Foodgasm of the Moment: La Festa del Cioccolato

I suppose if anything deserves its own festival, it’s chocolate.

The only question that comes to mind is: why did it take me thirty-odd years on this planet to attend a party in honor of chocolate?  Because, once again, Italy has its priorities straight.  That’s why.  Which other country would lovingly dedicate its time and energy to such humble pursuits?

These sagras, or festivals in honor of a specific gastronomic delicacy, never cease to amaze me, and bring a whole new perspective to life.  Stand after stand of fantastically-crafted delights. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s entirely possible that Italy’s role in the world may just be to teach everyone else how to slow down, and rather than smell the flowers, taste the (insert food of choice here).

After all, it is what they do best.


10 Things I Hate About Italy

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love Italy. But admiration alone doesn’t guarantee life as an expat will be an endless smorgasbord of pleasure and delight (well, literally it might, but not figuratively).  Oh no, you’ve gotta earn every drop of that mouth-watering gastronomic goodness; you pay for it with your blood, sweat, and tears, amico mio.  No matter how well I’ve assimilated to life here , there are certainly still times I view this country from a foreigner’s perspective – and if I concentrate on it too long, I realize there are a whole lot of things that can really girarmi i coglioni.

I’m typically someone who refrains from making conclusive statements before evaluating all sides of a situation (unlike those ignoramuses I detest who come back from a brief vacation abroad and are suddenly cultural experts on a place, making sweeping observations and statements like, “In Italy, everyone…”).  Generalizations are exactly that – but I’ll allow myself to indulge for a moment.  After five years here I think I’ve earned the right to make a few generic, open-ended, (dare I say) judgmental statements.

Hate is a strong word – but hey, life can’t always be a love fest, no matter where you are.  So, here they are, 10 things I hate about Italy:

1. Daily driving, which is absolute anarchy (in Rome, at least).  Imagine the chaos that would ensue if  traffic laws were virtually non-existent, and those which did exist were barely enforced.  Wait a sec, you don’t have to imagine it – just come to Rome.  The concept of getting pulled over essentially doesn’t exist here because of a lack of police presence on the streets, which makes the roadways a complete free-for-all.  You are literally at the mercy of your fellow motorists, which is not at all a good thing, since most of them are either in a hurry, in a tizzy, or just straight up stronzi (jerks, to put it lightly).

2. The post office. I’m pretty sure it was the tenth circle of hell in Dante ‘s “Inferno” – and if he didn’t include it, he should have.  I detest the place so much in fact that I haven’t physically mailed anything in at least four years.  People take a half-day off from work to accomplish something at the Italian post office.  In true useless bureaucratic style, a simple task is made difficult.  It’s probable you’ll leave with an acute hypertension problem.  Thank God I happen to live here in the age of online purchases and gifts sent directly through Amazon, otherwise I’d be a wreck.

3. Those stupid, tiny napkins at every bar that don’t absorb anything.  They seem to be coated in plastic, which makes no sense.  It’s like they’re having an existential crisis: if a napkin doesn’t properly absorb liquid, then what purpose does it exactly have?

4. The privately-owned shops and boutiques.  Ever suffered an anxiety attack while shoe shopping?  You will if you dare to enter one of these stress centers.  From the moment you open the door, the sales woman pounces and tension grows.  She immediately either: a.) wants to know exactly what you’re looking for; b.) insists on showing you things you’re entirely uninterested in; or c.) stalks you around the store in silence, just close enough to freak you out.  If you do show slight interest in something by merely grazing it with your hand, she feels the immediate need to inform you the item also comes in blah-blah colors and blah-blah sizes, and follows up with a brisk, “Can I wrap it up for you?”  Ten minutes in, and you’re ready to throw money at her and beg for mercy as you run for the door.

5. General obsession with health issues.  Everyone is always ready to self-diagnose or diagnose your symptoms (and most Italians are annoyingly proficient in anatomy).  Only in this country could you hear someone say in normal conversation, “Mi fa male il fegato” (my liver hurts).  In the States, most people couldn’t even begin to tell you where their liver is, let alone whether it hurts; we tend to lump our entire torso and its contents into the all-encompassing “stomachache.”  Then, there are the all-too-frequent discussions about digestion.  TMI, italiani! (not that TMI exists here).  Even young people habitually say things normally reserved for 80-year-old women, like: ”Mi piacciono i pepperoni, ma non li posso proprio mangiare – non li digerisco” (I like peppers, but I just can’t eat them – I can’t digest them).  I always thought it was just my immigrant grandmother who was freakishly in tune with her body (she would complain of  joint pain when it was about to rain), then I found out the whole damn country is one big pseudo-clinic of hypochondriacs.

