Crossing the street (without getting killed)

February 15, 2015

Cross at your own risk!

In the seventies and eighties, Italy was under siege from bomb-throwing, homegrown terrorists. This danger that has now more or less ceased, and although serious crime, once very limited, has now admittedly increased, one has to laugh when  fellow Americans ask if I feel safe here, and laugh even more heartily when Italian journalists compare this or that Italian city with Chicago in the 1930s. In 2013 there were only 34  homicides in Rome, giving it a lower murder rate than either Amsterdam or Glasgow (not to mention the top 60 US cities. BUT, in the same year, there were 56 pedestrian deaths. So the worst danger you face when you visit here, aside from that represented by the very able pickpockets on some bus lines and a few knots of thieving gypsy children, may well be that of crossing the street. Here’s some advice on how to do that safely and effectively. (more…)

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Il caffè (coffee) plays a significant social role in Italy

August 13, 2016

caffeAugustCi prendiamo un caffè?” “Shall we have a coffee?” You’ve already had a couple of espressos but when Carlo refuses a tip after finishing fixing your dishwasher in record time, it’s the least you can do and so down you go to the local café together and drink your third.

“Can I offer you a coffee”, says Damiano, your girlfriend Margarita’s married lover, when he runs into you on the street. You and he haven’t exactly had a good relationship since he has been stringing your friend along for so long now. But he clearly wants to win you over so you allow him to escort you to a nearby coffee bar.

You’re carrying too many groceries and have somehow collided with the cute guy who lives across the street but with whom you’ve never spoken. He’s too young for you (but who knows?) so when he says “prendiamo un caffè” you say “va bene”, okay, as drinking espresso together is a good way to break the ice.

“I’m sorry but I just don’t have time for dinner any time soon”, you tell Emilia, the neighbor you were once friendly with but whose unrelenting tales of woe really get you down. “But what about a coffee at 4:00 p.m. this afternoon”, you say when she looks really crestfallen, making sure you add that you have an appointment with your chiropractor at 5:00 p.m.

In other countries, it might be a beer or schnapps. In Italy wine generally gets drunk together with people you already know. But it is il caffè, by which Italians generally mean an espresso that is drunk, standing up, at the counter at your local “bar”,  that serves a social purpose. Or rather dozens of them.

Coffee was not invented in Italy (it’s the wrong climate to cultivate it). But given its importance in everyday life, and the variety of ways in which is served here, you’d never guess.

La preparazione di un caffe' espresso in un bar toscano in un'immagine d'archivio. FRANCO SILVI/ANSA/i50

La preparazione di un caffe’ espresso in un bar toscano in un’immagine d’archivio. FRANCO SILVI/ANSA/i50

Supposedly, the first Italian city to make the acquaintance of coffee was Venice, where coffee beans are believed to have arrived around 1570 from somewhere in the Near or Middle East: Although first considered too much of a stimulant by Muslim authorities, by this time coffee had become a popular and accepted beverage in Istanbul, Cairo and Sana’a.

For centuries, there had been vigorous trade between Venice and the other parts of the Mediterranean, so it is not surprising that coffee  would have eventually arrived there. One account says several sacks of the intriguing bean were brought to the lagoon city by one Prospero Alpino, a Paduan botanist and doctor. But who knows. Some say the first coffee stores were opened in Venice by 1645. Another report relates that by 1763, in Venice alone there were 218 cafés and that along with chocolate it was considered an appropriate gift for a man to send to his beloved.

Not everyone was immediately won over. At the outset many in Italy saw it as something “heathen”, the drink of “infidels” and even as Satan’s libation (Sound familiar? Remember Christians were not always as tolerant as they are today). And one Tuscan biologist, Francesco Redi, hated it so much he even wrote a limerick that went:

«Beverei prima il veleno

Che un bicchier che fosse pieno

Dell’amaro e reo caffè »

(“I would sooner drink poison then a glass full of the bitter and dangerous coffee”)

An enthusiastic fan was instead to be found in an unexpected place. According to what I read, in fact, a turning point in the popularity of coffee in Italy may have been due to intervention by Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605). The story goes that when someone brought some coffee to the Vatican, the reigning pontiff tried it and exclaimed: “This drink of the Devil is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” Which, reportedly, he did.

After that it did not take long for this stimulating brew to find favor in the rest of Italy and, in its many varieties, to become a staple of daily life. The result? Particularly in its concentrated espresso form (a  lever-operated steam machine was developed in the early 20th century) coffee is seen by much of the world as genuinely Italian.

Note: Despite what appear to be unsubstantiated claims by the Café Florian on San Marco Square in Venice to be the oldest café in the world (it opened in 1720), it appears that other cafés preceded it even in Venice, in Vienna (and certainly in the Middle East) In fact, another version of of the coffee story has it that the first real café was that opened in Vienna after the Turks were chased from that city.

According to this version, a Turkish-speaking Pole named Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, a hero in the last battle when he accepted and carried out a dangerous mission, founded the first café in that city in 1683 using sacks of coffee beans that the Turks had left behind when routed.

One account  says that here, too, the bitter and tart beverage was not enthusiastically received at first, but soon gained appreciation when the café owner began to sweeten its taste with honey, sugar and eventually added milk. With time Vienna gained reputation as the world capital of cafés, which it prides itself on to this day.



