Romans do it best: Thermal Spas

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” cannot be solely confined to Rome as we marvel over their feats in the farthest corners of the empire.  One of the most impressive structures in Rome are the Baths of Caracalla, where the remnants of the expansive structural complex and lofty vaults pay homage to the once luxurious Roman leisure and bathing centers, fed by aqueducts and equipped with the complete wellness package for run-down Romans!

The Romans were the first to have the genial idea to channel Italy’s natural active springs into fonts of social recreation, hygiene, and a place for revitalization of the body and mind for any Roman, despite his status.  Outside of the Eternal City, trekking to the far-flung northern Italian outposts of the empire at Aosta, they left their mark with Roman ruins such as the triumphal arch of Agustus, fortifications and an outdoor theater.  It was in fact, these same people that first discovered the heated thermal fonts near present day Pré-Saint-Didier in the Valdigne, located in the high alpine valley a few kilometers away from Aosta and other lofty villages such as Courmayeur and La Thuille.

The Terme of Pré-Saint-Didier is a jewel located below the majestic white-capped mountain range highlighting Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) and the protruding Giant’s Tooth seen off in the distance.  It is one of the last Italian villages before entering France under the mountains.

The thermal springs of Pré-Saint-Didier are located in a grotto, a deep and extremely narrow gorge shaped by the rushing waters of the Dora of Verney, and from the heart of the glacial mountains, the water springs forth at 37°C.  The waters of Pre’-Saint-Didier are famous for their relaxing qualities of low mineralization, capacity to soften the skin and to improve circulation. Physical wellness combines with the moral lifting provided by the peace, purity, and serenity of Mother Nature.

The first testimonies of their therapeutic use arise from the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that a thermal complex was developed around the water source that attracted tourists of high European society.  The year of 1834 marks the completion of the main bathing edifice followed by a luxurious casino in 1888, which has since then been integrated into the spa establishment.  The 19th-century architecture with modern accents blends in its natural context with a spectacular view of the sunrise over the mountains.

After stressful weeks of work and the drudgery of January, we decided that now was the moment to escape the busy city to smell the exhilarating air of the mountains at the terme of Pré-Saint-Didier.  It is open year-round, and it is charming covered in snow.

Pré-Saint-Didier at 1,100 meters altitude is a small quaint town crevassed into a pocket between the peaks and undulous rock formations. The use of local materials lends the town an earthy feel that humbly marriages perfectly with its splendid ambient.  The expert craftsmanship of woodwork extracted from the forests is characteristic of the chalets that are all topped with slabs of pietra di Luserna (a special granite found in these regions). We arrived at the sleepy village in the early morning, and the smoke rose up from the peaking chimneys, dissipating into the crisp air of the crystal sky.

The complex opens at eight am, and it is possible to enjoy the day of wellness until eleven pm, when the establishment closes.  For avid skiers that rise early to hit the alpine slopes nearby, it is possible to work out lactic acids and wind down at the spa starting at five pm until close, the perfect warm down to the sporting venture.

Luckily in Italia, thermal spa experiences are swimsuit only affairs, unlike many of their northern counterparts, and I left my nudist worries at ease.  We were provided with a robe, towel and flip-flops, and we were good to go for a day full of invigorating relaxation.

The complex is a beautiful and clean establishment with rustic interior design, and it includes various amenities: there are three outdoor thermal pools, various saunas (indoor and outdoors ranging from 80-100°C), aroma therapy saunas (lower temperatures of 55°C), aroma therapy relaxation rooms, Turkish baths, Jacuzzis, waterfalls, rain rooms, a Scottish shower, mud baths, and more.  Obviously the massage center’s experts provide various activities and courses of wellness.  There are varied rest and relaxation rooms where guests are invited to dose off to soothing tunes and aromatherapy, some including spectacular vistas, for your break from the water.  The wellness buffet is open all day where a wide array of juices and healthy snacks are continually at the disposal of the bathers.

My favorite activity was the aromatherapy sauna where fresh flowers hung over the wooden lounge directed at the giant windows facing Monte Bianco; it was heaven!

