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Price is Right? Ask Your Cell Phone


Cash-strapped Italian consumers can now use text messages to tell them if the price is right.
Euro-pinching shoppers thumb in product names — from pasta to produce and parmesan cheese — and a text message speeds back with the average retail price for North, Central and Southern Italy.
Called “SMS Consumatori” (SMS consumers), the three-year program, organized by the Agriculture Ministry, is free to users.
Italians, like Americans, have been feeling the pinch of rising food costs. Inflation in the Bel Paese is at an 11-year high; a recent pasta strike is just one sign of the discontent.
SMS Consumers started two years ago with a three-month test run, offering info on a limited number of fresh produce; it’s back bigger, sleeker and with more bells and whistles, sort of the Ferrari of text message price watches.

In the Philippines, where citizens interact with 50 government agencies via text messages, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)has also offered a weekly SMS price watch (.doc) for basic necessities since 2006. Consumers pay about $.05 per message (2.50 Philippine pesos), for average regional prices on 13 categories of consumer goods, ranging from canned sardines to soap.
The Italian service tracks 80 types of products using data from 2,200 vendors of different kinds (supermarkets, hypermarts, outdoor markets) around the country, updated five days a week. Every man, woman and bambino can text the service at no cost five times a day and 30 times a month.
Prices are updated every weekday on the website, where skint shoppers can play with a shopping simulator or check out a price index which shows whether the market for prosciutto is more bull than bear from previous weeks. Since the April launch, over 240,000 shoppers have thumbed into the service to avoid getting gouged at the checkout.
Unscientific trials in Milan, which national statistics bureau ISTAT named Italy’s most expensive city, indicated that here Giovanni consumer often pays slightly more than necessary.
By texting the word “tomato” (pomodoro) to number 47947 from any cell phone carrier, three messages come back in quick succession detailing average prices for different kinds of tomatoes (cherry, salad and vine) from around the country.
According to the text message, red vine tomatoes cost on average €2.25 a kilo (about $3.50) in Northern Italy, instead the lowest price at a supermarket was about €0.15 cents higher, and this cornerstone of Italian cooking be easily found selling for 75 percent over that average, ringing up at €3.98 per kilo.
It’s the same for skim milk, listed at a single national price of €1.40 a liter, instead found at €0.15 cents higher or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese which turned up at €0.45 cents higher per kilo than the text price.
Preoccupied punters could easily consume a lot of shoe leather trying to find prices in line with the text service.
“There is no such thing as a ‘right’ price,” said Gavino Sanna president of consumer group Associazione Consumatori Italia. “The service is very well executed, but the problem is without brand names and store names, it’s impossible to know where to find these so-called average prices.”
Rosario Trefiletti, president of Federconsumi, one of the eight consumer groups backing the initiative, said critics are missing the point.
“If you know that zucchini go for a few euros per kilo and you find a store charging twice that, you can decide whether to shop there or not,” Trefiletti said. “With this kind of detailed information over a long range of time, consumers can make smart choices and spend less.”
That left one more place to test the price watch. As every savvy signora knows, outdoor markets are generally cheaper than grocery stores for produce, even in Milan.
The going retail price for cherry tomatoes in Northern Italy, according to SMS Consumers, should be €3.30 (about $5) a kilo, but at one busy veg stand some sufficiently ripe ones could be had for as little as €1.
Alas, the fastest way to spend less may still be analog: the stall with the longest line usually offers the cheapest prices.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 7:47 PM | Permalink