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Getting sick in Italy. Nothing to worry about.

August 10, 2015

prontosoccorsoThere is no particular reason why you should get sick in Rome, or anyplace else in Italy for that matter. The drinking water is fine, in some places like Rome it is delicious. As we know, Italian food is generally both luscious and healthy, although it may be wise to be wary of the fast food places that are springing up like weeds. And yes, there can be smog in some major cities. So what else is new? But, of course, you can get sick anywhere, or else have an unexpected health problem, like a detached retina or a sprained or broken ankle. So what do you do?

I hear tell that many Americans opposed Obamacare, the closest thing the US has ever had to a national health service, on the grounds that national health is a “commie” idea. Balderdash! Most of Western Europe has long had national health plans and it is something that I think most Americans would be overjoyed to have, if they knew what it was. In fact, precisely because Italy has a national health service, you as a tourist (foreign residents have a health service doctor they rely on for primary treatment) can get treatment at a  hospital emergency room – the relevant term here is pronto soccorso – and almost certainly you will not have to pay anything. (Recently, the Italian health ministry decided to apply a €25 charge to dissuade Italians over 14 and under 65 years of age from going to the pronto soccorso for minor ailments instead of going to their health service doctors.  But no tourist in his or her right mind is going to waste precious time for a mere sneezing fit or a low grade fever and anyway Italian bureaucracy isn’t set up to charge non-resident foreigners.)

The negative side is that at an Italian pronto soccorso you may have to wait quite a while, although from my own personal experience I have never waited as long as here in Italy as I did some 20 years ago when I went to the Beth Israel emergency room in New York for a dislocated toe!

pronto soccorsosalaattesaWhen you go to an emergency room in Italy you are given a color classification: the official triage plan sets code red (codice rosso) for a real emergency, codice giallo (code yellow) for semi-emergencies,  green for cases that are poco critico, that is, not really critical, by which they mean the condition is unlikely to develop further and is not at all life-threatening. A sprained ankle would fit into this category. Codice bianco, code white, is for something that is not very important at all and, if you are Italian, perhaps someone from another city who doesn’t feel well and doesn’t know where to go, a visit to a pronto soccorso could cause you to incur the €25 fee mentioned above, that is if you actually have the patience to wait long enough to see a doctor. Understandably, red cases are taken first, yellows follow and it may take a while to get to the greens.

My suggestion is that if you turn out to be a code green − unless you something like a sprained ankle and cannot walk − you might want to leave and go to a pharmacy and ask the pharmacist’s advice on what you should take. Another way around the waiting problem is to go to the pronto soccorso late at night or very early in the morning when you may get taken more quickly. On yet another occasion when that darn toe got dislocated (subsequently, an Italian orthopedist to whom I will always be grateful did something to it in a minor operation and it never got dislocated again!!!), I went to the pronto soccorso at dawn after a sleepless night and although I was a green – no life risk there –received almost immediate attention.

By the way, if you are really sick or break a leg, remember you can call 118 and an ambulance will come and take you (free of charge) to the nearest hospital). A good friend of mine was forced to do this when he suffered acute gastric pains during the night in his Orvieto hotel. He was taken to the emergency room, and given all sorts of tests – it turned out to be an overdose of anti-inflammatories – and then admitted to the hospital where he was put on an IV and kept for three more days, with – he says –excellent and attentive care. As I said before, both the emergency room and the ambulance cost nothing. When he was released, he gave them his U.S. insurance card but I am betting that he never gets a bill.

If, instead, of going to an emergency room, you want to go to a private doctor, where you definitely will have to pay, finding one is not going to be hard. There are plenty about. The consulates of most countries have lists of doctors that speak their national language. The Internet also is a great resource for searching for things like English-speaking doctors in Milan, Rome, Venice, Florence etc. At the walk-in clinic run by the Knights of Malta in Via Bocca di Leone smack in the center of Rome, you are bound to find a doctor who speaks some foreign language. And whatever doctor you go to, especially in a major city, you are more than likely to be satisfied since In my 40 years of experience, I have found Italian doctors as a group to be as good as doctors anywhere else.

prontosoccorsocrowdedWhen I first lived in Italy, back in the 1970s, I used to think that if I ever got seriously sick, I would head back to the U.S. But today, I don’t feel that way at all. Although fortunately for me, I have never had any major diseases, the specialists I have consulted here – ENT, orthopedists, phlebologists, cardiologists, gynecologists, breast surgeons – have all been top notch. Regrettably, the same cannot be said about many Italian hospitals, although up north – particularly in the smaller cities – the situation might be better than in Rome and down south. Italian hospitals are public and alas – but this is a general problem in Italy – they suffer from the same lack of funds, waste, and rampant disorganization as many other Italian public institutions. Some of the ones I have been to are not even that clean. A private hospital is called a clinica, but although cheap by US standards (what isn’t?) they are expensive and generally do not have a full range of surgical departments.

Italians tend to complain a lot about their national health system: in many areas of the country there are long delays in getting certain kinds of tests, although the existence of an entire sub-strata of private diagnostic centers that are affiliated − convenzionati − with the SSN and therefore recognize their referrals and apply its prices does make things easier. And, of course, if necessary one can always have a test privately, and pay for it.

