Monday, May 30, 2016

Walking Into A World Of Difference

An interesting article was published on Yahoo a few days ago concerning impressions of Americans on European customs.   It is always interesting to learn what people think when they encounter differences.    I am hoping  it will make a good blog post.  

Actual Portion Size You Get In The Veneto
Half The Size Of American 
Preparing for my first  European visit (1974)I was completely unaware of my prejudices and preconceptions towards what I would find in Europe.   That summer I was schooled!  Arriving across the pond, I didn’t realize that the only people in a restaurant before 7:30 would be  Americans, or that it is not a crime against humanity for food portions to be so much smaller.  
On of the BEST in Rome for pasta!
yet totally GSp

I had to get used to not having air conditioning in public vehicles.  I had no a clue about those strange traffic signs and the various driving regulations, or that people didn’t have eggs and bacon for breakfast, and you would not be served a coke with ice.  I didn't trust greasy spoon looking places, and ended up missing out on some great food.  I had never seen people eat an apple for dessert using a knife and fork.   I didn’t know that it was atrociously bad manners to try speaking German to a Dutch person in the hope to be understood.  I had no idea that people in Barcelona would stay up past 2:00 AM and keep me awake. 

No Taste In Clothes Back Then
Wish I Still Had That Shirt
  I was a complete idiot!   I had  the mental competence of a stump!  That's me on the right, a mere babe in the woods, badly dressed for the 60's and needing to be schooled!

(There is a British tv series, Idiot Abroad, starring Karl Pilkington and written by Ricky Gervais about differences in culture—it is outrageously hilarious and worth a look!)  

Back then  there were far fewer  tourists in Europe.  You might have the whole compartment in the train to yourself, which allowed you to sleep on the train at night by pulling out the bottom of the seats to make a couch.  (Not possible nowadays—they fixed that to increase profits)  I didn’t have to stand in line with hundreds of tourists to see the Roman Coliseum, pay to see the Forum or get into a massive line for  the Vatican Museum.  There was no line up for a  visit to the Tower of London, or to visit St. Marks in Venice. 

McCarthy Wanted to Stop The War
Americans were seen by European people with more curiosity.  Now we are sometimes viewed as a bother.  Three times, while in Lisbon, people walked up and touched my arm as if to say that they had touched an American.  (I did the same to Senator Eugene McCarthy who in 1968 ran for for President.)  

I had some wonderful personal encounters with people.  At a bus stop in Berne while I was counting pocket change the bus arrived and a total stranger  reached in his pocket, took out change  and pushed me onto the bus while paying my fare.   A few weeks later, another  stranger in Rome gave me directions and then invited me to his home for a visit that night to meet his family.  In contrast,  later that month while my train was stopped in France, being very thirsty and having no French money, I offered to give a seller all the change in my pocket, (at least 7 dollars worth) for a bottle of water.   This was a huge pile of coins from other countries.  He refused my request! 

My favorite jaw dropping memory is when, during  the first week of my trip, a  Dutch farmer learned of my musical degree and he directed me to the back where he quickly opened his barn,  to show me a pipe organ that he had built after the war.   He had spent his war years in Italy repairing organs and came home with his dream to build one.  One look at his gnarly, dirty farmer’s fingers made me believe that he could not play it, but he removed his wooden shoes and sat down to play some Bach.  —And he played Bach wonderfully,  even with his hunt and peck style.  These impressions of Europe, the good and the bad,and sucked me into wanting more.  Three months with a back pack and a Eurail Pass had me hooked forever.

Traffic Sign in Tuscany
One thing that was mentioned in the internet article was the fact that in Italy pedestrians have the right of way.  I learned this the hard way during my driving school lessons as I nervously drove through the traffic in the center of Padova.  While dodging traffic, reading the traffic signs and worrying about correct speed I saw two people standing at a middle of the block where there was a crosswalk, not regulated by a light.  It looked like they were talking and one was lighting a cigarette, so I kept going forward, while I heard “No!” from my instructor as he applied the brake.  The pedestrians suddenly woke from their conversations and walked across the street.  On all non regulated crosswalks with a light,  if there is any person there, even a bicyclist heading that way, you must stop.  All Italians are trained to stop for pedestrians.  They follow the rules—except for stopping at stop signs!

There are more smokers in Europe than America, although greatly reduced from the past.  Because of airport security, there are no back doors or outside stairways where smokers can sneak off for a quick smoke; therefore, a sealed room is provided where smokers can congregate and puff away.   If you have the habit, you don’t even have to light up, you can just share smoke from others.  The grey cloud of smoke is so thick they should hang a health hazard area sign on the door.  

