Do you have any change?

Italians are obsessed with change.

First, let me explain that Italians use the Euro, which comes in bills and coins.  There are 1 and 2 Euro coins, then 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and  500 Euro bills.  Less than 1 Euro is called cents and it comes in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50.

This weekend, I had an exchange with a cashier in a grocery, which is very typical of my experiences in Rome.

My friend Laura and I went to check out this new Eco-Center in Rome which has a natural foods grocery, café, and restaurant.  (Let me just say that if you are picturing an Italian version of Whole Foods, scratch it, think more neighborhood health food store with better design sense).  We looked around the Eco-Center, had a coffee, and picked up a few groceries.  My bill was 7.07 (7 Euros and 7 cents).  I handed the cashier a 20 Euro bill and having learned over the last 5 weeks that Italians prefer change, I had even gone to the trouble of digging 7 cents out of my purse.

I started loading my groceries in my bag when I was interrupted by the cashier who said to me “Do you have 2 Euros?”  I looked at the register thinking I had misunderstood the total of the bill.  I must have looked confused so he repeated the question, a little louder this time, “Do you have 2 Euros?”  I stood staring at him trying to calculate in my head why he would want 2 Euros.  Then, he smiled, nodded his head as though he’d figured out the problem and said to me (in English this time) “Ah, you don’t speak Italian.”

I responded (a bit defensively) in Italian, “I speak Italian, why?” hoping we could work this out in Italian and I would not have to look like a clueless American in front of the now sizable line of customers that was forming behind me.  Ignoring my claim to speak Italian, the cashier proceeded in English and said “do you have 2 Euros?”  I could see I wasn’t going to win this one so I dug a two Euro coin out of my purse, handed it to him and he gave me a 5 Euro bill and a 10 Euro bill in change.

In Rome (I can’t speak for the rest of Italy), when you go to the grocery, the pharmacy, the bread store, the place that sells shampoo, soap, lotion, etc, and you go to pay for your purchases, there is a complex money exchange that ensues.  It’s not simply that if your total is 8.31, they want 31 cents in addition to your 10 Euro bill, they also want a 2 Euro coin and a 1 Euro coin, HOWEVER, they will take two 2 Euro coins and then give you 1 back.  If you are not used to this type of exchange, you can easily get confused and loose track of how much you have surrendered.

I asked my friend Laura why Italians are obsessed with change and she explained that
in the 60s and 70s when the Italian Lira was being used there was actually not enough currency in circulation.  Often times if you went to a bar to have a coffee and tried to pay for your 1000 Lira coffee with a 2000 Lira note, they did not have change, so the cashier would give you either candy or a hand written voucher for the amount.  Laura has a friend who lived in Italy during this period and explains that when she ran out of cash, she would simply go to her regular bar for coffee and pay for it with candy that she had accumulated from the ‘change’ for her transactions.

Even though today Italians use the Euro which is produced by the European Union and there is more than enough in circulation, old habits seem to be dying hard and when you pay for purchases, the cashiers seem to be trying to supplement the change in their drawers with what is in your wallet.

However, in order to do this, Italian cashiers have, through necessity become math whizzes because what your total reads on the register and the transaction that ensues are rarely the same.  While American cashiers always seem to need to look at their register to make the correct change, Italian cashiers open their registers and begin a complex math problem that looks a bit like: If Mary has 12 Euros, and she gives 2.40 to Jimmy and 3.20 to Kathy, and then gets another 5 Euros from her little brother . . .

In fact, there are times when you will be in line at a store and the cashier will have run out of change.  (This is not the result of a change shortage in Italy but the result of banks that keep cryptic hours that only the bank staff know about.)  Someone tries to pay their a 6 Euro bill with a 20 Euro and the cashier begins calling down the line of patrons in her queue asking if they have a 5 Euro bill or a 10 Euro bill.  Everyone without complaining begins emptying their pockets and passing forward their bills and the cashier is thus able to make change.

