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Stand-up Comedy in Rome with Marsha De Salvatore and Rome’s Comedy Club

3 Dec

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If you’ve never heard of Rome’s Comedy Club, it’s high time you remedied that right now, and I’m here to help.

Marsha De Salvatore is a force of nature to reckon with, in the best possible way.

Before Marsha, Rome had no stand-up comedy in English. Consider that for a moment. One woman who blazed a trail, with the odds stacked against her.

Marsha co-founded Rome’s Comedy Club with Stephanie Tyrell, who she met while they were both performing with Gaby Ford’s English Theatre of Rome. Now RCC is in its 8th season and continues to produce top-notch stand-up shows in Rome on a monthly basis. To get notifications of their show dates, send an email to romescomedyclub -at- gmail -dot- com.

Marsha is an intelligent, sensitive, boundary-breaking woman and she deserves a lot more exposure than she currently gets, so I took a moment to throw some questions her way. You can jump to her full bio here.

But first, a little bit of Marsha magic:

S: Marsha, it’s been nearly nine years now since you started Rome’s Comedy Club in 2009. This September you kicked off your 8th season with your – wait for it – SEVENTY-THIRD, yes, 73rd show – and fifth venue. Whew! Give us an overview of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced and how things have evolved since the beginning.

M: I think the hardest thing has been finding the right venue. The stand-up scene has just surfaced in Italy, and the venues are either super-loud and busy pubs with no real stage, or informal theaters. It hasn’t been easy to find the right fit for a comedy show where you want people drinking and sitting so the performers can connect with the audience.

The second problem is with the venue owners. Italians have a different way of dealing with business. Nothing is ever written or confirmed and there’s often a “we will see” mentality. I am American and that is NOT how we roll, which is why I have been ripped off by venues over money. They have also treated my audience in unfair ways and not followed through with what was decided.

The third challenge is to always guarantee a good show. Comedy is subjective, so not everyone is going to like every comic or every show. Plus, I throw in some new virgin comics in the mix, and sometimes that can create a few moments of not the strongest stand-up pieces. I don’t like disappointing people, so when I hear things like “I can’t stand that comic” or “That show wasn’t one of the best,” it is hurtful. I have had to learn that we have to take in critiques and just move on.

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S: Our society is going through a sort of watershed moment right now in terms of women’s empowerment regarding sexual harassment, and comedy is definitely a male-dominated field. This was particularly highlighted recently when the New York Times broke the story about sexual misconduct by comic Louis CK. Aside from the misconduct allegations, what struck me about that piece was just how much the power structure surrounding comedy seems to be totally fortressed by an army of powerful men, who promote and support other men both powerful and just coming up in the field, where women who even manage to break through still struggle to get taken seriously.

That was made even more evident in a recent op-ed by a one of my favorite female performers, writer Lindy West. I want to share a passage of that piece, “Why Men Aren’t Funny,” with you:

“One of comedy’s defining pathologies, alongside literal pathologies like narcissism and self-loathing, is its swaggering certainty that it is part of the political vanguard, while upholding one of the most rigidly patriarchal hierarchies of any art form. Straight male comedians, bookers and club owners have always been the gatekeepers of upward mobility in stand-up, an industry where “women aren’t funny” was considered conventional wisdom until just a few years ago.”

Marsha, what are your thoughts on Lindy’s comments here? Do they reflect your experiences as a women in the comedy field?

M: Sooooooo very true in my little experience here in Rome. I have an ex-comedian friend, Kissy Dugan, who was a working comic in the the States, but then met her Roman husband and gave it up to live here. She has been my guru in my journey doing and producing comedy. When I complain to her about these things, she often says that we are living in a small bubble compared to what it is like in the comedy scene in the US.

Italy is a VERY male dominated and sexist country—just turn on the TV. All the venue owners been male, which doesn’t help if you’re a woman and a foreigner here. That has led to many of my problems in the above question. The comedy circle is ALL men. They are not helpful and don’t share their comedy nights with me. Also, when I have asked in the past for suggestions in advancing my career with agents, they are tight-lipped, closed and NOT welcoming. Of course, they are the first ones to charm me into giving them stage time in my show—which I have—and they have gone off to become professional comics in the UK and around Europe.

In the journalistic world, I have been slammed with being a woman with (Italian daily) Il Messaggero writing a full article on me, but then using one of the RCC Italian male comics in the main photo.

Or another example: Brussels Airline contacted me for a piece on a local comic doing stand up in Rome, but the very next day they said they were no longer interested in interviewing me because they were going to go with the MALE local comic instead. That male comic is the same one with his photo on my Il Messaggero article.

It has been bad, but I would think as Kissy said, working on the road full-time in comedy in the US is probably much worse.

S: So, with all the hurdles you have had to face, some of which you fiercely managed to overcome and some which remain incredibly challenging, what keeps you going?

M: Laughter. I love doing stand up. The most challenging thing for anyone: all alone, raw, stressful—BUT once you get that first laugh, you soar to the high heavens. It’s the best feeling in the world when you feel you have connected with a room full of strangers.

S: What advice would you give a woman who wants to break into comedy, or a woman in any field where men have a “rigidly patriarchal hierarchy”? What have you learned and what has helped you?

M: To never ever stop or give up. If you stop, you risk getting comfortable and secure, which could cause you never to get back out there. If you give up, you will regret it, and I am a firm believer that life is too short so NO regrets.

