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Cose italiane (Italian things)

11 Apr

11 April 2017. This time of year I always think about cleaning out the closets, assessing spring and summer clothes, putting away the puffy jacket and wool sweaters. That inevitably made me think of how Italians do the seasonal cambio as well as other cultural difference. I hope you’ll enjoy this entry from a year ago. Happy Easter! Happy Spring!

The following was originally posted 11 April 2016.

Even after almost four years in Italy, there are things that strike me as uniquely Italian and a bit amusing.  

Cheek kissing

Funny how cheek kissing has become normal to us. You do not meet a friend on the street – male or female – without doing il bacetto, the little kiss. Even waiters and shopkeepers will do this with frequent and favorite customers. I’ve seen burly Carabinieri officers smooch my U.S. law enforcement colleagues. Famously, Italian politicians attempt to assault American presidents.  Il bacetto is a little air kiss, not a big wet smack and it takes some getting used to in order to execute one smoothly. When a group of friends breaks up after coffee, drinks, or dinner it can take a while for everyone to properly bid adieu as one cannot depart without giving il bacetto to each person. And then you have to say “Ciao, buonasera!” about a dozen times. No fast exits.  

 

President Bush doesn't quite know what to do when Italian Premier Berlusconi goes in for the bacetto. Remember: Always go to the right first!

President Bush doesn’t quite know what to do when Italian Premier Berlusconi goes in for the bacetto. Remember: Always go to the right first!

Il Cambio di stagione

Many Italians let the calendar decide their clothing. 80 degrees (F) in early April? Better keep a scarf around your neck just-in-case. You wouldn’t want to catch la cervicale (pain in the cervical vertebrae) or un colpo d’aria (literally “a hit of  air”)! These are Italian ailments that are hard to explain in English but are taken very seriously. A blast of air on your neck, throat, or head is the root cause of all illness. Although the temps have had Ric and I pulling out our short-sleeved attire, sending the wool sweaters to the dry cleaner, and assessing what new warm-weather clothes we need, we still see many Italians in their puffy winter jackets and heavy wools with scarf-wrapped necks. While in the morning it might be a pleasant 55F and the jacket is not too terribly hot, by afternoon it is 75F, way beyond needing the jacket. But it is too soon to do Il Cambio! Cold weather might come back!
When we lived in Portland, all of our clothes were in our substantial walk-in closet. I might shove the winter stuff to the back when warmer temps prevailed, and the short-sleeved tee-shirts came to the top of the drawer, but basically I could find warmer clothes in a couple of minutes.
The typical Italian household does not have a lot of closet space. We use wardrobes for what we are wearing now and some sort of under-the-bed or overhead storage for the other season. Typically, we have only about half of our clothes at hand. Il cambio (the seasonal change out of the closet) is a big thing twice each year. Sometime in April, but generally closer to May 1, Italians pull out the ladder to get things down from the overhead closets and unwrap the items in the under bed chests, deciding what to keep and what to recycle. Ric and I, in a decidedly non-Italian way, are well into il cambio but the temps did drop a bit the other day. I just hope we don’t freeze our necks when we go to dinner tonight. Maybe I’ll look for a scarf to wear with my spring jacket.
The only closets in our apartment are desigend for off-season storage, high overhead in the service hallway.

The only closets in our apartment are designed for off-season storage, high overhead in the service hallway.

Our bedroom wardrobes, one each, 100cm -- about 39 inches -- wide.

Our bedroom wardrobes, one each, 100cm — about 39 inches — wide.

Il cambio mostly compelte, my spring and summer clothes now fill my wardrobe.

Il cambio mostly complete, my spring and summer clothes now fill my wardrobe.

I love the wardrobe versus the American-style closet. I can see everything and I am forced into being quite orderly. 

 

Scarves & sundresses

As I mentioned above, a scarf is a way of protecting you from la cervicale. If the wind blows on your neck, you could become very ill. (Yes, you can call in sick with la cervicale. Try to explain that to your U.S. or U.K. supervisor.) You can also get colpo d’aria. So you will see women wearing scarves with sundresses. Air conditioning is generally considered to be a hazard to health, so if you have to go into somewhere cold (i.e., below about 80F) you want to be protected.
She is not taking any chances at developing cervicale!

