Five Essential Rules of Italian (Roman) Bureaucracy

11 Oct 20161011_160001

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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!

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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.

Rome Mayoral Elections 2016

11 May sondaggi-roma-1

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Lest you think only the United States is experiencing electoral fever, allow me to draw your attention to the Eternal City and our local elections set for June.

And yes, spoiler alert: Berlusconi figures here, too. (I agree that he should be wiling away his twilight hours making arts and crafts in a nursing home, but alas, this is Italy, and so…)

You know, folks, I’ve always managed to be blissfully ignorant about politics here in Italy. I come from the land of two political parties, with a few outliers. Italy, on the other hand, at last count had no fewer than 31, in this list from the aptly named “Simple Politics” website. But the venerable financial journal Il Sole 24 Ore named 62 of them here in a list of balance sheets.

So, you know what? Your guess is as good as mine, but, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret I discovered.

Here, come closer. I’ll whisper it in your ear:

only about four of those parties really matter.

I don’t claim to be anywhere near an authority on politics (many Italians will tell you that even they are confounded by their own system), but I will tell you that since the time when I was dragged kicking and screaming out of my political ignorance in my work for Italy’s largest news agency, ANSA, I’ve gotten a slight handle on the situation.

Italy breaks down into left and right, and on those two sides we have two main leaders. Stay with me here.

On the center-left we have Premier Matteo Renzi, who, in addition to being prime minister, is also the head of his own party (I know, the mind boggles).

This will be easy for Americans because that one is called simply the Democratic Party.

I know, right?! A.k.a. PD.

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[Permit me an aside, will you? Frankly, I don’t find Matteo Renzi to be an ugly man, but I dare you to find a photo in which he might be considered photogenic. The man never—and I mean never—looks normal. Don’t believe me? I Googled my theory: click here.]

Our PD candidate in Rome is Roberto Giachetti, whose advertising tagline is “Rome goes back to Rome,” which perhaps means it goes back to being Rome, or maybe means it goes back to the people of Rome. If you want my opinion though, and I know you do, someone needs to first off buy this man a damn razor for the love of God.

Honestly. Can I have a mini-rant here? I mean, decide. Either you have a beard, or you don’t, but what you’re doing here is neither one nor the other. If politics is about appearances, it would appear that Giachetti can’t get his shit together enough to even shave, which is concerning in a city where not even the garbage service works.

Exhibit 1:

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Exhibit 2:

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You get the idea.

Then we have the “anti-establishment” party, which demurs from associating itself as either left or right. They don’t even call themselves a party—they’re a movement. This is all fine and good when you go up against said establishment, but, pause for a moment and ask yourself: What happens when anti-establishment becomes the establishment?

The reason I ask is that the candidate for comedian-slash-movement leader Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement (M5S) is actually leading the pack in the Rome mayoral election, and what’s more, she’s a woman. If elected, Virginia Raggi would be Rome’s first female mayor in history. [Can I get a woot woot in the house?]

I have nothing to say about Raggi. No snide comments, no quippy asides. If I could vote—and I can’t, because it takes years and years to get citizenship paperwork processed and I’m lazy—welp, I’d vote for her. She’s a 38-year-old lawyer and former city councillor who wants to make people pay to ride the bus and who wants to get our garbage picked up. She also opposes hosting the Olympics in Rome (because she feels aforementioned waste management is more important to the city’s residents). What more do you want?

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Oh, and by the way? Have you ever wondered why they are five stars, and what they represent? Of course you haven’t. But I have, and I’m here to share a little acronym provided courtesy of a former M5S municipal councillor, Vincenzo Agnusdei, who says you can easily remember the meaning of the five stars with the acronym TASCA, which means pocket in Italian. T=trasporto (transport); A=acqua (water); S=sviluppo (development); C=connettività (connectivity); A=ambiente (environment).

But he was a councillor back in 2011, and from my online stalking it now appears he lives in Berlin, Germany, so, add a grain or two of salt to that recipe.

Meanwhile, I promised you some Berlusconi. Oh, Berlusconi. Sigh. When are you just going to pack it in and ride off into the sunset?

But, not yet.

