Thursday, June 30, 2005

Pensioners, pollutants and Mars

Pensioners are fading fast in Italy. At least 18 elderly Italians have now died during the current heatwave. Across southern Europe, the death toll is rising in line with the mercury. While it may not be fair to make a causal connection, maybe this is the right time for the world's leaders to finally discuss the perilous warming of the planet.

As members of the G8, Italy and France will have seats in Gleneagles next week where climate control measures will be on the agenda. That is if the Bush Administration doesn't water down the discussion first. Still, Blair (the emcee and pres of the G8) wants to discuss "action" on limiting global warming, or at least he wants to discuss an "action plan," which is not really the same thing. But it's a start. I understand the nay-saying approach. It's a scary thing to consider: our lifestyle is destroying our planet. Maybe this is why the Bush Administration has asked NASA to look into Mars exploration. It's kinda like Texas, I hear.

But maybe, fingers crossed, we won't all have to move to Mars after all. Maybe this megawatt bulb called Earth won't fizzle out. Why? Because pollution will save us. Crazy, but it appears that tiny little aerosol pollutants are reflecting heat away from the planet, thus cooling it. Sure the byproduct is dirty air, but at least it's cool air. And what I'd do for a blast of fetid, cool air right now. I say bring it on. Fassssssssssssst!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Surf's up in Zumaia, the Basque coast Posted by Hello

Paese Baschi (Basque country)

Back in May, Cristina and I travelled to Basque country and Cantabria in Northern Spain. Basque separatists have been seeking an independent state from Madrid for decades, conducting some of the negotiations via car bombs. They have a thriving economy, fabulous cuisine and a language that seems a cross between Aztec and Spanish. These photos are a little late in coming, but are a nice snapshot of a region worth visiting if you're in the market for fabulous beaches, mammoth fish portions and the Guggenheim in Balbao.

Basque watchdogs Posted by Hello

No fair! The girls are kicking our butts! Posted by Hello

Young separatists in training Posted by Hello

Filthy capitalist! POWWW! Posted by Hello

fishmonger snips off the cheeks (a local delicacy) of her catch Posted by Hello

overdressed for the beaches of Cantabria Posted by Hello

The Guggenheim in rainy Bilbao Posted by Hello

Warning: Rocks bite! Posted by Hello

belly up to the bar, tapas style Posted by Hello

sunset in San Sebastian Posted by Hello

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Dog days of summer Posted by Hello

Pilgrims in heat Posted by Hello


When I started out as an under-paid reporter at the New Brunswick Home News (now the Home News Tribune, owned by the Gannett chain), there was one story assignment the entire newsroom despised: the weather story. We reporters never understood the logic of writing an article about today's weather for people to read tomorrow. Surely, our readers could care less about how much snow accumulated, whether the temperature broke 90 degrees, or whether this is the most rain to fall in April. And yet, the editors would insist this was not only newsworthy, it was front-page worthy. And they were right. It turns out, people want two things from their local newspaper: local property values and weather stories. (Actually, three things, if you count cute stories about animals. Better yet, the traffic stopping for baby ducks photo. Baby ducks sells newspapers!, I remember my first editor announcing to nobody in particular.)

But sometimes the weather is undisputedly the top story of the day. Like today, for instance. Italy has been baking hot the past two weeks. Every day in Rome is a new high. Today, it is expected to hit the high 30s, which is the low triple digits in F. Rome, thankfully, has a dry climate and the hills afford a little breeze. So if you can find shade, you're OK. Good luck with the shade though. I haven't seen a cloud all month around here. And so, the sun just cooks the earth with an unrelenting force.