She is not taking any chances of developing la cervicale!

Cornetti in the hand

When an Italian goes into a bar and orders a cornetto (croissant) and un caffè, typically the barista will grab the cornetto with a napkin and hand it to the patron, then turn to make the requisite espresso. The cornetto is generally eaten standing up, using the napkin to hold it, and is eaten before downing the shot of espresso, which is liberally laced with sugar. It’s all very fast, maybe 2 or 3 minutes for consuming the pastry as well as drinking the coffee. In fact, Starbucks cannot make a shot as fast as an Italian can consume this entire meal in a bar.
While we indulged in a seated caffè e cornetto today, Ric demos the technique. ONe always eats oneàs corentto wrappedin a napkin. More sanitary.

While we indulged in a seated caffè e cornetto today, Ric demos the technique. One always eats oneàs cornetto wrapped in a napkin. More sanitary.

When we go into the bar and order cornetti, 95% of the time they pull out plates and set our pastries on them. I actually like that as we tend to linger a bit more, but isn’t it funny in this land of slow paced living and reverence for food, the bar breakfast is consumed at lightning speed? And how do they metabolize all that sugar every day? We can’t do it and we walk 6-7 kilometers a day.

 

August

August is a weird month. So many people go on vacation at the same time that the nightmare traffic disappears and parking places are everywhere. How can so many people arrange their lives to be on vacation at the same time? Hospitals send patients home. Doctors’ offices close. Restaurants close so the entire staff can be gone at the same time. Buses are on a reduced schedule , special for August.
I love it. You can’t get anything done, but the city is so empty it is marvelous. You have to live it to believe it. And this does not happen in the center, in the tourist area. That remains hopping.
This is Viale Parioli, the major shopping street a few minutes walk from our apartment, in August at 17:30 in the evening,. Usually it is a hubbub of cars, motorcycles, buses and people scurrying to do their shopping.

This is Viale Parioli, the major shopping street a few minutes walk from our apartment, in August at 17:30 in the evening. Usually, it is a hubbub of cars, motorcycles, buses and people scurrying to do their shopping.

Portieri

When I was young and watched movies set in New York City, I would marvel at apartment buildings with “supers” and doormen. We had no such thing as far as I knew in St. Paul, Minnesota. How glamorous would it be to live that way!
In Italy, we have portieri. A portiere is a combination caretaker-concierge-postman-security guard. He – or she – will clean the common areas, collect your mail and packages, keep an eye out for trouble ensuring unsavory elements stay out of the building, and give advice. He’ll help you carry heavy packages to your door, assist the elderly up-and-down the stairs, and in our case, give the occasional Italian lesson.
One evening we lamented to Italian friends the problems we had with trying a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription because they’d deliver when we were not home and the produce would wilt in the sun in our driveway. Our friend  was shocked to hear we did not have a portiere to take the delivery in for us.
It is traditional to give the portiere a gift three times a year: Christmas, Easter, and Ferragosto. The latter is the mid-August holiday initiated by Caesar Augustus. Why then? Because the portiere stays on duty to ensure the safety of the property while everyone else is on vacation. If you have a portiere the incidence of burglaries is reduced.
Nothing happens in our building, on our street, or even in the neighborhood that our portiere doesn’t know about. He’s a font of intel when we need it.
Our fabulous portiere Pellegrino. Actually his wife is the portiera, and he is retired...but still helping us out every day. He calls himself "The Sheriff" and he is alwasy watching out for us.

Our fabulous portiere Pellegrino. Actually his wife is the portiera, and he is retired…but still helping us out every day. He calls himself “The Sheriff” and he is always watching out for us.