But I think it is enviable. Not so long ago an Italian friend, Marcello, who is over 65 and who lives in a town near Viterbo in central Lazio, had a hip replacement and three weeks of physical therapy at a structure outside of Florence and paid nary a dime. Claudio, the jeweler across the street from my building in Rome, had emergency open heart surgery after a leaking valve was discovered and naturally it was free. Nicoletta, 34, just had a vein stripped at an Orvieto hospital, again, with only a minor payment. Another friend had a diseased toenail removed gratis, while I did it privately and paid 1000 euros, (although I did get around 700 euros back from my private insurance).


Increasingly, Italians who can afford it have been buying complementary private health plans: once upon a time, the entire national health system – including pharmaceuticals – was totally free for Italian citizens but over the years a series of co-payments have been added (this is true in most European countries, including Sweden which once prided itself on its generosity but has now, too, had to come with the costs incurred by aging populations and costly equipment). This, and the long waits that exist in some parts of the peninsula, have led those who can afford it to buy into some kind of private plan. Me, I have one because as a member of the Italian journalists union, I had to sign on to their plan, Casagit, for which I paid (and it wasn’t cheap) out of my salary. Now that I am retired from the newspaper, I get the same plan for the equivalent of $110 a month and consider myself very, very lucky.

But this doesn’t mean I don’t use the SSN. I do, and quite happily most of the time. I needed a dermatological cream for a pre-cancerous skin lesion that if purchased privately with a private doctor’s prescription could have cost me considerably, something like 90 euros. Unfortunately, it turned out that even Riccardo, my health service doctor (every resident needs to be on n SSN doctor’s list, which shouldn’t number over 1500 patients) also couldn’t write the prescription. I needed to get it from a dermatologist from the public sector, which meant that what I needed from him was a referral on the official red-trimmed form that I would have to take to an ASL –  an Azienda Sanitaria Locale − a sort of HMO.

Then I remembered about San Gallicano, a dermatologica hospital only a few blocks from my home in Trastevere. Armed with Riccardo’s impegnativa, I showed up at 8:15 at the S. Gallicano clinic in Via delle Fratte di Trastevere 52 and, having been given a number, took my place among a crowd of prospective patients, a hugh number of whom were black Africans, clearly from Sub.Saharan Africa who did not seem to speak any Italian. Turns out that the structure I was in, has now been renamed and has become an INMP (National Institute for the promotion of the health of the Migrant populations and for the struggle against diseases caused by poverty etc etc etc.)

After various bureaucratic procedures,  I coughed up 29 euros and change for the doctors visit. Next, upstairs to a waiting room until a doctor appeared who called my name.  Turned out she thought the lesion could be removed more effectively with liquid nitrogen (criotherapy). Well, when can we do that, I asked? Now, she replied. Writing out yet another impegnativa, she sent me back to the cash desk where I paid an additional fee of 34 euros. A half an hour later I was back in her office, the lesion was burned off and at the moment it seems unlikely to return.


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Shots and suppositories. Aargh! But don’t worry, they have pills as well.

June 17, 2015

farmaciainsegnaYou’ve just gotten back to your hotel and open the bag with the medicine that the pharmacist in the pharmacy around the corner has given you for your ongoing stomach ache. Eeek! What’s this? Suppositories? Ugh. Well, had you known, you could have asked for compresse, pills. But the fact is that many medications in Italy (and the same goes for other European countries, including  France, Greece and Spain) often use suppositories as a medical delivery system.

From a physiological point of view, this makes sense (in fact, I got used to this decades ago), because in this way the medicine is absorbed into the body more quickly AND, as a bonus, it does not pass through the digestive system. But some people, particularly North Americans and UK residents, find that icky. Never mind. As I said, most medications here also come in pill form so you can always specify that you want “compresse”, tablets.

Other options are “bustine”, little one-dose envelopes of medication that you have to dissolve in water, – or for that matter solutions for intramuscular injections, another form of delivery that also allows medications to bypass the stomach and get into your system more quickly than a pill would. Taking medication in the form of injections is so frequent that it is not surprising how many ordinary Italians know how to do this. When my back goes out, the jeweller downstairs, Claudio, comes up to give me a shot. But most pharmacists will be able to give you the phone number of someone who can come to your home (or hotel) and do the deed. Shots are particular effective, I have found, if you back goes out and you find yourself totally or partially blocked.

As we all know, anyone can get sick anywhere and at any time, even during a long-awaited, much-desired vacation. But if you are here in Italy, there is no need to despair and unless it’s something serious, you may not even have to go to a doctor.  Generally, in Italy, you can get excellent advice from an Italian pharmacist (farmacista), the person behind the pharmacy counter in a white coat or smock often with an insignia on the lapel. According to Italian regulations, no one who is not a bonafide pharmacist, with a degree, should be wearing  a white coat inside a pharmacy.

The Italian pharmacist is a very hands-on figure: Probably because he has a university degree, in small Italian towns he is a figure of great importance along with the mayor, the doctor, the lawyer….and the parish priest. He is used to dispensing advice and medications, so if you are able tell him what is wrong with you, your problems may be solved right here. He (or she) will take your blood pressure if you are feeling faint. And if it is a farmacia galenica (after Galens, the ancient Greek who used herbs and their extracts to cure illness), the pharmacist can also mix up creams or potions in his lab.