As if this were not a bizarre enough exchange to watch, what then follows is for someone like me who can barely add without the aid of a calculator, miraculous.  When the others step forward to check out, the cashier remembers what each customer has donated to the change collection and simply subtracts that amount from their bill.  This is all done in the cashier’s head.  Though sheer mathematical ability developed under the fire of a change shortage crisis, either real or simply perceived, the cashier is able to calculate and keep in her memory everyone’s bill.

So, when you come to Italy, be sure and bring lots of change and, perhaps even more useful, a calculator.

Come back tomorrow because the lights aren’t working

After a month of Italian classes, this week I have officially started my research.  Some of you know, that I am writing my dissertation on the Spanish community in Rome during the late 15th and early 16th century and in particular looking at the art they commissioned, I won’t bore everyone by laying out my argument here, but if you are curious, I am happy to e-mail you a copy of my proposal.  In order to do this, I’m doing most of my research in the various Spanish affiliated churches and libraries and the embassy here in Rome.

Monday I went to the Spanish National Church to try to get permission to work in their library and archive.  I was taken to a small room at the back of the church to meet the librarian, Don Francisco, a short, round priest who explained I was welcome to work in the library but that the archive is currently closed for renovation.  He then offered show me the library.  We walked across the courtyard passing several workman carrying construction materials (probably working on the archive).  Don Francisco then ushered me into a room with floor to ceiling bookshelves, and reached over to turn on the lights, but nothing happened.   He flipped the switch a few more times, then turned to me and said: “this is the library, but you will not be able to use it today because the lights are not working.  Come back tomorrow.”

Of course, why bother to ask one of the five construction workers we had just passed in the courtyard to restore the lights,  just come back tomorrow when the lights are working.

It was only after I left the church that I realized that for the entire conversation, Don Francisco had been speaking in Spanish.  While I had started the conversation with my memorized speech in Italian about who I am and why I want to use their library and archive, at some point, in response to his Spanish, I started speaking in some bizarre form of half Italian-half Spanish.

As many of you may know, Spanish and Italian are very similar languages.  So similar that Spanish speakers traveling in Italy and Italians traveling in Spanish speaking countries simply speak their native language and manage to make themselves understood.  There seems to be a mutual agreement that this will happen and, as far as I can tell, no one is treated with any less respect because of it.

This week as I have spent my time in the Spanish church and a Spanish research library in town, and of course everyone is speaking Spanish to me.  This is not a great situation for someone who knows a little of both languages because it is easy to start muddling them.  So if I spend the day around Spaniards, by the end of the day, when I go to the store or the gym, I can’t figure out what language I am speaking.

I was contemplating the Italian-Spanish language situation as I stood in a bar (as in coffee bar) today, mid-afternoon, taking a break from my work to have a cappuccino.  I was surrounded by Italians who were sitting eating lunch and drinking coffee and talking.  Suddenly, in the midst of this, an older couple rushes in the bar and the woman says very loudly in English “Two large coffees please.”

For those of you who have just cringed reading those words, you will be happy to hear, the woman had an English accent.  Whew.

The guy who seemed to be the proprietor of the place ran over to the couple and started speaking to them in this obsequious but shifty I-know-you-are-a-tourist-so-I’m-going-to-try-to-sell-you-things-you-don’t-need-voice: “Oh you would like a coffee?  American coffee right?  And would you like desert, I have lovely deserts . . . “

Hopefully I won’t offend anyone when I say that this drives me crazy.  I feel like if you are going to visit a foreign country, you should make an effort to learn a few of the crucial words in that language.  But, if you think you can’t manage that (and I would certainly forgive any English speaker struggling with Japanese or Arabic), smile and point or do anything other than order people around in your native tongue.

I offer as an example my father who is horrible at languages (sorry dad), but he would be the first to tell you this.  However, he always manages to learn a few crucial words in the language of whatever country he is visiting: ‘coffee’, ‘bread’, ‘wine’, ‘cheese’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘where is the bathroom’.  For anything else, he smiles, points, and says please.  Given that my father can handle this, I think the English couple, who probably learned French in school, could have managed ‘due caffe’.