High Heels? Just for Slackers


Italians, often admired for a relaxed lifestyle, have become suddenly preoccupied with slackers.
It started with the Minister of Public Administration (the bureaucracy’s so overgrown it sprouted a minister), Renato Brunetta, who recently “outed” a record number of do-nothing workers.
Truly the elephant in the country’s room, it turns out that public-sector employees were so laid back, they weren’t actually on the job at all.
Now, the provincial government in Modena set out a rule that employees should not wear clothing that can cause injury. This means: no heels, signore.
They put it in black and white after two female workers tumbled from stiletto grace on the stairs at work — something unlikely to happen to a man no matter how stacked his cuban heel.
The reasoning: falling from those vertiginous heights means harm to the worker, which in productivity terms means time off and work left sitting around.
Makes sense doesn’t it?
This Teutonic zeal for productivity, however, clashes like orange on red with the whole dolce vita attitude. Italians are supposed to take it easy, enjoy their balmy weather, eat great food and, of course, look good.
Looking good for Italian women = high heels. And often a hairdresser blow-out, store-bought tan, a layer or two of jewelry and body-conscious clothes. But definitely the heels.
In a work situation, it’s a question of power. Since Italian-born French queen Caterina de Medici, women have tried to elevate their status by stacking their shoes.
On occasion, I have broken my usual ballerina-flat or sneaker stride just for that reason: here it seems that without bone-crushing shoes a woman is inevitably considered too young or too casual (sportivo, or sporty, is a polite adjective I’ve come to hate) to be taken seriously by the gray-suited, gray-haired types who hold the purse strings.
And, forget those women who claim they are comfortable, they are trappings.
Necessary ones, so it seems: a recent fashion article on the Wall Street Journal (assuming that whole concept isn’t an oxymoron) was dedicated to “comfortable power heels.”
Perhaps the shoe stumblers in Modena were silly, tick-tacking time wasters, hobbling between the café and their desks who will now have their minds more on matters at hand rather than having to concentrate while mincing down the stairs.
It’ll be interesting to see if a woman able to walk and move normally can have some clout or humble flats will be worn only by worker drones.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 5:30 PM | Permalink

Italians Get Back to Business


Nowhere does the arrival of September make me want to get a haircut and buy some new pencils like Italy.
Why? Because both of these back-to-school establishments are open, as of yesterday, after a month-long hiatus.
Although a record number of Italians have felt the economic pinch hard enough to put the squeeze on beach vacations, those stranded souls stuck in business hub Milan during the peak month of summer had to trek miles to find fresh mozzarella.
The city’s guide to stores open in August was no help — despite the neighborhood by neighborhood listings, just four stores were open in the center, according to consumer groups.
It was a bleak time. I know, I was here as it all closed down. Usually villa surfing for most of August, this time I was in town until after Ferragosto, the mid-month watershed summer holiday.
Suddenly, there was no more clatter of dishes and waiters smoking in the courtyard from the restaurant downstairs. And no more eau de fresh bread wafting over the balcony from the bakery around the corner. Both the gym and public pools shut doors, leaving only stretching classes and ballroom dancing, both for free but decidedly aimed at a geriatric crowd, in the park.
Every single one of the hip bars lining the avenue leading to the park shut down, too. Supermarkets were open regularly — but that meant no “extraordinary” Sunday openings — and I half wished they repeated the experiment using them as air-conditioned rec centers just so I’d have something to do. When the even gelato shops closed — most of them aren’t open in winter, since ice cream is “seasonal” — I knew I was in trouble.
Wandering around a city empty enough that pedestrians could cross streets without looking at traffic lights, I went in search of a kiosk serving watermelon with an Italian friend who commiserated. Somewhat.
“Sure”, she said, “sooner or later, there won’t be anymore going en masse on holiday in August, with everything closing down like this. But then you’ll have random shops closing for the month of June or two weeks in September, so it’ll be just as bad.”
“No,” I tried to explain, “The thing is, in some countries, businesses never close for summer holidays.”
“Never? Ever?” She couldn’t believe it. “Don’t the owners go on vacation? You people are crazy.”
It didn’t sink in until I explained that while it was true that in the U.S. in particular, two weeks of vacation is the norm, shops are staffed with part-timers, retirees, college students etc. So that everyone takes vacation — in turn. She looked incredulous. And to be honest, I’m not sure if, or when, it will ever happen here.
Now, the smells and sounds of the restaurant below are back. The little old lady across the way with a terrace full of hydrangeas — when I don’t see her pottering about, I always wonder if she’ll ever return — has come home, too. I got honked at this morning crossing without paying attention to the traffic light, newspapers are full of reports of “re-entry syndrome” and vacationers touching up their glamor holiday snaps.
Time to get a move on.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 11:12 AM | Permalink