Berlusconi is no longer the leader of the center-right. That dubious honor now falls on the shoulders of a 43-year-old Milanese named Matteo Salvini, who not only leads the “we invented our own fantasyland in northern Italy called Padania and we want to secede from the rest of Italy” Northern League, but also serves in the European Parliament. And who The Huffington Post reports has a new website called The Populist with a Sex & Trash category that titled one of its posts “Young Pakistani women: Allah doesn’t let us fu..” 

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And if you read Italian, read that first comment because it’s a gem. Domenico Di Luzio, TVB.

Salvini backs our far-right Rome mayoral candidate, who also happens to be a woman, with an even further-right party than perhaps even Lega Nord, called Brothers of Italy. (Which begs the question: How can a woman lead a party called Brothers of Italy? Amiright?)

If we want to stay on the Sex & Trash track, as Salvini always does, then let’s just translate his candidate’s name into English and call her Giorgia Melons. Ms. Melons got a lot of press when her former challenger Guido Bertolaso (we’ll get to him and Berlusconi in a moment, I promise) said in March that she shouldn’t run for mayor because she’s pregnant and “it’s obvious to everyone that a mom can’t dedicate herself to a terrible job (as mayor of Rome). Being mayor of Rome means being out and about and in the office for 14 hours a day.”

So there’s that.

But then, you see, Bertolaso was Berlusconi’s choice with “unconditional support” until, well, until he wasn’t anymore. Hmm.

Berlusca first launched former civil protection chief Bertolaso, who is on trial for manslaughter in connection with the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila–oopsies!–while wearing MIB-style dark glasses. Don’t ask. You can’t handle the truth.

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Find the dirty old man in this picture.

But then a bunch of stuff happened and some meetings happened and people were like OHMYGODYOUCAN’TSUPPORTSOMEONEONTRIALFORMANSLAUGHTER and he, Mr. MIB himself, switched his “unconditional support” over to Marchini. At which point Bertolaso poof! like magic disappeared from the race.

Who’s Marchini, you ask? Affectionately known as ARfio to the Romans (because in local dialect sometimes Ls morph into Rs, you know), he’s a non-party-affiliated civic-listing Rome-lover. He just puts hearts all over his campaign posters and says how much he loves Rome and how he’s non-party-affiliated so he is “FREE” to do whatever, which is somehow supposed to be very reassuring to the populace of Rome.

His campaign slogan is: “I love Rome, and you?”

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He’s run before. He’s sort of like the Energizer Bunny of Rome mayoral candidates. He just keeps on going, and going, and going.

It’s just good times with Marchini, because he’s our sort of flashy glamour candidate, and he’s been nicknamed “Il Bello” by locals (the good-looking one).

Exhibit 1:

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Wait, WTF?

Exhibit 2:

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He plays polo! With funky yellow eyeguard/sunglass things!

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He water skis! He kicks up waves! Maybe it’s not even him but the flowing mass of hair in the ocean breeze sure makes it look like!

And if by chance you read Italian, then please don’t hesitate to visit his Facebook page: Arfio Marchini.

Ok, ok, that’s a spoof page, and that’s where I found the jet-ski photo, and, it’s brilliant.

Roma Ti Amo.

Refugee Assistance in Rome

3 May
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        Notes written by those who attended the Storyteller’s Evening on migration in September.           Photos courtesy of Linda Martinez

It goes without saying that Europe is experiencing what is being called one of the most severe migrant crises since the Second World War. Much has been written, is being written, and will continue to be written as the situation develops day by day. The issue is immense in scope, depth, breadth—it feels overwhelming. As such, I’d like to focus on a micro level to spotlight some local organizations and individuals that are involved on the front lines of this crisis. Some of them are living the crisis first-hand. Others are providing resources, support, and the intangible but essential element of hope.

In September, I attended a storyteller’s evening at The Beehive. Linda and Steve generally host Storytellers once a month, giving space to narratives on a particular topic, in a sort of modern-day campfire gathering of shared humanity. That evening, however, was co-hosted by Paul’s Place Project (PPP), a non-profit organization that is part of the Christian Codrai Foundation, and was dedicated specifically to understanding the migrant crisis. As such, two young men—Rakin and Maiga—told their stories in front of an intimate and attentive group of about 30-40 people. The impact of hearing these stories in person from those who lived them is difficult, if not impossible, to put down in words.

