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Archives for ExPat Experience

How Big is Your “Salve” Circle?

May
6
2008

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

Primaries, 2.0

Feb
12
2008

Though I was knee deep in fried treats last Tuesday and about 6,000 miles from California, I still voted in the Democratic primary.
Probably before you did, thanks to the time difference. As I wrote last week for Wired, Expat Dems cast a preference online, for the first time ever, instead of just sending absentee ballots that never get counted.
Democrats Abroad reckons that by now 20,000 party members abroad have voted (today’s the last day for overseas e-votes); the expat bloc brings what may be a tie-breaking 22 delegates to the August convention.
The party woke up to the fact that the democratic diaspora exists and, though these scattered citizens have often opted to live without dryers, Walmart and beef jerky, they do want to vote. (Republicans Abroad opted out of the RNC and can’t gather primary votes).
I voted for the first time in all my years abroad in the 2004 presidential elections.
Friends warned me it was like a heavy gym session on the day of a party: it won’t make any difference, but you feel better about yourself for having made the effort.
Each state has different rules, time tables, procedures for requesting an absentee ballot, all of which must be deciphered months in advance.
Sometimes, the ballot and instructions arrive on time, more often they are waylaid by U.S. officials clueless about postage outside borders and proverbially lousy postal systems abroad.
Back then, I exercised my right at a faux Cajun restaurant in the fashionable Brera district. Polling stations on foreign soil often have a convivial air (Barcelona’s Mardi Gras/Super Tuesday mash-up or New Delhi’s restaurant get-together) but are unable to guarantee that votes will actually be counted. (Though if you’re not interested in privacy or accuracy, one does have the option of faxing the vote in).
I clinked the ice around in a Negroni sbagliato, voted on a piece of paper, handed it to some guy who put it in an envelope and promised that the mail would go through the consulate system and thus, my voice would be heard.
The next morning listening to the outcome on the radio, I could be heard sniffing “whatever!” into my cappuccino.
Online voting definitely gets my vote, though the security is no where near perfect. It’s still better than no vote at all.
There were some kinks in the registration process — after which I still couldn’t tell whether I had signed up for online voting or not — and then a cryptic email that said I could vote anytime from GMT + 13 onwards from February 5th. (Basically, when the day turned in the farthest outpost, Jakarta, voting commenced).
Lori Steele, from the optimistically-named Everyone Counts which runs the e-primaries, told me that some states are already considering going digital for November.
It’s the kind of empowerment that just might convince some of us it is time to come back home.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 12:37 PM | Permalink

Food Mules Beware

Oct
26
2006

Australian expats are furious over Vegemite confiscations by U.S. customs agents.
Hanging on to a jet-lagged Aussie’s stash of loamy, brown yeast spread is clearly an act of spite — because there’s no way customs workers are sitting around in the break room eating it and laughing.
It’s part of a food crack down, apparently officials have decided to open the eye they used to close on the cheery, yellow-capped jars for “personal use,” as if it were some kind of drug.

(more…)

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 7:29 AM | Permalink

Hot sand: Italy’s illicit souvenir

Sep
7
2006

Normally, tourists take home memories of love affairs — however brief, however imaginary — from Italian shores.
A German carted home a load of sand from the Italian isle of Elba and sold it on eBay.
Italian environmental group Legambiente found out about it and raised the alarm.

(more…)

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 8:42 AM | Permalink

Allleeeeoooo!

Jul
7
2006

Italy beat Germany. Whooped thier Allemanic behinds 2-0.

This time, instead of nodding off into a Negroni in New York, I watched the game in Milan’s Piazza Duomo.

Jumping along with 50,000 azzurri fans and a small clutch of Germans in a crowd that sang for nearly the duration of the game and saw fit to set off fireworks, undisturbed, every now and then.

All together now…

There was no way to enlist anyone to go with me, though. The web of interlocking superstition (“I can’t see it in the square. Last time I did, we lost.” or “Sorry, I have to see it with my cousin. I didn’t and they lost”) kept everyone wherever they were the last time the Italians won.

(more…)

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 1:02 AM | Permalink

American Airlines: Customer Disservice

Jul
4
2006

Travel is always a hassle. Forget all that Chatwin-ian crap about searching for the miraculous. It’s boring, uncomfortable and only the sanitary conditions compete with the dodginess of the food.

Some trips are worse than others. I got stuck in Heathrow on my way back to Milan from New York. After an O.J. Simpson-worthy dash through the airport (necessary thanks to a two-hour stall on the runway at JFK), I had been “offloaded” — airspeak for bumped — on the connecting flight.

It was an apt term. I already had a boarding pass, but they figured I wouldn’t make it. So they wanted to see my ticket and reissue another seat.

I handed over three additional pieces of paper left in the American Airlines sleeve. They said it wasn’t a ticket. I said, “Huh? Who cares? Here’s a boarding pass. And you have all the info on the computer.”

Upshot: I was definitively offloaded and forced to schlep upstairs (and through security again) to the ticket counter.

(more…)

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 10:38 PM | Permalink

Smiley Face

Jun
27
2006

One of the best things about being an expat is an expanded capacity to complain. Maybe you were already a complainer, but when you move somewhere else you really blossom. It broadens your lamenting horizons.
You can now gripe about the home country to an eager audience. “America? Well, imagine a place where people run errands on a 36-minute lunch hour!”

(more…)

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 3:22 PM | Permalink

Meeting the Boys in Blue

Jun
22
2006

I spent most of a recent evening with NYPD’s finest. Not too bad, considering I’ve been in the city for about a week. In Florence, it took me two weeks before getting hauled to the police station in an early-morning raid and having my passport sequestered. But we all know how slowly things move in Italy, right?

(more…)

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 5:13 PM | Permalink

Italy’s texting tourists

May
26
2006

Italy is said to hold 60% of the world’s art treasures, but visiting them has always been a bit tricky. After staggering up 300 steps of the Leaning Tower of Pisa at 2 p.m. in sticky 100° heat, you realize you could have taken a leisurely climb and worked off those tortellini from dinner by coming at 11p.m.

(more…)

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 1:49 AM | Permalink

I Say Tortilla, You Say Piadina – Let’s Eat

May
16
2006

The last thing I expected when I moved to Florence in the early 1990s was to lose 12 pounds in a few weeks.

Surveying the gaunt faces during a morning orientation session for a year-long study abroad program, the director noted that many of us had dropped the “Freshman 15,” the weight newcomers shed after putting scruffy Converse sneakers on Italian soil.

Yes, in the land of pasta, pizza, prosciutto and gelato.

How could this be?

Far from some anti-Atkins miracle, it came down to a severe lack of culinary skills. I, for one, had spent my college years in San Francisco staving off hunger by slapping together a few tortillas with cheese with perhaps a guacamole chaser for a meal. Many meals.

This was not going to sustain daily schlepping on foot to the sights of a city with 600 years of art treasures. The nearly constant wooziness — equal parts Stendhal syndrome and hunger — reminded me that I did not know how to live in this beautiful, bewildering place.

Many an intrepid cultural exploration starts at a foreign supermarket and my trek to an Esselunga across town, one of the few supermarkets around then, was a revelation. I had never seen a supermarket that stocked only food.

(more…)

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 7:45 PM | Permalink

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