However, for those of you who speak Spanish, come to Italy and just speak to them in Spanish, they don’t care.

“And of course, Americans eat eggs for breakfast”

Last week in my Italian class one of my fellow students was having difficulties answering a question.  He offered as an excuse that he had skipped breakfast and coffee and thus was too sleepy and hungry to think straight.  This prompted a conversation about what people from different countries eat for breakfast (all in Italian, of course)

My teacher explained that few Italians actually eat breakfast, they only have a cup of coffee and then later in the morning if they get hungry they stop for a coffee and cornetto (the Italian version of a croissant) at a bar.  She then went around the room and had students explain what is the typical breakfast in their country.

We started with the British guy (toast and tea) and then the Germans (museli and yogurt).  However, when she got to me, just as I started into my carefully worked out speech about cereal, toast, muffins, etc she preempted me saying , “and of course, Americans eat eggs for breakfast.”

Really?

Then she moved on to the Japanese guy who talked about traditional Japanese breakfasts (rice and tea) but he explained that today, it is more common to find people eating breakfasts similar to that of Americans (whatever that means).  Of course I raised my hand and tried to explain that Americans are often in a hurry and just grab toast or cereal and coffee or get a muffin or bagel and coffee on the way to work, but she was having none of it.

I would have just thought this was an anomaly had the same ‘fact’ about the American diet not been repeated to me two other times over the past week. My school offers something called a ‘tandem’ in which you are paired with an Italian who wants to work on speaking in your native language for a conversation exchange.  I have two tandem partners.  One is in her 20s and is an aspiring actress going to New York in March for film school.  The other is a teacher in her late 30s who wants to work on her English so she can move to Holland, teach Italian to foreigners, and ride bikes (that’s what she told me).  Both of them asked me what was my favorite ‘American’ food.  I don’t even know what ‘American’ is any more, so I told them it is pizza and spring rolls (not together of course).  This confused them completely.  Then somehow the topic of breakfast came up and both said something like, but of course you all eat eggs for breakfast.

Where are they getting this?

I can tell you it’s not from tv.  Since I now have tv in my apartment, I’ve been taking full advantage, keeping it on as much as I can bear it to help with my Italian.  I have watched several hours of Italian news which currently centers around three topics:
the crisi dell’governo (crisis in the government – see my previous blog)
the crisi dell’refuti (crisis of the trash in Naples)
and the marriage of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy to the Italian model, Carla Bruni

I have also discovered that one can watch many American television shows that have been dubbed into Italian like Alias, ER, Cold Case, Desperate Housewives, NCIS, Criminal Minds, and other similar shows.  I think what all these shows have in common (even Desperate Housewives) is that no one is eating eggs for breakfast.  In fact, I don’t think anyone in any of these shows is ever shown eating breakfast.

So why is it that Italians not only think we all eat eggs, bacon, toast, etc for breakfast but they even call this an American breakfast?  This may have been true in the 50s and 60s and even for a while in the 70s but it seems today, especially in households in which everyone works, no one has time to make eggs except on the weekend.  It seems that a visit to any American grocery store, most of which have an entire aisle dedicated to cereal and breakfast bars, would reveal to any outside observer what Americans eat for breakfast.

But as I have thought about it further, one common denominator among all of these people who have told me that Americans eat eggs for breakfast is that none of them has ever been to the US, they have been to other English speaking countries, but not to ours.

At any rate, I guess this is an example of the idea that old idea that stereotypes die-hard.

Internet Woes, Part II

As many of you know, last week I lost Internet access in my apartment. For those of you keeping track, this would be day 10.

While the loss of Internet has been frustrating in itself, what made it worse is that it was the tip of the Italian-appliance-difficulty-iceberg. Since my arrival my hot water heater has only been producing about two minutes of hot water in the morning making for some quick and tepid showers; my tv which was advertised as a one of the ‘extras’ in the apartment has no remote and no access to anything except a dvd player; and finally, my power shuts off every time I run more than one appliance at a time.

