Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks Again

Our hosts MaryAnn and Gordon at the head of the table
I wonder how long I will feel moved to mark our time in Italy with Turkeys Eaten on Thanksgiving. This is our second Thanksgiving in Italy. We cooked last year and had Americans, Italians, and Brits present.  This year we were invited to the home of our American friends and a quartet of British expats. Our holiday has morphed into an international celebration of Friendship. Not too shabby. 
Arthur does the honors
I can't help but think of family Thanksgivings past. Our families are for the most part thinning out rather than growing (lack of plentiful offspring combined with deaths and lack of marriages).  This makes us especially thankful for a growing circle of friends. Thanks again Italy.  It's always interesting this life we have here.
And Furthermore...
Thank you MaryAnn and Gordon for a great dinner!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mare Tirreno to Mare Ligure

Life goes on after floods in Cinque Terre 
We decided to revisit Cinque Terre before the fantastic weather we've been having changed. The plan was to see the flood damage left from the recent deluge there. Suffice to say, we should have been watching Italian TV to learn that the towns of Monterosso and Vernazza were off-limits to tourists and outsiders. Even a woman at our hotel in Levanto said that Monterosso was open via road or train. We quickly found the road blocked by polizia and the train agent told us we could not get off the train there either. The latter proved correct when we spotted the polizia at the train station making sure people had a reason for exiting in Monterosso. I suppose if we were more brazen we might have found a connection but we simply obeyed and enjoyed revisiting the towns that were undamaged and still open. If you haven't been following our Cinque Terre posts, these 5 towns are a very famous tourist attraction on the Italian Riveria south of Genova and just north of La Spezia. They are connected by hiking trails, a rail line and some very tight windy roads. To donate to a fund for helping Monterosso and Vernazzo residents re-build click on CINQUE TERRE AID.
Doug's only blurry pic taken of the flood damage in Monterosso--from the train!
Maybe we could have found a shovel and blended in...

The region of Liguria and the town of Levanto are heavily influenced by foreign tourists including many Americans.  While there, we came upon an international surfing contest that floundered a little given the glass-like surface of the Ligurian Sea. 

The Levanto Surfing contest site--note the impressive surf

We were here six years ago but now we were seeing it through the eyes of Italian residents. An advantage for the whole Cinque Terre zone is that they have managed to adapt to modern tourism while hanging on to their treasured cultural heritage. What we notice when we go “north” is the obvious influence of money. Clean tidy towns, handsome well kept buildings and people speaking Italian with only the rare dialect discussion–-a real treat for us. Those businesses connected with tourism have morphed into a 6-month season vs. the 6 week season we experience in Calabria. This is because they have learned to cater to foreigners who take vacations in months other than just August! Restaurants were opening for dinner at 7:00 which was also a treat!
Doug noticed though that the people on the streets of Liguria, Toscana and Lazio were not as open or eager to converse. For a while on the trip he doggedly greeted folks in our Calabrian fashion with a good morning or good afternoon and only one old guy of maybe a dozen responded at all. Are northerners more cold as the southerners claim? Are they sick of tourists?
Anyhow, it was a lovely day for a walk on the beach!
This somewhat impulsive trip was bound to be a long one going much of the length of Italy, but we really didn’t know. Turns out to be 870 km and 10 hours from home to Levanto, Liguria via mostly the autostrada. In our old days in the American west, this would have been easy. But throw in traffic, Italian/European autostrade driving, and a car with poor suspension and it was a long day.
Since the two towns were closed in Cinque Terre, we elected to leave there a day early and sight-see on the way home down the coast of Toscana and Lazio. We actually spent two days, 8 hours each, making our way south on highways, small roads, various towns and cities--a 1845 km total trip distance. The backroads of Italy offer some interesting landscapes you cannot see from an autostrada

Have to mention that we’ve driven in a lot of Italy this year and the worst roads are right here in Calabria so far.  The SS 18 has awful expansion joints on bridges and the A3 autostrade is the roughest motorway we’ve experienced in the republic. AND the roughest spots of the A3 have been built in the last 6 months to 2 years!  

Any ANAS engineers out there with an explanation?