Police Say: Check Out Speed Trap Map, Please


Millions of Italians are hitting the roads in the August exodus, despite bloated gas prices and vacations shrinking faster than their bikinis.
With the limit set at 80 mph in normal conditions on the Italian autostrada, you’d think speeding wouldn’t be a problem. Not so: fleeting Fiats and lurching Lancias cause about 60% of all accidents.
Congested Bel Paese byways are a serious problem since the whole country still more or less runs on “factory vacations,” closing down for most of August. Though officials have urged people to take “intelligent vacations,” staggering when they head to the beach, it still doesn’t happen much, judging by the traffic calendar (called an “exodus plan”) predicting the worst days to travel on main roads.
So, feeling the need for speed and wanting everyone to stay alive, Italian police launched a handy, interactive map of speed cameras, called “autovelox” or, more deceptively, “tutor.” (If you’re planning on driving in Italy, a detailed low-down on the camera system here.)
Just so harried drivers know what to look for, here are warning signs online.
They can also download a PDF with speed camera locations region by region or check out when they’ll be whizzing by them online first.
A quick check showed 11 cameras monitoring the one-hour drive from Bologna to Florence, eight on the way back and a similar number from Florence to Rome.
Don’t say they didn’t warn you.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 4:25 PM | Permalink

Milan’s Mobile Mosque


Milan city officials are grappling with a mosque so overgrown that hundreds of Muslims kneel on sidewalks to pray. The solution is igniting a game of NIMBY hot-potato as neighborhoods and politicians move services from one spot to another.
Last Friday, the ‘mobile mosque’ was around the corner from my house. On my way to a lunchtime piadina, a young man on a bike stopped to ask politely in a heavy foreign accent: “Scusi, signora (argh) how do I get to Vigorelli stadium from here?”
A few seconds later, I remembered the city had given worshipers use for prayer services — just for one week — there. After lunch, I went to check it out. The last time I’d been to the stadium, a Fascist-era bike racing track, Fiat had sponsored a faux-ski run in it. The venue is never particularly busy, it’s an odd size and not well served by public transport.
It’s safe to say there was no welcome mat: the main entrance, facing a supermarket, was closed. Participants walking from the main entrance around to the back had to get past a political stand that proclaimed “The Right Is Here,” then through a cluster of police in riot gear, journalists, frowning locals and a metal barrier festooned with red and white tape. A spray painted banner with the phrase: “OUR DIGNITY, YOUR SERENITY: A UNITED CITIZENRY ASKS FOR RESPECT” was the put up by the community.
Men, many of whom looked like they might have left off plastering Milanese penthouses to come, arrived a few at a time, heads down and walking quickly. The next day, papers lamented that “only 500″ people had shown up, implying that maybe the community didn’t need a new mosque after all. The old makeshift mosque held 4,000 inside; the community is said to number 70,000 in Milan alone.
It’s unsurprising, given the location and general disapproval, that most people gave the services a miss.
No one seems to consider the basic right to pray, which, to my mind, doesn’t hinge on whether some of the citizenry approves or not of your religion. The Catholic Church should have such problems: so many of the houses of worship in Milan are empty that they’re closed most of the time or perhaps open on Saturday nights in a (vain) attempt to lure Italians back.
Milan isn’t the only city facing the conundrum of a mosque with growing pains, some are building super-sized venues, others (many in Europe) seem to think that the only way to handle the question is by pretending the need doesn’t exist. One thing is for sure: this ostrich approach won’t do much to foster understanding between religions and cultures.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 11:55 AM | Permalink

