- Helicopter pilots (errrr....)
- The Environmental Health Agency
- Security firms
- Metal Workers
- The Transport Ministry
- The Post Office (lots and lots of Post Offices actually!)
- Cleaning companies
- The local police of Busto Arsizio (HA!)
- Various local authorities / town, city, provincial & regional councils
- Private medical clinics
- Telecom (no comment)
- Airlines, pilots, cabin crew - various and often. Alitalia practically every week.
- Baggage handlers (grrrrr)
- Airline safety companies (not too keen on this one)
- The Port Authority
- Local transport providers - bus, metro, tram (once a month in Milan booooo)

In 2006 there was a Catwalk Models strike. I am not kidding.

Joking aside, apart from the general disruption caused to people who are prevented from going about their everyday business, these situations can have an even more sinister effect. Doctors and hospital staff go on strike and operations have to be cancelled or postponed, putting patients lives at risk. Transport strikes prevent vital deliveries of food, water and medicines - I was reading in the Corriere that ambulances and other emergency vehicles may be left without fuel as a result of it not being delivered to fuel stations. Also, they are predicting that tens of thousands of live animals being transported by the striking truckers are likely to die from starvation / dehydration from being left in the lorries, parked on the motorway. It makes me sick, to be perfectly honest. Sadly this is one of the harsh realities of life in the 'bel paese' and there's nothing 'bel' about it.

lunedì 10 dicembre 2007


It's up! The tree is up!
And not without a certain amount of effort, I have to say... The queue at IKEA was distinctly unfestive - a bit like the supermarket deli counter on a Saturday morning, only colder and with more prickly produce. Just as I arrived, some woman at the front was having a real go at an older guy for jumping ahead to pick out a nice-looking tree that had just been brought out of the lorry. When he protested that he was only choosing - not being served - she started screaming about how if he picked the tree she'd wanted when in theory she was ahead of him, then he might as well be jumping the queue completely, and that he should wait his turn to choose as well as take away.... Mamma mia.... Then a young girl next to me spotted that our receipts had numbers on them, and suggested that we implement a number system. That was fine until someone pointed out that the numbers were only sequential if you had paid at the external till, not the one inside - so that little idea didn't pan out. The guys doing the bagging and tagging were taking no notice, so in an I'm-turning-into-my-mother moment, I decided that if anyone had to sort out these bickering Italians who have no idea who's next and who isn't, it should be the English girl. "Can people not just take notice of who arrives before them and who arrives after? We're all grown adults after all...." was my contribution, at which point they all shut up and waited their turn. Brilliant!

giovedì 6 dicembre 2007

The price of furbo

I knew it! I knew when I parked my car on the pavement last night that some idiot would come along and block me in this morning without thinking about it. And that's exactly what happened! For the FOURTH TIME in as many weeks...
The problem is that on a Wednesday evening in my street you are forced to park on the pavement as the street cleaners pass during the night and give you a fine if you are on the road. That means that people who arrive early on Thursday morning simply park alongside, blocking in those cars still on the pavement. Do they not look? Do they not think? Are they not aware that, unless you drive Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you are simply not able to sprout wings and hop over obstacles in order to get your car out???
And so, in an attempt to manoeuver between the offending vehicle and an unfortunately-placed lampost, despite the enthustiastic attempts of passers-by to guide me out, I still managed to end up with a king-sized scratch down the side of the back passenger door. In the end, a mechanic from the nearby garage came to my rescue and, after much shunting backwards and forwards, the car was out.
Arriving at the office very incazzata indeed, I recounted the story of the inconsiderate parking to an Italian colleague, whose reaction was to shrug and say "That's just the Italian way. It's like when we jump queues or red lights - we don't think about the danger or the annoyance to others. We just have to be first. We have to be more furbo than the next person".
'Furbo' is a word that comes up a lot in Italy. It literally means 'sly' or 'cunning', and is considered a positive attribute to have. You're furbo if you can find your way around having to pay a fine, without getting caught by the authorities; you're furbo if you succeed in pushing your way into the supermarket queue; you're furbo if you jump a red light and therefore avoid the chaos left behind for all those other suckers to endure. Bravo! Well done, you're furbo!
The problem with this attitude to life is that it tends not to consider the consequences of a person's actions, or the way in which they might affect others. In Italy, the general impression seems to be that if you don't try and outsmart the next guy, he will outsmart you.
So quick - grab that parking space before someone else gets it (don't worry about the fact that you're blocking a driveway); push the old granny out of the way to get to the front of the queue (you don't want an old granny to beat you to it, surely??!!); run the red light to avoid a 2-minute wait (nevermind the lady with the pushchair on the crossing - she'll soon realise you're just being clever and happily jump out of your way...)
Moral of the story?? DON'T BLOCK ME IN!!!!!!!