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Cose italiane (Italian things)

12 Apr
Even after almost four years in Italy, there are things that strike me as uniquely Italian and a bit amusing.  

Cheek kissing

Funny how cheek kissing has become normal to us. You do not meet a friend on the street – male or female – without doing il bacetto, the little kiss. Even waiters and shopkeepers will do this with frequent and favorite customers. I’ve seen burly Carabinieri officers smooch my U.S. law enforcement colleagues. Famously, Italian politicians attempt to assault American presidents.  Il bacetto is a little air kiss, not a big wet smack and it takes some getting used to in order to execute one smoothly. When a group of friends breaks up after coffee, drinks, or dinner it can take a while for everyone to properly bid adieu as one cannot depart without giving il bacetto to each person. And then you have to say “Ciao, buonasera!” about a dozen times. No fast exits.  

 

President Bush doesn't quite know what to do when Italian Premier Berlusconi goes in for the bacetto. Remember: Always go to the right first!

President Bush doesn’t quite know what to do when Italian Premier Berlusconi goes in for the bacetto. Remember: Always go to the right first!

Il Cambio di stagione

Many Italians let the calendar decide their clothing. 80 degrees (F) in early April? Better keep a scarf around your neck just-in-case. You wouldn’t want to catch la cervicale (pain in the cervical vertebrae) or un colpo d’aria (literally “a hit of  air”)! These are Italian ailments that are hard to explain in English but are taken very seriously. A blast of air on your neck, throat, or head is the root cause of all illness. Although the temps have had Ric and I pulling out our short-sleeved attire, sending the wool sweaters to the dry cleaner, and assessing what new warm-weather clothes we need, we still see many Italians in their puffy winter jackets and heavy wools with scarf-wrapped necks. While in the morning it might be a pleasant 55F and the jacket is not too terribly hot, by afternoon it is 75F, way beyond needing the jacket. But it is too soon to do Il Cambio! Cold weather might come back!
When we lived in Portland, all of our clothes were in our substantial walk-in closet. I might shove the winter stuff to the back when warmer temps prevailed, and the short-sleeved tee-shirts came to the top of the drawer, but basically I could find warmer clothes in a couple of minutes.
The typical Italian household does not have a lot of closet space. We use wardrobes for what we are wearing now and some sort of under-the-bed or overhead storage for the other season. Typically, we have only about half of our clothes at hand. Il cambio (the seasonal change out of the closet) is a big thing twice each year. Sometime in April, but generally closer to May 1, Italians pull out the ladder to get things down from the overhead closets and unwrap the items in the under bed chests, deciding what to keep and what to recycle. Ric and I, in a decidedly non-Italian way, are well into il cambio but the temps did drop a bit the other day. I just hope we don’t freeze our necks when we go to dinner tonight. Maybe I’ll look for a scarf to wear with my spring jacket.
The only closets in our apartment are desigend for off-season storage, high overhead in the service hallway.

The only closets in our apartment are designed for off-season storage, high overhead in the service hallway.

Our bedroom wardrobes, one each, 100cm -- about 39 inches -- wide.

Our bedroom wardrobes, one each, 100cm — about 39 inches — wide.

Il cambio mostly compelte, my spring and summer clothes now fill my wardrobe.

Il cambio mostly complete, my spring and summer clothes now fill my wardrobe.

I love the wardrobe versus the American-style closet. I can see everything and I am forced into being quite orderly. 

 

Scarves & sundresses

As I mentioned above, a scarf is a way of protecting you from la cervicale. If the wind blows on your neck, you could become very ill. (Yes, you can call in sick with la cervicale. Try to explain that to your U.S. or U.K. supervisor.) You can also get colpo d’aria. So you will see women wearing scarves with sundresses. Air conditioning is generally considered to be a hazard to health, so if you have to go into somewhere cold (i.e., below about 80F) you want to be protected.
She is not taking any chances at developing cervicale!

She is not taking any chances of developing la cervicale!

Cornetti in the hand

When an Italian goes into a bar and orders a cornetto (croissant) and un caffè, typically the barista will grab the cornetto with a napkin and hand it to the patron, then turn to make the requisite espresso. The cornetto is generally eaten standing up, using the napkin to hold it, and is eaten before downing the shot of espresso, which is liberally laced with sugar. It’s all very fast, maybe 2 or 3 minutes for consuming the pastry as well as drinking the coffee. In fact, Starbucks cannot make a shot as fast as an Italian can consume this entire meal in a bar.
While we indulged in a seated caffè e cornetto today, Ric demos the technique. ONe always eats oneàs corentto wrappedin a napkin. More sanitary.