I have gotten through it by screaming, venting and having an amazing support system. And to literally say FUCK IT and keep going.

S: So what new projects are you working on right now? How can we help you to promote them?

M: At the moment I am getting ready to go back to the States for the holidays. But in the new year, you will find Rome’s Comedy Club monthly shows at the Makai Surf and Tiki Bar (January 27th is the next show).

There will be some dates (TBA, in 2018 in Rome) of my second one-woman show, Marsha’s So-Called Life. It talks about the toil and trouble in the life of a Calabrese-Ohioan gal living in Rome.

My first one-woman show, DM55: You Can’t Get Blood from a Stone, will be going on tour for three shows in February. Written/directed by Kissy, in both English and Italian, the message is about my life as a thalassemia major patient and on the importance of blood donating. It has gone from the north of Italy to the south, with interviews on a popular nationwide morning show called Uno Mattina. It was also produced at one of Italy’s most famous comedy stages in Milan, Zelig.

But to help me promote: my show is always available for schools, theaters, conferences and can be adapted to the situation in both English and Italian. I can do comedy therapy workshops, DM55 for educational purposes, perform my one woman stand-up show or organize a few comics to go to any location for a show.

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S: What’s your vision for Rome’s Comedy Club in the near future and the long-term future?

M: The near future vision is to keep going as is, because it is an amazing project. Long-term, I want more and more people to know what has been created by one FEMALE person on her own, with drive, determination and a passion for making people laugh.

 S: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

M: So much to share.

The first: life is hard, and as my father says: “You got two ways to deal with it—you can hit your head against the wall and it’s gonna hurt like hell, and you lose blood, which is no good for you. Or you can suck it up, laugh, and go get ’em, tiger.”

So, world—ladies—go get ’em, tiger.

And finally: I had a show the other month where a male comedian broke down during his set because he had a bad day because his girlfriend left him. The audience was so shocked and understanding. That same evening, we had a mostly female lineup that rocked the house. High-energy, kick-ass ladies.

It was funny, and yet ironic, to see that the women rocked the house, and the sole man had a hard time because he was emotional. In a male-dominated time, whatta strange situation.

MY point in this babble is, it shouldn’t be strange. It should be a normal situation, where a person was having a hard time, and not a male/female thing.

Like everything we do in this world.


Marsha De Salvatore, with a name like that, is clearly from Ohio. To make things interesting, her parents are both from Calabria. She came to Italy in 2000 to find herself,  but got lost and found herself teaching English to pay off her fashion-college debt. She stumbled into acting while she was at it.

Being bilingual, she has worked the stage in both English and Italian.  She started her acting journey with Gaby Ford’s ‘English Theater of Rome’. where she performed in various plays from To Kill a Mockingbird to monologue shows.

After failing in her attempt to be convincing in drama pieces and coming across as funny, she thought to try stand up. In 2009, she got it together and brought her crazy life experiences to the stage. As a wise friend once told her, if you want to perform it then create it! Thus, Rome’s Comedy Club was born!

Rome’s Comedy Club is in its 8th season and keeps on growing with Marsha also going to Second City in Chicago to improve her improv and writing skills. She performs at Rome’s Comedy Club but also for various university and corporate events in Rome.

Additionally, she is actively involved in the world of medicine. Periodically she organizes blood drives to help the never-ending issue of blood shortages in Rome. Drawing from the work of Patch Adams, she has been formally trained in comedy therapy and has volunteered in the cancer ward of Bambino Gesu of Rome with La Carovanna dei Sorrisi.

She is also a speaker on comedy therapy and how using some basic principals of Improv can help everyday life. An example of her lecture is this recent link from the American University of Rome.

Here’s how you can keep up with Marsha and the gang at RCC:

SUBSCRIBE to Rome’s Comedy Club YouTube channel
LIKE Rome’s Comedy Club Facebook page: @RomesComedyClub

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My Neighborhood Meatball Restaurant

21 Oct

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Yep folks, that’s right: my neighborhood has its very own meatball restaurant.

I know.

I’m ashamed to admit that said restaurant has been gracing my ‘hood for a full two years already without my direct realization, but I will pull the divorced-single-working-mom-of-three-kids card on that one. In fact, it was actually thanks to the ol’ kiddos (indirectly) that I discovered El Borracho in all its meatball-infused (meatbally?) glory, a couple weeks ago when the moms from my son’s 5th grade class decided to have a good old fashioned night on the town.

Let me tell you, it got a bit wild—some of us (ahem) even ordered seconds on the beer.

This little gem is run by the adorable Gabriele, who wins the gold medal for bestest most happiest smile of contentment ever, and for knowing everyone who walks by his little shop and faithfully saying ciao to each and every last one of them. Can I get a woot woot for supporting our local community businesses? Yes.

But without further ado: the meatballs. OH, the meatballs. Mountains upon mountains upon mountains of glorious meatballs, your creativity in concocting your own meatball smorgasbord limited only by the sheer quantity you desire: two, three, or five.

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Can I kindly draw your attention to meatball selection numero uno on the meno, a.k.a. “Cheddar”? Take a meatball, cover it with a small square of cheddar cheese, melt the cheese, then put a little hat of crispy bacon on top, because, in case you haven’t heard: Everyone Loves Bacon.

Personally I’d just like to call that one the Americana, but I digress.