Rowing Quietly Near My Home with the
Volcanic Hills In the Background
One person, when questioned, replied that he noticed in Sweden a calmness, no loud music, no cars with music blaring, no dogs barking, no horn honking, and people were not seen to be talking on cell phones.  Maybe he was from New York,  yet I have to somewhat agree with him about tranquillity here in Italy.  The difference would be that Italian motor scooters here are an irritation!  Why they don’t force riders to have a muffler that actually functions to muffle the sound.  They do this with all motor vehicles except scooters.  Italy allows no hot rod sounds, and car engines are not allowed to be “souped up”!   My biggest complaint is the so called "romantic" church bells waking me up every Sunday morning at 7:00.   Those priests want to make sure no one gets any extra snooze time!  In America somebody would take this to court, for sure!

It is a shock to see beer being sold to teenagers in a McDonalds.  One of the questioned responded that she was shocked to see beer being sold in museum snack bars, and also from vending machines.  She said it seemed like a world created for adults, not children.  Beer is sometimes cheaper than Coca Cola.  Wine is sent from the barrel to the tap at the counter.  

It's About Body Size!
Body shapes were mentioned, saying that there were far more lean people in Europe, and fewer muscle men.  People were shorter in Europe and waist sizes were not so large……..I agree as when, in Italy,  I stand in a bus, or sit in a train I notice that I am at least a head taller than 90 percent of others (I am 6 feet tall).    (My wife wants me to be sure and mention that I am also LARGER than most others!)    When I return to the states I notice a reversal of difference seeing people who need “larger” chairs, larger automobiles, and hope the airlines won’t again reduce the size of seats on their airplanes. 

Lastly there was a mention of the attitudes of Parisians.  Here is the quote, “Parisians are assholes, they are even mean to each other.”   It also stated that outside of Paris the French are far more gentle and polite.  I have also found this to be true statement.  As far as the Italians, I find them quite gentle (molto gentile).  

Weak Drivers BEWARE!
However,  in the south of Italy, drivers behind the wheel are not so molto gentile in behavior.  They seem to sense weakness in other drivers and take advantage of it.    They will try to enter traffic and if you hesitate, thinking of a possible collision, they will jump in front of you.   They drive in two lanes at the same time, cut in front of others, pass a car in a no passing zone,  drive while using a cell phone all the while having a conversation with a passenger, and challenge oncoming traffic in a game of "chicken".

In another example of gentleness,  I find that Italians are helpful and even try to give directions, even if they don’t know where the place is you need to go.  Knowing their behavior causes one to end up asking several people the same request for directions.  That way you can average it out and then hope for the best.  This works about 50% of the time.  It's a crap shoot for sure.  The positive outcome is that you get to meet and greet a lot of "normal" Italians.  

During your European experience have you had any interesting experiences?  I would like to hear about them.  Please make a comment below.  Thanks for reading.  

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Russia, Here We Come!!

Friday morning I went to the city of Verona by train in order to visit the Russian Consolato to pick up our visas.  I was nervous because a few days before this my blog had received a record number of readers, 160, from Russia.....  All in one day!!!   The usual count I would get from Russia are only 2, from my two good medical doctor friends, a husband and wife who faithfully read what I write.  So this record number of 160 was a big surprise, (kind of scary) and I was not sure what to make of it.  Surely Russian visa workers were checking us out and found the blog.  The title of the blog that week contained the name Putin, so this, I was figuring, had something to do with it.
How to say, Yippee, in Russian?

The visit in the visa office went smoothly and I left with our visas in my backpack.  The lady in the office did not seemed surprised to hear my story of the 160 Russian readers.  I was just glad that we can proceed with our summer trip without problems.

I went to my number three favorite piazza in Italy, Piazza Bra to celebrate a bit for lunch.  McDonalds is NEVER an option!

Gladiator Match Sunday Night!
The piazza is configured next to the Arena, which is a smaller coliseum that the one in Rome.  Verona uses this arena for concerts, and even that day, there was a line of teenagers, maybe 500 of them, sitting on the pavement waiting for the night concert.  That is a long wait!  

During the summer there are many concerts and opera presentations.  We have only been to one, the singer Elisa, and that was a bang up super night.  My only problem was that you are sitting on stone, and it gets pretty hard!  Also the steps to get to your seat are quite high, and it makes one feel tipsy as there is nothing to hold onto when going up or down.  