But, this is to be expected. Right? Summer comes around every year. No surprise there. Still, the Italian Health Ministry is warning that 1 million Italians are at risk of heat stroke and death. (These would be the elderly, and particularly those living in the Northern Po Valley region, which is a cursedly humid place this time of year.) There is reason for alarm. Apparently 7 people have already died during the heat wave. And, since we're on the case of heat-related fatalities, the govt has issued on Monday a revised tally (it's now 20,000) for those who died in the summer of 2003, supposedly the hottest summer Europe has experienced in 500 years. Apparently, the summer of 1503 was a hot one, so we can take comfort in the realisation that this is not the hottest summer ever. Still, the Ministry is taking no chances. They are reminding us, and particularly the oldtimers, to drink plenty of fluids, keep physical exertion to a minimum and stay indoors.

Forgive me though if I'm a bit suspicious. You see, Europe has an economic liability on its hands.I hate to say it, but this liability is the pensioner. Pensioners collect money, but put very little back into the local economy. Thus, a heat wave that ticks off tens of thousands of pensioners would be a small economic boost for recession-torn Italy, not to mention France and Germany and... So, I'm a bit mistrustful of this government health warning. How do we know they are providing us with the most sound advice? How do we know they are not trying to deliberately knock off our elderly neighbours? Nah, forget it. Must be the heat getting to me.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Gelato! Posted by Hello

We all scream "gelato"

This summer I have set myself a little challenge. After working on becoming an all-around better person, I am in search of the best ice cream in Italy. This is noble stuff. I swear it... Because it is an undisputed fact that the Italian gelato is the best ice cream on the planet, my selection of top gelato could easily serve as the standard for best ice cream on earth.

As well as this being righteous cause, this is a scientific endeavor. I have chosen as my control the pistacchio/caffe double scoop. This combo is a classic. Every gelato stand on the Boot makes both varieties, but no two are the same. Trust me. I have years experience measuring the subtleties. (Italy, I would dare say, is lucky to have an expert like me on the case). Secondly, I have thought long and hard about the categories for judgement. There must be both subjective and objective criterion.

First, the objective criterion: A) price. Any cone over 2 euros is disqualified. b) heft. The pre-lick size of the ice cream (the part showing above the cone) must exceed the size of my fist. Any less, and it's goner. For any of you familiar with Italian politics, flashing the wrong fist in a town is grounds for a lynching. Remember: it's left fist in Communist Perugia, for example. Right fist in fascist Veneto. Left, Perugia. Right, Veneto. Capite?

Now, for the subjective. Taste. It must be a clear stand-out for the ol' taste buds. But how can such a thing be judged? Well, to paraphrase the U.S. Supreme Court, you'll know it when you taste it... Not convinced? Here's the brilliance of my plan. Pistacchio and caffe, at the best gelato stands, are chock full of pistacchios and candied coffee beans, respectively. The proper quantity is crucial. You don't want to chomp down on a bean with every lick, just as you don't want to go through half the scoop without something to crunch down upon. The nuts and beans, therefore, must be evenly spaced throughout the scoops to have a contender. Along with the bean and nut ratio, are the mainstays: the proper creamyness and sweetness. So, in essence, taste, while subjective, is the most scientific of the criterion. Call it gelato logic.

Now, for an early peek at the leader board. After 6 weeks (summer began early here), there are two contenders. The first is a bit of a dark horse. Hailing from the quaint seaside town of Vasto (in Abruzzo) is a Sicilian gelato stand alongside the town's cathedral. Creamy, scored high on the nuts/bean ratio, the scoop was mammoth and cost 1.80 euros. Let's hear it for the Abruzzesi! Vasto is competing with Monte Verde's own Tony (our local guy here in Rome). Tony (pronounced DOE-nee) is a Monte Verde treasure. His little stand is always teeming with locals. Cars are double- and triple-parked out front. Grown men elbow little girls to get their order in first. It's a madhouse (one time Cristina walked out with a carton of Tony's finest under one arm and a set of dishes, a door prize for being the most superlative customer in a Tony-defined time slot, under the other), and worth every maddening moment. His gelato is that good! I would nominate Tony for an EU award, but recognition only from the EU would be an insult. Anyhow, anyhow, I digress. It's an even race between Tony and the Abruzzesi.