Privately owned, and often passed on from one generation to another, pharmacies here generally  keep regular store hours although, increasingly, you will find some that remain open the entire day (mine, in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, is now open every day, including Sundays, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) Italian pharmacies easy to spot because since 2003, like pharmacies throughout the European Union, they have a lighted, sometimes flashing, green cross on the façade. (Italian parafarmacie, which can only carry over-the-counter medicines as well as vitamins and other health and beauty products, are supposed to be designated by a blue cross.) If closed, pharmacies are required by law to post a sign on the front door giving you the address of the closest pharmacy that is open or that has night hours. Sometimes in the latter, especially if it is after midnight, you will have to ring a bell and speak with the pharmacist through an intercom. And keep in mind that many Italian pharmacies also sell homeopathic medicines as many doctors prescribe them and some Italians prefer them to the mainline stuff.

Although in Italy many pharmaceuticals require a doctor’s prescription (una ricetta, pronounced ri-chetta) pharmacists tend to be more flexible with people who are clearly tourists. Still, if you take any kind of medication regularly, you ought to bring your prescription from home with you. It won’t have any validity here, but it will help the pharmacist to understand what kind of treatment you may need. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to know the name of the active ingredient in your medication. That would make things even easier.

Some travellers like to bring a supply of familiar OTC products with them, so they don’t have to struggle with translations but just in case you don’t do this,  or don’t bring enough things with you, here are some hints.

Tylenol is paracetamol and is sold in Italy as Tachipirina or Efferalgan.

Motillium or Imodium for nausea have the same names here.

Ibuprofen or Advil is sold here as Moment or Nurofen.

Benegol lozenges are good for sore throat.

Antihistamines here include Reactine, Claritin, Xyzal, Zyrtec and Actifed.

Naprosyn is called Naproxene

Citrosodina is the closest thing to Alka Seltzer

Voltfast 50 mg is Voltaren in small dosages and is great for back pains and other aches.

Many frequently used American or UK pharmaceuticals are sold in Italy under other names. Some, of course, like Benedryl, don’t exist here at all but I can assure you that comparable medicines do exist for almost anything. Italians take lots of medications (until not so long ago they were mostly free, so that can explain their overuse). So all you have to do is explain what’s wrong and the pharmacist (farmacista) will suggest something. Or you can go on the internet and find out the name of the product you want.

By the way, you do not need to declare your medications when you enter the country. But if for some fluke your baggage were to be looked in (this almost NEVER happens to tourists from North America or the U.K.), it would be a good idea to have the prescription together with the medications you are carrying.

Here are a couple of other personal tips. Italian band-aids (cerotti) are far inferior to those sold in the U.S., so bring some with you. Aspirin (aspirina) is much more expensive here than in the U.S. and the U.K. and is sold in much smaller quantities. Melatonin (melatonina) and Echinacea are also much more expensive here. Benedryl does not exist and condoms are called  preservativi.

The internet has made life much simpler for us and you can find the name in Italian for anything you need. Just one word of warning. Droga (drugs) in Italian, has nothing to do with medicines but refers to illegal drugs or opiates, in other words, to narcotics. So don’t go into a pharmacy and as for una droga. Always say, una medicina.

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Speaking Italian: You or You (Tu or Lei)?

May 15, 2015

tuandleiWe talked about the “ciao” earlier. If you were surprised about it not always being appropriate to use “ciao” as a greeting, then you may also be unaware that  like French, Spanish and German – and a lot of other languages – Italian has two forms of address: The “tu” is a familiar form is used with relatives, and people you know well such as friends, lovers, husbands, animals, bids  and children – yours and anyone else´s. (more…)

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Are there any dress codes in Italy?

May 13, 2015

Italian elegance today

Italian elegance today

Are there any dress codes at all in Italy?

Have a look around and the answer (a resounding “no) will become immediately clear. I am not sure just when or why this happened, but some time ago, Italians decided to emulate us Americans and go casual. And they have done   so with a vengeance, in effect looking far more sloppy than many American men I know. And although men and women have chosen different routes to sartorial freedom (more about the ladies below in a separate chapter), it just ain’t the Italy I fell in love with when I first came here lo those many years ago.


How things have changed!!! Italy and I go back a long way and when I first came here as a college girl I remember being terribly impressed with the elegance of everyone I met, men and women alike. Donatella and Marisa, the Italian teachers at the Syracuse University program in Florence, were physically extremely different, one blonde and curvaceous, the other slim, small and dark. But they were both terribly elegant, coming to work in suits or twin-sets, with just the right amount of jewelry, and the inevitable Hermes scarf, tied to their handbags and I remember writing to my aunts Ruth and Selma, who had been schooling me in how to dress, about what I had observed and now wanted to imitate.

Wasn’t underwear an under garment?

Some say it all started with the late Italian fashion designer, Gianni Versace, who before his murder in 1997 had convinced a lot of woman, Italians and not, that looking like what was once called a streetwalker was the new look. Madonna bought into that totally and – followed decades later by Lady Gaga – persuaded others that showing your underwear was fine and dandy and not, as my mother (Thanks, Mom!) taught me the your bra straps and panties were not something to be shown in public.