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Rakin and Adama

Rakin, from Kabul, told the story of his dream of becoming a psychologist in his home country, and of his becoming the victim of a kidnapping for ransom because of his family’s class standing and wealth. He came from a home that was quite possibly more well-off than some or many of the listeners present that evening. He spoke of his harrowing escape and eventual arrival in Rome, where he slept in parks, nearly lost his mental health, and was treated like a degenerate.

You can read more of Rakin’s story in an interview with The Local, which was included in their round-up of five truly inspirational interviews from 2015. Another local English-language publication, Wanted in Rome, also shared Rakin’s story.

If you prefer to listen, check out the podcast episode Immigrant on The Bittersweet Life, hosted by senior radio producer Katy Sewall of Seattle’s KUOW and local expat and writer Tiffany Parks who heads up the editorial department at Where Rome magazine and writes The Pines of Rome.

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Maiga

Maiga, from Mali, witnessed and lived through the killing of his entire family. He, too, eventually made his way to Rome in a story that was both heart-wrenching and a testament to the impossible strength of the human spirit. Not enough tears could ever be shed for such inconceivable loss and grief.

Taking the overwhelming topic of the “migrant crisis” down to its micro level, down to the level where each migrant is a person, each migrant has a story, and each migrant has a name, is important. It helps to combat against feelings of apathy that often result from wanting to help, but feeling that the problem is too big to tackle in any productive way. It also helps humanize people who are all-too-often generalized into terse labels that get repeated ad-nauseam, to the point where they seem to lose all traces of substantive meaning: Syrian refugees, economic migrants, asylum seekers.

For a non-expert, following the issue as an informed reader often requires learning and incorporating all sorts of new phrases, places, and nebulous terminology—Dublin Regulation, EU hotspots, the Balkan route, Idomeni—which, to an average reader, might simply feel like too much work. True, an informed citizen should undertake the duty of informing him or herself. But when reading the news for understanding begins to feel like an exercise in studying for a university degree, once again the issue of “this is just too much to deal with” is hard to avoid.

That’s when making the issue local can brings things into perspective.

In the Eternal City, one organization is the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (“Offering Radical Hospitality to Refugees in Rome”). It’s a day center for refugees located at St. Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church. Their website is full of resources for anyone who wants to help on a local level. For those who want to help but aren’t local, they accept donations. They have a blog of reflections from various people involved in the daily refugee crisis. They have a page where migrants who are legally authorized to work in Italy offer their skilled services in categories as diverse as language teaching, artisan, domestic staff, industrial, and hospitality.

The refugee center also has a handicrafts workshop called Artisans Together, where migrants can sell things that they produce.

At the storytellers evening, I purchased a bowl that was hand-crafted by Adama, one of the migrants who works with the Artisans Together project. It’s made entirely of folded newsprint paper. It’s incredibly sturdy and has a really unique aesthetic. Adama explained to me that each ridge of the bowl is made up of tightly folded paper which is then hot-glued together. It all starts by wrapping the first pieces around that central ball in the bottom.

In short, this simple object of beauty showcases a skill and creativity born out of sheer necessity; provides a source of income for the migrants, however meager; and also instills a point of connection between the generic term “migrant” and the individual human being behind the label.

Transforming Migrant Lives is a crowdfunding campaign that this year has allowed local migrants to travel and raise awareness in local Italian communities as well as within Europe. You can donate to the project here.

The TML crowdfunding project is run by Jill Drzewiecki Rios, who works with the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center and is a student in the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma—Global Mental Health Refugee Trauma and Recovery. Jill is a certified Specialized Operator in the Reception of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Italy and also holds degrees in International Studies (BA) and Environmental Education (MS).

Please, read Jill’s reflection piece A Place at the Table.

In short: the refugee problem is overwhelming, and yet, we mustn’t dismiss it as something that’s too big for us to concern ourselves with. Bring this issue down to a local level if you are interested in getting involved. All we are required to do is simply that which we are able to, to do our part.

Once, a very wise man told me a parable to teach me this concept, the fact that we each have something to contribute but no one individual must ever feel responsible for solving an overwhelming problem alone. I looked up the parable on Google and found this narration. Enjoy – and reflect.