Italian Stallions Plagued By Size, Performance Anxiety


Italian doctors who recently ran a free hot line and website for macho men in crisis weren’t expecting the avalanche of traffic — 15,000 calls and a million web pages viewed in about a month.
Italian stallions evidently aren’t so hot to trot as tourist legend would have it.
Young Latin lovers from Southern Italy — where the climate and the men are thought to be hotter — are especially “worried, fragile and anxious” when it comes to sexual performance.
Well, they must have had an inkling something was amiss between the sheets: the initiative set up by the national association of andrology (SIA) was titled “love without worries.”
“Most callers were young people who tend to use Internet and the phone more,” explained Bruno Giammusso, andrologist and scientific coordinator of the campaign. “The amount of traffic, however, must make us wonder why young Italian men are so preoccupied even in the absence of specific problems.”
Most frequent nagging questions? Duration, performance and size. Some 42.3% of the inquiries were from Southern Italy and just 11.4% from Northern Italy.
Although Giammusso said the size issue is often unjustified (one wonders if there were tape measures involved in the fretful phone calls) he does note that callers exhibited a lack of adequate sex education and the wrong role models.
Who knew that Fabios ever felt less than fabulous? By other measuring sticks, Italian men certainly sound satisfied. Then again, all of those anonymous surveys aren’t exactly scientific, in as far as how many people called up randomly are going to admit to sexual inadequacy? Certo che no!
If this crisis of confidence is really so widespread, it may be time to update the guidebooks.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 4:53 PM | Permalink

What’s in a (Baby) Name?


Italians are now back to doling out grandparent’s names or those of patron saints to the few precious bambini they’re having after a wave of Sue Ellens, Naomis and Kevins, according to a recent data from National Statistics Bureau ISTAT.
Back on Italy’s baby-name hit list are classics like Francesco, Alessandro, Matteo, Paola and Elena. The two most popular Italian baby names are Francesco for boys and Giulia for girls, with 10,000 kids in 2004-2006 named after each.
Other popular names were more regional, such as Matteo and Alessandro (Northern Italy), Lorenzo (Central Italy, Tuscany and Lazio), and Antonio and Giuseppe (Southern Italy.) The North-South divide was less pronounced in female names with faves like Francesca and Martina popular all through the peninsola.
Foreign names, many of them plucked from soap opera and movie stars, were a seductive fad and a constant hassle. Even though the Italian alphabet reintroduced the letters K, J, H, W and X (they were outlawed during Fascism) pronunciation was difficult and many parents resorted to improbable spellings like Gessica, Illary — pronounced E-larry — and Gionatan (that’s Jonathan, to you) to make sure fellow citizens could get the sound right.
Children were saddled with these trendy monikers for good because Italian courts only allow name changes in very limited circumstances — and having to go through life as Uma or Britney isn’t one of them.
Famous Italians, however, are still stuck on strange names. One does nearly feel sorry for their children, who like their U.S. counterparts, are saddled with guess-whose-kid-I-am names, such as soccer star Francesco Totti‘s daughter Chanel, or actress Monica Bellucci’s daughter Deva, fabulous in Sanskrit but in Italian sounds like a contorted version of “have to” or “must.”