While we indulged in a seated caffè e cornetto today, Ric demos the technique. One always eats oneàs cornetto wrapped in a napkin. More sanitary.

When we go into the bar and order cornetti, 95% of the time they pull out plates and set our pastries on them. I actually like that as we tend to linger a bit more, but isn’t it funny in this land of slow paced living and reverence for food, the bar breakfast is consumed at lightning speed? And how do they metabolize all that sugar every day? We can’t do it and we walk 6-7 kilometers a day.

 

August

August is a weird month. So many people go on vacation at the same time that the nightmare traffic disappears and parking places are everywhere. How can so many people arrange their lives to be on vacation at the same time? Hospitals send patients home. Doctors’ offices close. Restaurants close so the entire staff can be gone at the same time. Buses are on a reduced schedule , special for August.
I love it. You can’t get anything done, but the city is so empty it is marvelous. You have to live it to believe it. And this does not happen in the center, in the tourist area. That remains hopping.
This is Viale Parioli, the major shopping street a few minutes walk from our apartment, in August at 17:30 in the evening,. Usually it is a hubbub of cars, motorcycles, buses and people scurrying to do their shopping.

This is Viale Parioli, the major shopping street a few minutes walk from our apartment, in August at 17:30 in the evening. Usually, it is a hubbub of cars, motorcycles, buses and people scurrying to do their shopping.

Portieri

When I was young and watched movies set in New York City, I would marvel at apartment buildings with “supers” and doormen. We had no such thing as far as I knew in St. Paul, Minnesota. How glamorous would it be to live that way!
In Italy, we have portieri. A portiere is a combination caretaker-concierge-postman-security guard. He – or she – will clean the common areas, collect your mail and packages, keep an eye out for trouble ensuring unsavory elements stay out of the building, and give advice. He’ll help you carry heavy packages to your door, assist the elderly up-and-down the stairs, and in our case, give the occasional Italian lesson.
One evening we lamented to Italian friends the problems we had with trying a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription because they’d deliver when we were not home and the produce would wilt in the sun in our driveway. Our friend  was shocked to hear we did not have a portiere to take the delivery in for us.
It is traditional to give the portiere a gift three times a year: Christmas, Easter, and Ferragosto. The latter is the mid-August holiday initiated by Caesar Augustus. Why then? Because the portiere stays on duty to ensure the safety of the property while everyone else is on vacation. If you have a portiere the incidence of burglaries is reduced.
Nothing happens in our building, on our street, or even in the neighborhood that our portiere doesn’t know about. He’s a font of intel when we need it.
Our fabulous portiere Pellegrino. Actually his wife is the portiera, and he is retired...but still helping us out every day. He calls himself "The Sheriff" and he is alwasy watching out for us.

Our fabulous portiere Pellegrino. Actually his wife is the portiera, and he is retired…but still helping us out every day. He calls himself “The Sheriff” and he is always watching out for us.

Retail Therapy

6 Apr
I hate shopping for clothes in Italy. No such thing as “petite” sizes for those of us who are height-challenged, and most stores are tiny boutiques, so it is a drag going in-and-out to find what you might want. There is little in the way of moderately priced clothing: it is either too cheap (and probably flammable) or ridiculously expensive. A 22% VAT doesn’t help. Shopping the bancarelle (outdoor street market stalls) is not something I care to do. Imagine trying on your clothes in a Fototessera booth.
Typical bancarella in Viale Parioli, near our flat. Seasonal clothing, very inexpensive. Probably made by Chinese immigrants in sweat shops in Prato, IT.

Typical bancarella in Viale Parioli, near our flat. Seasonal clothing, very inexpensive. Probably made by Chinese immigrants in sweatshops in Prato, IT.