Indeed, when I first came to Italy, it would have been impossible to believe that any woman here would ever go around with their bra straps (or thongs) showing. But things do change (from my point of view for the worse) and after all Versace (and his sister, Donatella) were/are Italian.

Clearly, this is not a purely Italian phenomenon. I have seen working-class British women on holiday with more bra showing than blouse, and the hooker look seems to be very big among some American girl teens. But what about the penchant of even many Italian professional women – for example some TV journalists − for looking sexy as compared to their counterparts among American and French woman  who instead would opt for looking business-like.

In a story from a few years ago, Financial Times reporter Adrian Michaels told how passengers getting off planes from Milan were greeted by an enormous poster of a woman’s cleavage to advertise the business products of Telecom Italia and how both Rome and Milan were plastered with billboards of three scantily-clad computer-generated damsels advertising the cell phone provider named “3”. As for Italian television, semi-nude dancers or nearly naked show hostesses are the rule and have been for the last 20 years. No quiz show or variety show is without its vallette (think Playboy bunnies without the tails and ears) and even “Striscia la Notizia”, an extremely clever evening news spoof, dotes on its two wiggling, pom-pom girls, one brunette and one blonde. Not surprisingly, every season thousands of young Italian girls show up to try out for the two “Striscia La Notizia” parts, roles that guarantee them, at the very least, a future on the pages of Italy’s gossip magazines. What are the requisites? Charm, an ability to gyrate gracefully and, of course, sex appeal.  According to press reports, many of the tarted-up girls who signed up for taking part in former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties – a role which may or may not have meant they might have been called on to participate in some kind of sex act with him – were urged on by their were urged on to take the job by their mothers, something that goes far to tell you what values are like in Italy these days.

More Italian elegance

More Italian elegance

Several years later when I was in Rome to do the research for my doctoral thesis, I remember noting how even the most lowly secretaries at the Foreign Ministry, wore suits, stockings and pumps, and looked as if they had stepped out of the pages of the Italian Vogue. But that was 30 years ago and today, go to any Italian ministry or office and most of the women are casually dressed in pants (jeans) and walking shoes. Among them there will also be an ample representation of the sexpot Italian woman – see BOX  – a phenomenon that has always been present here  but which grew sharply during the Berlusconi era.

And the men!  Back then, even when they were in casual corduroys or slacks, Italian men always looked fantastic. No short socks for them. Their trousers were always the right length. If they knotted a (cashmere) sweater around their shoulders, they looked as if they had been born that way. Their leather jackets were neither too new nor too old. They were always carefully shaved, and their hair was thick and beautiful.  Fantastici! Bellissimi! One didn’t know which one to look at or flirt with first.

Today, it’s a whole different ball game, especially where younger men are concerned. With the exception of men in more formal jobs  − banking  (that is, the executives, because I can’t remember the last time I saw a male teller with a jacket and tie), journalists (but only those who cover government), members of parliament and diplomats, just about everyone you will see looks as if they are, literally, on their way to a ball game — or about to play in it. Sneakers, running shoes and trainers have replaced those wonderful Italian leather shoes. Jeans and baseball caps are ubiquitous, just as they are in the U.S.  And once the weather gets warm, baggy bermudas or, even worse, pinocchietti or clam diggers (worn not with sandals but with trainers), reveal all too many unattractive legs.

In my neighborhood, Trastevere, where there are many students as well as men who don’t seem to have steady jobs, or who are artists (or would-be artists), men show up at the bar for their morning coffee in a state in which in bygone days no respecting Italian would have allowed anyone else to see him.  Now I know this is a generaitonal thing, but to make things even  worse (at least to my mind)  many under 40 Italian men (and alas, a few greying ones, too) seem to shave only once or twice a week (I call it non-designer stubble). In addition, a great many are bald or balding (this is said by some to be the results of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986, by others to be the effect of the hormones in meat), until recently the most popular male look has been shaved heads and goatees meaning it is often difficult to tell one guy from another. (More recently, full beards appear to have been csprouting their way back in, the best thing about this being that the unshaven look is in a slight decline.

This casual and sometimes unkempt attire spills into restaurants, churches and museums so if you are not from a generation which thought one should always get a bit dressed up for theaters, concert halls and nice restaurants, you can fill your suitcases with jeans, sweaters, running shoes, sandals and not much else.

Just a couple of provisos.  Some churches do set some limits on summer bareness (short shorts, scoop neck tops and baseball caps really are a no-no). And although there is practically nowhere in Italy today where men HAVE to wear a tie, there are some high-end restaurants where men must wear jackets.

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At the “bar”: Il caffé

May 3, 2015

caffè-5You’re in Italy and before coming here you may have boned up on a few key words and phrases to help you communicate and, possibly, to have at least a vague idea of what is going on around you. Now, however, you have to learn a whole new vocabulary – that which you need to order coffee and to get an idea of how Italians like to drink theirs. After all, you’re not just here to see the Coliseum and the Grand Canal. You’ve also got (I hope) a minimum of curiosity about how people elsewhere live.

