Thursday, January 25, 2018

Did a Venice restaurant really charge four tourists $1,418 for lunch?

What would you do if presented a bill for 1,143 euro—which today converts to $1,418 or 1,001 British pounds—for an ordinary restaurant lunch? That’s exactly what happened to four Japanese tourists who ordered one mixed fried seafood platter, four bistecche (steaks) and a bottle of water in an osteria in Venice December 5, 2017.

This incident has outraged Venice residents, tour guides and merchants, who are concerned that the widespread news coverage in Italy and throughout Europe is damaging the city’s reputation.

The Japanese tourists, who had taken a break from their studies at a hotel school in Bologna for some sight-seeing, were understandably not to happy about the bill either. They reported it to their tour guide, and at her urging, they filed a complaint with the Guardia di Finanza in Bologna. Now the media is reporting a heavy fine issued against the restaurant—20,000 euros, the equivalent of $24,783. In addition, the restaurant has since been investigated by the local police for sanitary and administrative violations and faces an additional 9,000 euro fine.

When I first read about the incident, I had some doubts about its veracity, based on the incredible price tag, but I’ve since confirmed the truth of the initial reports and discovered further details.

The tour guide, who has asked to remain anonymous, said the students showed her the credit card receipt at the end of the day. They thought that there had been an error, that the bill perhaps should have been for 114.10 euro and an extra zero had been accidentally added.

The tour guide called the restaurant and was met with hostility and implicit threats.

With a menacing tone,” she said, they asked me, ‘Who are you? What do you want? Come here, come here.’ ”

Corriere Dalla Sera columnist Massimo Gramellini explained that seven Japanese students originally entered the restaurant, which is just a stone’s throw from the famous Piazza San Marco. ‟Four of them ordered steak,” he wrote. ‟The other three sniffed a rip-off and sought escape in a pizzeria.”

The students were not given a formal scontrino fiscale for a receipt as required by Italian law, but they were given a printed copy of their credit card receipt to show to authorities.

It had become common practice in bygone years for merchants to cheat on their taxes by not reporting sales, but the Guardia di Finanza cracked down on that practice by requiring all customers to be given official receipts, which the customers must retain upon exiting a business. A customer leaving without a scontrino is also subject to a fine, a provision enacted to encourage customers to always request receipts.

Savvy travelers are usually aware that they will pay a premium price to dine near a major tourist attraction. In my earlier days of travel in Italy, I paid both a coperta (cover charge) and a servizio (service charge) while dining in Venezia. Combined with an order of two servings of water, Lucy and I paid almost $20 beyond the already overpriced primo piatti of pasta. Lesson learned for me, but not in such a painful way as that suffered by the unfortunate Japanese tourists.

The four students have since been invited back to Venice by the Venetian Hoteliers Association, which offered them two free nights in one of the city’s luxury hotels in an effort to counteract the “grave damage that the episode is doing to the city’s image.”

Even the three who left the first restaurant endured their own measure of injustice. According to Gramellini, ‟It is not that the three who went to the pizzeria had it much better. They spent 115 euros each for plates of spaghetti.”

The first news accounts held back the name of the restaurant, but social media is relentless, and I found not only the name of the restaurant but a copy of the credit card receipt on a Facebook page frequented by Venice residents. While the locals now know to avoid the Osteria da Luca, tourists are still largely oblivious.

Journalist Igor Petruccioli of Il Gazzettino visited the Osteria da Luca undercover this week. He found it be almost full at lunch time. ‟To see the restaurant from the outside, it would seem more the showcase of a bar, with sandwiches on display,” Petruccioli wrote. ‟It is located on one of the most traveled streets near San Marco. Inside, foreign waiters and a couple of Italians work there. We were received cordially but were asked immediately if we were journalists or normal customers.”

Petruccioli didn’t confess to being there on assignment, but he might have aroused some suspicion when he selected the same dishes ordered by the four Japanese students.

‟I asked for a mineral water, fried lobster, squid and scampi (10 euros per 100 grams) and a beef steak, indicated at a price of 18 euros,” he wrote. ‟At the bottom of the page it is specified that prices will be increased by 15% for the service. The total was 82.80 euro, without coffee and liqueurs: 50 euros for frying lobster and squid, 18 euros for beef steak, 4 euros for the bottle of water plus 10.80 euros of table service. At the time of payment, we put the banknotes in the holder and the waiter immediately returned the change, but without a receipt. On our request, we were then given a receipt.”

Luisella Romeo
Venice tour guide Luisella Romeo says she has never dined at the restaurant in question, though she passes it every day.

‟The price they paid is scandalous,” she said. ‟Rents are very high, and quality is the first victim. This happens in all touristic towns.”

Gramellini also pointed out that many restaurants in the town are now owned by foreigners. The owner of Osteria da Marco is from China, and the manager is Egyptian, he said. Admitting that even Italian owners are not above ripping off tourists, Gramellini opined that foreign owners have even less at stake.