My daughter Paola (who, for you loyal readers, is now a whopping nearly EIGHT YEARS OLD), asked if she could make an appearance here, and I said va bene:

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Sorry for the slight blur. I think I was overwhelmed by the deliciousness of said Cheddar in the lower left-hand corner. Proudly flanked by La Classicona (big classic M.B. doused in delicious red sauce) and headlined by two Campagnole (zucchini, potatoes and scamorza cheese – and that’s all – nothing else to help it all stick – they’re that good at what they do.)

Besides the meatballs as the main event, this little place is desirable on at least two, if not three, other fronts: artisanal beer on tap that rotates weekly, interesting and thought-out decor that gives the place a sort of neo-retro vibe (that’s not a thing, I just invented it), and a wall full of wine selections organized by region plus some fancy grappa and bubbly, too.

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And when I say bubbly I don’t mean run-of-the-mill mass-marketed swill but direct-from-Reims gorgeousness like this here Louis Brochet Brut Premier Cru. Source: El Borracho

Oh, and I did I mention that people really like this place?

There are also off-menu items (like on a recent visit, a pumpkin meatball—eat your heart out, Starbucks pumpkin spice latte) and pasta dishes, some truly delicious bruschette (try the sauce and pecorino cream one, you won’t be disappointed), and, I hear, a killer tiramisù with whom I haven’t yet had the pleasure of making an acquaintance. Plus, plenty of selections for vegetarians who desire a ball sans meat.

Oh but for the love, love, love of meatballs! On my recent visit, a man even came in and ordered a meatball sandwich to go!

The meatballs are made espresse, meaning they cook them after you order them. Nothing frozen around here, folks. And they are generously portioned. But if your eyes end up being bigger than your stomach, like mine and my daughter’s, Gabriele will wrap everything up for you in a stylish doggy bag that looks like you went shopping, and you can continue the meatball love in the privacy of your very own home.

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Just another satisfied customer.

The only thing I forgot to ask was the story behind the name. I mean, OK, drunkard in Spanish, but the owl? In any case, I’ll have plenty of chances to find out because I will most definitely be going back. And so should you. You heard it here first (after two years, that is). Long live the meatball!

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And it’s Cheddar for the win! Source: El Borracho

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20171018_202405El Borracho
Via Fontanellato 73
00142 Rome
Tel: 06/5430902
Reservations: The Fork

 

 

I Gemelli Gelateria

11 Jun

These days, there are basically only two things left that could motivate me to write a new post: the death of a pope, or discovering a fantastic new gelateria.

Given that Francis is thankfully alive and well, let’s celebrate the latter today as I introduce you to I Gemelli Gelateria — a.k.a., “The Twins.”

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N.B. – My darling 7-year-old daughter took all the photos in this post. That’s why you’ll notice the general height perspective is around four feet tall and some images are blurry.

So, I Gemelli opened in March, but I only became aware of it recently (yes I am basically a hermit mom who types on her keyboard to earn a living in-between taking children to and from school). The reason I noticed is because they had the telltale this is an awesome gelateria crowd hanging around outside the front door. Trust this, especially when you aren’t in the center of Rome where crowds will hang around any old place, including joints that scoop out swill like Blue Ice.

But no, my neighborhood is far removed from the tourist track, and thus, let the locals be the judge of whether gelato is truly worthy or not.

New gelaterie open in my neighborhood about never, because we’re a residential ‘hood with many established businesses that don’t change hands. It’s a beautiful thing, really. But at the same time, it’s all the more special and curious when a new place does hang out its shingle.

I Gemelli is right around the corner from I Mannari, a place I lovingly wrote about five years ago. I still adore Giuseppe and his incredible gelato, but I rarely make it to his shop anymore. If you step in a bit closer I’ll whisper to you the reason why, from behind a cupped hand: my kids fell for another place on the other side of the neighborhood where all their friends go and where they can get—wait for it—sprinkles. These, I learned, are referred to by the gelato ladies as zuccherini (they are those little multi-colored ball sprinkles) and you’d think they were g.d. panned gold or something. Just try and tear my kids away from the shop that offers zuccherini. Not gonna happen. That is, until now.

I’ve been to I Gemelli twice. The first time I went was when we saw it was open and decided we’d put it to the test. “We know what good gelato tastes like” declare my children and I. Step aside, people, and let us through to determine whether this joint deserves a crowd milling about out front. [Yes, we’re quite humble about our tasting abilities, as you can see.]

On that first visit, my kids gave it the big two thumbs up, but really, isn’t it mom’s opinion that matters the most? (Who’s paying?) The verdict was in: I was basically over the moon because they had a flavor they call dolce salato (salty sweet) and can I just tell you what it tastes like? Um, like a whole lot of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-ness in Italian gelato format, that’s what. It had whole peanuts and swirls of swirly chocolate. In a word? Divine. I’m telling you.

They change their non-classic (read: dolce salato and other eccentricities) flavors often, and the second time I went back, zenzero cannella had taken its place. Cinnamon ginger (or ginger cinnamon, if you like). Um, yes, please. It tasted like a mix between Dutch speculaas cookies and gingerbread houses and it was to die for. SO good.

This all got me to wondering: who in the world are the twins, anyway?

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Here they are in a photo with mom. Simply killing us with cuteness amirite?!

Turns out that these two lovely boys come from a family with a long history of gelato tradition. Their grandfathers made gelato in Emilia-Romagna starting 60 years ago, and their uncles actually teach at the MEC3 International School of Gelato in Rimini that trains professional gelatai (gelato makers). Not too shabby as far as street cred goes.