Despite the fact that in Italy you ain’t going to find the Starbucks concoctions you may be used to, if you pay a bit of attention you will be able to witness the amazing variety that coffee orders have here. I have already explained about how here in Italy you have to use both words and not just call it a “latte” (unless, of course, you are asking for a glass of milk. And you all know about cappuccino. But the mainstay of Italian bar-going is, of course, espresso.

Espresso can be ristretto (less water, hence stronger coffee) ristrettissimo (even less water and therefore even stronger coffee), lungo (more water, thus somewhat weaker), macchiato caldo (espresso with a splash of hot milk added) or macchiato freddo where the milk added is cold. Then there is espresso decaf which is often called “Hag” because that was once Italy’s best-known brand of decaf coffee.

But that’s just the start. Some people (usually blue collar workers) want their coffee corretto, that is spiked with something alcoholic. Others want it al vetro, in a small shot glass rather than the classic demitasse cup. Then there’s the cappuccino (never, never to be drunk at the end of a meal) which sometimes gets modified in the following ways: senza schiuma (no foam), poco schiuma (just a little foam), scuro (less milk) and thus darker or chiaro (more milk). And of course, you might also want to specify that you want it tiepido (lukewarm) or bollente (boiling hot). And when the weather gets warmer, lots of people switch to caffé freddo, something, I personally avoid because they almost always prepared it sweetened and I never take sugar or sweetener in my coffee.(One way to get around this, especially if you are at a bar where they know you, is to ask for a glass with ice in it and then get them to pour a freshly-made caffé doppio (double coffee) over it.)

Since politically correct hasn’t sunk in here as it has in France (where apparently one can no longer order a small black coffee with the words, un petit noir, a little black), some people still ask their barista of choice to make un marocchino, a Moroccan, which is a lovely-to-look-at, swirly drink of coffee, cocoa and cream.

The Roman barista: a national resource

This was the title of a story I wrote a while back for the Rome daily, Il Messaggero, and from the little feedback I had I am inclined to believe that every barista in Rome thought I was writing about him (yes, there are women bariste but they are a minority, generally the owners of smaller bars or the relatives/girlfriends of the owners but they are generally less professional and I have yet to find one who can make you a cappuccino with a perfect heart floating on the top of the foam).

If you are, like me, someone used to having your first coffee or cappuccino outside your house, the right barman can give your day a good start, while a sulking or uncommunicative barista is to be avoided at any cost. What you want (as well as a professional capable of taking care of a variety of orders at the same time, since you might be on your way to the office) is someone who gives you a hearty hello, calling you by name if he already knows you, and will let go with one of those ready quips on current affairs, sports or your own personal history, of which only the Romans are truly capable.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important quality of all, what you want is a barman who remembers how you take your coffee so that you don’t even have to speak. At the bar on the corner of Vicolo del Cinque in Trastevere that I have been going to for decades, Giancarlo (now retired) used to make my coffee when he saw me through the window so I would find it steaming on the corner when I got there. And this kind of personal treatment was not unique to him. A friend who moved back to New York after years in Rome was deeply moved when she came back for a visit a couple of years later.  She walked into the café in Via dei Giubbonari (near Campo dei Fiori) where she used to have her prima colazione and the barman didn’t miss a beat.  “Buongiorno Signorina”, he said. “Your usual cappuccino?”


Most Italians like to have breakfast – prima colazione – at the corner bar or café which means accompanying their coffee (or cappuccino) with a cornetto, either plain, semplice, or ripieno, filled (with custard, chocolate, or jam). By the way, most cafés also will have a whole wheat (integrale) cornetto.

I am not a real cornetto fan, preferring American donuts or muffins or French croissants to Italian pastries. But occasionally one finds something like a Danish or a good pound cake, or ciambellone, although here, too, I have reservations, since the yeast used in most Italian baked goods is vanilla-flavored and I prefer our own unflavored version.

Somewhere along the line, I got into the habit of having tea when I wake up in the morning; usually a rather strong, smoky black tea called Lapsong Souchong which provides me with an initial wake-up shot of caffeine as soon as I’ve gotten out of bed. But after a while I need something a bit more to get me going – to carburare as the Italians would say – and so once I’ve gotten dressed and checked my e-mails I’m ready to go downstairs and get my first espresso of the day. I’m a coffee addict, so that is really only the first of several.

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The Moka. An Italian’s best morning friend.

April 25, 2015

mokabubblingThe gurgle comes from the kitchen and is unmistakable, as is the smell of freshly-brewed Italian coffee that permeates the air.

Amidst the recent proliferation of at home electric espresso machines that use ready-made capsules, there is a whole other Italian coffee scene of which most foreigners are not aware. The Moka! That (non-electric) generally silver aluminum coffee pot that is a fixture in most Italian households and (according to a recent article in the Turin newspaper La Stampa) used by some 70% of the Italian population . Despite George Clooney, in fact, capsule machines still only account for some 3.5 % of the market and have their primary success in offices, hairdressers and hotel rooms where espresso (or the Moka) is not available.