The Rules: As luck would have it, I will be crossing a representative stretch of the country, sampling the best pistacchio/caffe a region has on offer. I will report my winner in late Sept. Check back here for the random update. If anybody has any special gelato stands they think I should consider, please let me know. In the interest of science, there will be no cone left behind.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Ma che dici!?!...Another Berlusconi gaffe Posted by Hello

Food fight

A quick (subjective) quiz... Name the capital cities of European haute cuisine. Paris? Sure. San Sebastian? Si! Parma? Certo! Helsinki? Huh?

Like you, the EU decided the Finns just don't stack up against the powerhouses of Continental Europe when it comes to food. And, so, after much deliberation the Italian city of Parma (known of course for its famous hams and cheeses) was designated, appropriately so, the center for its new food standards agency. The runner-up was Helsinki, home presumably to herring and deviled eggs for breakfast, (which, it must be said, is an improvement over the Muscovite tradition of preserved meats in jelly).

Nothing more need be said. Right?

Well, this week at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Prime Minister bocca grande turned an innocuous event into yet another international incident. Berlusconi informed reporters that Italy scored the honour because Berlusconi himself (the old dog still has teeth, apparently) charmed Finnish President Tarja Halonen out of the running.

"I had to use all my playboy tactics," the 68-year-old billionaire prime minister said in a statement filled with nudges and winks .

The comment has landed Berlusconi in the doghouse yet again. The Italian ambassador for Finland (in what's becoming familiar duty for Berlusconi's boys abroad) was called into the Foreign Ministry Office in Helsinki to endure yet another lecture about appropriate behavior between heads of state. If you are scoring from home, Berlusconi's quips and antics have now insulted the Spanish, Danes, Germans and Finns -- on average, one per year.

At least he's having fun at the top.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Employment? That's for workin' types. Right?

This morning, I noticed this jaw-dropping headline: "Farewell to la dolce vita." Italy is in decline and fading fast, goes the commentary from abroad. In this case, it's from the UK's Independent. The source behind this macroeconomic dissertation? Two out-of-work guys from Genoa and Bergamo moaning that it's tough to find a job these days. Sadly, it is a familiar story. The over-educated in Italy are under-worked and under-compensated. The ideal of course would be an ecomony where those with even marginal intelligence are over-worked and under-compensated.

I've been thinking a lot about employment these days, seeing as I have (by choice) no desk job. I no longer slave away for the man, as I now frequently say, to utter confusion. But I still get up early and follow the routine I always have -- read the papers, fire off emails, write a bit. But in my free time, I've taken a real interest in two species : 1) employed people and 2) unemployed people. They live side-by-side, but usually species 1 pays species 2 little heed, while species 2 obsesses abous species 1. Why can't I be a member of species 1?, species 2 is wont to ask. (A growing number of species 1 secretly conspire to join species 2, it must be noted, but usually stay in their cohort when they are reminded of: mortgage, spouse, parents.) Both species have a lot to offer each other, but, my guess is they will forever remain isolated (at least during the hours of productivity, say between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.)

Employed people, from my findings, are looking a bit haggard these days. They express feelings of being unfulfilled, over-worked and under-compensated. On a plus side, employed people work with jerks. Colleagues in the jerk category are a constant source of discussion for employed people as they seem to bring some sense of perspective, if not meaning, to employed peoples' lives. You can discuss the latest jerk episodes after work with loved ones and sometimes with people you've just met. If this jerk colleague is particularly outstanding, the employed person can sometimes gain sympathy from outsiders.