Arena in background
I had a festive glass of prosecco before lunch (pranzo) and then had a nice plate of Veneto cuisine, horse meat sauce with gnocchi.  Horse meat, as I have mentioned before in the blog is something that is consumed in this area.  I enjoyed the taste and the gnocchi were tender, which makes a difference.  This is a view from my table, looking towards the arena.

Verona is popular with the tour bus tourists.  They come to see the terrace where Juliet talked to Romeo.  No one is actually sure if this is the exact one, but it is fun to have your photo taken there and think about the story a bit.  You can go inside the house and visit a small museum, stand on the terrace and wave to your friends in a photo moment, and then come down and have another moment with a statue below the terrace.

On Saturday night my wife and I went out into the hills for our celebratory dinner (cena) and I had bigoli with duck sauce and she had onion lasagna with a white sauce.  I have to tell you that the prices in the hills, where NO tourists go, are at least 1/3 less and the portions of food are much larger.  Here’s a photo of the village church.  

I hope you are having as good a weekend as we are having here, even though it is raining cats and dogs.


I hope you are learning some new Italian words. Pranzo and Cena….

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Yesterday I had 68 readers from Russia!

I bring you the romantic Italy portrayed in the movies.  I sit in the shade of a big awning while I watch my Coffee Americano, being delivered with a lack of urgency by my charming barist .  She could step right into a movie and play the part of the girl next door.  She has the dark eyes, hidden by the now in-vogue oversized black glasses, and she is all Italian, wearing a rubber band tight pair of pants.  She has a fan club as two old men are standing at the bar, feeling like the room is spinning while oogling and making a feeble attempt to hide their reaquaintence with testosterone by discussing the weather. 
view of bar from the back

Today is the reopening of my usual morning bar.  The name has been changed from Ambaradan to a Frenchy (or is it Frenchie?), Le Jolie.  Now my diddling around place has a fancy name.   This is where most every day I unload my backpack and write the blog.  I slaved here for over a year studying for the driver test.  Now my time is my own, and I renew my romantic view of the world.

These past two weeks a slow walk by the dusty window of my bar  has revealed the halting progression of the construction work.  This kind of work here seems to be accomplished in spurts, alternated with quiet and the absence of workers.  Yet, after two slow weeks of improvements inside, they also cut down a huge tree in front.  This was, to me, an important source of shade in the hot summer. Now, with this tree loss, all is finished.  Total California strip mall.  How progressive!  Total new direction!  

slot machines boost the profits!
There has been some creative  furniture moving,  a huge brown umbrella has been erected and  a new counter of colorful gelato tempts you when you enter.  In the back a new big screen plays music videos non-stop.  People don’t watch them, it is just for atmosphere.  Sad, that music has become so much of just atmosphere.  (Another blog later)   The area inside looks refreshed, but not a whole lot different.  3 women are now in charge.  Two men ran the last bar.  Can three  make a go of it???……  and…..There is NO WIFI!!!!

I explained to the hot barista that having wifi would be appreciated, and her response to my request was a machine gun of Italian,  which I slowly processed…(I am always a sentence behind.)   I hear wifi will soon be here, I will have to wait.  I wonder what they are waiting for.  The bar is already wired and internet ready.  Not wanting to make  a pest of myself,  I sit down and behave myself. 

A plate of small sandwiches were carried by my table and piled in the  center of the plate was a large bowl of chips.  The group of men receiving it were shocked to see how generous it looked.  Usually when people order a prosecco or a spritz in the late morning they get some free munchies like peanuts or chips.  But this is new, baby sandwiches, a mountain of chips and three olives, plated fancy with a few basil leaves.  In comparison to the offerings resembling fur-brearing roadkill at the  “Old Farts Bar”, this is a great improvement.

ketchup or mayo?
In the clean glass counter, one can find  sandwich offerings for lunch (pranzo) and I can see  that they are not skimping on size.  This will be attractive to visitors as they have seen  American food shows which reveal sandwiches bursting with more than just meat.  It is encouraging to me.  I like a slice of tomato and some mayo on my sandwich.   Italian fare is usually as dry as the Arizona desert.  

Facts about Italy   

Small food stores will carry no pharmacy items.  Don’t expect to find over the counter items in a food shop like aspirin.  Larger markets will have a small section dedicated to shampoo, toothpaste etc.  but no drugs.  No cash back!