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 9:17 AM | Permalink

Italians say “si” to e-quitting


Italy is a nation founded on work (that’s the first line of the constitution, as I never tire of repeating) but the country has the some of the most rigid labor laws in Europe.
It’s hard to get hired. It’s nearly impossible to get fired. So a Donald Trump canning yelp or liberating “Take This Job and Shove It” can often mean a trip to the lawyers for both parties.
This lack of flexibility has meant that companies strongarm new hires into signing a resignation letter (sans date) so that when they’re not needed they can be liquidated.
I’ve never been able to leave a full-time permanent post without taking my contract over to a long-suffering lawyer friend to work around the ridiculous clauses (like three-month notice, two-year post job non-competing agreements) enabling me to slip out the back, Jack.
That may change with a new law requiring electronic communications to fire or quit jobs.
Though every single news account stressed the online component, like most things here (even playing the online lottery) an in-person visit was involved. Instead of the information highway, everything still traveled on the bureaucratic mule cart.
Now the whole process can be done online, but whether that stops employers from forcing de trop employees to resign by force is open to question.
It works like this: any worker who wants to say sayonara to his or her salaried post registers online and fills out a quitting form. It’s pretty straightforward, though it requires more information at hand than just a regular resignation letter — fiscal code of the employer, exact starting date — and there’s no advice on what to put under “reason for quitting.”
The form piles into a Labor Ministry database, the quittee takes away a numbered copy as receipt. Within 15 days, the quittee gives the resignation form to the employer or it is invalid. (You can still go through an intermediary, namely city hall or the unions, if you don’t trust the Internet or have access at home).
An IT manager I know went through the process when it first became law back in March. He had an offer from a foreign company opening an Italian branch and held off on the quitting form because the new company was having problems vetting the Italian labor laws (surprise!) and was stuck waiting on the contract.
Once he “applied” to quit, he only had 15 days to do so. Feeling the squeeze, he decided to get the quitting form sorted out, just in case. He wasted half a day at city hall to apply for his resignation.
As chance would have it, the new employer rang him at the hospital where his wife had gone for an emergency operation, telling him to come sign the contract. Visiting hours over, he booked over to sign and then slapped his (totally clueless) employer with the form.
Just how does an electronic version stop employers from standing over your PC and forcing you to fill out the quitting doc? Clearly, it can’t. One less visit to a lawyer’s, maybe, for anyone quitting without complications, but that’s debatable.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 7:56 AM | Permalink

Pink Parking Spots for Pregnant Women


Pink is still in. Even more so in Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, where pregnant women can park for free in special pink spaces.
The city recently launched a Pink Parking Program that by 2011 will give pregnant women a total of 17 “courtesy areas” (hospitals, pediatric clinics) where they can park free for 90 minutes. (The “pink is for girls” idea is common in Italy, where even steely feminists seem to accept that any women’s initiative usually has the word associated with it, such as “quote rosa(pink quotas) for women in politics.)
With one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, Italians are scrambling to create bambini bonuses and oddball initiatives to convince women to have more children.
A recent study showed, however, that countries like Italy where women feel less able to control their lives — birth control, abortion, divorce, work — they have fewer children. In Sweden, for example, 72% of women use birth control, 2.4 every 1,000 women are divorced and a whopping 3% of the GDP is dedicated to social programs that favor maternity (inexpensive and plentiful childcare, real paternity leave, etc) resulting in an average of two kids per woman.
Italy, on the other hand, only 39% use birth control, the divorce rate is 0.7 and 1.1% of the GDP is dedicated to family initiatives. The result? In the poorer and rural areas of Italy, the average is 1.06 child per woman.
Presenting the research, demographic expert Letizia Mencarini told papers that “Italy’s reputation as the country for families lives on only in stereotypes.”
Though Milan, the city with the highest number of working mothers in Italy has also been enjoying a baby boomlet, aided but not entirely bolstered by resident foreigners.
I have my doubts about how useful the initiative is, how much of the population it might touch when the city couldn’t even get a few future mamme for the photo op, which shows two elderly city councilmen standing sheepishly with hands in suit pants on a parking space the shade of Pepto-Bismol.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 6:17 PM | Permalink

How Big is Your “Salve” Circle?