Hey, want to hear one of those insider tips people always told me about how to spot awesome gelato? This:

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From my daughter’s vantage point. Remember, you’re seven.

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I nabbed this pro shot from their Facebook page because—look how great.

That’s right, folks. It’s the gelato you can’t see. It’s the gelato that’s hidden away in silver tubs with lids. They call them pozzetti, apparently. Old school, yes. There are only two other places in Rome that immediately come to mind that have gelato like this. One: identified by my ex-husband back in the day simply as la gelateria zozza (the filthy gelato shop – and that was a compliment) – it’s that bar over in Piazza San Calisto in Trastevere where all the drunks and punks with dogs hang out front. (OMG wait – I actually wrote a post about this place TEN YEARS AGO.) They have like three or four flavors, incredible panna, and the man who scoops it out is wicked fast. The other place is Carapina, which apparently because I am so updated (I literally make it downtown perhaps 10 times a year max, nowadays) no longer exists in Rome. Mah. It was good, but not as good as I Gemelli.

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Can I just tell you that today at the register after ordering for three drooling kiddos I opened my wallet and realized I had exactly ZERO cash, but mom told me I could bring it by “next time” because she remembered me from my first visit? Swoon. I was back within the hour and enjoying my own cone.

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I’d love to say I was going for some sort of artsy visual here, but alas, this is still my daughter and what it looks like from down there at four feet plus an inch or two. But that there is MY cone, people. To die for.

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I actually think my daughter was going for art on this one. Super cute cones in jar.

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It’s not just a marketing gimmick! They’re the real deal! Excuse the blur but…

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Another from their FB page. Could you just die from the adorableness? Oh, and BTW, that thar is a ginormous Sicilian brioche with gelato. Because you KNOW the Sicilians aren’t messing around. They eat ice cream for breakfast and you better not say anything about it.

But don’t take it from me, folks. Have a look at their pretty much across the board amazing reviews on Facebook (5.0), Trip Advisor (4.7), and Google (4.9). Apparently no reviews yet on Yelp.it so perhaps I’ll get them started there. Haven’t written a review on my Yelp account in years!

They also have an Instagram account so you can pretend your smartphone is a gelato and lick your screen if you feel so inclined.

My advice? Get thee to The Twins if and when you want to venture off the beaten path. And if, God forbid, you have to convince a travel partner that it’s a worthy touristy thing because you’re on a whirlwind Rome tour and have limited time, then just tell them you’re going to EUR to see the square Colosseum and other Fascist-era architecture, or the Fuksas Cloud, or the recently reopened after about a bazillion years Luneur Park, or the pool, or the prehistoric museum.

Or, you could just tell them you’re going to have a damn good gelato and ain’t nobody gonna stand in your way.

Good times, yes?

I Gemelli Gelateria
Via Mario Musco 44/46

How to Renew an Old A4 Paper Carta di Soggiorno

11 Mar

Are you one of those foreigners living in Italy who, like me, has been here long enough to have had a carta di soggiorno in A4 paper format?

Before we go any further, let me be clear: I’m talking about a carta di soggiorno, not a permesso di soggiorno. If you need information about a permesso di soggiorno I suggest you check out posts from my friends Natalie at An American in Rome: How to Get a Permesso di Soggiorno in Italy (2015) or Georgette  at Girl in Florence: Permesso di Soggiorno in Italy, My Experience (2012).

I received my carta di soggiorno in 2007 after I married my (now ex) husband. I had had various rounds of permessi di soggiorno per motivi di lavoro for many years prior to that.

Back then, the permits were issued on A4 pieces of paper. If you still have yours in that format, you’re way behind the eight ball and you need to get it updated.

According to an EU law (Council Regulation (EC) No 1030/2002), electronic contactless chip permits in card format have been required since January 1, 2006. So much for my carta – it was issued on paper. But still.

Two things to know about a carta di soggiorno a tempo indeterminato (no expiration date):

  1. Even though the carta di soggiorno technically doesn’t expire, you’re required to update the photograph every five years.
  2. If you still have an A4 paper format carta di soggiorno, it’s no longer valid.

Here we are, 10 years later, and mine was still in A4 format. Last year I happened to be visiting my neighborhood questura’s immigration office for a different matter, and the head of that office looked pretty shocked when he saw me pull it out.

“This isn’t valid anymore, signora,” he told me.

I just shrugged. I’ve become pretty blasè about Italian bureaucracy, after 15 years in the country. However, I’ve apparently been fortunate while traveling because according to this circular (in Italian here), back in 2009 there were still Italian permit holders traveling with paper permits and some EU countries weren’t recognizing those as valid.

My rickety old paper carta di soggiorno hasn’t ever prevented me from traveling in the EU, although one particularly nitpicky officer in Amsterdam looked at it verrrry suspiciously and asked if that was the “only” document I had to attest to my right to stay in Italy. I said yes and didn’t budge, and that was that.

But now that I’m looking at finally applying for citizenship (I’ve been very lazy and unmotivated to face the bureaucracy thus far), I needed to get my ducks in a row and that means updating the old A4 paper carta di soggiorno.

Modern carte di soggiorno (as well as permessi) are issued as a plastic, wallet-sized card.