Meanwhile, unemployed people are similarly haggard, though they may be able to conceal this with a few extra hours in the gym or a few hours sunbathing. Like employed people, unemployed people are under-compensated and unfulfilled. So, what's the difference? Clearly, it is (the workplace) jerks. Unemployed people don't have an idiot person sitting near them everyday, peppering them with inane questions, making colossal screw-ups or inappropriate comments and gestures to coworkers. Unemployed people can't mutter: Who hired this joker, anyhow?

On a macroeconomic level, countries with superior economies are not necessarily the most advanced societies. It's just that they can afford to keep more idiots employed than struggling economies. (I call this the George W. Bush axiom.) By my calculations then, the United States and Britain employ the most idiots (on both an absolute and per-capita basis -- I know this as I have held multiple desk jobs in both countries), whereas Italy is doing pretty well. They employ considerably fewer idiots.

Using this idiot or jerk scale then, one can calculate the true economic price of unemployment. So, don't be surprised if you hear Berlusconi commenting on the state of the economy by highlighting we in Italy have the fewest employed jerks of any G8 nation. It's tough to argue with such logic.

Friday, June 10, 2005

On a mission from God

Pssst...If you are looking for an Italian this Sunday they will all be at the beach. This being June, that's hardly surprising. Except that this time the Italians will be on a mission from God. The church has ordered all Catholics to head to the beach. Tutti al mare, as they've been saying from the pulpits. It's not quite clear, but some Italian catholics have interpreted this to mean they have a special dispensation to miss mass. What is clear is the Catholics can go to the beach as long as they do not vote this Sunday in a special referendum. This order has come down from on high: Papa Ratzinger himself has deputised Italian clergy. On this matter, they speak for him. Nobody is to vote. Capite?

Why all the fuss?

Up for vote on Sunday would be new measures to help couples have babies. It's a sad fact, but Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe. The classic Italian pasttime of cheek-pinching is in serious trouble, amici. Bambini are so noticeably scarce in some parts of Italy that I have noticed more than once adults stop everything to stare in amazement at the surprise appearance of so many little feet chaotically queuing (queuing was never a strong Italian trait) on the streets of Rome during school outings.

If Italy is so kid-poor, why would a measure designed to help women conceive draw such venom from the church? It all goes down to the treatment of embryos. The church believes the embryo, as you know, is a tiny microscopic person. And when you freeze that person you risk killing that person. The church would prefer babies be made the old-fashioned way, senza science. But, sadly, a lot of us need help. A lot of normal people, with good hearts and kind, loving intentions need to explore in vitro fertilization to start a family. The church understands this too, but it doesn't want us going crazy, freezing a whole batch of embryos. What would we do with the discarded embryos, they wonder (of course, rightly)? The church also doesn't want us scanning the embryos beforehand to check for defects. It also doesn't want anonymous donors to get involved.

This is a tricky dilemma. Italy is Catholic stronghold. More children is good for the church and definitely good for society -- but, and I'm guessing here, as long as those children aren't scientifically manipulated, or even, gasp, designer bambini. And thus, a referendum designed to help women get pregnant has turned into a debate that closely resembles the "a" word. Yep, pro-life and pro-choice advocates have jumped in. This debate rages on the TV nightly. Billboards across Rome implore people with rival messages: voti si, voti no and then there's non voti. In order to relax fertlisation restrictions, as the referendum is designed to do, more than 50 percent of eligible Italian voters must vote "yes". Thus, a non voti (or don't vote at all) is just as effective as a no vote, except that it sends a bigger message.

What I repeatedly fail to understand about all this is why such Hobbsian logic is always applied to this dilemma. Why does the government, the church, advocacy groups (the vaunted "they") insist that they know better than the individual (lowly old "me") on issues of conception?

I'm not eligible to vote. But I will be pondering this Sunday afternoon, at a beach noticeably devoid of kids.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Dispensing lire

Lira nostalgia apparently is stronger than anyone could have possibly imagined. A Tuscan supermarket says customers can pay for groceries in lire, reportedly doing bumper business. Uno momento, per favore. Who are these people? Who has enough lire to even afford a loaf of bread these days? Are there that many wads of the old paper stuffed under mattresses? Are gangsters returning to the country with whatever cash they couldn't launder 4 years ago? And, can the local supermarket really charge a fair market rate for a defunct currency? Not a shrewd arbitrage bet if you ask me.