sabato 1 dicembre 2007


It's not often that we meet people who inspire and move us whilst going about our everyday errands, but that is exactly what happened to me today when I spotted a seamstress' shop as I was collecting my dry cleaning. Since I have been driving around for about a month with a bag full of clothes that need to be adjusted and mended in the back of my car, I thought I would take the opportunity, and so I stopped and rang the bell. A little old lady let me in, and as she took my measurements, began recounting her life story. An hour later, I was still there.
Signora Liliana was born in a seamstress shop just outside Milan, where her father employed 12 women to make and mend clothes designed by important local designers. One of those designers was a little-known but highly talented young man by the name of Valentino Garavani. Known to you and me simply as "Valentino". Liliana showed a talent for clothes making, but was determined not to end up working for her father her whole life, so she pursuaded him to allow her to study at college in exchange for a few hours a week working in his shop. During this time, Valentino - who had become a family friend by this time - noticed Liliana's talent and offered her a job in his Milan shop, making clothes for his haute couture lines. She accepted and worked for him for the next seventeen years. During this time, he announced that he was moving to Paris, and offered to take her with him, but she had married a local man and had a young son, and so remained in Milan, becoming a full-time housewife and mother. Then, one day, the unthinkable happened, and she lost her husband suddenly. Being widowed left her with no job and no money, and a young son to care for. Her father had died a few years previously, leaving his business to Liliana's brother, who very sadly had turned his back on her when she left the family shop, and was determined not to share his inheritance. Just when things were at their worst, and Liliana was struggling to feed herself and her son, a friend stepped in and offered her a job working as a secretary for her lawyer husband in the city centre. She remained in this job until she reached retirement age, which was when she feels that her life really took a turn for the worst. Four years ago, she was waiting to cross the street at traffic lights on a busy roundabout when a motorcylist who was travelling too fast lost control of his bike, mounted the pavement, and knocked her into the path of an oncoming car. She broke several bones, and was left with partial blindness in one eye. It took her a year to recover from her injuries. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, just 18 months later, she was waiting for her son outside the bank, when she felt a pulling motion from behind. Three young men dragged her to the ground and ran off with her handbag, leaving her with a dislocated shoulder and serious bruising. Again it took several months for her to get back on her feet, and when she did, she was left contemplating the paths her life had led her down. Liliana is convinced that her husband is watching over her, through her hardship and misfortune, making sure that she always bounces back. One year ago, her son - now an architect - bought her the small seamstress shop where she spends her days putting into practice the skills that she learnt all those years ago, and browsing through Valentino's books, which are brought to her each season by an ex-colleague whose daughter also works for the designer. The same ex-colleague recently sent her a ticket for one of Valentino's Paris shows. Much as she would love to be re-acquainted with her old employer, she doesn't want to go as she feels she will be disappointed with the way in which the fashion world has changed since she was involved in it. She told me that some days she looks in the mirror, and doesn't recognise herself. She keeps herself busy in the shop, and as she works she thinks back to when she was Valentino's promising young seamstress, looking forward to a lifetime with the man she loved and a family to raise. Her advice to me was simple: enjoy each day as you never know what tomorrow may bring.
Wise words from a wise lady, who really made an impression on an ordinary Saturday afternoon.