Here’s where it got totally annoying for me. Technically speaking, you can go to the post office, get a “kit” and fill out the paperwork to update your carta di soggiorno. But without going into the gory details, suffice it to say that no one at either the post office nor the questura itself could tell me how much this is supposed to cost. And although it seems ridiculous, not knowing the exact cost prevented me from getting my paperwork taken in by the post office. “We’re not required to know that – you are” I kept getting told. But I couldn’t for the life of me find out the amount. AND YET. You’d think that the cost would be a minor detail and that someone living on God’s great boot in the Mediterranean would know the answer, but: no.

So I got bounced back and forth from post office to questura, to new post office to getting handed a slip of paper to call the (dreaded) central immigration office in Rome, which of course never responds to their phone. In short, I got caught in the gd bureaucratic limbo with which so many of us expats have become all-too-familiar.

Finally, at the third or fourth post office I visited to try to get information, I was blithely told “try at a CAF”.

Ah yes, a CAF. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

If you want my humble opinion – and if you’re here it’s probably because you did a desperate Google search and realized my article is like the only one out there talking about this issue and thus, you do want my humble opinion – it is this: go to a CAF, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Just go to a CAF.

If you are asking yourself what the F is a CAF, it is one of these offices that populate at least a few street corners in most every neighborhood in Rome (and probably your Italian town or city too), and is set up to provide administrative services to citizens with bureaucratic procedures that no one else on the face of the Earth seems to understand.

Permessi di soggiorno and carte di soggiorno among them.

I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the difference between CAF (centro assistenza fiscale, which isn’t the part that helps with the permits) and an Ente di Patronato (which does), just look up in your neighborhood one of these offices and go there. They’re usually housed together but referred to by locals as simply CAF, so you can even ask someone in your neighborhood if you have a CAF office nearby.

When you go, tell them you need to do an “aggiornamento della carta di soggiorno” and the people there will be able to put your application into the computer in a “pre-submission format”. They’ll print the documentation for you to take to the post office and they should instruct you on all the photocopies you need to include.

I did this. It cost me €30. As an aside – it’s quite possible that technically the service should be free. It might be subsidized by the government. But I was just so damn grateful to get the help, I willingly forked over the cash. The woman told me I’d have to come back to get my “tessera” and so perhaps she hoodwinked me into a €30 payment to get some sort of membership – I’ll clarify that when I go back – but I’ll be honest with you: who the hell cares. I had reached the point at which paying €30 for help after a year of floundering was well worth it to me.

In any case, it took a total of an hour and a half wait for my turn (maybe your CAF takes appointments; mine is first-come, first-served, so I solved nearly three New York Times crossword puzzles on my phone and felt annoyed at the wait but proud that I knew a Tic-Tac alternative is “CERTS” although I admit I tried MINTS and MENTO first) and an hour’s time for the application processing. After which, packet in hand, I was ready to turn it all over to that other Byzantine bastion of bureaucracy, the Italian post office.

And so, allow me to say thank you to God and to whomever invented the Ente di Patronato. People trained to know and paid to tell you what the people who actually process the things should be able to do for free.

Yet another bureaucratic mystery, solved.

PS: Good to know – if you were married to an Italian and are now divorced, like me, you still retain your carta di soggiorno if you have children from that marriage. I have three. In addition, once you have children, you’re required to update your carta di soggiorno to add them. I didn’t know this either.

PPS: I now know the cost, too: €30,46. Random, obvs. Plus a €30 processing fee when you actually mail the paperwork. And of course, the hallowed €16 tax stamp. Gotta have that marca da bollo or it wouldn’t be Italy. Here’s info on all that – it does exist after all – if you’re a masochist like me. And like that article says (in Italian), the wait time hovers around 60 days. When you turn in your packet at the post office you’ll get an appointment time. Mine was roughly two months away.

Five Essential Rules of Italian (Roman) Bureaucracy

11 Oct

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These days it takes something quite unusual to get me back on the blog, but this is a post whose time has come.

Over the course of roughly 15 years of life in Rome, I’ve learned and internalized a few precepts for dealing with the notoriously difficult and entrenched bureaucracy.

When I speak of bureaucracy, what I am referring to includes, but is by no means limited to, the following:

  • Getting a driver’s license
  • Getting public health insurance/choosing a family doctor
  • Dealing with city hall for certificates (birth, marriage, residency, civil status)
  • Dealing with the questura, central immigration, and post office for stay permit issues
  • Contesting/rectifying any errors on aforementioned official documents
  • Mailing a letter or actual package at the post office, and God forbid you are crazy enough to open any sort of financial account there
  • Applying for university/enrolling in university
  • Dealing with an Italian consulate or embassy abroad
  • Banking in Italy
  • Returning items to a store in Rome/trying to get your money back for something
  • Taxes and any other dealings with a behemoth known as INPS
  • Paying bills in any shape or form, and generally dealing with any utility company, especially publicly-owned ones such as ACEA, ENI, ATAC, AMA
  • Trying to pay for a low-cost item with a 50-euro bill

Like I said, this is a limited list, but I’ve done all of the above, some multiple times (because I am a masochist, clearly), and so far, I’ve lived to tell the tale. I have the tear stains and gray hairs to prove it.

So patience, young grasshopper, while I now impart my hard-earned knowledge.

1. In Rome, you are not entitled to anything. So please throw away immediately any mentality that allows you to think you can “make it their problem.”

This first dictum is absolutely essential. If you approach anything in Rome with the sort of approach I used to have when I lived in the United States, you will simply and utterly fail.