One word of advice: the ultimate experience is a couple’s getaway; therefore, if you don’t intend to go with your partner or friends, I wouldn’t advise solo ventures.  The spa at Pre’-Saint-Didier does not have a hotel, but there are many hotels in the area that have discounted partnerships.

In the past, my spa experiences have been few and far between, primarily due to the fact that I have never been able to justify spending the money on a massage or any other treatment.  Where I come from, a reasonably priced one-hr massage in the States costs at least fifty bucks, and a girl named Rita rubs my back as I fret about whether or not I should be wearing my underwear.  I am still not keen on self-pampering, but Italy has begun changing my whole view of benessere, or wellness, in general.

You might cringe when you realize that this whole perfect day of  relaxation and union with the wilderness cost only 48£/person(weekend price), and for example 10£ more for a massage or a professional treatment.  So even though Italy drives me crazy on occasion, after ten hours of spa bliss, I’d be willing to bet that these guys know how to live it up, without discrimination.

My weekend in the thermal waters at the foot of Monte Bianco was an incredible revitalizing experience that provided just the right medicine for January blues.  More than medicine, it was an unforgettable day that is for me just about paradise, mentally, physically, existentially, ly ly ly.  The more I experience in Italia, the more I realize how important it really is to “do as the Romans do.”

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The baths at Pré-Saint-Didier are only one offer out of many in Italy; check them out!

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Arcimboldo exhibit in Milan

"Spring" 1563 oil on panel 65x50cm Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

The spring collection of Milan’s fashion week goes floral:  models with rosy cheeks, budding lips, and silky bouquet coiffers are dressed in lush verdant foliage designs with a daisy field inspired high-neck ruffled collar.  Colorful compositions are striking not only to the eyes but to all of the senses, a tribute to the fantastical imagination which created this natural madness.  In an uncanny union of man’s ingenuity and nature’s diversity, texture and content combine this time, however, to create not fashion, but art.

The renowned fashion houses of Italy may be promoting floral designs and green attitudes this spring, but they certainly did not imagine up the Spring designs of the 16th-century artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593), whose works are being exhibited at the Palazzo Reale in Milan with a great attention to the artist’s Milanese roots and inspired milieu.

"Vertumnus", 1590 oil on panel 68x56cm Skokloster Castle, Skokloser

Considered a rather obscure artist before the MOMA’s 1936 exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism,” Arcimboldo was rediscovered for the international acclaim that he received as the Italian court painter for Ferdinand I at the Habsburg court in Vienna, and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague.

He has become most famous for his grotesque composite portrait heads of flora and fauna that are depicted in his renowned series: The Seasons and the Elements. His bizarre compositions create an uncanny union between the scientific observation of nature and its fantastical application to the portrait bust, imbued with metaphor and fanciful metamorphosis!

The Seasons proved to be very popular among the royal court, and several replicas were requested of Arcimboldo.  The peachy cheeks and cherry lips of Summer are mature and juicy, Autumn’s pumpkin-head is crowned with dangling grapes ripe for harvest, the barren gnarly bark and fungus lips of Winter are worse than his bite, and the budding complexion of Spring explodes in over eighty varieties of vibrant flowering species. This mad celebration of nature has no bounds as the Seasons copious yield makes way for the four Elements, whose allegorical depictions arouse curiosity:

"Water" 1566 oil on panel 66.5x50.5cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Fire’s hairdo blazes in red licking flames; Air‘s crown of proud feathered friends reign over its aerial kingdom; the bust of Earth is composed of a tangled menagerie of exotic and indigenous species and taxidermy; the body of Water is teeming with marine life pulled from their watery depths, intertwined with seashell ears and a pear necklace draped around the slimy personified bust!  It is believed that the Elements and the Seasons were intended to be paired with one another: a confrontation between the bizarre creatures and their symbolism.

Arcimboldo’s wild imagination was certainly influenced by his time, and this exhibition highlights his role in the transition from the DaVinci school, strongly present in Milan, and later preparing for the Baroque genius of Caravaggio.