 

The fototessera booth, where we go for ID pictures, and where shoppers can slip in to try on clothes. Note the handy location next to overflowing trash bins.

The fototessera booth, where we go for ID pictures, and where shoppers can slip in to try on clothes. Note the handy location next to overflowing trash bins.

With summer approaching, I was really missing the days when we had the ability to shop online in the U.S. (Nordstrom! Amazon! Talbot’s!) and receive our purchases duty-free thanks to the Diplomatic Post Office. Lo and behold, we found out Lands’ End has a U.K. web presence and I was able to order jeans that fit.
If the U.K. decides to leave the EU, this will no longer be possible as we’ll have to pay customs fees, which are very high. <Sniff> I also like U.K. retailer John Lewis. Great stuff at not-bad prices. We also shop (and have for a year now) at Amazon.IT, where eerily our login info, address book, and credit cards ported over from Amazon.com.
Online shopping is not nearly as developed as in the U.S., but it’s a start. Now, off to ECCO’s EU site to browse sandals. The warm weather has arrived!

NB: For info on the Chinese garment industry in Prato, see this article from the New York Times

Dear Vacation Rental Property Owner

6 Feb
Dear Vacation Rental Property Owner (be you with VRBO, AirBnB, HomeAway, Sabbatical Homes, or Bob’s Pretty-Good Rentals),
There are a few 17 things I would like you to know about the needs and desires of travelers who rent your apartment or home. After several years of renting in both the U.S. and Europe, I find there are quirks or things lacking that, if corrected, would make a huge difference in our comfort level and willingness to return to or refer your property to others. I am not amused by your flea market furnishings or good-enough-for-a-college-student kitchen ware. I am appalled when you ask me to clean, and I am confused by the widely varying approaches to recycling.
  1. Put a chair in the bedroom(s) where one can sit to put on shoes and socks. I am short and when I have to sit on a high bed to put on my undies or socks, it’s very uncomfortable. I’m not asking that the bedroom be furnished like Versailles, but a bedroom with only a bed, a small table, and a dim lamp is not really furnished.

    OK, nothing this bad,m to date, but we've had our share of drapes sagging on wire and shades that won't stay up...others won't stay down.

    OK, nothing this bad, to date, but we’ve had our share of drapes sagging on wire and shades that won’t stay up…others won’t stay down.

  2. Make sure things work and are in good repair. Do the curtains, drapes and window blinds hang neatly and are easy to open? We’ve seen cockeyed blinds, drapes where the rod or support is drooping, shutters half falling off the wall. We’ve had a washing machine fail to drain leaving us with a soggy mess. My favorite was the water heater that did not turn itself off and heated water to scalding. The owner’s solution: turn it off during the day and on at bedtime. After all, why would you need hot water during the day?
  3. There should be more than two wine glasses in the cabinet. And it would be nice if they matched.
  4. We have indeed found broken glasses, hidden in closets by prior guests.

    We have indeed found broken glasses, hidden in closets by prior guests.

    The coffee pot must work. We checked into one apartment in Italy where they had the teeny tiniest single-serving Moka pot but the gas burners were too big for it. I could not set it properly on the grate over the burner: it fell through! So no coffee in the morning, which is one of the main reasons we like to rent apartments. If you supply a drip coffee maker, make sure there are filters. I’ve had to make them out of paper towels, which of course I purchased myself because there were none.
  5. When we check in at midnight to your check-yourself-in-no-one-will-meet-you-there’s-a-lockbox apartment, the toilet paper supply should consist of more than 12 sheets on the last roll in the place, and there should be hand soap. We have had to buy these items in several apartments. I don’t expect fancy little bottles of shampoo and lotion, but some hand soap would be nice in the bathroom.

    Please supply a spare few toilet rolls. Arrivng late one night we found our apartment down to a few precious sheets.

    Please supply a spare few toilet rolls. Arriving late one night we found our apartment down to a few precious sheets.