After telling a horrific bureaucratic tale to an Australian who had never lived in Rome, I was asked: “What happens though, if you just make it their problem?

My two very seasoned American-in-Italy expat friends and I (about 50 years of expat experience in Italy combined between the three of us) laughed with wide-eyed amusement. You know the laugh. That “awwww, how cute” one.

It took at least four times repeating “you can’t make it their problem” to get the message through, adding several more concrete and non-theoretical examples, but the concept was so foreign I still don’t think we made any real impact. I got the impression our dining guest was convinced that had only he been in our shoes, he would have been able to “make it their problem” – read: make them fix the problem for him.

This brings us to dictum 1a:

1a. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR SOLVING YOUR OWN PROBLEMS.

I put that in ALL CAPS because I cannot stress this principle enough. You are absolutely responsible for finding a way. If someone helps you, be grateful, but consider it an exception to the rule. You must use your own brain, your own resources, your own energy and your own elbow grease to get your problem fixed. That probably means bringing in other people you know, who have experience, for moral support and technical advice. But ultimately this is your problem to solve, not the manager’s—even if the manager created the problem for you. (I fully grasp the absurdity of this concept. You, too, should begin embracing it as soon as you are physically and mentally strong enough to do so.)

Let’s do a little trial exercise to get you warmed up, so you can strengthen those underworked, flabby bureaucratic muscles, and thus begin safely working off that extra layer of entitlement that you carry with you from years of doing business in more civilized places.

Ready? Repeat after me:

I, the client, am not always right.
In fact, I am almost always wrong. At least on the first trip.
This is why my secret weapons are persistence, determination, and patience—and not indignantly demanding to speak to a superior.

(You should probably repeat that one a few more times. Really get your heart rate up a bit.)

Humility will help you with this one. No one is getting paid to be nice to you. So just get the F over it. It never gets nicer or easier.

2. Keep your expectations super low, so that you can be pleasantly surprised when things go right, rather than abysmally depressed when things go wrong.01720_expectationsI realize that this might come as an affront to those of us raised in cultures where we’re encouraged to “raise the bar,” etcetera, etcetera. You must shake off your high standards. They have no place here.

When embarking on any bureaucratic task, get all your ducks in a row (see 3), and then, resign yourself to the fact that you probably won’t accomplish what you’re setting out to do. This way, if and when you succeed, you’ll feel like a million effing dollars and then some. Plus, it gives you a great reason to pop a bottle of bubbly.

See? Now when did a trip to the post office ever merit champagne in your past? Move to Italy. You’ll understand.

3. Start “the file.”

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Aw yeah, expats know what I’m talking about here. I learned about “the file” about a year or two into my life in Rome. Let me set the scene for you. It was the umpteenth time I was getting shot down trying to sign up for my family physician and health card: this time, they discovered that my birthplace as printed on my Italian ID card was the right city, but the wrong country. You see, I was born in Portsmouth, Virginia (USA), but the clerk who had produced my ID card years prior unbeknownst to me had mistakenly input Portsmouth, (GB) … and no, the health office people were certainly not going to fix that for me. Down for the count, once again.

Meanwhile, I stepped aside and watched a man from Vietnam attempt something at the window. The clerk tried to shut him down by saying he was missing a particular document. BOOM! He pulls it out of a three-ring binder he was carrying. Then the clerk, with a look of triumph, tells him he is missing the appropriate number of photocopies (and HELL NO they don’t make photocopies FOR YOU! Please see 1 and 1a). BOOM! He pulls out a sheaf of photocopies from his binder.

In short, I learned a valuable lesson that day. Keep every paper. Bring every damn paper with you to every appointment. Keep multiple photocopies of everything on hand at all times and ready to hand over (at least three), especially passport and stay permit. Keep a sheet of ID card photos on hand as well. Why not throw in a tax stamp for €16 while you’re at it, too—couldn’t hurt. Tax returns? Check. Marriage certificate, birth certificate, divorce decree? Who the hell knows! Check! File all this mumbo-jumbo in those plastic A4 sheet protectors, stick it all in a three-ring binder, and before you depart for any bureaucratic mission, you take that damn binder with you. Watch in awe and wonder as it grows through the years. But by all means, don’t like go and forget it in a public restroom or let someone steal that sucker or something equally tragic. Then you’re screwed.

4. Don’t expect there to be one answer to your question, or even a right answer at all, or a conclusive answer, and certainly don’t think that NO is a final answer, although usually it is, except when it isn’t.

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It’s completely normal and acceptable that two employees in the same office, perhaps two who even sit next at windows right next to each other, give different answers to the same question, on the same day, different days, or the same time. No one is guaranteed to know the true answer, or the right answer, generally speaking. Please see rule 1a. Knowing the answer to the question in advance is your job.

Once when I was trying to accomplish something in the ID card office, I looked over to the desk marked “information”. The man employed to provide information was sleeping. Like deep, REM-phase sleep. He slept for the entire hour-plus that I was in the office. So, I suppose we could append to this adage: don’t expect employees to actually be awake on the job. But that is maybe best reserved for our masterclass in bureaucracy. I certainly wouldn’t want to scare off beginners.

5. If you can liken all of your bureaucratic travails to the spiritual metaphor of a video game, you can even have fun while you’re at it. 

kung-fu-master-lvl-1Basically this metaphor always works for me. Just imagine that whatever you’re trying to accomplish is like being in one of those old-school Nintendo video games where each level had some sort of fire-breathing dragon or its equivalent that had to be defeated before you could pass to the next level. That’s basically a microcosm of the entire Roman bureaucratic machine.