‟Almost all the beauty that surrounds us no longer belongs to us, yet the way of mistreating it has not changed,” he wrote. ‟The new owners immediately adapt to the bad habit. They know that even if the seven Japanese should discourage any sane friend from coming to Italy, others will arrive anyway, and others, until the stock runs out. Beauty produces a very bad effect on its owners. You will rarely find a great restaurant in a pleasant place. Where there is a beautiful view, there is often a burnt steak and a hot bill.”

This does not mean that one can’t find a good meal at a reasonable price in Venice. After all, the locals eat out as well, and they’d all be bankrupt if they dined at the wrong places.

‟Many very good restaurants exist that don’t charge you too much and offer an excellent service,” Romeo said. ‟Not too far from the restaurant of the article, there are two places that offer great food and every day are packed with gondoliers and other locals.”

Romeo said that tourists should ask their local guides or city residents for recommendations. My own rule of thumb: The best restaurants are on the narrowest and most obscure streets. They have to be good to survive, and they thrive on good reputations and reviews.

Monday, January 15, 2018

How Living in My Ancestral Village Changed My Life

Note: I first visited Montecarlo, the village of my ancestors, in 2002, exactly 100 years after my grandfather left it to come to America. In 2015, I bought a home there. I’ve thought about trying to describe what that feels like . . . and then I read this account by Michelle Fabio. Beautifully written, it captures many of the same feelings I’ve experienced, and so I’m reprinting it with her permission. Paul

A guest post by Michelle Fabio of Bleeding Espresso and author of 52 Things to See and Do in Calabria.

As the car wound its way up the two-mile serpentine hill, I smiled to myself, daydreaming about how I would feel when, within minutes, I would be the first in my family in nearly 100 years to breathe the air, walk the narrow streets, and step inside the churches of my great-great-grandfather’s village in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot.
Badolato, Calabria

Although the logic of avoiding motion sickness told me to focus straight ahead, I couldn’t. I was mesmerized by the groves upon groves of olive trees lining the hillside in perfect rows, their leaves glistening so brightly I could’ve mistaken them for being covered in snow if it weren’t June.

Some of those trees simply had to have been there when Papù made his way down the hill that last time toward his ship of destiny in Naples; many of the thick, gnarled trunks easily showed a century or more. Now I could feel the trees watching me, and I imagined that their shimmering dance in the breeze was the olive tree version of smiling. And I smiled right back.

Whenever everything and everyone seem to be smiling upon me, I know I’m on the right path.

My stomach flipped and flopped around each bend, but it was worth every bit of queasiness to arrive at that random “S” curve halfway up the hill when suddenly, literally out of thin air, it appeared: Badolato and its ancient stone houses clustered together one on top of the next, in support or conspiracy or both, precariously perched on a hill, anchored by a church in the center – just as it had been for a millennium.

Is it possible for your heart to leap with joy and simultaneously sink with heaviness for everything you didn’t even know you were missing just moments ago?

Mine did. And then it did again when I stepped out of the car in the piazza and felt a century’s worth of lost time collapse into a single heartbeat.

Quite simply, I was home.

I know that sounds trite and probably unbelievable, but just as people describe love with the phrase “You just know,” I just knew.

Old door in Badolato
That was 2002, less than a year after the death of my grandmother. She was the first to be born in America, although she was as (southern) Italian in spirit and temperament as they come. Despite having other heritage mixed into our family, Italian always ruled, especially on the dinner table. Never underestimate the power and influence of a nonna.

So there I was, standing in the village of my great-great-grandfather, the one he had left in the early 1900s for a “better life” although truth be told he traded the back-breaking work of a peasant farmer for that of a coal miner; either way he was digging himself an early grave largely for the benefit of someone else.

I’ve often wondered whether he regretted changing his scenery from the brilliant Calabrian sun to the deepest, darkest depths of the earth, but as far as I know, he didn’t – or at least no one ever asked.

And yet just a few generations later, I was back in his town, feeling nothing but calm and goodness and warmth wrap around me – as if my ancestors had huddled around me, just like those houses on the hillside, and welcomed me home.

I have been fascinated by family history from the time I would stay up way past my bedtime, eyes at half-mast and head resting on my crossed arms on the kitchen table, absorbing my grandmother and great-aunt’s re-telling of stories of the generations that had been born in Italy. The desire to connect only grew over the years as I compiled family trees and meticulously recorded birth, marriage, and death dates.

But documents are cold, and I needed the warm touch of my roots – in person.

Indeed, just a few days into that first visit to Calabria, I knew I had to move there and live as my family once had (albeit with Internet and some modern conveniences). My plan was solidified when I discovered I was eligible for Italian citizenship as our blood line had never been broken according to Italian law. After more document collection and many phone calls to the Italian Consulate in Philadelphia, I proudly reclaimed something my family didn’t even know it was entitled to and now hold all the privileges and responsibilities of an Italian citizen.

In August 2003, I set off, making the return journey Papù never did. The original plan was a year, maybe two, but now eight years on, I can’t imagine leaving this place behind for anywhere else.

My soul has found its home.

A year and a half into my Calabrian experiment, I met and fell in love with my husband Paolo, a true paesano as his family and mine are from the same small quartiere in our village (and it’s where we now live). He’s introduced me to so much I didn’t even know I was looking for when I set off to learn more about my heritage.