  6. Ditto in the kitchen: dish soap, paper towels, a hand towel or two. I should not have to buy dishwasher detergent or even soap for washing dishes in the sink.
  7. I am happy to run the dishwasher as I leave the premises, but please don’t expect me to strip the bed and wash the sheets and towels, too. It is YOUR responsibility to clean the place for the next guests, not mine. In one Portland, Oregon apartment, we were asked to strip the bed and start the washer while paying over $200 a night.
  8. Believe-it-ot-not, we actually make our bed wherever we are staying, but I do not hink I should have to wash the linens.

    Believe-it-or-not, we actually make our bed wherever we are staying, but I do not think I should have to wash the linens.

    In conjunction with #7, do not charge extra for cleaning. It’s really irritating to have to pay a cleaning fee when the rent is already $200 a night! Build it into the price. Maybe give a break for staying 4 or more nights since you won’t have to clean the place as often, or charge a little more for short stays to cover those times when it has to be cleaned two or three times in a week. And reasonable, please! I pay €48.00 a week to have my 1000 square foot apartment cleaned in Rome. Why does it cost €110.00 to clean your 600 square foot vacation let?

    Mommy Dearest would be appalled! So am I...

    Mommy Dearest would be appalled! So am I…

  9. Have some decent hangers in the closets and plenty of them. No wire hangers from the cleaners. Go to IKEA or Target and load up on nice wooden, or even heavy-duty plastic, hangers. If your guests are staying a month, they will need more than 6 bent wire hangers.
  10. We cannot intuit your city’s recycling and trash disposal rules, especially when we don’t speak the language. Explain the particulars and make sure your guests can comply without too much trouble. If you need to use pink bags for recyclable plastics and gray ones for garbage, supply them. We stayed in a place in Sorrento where the recycler only picked up plastics — in special green bags — on Thursdays and the plastics could only be set out on Wednesday evenings after 10:00PM.
    We were also admonished to remove all trash and recycling when we exited on Saturday. Since there was no place to put the plastics on Saturday we could not possibly comply. (See #8: it should be YOUR job to remove the trash anyway.)
  11. Expired food has to go.

    Expired food has to go.

    Periodically clean out the condiments and groceries left by prior guests. (Ironic that you want us to recycle and clean but you leave expired food in the house.) I never use the coffee left behind because it usually smells old. In a place we stayed last summer my husband tossed out a box of Cheerios that had an expiration date in 2013. It was July 2015 when he did this. Ric now makes it a habit to clean out the cupboards wherever we go. It’s a public service. Maybe you can label these items with the date you find them and if they are still there in 30 days, toss them out. 
  12. Reboot your router now-and-again. It helps the WiFi to function. By the way, strong, reliable WIFI is more important than almost any other amenity. We can no longer manage without it. It is the 21st century equivalent of “Direct Dial Phones!” in mid-20th-century motel rooms. We don’t need no stinkin’ phone, but we require WIFI. 
  13. Sort through the travel brochures and books left behind and only make available the latest and most reliable information. No sense leaving the Rick Steves’ 2010 Italy guide out when it’s 2015. Things change. The last guest’s crumpled map of downtown is not appealing. We’ve seen piles of tourist info in apartments that would make kindling for a bonfire. Maybe the visitors’ center can give you a stack of new maps to hand out. 
  14. When I wake up in the dark in a new place, I cannot remember what direction the bathroom is. Put a nightlight in each bathroom and supply a spare bulb. We need that for orientation when we wake up at night in a strange location. If you do not supply a nice low wattage nightlight, I have to leave on the overhead.

    Remember the elegance of a 1950s motel room? Many B&Bs in Europe have about as many electrical receptacles.

    Remember the elegance of a 1950s motel room? Many B&Bs and vacation apartments in Europe have about as many electrical receptacles.