In your video game, you will encounter many evil enemies and obstacles blocking your path to the next level, thus preventing your advancement towards fighting and defeating the Big Boss. Let me list some of them for you:

  • Strike (transport or labor union, or both)
  • Office moved but no one told anyone—you get there and there’s a handwritten sign on the door
  • Employee at window 1A isn’t responsible for that—you have to ask the person on the 3rd floor
  • Person on the 3rd floor isn’t responsible for that—you have to ask the person at window 1A
  • The person at window 1A is now on coffee break
  • The deadline for that was last week
  • No there aren’t any exceptions
  • You didn’t keep your receipt
  • You don’t have the right photocopy
  • There’s a mistake on your document (missing letter, wrong number) and it’s not their fault and they can’t fix it. Go Directly to Jail. Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.

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Here’s the thing, folks: Rome bureaucratic missions will either break you, or build you into a problem-solving superhero who laughs in the face of insult. (And then whips out a photocopy and a tax stamp.)

I raise my glass that your path leads towards Kryptonite-free triumph, paved with smiling impiegati and lots of freshly-inked stamps. Go boldly forth, and achieve greatness!

Bathing Suit Season in Italy 2016 Edition

14 Jun

Italy is currently in the throes of patriotic passion for the Azzurri, its national soccer team, in the UEFA Euro 2016 championship. How do I know this?

  1. I don’t watch TV. But I can tell you when a match is being played and when a goal is scored by Italy or against Italy just by keeping a silent house, because no one is on the streets during a match and the screams from the fans inside every apartment easily penetrate my building’s foot-thick walls and closed windows.
  2. There are commemorative beer bottles.

Witness Exhibit 1: the current Birra Moretti labels.

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Now, before you mistakenly assume, like I did, that this is simply an ill-thought-out tribute to permy-haired soccer stars of the Disco Age, let me first show you what Mr. Moretti of aforementioned beer looks like, and then I’ll show you the necks of these here bottles.

Exhibit 2: Signore Moretti

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Exhibit 3: Bottlenecks

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Yes, you read that right. It says “Champions with a Mustache.” Special Edition 2016.

Allow me an aside here, will you? I am very much over the mustache trend. I was over it before it even got started. I don’t find it cute or amusing, or even comprehensible, for that matter. You see, once my tattoo artist went off on people who ask for a mustache tattoo “because they have no idea what it really means” and then I forced him to tell me despite his fear of sullying my delicate sensibilities—well folks, that pretty much did it for me on the whole mustache trend.

Babies do not need to be wearing mustachioed onesies. Just trust me on this one.

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Look away! Look away! Nothing to see here! Wrong on so many levels.

But as usual, I digress. What do birra and baffi have to do with bathing suit season, you ask?

Nothing, really. Except UEFA 2016 soccer season provides a lead-in to another important season that is already upon us in Italy as well: the season of the prova costume.

The prova costume in Italy is an all-consuming thing. It translates basically to trying on the bathing suit, and whispers of it begin around, say, April or so.

But the real proof that the prova costume is imminent comes from Italian pharmacy windows.

Before we begin, I want to give you my cultural reference baseline. I Googled “Walgreens advertising” to get a taste of what the US’s largest drug retailing chain is trying to hawk to its customers.

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A brief perusal gives us Dr. Oz flexing his probably Photoshopped bicep to encourage flu shots, a smiling pair of senior citizens happy for their 20% discount, and a kid nose-blowing into a tissue. Yep, standard-issue pharmacy stuff.

Now, let’s shift our attention to Italian pharmacy windows in recent weeks to help us get ready for the all-important—nay, hallowed—season of exposing bare flesh at the beach.

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In our first example, from the fine folks at Somatoline (who featured prominently in our 2014 edition) it would appear that technology has come a long way baby. As the box promises, this “Use & Go Slimming Spray” is not only effective and easy to use, but also absorbs quickly. Hence the tagline: Somatoline Cosmetic. It works.

Welp, you won’t catch me spending €39 or the low, low discounted price of €31.20 to test that claim, but enquiring minds want to know: how, pray tell, does a spray slim? And you can bet your bottom dollar, I’m using slim as a verb here.

Further research on the shiny corporate webpage says it works in 4 weeks asterisk.

It also says it’s the first-ever slimming spray double asterisk.

Let’s delve further, shall we?

Ah, yes. The exclusive formula. You knew there was an exclusive formula, right? There’s always an exclusive formula with Latin-y or space-age sounding words sprinkled with hyphens or missing appropriate spaces or that have an X, with a TM or an R tagged at the end. And Somatoline, at least in this regard, doesn’t disappoint!

Redux

ReduxExpress-ComplexTM! 

Let’s skip over what it says it actually does (which when translated into non pseudo-science speak basically comes down to some dubious claims about helping you lose water weight) and get right to the good stuff. What the hell is ReduxExpress-ComplexTM actually made of, anyways?

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Don’t be overwhelmed. I’m going to break this down real easy-like for you.