We keep a garden, raise goats and chickens, and this past February we made our own sausage, pancetta, capocollo, supressata, and guanciale from a pig we had raised. Wine-making will come in due time (pian piano, slowly, as the Italians say), but for now, our proudest accomplishment is our little piece of land with olive trees – and our own olive oil.

Whenever I walk through our grove, returning the smiles of the leaves flickering in the sunshine, I wonder what Papù would think. Were these the same olive trees he took care of for the Baron but couldn’t dream of ever owning? Could he have imagined that one day his granddaughter’s granddaughter would even have the choice to return and reclaim his family’s heritage?

For the better part of a decade, I’ve gradually entrenched myself in an old-fashioned way of life that has been re-branded as “homesteading” and is all the rage in the United States. But here, eating organically, locally, and in-season aren’t trendy fads but a lifestyle that’s been around for centuries – most of what we consume that we don’t grow or raise ourselves comes from local farmers and butchers, who are the familiar, smiling faces at the weekly outdoor market.

Indeed, one of my favorite aspects of living here is that Calabrian life revolves entirely around being in tune with nature. Even if I didn’t have a calendar handy, I’d know the time of year by village’s activities, whether it’s vendemmia (grape harvest) in September, olive-picking in November, sausage-making in January and February, or brush clearing and burning off in May and early June.

Through this intimate relationship with the world around me, I’ve come to savor the simplicity of it all and realized just how little we truly *need* to survive. With the help of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, I have come to identify and name this desire to appreciate and be present in each moment: mindfulness. It’s a wonderful thing.

This move has been the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself.

My journey to discover my roots has helped me better understand where I come from, but it also continues to shape me into the person I was meant to be. It has re-rooted me in this terra that I couldn’t love any more had I been born here.

Though I’ve come up our winding hill hundreds of times, I’m still to this day struck by the vision of the village around the random bend in the road – I can never remember exactly which “S” it is, and I hope I never do; I like to think that such small mysteries, along with thousands of still-hidden secret pleasures, keeps my relationship with this ancient place alive.

I’ll also never know whether Papù regretted his decision to go to America, but I love that just in case he did, I’ve replanted a small part of him back here. I like to think this would make him proud, and in fact, I often feel him, his wife, his daughter (my great-grandmother), and other ancestors envelop me in warmth, just as I did that first day in the piazza – but never more strongly than when I’m among the olive trees in our campagna, drinking in their dancing, shimmering smiles.

Yes, I am home, and I’m smiling right back at them.

Michelle Fabio is an attorney-turned-freelance writer who has lived in her ancestral village in Calabria, Italy since 2003. She writes about savoring simplicity one sip at a time at Bleeding Espresso and about raising goats at Goat Berries.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Italy: Is it a state . . . or a state of mind? A poetic thesis about what it means to be Italian

I’ve written a couple of articles about those DNA tests that help people discover their ethnic backgrounds. The comments I’ve received range from gratefulness to bewilderment to anger.

Some are thankful to understand why their own tests came back as less than 100% Italian (or less than 50% for those with one Italian parent). Others wondered why I even bothered to write the articles, since ‟everyone knows” that Italians are a blend of many cultures and ethnic identities. And some feel that DNA tests are a waste of time. ‟Why should I take a test when I already know I’m 100% Italian?” some readers ask.

I doubt that anyone will show up to be 100% Italian genetically (although a few readers did claim their DNA tests proved just that). I suppose a person could make a case that if one’s ancestors have been in Italy since the unification in 1861, they are 100% Italian. But rather than elaborate or argue about the value and purpose of genetic testing, now I’d like to forget the science for a moment and speak to the heart and soul of what it means to be Italian.

I wrote previously that there’s a big difference between ancient ethnic origin and culture. To be Italian, I said, can refer to either a region or a culture—but I may have been leaving something out.

I recently read a splendid thesis by Enzo Camilleri, an Italian American writer born in Porto Empedocle in Sicily, Italy, and now residing in New York. Camilleri is a decorated veteran of the United States Army. He is also a cousin of famed writer Andrea Camilleri.

Porto Empedocle
The thesis came in answer to someone’s comment on Facebook, and I don’t know if Enzo considers it prose, poetry or just a response to another person’s comment—but I love it and consider it exquisite poetry.

He wrote it in Italian, but he’s graciously consented to translate it for me. I’ll include a copy of the Italian version in the footnotes.

Italians are complex people who are quick to complain about their crazy culture—and quick to defend it as well. They are proud. They can be both reverent and irreverent at the same time. But enough of my pontificating. Here are Enzo’s elegantly expressed thoughts. Give me your reactions.

Italy is not a country: Italy is an emotion . . .

There are countries that do not have geography and even less borders. It took several trips to different Italian cities to convince me that Italy is not a country in the conventional sense.

Italy is an emotion that does not leave you even if you are on the other side of the earth. Italy is something you bring inside you. Everywhere you go. It becomes a part of you, a lifestyle, an intoxication that takes you away in the moments when you are in apnea, a beauty tattooed on your eyes that projects you, in the blink of an eye, well above the ugliness that surrounds you.