Drug Stores will not have edible food items, such as candy, milk, and snacks. No Walgreens here.  There is no postcards, souvenir t-shirts or head phones.  You cannot drop of film, get all sizes of batteries or buy cigarettes.   They sell aspirin, but it is behind the counter, you have to ask for it.  One good thing:  I have, as a tourist, asked for medicine that needed a doctor’s prescription and got it from the pharmacist as he saw I was a foreigner without a local doctor. 
Nothing is as convenient here.  More work for you, the buyer. 

You want a local bus ticket, don’t buy it from the driver, there is a surcharge, instead you must to go into a tobacco shop.  Look for a sign “Sale e Tabacchi”.  Tobacco shops used to sell salt (sale), which was taxed by the  government.   Bad news for smokers:  tobacco items are heavily taxed and very expensive.  Tobacco is grown in Italy, in fact, the castle nearest my home has a building where they aged their tobacco.   The smoke from Italian cigarettes is very harsh and disagreeable.  A whole lot less Italians smoke, and interestingly, I have only seen only one customer in the electronic cigarette shop across the street.   

Lose a heel on your pumps?  You will find shoe repair shops in most large villages.  When I was a kid there were more leather shoes worn by everyone and you could find these shops.  Many people working in them were hard of hearing, and I think they were trained by their school.  The people in shoe repair shops here do not seem to be  handicapped in this way.

McDonald’s charges for ketchup!  Yes, Pay up for that tiny plastic covered package!  I have been spoiled by the "all the ketchup you want" in America.  I hope this does not catch on here in my village.  It is already difficult to get ketchup for fries in many Italian restaurants.  Sometimes the waiter acts offended when I ask for ketchup.  My number one choice restaurant does not have any ketchup.  Some Italians, like the French eat mayo with fries.  You can now order a pizza with fries on top.  Teenagers!!!    No, free refills!

Most people drink bottled water sold in super markets at a greatly reduced price  in comparison to America.  My liter and a half bottle costs me 30  cents.  In America a smaller bottle costs over a dollar.  Italy has bottled water trucks that offer home delivery.  This water comes in glass containers which saves the environment.   The bottled water business in America is one of the biggest rip offs shoved onto consumers.  One visit over here and you realize what a bunch of robbers (ladri) these companies are!  Yes, the water from the tap is okay to drink in Italy.

Italians do a lot of talking with their hands just like you have seen in the movies.   Even when they are on the phone they gesture.  Youtube has several videos of people explaining the meanings to all those gestures.  I think that in the south of Italy there is more of this…  but who knows.  This would be a good dinner table subject with my Italian friends.  Take a gander by pasting in these....

or this one:

Movies in Theatres show American movies about two weeks to three weeks after the opening in the United States.  (I am going to see the Michael Moore movie today, and it has taken over two months to get here.)  The language has been dubbed into Italian, and interestingly they try to find a voice  sounding a lot like the original actor.  Prices are about the same for everything right down to the huge glutton bucket of popcorn.  Ten Euros gets you in.   One thing different, however, is that your ticket will have your seat number, row 11, seat 26.  You cannot go sit where you want.  Going to the movie during the day?  Forget it!  Just like getting a wood fired pizza at lunch in a non-tourist town.  Won’t happen.  The first showing of Michael Moore’s new movie on a Tuesday was at 4:30.   When I drive by the big cinema on a Saturday in the early afternoon, the parking lot reveals it is closed.

Drinks are not served with ice.  Want a coke, expect no ice.  You have to ask for it.  I have asked for ice (ghiaccio) and received one cube.  Italians think that cold drinks are bad for you.   Even on the hottest day, they won’t use ice.  We went to a party once at an Italian family’s home, and they told me to bring stuff to make margaritas.  When I got there, they had no ice…none… The lady had to go out  to a bar to get some.  I have only seen one automatic ice dispensing machine in Padova.  Anyone out there want to move here and open a business?

Beer can be found to cost less than Coca Cola.   Red wine is sometimes served cold.  If you order this before lunch you might get chips, peanuts or even taco chips with salza.  (Yes, salza! --Big Change Happening Here!) I think that Coke here has the type of sugar that people protested against  some years ago.  It tastes different to me.  I think most Italian beer is next to  horrible.  But some Americans think it to be good, so what do I know?

Newspapers are taking a hit in America caused by digital news.   In Italy it is a double hit as there is no home delivery of newpapers.  If you want one you have two choices, go to a newspaper shop or to a bar where they are provided for customers free of charge to read.