Italian Stone Pine - Pinus Pinea

 There was an unexpected highlight during our coastal tour. We had planned to stay the night in Anzio, the famous landing site during WWII. It was getting dark and we knew we didn't want to search for a hotel in the dark. As the shadows lengthened, we came upon a frankly seedy section of beach located right after the toney Lido di Ostia. What a contrast! We had just gone through hordes of Romans enjoying the beach and drove through (very slowly) hoping for hotels on the edge of town. No luck there so we drove on to find this deserted place frozen in time (1960's). The only hotel was the Albatros, right on the beach with let's just say frayed accomodations. However--the family that owns it is funny and friendly and just the kind of people who should be running a hotel. It will be a good if funky memory.
We made it to Anzio the next morning--an exceedingly lovely day. We easily found the Anzio museum and the famous beach. There was a picture of the American landing at a memorial near the beach. Check out the comparison of the old photo with Doug's new photo of the beach. Look for the two domes in the upper left of the historic photo. Very interesting--interesting history too.  Apparently the landing went smoothly but the general dug in rather than push on and gave the Germans time to cause quite a loss of life. The goal of the landing was to push on to Rome but the first guys didn't--better stop there, we aren't war historians:
Historic WWII photo of the Landing on the beach at Anzio--note the round domes in the upper left of the photo
The beach at Anzio today--some of the same buildings 
This trip answered one question for us. As we watch the drama about the Italian and European economies unfold, we wondered how Italy could really be the 7th or 8th largest economy in the world as the news has stated. Living in Calabria one would wonder! Well, when we drove into Florence the other day, Doug flashed back to travel in the American midwest. The drive from Florence to Lucca and Pisa was non-stop factories and thriving industry. For some reason we never saw all that from the train in 2005. Yes, the north has a strong industrial base and we have yet to see the “real industrial zone” of Milano!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Il Cliente Ha Sempre Ragione-The Customer is Always Right!

I’d like to bring up customer service because we Americans are a bit spoiled. I (Guido) have refused to return to only one business around here after they ignored me a couple times.  Normally when we walk into a shop we immediately hear something like buongiorno, dimi which equates to “good morning, tell me how I can help you”.

But without further rambling preamble, I am pleased to introduce my friend Domenico Maiolino who is the winner of my Customer Service Award – 2011.

Domenico is an auto mechanic (auto officina) with a small 2-man shop in Scalea. I first met him a year ago when I needed a couple of tires and have since bought more tires, puncture repairs, oil changes, etc. A couple times he dropped what he was doing to help me and since has always been a great man to work with and he and his assistant are both very good mechanics. Domenico is patient with me – he repeats things or tries another way of saying something until I figure it out! I can also roam under the lift, look at work in-progress and ask questions. I like him and recommend him to all.

Domenico’s shop is on the southern edge of Scalea, Via Fiume Lao 164, Tel 0985 939686.

Not far away from Domenico’s garage on Via Lauro is Ranch Motori where I have the car washed.  Again, very courteous folks that work hard and aim to please. I like to roam around looking at farm implements and remembering a past life!

The service that has been the most difficult to adjust to is that from the government. Our experiences with immigration and the national healthcare system have been “interesting”.  Di hit it on the head saying the medical and immigration folks are not nasty or incompetent, they are just under-staffed and given poor resources to work with.  Poor, outdated computers, obsolete systems all around.

One thing we have learned is that quiet wallflowers will quickly be overlooked. The squeaky wheel gets the grease and Italians know how to squeak!! Just this week, we might have spent all day waiting for someone to get us in the hospital waiting room and take us to the doctor Di had an appointment with. They have no receptionists or nurses to come find you….. you basically get into the hall and grab someone to say why you are there and/or snag the doctor himself.

It’s just a new and strange system to us and we are learning. This medical trip was done to try a private doctor instead of one through the health service, so when done I asked him where to go to pay. He took the money himself. Oh. The docs and techs are good, but the other part of this system is strange to us. We don’t know if all of Italy is this way or just Calabria.

We’ve spoken before about queues for everything. Whether government healthcare, immigration or taking a driving test – everything requires a wait. The good news is that if there is not a bar next door, you can be sure the building will have a good vending machine for a caffe.

A cute village story is my visit to the comune (city hall) to drop off our census form. I figured 30 seconds to run inside and drop it at the clerk’s desk. No. The guy inside (hired special to process census forms) spent 20 minutes going over the entire long form, doing some corrections and erasures so it looked nice, then gave me this very official receipt (completely stamped of course) so I would have perfect documentation to prove I had completed the form. In case the Carabinieri come asking?? I think Italians use any excuse to bang a stamp.


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