Italy is a personal score written in your DNA, a hymn to life, a prayer, a permanent reminder that tickles all your senses and invites them to a journey of initiation, even if you do not move. Your body can be placed anywhere in the world, just close your eyes to let the colors, smells, tastes and all the pleasures that Italy offers you flow. Generous, cheerful, elegant, mother of all arts, mad, Roman, Florentine, Tuscan, Sicilian, Milanese or Neapolitan, Italy is a multiple personality that has a unique magical power. When you have tasted the divine, how difficult it is to return to earth!

Italy is an earthquake full of emotions from which nobody comes out unscathed. It penetrates your genes. It flows in your veins. It lives in you. It lights up inside you.

Italy is radioactive, nuclear, titanic, volcanic. It’s a wave that drowns you to enable your rebirth. It is a melody that caresses the eardrums, a masterpiece that leaves you speechless, a sweet that will become the salt of your life . . .

Italy is not a country, Italy is an emotion that hits you in the heart and will never leave you again.

Italy, my love.

Enzo Camilleri

Lonely tree on Sardegna


Enzo’s original version, in Italian

L'Italia non è un paese, l'Italia è un'emozione....

Ci sono paesi che non hanno la geografia e ancor meno i confini. Ci sono voluti diversi viaggi in diverse città italiane per convincermi che l'Italia non è un paese nel senso convenzionale.

L'Italia è un'emozione che non ti lascia anche se ti trovi dall'altra parte della terra. L'Italia, te la porti dentro. Ovunque tu vada. Diventa una parte di te, uno stile di vita, una ebbrezza che ti porta via nei moments in cui sei in apnea, una bellezza tatuata sui tuoi occhi che ti proietta in un batter d'occhio ben al di sopra delle bruttezze che ti stanno attorno.

L'Italia è un punteggio personale scritto nel tuo DNA, un'inno alla vita, una preghiera, un richiamo permanente che solletica tutti i tuoi sensi e li invita ad un viaggio di iniziazione, pure non muovandoti. Il tuo corpo può essere posizionato in qualsiasi parte del mondo, basta chiudere gli occhi per far scorrere i colori, gli odori, i sapori e tutti i piaceri che l'Italia ti offre. Generosa, allegra, elegante, madre di tutte le arti, pazza, romana, fiorentina, toscana, siciliana, milanese o napoletana, l'Italia è una personalità multipla che ha un potere magico unico. Quando hai gustato al divino, quant'è difficile tornare sulla terra!

L'Italia è un terremoto carico di emozioni dal quale nessuno esce indenne. Penetra i tuoi geni. Scorre nelle tue vene. Vive in te. Ti si illumina dentro.
L'Italia è radioattiva, nucleare, titanica, vulcanica. E 'un'onda che ti annega per meglio farti rinascere. É una melodia che ti accarezza i timpani, un capolavoro che ti lascia a bocca aperta, un dolciume che diventerà il sale della tua vita …

L'Italia non è un paese, l'Italia è un'emozione che ti colpisce al cuore e non ti lascerà mai più.

Italia, amore mio.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

We’re hoping that our stairway to heaven—and by that, we mean, our attic—will be divine

In a last-minute decision before we left Italy in November, we authorized our friend and neighbor Juri to oversee the construction of a new stairway to our attic. We had planned to install a stairway in a year or two, but Juri suggested that if we did it now, the permit he obtained last summer for repairing the roof would also be valid for the stairway installation.

Our attic with open west-facing skylight.
I’m not sure how that could work, but Juri said he has a friend in the comune who said it would be okay. It seems a little risky, but if anyone knows how to get things done here, it seems to be Juri. In the last two years, he’s been completely remodeling his substantially sized ground floor storage space (which we were under the impression can only be used as storage space) into new bedrooms and living areas for his growing family—seemingly all without permits and inspections.

We live only a few steps from the comune, so it would seem his extensive renovations must be known to the officials there. One can’t help but notice the large trucks coming and going with building materials. Does it make a difference that Juri and his dad are doing almost all the work themselves? What will happen when the property is put up for sale someday and his floor plan is entirely different than what is on file at the comune? However, since homes in Italy are passed on from parents to children ad infinitum, perhaps that day will never come.

In any event, I have transferred the needed money from our bank account to Juri’s. I’m not quite sure if he’s acting as our general contractor or he’s just passing the money on to his muratore friend who’s acting as supervisor. Either way, it’s an act of faith in Juri’s abilities and honesty. We had received a bid from a stairway manufacturer and installer in Lucca, and Juri said he and his friend could do the work better for the same price.

Since we need Juri to be there to open the place for the workers anyway, it made sense to hire him and his friend. Juri is an electrician by trade, and he’ll also install some lights in the attic. And he’ll find a plumber to run our kitchen sink drain into the sanitary sewer system (see The junkyard outside our house . . .).

Our old stairway is a squeaky fold-down contraption that completely blocks the hallway to the bathroom when in the down position. The fold-down stairs also enter the attic right under a low beam, forcing one to enter the attic on hands and knees. The new stairway will start in the front entryway and access the attic at the roof’s highest point. We’ll see what it looks like when we go back to Montecarlo in March.
Ingr. stands for ingresso, or entrance. That's where we want the stairway,
instead of in the dis. (no, I don't know what that stands for, but it's a hallway).