Leonardo DaVinci’s dedication to the observation of the natural world and his sketches of “grotesque” caricature influenced a new generation of thinkers and artists that would seek to show scientific accuracy as well as illusion.  Emphasis is placed on the fervid cultural Milanese atmosphere at the turn of the 16th century, one that harbored a taste for intellectual riddles, satire, artifice, and exotic elegance among the European courts.  The show features over three-hundred works that trace Arcimboldo’s formative years and commissions in the Lombard capital, and proceeds to follow him to Vienna, where he creates for intrigue of the court.

During the age of discovery, the Habsburg family was one of the great patrons of intellectual pursuits and the arts.  Arcimboldo’s naturalist illustrations of flora and fauna created for nature catalogues are featured in the exhibition, and this study as well as the royal family menagerie and botanical gardens, served as great reference to the artist for his paintings.  New species found in the “new worlds” were brought to the court’s collections to inspire exotic additions to his creations.

"Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit" 1590 oil on panel 55.9x41.6cm French & Company, New York

Many of Arcimboldo’s most famous works such as the Seasons and the Elements are displayed in nine rooms of the Palazzo Reale; the show includes gems such as his tricky reversible paintings as well as the portrait bust of Rudolf II depicted as Vertumnus, the god of the seasons, posing like a three-dimensional cornucopia!

A re-elaboration of the exhibition held by the National Gallery in Washington, “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy,” Arcimboldo returns home to once again stake his fame at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, “Arcimboldo-Artista Milanese tra Leonardo e Caravaggio.”  The show runs from February 11th-May 22.  Instead of going to the runway, check out Arcimboldo for fanciful inspiration!

Philip Haas "Winter (After Arcimboldo)"

Italians debunk food “science”

In a recent conversation, my grandmother was describing the new diet recommended by her nutritionist: small portions, all whole-wheat, no cheese, low-fat yogurt, no trans fat, etc.  As she recounted the litany of dieting tips, dos and don’ts with the melancholy of losing old friends, I started becoming very perturbed with this “dietary specialist.”  My blue-eyed grandmother is an honorary Italian-American, cooking up delicious home-cooked meals for my Italian-blooded grandfather for over fifty years.  She is a fabulous cook that has fed her family since she was a teenager with traditional recipes and new tasty experiments, and to me, she is my personal Martha Stewart, without jail time, of course.   Who is this dietary specialist to tell my grandmother to not eat cheese?!

Since when do we need someone to monitor what we put into our bodies?  What is missing from our alimentary common sense that makes us cling to new fads or these “dietary specialists” that claim to know no more about our own bodies than our nosey neighbors?  Two renowned European examples for culinary expertise and slim waists are the Italians and the French, cultures that traditionally don’t skimp on the fat when necessary.  In Italy, as one strolls past the alluring scents of the bakeries, glazed cakes in the pastry shops, and glistening displays in butcher shops and cheese stores, all the while watching these hearty Italians scarf down personal pizzas and bottles of wine, one poses an interesting question: with this delectable food culture, how do they stay so slim!?

We already know the answer to this question: They have a food culture.   The question comes down to education and an innate understanding of the organism (us) related to what we put into our bodies, more or less the history and future of our food.  Italians live by the phrase, “you are what you eat,” quite fitting for the highest omnivores on the food chain, don’t you think?  Italians are born with this close relationship to all of the nutritional sources that make up their cuisine, and it doesn’t take an expert chef to tell you the ingredients of every traditional Italian product or dish; my twelve year-old Italian students could tell you.

Food is their passion, and the regional specialties are connected with the local history and unique landscape.  The quality of the products is craved and demanded, and in many cases, it is controlled by quality and geographical standards established by the EU.  Since I have moved to Italy, I have been ever fascinated with the food culture that is worshiped in this country, and I have now begun my own journey to salvation via the Italian forchetta (fork).  Its great flavor and goodness are found in the pure simplicity of natural ingredients, all of which are distinguishable in the supermarket.

As I gaze at the multitudes of products aligned on the supermarket shelves in America, I am instantly inundated with brands, labels, promotions, varying claims of negated fat, different shapes and sizes!  The head-spinning options create confusion, and I can’t distinguish what is the real substance behind all of this processed “food”!  In the end, I waste a lot of time trying to figure out what it is, what is the difference, and where it is from?!