They come in all sizes

They come in all sizes

Speaking of espresso, you might be surprised to learn that for the majority of Italians, this is an “extra”, a tiny beverage you drink mid-morning or, in any event, once you have left the house. Unless you are like me and have it “lungo”, which means with extra water added, espresso allows you only a few sips, while with Moka coffee you can happily fill your cup. Moka is pronounced like mocha of Starbuck’s fame but has nothing to do with chocolate.

The Moka is a three-piece coffee machine with pressure valves inside. The water is put in the bottom part, the coffee is put in the middle part, called the filtro, or filter (and should NOT be tamped down), and the top part is then screwed back on and the whole thing is put on a low flame.Mokainpieces What happens next? According to Italian coffee lore, as soon as the coffee starts spurting into the top part, you must open the lid, and lower the flame. Remove the pot from the fire as soon as it is filled; you do not want it boiling. Some people stir the coffee before pouring it out. Another major rule to be followed. Never, never wash your caffettiera with soap. Rinse it and basta!



-The major producer of the classic Moka, Bialetti, has sold, worldwide, some 270 million caffettiere. But there are many other manufacturers so that a total of seven million pots are produced every year.

-Most Italian households own at least two. I own six of various sizes (One cup, two cups, six cups, ten cups).

-Per capita annual consumption is 5.7 kilos of coffee.

-The average Italian has a cup of coffee as soon as he or she wakes up.

-Almost 70% of the total amount of coffee sold in Italy (about 320,000 tons a year) is consumed at home, and 57% of that is drunk in the morning at breakfast, or as it is called here, colazione.

There a dozens of brands of packaged coffee for Moka coffee, the best known being Illy and Lavazza, although personally I prefer a brand named Kimbo. Some Italians prefer to have their coffee ground at the local “torrefazione“, but these days reportedly there are only about 700 in the country.

The Moka has also been made in ceramic – in all sorts of primary colors – in copper, steel, silver and brass. But according to experts, coffee made with those will taste differently than when made in aluminum. Of course some Italians prefer another type of pot, the “napolitana” (see picture) which at the end of the process has to be turned upside down, making it more of a drip coffee pot then a percolator (remember them?)

Caffettiera napoletana

Caffettiera napoletana

But that, too, is used at home and is – like Moka coffee – still not your classic espresso.

P.S. Recently, I answered the phone and the caller was a representative of Lavazza offering a purchase arrangement for a Lavazza home espresso pot. “No thanks”, I said. “I use the Moka”. “Va bene”, she said, “thank you for your time”.

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The Ciao. Love it but (sometimes) leave it.

April 17, 2015


If there’s one Italian word (other than vino or pasta) that everyone knows, it is “ciao”, the greeting almost all Italians use to say hello or goodbye to friends or to people with whom they are on informal terms. You’ll hear this word all the time; it is even used by some in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Latin America, France, Spain and Scandinavia where many consider it chic.

But what many people who are just here on a visit don’t know is that there are rules regarding the use of this very simpatico salutation. Even though it may seem to you that everyone says it to everyone, this is NOT the case. The young waiter at your trattoria may say “ciao” to you when you leave. The hawker trying to get you into his restaurant by say “ciao”and asking you where you are from. But as jolly as this may be, it is really not appropriate.

One thing to remember about the “ciao” is that the emphasis and number of times it is repeated can subtly change its significance.

ciaosAn elongated “Oh ciaouuuu”, shows the  person is really glad to see you. In any case, one “ciao” is simply a hello. Two ciaos “ciao, ciao”, is almost always a farewell, not a greeting. And a whole bunch of ciaos can mean the departing person is in a hurry. The most ciaos I have heard in a row and have been on the receiving end of were seven (ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao), but this was at the end of a long phone conversation.

ciao4Generally, ciao is followed immediately by “come stai”. “Ciao, come stai?“. Hi.How are you. And if you pay attention, you will also hear ciao often followed by bella or bello. It isn’t really, hi, beautiful. It’s more like saying, Hi, my good friend, I am glad to see you. On the other hand, a different kind of elongated ciao, this time preceded by an “eh, si” can express disbelief. “Eh, si. Cia-aooo!” As in “Oh, sure, tell me another”.

You on the other hand, should be cautious. The “ciao” is not something you just bandy about, using it with anyone you run into – as in  shopkeepers, barmen who serve you your cappuccino, doctors you may have to consult, pharmacists, bus drivers, saleswomen at Gucci, shoe salesmen at Ferragamo and ticket takers at the Coliseum. What you do say when you enter an establishment of any sort, or begin speaking with the pharmacist or the teller at the post office, is buon giorno,  which you can also say when you exit,(unless you want to try buona giornata, the Italian way to say “have a good day”).

If you are unsure about how familiar you want (or don’t want) to be, another option is the intermediate form of salutation – “salve” (sal-vay) − from the Latin for “be of good health”. But buongiorno – it can be written as one word or two – is more correct. And just to be thorough, if it is after lunch, you would say – coming or going – buona sera (or – as you head off −buona serata, “have a good evening”), while at night when you take your leave, you will say buonanotte. (By the way, “buonanotte” can also be sarcastic as in “she told him what she thought of him and then, buonanotte”). And we mustn’t forget the old classic when you are winding up any kind of visit:  “Arrivederci”, a formal way of saying “see you”. But unless you are with people you can classify as current or potential friends, you should not be throwing out a “ciao”.

