Tuesday, June 18, 2013

the squeaky wheel gets the grease

Rome is not the easiest place to live when you need to have something repaired. You have to really want it. You need to chop down trees and pull overladen sleighs across the frozen tundra. You have to have the Eye of the Tiger.

Our air conditioner isn't working. I know, right? I was totally surprised too. The landlord was called. After cancelling several appointments, she appeared with a repairman. Who wasn't a repairman so much as he was a friend of hers. They looked at the air conditioner and tried to turn it on. When nothing happened, they asked me for some tools and got to work. They tightened the screws in one of the light switch plates and folded up the ladder. They proclaimed the problem fixed.

I told them there was no air coming out and that it was still broken. They nodded sagely and decided to take the remote control to be repaired.

Several phone calls later, another repairman was dispatched. He didn't show-up for the first appointment. When we called, we were told he couldn't come but would be there tomorrow.  And on that day the designated time came and that time went and we called again. And he was still coming, he was just going to be late; he would be there in 15 minutes. And sure enough, several hours later, he arrived. He was not a repairman either so much as he was the landlord's sister's husband. He climbed up the ladder and looked at the air conditioner. 'The problem is," he told Mike, "is that it is broken."

The very next day, the landlord showed up with another repairman. He was actually a repairman. I think. He looked at the air conditioner. He and the landlord had a conversation in Italian. He turned to me and said in English: " It doesn't work." And with those kind of technical terms being thrown around, I knew for certain that he was the real deal.

 The repairman continued speaking but had switched to Italian.The general gist was that it had to be replaced and a time to install it had to agreed upon. I was floundering for words when my lovely son appeared and rattled off some Italian. The sight of my barefoot son, balancing on one leg, computer game in hand, and speaking the language charmed and delighted the landlord and the repairman and a flurry of "Bello!"s and "Bravo!"s ensued.

And so, my wee boy translated for all of the grown-ups and brokered a deal in which there will be a new air conditioner installed next week.

My son is awesome. He has the eye of the tiger.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

change. but not that kind of change.

I don't like to be bothered when I shop. I have worked in oh so many retail stores and I know all about having a spunky district manager who pops in just when there is a lull and you get caught talking on the phone. The district manager  will need to tell you about The Latest Daily Target Goals From Corporate! The district managers all fall into two categories: extremely well-put together, hard-core- gym-goers who are quickly climbing the company ladder and are a wee bit intense; or sort of sad with clothes that don't quite fit and they spend their store visits telling you about the boyfriend they had in 1982 that they should have never let get away because they haven't had a date since then.

And lest it sound like I was a slacker, I was a little bit, but for the most part I would do anything to be busy, including polishing the the faucet in the restroom and cleaning out the microwave. And that's why I was always promoted within the first month and then I would be expected to do all kinds of things like balance the register tape with the receipts and use mathematical equations to see who had met the target sales goal and who had to be reported for not  promoting the new spring colors. And that was usually when I started to look for another job. Because I hated the selling part of retail. I loved helping someone who wanted help and debating the merits of that top with those pants or how to make your eyeliner last by tapping eye shadow over it with a teeny tiny brush. But I hated pushing our products on people or hovering around them when they clearly wanted to browse and do a little meditative shopping on their own. And why the higher-ups didn't understand that accosting the customer and driving them from the store would not equal greater sales, I will never know.

But I digress. If I spoke Italian, I would so be an awesome store clerk here. Because not only do they not have daily sales goals, they don't even acknowledge that they have customers. I can shop in the smallest, most perfectly arranged  boutique( that usually intimidate me to the point of not entering) because no one is going to show the slightest bit of interest in me, much less make me feel like I'm going to set off an alarm if I check to see if a sweater is made with wool. I know that if I need help, the salespeople are happy to oblige, but they have more of a I'm-busy-standing-in-the-doorway-smoking type of approach to selling their wares. They speak to me only to ask if I have a light.

And I know that they are never mathematically challenged by balancing the receipts at night as I was , because they can't be bothered with correct change. Just the other day I purchased something that came to 31 euro. The clerk asked me if I had any coins. I did not. I had only a 50. She just gave me a 20 in return. I protested because I owed a euro, and tried to give it back but she kept shaking her head no and smiled and waved her hand and sent me on my way. Because she would rather lose one euro than give me the change for 4 euro.

On a family trip to the supermarket, Mike paid and the cashier said she didn't have any change. At the grocery store. A proper American style grocery store.  And her register was full of the money that the manager had just given her. So she asked the people in line behind us if they had any change. They did not. So she asked the person behind them. And so on and so on until someone in line produced the change that she needed to give us change.  And this is not uncommon. Cashiers dig through their own wallets to try and come up with change or just round up and give you too much change in return. I don't get it. But I try to just go with it.