As you all know from Internet Woes Part I, my rental agent was sending a ‘technician’ this week to fix all these problems.

Turns out the ‘technician’ or ‘technicians’ were a very friendly father-son duo who are actually electricians. They spent at least an hour at my apartment working on the various problems but weren’t able to fix anything. They apologized profusely and left and I went off to my gym which has wireless, sent off an angry e-mail to my agent detailing the ‘technician’s’ report and jumped on the stationary bike to work off my frustration.

When I returned home I decided that making a big pot of minestrone with all the fresh vegetables I had purchased at the farmer’s market would be a good way to make myself feel better about my apartment’s deficiencies. In Rome, farmer’s markets go year round unlike in most cities in the US and there is an excellent selection of squashes, greens, citrus, etc. See pictures here:

I chopped up the vegetables, threw everything in the pot, turned on the burner and . . . the electricity went off.

This has happened before when I have been using too many appliances at the same time, but it has always been quickly resolved because all I have to do is turn everything off, go downstairs to the fuse-box, flip a switch, and the power returns. This time, I was not so fortunate. After multiple tries, including on other people’s boxes (just in case), I called my friend Laura who told me to grab my toothbrush and my computer and come over to her apartment where I could spend the evening firing off angry e-mails and sleep in her extra bedroom.

What followed was calls to the agent, return calls, lots of promises that things would be resolved quickly and in fact, by the next morning, the power was back on, and over the next few days my tv has been repaired, and a plumber has come to bring a new hot water heater.

Of course, there is still no Internet.

As though right on cue, Corriere della Sera (English edition on the web) published an article entitled: “Consumers Give Italy a Thumbs Down” and the first few lines read:
“Italians are Europe’s most disgruntled consumers of electricity, post and telephone services. Electricity costs twice as much as in Finland.” See the rest here.

Whenever I am feeling frustrated by Italian inefficiencies, I find it best to seek out a German. While American’s are certainly sympathetic, I often feel like at some level they see it as part of the charms of Italy. However, Germans seem to take it as a personal affront, after all, they are now all members of the EU and civilized countries are expected to provide certain services in a prompt and orderly fashion, ja?

This would explain the fact that German newspapers have been attacking the Italians over the trash situation in Naples. In response, the Veneto region (where Venice is located) is running an add campaign that explains “We are not Naples!” See an article on this here.

I suspect the German reaction is much like the way I felt the day after the last presidential election. Though I had not voted for Bush, 51% of my fellow Americans had decided to return him to office and I felt completely horrified and embarrassed.

So, the day after the power outage, I went for coffee during our break in language class with two of my German classmates.

My Language Class

This was therapeutic for two reasons: first, drinking Italian coffee always reminds me that there are some very good things about being here and then when I relayed my tales of woe to the Germans, they were received with a great deal of head wagging and muttering about this is a lovely place to visit but living here is not a good idea. (Which, oddly enough, is the same thing my Italian cousins said to me last week).

coffee.jpg

I do feel bad for the Italians—they have an enormous trash crisis in Naples which they can’t seem to get a handle on and now the prime minister has resigned, and there is talk that Silvio Berlusconi will return to power. For those of you who are not familiar with Berlusconi there is a useful article in the Economist.

Meanwhile, if you want to feel better about living in the U.S. during the Bush administration, spend a few months here you will feel like we really have our act together.

To continue with my therapy, I plan to spend the rest of the weekend drinking Italian coffee and eating lots of gelato.

Family Meals in Italy

I suspect my previous posting explaining I had dinner twice at my Italian cousin Guido’s house last week might prompt some questions about what an Italian family eats for dinner. So, for those interested, I thought I would post the menu, please feel free to skip this entry if you are hungry or not at all interested. Sorry I don’t have pictures, perhaps next time I will be brave enough to pull out the camera.