In contrast, a stroll through a normal Italian supermarket (although increasingly affected by the food industry) is a liberating experience because despite problems in translation, the choices are much more limited, and the lack of superfluous information is relieving to the hungry shopper (for example, most only carry two brands of chips!).  The provenance of foods such as meats and vegetables are clearly identified and are usually local or Italian; it is pleasing to know that this information is clearly made available to the customer.  Italy is also the leading producer of organic or “biologico” products in Europe.  Outside of the supermarket, I always prefer the farmers markets, which are always colorful, exciting, and alluringly nutritious!

Street Markets

Although I tease the Italians for their haphazard sense of organization, we Americans lack the roots and common food sense that these Italians utilize to maximize the quality of their agricultural output and demand for the “made in Italy” stamp.  In return, they eat better, and their food tastes generally better.

It’s all a question of priority: Recognizing good quality, as I said before, is the main characteristic that drives and determines their cuisine, and all Italians flock to a good meal.  Are you looking to go to a good restaurant in the city?  A fail-proof way of finding a gem is by choosing the most crowded restaurant; they Italian patrons are all experts!  In the same way, an Italian will tell you which olive oil is best, which tomatoes have had a good season, and why they will eat pesto only if it is from Pra, near Genova, where the best basil grows.  Can we Americans match this local food knowledge?

Folks, in the end, the Italian style can be boiled down into five main concepts:

  1. Food education: know your ingredients
  2. Food appreciation: demand high quality
  3. Food application: simple natural products in tasty combinations
  4. Food priority: eating good food is important; love the experience
  5. Food consciousness: stop when you are feeling full

Michael Pollan, a leading writer, NY Times journalist, and advocate for food awareness has masterfully delved into the art of eating food, from its origins in the market today to the way in which we can be more aware of our own eating habits.  I highly recommend reading all of his books, starting from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in the order in which they were written.  He focuses on breaking down the spam of food myths, the massive influx of food information and nutrient marketing into simple explanations.

Pollan encourages us to think about how our great-grandparents cooked before our supermarkets quadrupled in size.   One way to stay on the right eating track is to avoid highly processed products that contain bushels of corn syrups, forget about the soda, eat green, and go local for your food!  As many Italians profess: go easy on the butter, use a dash of milk instead (an Italian mom’s secret).

In a world in the midst of an economic crisis, it is surprising that we haven’t taken our nutrition into our own hands, demanded quality products and organic production from our own American soil.  As for these dietary specialists that tell us how to eat, I say ignore them and get back to basics!  Let’s not obsess over weight loss and nutrients, carbohydrates, and fat.  Forget about the food science, don’t look at the calorie count, and eat healthy products!  Let’s enjoy a balanced meal for what it is—good food prepared with love.  Wash it down with a glass of wine, for heaven’s sake!

Pour on the Gravy Milan!


Explaining Thanksgiving to Italian can be an interesting venture.  It is not that Italians aren’t curious about our heritage holiday, but it is the total concept of the holiday and the meal that is intriguing to the curious Italian.

For starters, lets talk about the history.  Well, there were our Pilgrim Fathers that shared a harvest festival with fellow Indians in a joint proclamation of thanks, peace, and partnership.  The astute Italian could then possibly respond, “Now at what point did you kill them and boot them out West?”  For those not well studied the New World origins, sometimes I skip this small paradoxical detail and explain the modern significance of thanks and family that this holiday inspires in us turkey-stuffing patriots.  This usually provokes a nice reaction.

The second lesson is the importance of the ritualistic meal.  The idea of a traditional meal is by no means a stretch for this culture focused around the dining table; I would dare say that our devotion to the Thanksgiving staples does not even come close to the year-round observation of their sacred and distinctive gastronomic heritage.   However, as the eclectic star spangled banner waves above our Fatherland’s purple mountains, it will suffice to say that at least one day out of the year, Americans are 100% devoted to serving up a truly traditional American-grown meal (in 1621, yes—now, probably our food is coming from Mexico or Brazil).  Besides patriotic ambitions like the hamburger or ketchup, I believe that this holiday is the most well-balanced, non-greasy example that we have representing our unified culinary roots.  So it’s important!

