Service Definition, Please.

The train whistle sounds, and the steam blows…“I am American and I waaaaant my service!! Roooarrr!!” was the line that marked the breaking point for my patience and sanity in the last month. I find that these types of “episodes” happen more frequently here on the boot and I’ve been trying to build up antibodies to combat these negative hostilities; they tend not to mesh well with my preferred artistic go-with-the-flow “chi” in life. It all starts in a story seemingly normal in fashion…we can even throw in some extremely misjudged high hopes!

Internet is epidemic, but instead of being an obsession, it is my lifeline across the ocean to my Stateside interests and loved ones. Desperate to establish an Internet connection as fast as possible in my new Milanese apartment, I recently had to embark on a search find myself a good contract. The probability is like fishing for sea bass or shrimp in a lake! Good luck. I spent some time debating between the few “competing” companies, and I chose an internet connection over an internet key because it seemed more reliable…oh reliability, what a different ring it has here!

I eventually decided against Fastweb (the fastest and sole fiber-optic provider) due to past client complaints, and I trusted my good business with a DSL company, Infostrada. I browsed through the offers online, and my Italian roommate and I finally settled on our package, completing the application and awaiting the next step. Little did I know that I would be in for a whole flight of steps to last and a two-month struggle to obtain my service, off the net in the land of darkness until finding the wireless resolution.

There are several fundamental problems with providers of any service in this country: no competition, no communication, and basically a bassackwards way of complicating the simplest forms of organization and logistics. Given that there is no competition, we can assume that there is no motive or impetus to lower pricing to appeal to client patronage. Due to the high demand of connectivity, most of these companies enjoy high rates without worry of lost loyalty. I call it the “Boo-ya” effect.

As you will discover, the lack of communication is a byproduct of their disjointed organization, yet I have started to suspect that they purposely avoid interpersonal exchange to confuse clients. I call this the “bamboozle” effect: it’s like playing dizzy bat and having to run; better yet, it recalls poisoned insects that slowly lose all motor control as they get closer to the light. The more you daze and drive your clients crazy, the more they are invested and tangled in your webbed scheme, knowing full well that to undo the damage just means another road of pain. Maybe it is not a conspiracy; maybe at the end of the day, they just got wrapped up in a long lunch break, and it slipped their mind to communicate.

After waiting through three weeks of silence, I was in the mountains with my students on a field trip when I receive a call from the company; despite the bad reception, I was finally able to arrange for a technician to come to my apartment with my roommate’s presence. Elated that the wait was finally over, I arrive home, tired and dirty from my mountainous adventure amidst 200 children, expecting to see the lovely bars of my wireless connection to start buzzing with activity. Lesson #?: never have your hopes raised. Instead, I find that the man from Telecom had come merely to reinstall our phone line.

What comes next?! The second waiting period begins with the helpless expectation of a phone call. Believe me, if there were a feasible way to speak to a live person from the company, I would have been incessant and demanding for clear protocol; however, “operation bamboozle” was in full effect, and you just can forget about clarity! The hovering nebulous cloud of dubious mystery sets the stage for surprise attacks and haywire happenings.

The phone rings 1.5 weeks later to confirm our modem drop-off the following workweek, without establishing specifics. Immediately, some anxiety sets in knowing that most deliveries occur during the day without consideration of whether or not you will be home from work. Not having a porter for the apartment complex, my roommate and I understand that the situation could easily spin out of control into the land of black holes and madness, into the limbo land of lost floating packages!!! The exchange between Infostrada and the “delivery company” is taking place, and we have entered into the gray area of “non-responsibility and absent status reports.” We hold our breath in anticipation, and by now, we have no control.

It’s Tuesday of the week promised, and I get a call while coming home from work. The delivery boy, let’s call him Roberto, has come and gone. “When can he come back and what is the name on my doorbell?” Information is exchanged, and I make plans to receive the package the next day during a time span of three hours. Next day: no call, no sign, no nothing. Thursday: Silence on the front. Friday: I move into military action and begin frantically calling every number I can find on the internet. After a good two hours of dead-ends and misdirected calls, I hold for twenty minutes to talk to the specific Milanese delivery service, and my blood pressure finally cools when we fix another meeting time. Once again, time slowly passes with no sign of Roberto!