Tuesday night was the ‘family dinner’ served at the kitchen table. The menu was:

There was no antipasta (the lack of which prompted my cousin’s wife, Elizabetta to apologize about for the first 10 minutes I was there)

First course: Pumpkin risotto (pumpkin is in season right now and it seems to be ending up in everything—ravioli, soup, risotto, etc)

Second course: something they called pizza though it was more like a flat quiche with egg and some form of Italian ham on a pastry crust cut into squares like they cut their pizza. I’m learning that here in Italy, pizza can be used to describe anything flat with toppings.

Third course: Salad.

Dessert: A custard with prunes and a prune sauce that Elizabetta had been given by the Brazilian home-nurse of her mother. This was looked on with great suspicion by the entire family for several minutes before Luca (Guido’s brother) decided to be brave and try it. He pronounced that it tasted like ‘fried air’ (I can’t remember how to say this in Italian). Everyone proceeded to take a bit to test it, but most of it ended up in the garbage. I have had several people (Americans and Italians) tell me that Italians are ‘food-phobic’ and don’t like to try new foods. Even when they travel they prefer to stick with pizza and pasta. This would explain why the hesitation over the dessert which every American I know would have inhaled in minutes without a second thought.

Friday night’s meal:

Antipasta: pizza with broccoli

First course: Spinach lasagna with a béchamel sauce

Second course: Thin slices of eggplant rolled around chunks of Italian ham that were then baked (though it was explained to me that these are typically fried)

Third course: cheeses from Sardinia and salad

Dessert: a Sicilian torte type dessert with pistachio and chocolate semi-freddo center (purchased from a bakery) and Venezuelan chocolate which my cousin Guido acquired on a recent trip there to do some consulting work.

Internet Woes

Last week I had dinner with my Italian cousins Tuesday and Friday. In the course of two meals I learned a great deal about Italians, their perceptions of the current state of affairs in Italy, their thoughts on Americans, Germans, and French; and of course, I ate like a king.

The first dinner was a family meal – just my cousin Guido, his wife, daughter, son, and Guido’s brother Luca. The second was a dinner party with friends and family. During both meals, many people ate with their cell phones at the table. This was less of a surprise at the ‘family meal’. However, I must have looked a bit shocked when cell phones came out of pockets and were set beside plates during the dinner party because an Italian woman sitting across from me said “We Italian’s love our cell phones. In fact, many of us have two.” I told her I was beginning to figure that out from watching people in the street and on buses and in restaurants, grocery stores, etc. However, what I find more surprising is the number of people over 50 or 60 sending text messages or SMS messages as they are called here.

In fact, I almost walked right into a grandmother in her 70s the other day as I was rounding a corner, walking top speed to catch a bus and there she was, head down, walking my direction, sending a text message. I couldn’t have been more shocked because I’m fairly certain my parents don’t even know their cell phones can be used to send text messages and they are much younger that this woman appeared to be.

To return to the dinner party, I asked this woman if the cell phones were used in place of e-mail because I had heard a rumor that Italians weren’t as obsessed with their e-mail as Americans or Germans. She said yes that was true and that people only have internet access in their homes if they have children who need it for school. This would shed some light on the problem I am currently having.

First of all, I had a really difficult time finding an apartment with internet access to rent in Rome. I saw a lot of advertisements that read “Internet on demand” but my friend Laura (an American who has lived here for 12 years) explained that this meant “no matter how much you demand it, you are not going to get internet.” I did find one place with internet access where I am living currently.

For first two weeks, all was well, I had fast reliable internet access. Then one day last week, it just stopped working. I depressed every button, unplugged everything, and played with everything that looked like it might make a difference. I had a small meltdown over this because I knew that getting it fixed would involve getting in touch with the rental agent who would then need to get in touch with the landlord who would then need to get in touch with the ‘fastweb’ people. I know from experience this is too may Italians to depend on to get a problem solved quickly. So, imagine my surprise when I wrote my agent on Thursday and heard back two hours later that my landlord would come Monday with a technician. I thought to myself, this could be an Italian miracle . . . if it actually happens.

