Sunday, September 13, 2009

“It was 20 years ago today…”

Yes, as the opening words to a rather famous song by four young lads from Liverpool once said back in 1967, “It was 20 years ago today...”, September 13, 1989, that I actually stepped foot in the Bel Paese.

And what are my thoughts on these last 20 years of Italian life? Rather mixed I must say: I`m very happy to be living in Europe, a little less though in Italy. It`s first of all a country with TOO many political parties (rather difficult for all of them to agree easily on just one thing) and with too many problems, beginning with the ever-ending problem of the mafia and how it basically infiltrates practically every facet of Italian living, not to mention appalling bureaucracy and the usual and perpetual acts of totally absurd violence in Italy`s soccer stadia (never saw violence in 30 years of sports in North America).

The labour market, as defined years ago by The Economist, is rather “archaic and Byzantine” in nature, and this is even worse as one “ages” (contrary to most “civilized” countries out there, they put age limits in Italian job ads). The work mentality, from what I`ve seen having also worked with Italians, is, well, at times less-than professional in nature. This is perhaps one of THE most astounding and contradictory things given that Italians count sooooo much on the so-called “bella figura” (the “nice impression”) and above-all on the dress code. For a country which has managed to give the world the precision and beauty of a Ferrari or an Armani shirt, it can be (literally) quite astounding to see just how unprofessional Italians can be when it comes to working (the list of the things that have happened to me in 20 years would fill several blogs, including being taken for a ride more than once when it comes to be paid for one`s work!).

Positive points? Well, for one thing, coming from perhaps THE coldest city in the entire world, Winnipeg, I certainly DON`T miss Canadian winters! In fact, one can ask my better-half Daniela that VERY rarely do I plead with her in the winter to go skiing in the Alps (in 20 years we`ve been together not ONCE have we gone skiing or in the mountains during the winter)! The weather in Italy, which in normal winter conditions doesn`t go below 0 degrees Celsius, is simply wonderful, so wonderful that all winter I can play soccer with the boys wearing shorts, something that in January in Winnipeg was completely unthinkable. Ditto for the summers, nice and hot and not terribly humid (at least not in Rome).

Culturally-speaking, well, it`s hard to beat places like Venice (my all-time favourite city anywhere in the world!), Florence, Rome and the many towns of Sicily, not to mention also places like Siena and the Udine area where I currently live. Also, it still to this day totally blows my mind that in about 2 hours I can board a plane and be on a spectacular little Greek island swimming in crystal blue water, or with a 4-hour car ride from Udine I can be standing literally in front of a crematorium at Dachau`s concentration camp near Munich (incredible the history that hits you directly in the face when you`re in one of these dreaded camps). And where did I get to go if I travelled south 100 kms from Winnipeg? Wow, to Fargo, North Dakota, where we`d actually go to buy blue jeans when the Canadian dollar used to be stronger than the American one!

And what about the food and vino (by the way, I arrived in Italy 20 years weighing about 90 kilos. Twenty years later I weigh about 100, only 5 kilos per 10 years, not a bad record if you also throw in a persisting herniated disc which has been plaguing me for about 15 years now)? I personally think that only in France does one eat better than in Italy (they say that you would have to live some 300 years or so to be able to eat ALL of the regional dishes in Italy!). And the coffees? Again, I don`t think that there`s a nation out there that knows how to make a simply GREAT cappuccino like the Italians (no offence but certainly NOT the Americans/Canadians)!

Another fine aspect of living in Italy is the concert scene. For those that know me I probably haven`t taken in so many rock concerts as in my 20 years in Italy, beginning with THE most spectacular and unique one of them all: Sir Paul McCartney INSIDE the Colosseum in May, 2003 (not to mention Oasis just a few months ago near Udine, one of the last times we`ll see Liam and Noel Gallagher together?). Sir Paul singing “Yesterday” will be forever etched in my mind (and his repeat performance the day after OUTSIDE the Colosseum in front of more than 400,000 people is also a memorable one!).

Finally, I must add some of the people I`ve met in these 20 years in Italy, beginning with me better-half, Daniela, THE only woman (after me poor and sweet mamma`) who has been able to put up with someone like me for 20 years now (and counting); my good friends Walt Bianchi who took me under his wings back in February, 1990 on a soccer pitch in Rome when I hardly knew anyone in Rome; my former colleagues at the U.S. Embassy in Rome who also took me under their wings when I was quite often totally clued out as to what to do in my new job and city (nicknamed by me the “Eternally Chaotic City”!); Bett Povoledo with whom I share great memories of growing up in Winnipeg, not to mention some 43 years of friendship now; Bill and Stephanie Hamm, the proud parents of the former great soccer player Mia, whom I met while working at the U.S. Embassy, and who thanks to them I got from Italy to take in THE Greatest sporting event of my life so far: the final of the 1999 Women`s World Cup in Los Angeles and where I also got to meet at the same event a fellow by the name of Aaron Heifetz, the press officer of the U.S. women`s national team and someone who`s given me the

best-ever compliment (“Every soccer federation should have a Mario Rimati”!); and Derek White, a fellow Crazy Canuck whom I met in less-than opportune circumstances at the Canadian Embassy in Rome many, many moons ago but who turned out to be a great friend and a person with whom I shared more than a great laugh or two (not to mention our common love for AC/DC and the Monty Python boys!). I certainly hope now that Derek is the proud father of three young lads that he shall continue to enjoy the many things we enjoyed together during his 4-year stay in Rome!