Sensible Italians scoff at the notion of a return to the old currency. It was an era when the government ran up huge debts (as opposed to just very big debts today). This is an inevitable consequence of a generous social welfare scheme combined with stagnant economic growth, a burgeoning black market that triggers chronic tax evasion, and a consumer culture that makes things needlessly difficult to even pay your telephone bill or use a credit card.

But the legion of British eurosceptics are overjoyed at the turmoil in Italy, weighing in with an I-told-you-so wink and smile. The Brits, perhaps rightly, do not want to enter the euro for fear they would lose control over their economic future -- or worse, allow Europeans to determine it. (The Brits, it must be noted, don't really consider themselves Europeans, which may be why UK cuisine is so lousy.) Since the UK economy is doing fine, thank you very much, they really should stay out, goes the logic. At least for now.

But the Italians need a stable currency, even a strong one. Why? Because Italy has a weak track record of investing in its economy. It shocks me to hear so few politicians using the future tense when discussing the state of the economy. The euro is not nearly the problem. Shortsighted politicians are the problem. A return to a currency in which nobody has any confidence (except maybe a few Tuscans) would sink even the mirage that Italian politicians are committed to investing in the future of this country.

This is the topic I get most passionate about when with my Italian friends. I consider it an injustice that they couldn't even dream of the opportunities I had in New York or London. They are, in many, many, many ways, as qualified, or more so, to be the leading business figures, policy shapers and do-gooders of our time. Instead, they are losing their spirit, exhausted by an economic system that enriches fewer and fewer Italians. The latest round of lira revival chatter will hopefully lose its steam. But right now there is an entire generation of Italians who just don't have the energy to even ponder the possibility or debate the leaky logic.

Monday, June 06, 2005

In lira we trust Posted by Hello

Lira nostalgia

When I first visited Italy in the 90s, I was hit by sticker shock. Every conceivable item was priced in tens of thousands of units of the local currency, the lira. To the uninitiated, an ice cream costing 4,000 lire seemed ludicrous (...that is until you try a pistachio/caffe gelato. I'll take a grande size, per favore.) Doing the rough calculation of 2,300 lire to the dollar or 3,000 lire to the British pound, was a dizzying excercise. It's just too many damn zeroes to carry over in one's head. But when you added it all up at the end of the day, foreigners quickly realised: "hey, these lire are cheap." And thus, tourists learned to love the lira because it became synonymous with cheap shoes, handbags and wine. That era ended of course when the euro replaced the lira in January, 2002. The euro has gone on a tear, sinking the dollar and closing in on the pound as the Western world's most pricey unit of currency.

Today, the euro is blamed for a good deal of Italy's economic ills. The job market for university grads is dismal. There simply are not enough jobs for the most intelligent and most able-bodied young Italians. Wages in absolute terms are creeping down for first-time professionals. The country is in its second straight recession, and, scarier still, prices of everyday products seem to go up all the time (contradicting of course what the govt says).

In the past, the Italians would take to the street and demand action, asking the government to usher in some combination of monetary and fiscal policy controls to goose the economy, or worse, have them devalue the currency (a favorite policy ploy of the Bank of Italy in the 90s). But today interest rates and money supply issues are handled out of Germany on an EU-wide basis. The result is Italian politicians have few mechanisms at their disposal (foreign creditors are happy to report) other than to ride out the tide. And so, Italian politicians are looking at the worst possible scenario: a faltering economy that is almost completely out of their control.