Italian toilet paper has improved since the 70's.  It is no longer stretchable like crepe paper.  You can even find scented!  Bathrooms in bars for customer use are usually found quite clean. Bathrooms at train stations cost one euro.  (A euro is very close to a dollar, and I keep hoping it will come down, saving me a pile of money every month when I hit the bank machine.) 

Lastly….You can find watch repair shops in most large villages and towns.  My small village has one.  I have made good friends with the lady who runs mine and she waves to me when I walk by in the morning.  Nice to be noticed!………  

And I am waving to you,  thanks for reading my blog. It is nice to be noticed.  Thank you, Stitchers of the World!  …..I also enjoy any comments people make.  My readership is growing every month and I am able to  track the countries in which my readers reside.  Yesterday I had 68 readers from Russia aloneWe think it is because we are applying for visas to Russia.  But….?  I will know on Friday when I go to Verona on the train to pick up our visas.  One of three things will happen, two visas in hand, a refusal, or my sudden disappearance.  I am confident they will want me to bring my tourist dollars, though

Coming soon…..What Italians think about the up-coming election and the candidates, a short trip to a Croatian Beach, and wines of the Veneto region, one prison in Padova makes baking success, Italian beach vacations, and I am considering a short review of the M. Moore movie. 


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Obama and Putin

I’m making my normal stop for my communal boozing of coffee  at Old Fart’s.  Locked into the corner table, my full view of the village performers is partially blocked by the smoke plume produced by  one old and partially bald fellow with a love affair for filtered cigarettes.    His bumpy red nose gives away his other love, prosecco.  As smoke clears this is what I hear…
voo2 patta lei….be la  machuwee.   then a newly entered guy comments, “ Buon Giorno”, and they all answer the same.  
I have no idea what voo2 patta lei….be la  machuwee means.  Then I hear … ah veii accumma ayvammi.  Veneto is a dialect spoken here.

Visa Fees On Agenda
Yesterday I took the train to Verona, a city near Padova, which has a University, and the famous balcony of "Romeo's" visit.  My visit was, however,  for an appointment in the Russian Consolate to apply for a visa to Russia.  Back home while filling out the forms we discovered that the Putin/Obama feud reaches down to the little people as Putin’s hand reached deep into my wallet for 175 Euros.  He does not have a beef with Italians as my wife’s visa cost 35 euros.

It doesn’t stop there, however, as the questions on my visa left me scrambling like ants to fill in the blanks, while my Italian wife, was quickly finished with her visa form.   Americans are forced to list their travels to other countries and I had to do some digging  into my past travels, and since I have traveled a lot, (34 countries), I was in a pickle.  Complete pandemonium!  Russia wanted to know about all of them which  caused some frustration as I cannot remember what I had for dinner two nights ago.  I was going to have to know, for instance,  when I had a visa to Russia in the early 1990’s, and they wanted to know the month!  My passport book only goes back to 2008.  It is so covered with stamps from the stamping of customs that there are stamps upon stamps. Some of them are lightly made or smudged over by other stampings.   I broke into my stamp collecting box and found my magnifying glass and began several hours of work listing dates and countries.  

I began to make some progress, but hanging over my quest was what to do about travel history before 2008.  A quick email to the consolate, gave me some relief, I would only have to show countries that are on my passport, which went back to 2008.  Three hours later and with some help from my wife we had a list almost complete with year/month/day of travel.  Finally we typed out a list to bring to the appointment!  

The next step was to fill out the online visa form, and that is when we discovered that I would not bring the typed list of travel, but I would list all the information online.  (My wife filled out her form first and she did not have to list dates of travel.)   They would use this during my appointment.  It was a great relief to have it finally completed and sent to the consolate. 

Russia also requires travel health insurance, of which we already had a full year’s worth with our usual Company.  We found this to company to be a reputable one when two years ago my wife fell and crushed her knee in Turkey and she taken to the best hospital in Antalya and her surgeon knew the latest techniques in rebuilding her knee, etc.  The whole experience, ambulances to the hospital, ambulances to the airports, and to our home from the Venice airport, the operation, the hospital stay where I shared the room with her.  It  was paid completely by the insurance company.  We are talking thousands of dollars.  However, we were told by the consolate that Russia did not recognise this company, so we had to buy additional insurance in order to get  visas.   Another tax we must pay!

Albert, I want to see this!

After all this, I expected problems during my appointment in Verona, but  it went quickly and I was told that there would be no problems.  We will pick up our visas on May 11.    Now for that appointment with Putin…….