This means war! This wasted Friday morning fuels me up to the point of rupture where I begin an all-out offensive against the delivery company. Of course I can’t start raining down calls until after their famous lunch break lull. Tick, Tick, Tick. 3:30pm: After listening to maddening music for another hour, I finally make contact with the delivery company. My roommate, fresh to the battle, begins speaking very calmly and politely to the employee and tentatively starts setting a new rendezvous with Roberto for the following week! NOOOOOOOO!! (Quick flash of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream”)

Suddenly, I snap and grab the phone, yelling, “I am the American roommate! Let’s get this straight! I am the CLIENT, and YOU are the SERVICE! I pay YOU to deliver ME the package, if there should be a PROBLEM, YOU FIX IT!!! Why should I, the CLIENT, chase my tail around like a dog to resolve the logistics of your companies! ROBERTO WILL BE HERE TODAY, OR ELSE!!” I believe that I quickly blacked out, fangs sprung from my canines, and my voice morphed into a loud hideous roar. My roommate was slightly scared during the moment of “Twilight” action. Wouldn’t you know, though, shortly after, I was promised my little Roberto in five minutes time! Luckily for Robby, my eyes flickered back to reality, my claws receded, and I started giggling. What a crazy person I’m becoming!

I wait with baited breath outside for my Roberto! Roberto is sour, having been butchered by his boss, testifying to have come by twice that day. Problem? He did not know the name on my doorbell. Oh Roberto, I guess that information didn’t reach you (miscommunication), and I guess you couldn’t pick up the phone to dial my number (incompetency). Too bad, I have my MODEM! Victory Dance!!!

Ladies and Gentleman, lessons are constantly learned in this country: Never do the victory dance before the fat lady sings! In the last phase of the “Boo-ya” effect, the company smeared the icing on the cake in one simple text message, “Due to communication and technical problems, we aren’t able to register and activate your modem for ten more days.” The situation automatically becomes hysterical in a fourth dimension sort of way that makes you philosophize about the definition of “service”. This is one of those emotional roller-coaster rides where it is always best to knock on lots of wood, avoid asking questions, and exercise the art of Zen. In the words of many Italians, “To get what you want here, you have to seriously break some balls.” I’m a stubborn east-coast girl who takes after strong women, full of competitive determination, but Italian ball-breaking is a new arena, and I’m a soldier in training.

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La Thuile, Val D’Aosta: Response

Stuck in the clouds
with all the little
bird house chimneys
springing up like mushrooms
in the midst of mist
Evergreen Forests intertwine
with milky glacial springs.
rubbing its eyes slow and sleepy
autumn season’s burnt colors
mix with the vibrant, dewed
lush vermillion pines.
Skilled rich woodwork testify
to the careful hand
Silently shaping the indoors.
Tucked away in high valleys
amidst mountainous peaks,
waterfalls that trickle and rush.
Peace. A silence that speaks…
of magic, fairytales, and vapor
Stuck in the clouds

SOCIAL SITUATIONS IN SUPERMARKETS!

Some products brought over from the New World have benefited the human race, for instance, Columbus’s famous tomato transplant from American to Italian fertile soil changed the course of Italian cuisine and my happiness in this life. However other phenomena transported or inspired from my country grow into a rather distorted species when planted on the boot. One of the models that the Italians have just recently begun adopting is the idea of large supermarkets and shopping centers (usually found in bigger cities or in the countryside where space permits). As with every copied version, it takes on a new life and form in its new cultural setting, just like the Darwin rabbits that hopped over the hill and grew crazy ears.

The Italian personality when placed in certain social environments inspired by foreign American models can become a rather lethal and interesting recipe. Conditioned by a history of farmers markets and small alimentary stores, the population finds themselves in a rather new conception of space and consumption. The danger of this globalized adoption of “convenience and commodity” is that the shopping spree in a large Anglo-Saxon serpentine space was definitely not conceived for the Italian idea of personal space, order, and public courtesy.

I was scandalized the first time that I entered the large Esselunga supermarket near my apartment in Milan. It was a rather hysterical situation, as I continue to be surprised at various scenarios despite my years of living here. As I first stepped foot in the store, I screamed, “Oh my goodness, someone gave them huge metal shopping carts!” Survival instincts: I grabbed a small yellow basket knowing that I would be more agile and able to avoid potential hazardous zones. I felt like I was dodging bumper cars at an amusement park as people swerved to hit me in every direction. In these situations, however, I realize that you have to jump in and face the chaos, hoping to remain calm enough to remember your grocery list, or your identity.