Oh, but this being Italy, there is a dramatic trick to play. Bring back the lira, says Italian welfare minister Roberto Maroni. Maroni, it must be noted, is a member of Italy's Northern League, whose constituents in the prosperous north benefitted most from Italy's chronic devaluing of the lira a decade ago, thus making Benetton shirts and Pirelli tires cheaper abroad. (The problem was Italy's debts ran higher as it would take more lire now to pay off foreign loans.) It must also be said that another member of the ultra-right Northern League, justice minister Roberto Castelli, landed the party in hot water this weekend when he declared that the wearing of a burka in public is a crime.

The return of the lira would not mean much of anything for typical Italians. It would not miraculously create jobs, it would not make the Italian economy any more competitive (beyond a short term boost) and it would not stop burka-wearing women from scaring the wits out of politicians from Lega Nord. But it would mean cheaper handbags and shoes for tourists, so maybe it is worth considering.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


I know it's not polite to complain about charity events designed to eradicate hunger and poverty in Africa. For this reason, I really don't want to trample on the feel good message of the Live 8 rock concert just announced for 2 July. But still, I do have a small grievance for Sir Bob Geldof. U2 and Coldplay will be performing in Hyde Park in London, and Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder and Dave Matthews Band in Philly. Crosby, Stills and Nash are playing Berlin. And who do we get in Circo Massimo? Duran Duran and Faith Hill.

If I had a say, I would argue that U2, DMB, Jay-Z and Coldplay should come to Italy, the land of truly horrible pop music. They could perform two charitable acts at once: raise the awareness and the funds needed to wipe out hunger in Africa and entertain the music-deprived masses of Rome. This way more of the world's underpriveleged would be served.

I may still go. I may still shake my ass to "Hungry like the wolf" and clap politely when Faithy sings whatever it is she sings. But I don't want to hear concert reviews from any of you who get to the Philly or London shows. Just tell me where to send the cheque.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Il ponte

It's Wednesday evening and, quite naturally, the start of the weekend. Tomorrow is June 2, the anniversary of the founding of the Republic, a worthy national holiday when offices and shops will be shut so that those of us stuck in Rome can wander about aimlessly looking for a fresh carton of milk and pack of biscotti. Friday unofficially is "il ponte" -- or the bridge, a structure the continental Europeans conceived during the Industrial Revolution to turn a national holiday into an extended weekend. The end result is a 4-day weekend here in Italia and reason for Romans to pack up and get out of town tonight.

Extended holiday weekends seem to sneak up on me here. My first instinct is I almost wish people wouldn't discuss them so brazenly in public. Somebody -- an authority figure, maybe -- will tally them up some day and take some away from us. Won't they? But maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing. You see, I'm beginning to question the value of having every other Tuesday and Thursday in May off. Holidays are special because they're rare. They are good for morale because they seem like a stroke of charity from long-dead politicians, war heroes and saints. Too many holidays breed family strife, at best, and, at worst, a sense of entitlement from an uninspired workforce.

I know I'm the new guy around here, and my opinion doesn't count for niente, but I have to point out a few other things that don't square up regarding this generous holiday rotation. Firstly, we just finished with May, a month packed with national holidays and Christian holy days, which came shortly after the extended Easter break that started in late March and ended seemingly in mid-April. Somewhere in there, the pope died, leaving a string of impromptu holidays and days of mourning.

I don't mean to be keeping score here, but May was also a month of strikes. By my count, the train union, bus union and airport union all took a day (the bus union, two days) and always on a Monday or Friday when the weather was nice. Then there was a Friday in mid-May for a general strike. On strike days, most things get cancelled as crossing the city becomes a nightmare. And lastly, Italy is now in recession for its second straight year, a point I only mention here because of what Berlusconi said a few weeks back. Italians on holiday -- in this case, Italians on holiday outside of Italy -- was the reason the economy hit the skids a second straight year, Berlusconi said in his usual illogical way.

Could too many holidays have contributed to this slip, zio Silvio? I think we'll need some time off to answer that one.