La Taqueria in Rome

28 Apr

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Rome is a small world, and many of us who come from foreign countries and make the city our home are connected not by the proverbial six degrees of separation but generally by one or two degrees at most.

Case in point: Gabriel of La Taqueria.

(Let’s forget for a moment that I’m preparing to write about Mexican-slash-Central American street food right here in pasta-slash-pizza-lovin’ Rome. [Wipes drool from keyboard.] Suspense is key.)

Once upon a time, back in March 2014, I got an unsolicited email from a lovely man who had met a friend of mine (he said she’s his restaurant’s biggest fan) who told him to get in touch with me to tell me that he had opened – and here I quote from his email – “a little taco shop” – in Rome. He invited me to stop in and try it out.

I have no excuses as to why I never took him up on his generous offer, other than good intentions. I hear the road to hell is paved with them, and let me tell you – the last two years for me have felt much like a searing-hot highway.

Anyhoo, here we are, folks, nearly May 2016, and although I can barely get a shower as a single working mom of three school-aged littles, let alone get out to see friends, yesterday there was an unusual sighting of a pig flying past my window and I made it to lunch with four of the coolest girls I know, who also happen to be my friends.

One of them (who shall go unnamed but runs this place and should you ever have people who need a place to stay in Rome you should recommend this place because it’s fabulous but they also have this place with apartments all over Europe end of run-on sentence and shameless friend plug) suggested we meet up at La Taqueria.

The name vaguely rang a bell (wasn’t this the lovely man who invited me to his “little taco shop” a couple years back?) and so, upon entering, said lovely man warmly greeted my friends, and I said: “I think you contacted me a couple years ago” and promptly did a Gmail search. Sure enough – it was Gabriel in the flesh!

Back then, his “little taco shop” was in Piazza Fiume, but folks — his success has gone far beyond expectations and so, now he inhabits an infectiously festive place near Piazza Bologna.

I mean it, people: you enter this place and, like Dorothy might have said— “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Rome anymore,” —had she lived in Rome and not Kansas, mind you.

Bright colors, Spanish everywhere, party bus wallpaper (party bus? what is this party bus of which you speak?), PLASTIC BANANAS HANGING FROM THE CEILING.

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This is what I am talking about. Ain’t no Kansas ’round these parts.

So, after Gabriel was exceedingly charming in not making me feel like a complete tool for having neglected his generous invite for two entire years, I started asking a few questions to get the lowdown on just how one decides to open a taco shop in Rome.

Gabriel speaks great English. How is this possible? He tells me, “I went to an American school in my country.”

“My country” turned out to be Honduras, from where Gabriel emerged into Rome seven years ago as a diplomat.

[I’ll give you a moment to try to wrap your head around that. No, really—I can wait. In the meantime I will re-read this extraordinary feat of journalistic narrative by Oscar Martinez, and then, I’ll breathe a quick sigh of relief that this city no longer has the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the world.]

Ok, so. Now that you’ve got a better idea of what amazing stories Gabriel must have hidden away in his invisible life baggage, I’ll fast-forward you to when his tenure came to an end at the Honduran Embassy in Rome and one fine day he said to himself: “How is it possible that there’s no street-food taco stand here in Rome?”

How, indeed, Gabriel.

And thus was born another entrepreneurial success story wherein a clever observer and ambitious go-getter decides to scratch an itch, perhaps one that locals didn’t even know they had until La Taqueria first popped up in its “little taco shop” incarnation in Piazza Fiume.

Gabriel tells me that despite the extra room in his current space, lines on Saturday go out the door and people are willing to wait even an hour and a half for the food.

And so, I give you: La Taqueria in all its glory.

Now, I can’t compete with the official website photos, which are gorgeous, so I won’t even try. Look:

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Like I told you: BANANAS ON THE CEILING.

And, water-jug ceiling lamps, too.

Gabriel tells me that the bananas symbolize the importance of that fruit in the economy of Central America (not in the pejorative, 1904 O. Henry way, but in the “for better or worse this fruit is the foundation of an entire economy” way). And that the water jugs are also steeped in local symbology, both as containers for H2O as much as makeshift gas cans for the aforementioned party buses (I’ll try to get to that).