6. Total wimpiness when it comes to the weather.  As soon as the temperature drops below 60 degrees in the fall, everyone begins to fret about the cambio di stagione they have to do at home (switching of summer/winter clothes), and they start dressing as if they lived in the Arctic Circle.  Please, people, I grew up in Ohio – your light rain and chilly temps are our Spring Break.  Then there’s the simultaneous widespread fear of the menacing colpo d’aria (cold blast of air), which, if caught without a scarf, can send you al letto (to bed) for days.  And the worst part?  I have also succumbed to this fainthearted fate, and never ever forget my scarf.  Disastro!

7. Complete lack of political correctness.  I once saw a job announcement posted in a store window advertising a position for girls with a “bella presenza, età massima di 28,” (good-looking, maximum age of 28). Seriously, they can actually get away with that?  Yes, for some reason they can – and it’s ridiculous and infuriating.

8. You always have to worry about having change on you everywhere you go.  Whenever you buy anything, every cashier, merchant, and place of business asks if you have exact change.  For example, if your bill comes to €15.62, they ask if you have thirty-eight cents.  Seriously, who has thirty-eight cents on them, all the time?  I don’t, and I certainly don’t want to have to worry about having it.  But yet I have to; it’s another thought I’m forced to squeeze into my limited brain space before going anywhere.  Otherwise, I will undoubtedly be haunted by the panicked, “Do I have any coins?” thought whenever I’m lucky enough to actually find a parking spot, or need a tip for the nice Indian guy who pumps my gas after hours.

9. The fact that the employment situation is so dire that people actually have to invent jobs that don’t exist.  No job to be found?  No problem!  Just park yourself at the nearest traffic light, parking lot, or gas station and become an honorary employee.  No, I don’t need a lighter that doubles as a laser pointer, or yet another pack of cheap tissues, grazie.  It’s a sad reflection on the state of the Italian economy when you feel obligated to pay someone for a service you really didn’t need or ask for in the first place.

10. Overly predictable people, and an awkwardly regimented society in general.  In Italy, there aren’t many people with complex identities: you are what you eat, wear, and do. Usually, what you see is what you get, without many surprises or exceptions to the rule.  From the perspective of an American used to a diverse society, that’s a strange concept.  It’s almost too easy to pinpoint a person’s social status, political beliefs, or even profession by appearance alone.  Also, much of the overall structure of society is based on the Italian eating schedule (which incidentally I’ve fully adopted, since I think it’s one of the few structural things they get right).  But I must admit it’s strange that in a country of more than 60 million people, you can actually plan your day around this schedule to avoid traffic.  For example, grocery shopping on a Sunday is a nightmare just around noon, but you can bet it’ll be a breeze from 1-3pm when everyone (and I mean everyone) is at home eating lunch. Honestly, it’s almost creepy.

That makes ten, but I think I feel a series coming on…

Check out the opposing viewpoint written on a happier day: 15 Reasons to Love Italy

Obama just arrived at Fiumicino…  

Can’t imagine the havoc there. On the agenda: dinner with Renzi, late night stroll in Piazza Navona, meeting with the Pope in the morning, and private tour of the Colosseum tomorrow afternoon… The man certainly knows how to see (and shut down) a city.

“La Grande Bellezza”: Beauty Worthy of An Oscar

Italy has once again earned its place on the cinematic map with a recent win for Best Foreign Film. Without having even seen “La Grande Bellezza,” I was just happy to hear that Italy had finally contributed something to the cinematic stratosphere that didn’t involve the usual tired storylines of sordid love affairs coupled with cheesy, heart-shaped graphics on billboards. It’s been a while since Italian cinema has been worthy of the honor.