There are many others out there, but alas few as I`ve noticed—and this is obviously my own personal observation—that the average, and I say “average” Italian, unlike the average American/Canadian, has the tendency of watching out over his/her own “garden” BEFORE taking an interest in others. Is “selfish” the word I`m trying to find? Perhaps yes…

All-in-all, would I, at age 50, do this all over again knowing NOW what I (didn`t) know 20 years ago when at the ripe young age of 30 I moved from Montreal directly to Rome? Probably not, for the simple reason that I don’t think I would have any room left anymore on my head. “And why is that pray tell”, you may very well ask? Because in these 20 years I`ve bumped my head against the wall soooo many times with all the utterly crazy and zany things that I`ve seen and gone through in Italy that I don`t have any room left anymore for any other bumps!

Monday, September 07, 2009

Skiathos, Greece, August-September, 2009

Every time I go to Greece, now my third time since 2005, I always get the impression that God must have SPECIFICALLY created this country because it`s simply soooooo beautiful!

We chose Skiathos this time because like many out there, we were taken by the splendid movie, “Mamma Mia”, with a forever youthful Meryl Streep and former James Bond man Pierce Brosnan. Much of the movie was actually shot on the other nearby island, Skopelos, but Skiathos will forever be engrained in my mind as the opening scene of both Brosnan and Colin Firth both missing the boat for Streep`s B and B was actually shot on the port`s pier (one nite, with nothing to do, we went to an outdoor movie to see the movie again, the 3rd time for me, and it was only 100 meters from that very same pier!).

And how was Skiathos? Beautiful beaches and naturally crystal-clear water. I put the town and the island though behind Karpathos (still a rather “primitive” island) and my first, true love, Milos (which I hope to go back and visit soon one day). The Greeks, at least the island folk, are laid back and very, very easy-going, a lot more than the Italians I must say. We rented the usual scooter and like a fool, I hadn`t noticed that at one point it had run out of fuel (it was new and the person who brought it in before me should have filled the tank, which he/she didn`t!). It was an 80cc engine. We got an exchange at the same price (110 euros for 6 days) but with a 125 cc engine. No questions asked! Nice folks the Greeks…

The town itself is quaint with a nice small little port where hovercrafts and ships dock, not to mention the usual magnificent and VERY expensive private yachts. At one point, I thought that David Bowie had showed up (seeing that he has a summer home in Santorini, or thereabouts) because a luxurious British yacht with the name “Duke Town” pulled into Skiathos, and Bowie`s nickname is the “White Duke”! But alas, it wasn`t him unfortunately.

One day was involved going for a boat ride to Skopolos and the tiny island where they shot the final church scene in “Mamma Mia”, the scene where Streep`s daughter after all doesn’t end up getting married (but Streep does instead). On the way there, bombarded continually by our tour guide who kept blasting in four languages over the PA system the words, “Mamma Mia”!, I managed to hear that in the area one of the islands we passed by was to have actually been purchased in the 1960s by none other than the Beatles! In fact, in my many readings on the Fab Four I do recall that it had been John, who on advice I think by their manager Brian Epstein, who had wanted to by a Greek island. The plan though never did materialize. Another island we passed by is apparently the summer home of Richard Gere. We were also told that seals and dolphins were in the area, but given probably that they weren`t paid enough to put on a show for us, they never bothered showing up! And the weather? Except for the first day when there was a very light rainfall, was tremendously hot and beautiful!

But one of the things I get the biggest kick out of going to Greece, or anywhere for that matter outside Italy, is watching the poor Italian tourists who are unable to communicate with the local folk in English. This doesn`t help at all that Italian politicians want to know promote local dialects in Italian schools!

The flight there by the way was via Slovenia`s capital Lubiana. They have chartered flights that go from Udine to Greece but via Slovenia. We drove there from Udine and flew directly to Skiathos. This is the second time we fly this way and I must say that the Slovenian part went off like a Swiss clock (or Slovenian clock seeing that many now say that Slovenia is turning into a small Switzerland!). Hopefully next year we go back to Milos and we see the nearby islands (all pics by M. Rimati).