However, this in and of itself used to cause me stress because I lived in fear of not having exact change and holding up the line while everyone searched their pockets and purses for the correct amount, but after my mom mailed me the final piece of identification (the photo from my fifth grade softball team) that our bank needed to process my application for a debit card, I  can now rest assured that I will always have exact change. Because I have a magic Bankomat card.

Friday, June 14, 2013

and there is still a gender pay gap...*

Apparently, I am beyond out of touch with the 9-year-old girl scene. In America, I interacted with John's class on a weekly basis, so I knew what was what and what was "in" and what was "cool." I knew what books were being read and what the latest t-shirts said. I had an overall sense of what would make an appropriate birthday gift if John was invited to a party of a girl I didn't know very well.

And maybe it is due to the current cultural vacuum in which I live, or my lack of contact with John's classmates, but John is attending a birthday party and I am stumped as to what to buy the birthday girl. Johnwas unable to help as he was very busy deciding on the name he planned on using at laser tag.

So, I went to the toy store. When attending birthday parties for  9 yr old boys, there are tons of options. I would just pick what looked fun.

The toys for girls, however, seemed to peak out around the age of Barbies. Do girls still play with Barbies? I played with Barbies straight through 7th grade. I myself never played with Barbies and I don't recall last year's crop of female classmates being into them.

And as the toys for girls in the toy store stopped at Barbie, I was a bit perplexed. Where were the gender neutral and/or next age range of fun? I trooped from store to store and became slightly panicky when the things I found geared towards post-Barbie girls were aprons and cookbooks and cupcake machines. (I'm not saying a cupcake machine isn't fun for me, but shouldn't there be another choice that doesn't involve baking and/or cost 40 euro?).

 And then I found that choice:  make-up  and pedicure kits and hair extensions, all targeted at the not quite tweens. I'm pretty sure a big chunk of age group appropriateness is missing. After all, options for boys aren't Legos, video games, and a shaving kit. So, let's be conservative and say you stop playing with Barbies at age 14 7. So from age 7 until high school, or at least late middle school, what are your gift options for girls that don't involve cooking, clothes, or make-up? There have to be some, right?

The birthday girl was having a laser tag party, not a spa party. I know plenty of little girls who go fishing and take karate classes. They may have sparkly glitter on their shirts, but they have soccer cleats on their feet. Where were the toy options for these girls?

When I was in my last semester of college and pregnant with a son (I was a "non-traditional" student, aka "old"), I studied the societal shift towards boosting the self-esteem of the previously  margined and "othered" girls (i.e., a man is the standard and accepted norm, the measuring stick against which all "others" are measured), that boys were pushed to the side. Many cartoons now had female protagonists and teachers in classrooms were now conscious of calling on girls as often as boys.  This is not to say that the issue was solved, just that it was being acknowledged. As a woman, I was impressed with this shift, because I as a child I  had struggled to find strong female characters with whom to identify. For every Superman, Spiderman, Aquaman and Batman, there was one Wonder Woman. When we played Star Wars, there was always a fight for the lone female character of Princess Leia, while the boys could choose amongst Han, Luke, Darth Vadar,Obi Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett.

As the impending mother of a son, I was worried as to what this would mean for him.  Especially when the shift lent itself to t-shirts with slogans such as Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them. Would my child now be the marginalized other?

But at the same time that I was reading these statistics, I would walk past store windows for little girls, and the child sized mannequin would sport a tube top and shoes with heels. How could a girl climb a jungle gym in that? What parent was in such a hurry to urge their child toward adulthood that they would encourage a little girl to teeter in heels?

For the birthday girl, I ended up buying art supplies. Maybe in today's world, it's way too young a gift, but I couldn't in good faith buy a pedicure kit for a 9-year-old. It's one thing to paint your toenails; it's another thing to own your own feet soaking basin complete with callous remover.

 I have to remain hopeful that my experience was indicative only of the area in which I was shopping and not of the culture at large. Just because I didn't see any age-appropriate items for girls (and certainly a girl can enjoy the items found in the "boy's aisles", but those toys were definitely not marketed towards a female child) doesn't mean they aren't out there.  Because surely there has to be something that represents the interests of girls who have lost most of their baby teeth but aren't yet wearing  bras.



Thursday, June 13, 2013


The closer my impending return to America, the greater my mood swings.

When I am an American living in America again for two months, will it feel like pulling on my favorite pair of jeans for the first cool day of fall? Like slipping back into that which is familiar and comfortable?

Or will I be off just a step as though my weight remains the same but my jeans no longer fit as well? Will I be both there and not there, a year behind on the changes in the lives of my friends and my family and even my surroundings? A year missed there, a year gained here?

Things will be different in ways I cannot yet predict and in that, I question my life here, trying to compare it to the life I don't have there.

Rome is great: A grizzled old man bids me good evening as he unloads half a dozen two-liter bottles of aqua con gas from his battered Vespa parked on the sidewalk.

Rome is not great: The metro is jammed and I am assaulted by the stench of  unwashed bodies and breath heavy with coffee and cigarettes, and no one offers their seat to a disabled passenger.