This was the e-mail I was greeted with when I logged into my e-mail an hour ago:

hello Rose,

landlord with technician (he has a problem today) will come tomorrow afternoon.

Giovanna

Of course.

My friend Laura told me that recently she was scheduled to take a friend to visit The Golden House of Nero (also known as the Domus Aurea). To visit you must reserve tickets in advance and now they are no longer taking reservations over the phone, you must do it via the internet. Laura did so and when she arrived at the Domus Aurea and went to the ticket booth, they claimed they did not have her reservation. After debating with the ticket agent for several minutes over what had happened he finally looked at her and said: “Signora, this is a beautiful country, but . . . we are not so organized.”

Gelato Tour of Rome, I

I had been trying to resist or at least hold off exploring the gelaterias of Rome lest I create a four visit a week habit (which has happened to me in the past) and return home after four months ten pounds heavier than when I left.

That was going well until last week.

Friday afternoon I took a few of my classmates from the language school I have been attending on a tour of a few of my favorite churches in the city: the Gesu (the first Jesuit church in Rome), Saint Ignatius of Loyola (a church built after the death of Ignatius, once he was made a saint), both of which have fantastic painted ceilings; and to San Luigi dei Francesi (the French National Church) to see the three paintings by the notorious Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel depicting scenes from the life of Saint Mathew.

Gesu Ceiling Fresco and Stucco

After our tour, my classmates insisted on taking me for gelato at one of their favorite gelaterias.

They took me to Gelateria della Palma, Via della Maddalena 20, near the Pantheon. Della Palma has over 100 flavors, ranging from the classic—pistachio and nocciola (hazelnut)—to the more Americanized ‘snickers’. (But, more on this place when I visit again later). Needless to say, a few spoonfuls of my combination frutti di bosco (which means: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, currents, etc combined) and crème caramel and resistance was futile. I realized I was going to have to start exploring the gelaterias in Rome (perhaps not four times a week) without delay. Afterall, I do have visitors coming beginning mid-February, and it seems important to be able to lead them to some of the cities best gelaterias.

fiocca-di-neve.jpg

So, I began my tour with another place, also close to the Pantheon, which seems to be a locus of good gelato. Its called Fiocco di Neve (Snowflake) and is located at Via del Pantheon 51. It’s a tiny place but after standing back on the corner for a few minutes to size-up the clientele and noticing it was only locals, I suspected this might be a place to try.

At this point, I would love to provide a history of gelato, but there seems to be a debate on the origins (Chinese or Italian, I think there is a similar debate over spaghetti) so I will have to research this further and add it to another post on gelato. In the meantime, I can offer an explanation of the difference between gelato and what we call ‘ice cream’ in the US. Gelato is made primarily with whole milk and has a richer flavor because it contains less air and is kept at a lower temperature (almost semi-frozen).

Gelato at Fiocco di Neve

To return to Fiocco di Neve, as you can see in the pictures, the selection is not enormous as you might find in some of the larger places, but to my mind, this suggests they are focusing their energies on getting a few flavors right. Since I am doing a gelato tour of sorts, I decided that I should depart from my standards like stracciatella (the Italian version of chocolate chip but so much better as it combines a flavor called fior di latte and chocolate shavings) and pistachio and I tried Crema di Nona (Grandmother’s Cream) and something called Spagnolo which you can see in one of the pictures—it is cream colored with swirls of red. Spagnolo seems to be a combination of a cream flavor and cherry with actual pieces of cherry. Crema di Nona was a rich, cream flavor with a hint of caramel—an ideal partner for Spagnolo.

Stay tuned for further entries on my gelato tour.

Also, this weekend is Carnival and based on the number of people already scattering confetti around the streets and little girls I’ve seen in princess costumes, this promises to be something worth writing about so stay tuned.