Foreigners who learn Italian often want to get up to speed on vitriolic cuss words or smooth sweet nothings. Swearing like a Turk (as they say) came easy to me, but greetings were tough to get right.
In the morning, you say “buon giorno,” but in Florence, where I learned Italian, they start kicking in with good afternoon/evening at around noon. And although saying “sera” to someone at 1 p.m. will get you raised eyebrows in most other parts of Italy, the habit has stuck with me.
Then there’s the age and status component: just who can you toss a very casual “ciao” at and who not? It’s a salutation minefield, and when you can’t get the first words out with any finesse, the conversation goes downhill faster than a Fiat with faulty brakes.
And so when I moved to Milan, it was with great pleasure that “salve” came into my life. It’s the closest thing Italian has to a generic, all-purpose “hello,” you can pretty much say it to any one, any time of day and in any situation.
Pronounced “sal-vay,” the word also means “safe” as in “safe and sound” (sano e salvo) and that’s how it made me feel: secure. It’s not a personal greeting, you wouldn’t want to use it to someone you really know and chat with, so it’s perfect for nodding acquaintances. Like all-black outfits, it’s much more frequently found in Northern Italy, but works well in the rest of the peninsula.
Just how small my “salve” circle was became apparent one recent rainy morning when a corner of my kitchen started to look like a Rorschach test from a persistent leak. The landlord said I needed to the key to a lock for the roof before we could make an appointment to get it fixed.
I didn’t have it and the two downstairs neighbors I’m friendly with didn’t either. So who to ask? Not the recycling fascist, for sure. I couldn’t stand another lecture on removing the plastic windows from paper envelopes. There’s a woman known as “wife-of-the-restaurant-owner” (why don’t I know her name?), sometimes encountered around the bike rack, but wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I’d get if I knocked on her door.
The rest of the palazzo residents I wasn’t sure I’d recognize if I saw them at the supermarket around the corner. Stuck in etiquette limbo, I sat on the project (and interpreted the changing pattern of the stain) for about a week. Then I checked out the lock and found someone had forgot to close it, so the immediate problem was solved.
But it got me thinking: just how many people do I see frequently (at the robo-cop gym, the supermarket, the park) that I might say hello to? Without being creepy or practicing some sort of massive group come-on? And how many more might I chat to, if I had a go?
Thought I’m not exactly a shrinking violet — and grew up with a dad who has never met anyone at a flea market, Mexican restaurant or church social that he didn’t like — speaking a foreign language learned as an adult has made me shy and tentative.
Because if you open up your mouth to a stranger and the weather comment is grammatically faulty or imperfectly accented, people look at you funny. And tend to follow up with an unfriendly, “Where are YOU from?” that often sounds more like, “Hark! Who goes there?”
So you either shut up (previous strategy) or not care if it doesn’t come out right (new strategy).
Predictably, the experiment got me into a few cringe-worthy scrapes. Confident I remembered the name of a woman in yoga class, I kept repeating her wrong name in conversation, only to realize later, when the instructor corrected her by name, that all women of a certain age with slightly bouffy wheat-colored short hair look alike to me. Or the supermarket checkout girl, thrown the offhand (but sincere) compliment on her poker-straight, black hair only to respond with an eye roll, “When have you ever seen my hair differently? I mean, do I know you?” Ouch.
The security guard outside the bank that I walk past every day on my way to the newsstand still watches silently with suspicion and crossed arms, refusing to exchange my greetings, but the elderly doorman at the palazzo next to the bank now gives me a real smile and a “salve” every single morning, which feels like an accomplishment. Another neighbor invited me for dinner and Italian X-factor (addictive!), and it turned out his wife had invited an old friend of mine over, too. (Note to self: Milan is a lot smaller than it looks. Behave accordingly).
As a bonus, there’s been lots of good information (Benetton is the go-to place for cute, inexpensive bikinis, AC Milan has had better seasons, RyanAir is having a one-euro sale if you book now) and while the results are unpredictable, you can triple-fold your circle of acquaintances in about six weeks, even in a big city, if you start your local equivalent of “salvay-ing” today.
If you try it, let me know what happens.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 8:59 AM | Permalink

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