Rome is great: I am puzzling at the line 'round the block of people waiting to enter the Adidas store, when I spot an oncoming bicyclist with a live and untethered house cat draped around his neck.

Rome is not great: Everyone appears slightly yellow as they are coated by pollen spores within moments of stepping outside.

Rome is great: On the last day of school, I can scarcely walk through the streets, or sidewalks for all the kids chasing each other in clothes drenched by water balloons and water bottles and buckets of water, shrieking with the giddy promise of summer.

Rome is not great: And then the giddiness transforms into a different beast entirely, and the kids morph from fun-with-water to pelting each other with tomatoes and eggs and then covering the wet, sticky victims in talcum powder. The smell of spoiled food in the warm air will carry for nearly a mile. And then for the piece de resistance, my son and I witness a boy urinate into a bucket and throw its contents into the panting mob.

But then the sun starts to set and the sliver of a moon begins to rise and a breeze blows and parents carry home their tired children and dogs greet each other with wolfish grins and thumping tails and flower boxes are watered and cheeks are kissed and the hanging laundry is swapped for the dinner tables that are set upon the balconies.

And of course I will miss this. Of course I will.  But still, I count down the days until I'm home in America, even as I wonder if while I am there, I will refer to my "home" as the one in Rome.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Vacationing in Rome. Or anywhere.

Everyone who travels is a tourist. But when you actually live somewhere and experience the off-season, you may view the influx of tourists during tourist season with dismay. 
Because you have lived in Rome for almost an entire year and you consider yourself practically a native who just happens to be unable to speak the language or calculate the Metric system in your head. You know what it is like to walk through the city without dodging large groups of people, or to visit a museum and be able to gethisclose to the paintings and sculptures, or to be able to drive without having to factor in the extra 45 minutes it will take because of all the tour buses. During the off-season, that becomes your norm.

And so when all of that suddenly changes, it is a shock and an annoyance that I would imagine Italians don't feel. Possibly because they have a better attitude towards things in general, but also because they have always lived with this ebb and flow of massive hordes.

Which brings me to a topic that has been heavily publicized as of late: the two groups of tourists who were "ripped-off." One group paid 64 euro for gelati (I think that would currently be $84). Another group paid 72 euro for tiramisu and cappuccino (this means they were drinking cappuccino at night which is a cultural faux pau of the highest order and undoubtedly why it was so expensive).

I dislike this because it besmirches a city in which I have found kindness and generosity. I dislike this because ever since that first American sued McDonalds for serving hot coffee, I am easily dismayed by a lack of personal responsibility. 

The places that did the ripping off have most likely shot themselves in the foot for the rest of the summer.  But doesn't anyone else wonder why the customers didn't check the price before they bought something? Because the prices were marked.

On a scale of one to ten,guess how street smart and savvy I am? I'd give it a one. But when I travel somewhere outside the country in which I reside, I generally try and check out a few things: reviews written on hotels and restaurants, the exchange rate, tipping practices, etc. And I'm pretty sure that if I saw a sign that my ice cream cone was 16 euro,  or my tiramisu and cappuccino were 20 odd euro, I would choose to go elsewhere. Or maybe I'd buy it anyway, thinking it must be the best ice cream/coffee/dessert in the world. What? Maybe it's like an awesome glass of wine? Not that I can tell the difference between box wine and fancy wine, but you get my point.

What you do have to watch out for are the hidden charges. This is not just a tourist thing or a Rome thing. This is a life thing. Always check the menu for teeny-tiny letters that will say what the service charge is, if any, or it may note that the basket of bread is not free.  In America you can generally find a statement that will note the amount of money that will automatically be added to your bill as a tip for your server if you have six people in your party. You have to be a little pro-active. It doesn't take much time.

I do feel sad for the family who was charged 72 euro because while the prices were marked, the hidden mark-ups can be so very hidden that they are not actually posted. And I applaud them for taking a picture of the bill and filing a complaint.

But the gelato people were just not using common sense. "Let's get a gelato." "Sounds good--how much is it for two flavors? How much is a large?" "I don't know, let's check the board on which the prices are written." And the fact that they were then asked to return to Rome as guests of honor and re-flown into the city to make-up for their experience is just ridiculous.

And for future travelers anywhere, if someone is standing on the street, speaking to you in your own language and not the native language of the country, and urging you to eat at their establishment,chances are it is a restaurant targeting tourists. Sometimes you are hot or cold or tired or it's raining and you will not care. Sometimes the food will be terrible. Sometimes it will be great. Sometimes you will see that a salad costs more than a car payment and you will leave. And sometimes you will go to Greece and want to eat and go to the first place you find because they all look the same and you are hungry and you will then spend the night vomiting from food poisoning.

And also, all those guys in the piazzas trying to give you flowers because you are so beautiful ? The flowers aren't free.