But, shall we? The food?

The menu is eclectic, mixing Mexican (“because in Rome you have to call it a Mexican restaurant”) with Guatemalan and Honduran specialties (“a sort of Mesoamerican fusion”).

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I ordered the Catracho burrito—you had me at “fried plantain”—and when two of my vegetarian friends got excited but then not so much when they saw it had chicken sausage, Gabriel made it vegetarian for them. A+ for customer service.

By the way, if you are wondering what a Catracho is (as one often does) allow me to refer you to the fearless bloggess La Gringa.

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The salsas are made in-house, almost all with locally sourced ingredients, except for the chipotle, because frankly when’s the last time you saw a Roman eat a smoked jalapeno? That’s what I thought.

Gabriel has big plans, people. Cutting through endless red tape to import Honduran beer. Hosting regionally themed brunches for a taste of super-local cuisine. And of course, continuing to shake up delicious margaritas and pour out tamarindo juice. Yes, you read me right: agua de tamarindo.

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Gabriel said Hondurans are more of a beer-drinking people, and hence came our chat about Honduran beer and the difficulty in importing it, but, there are pinch hitters:

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(Can we, however, pause for a moment on the fact that one of the major Honduran beers is called “Lifesaver”? Let’s, please.)

Below photo does not represent current beer selection at La Taqueria, but rather, the absolute ingenuity for beer-naming with which Hondurans are apparently possessed:

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Oh, and as a casual aside: there are churros. Churros for dipping in dulce de leche.

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I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that this place transports you. Try it and you’ll see. It’s delightful. I can’t wait to go back.

Muchas gracias Gabriel, for bringing some real sunshine and spice into this city.

(Oh, right: the party buses. Are these what people call chicken buses: a.k.a. “the beautiful afterlives of American schoolbuses”? Maybe not, but fascinating nonetheless.)

!Que pinta esta pequeña tienda de tacos¡
Via Giacomo Boni 26, Roma (Metro B: Bologna)

Catch Me on Badass + Living

5 Apr

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While I’m no longer active on this site, due to various commitments that make it impossible right now for me to keep to a regular posting schedule, I wanted to let you know that I’m telling my “Rome story” in a series of posts on a brand-new site called Badass + Living.

Badass has a Rome connection. I met its founder, the fabulous Brenda Della Casa, in a serendipitous evening several years back. We hit it off like soul sisters, kept in touch and grew our friendship across the pond, and I am honored to have been asked to join in her new project as part of its launch.

In my initial posts as a contributor on the site, I’ll be going through my journey to life in Rome, which began [gasp] 15 years ago, when I was in my early 20s. There will be plenty of practical tips, wise reflections, and the clumsy humor in which I excel.

Intrigued? You can catch my first post here:

How I Hit Reset on My Life and Moved to Italy.

And, for more info. on Brenda’s ambitious new project, keep reading.


 

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@Badass_Living

Badass + Living is an online magazine for independent, empowered women who find joy in empowering, cheering and supporting other women. Founded on the concept of collaboration over competition, we believe in the beauty of women working together to promote brands, reach goals and celebrate individuality while sharing wisdom, worries, successes and lessons.

The Badass woman is smart, savvy, ambitious, stylish, philanthropic, inspired and totally dedicated to living her best life as her best self. She’s curious, interested and interesting, and she values herself, her friends, her loved ones and her life. She’s a go-getter who gives back. She’s got big dreams, goals, vision (and perhaps a vision board) and she has a fire inside of her that she’s looking to ignite. Best of all, she believes in the Italian Proverb that reminds us that “a candle never loses light by lighting another candle.”

She values a healthy, balanced lifestyle (mentally, physically, spiritually) but still indulges her vices every once in a while (delicious cocktails, a shopping spree, a gorgeous man/woman, or a fabulous dessert). She enjoys the company of other women and has a very good sense of who she is and wants to become. She’s coming to the website for inspiration, education, aspiration and support, and it’s our mission to provide this for her on a daily basis.

We would like to welcome you to our community. Please visit our site and join us on our journey (and contribute to the conversation!)  You may also find us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

Now, tell us: What Makes You Badass?