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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

From Politics to Reality Show: A Career Change?


The twists and turns of Italian politics rival any nighttime soap: one minute you’re Europe’s first transgender parliamentarian, the next you’re getting an extreme wax to prepare for a reality show.
That’s the trajectory of Vladimir Luxuria, former Communist Refoundation representative, ousted from government — along with the rest of the party — and now preparing to star in September in Italy’s version of Celebrity Survivor! (Called, un-catchily, Isola dei Famosi” or Famous People’s Island in Italian).
Apparently, this is what happens when remote control is the only power left. Back when Luxuria was elected in 2006, hopes were high that Italian politics might be taking a change for the better, in part because after a record five-year tenure, Silvio Berlusconi was out.
Now Berlusconi is back. The communists, for the first time in Italy’s post-war history, are out of the government.
Luxuria has said that catching fish with her hands on a small Honduras isle won’t be any more of a reality show than the televised arguments about just who gets to use the parliamentary little girl’s room.
It is difficult to argue with her, especially since, as far as I know, her other newsmaking moments while in government mostly had to do with some depressing plastic surgery and not her tenure on the Culture, Science and Education commission.
Her party mates see her post-parliament choice a little differently. Politics never take a break in Italy, summer recess is partly spent in powerhouse pow-wows in vacation spots to choose or reconfirm leaders and refine strategies for the upcoming season.
The communists have their hammer and sickle knickers in a bit of a twist, understandably. Just as they were trying to figure out how to get back in power at the national congress in Tuscan spa spot Chianciano Terme, it “leaked out” that Luxuria was trading it all in for a sun, sand and videotape, plus the equivalent of about 300 years salary of the average proletariat.
There’s a special hell for this kind of discussion, whether you believe in the Inferno or not. While they were squabbling over a new leader — even the winning faction got just 40% of the votes — news outlets were more interested in Luxuria’s career change.
Alas, Italian politicians will have to come up with some other gimmick to keep citizens tuned in. And the Vintage Nipplegate scandal probably won’t do it.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 2:38 PM | Permalink

Black Models Are New Black, Says Italian Vogue


This month’s Italian edition of fashion bible Vogue features black models on the cover. Pithily called “A Black Issue,” in English, and it was hailed as a stereotype-breaking move much heralded in the international press before it came out.
I read the articles, then forgot all about the controversy until I biked past a kiosk here in Milan urging me to pick up each of the four different “collectible” covers.
There is something more than a little dishonest about this particular fashion statement. For the Italian market, where foreigners, of any color, make up just five percent of the population, it’s more of a publicity ploy than anything else.
It is also more likely to sell here on the “exotic/novelty” ticket than it would in places where it would be more representative of the general population. As far as I know, there were no newsstand rushes to collect the issue in Italy.
Edgy-luscious photos by Steven Meisel – the cover on the photo story for the issue on Vogue Italia’s site offers up a topless Naomi Campell — certainly add to that impression.
The other three cover women of color are Jourdan Dunn, Liya Kebede and Sessilee Lopez. On all four covers, they wear decidedly conservative un-summerlike clothing, as if to exasperate the “timeless” and “collectible” quality of the shots.
No doubt, the fashionistas know their gimmicks: the issue reportedly sold record copies outside Italy, in the U.S. and Britain especially. If, after getting on the waiting lists, running around to every neighborhood Barnes & Noble, you managed to get your hands on one, let me know what you make of it.
My nagging doubt? Vogue Italia, as the name implies, is published in Italian only. So, to my mind, if people bought it just to see the pics, the hype was more important than the actual content. (Articles in the issue are all dedicated to black women, too).
Does one issue of a magazine — a minor edition in a language most people can’t read — even chip the French manicure in the racism of the fashion industry or society at large?
I’m going to say no, just like I did to spray tans and gaucho pants.
Perhaps the real problem is that we’re allowing the agenda to be set by a group of people who regularly aim to convince grown women to spend money on things like romper suits.
They set the barriers, they can break them — or pretend to break them to sell a few copies — and then move on to the next big thing.
Maybe they’ll do a Fat Issue next.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 9:40 AM | 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

Italy’s “Pimped” Premier


Italy’s Premier Silvio Berlusconi has wasted no time during his second tenure getting the press to notice him. It does seem unfortunate that he mostly seems to do this by buffoonery, rather than policy.
Among the more serious charges: running what must be an awfully threadbare casting couch.
Phone taps
have him intervening on behalf of talent-free starlets, trying to finagle them into acting parts in state broadcaster RAI’s already overburdened melodramas. (Full disclosure: I worked for a couple of years as a journalist at Canale 5, the flagship station of Mediaset, founded by Berlusconi but at the time already run by his children. There were a few instances where, thanks to family connections or nudges, someone got a job, but probably not more than in big media anywhere.)
Following his outrage at having to be questioned by magistrates on weekends instead of “enjoying his houses, children and wife” he quickly moved to limit the powers of courts to touch his double-breasted tranquility.
Outraged opposition member Antonio Di Pietro, ex-”Clean Hands” prosecutor, with his usual bulldog delicacy called Berlusconi a “pimp,” and when prompted to apologize to the premier, he refused on grounds that both he and the Italian people were owed an apology for this unstatesman-like behavior.
An accusation not helped by the fact that Berlusconi, always trying to be noticed, launched another fashion faux paus by covering his spray-hair with a jaunty white Panama hat. It’s a look that, paired with a black shirt, says go-and-brush-your-shoulders-off as eloquently as anything could.
Recently, I had the chance to chat with a People of Liberty party flack. When I tried to sympathize with her over it must be like to deal with his big tent behavior, she replied, snidely, that he does it on purpose. It’s all an act, to provoke the press (foreign press especially) and laugh along as they laugh at him. Whatever. I’m not getting the joke.

Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 12:33 PM | Permalink


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