Ingredients of the Meal:  Given that Italians rarely ever eat turkey, this would lead to the greatest misunderstanding of the cooked dishes; they usually assume that it tastes like a dry chicken, and the turkeys tend to be smaller.  “Mirtilli” is a word in Italian that means all kinds of berries that look like blueberries, and therefore, there is a discrepancy as to what actually are cranberries.  Their attempt at cranberry sauce usually uses dubious “mirtilli,” and the fruit used is definitely not cranberries!  Their corn is not as delicious as our summer corn, and for this reason, they are not good judges (The only time this will escape my mouth).  Sweet potatoes can be found here, but I don’t believe many know the brown-sugar glazed goodness of Thanksgiving sweet potatoes.  Glorious stuffing in its traditional conception is misunderstood with Italian variations of “ripieno” or stuffing.  For the corn bread, I have no clue (I usually make it from a box, admittedly).  Last but not least, gravy is unheard of here.  What?

The gravy concept segues into the next difficult conception of the sauce drizzled on the  “whole” heaping plate.  Italians have a lovely way of eating a long meal in many courses, including an appetizer, first course, second course, sides, and desserts, which neatly separate the pastas, meats, veggies, and sweets.  The idea of literally shoving everything on one plate and drizzling steaming gravy on the heaping pile of cornucopia goodness is definitely a new experience.

Gluttony:  Although this term is easily associated with appetites for the Italian cuisine, Italians usually stop at a reasonable level of satisfaction.  This holiday is created specifically for the stuffing of the human to his brimming limits, mimicking Mr. Turkey.   We are giving thanks for the fact that we can be together and gorge on our feast, pour gravy down our throats, unbuckle our belts, and doze off on the couch in an uncomfortable, hard-breathing slumber!

The next satisfying certainty about our holiday is that we will be eating leftovers for a week!  As I was cooking my own Milanese Italian meal, I was reprimanded with the amount of food I was preparing.  This is coming from a culture that is appalled at the idea of a doggy bag, and they usually make or eat enough to avoid leftovers.  I respond, “This is the POINT! My meal, my rules!”

So there you have it.  This year, I went to the macellaio, or the butcher, and I ordered my special Thanksgiving turkey.  Two other fellow American expats also had placed their orders in patriotic duty.  I cooked up my feast for two days, and I whispered sweet nothings to my lovely turkey, Mario, as he was sizzling in the oven.  The courses were topped off with an American cheesecake and “mirtilli,” specifically blueberries.  My Italian friends were great sports: they piled the food on their plate, family style, we ate like pigs, and we all poured on the gravy, American style, in Milan.

Books and their covers: Rana Pescatrice

Prince Charming

Flashback: The pungent odor pervading the air led my curious nose to happen upon Venice’s fresh fish market, the Mercato di Rialto, in the midst of the vending commotion.  I was enraptured by the colorful sights, textures, and smells lifting up into the neoclassical loggia structure, and the bustle of busy shoppers and curious tourists was almost too much for my camera lens to take!  At a certain point, I pointed my camera at the “pescivendolo” (fish seller) to capture some fish-gutting and chop-sui action when the monocle eye caught a hideous slimy slug-like fish plopped on the display table!

I jumped back in disgust and strange wonderment at the Jabba the Hut-like creature staring at me with its googly glassy eyes, oversized head, fatty wide mouth and its antenna protruding from its head.  It almost looked like a sci-fi “Eatn’ Park” cookie with its big old gaping smile.  I exclaimed to my sister, “Oh how NASTY, don’t tell me that anyone takes this home and eats this creature!”  We both agreed that neither of us would ever ingest Jabba, but my sister had the courage to touch its dark slithery skin.  I took a picture of the poor fellow, so brutto (ugly) when compared to its other fished marine companions.  I read the name, “Coda di Rospo” or (Toad Tail).

Fash Forward:  I accompany my boyfriend and his family to a lovely rustic restaurant in Arenzano, a quaint Ligurian costal town located just above Genova.  This was a casarecco (home-style) place with a limited menu written on a hanging chalkboard, an automatic guarantee to leave contented with a loosened belt.  As I squinted to see the menu, my eyes fell on “tagliatelle with ragu di pescatrice.”  Given that I love ragu’ sauce of any kind, my boyfriend encouraged me to try this fresh homemade pasta with a fish stew sauce.  Yumm!