We hope to use the attic for storage, to hang the laundry and as a game and reading room. We could even pull out mattresses and use it as a sleeping area when we have too many guests for our bedrooms. When we open the three new skylights installed last summer, it will allow air circulation on hot days, new spaces to stand up and nice views both east and west.

Speaking of the skylights, while I was in the attic with Juri talking about the stairway, I finally got around to asking why our skylights had been installed differently than the drawing I had left him (see Roof with a view). Structural integrity of the roof wouldn’t allow skylights the sizes and locations I wanted, he said. I’ll have to accept that answer, mostly because its pointless to disagree at this point. It would cost a small fortune to make any changes now.

Installing new stairs won’t be the end of our renovation plans. In fact, we’ll still need some railings inside the attic to prevent someone from accidentally backing into the stairway opening. Then we’ll need more insulation and better flooring. Juri also pointed out that we’ll need to seal off any small holes between our attic and those of the houses that adjoin on the north and south, because rats can pass from attic to attic—and now they’ll have an opening to welcome them into our main house.

All in all, it probably would have been less expensive if we had continued to rent some place during our three or four months abroad, but what price can we put on the feeling of being part of the community of Montecarlo? We have no regrets.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Genetic diversity in DNA testing of Italians should be expected

To people of Italian – and especially Sicilian Italian – descent who have had DNA tests and are bothered that results didn’t show them to be 100% genetically Italian – don’t sweat it. In fact, if anything, these results could just be proof of how Italian you really are!

Before I explain, first of all let’s establish that when most of us say we’re Italian, we mean that either we, our parents of our ancestors came from Italy and that we embrace the Italian culture. DNA tests are an entirely different measurement. They try to trace where all of our thousands of ancestors came from in the past 2,000 years. By the standards used, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to test 100% Italian—or for someone with one Italian parent to test 50% Italian.
Sicily actually has more Greek temples than Greece. That's Alfio di Mauro on the right, with our tour group in Agrigento, Sicily.

While on a tour of Sicily in 2015, I interviewed Alfio Di Mauro, whose family roots go back centuries on this beautiful island. Di Mauro has a science PhD and was a researcher at the University of Catania, but now he’s a guide with Rick Steves. He pointed out that a true Sicilian or Southern Italian would have to be a blend of diverse genetic origins.

‟Sicily was in the center of what the Romans called the Mare Nostrum – Our Sea – the Mediterranean,” he said. ‟It was important first of all because it was a fertile land, a garden-like island of the Mediterranean. And second, it was a natural stepping stone between Europe and Africa. Between the western tip of Sicily and Tunisia is only 80 miles.

‟Also, Italy’s long shape divides the Mediterranean from East to West. Sicily is at the end of it, and it’s like the cork in the bottle. So if you were controlling the 80 miles of sea, plus the two miles between Sicily and the Italian peninsula, you were controlling any trade routes between East and West, and North and South. For thousands of years, Sicily was THE island to control. It was considered the center of the civilized world.”

And so the invaders came, saw and conquered, leaving behind traces of their languages, traditions, favorite foods, superstitions and genetic footprints.

‟We’ve had more than 17 invasions in 2,000 years,” Di Mauro said. ‟No other part of the world so small has had so many invasions! You will never find such a power-packed, genetically diverse and historically interesting place like Sicily. If you do a genetic survey of Europe, which is the country with the highest diversity? It’s Italy! What is the region that has the highest diversity? It’s Sicily! It has the highest genetic diversity in Europe.”

What Di Mauro didn’t mention but easily could have: Sicily’s status as a multi-cultural hub of travel and trading also drew many outsiders interested in establishing businesses. When the Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, for example, many found Italy a safe haven with prospects for making a healthy income.

So if your ancestors came from Italy, don’t expect your DNA results to show anything other than a blend of civilizations. It’s actually additional evidence that you truly ARE Italian.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Distinctions that make a noun male or female made perfectly clear

Which language is easier to learn, English or Italian? Some may say Italian, because every letter has the same sound every time. In English, letters can have vastly different sounds, and one has to learn how to pronounce each word. One famous example that advocates of English language reform like to cite is ‟ghoti,” which can be defined as ‟a limbless cold-blooded vertebrate animal with gills and fins and living wholly in water.” That’s right, un pesce. How could that be? ‟Gh” can be pronounced as ‟f,” (enough). ‟O” as ‟i” (women). And ‟ti” as ‟s” (motion).

But then, one has to consider those pesky masculine and feminine nouns in Italian—and many other languages as well. For English speakers, grammatical gender is one of the most vexing aspects of language learning. In addition, it sometimes seems that grammatical gender doesn’t match up with the “natural gender” of the person or object being described. In Portuguese, the word mulherão means “voluptuous woman.” However, the word itself is masculine. In Italian, a woman’s breasts are seni, a masculine noun. Virilità, the Italian word for “manliness” is feminine (as is also the case in Spanish, Latin, German, Polish, Russian and Hindi).