Last night, one of the public television channels aired “La Grande Bellezza” so all of Italy could come to know the film that brought home the Oscar this year. I couldn’t wait to see it, especially since my new adventures in motherhood have prohibited me from sitting through any type of programming for longer than twenty minutes. Consequently, it’s been more than a year since I’ve had the pleasure of setting foot in a cinema – and for someone who considers herself a film enthusiast, that’s quite a punishment. So I got giddy when I saw the 9:30pm time slot on my DVR: just in time to send Luca off to dreamland and have a little serious movie time.

Maybe I’m just in dire need of cinematic sustenance, or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve barely held an adult conversation that doesn’t involve bowel movement color and frequency in more than a year – but this film completely overtook me, as any great one should. It struck me almost immediately, like those certain people you meet and instantly click with. This film and I understood each other on many levels.

Judging from the dismal reviews I had come across on the internet and radio here in Italy, I was prepared to be bored out of my mind. But when I heard it described as “Felliniesque,” that turned me on – I’ve appreciated the genre since my “Post-War Italian Cinema” course in college where we dissected the masterpieces of the likes of De Sica, Pasolini, and of course, Fellini.

Incidentally, to be referenced as “Felliniesque” is a double-edged sword: it can prove as off-putting to non-enthusiasts and sets too high of a standard for cult followers. From the first scene though, it’s clear “La Grande Bellezza” is an homage to the Fellini era. There are certainly those moments of pure randomness and chaos characteristic of the style, typically involving affluent characters who wander their world in a desperate insanity, searching to fill a void in their lives they can’t explain. Jovial nightlife scenes and lavish extravagance often mask their deep angst and emotional despair. But this film wins by achieving a contemporary twist and sociological depth which manifests its own identity in the persona of Jep, played by the phenomenal Toni Servillo.

Many Italians apparently had a hard time following the plot or finding any meaning in it at all (many Italians also love any excuse to crap all over their own country, but that’s another story). To anyone looking for a clear answer as to what this film is about, my most obvious personal observation would be: it’s the story of a man who has spent the past forty years making Rome his playground. He’s placed all of his energy and priorities on becoming part of the upper echelon of society, only to arrive at his sixty-fifth birthday forced to come to terms with the fact he’s wasted much of his life in a superficial, hypocritical circle of high-society people and their frivolous version of a city he once hoped to dominate.

Americans can’t resist a good film with suave Italian accents and sweeping views of Rome; that might be what sealed the deal with the Academy. But I would also hope they appreciated the irony and depth in all that exquisite beauty. That immaculate Roman scenery, in my opinion, was meant to directly reflect the outwardly perfect, impeccable appearance the Roman upper-class struggles to project. In truth, what lies beneath is another story, both in the people and their city. The protagonist spends a lot of time walking through this scenery, and I understood that to be a completely intentional way of juxtaposing the striking exterior beauty of the city with the ugly interior reality of its society’s aristocrats.

I also don’t find it a coincidence that the director chose not to depict the grungy state of the city itself: the Rome of today – not the tourist center, but the one real people live and work in every day – is littered with trash-filled streets, poop on the sidewalks, and triple-parked cars. Only those who live in or are intimate with Rome could recognize this inherent irony. That’s why I really loved this film: Sorrentino managed to present it in a way that it would be embraced instantly for the stereotypically intense beauty of Rome, while at the same time producing one of the greatest critiques of this city today, from the point of view of those who live it.

It was a perfect portrait of what it means to be a true Roman, who struggles with both the love and admiration for his city, as well as the frustration and utter disgust for the life it can enable. The excess and exaggeration of the Dolce Vita era is alive and well even today in the Italian capital – and its participants are just as out of touch with the real world as ever. The clean and exaggeratedly pristine scenography couples with the ideal many in that particular social circle try to portray, only to fall short and lose touch with reality altogether.

No doubt though, the reason I enjoyed this film so much is not only because I live in Rome, but because in my years working in this great city, I’ve been exposed to people similar to the characters in this film. So I can appreciate this film’s point of view and its sophisticated depiction of the soul of a complicated city and its varied inhabitants.

By all means, watch this film for its stunning imagery – just remember to look deeper to reveal the Rome buried beneath all the beauty.  And as far as viewing this or any “Felliniesque” film goes, remember: Give it a chance. Don’t try to follow or understand a direct plot line. Approach it with a light heart and a keen sense of irony. And most of all, sit back and enjoy the spectacle.