This course was served, and the pasta drenched in its savory seafood sauce literally melted in my mouth!  This phrase may seem trite, but there is no other English way to say it!  Although I don’t claim to be a food expert (yet), I am a connoisseur of the gastronomic experience.  My stomach started singing hallelujah, I ignored my company, and I floated to the seventh culinary heaven where I tried to make it last, forever.  It was only until later that I asked my friend, “What was the fish used in that delicious ragu?”  The response shocked and appalled my ears!  Rana Pescatrice is another name for Coda di Rospo!  Dust my ears deceive me?

Fun Facts: The Rana Pescatrice or the Monkfish, can be found both in Northern European and Mediterranean waters under the alias of Lophius piscatorius, and his counterpart, Lophius americanus, hanging around in the Western Atlantic Ocean.  Both species offer up quite popular dishes, so much so that it is now difficult to find.  The monkfish is known variously attractive pet names such as a goosefish, angler fish, bellyfish, frogfish, all-mouth, or sea devil; it is a bottom-dwelling creature where its spine ends in a flexible, extendible cord, which it dangles to lure unexpecting prey.

Monkfish used in the kitchen provides delicious meat that is dense, boneless, sweet and often referred to as “Poor man’s Lobster” for its delicate flavor and texture.  Besides its liver that is primarily sold to the Japanese for sashimi, the muscular tail is the only edible part of the fish (Its head is too big!), and it splits cleanly in two nice filets.  The membrane surrounding the meat must be removed before cooking! This ugly duckling also happens to be a great meal for weight watchers!  It is a low-fat, low-cholesterol source of Protein and Vitamin B.  Who would have known?!

Due to over-fishing, the Rana Pescatrice is difficult to find in Italian restaurants, and I imagine also in the USA.  However, I have heard it may pop up in your Whole Foods market.  In any case, I would like to introduce a recipe for a ragu sauce of “Rana Pescatrice” with fresh Tagliatelle pasta:

Ingredients:  (for 2 people) 45 min.

  1. 200g Monkfish meat
  2. ½ onion
  3. 1 small carrot
  4. 1 celery stalk
  5. 8-10oz Dry white wine
  6. Fresh thyme and parsely
  7. Ex Virgin Olive Oil
  8. Salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Vegetable or fish broth.
  10. 10. 200g of fresh Tagliatelle pasta.

Before starting, make sure that the membrane of the tail fillets is removed, and if possible, save the head to boil in order to create a fish broth.  If not, a vegetable broth will work well.  Cut up the fillets in small cubes and put aside.  Mince the onion, carrot, and celery stalk and place in a skillet that is lightly covered with 2 spoons of EV-Olive Oil.  When the chopped vegetables are simmering and softening, reduce the flame and add the monkfish cubes.  As the meat is cooking in the stew, turn up the flame and add some white wine.  When the wine has evaporated, add 1 ladel of fish broth to flavor the sauce.  Regulate the salt, add fresh ground pepper, and add chopped fresh parsley and thyme.  Let the sauce evaporate and cook together on a low heat for another 5-10 min and turn off the flame.  Add sea salt to the boiling water in the pot. Cook the fresh tagliatelle for a small amount of time (2-3 min), one minute prior to being cooked al dente.  Drain the pasta, add it to your skillet, and restart the flame.  Have the noodles cook in and take on the flavors of the sauce.  Serve.

I enjoyed this recipe because it recalls the ragu that I ate in Genova.  It is light and very tasty! One may substitute it with a white fish such as cod or halibut.

I have learned my lesson, a lesson applicable to all of our daily judgments based on appearance.  Mary Shelley would not be pleased with me, and this is one Frankenstein that deserves a chance!  This fish might not be the bell of the ball, but it certainly is yummy!  My initial revulsion has past, and I am opening up to the awkward beast with open arms, into my kitchen, stomach, and ultimately, my heart.  Next ugly fish served…Scrofano, better know as the Scorpion Fish!

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.

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?

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