  15. If your place is wired like a 1950s-era motel in Nebraska, please provide a power strip. I hate to crawl on the floor unplugging lamps so I can charge my phone. There should be a couple of convenient outlets for charging electronics. I should not have to put the phone in the bathroom or the iPad on the floor to charge them.
  16. If controlling the television requires an 8-year-old’s insight to the medium and the ability to juggle four remote controls, provide detailed instructions on which combination is necessary to watch the morning news. Best idea: pictures of each remote with guidance on how to use it and which buttons to push so I can figure it out in a jet-lagged state when I wake up at 4:00AM.
  17. Bathrooms should have decent towel bars or hooks so we can dry the towels out between uses. I hate having to hang them over the shower door or rod. So tacky. It would be nice to have access to an extra set of towels if we stay more than 2 nights. How hard is it to supply a couple of extra towels just-in-case. And don’t charge for beach towels in a resort location when you are already getting €200.00 per night from us!
Consider sleeping in your own property for a couple of nights now-and-then. See how it is to be a traveler in your rental. Can you make coffee in the morning? Do you like to hang your blouse on a twisted wire hangar? Can you read in bed? Do the pillows give you a crick in your neck? Are there enough pillows?  Is there something you miss? Your guests probably miss it too. You might be a more sympathetic landlord if you know what your guests are experiencing.
Sincerely,
GoodDayRome
P.S., Apartments we’ve loved have had:
  • Great WIFI
  • Lots of sturdy hangers (a dozen or more please!)
  • The Moka pot, Italian stallwart of the AM, must actually fit on the burner to work.

    The Moka pot, Italian stalwart of the AM, must actually fit on the burner to work.

    A crockpot so we could set up dinner and return from a day of hiking to a prepared meal (only happened once and it was so appreciated!)
  • More than 2 pillows
  • More than one set of towels for a stay of more than 3 nights
  • A Moka pot that makes two cups at a time (although we’d kill for a Nespresso machine)
  • Plenty of horizontal space for computers and personal effects
  • OUTLETS where they make sense! Bonus points to the apartment in London that actually provided a U.K. adapter! Double-bonus to our favorite apartment in Venezia where they have 110 and 220 outlets.
  • 4-or-more wineglasses and a corkscrew

    SMEG makes a fine toaster in Italy, but you seldom find a toaster in a gite.

    SMEG makes a fine toaster in Italy, but you seldom find a toaster in a vacation rental.

  • A welcome bottle of wine and chocolate (Can’t tell you how wonderful that was on a midnight arrival in San Francisco when we had last eaten a sandwich on the plane 6 hours earlier and after a transatlantic flight.)
  • A toaster (rare in Europe, loved by Americans)
  • Common condiments beyond salt & pepper: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano, etc. so we can make a simple meal without leaving behind a month’s worth of supplies.
  • We love our wood hangers from IKEA. They cost next-to-nothing. ANd when I am somewhere for a week, I want more than 3 bent hangers.

    We love our wood hangers from IKEA. They cost next-to-nothing. When I am somewhere for a week, I want more than 3 bent hangers.

    Coat hooks by the door for our jackets
  • Towel racks in the bathroom

Buy Italian

15 Sep

Three months ago I wrote about our experiment in weaning ourselves from the habit of buying online from the U.S. You can read about it here, but in summary, we decided to try to confine our consumerism to Italy and not use the U.S. Diplomatic Post Office to ship in goods from Nordstrom, Amazon, Zappos, etc. So how did it go? It was a mixed success.

On the plus side

Always beautifully displayed merchandise. I think there's an Italian gene related to beautiful displays and wrapping packages.

Always beautifully displayed merchandise. I think there’s an Italian gene related to beautiful displays and wrapping packages.

We learned we can live in Italy, as Italians do, without buying a special brand from the U.S. We Americans can be addicted to our own brands of toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, lotion, etc., but Italians need that stuff too and the stores carry many fine international and European brands. We gave up 8 ½” x 11” paper for the common A4 size sold in Europe. It’s a setting on the printer so no big deal.

Some products are better than the U.S. equivalent. I found an amazing olive-oil based lotion, for example, and Janie, our senior cat who is picky about her treats has come to crave a treat we found as a sample inside a carton of her packaged food.

We found new stores and sources. We went on

A few of the brands I switched to as a result of our experiment.