The elderly people are the most dangerous and are to avoid at all costs! They whip around corners and wield their metal tanks with such a crazy and uncontrolled manner that I run for cover. In other scenarios, this age class is used to ruthlessness bidding techniques of proactive domination, barking out their orders, or simply judging you weak and sweetly sliding in front of you at markets, butcher shops, or at other small stores. (The same exists with the race to the communion line at Sunday mass– some even get a head start!) They are forces to be reckoned with that tend to throw off your conception of sweet cookie-baking grandparents as they work as a grocery tag team. Instinctively, they have all developed the idea of “survival of the fittest,” a trait conditioned by necessity in this country! With all due respect, this great generation survived famine and war, raised families and paved the way for our futures, but you just gotta watch out! They are tricky!

To make matters more complicated, all clients must weigh their produce! Therefore, the few scales that are placed on the floor stand there like pieces of meat in the gladiatorial games! The patrons have their weapon: zucchini, eggplant, radicchio, figs, and bananas, and they all charge at once! You must prove yourself in the contest of agility and grace, style and guts, sliding your lettuce onto home base; as the dust settles, you open your eyes to see if you’ve succeeded, weighed and stickered. God forbid if you forget the number of your vegetable!

I once made the mistake of going grocery shopping the first weekend of september, aka, the first weekend home for most tanned Italians returning from summer vacation! Mamma mia! I almost risked my life and sanity in the zoo. This leads me to a brief discussion of the check-out lines, shopping carts bottled together in every direction like sardines. At a certain point, a second line spontaneously forms, feeding into the same register. You start sweating and developing an unhealthy hatred for those *&%^%$# that stand in line number 2 as you mindlessly wait in the CORRECT line that is backed up along the heavily trafficked pasta and bread aisle. You are hot and your head is spinning, as your evil thoughts continue. Then you start asking yourself…What is a line? What is correct? What is my name? What is 1+1? What is a question? Oh the descension to the dark side.

All of a sudden, there is light, and you are outside again. After you leave with your groceries, you are almost thankful that you survived. A small strange part of you feels victorious, even despite the tempest of frustration. I believe that this is the method to their madness, that they drive you to the point of numbing insanity that when it is all over, you are simply happy to be alive with your bag of nutrition.

I have two supermarket savings cards, and I am honestly convince that they do absolutely nothing. They are about as useful as the plastic chicken nuggets in my childhood McDonald’s play set, and my mother still finds these uneatable nuggets hidden in dark corners of our house to this day. Coming from Giant Eagle advantage cards, gas perks, rewards points, double deals, and incredible customer savings in the US, these cards remain to be mysterious. Two pieces of plastic that are swiped without consequence, no explanation from the cashier, no cupons, no nothing. My coworker once explained that they aren’t good for much, but that he earns free movie tickets after an x-number of grocery trips. Hmmm. Regarding cards, I am still in the phase where I’d just rather not try to know. When you are forced to understand procedures here, it is just painful.

Until the next time that I don my helmet and shield in my own training for “survival of the fittest” in Italy’s supermarkets, battling along side of my beautiful Italian counterparts….I will eat well using Italy’s special guaranteed quality certified products, bite into juicy ripe tomatoes whose goodness drugs you into erasing those shopping wounds. It is juuuuust enough to make you forget–that irresistible lover who is always forgiven–with once slice of pizza or dish of fresh tagliatelle with hearty Bolognese ragu sauce, a plate of varied Italian formaggi, or even better, a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino…..what was I saying?

Why do most Italians ride scooters?

Italian fact of the day:

Why do most Italians ride scooters?

1. Their cities and the country in general are more crowded–parking is always a hassle and traffic is a complete mess, especially in big cities like Milan. It is more convenient to have a small motor-bike that can weave in and out of the cars and find parking in small spaces. Besides traffic conditions, cities like Milan require a hefty price for using your car in the city center due to the high congestion and air quality problems.