However, sometimes the logic is clear, as in the situation with some of these newer (and a few older) words.

FREEZER BAGS: These are male. They hold everything in, but you can see right through them.
PHOTOCOPIERS: These are female, because once turned off they take a while to warm up again. Also, they are effective reproductive devices if the right buttons are pushed, but pushing the wrong ones wreaks havoc.
TIRES: Male, because they easily go bald and are often over-inflated.
SPONGES: These are female, because they are soft and squeezable and they retain water.
WEB PAGES: Female, because they’re constantly being viewed and frequently get hit on.
TRAINS: Definitely male, because they always use the same old lines for picking up people.
HAMMERS: Also male, because in the last 5000 years, they’ve hardly changed at all, yet it’s sometimes handy to have one around the house.
THE REMOTE CONTROL: Female. Ha! You probably were thinking male, but consider this: It easily gives a man pleasure, he’d be lost without it, and while he doesn’t always know which buttons to push, he just keeps trying anyway.
GPS DEVICES: Gender neutral. They are a perfect blend of male and female. They’re always positive they know the best way, yet the voice giving instructions is infinitely patient when we make a wrong turn.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Care for the ‘Innocenti’ born in Tuscany established a nurturing pattern of enduring tradition

During the many hours I’ve spent poring over church archives in Pescia, I occasionally stumble across a child baptized with the designation ‟genitori incerti” or ‟padre sconsciuto.” This indicates that the parents or the father is unknown. I also find many parents with the surname ‟Innocenti,” or ‟degli Innocenti dell’Ospedale di Firenze” –of the innocent of the hospital of Florence, the place orphans were taken to be cared for, educated and adopted. Our Spadoni family tree contains almost a dozen persons with the name Innocenti, and I recently found one in my nonno Michele’s direct family line, Bibbiani Degli Innocenti, born in Tuscany around 1735.

The ‟Hospital of the Innocents” also known in old Tuscan dialect as ‟Spedale degli Innocenti, is a historic building designed in 1419 by Filippo Brunelleschi, the same man who later designed the famous Duomo of Firenze. According to Lawrence Kahn, writing in the journal Pediatrics, the Ospedale in Florence is the oldest known institution continuously devoted to the welfare of children. It has provided care of infants and children continuously for more than five and half centuries. Although the Ospedale as an organization ceased to exist in 1875, the building still serves as a child care center and provides community child welfare services, including placement in foster care. It also houses a small collection of Renaissance art as well as a museum honoring the hospitals history.
L'Ospedale degli Innocenti, Firenze

According to historian H. Saalman, the concept of ospedali in Florence dates back to the 13th century. Although the name may suggest a facility related to our modern hospital, it was closer to a hospice for the sick poor or a sanctuary for the abandoned or dispossessed, both young and old. Revenue came from bequests of money and land.

In 1294, the General Council of the Florentine Population delegated responsibility for the care of the “innocenti” to a powerful guild in the city, the “Arte della Seta,” or Silk Guild. For more than a century, the guild had had substantial experience in providing sanctuary for foundlings. In 1419, they requested and obtained the right to a bequest of 1000 florins to build a facility entirely for children. The Silk Guild planned to present the Ospedale degli Innocenti to Florence as a grand demonstration of their beneficence to the city. It also reflected the importance they assigned to the care of abandoned infants “deserted by their parents contrary to the law of nature.”

La Ruota degli Innocenti in Firenze, the wheel
where babies could be left anonymously.
Children were sometimes abandoned in a basin which was located at the front portico. However, this basin was removed in 1660 and replaced by a wheel for secret refuge. A door with a special rotating horizontal wheel brought the baby into the building without the parent being seen. This allowed people to leave their babies anonymously, to be cared for by the orphanage. This system was in operation until the hospital’s closure in 1875. Writer Pier Paolo Viazzo quoted an epigraph written on the occasion of the closing by a distinguished Florentine, Isidoro Del Lungo: “For four centuries this was the wheel of the Innocents, secret refuge from misery and shame for those to whom charity never closed its door.”

La Guardia alla Ruota dei Trovatelli,
Gioacchino Toma (1846-1891)
The “Innocenti” policy established foundlings as individuals deserving the respect of society, Kahn observed. ‟Care sometimes continued for several years,” he wrote. ‟Typically, an infant was nursed at the facility until it was feasible to transfer him or her to a wet nurse in the countryside. After weaning, the infant was returned to the ‘Innocenti,’ where he or she might remain until ready for transfer to a foster home. Often they were placed with a family where they might learn a trade. Girls might stay at the ‘spedale’ until they could be provided with a dowry from a donor or public source. For others, it became a training school to prepare children for their future occupations.”

Similar hospices for orphans were created in many large Italian cities, but the children were given different surnames, including Trovato or Trovatelli (found), Esposito (exposed), Proietti (cast out), Abbandonato (abandoned), and Casagrande or Dellacasagrande (of the big house). It may seem like these names could be stigmatizing, but orphans were quite common, and it seems that the names were not considered at all derogatory. However, there was some sensitivity to the possibility that such names could be a source of dishonor, and so some ospedali later began using the name of the city, or sometimes the month the child was born. As an interesting side note, this means that the famous New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio probably had an orphaned ancestor, for DiMaggio means ‟of May.”