A few of the brands I switched to as a result of our experiment.

forays into stores we’d not entered prior, neighborhoods we’d passed through but not really shopped in. We discovered you can go looking and not find, but you have to be ready to buy when you pass a shop with promising merchandise. One Saturday we spent 4 hours looking for a dress for me. I tried on 8 or 10 at various stores. Niente! But the next day, walking to a museum, I spied a dress in the window of a tiny little boutique, walked in and 5 minutes later walked out with the dress.  You have to be opportunistic.

We bought less because it took more time to go looking the old-fashioned way, in stores. Oh Zappos, how easy it is to find black heels, size 7.5 with a 1” heel and ship three pair overnight! But try to find a pair going shop to shop. It takes hours! Days, even!

In July and August "i saldi" are everywhere. And prices get lower as the weeks go by....

In July and August “i saldi” are everywhere. And prices get lower as the weeks go by….

The July/August saldi (sales) offer some good buys and even the opportunity to bargain, something I’d not done before. One day on the way home from work we popped into a boutique because I saw a lovely dress in the window. I slipped it on and it fit like a dream, but I nearly fainted when they told me the price! “But signora, it is on sale,” and she quoted me a price about 30% less. Still high, so I started to walk out shaking my head. “Signora,” she called, “Wait. It’s specially tailored… but I can sell it for €XXX,” and she knocked another 15% off. Score!

I practiced my Italian. Always a vocabulary builder and an opportunity to tune my ear. I can talk about the features of our new food processor and of our new Italian iron, purchased to replace the one clogged up with calcium after a year of ironing with this hard water.

On the other hand…

EurosThings cost un’occhio della testa (an “eye of the head,” or as we’d say “an arm and a leg”). VAT (a tax) is 21%, driving already high prices up significantly. And the exchange rate makes everything 30-35% higher in dollars. So a €100 item is $132.00 plus-or-minus U.S. The amount we spent on shorts and hiking shoes we bought up in the mountains in July could have clothed a small child for the school year if you shopped at Walmart.  

It takes a lot of time to shop in stores, especially when you don’t know brands, you don’t know sizes, and boutiques are small with limited selection. I am a size 10 U.S., but a 42 or 44 Italian and a 3 French.  Everything has to be tried on.

Customer service is…different. Sometimes we are warmly greeted and professionally served. This is especially true upon return visits (regulars!) or once they realize we are not tourists. Sometimes we are totally ignored until we ask for help and then it is given begrudgingly. Also, this is not a culture in which returns are gladly accepted, so do not have buyer’s remorse unless you shopped at IKEA.Color coordinated

You have to run around to buy some items. For example, you cannot buy cardio (baby) aspirin at the grocery store. You have to go to a farmacia and ask the druggist for it.  Thread? Not in a fabric store, but only in a special sewing notions store.  Tell me, who would think it is not a good idea to sell thread where you buy fabric?

Some American things are better than Italian equivalents. American plastic bags, whether for lining your trashcan or wrapping up leftovers, are far better in size, durability and functionality. Give me my Ziplocs! There’s huge problem with calcium in Rome and everything gets clogged and spotted. But good old CLR declogs a shower head better than anything I’ve found in Rome.

 Will we continue to buy Italian? Absolutely, but not exclusively. Food is no-brainer. Other than peanut butter and white vinegar (Which is hard to find here. We are awash in fine balsamico, but plain white distilled? Not available at the supermercato.), we buy all of our food in Italian markets. But then most of our food is fresh. Ric has been buying Italian clothes since we arrived and has some go-to places, but even he turned to Lands’ End online for his fall shirts and to

Ric and I at Piazza Navona. Photo by Derek

Ric and I at Piazza Navona. Photo by Derek

Zappos for some walking shoes. It’s just easier to buy online at 3:00PM on a hot afternoon than to walk all over Rome looking for shoes. But if we didn’t have the Diplomatic Post Office, we’d not be able to buy this way.

I am still searching for go-to shops for myself. But I’ll return to shopping a piede (on foot) as the cooler weather hits for some Italian fall fashions. And when we are in Venice this week, I’ll stop in at my favorite glass-maker and pick up some new jewelry. 

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