There are several theories regarding the origin of the word “ciao” According to one account it derives, most recently, from the  Venetian phrase s-ciào vostro or s-ciào su s-ciàvo, literally meaning “I am your slave”. This, of course, was not a literal statement of fact, but rather a promise of good will among friends, much like the way Anglo-Saxons might say “at your service”.ciao1

This greeting was eventually shortened to ciao, lost all its servile connotations and came to be used as an informal salutation by speakers of all classes.The Treccani dictionary suggests, however, that ciao might come from chiao or chiaio, medieval words for the Latin clāru(m) and thus might signify a wish for a happy – light-filled day. And yet another theory is that the word may be derived from yet another medieval custom, that of wishing people l’aciāriu(m), a Latin word meaning steel or blade. That greeting would have been similar to a paradoxical AUGURIO such as “break a leg” in English or “in bocca al lupo” in Italian. More or less, “well, here’s hoping you don’t get run through by anyone’s blade”. From acciaro you got acciao, the Italian word for steel, and then, finally, ciao.

Okay, okay, I admit it. It’s true that nothing untoward will happen if you do say “ciao” to any of the above people or others like them. They will know you are a tourist, of course. But they will also know, should they bother to think about it, that you haven’t a clue to what life is like in Italy where – although things are changing and have certainly changed a lot from even 20 years ago – society is still much more stratified than our own. When one goes to a foreign country, one probably should make just a teeny-weeny effort to fit in, don’t you think? And, in addition, if you are a woman, ciao-ing the wrong person can also be just a little bit risky, immediately implying a certain availability of another kind.



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Watch out when on the 64 bus!

April 8, 2015

64 orangeIt leaves from Piazza del Cinquecento in front of the Termini train station, stops at Piazza Venezia, crosses much of picturesque, downtown Rome, crosses over the Tiber river in the shadow of Castel Sant’Angelo (also known as Hadrian’s Tomb), lets you off a block or so from the Vatican (at the Cavalleggeri stop) and ends in Rome’s Aurelio neighborhood at the S. Pietro Station, from which you can also catch a slow train to Viterbo or to Livorno (or,if you have a permit, to Vatican City).

This makes it an ideal and potentially enchanting means of daily transportation for thousands of residents of and visitors to the Eternal City. But enchanting it is generally not. For the overcrowded 64 bus (it is supposed to run every seven minutes on weekdays but is still jam-packed, even at the first stop) is also the most risky in the capital. (more…)

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RadioTaxi: A Roman miracle, on wheels

March 15, 2015

3570  2Back in the seventies when I first got here, you could count on finding a  vast series of things – services, turnstiles, photocopiers, traffic lights, even tollbooths – that didn’t work, and which more often than not were advertised by scraps of paper with the word GUASTO, broken, scrawled on them. And today things are only marginally better. Listed phone numbers, even on official sites, that never answer. Cryptic messages from your phone provider telling you that you are not authorized to call this or that number. Wildcat strikes or union meetings – the key word is “assemblea” – that closes down the government office you decided to visit that day. Demonstrations that shut city streets and reroute traffic. Uncollected garbage and so on.

One thing that always works, even back then, was Radio Taxi, the term used for the official, non-Uber (no Uber here yet) cab companies that can, in the blink of a telephone call, send a driver to pick you up. Yes, even back then, the efficiency of Radio Taxi was in sharp contrast to a country that had so many things guaste that daily life was hard to manage.

Taxis on line at the Stazione Termini

Taxis on line at the Stazione Termini

You are standing on a major downtown Rome thoroughfare and you want a taxi. You keep trying to flag one down, but even though they are empty, they keep passing you by. What’s going on, you wonder? You are decently dressed. Probably, you look like a tourist but that shouldn’t be a problem. Then what is it?

Well, let me explain. In Italy, as in many other European countries, a taxi driver is NOT ALLOWED to stop for you IF he (or she) is within a certain distance (in Rome, it is 100 meters) to a taxi stand where some of his colleagues have been waiting for a fare, possibly for some time. Because of high gas prices, and an economic slowdown, many European taxi drivers prefer to wait at a “posteggio” rather than to cruise around the city looking for a customer.

So, if an empty taxi passes you by it is probably on its way to pick up a client who has phoned. Or the tassista has just left someone off and is heading for the taxi stand you haven’t noticed to take his place in line. By the way, most of these taxi stands  – stazionamento taxi – have dedicated phone numbers (available on the internet). Or you can walk to the posteggio nearest to your residence and, I necessary, wait in line. Naturally, you are supposed to take the taxi that has been waiting longest. “A chi tocca?” (“Whose turn is it”), I generally ask, when it is not clear who should be first.

In Rome, very few drivers speak English, although the younger ones can generally manage. If you think you might have trouble making yourself understood, write your destination down on a piece of paper and show it to the driver.  Remember to make sure that he (or she) has turned on his (or her) meter and remember, too, that if you telephone for a taxi, it will arrive with a charge somewhat above the starting rate which as of 2012 is €3 on weekdays until 10p.m., €4.5 on Sundays and holidays and €6.50 after 10 p.m. In general, taxis in Italy are more expensive than in the U.S. or even many other European countries.


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