  1. Caffeine. Aww, that’s cute. Because you know, the espresso at the bar only costs 80 cents. Wait! What if I spray the espresso on my cellulite? Are you following me here? (I’m fairly certain this must have been what the inventor of Post-its or Scotch tape felt like.)
  2. Carrier molecule. Um. That’s a bit sketch. It says it helps you absorb the active ingredients.
  3. Decapeptide. Christ. A Google search revealed that this is used to treat vitiligo. You know vitiligo. Sure you do. It’s that skin disease Michael Jackson had. Now, I know you must be thinking the same thing I am thinking here: slimming spray ingredient in reference/link to Michael Jackson can only mean one thing…michael-jackson-plastic-surgery-before-after
  4. Trimethyl what? This ingredient looks like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. But I looked it up. Yes, indeedy. It is Trimethylcyclohexyl Butylcarbamate and is present in a bunch of fat-loss—ahem, slimming—creams. One advertised that it will help you “loose weight.” So this is promising, yes?
  5. Not even bothering with this. Pink peppercorn extract.
  6. Aescin. An anti-inflammatory. So this spray is as good for your arthritic grammy as it is for your pesky flab.
  7. Ginger. (“Stimulates cutaneous microcirculation.”)
  8. Dermochlorella. Basically an algae extract that they claim has firming properties.
  9. Ethyl Nicotinate and Menthyl Lactate. For that cooling feeling. I’m sure this is how customers know it’s working.

Spray away, my friends.

But wait—there’s more!

The one-month pill to skinny:

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And the “light leg” creams for “heavy legs”:

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Your local Italian pharmacy is a veritable children’s candy store of remedies for fat that don’t involve diet or exercise.

Oh, wait. The asterisks. Just FYI and all. It’s a spray that, during use, provides “cosmetic remodeling”, but not weight loss.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

And so, until next year’s edition, as I now have to get going on the patent application for my coffee vaporizing mist. Don’t even try to beat me to it. I’ll spray the slimming mist in your eyes.

Grassroots Neighborhood Clean-up in Rome

12 Jun

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Rome is suffering a real crisis in public services, and has been for quite some time. News on this city’s problems is abundant, and I’ve even written about it myself (The Fall of Roman Civilization – April 28, 2014; 5 Ways to Be Roman Without Moving to Italy – May 13, 2016).

There are also abundant sites that aggregate Romans’ frustration with the problems they face each day, which, although useful in highlighting the difficulties, don’t necessarily serve as catalysts for positive change.

However, a group called Comitato Parchi Colombo, in collaboration with Retake Rome, is gaining momentum as a grassroots force for citizen activism. In my neighborhood (as evidenced by the picture above), one initiative they take on is the big job of clean-up in our local parks, which can then be frequented safely and enjoyed by all.

I take my children to the park pictured above all the time, and can tell you that the sense of community there on the weekends is tangible. There are often dozens and dozens of people gathered for hours while children rollerblade, play on the park equipment, and parents chat on the benches or picnic on the grass. For those of you who have lived in Rome, you already know that neighborhood parks (as opposed to the city’s big green spaces like Villa Borghese) are often impossible places to have picnics, because of their sheer lack of upkeep and accumulation of broken bottles, cigarette butts, and all manner of trash. As a single mom with no local extended family, having a clean, spacious park to enjoy with my kids and other families is a godsend.

This group is completely voluntary and runs entirely on donations, but they lack bigger equipment to get more work done. They’ve launched a campaign to raise the 500 euros needed to buy a lawnmower. In an appeal to the 500 online members of the Facebook group Retake Roma Montagnola they noted that if each member donated just one euro, they could reach their goal.

But I want to extend the reach of the campaign to my readers as well—to those of you who have a piece of your heart here in Rome, but can’t drop by to give your euro to the doorman Andrea at the building on Via Badia di Cava 62 where he’s collecting donations.

Have a look at this two-minute video to see what this dedicated group of park volunteers did together with their families to make our park beautiful again:

If you’d like to help us reach our goal of buying a lawnmower, you can donate online at the “Good Cause” website (in Italian) – Comitato Parco Colombo “Compriamo il tagliaerba” (Let’s Buy a Lawnmower).

Don’t worry if you don’t speak Italian! I’ll guide you through it.

On the first page, click the green button. It says “Contribuisci” which means “Contribute”.

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Next:

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  1. Choose the amount you want to donate. The default is €25 but you can choose any amount you wish. The last option, “offerta libera”, lets you specify the amount you want to donate. Remember, even one euro—roughly $1.13—makes a difference.
  2. Choose the payment method: credit card or Paypal account. In both cases, the transaction is handled through Paypal’s secure system.
  3. Fill in your first and last name and your email address (or access using Facebook by clicking the blue Facebook button) and click the green button to proceed.

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The check-box below the green avatar asks if you want this to be an anonymous donation; if so, check the box, but you still have to enter your name and email to make a donation.

That brings you to a Paypal access screen.

If you have a Paypal account, click the yellow button:

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I donated using my US Paypal account, and at that point the language changed to English and my donation went through in one step.

If you don’t have a Paypal account, you can use a credit card by clicking on the link above the credit cards. I don’t have a tutorial for that because I didn’t use that method, but perhaps if you need, you can use Google Translate or Chrome’s page translator.

I’m so pleased to see grassroots civic action in Rome. So many people complain here without taking any real action to change things. Here is just one example of neighbors who want to take collective responsibility for keeping public spaces enjoyable.

For more information, visit Retake Roma’s main website or Comitato Parchi Colombo.

The next park clean-up is scheduled for Sunday, June 18 at 4:30 pm with a pizza dinner all together after the work is done.