According to Kahn’s research, the disposition of many unwanted children had been erratic prior to the founding of ospedali. ‟Sometimes a foundling was left in a public place where chance alone decided his or her fate,” he explained. ‟In addition to those who were illegitimate, there were many infants whose parents were unable to provide their care. As soon as 1467, the ‘Innocenti’ was caring for 600 children and housing 200 orphans, foster mothers, or wet nurses and men.”

Viazzo noted that in 1647, records show that “there were 1091 children in foster care, 28 nursing infants in the hospital, 21 wet nurses, 642 infants, children and mothers of all ages, 98 other children, 40 priests and other ministrants, the prior, and an additional 25 infants sent to San Gimignano” Throughout its history, he said, the ospedale accepted 375 000 infants and young children.

Kahn, who was writing for a publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics, explained why the Ospedale has a special significance to the AAP.

The della Robbia's bambino that inspired the AAP logo
When people looked at the building during its early years, they saw 10 blank roundels, concave circular frames set within the spandrels, the spaces created between the arches. Then in 1487, four decades after Brunelleschi’s death, the 10 ‘bambini’ by Luca della Robbia were mounted in the roundels. In 1845, two additional pairs of ‘bambini,’ reproductions of some of the originals, were installed at either end.”

Each of the originals is unique. Seven are fully swaddled from thorax to toe, and two are depicted with the swaddling clothes still tied but sagging below the waist or knees. In 1939, the AAP chose a slight variation of a baby with swaddling clothes untied for its insignia.

What della Robbia had in mind with this one variation is hard to say,” Kahn continued. ‟Perhaps the loosened swaddling clothes represent liberation from the constraining stigma of the foundling origins of the ‘bambino.’ Modern pediatricians might consider it a symbol of emancipation from health care practices based on ignorance. Some might consider the unwrapped swaddling clothes as liberating children from illness. In any event, this ‘bambino’ is robust and free. Ultimately the AAP chose this ‘bambino’ for its insignia . . . the AAP chose well.”

Thursday, November 23, 2017

An American Family in Italy: Living la dolce vita without permission

Imagine suddenly leaving a comfortable and successful job in exchange for a year of living and working in Italy. Further imagine taking your wife and two distinctly unenthusiastic teen daughters with you. You book a flight with no definite idea of where you’ll live or work, no visa and no work permit. Your colleagues begin to doubt your mental balance, and you can’t blame them.

Our family did this and found a way to survive and thrive in a foreign land while stumbling our way through the delicious process of learning to live like Italians. Along the way, I impersonated an Italian cousin, got our family lost innumerable times and met my own personal version of the godfather—the man who hired me and gave us an apartment. Our teen daughters struggled to find themselves while attending school by day and exploring young adult nightclubs into the early morning hours—while we all struggled to work out our differences. Our travel memoir appeals to families of all ages seeking adventure, challenge, a fresh start or a chance to embrace their inner Italian.

An American Family in Italy can be purchased in print or e-book: Click here to order.

What others say about An American Family in Italy
An American family spends a year in Italy–a dream, a disaster, laughter and tears, an unforgettable memory. Warning: this book may cause you to book a flight to Italy. Enjoy!”
Maria Coletta McLean, author My Father Came from Italy

A captivating page-turner about a family’s adventure in Italy, narrated by a witty and self-effacing dad who, though supported by his wife, contends with two reluctant teenagers as he fulfills a lifetime dream. A fun and fascinating read sprinkled with humor, history and the conundrums of living in a foreign speaking country.”
E.C. Murray, author, A Long Way from Paris

As invigorating as a glass of cool wine sipped in the shade of an umbrella on a Tuscan hill town, this travel memoir delights, informs, entertains and refreshes.”
–Tony Bisceglia Anderson, Washington past president, Order Sons of Italy in America, currently National Financial Secretary

With wonderful humor about the pitfalls of uprooting your family to live in Italy for a year, Spadoni's genuine love for the culture and shrug of the shoulders to the crazy bureaucracy make this memoir a heartwarming joy to read.”
–Lizzie Harwood, Amazon bestselling author of Xamnesia

Anyone who has Italy in their blood, either literally or figuratively, should read this adventure. It will take you here vicariously until you have time to come in person.”
–Elena Benvenuti, private tour guide, Discover Lucca with Elena

If you’re feeling at all cynical about your workaday, escape into this sincere, sweet tale and realize the best things in life really are the simple things—good food, friends and family.”
Sara Ost, senior vice president, Group Delphi

Journalist Paul Spadoni’s An American Family in Italy has the vitality, humor and need-to-know details of jumping off the deep end to follow your dreams—a sparkling adventure done well.”
–Judy Ferguson, Voice of Alaska Press, author of Alaskas First People

Thursday, November 16, 2017 and similar services can be superior to hotel stays—if you take a few precautions

Hotels and hostels have traditionally been the preferred resting place for travelers in Europe and elsewhere. The advent of the Internet has made it much easier to sort out the various options, with multiple competing sites available to seek out, review, compare and reserve accommodations. And now the advent of sites such as (air bed and breakfast) and is moving the accommodations from larger buildings to private homes, with great success—better prices for travelers, income opportunities for home owners—and new risks.
Photo courtesy

In a recent post, I analyzed the benefits of staying in an agriturismo, and now I’d like to examine the much newer option of booking a room or an entire house through Airbnb, HomeAway or other similar services.