2. Considering the fact that many roads in Italian cities, especially those in smaller towns, can be very small, narrow, and/or steep depending on the terrain. These areas have amassed their topography over uncountable centuries, and their roads tend to be more convoluted and tangled, intersecting, weaving, and bumped into piazzas. Of course I am not discounting city-planning in the least, but these urban schemes tend to chart the path of human activity and community interaction. Have you ever seen a map of Milan? It looks like a spider web in that there are larger circles, called le circonvallazioni, that ring the traffic in, out and around the city. Scooters are conducive for any road type or route.

3. They are not allowed to get their drivers license until they are 18 years old. However, they are permitted to drive motor-scooters at the age of 14. Therefore, teenagers are raised on two wheels before they earn their right of passage.

4. It is simply soooo much fun to ride a scooter around the city, zipping by monuments and feeling the air rush against you! I love watching people of ever age hop onto their motorini! From teenagers: dressed in the latest fashion, with their high top shoes and conformist brands, styled hair-dos under helmets, flying to their next encounter—to the working class: women flipping their hair and pressing the gas with high heels, men with flying suit tails flapping in the breeze weaving through morning traffic, picking up their children after school and securing them in the bike—to the older people: still hanging in with the high blood-pressure traffic maneuvers and ready as every to make absurd high-flying gestures at the crazy driving comportment of the fellow motorists–that absurd driving etiquette which is innately Italian.

5. They are just Italian!

Passeggiata thoughts

Italian Fact of the Day:

What is a “passeggiata”?

Literally a “passeggiata” is translated into “a walk or stroll”. I will mention “passeggiatas” frequently in my blogs because it is not only a word, but it is a way of life here in Italy. I can not even count the number of passeggiatas that I’ve taken in all parts of this country, and it is a habitual activity that is practically impossible to accomplish in its full ritualistic form in the United States. The streets have been constructed with the currents of Italian footprints, always converging in piazzas and zones of commercial or public activity.

The beginning of summer marks the high season of the passaggiata. In fact the streets outside my window are swinging with Jazz music and buzzing with the noises of a thousand chattering Italians as they relax sipping cocktails for an aperitivo along the Naviglio waterway. Some even raise their voices in drunken song! The bars and restaurants set up huge tents in the street during the warmer months, and they go all out with claiming their pavement space to compose elaborate arrangements of tables, chairs, and lounges for their prospective nightly crowds-finishing touches are added with candles. As aperitivo hour approaches (7:00), they make sure to leave an area of the street open for the crowds that will pave the passeggiata runway for the evening.

The runway is important, and you know that you are making a statement when you walk through the crowds. Walking alone is not advisable passeggiata behavior, and if you are strutting solo, at least pretend that you are headed somewhere interesting! I hope that you have put thought into your attire for the evening as well, especially your shoes (Italians tend to pay particular attention). Every night the streets are filled with life and a flurry of commotion, music drifting from the various locales, while wine and cocktails tune up the tastebuds for good conversation. The aroma of Italian cooking permeates the air as sizzling pizzas, aperitivo selections, and restaurant dishes are placed in front of the people lounging for a night-long affair. On popular evenings, you are lucky to battle the advancing army of parading people, battling for your piece of street to tread as aimlessly as you please!

The routes are undetermined and spontaneous–you can choose a new street, alley or bridge at any given moment! It adds to the excitement of the undestinational walk–or fashionable meandering if you will. Couples strolling hand in hand, kisses seized mid-step, and that one bad boyfriend that checks you out as his girlfriend is clinging to his arm. Groups of singles flock in packs, and teenagers scurry around armed with cellphones and attitudes. The men perch themselves along this nightly runway, calling out to those “lucky” ladies or just staring enough to make them blush. The mature couples walk arm in arm-the woman dressed in light evening Alberta Ferretti dress and her hubby in suave pair of colored pants, a seamless shirt, and a colored sweater tied casually around his neck–picked for you today out of the Brian & Barry catalogue!

The passaggiata does not have to be an evening activity, and it is usually a stroll that ends with piazzas, restaurants, bars, stores, parks, supermarkets, gelaterias, or home. It is a way of life, it is a series of encounters, it is a scenic tour, it is a social event, it is a peaceful unwind, it is a strutting show, it is a current of people, it is hand-in-hand-kiss me over the bridge, it is the breeze in your face, it is the flavor of your gelato, it is the color of your lips-the light in his eyes, it is the laughter in the air, it is undemanding, it is the freedom without agenda, it is the joy of life.