Saving money and meeting authentic residents of the country being visited seem to be the main benefits, and many guests at vacation homes express great satisfaction with the experience.

Brian Fanciulli
I’ve rented mansions in Italy for a pittance,” said Brian Fanciulli of La Crosse, Wisconson. ‟I’ve stayed on a five-acre property on the side of a volcano in Hawaii for a week for the average nightly rate of a room at a resort.

You have a wide variety of amenities to choose from and aren’t restricted to the boiler-plate hotel rooms. You can have a house with a full kitchen to save money on meals. A garage. Privacy! A place that is more amenable to having guests over. You can get character and charm. You get variety. You can stay in places you might never be able to own yourself. You get to immerse yourself in the neighborhood.

Often the owners of these places are very engaged with their renters. We stayed at a beautiful apartment in Ortigia and were welcomed by a lovely family who owns the building. They offered to walk us around town and show us some if their favorite places, introduce us to some of the locals, and they even offered to help us track down relatives, as I mentioned my family emigrated from a nearby town 100 years ago.”

Craig Moyle from Tigard, Oregon, has found the services of Italian Airbnb owners to be exceptional.

Craig Moyle
Our hosts often times end up being our friends and act as concierges,” he said. ‟They give specific directions or meet us to guide us to their property. They orient us to points of interest and restaurants, call for reservations and sometimes obtain discounts. They explain bus and metro directions and schedules, print boarding passes and arrange for that early morning cab ride to the airport. Many of our hosts have been classified as ‘Superhosts’ by Airbnb. These folks go the extra mile. They even step in to help when a translator is needed at the pharmacy or to deal with other bumps in the road that we may encounter.”

Anthony LaMesa at the Cape of Good Hope.
However, it is imperative to approach a stay at an an Airbnb armed with words of advice from seasoned travelers. Anthony LaMesa from the Cape of Good Hope is a frequent traveler all over Europe and much of the world, and he often stays in hostels, hotels and Airbnbs.

Airbnb can be a great option in Italy,” he said. ‟It is helping a lot of people to secure a livelihood in small villages and less-touristed cities—but you also have to be careful.”

Operators of small venues have fewer regulations and less oversight, and they also have less to lose than hotels do if they have major issues. Problems can include mold, damaged appliances, amenities missing, noisy locations and limited check in times. Some travelers have also encountered cleaning fees that are not advertised up front, making the stay not such a great deal after all. One of the worst problems can be insect or rodent infestations.

Search for bed bugs by inspecting the mattress seams under the sheets and looking for any blood- or rust-colored stains on the mattress cover and linens, LaMesa said. ‟It’s very common for bed bugs to infest tourist apartments, because of the high turnover. And it’s really hard to eliminate them if they hitchhike in your clothes or luggage.

If there are major problems with the listing, make sure to report them within 24 hours of arrival to the host via the Airbnb messenger (not WhatsApp or SMS), so the problem is documented. Send pictures, if possible. That way, if the issue isn’t quickly fixed, Airbnb will give you a refund and allow you to leave. If you don’t do this within 24 hours, Airbnb will assume that everything was fine.”

Research by carefully reading the reviews. Most frequent bed and breakfast users agree that’s the most important advice they can give, and read them with a critical eye. Because guests sometimes develop friendly relationships with the owners, they may be more reluctant to be as harsh in their criticisms as they would with a hotel or hostel.

Read between the lines with Airbnb reviews,” LaMesa said, ‟because their reviews tend to be a bit inflated in terms of positivity. Hosts will often find a way to get critical reviews—especially the ones mentioning really bad stuff like bed bugs or rodents—removed. I recently stayed in an Airbnb with bed bugs, and Airbnb took down my review mentioning them, because they said I wasnt allowed to write ‘Airbnb told me to leave for a hotel,’ despite that being exactly what they told me to do.”
A couple can stay at the "Farm of Giustina" near the train station in Montecarlo, Lucca, for only $40 a night, delicious breakfast included, and receive guest services superior to those of a concierge at a fancy hotel.

The protection provided by Airbnb generally prevents travelers from being scammed. All transactions go through the Airbnb website, never directly from the guest to the host (in fact, in-person cash exchanges are forbidden under Airbnb rules). You’ll pick a place you’d like to stay and request a reservation. Once you request a reservation and agree to the house rules, you submit your financial information to Airbnb, which Airbnb will then charge. But they won’t release your money to the host until 24 hours AFTER you check in, which gives time for both parties to agree everything is going according to plan.

If you have a customer service issue with Airbnb, you’ll be assigned a case manager,” LaMesa said. ‟The problem is this case manager could then be ending their shift, so you'll be sent to a new case manager who won’t read the notes from the original ones—and you have a real nightmare on your hands trying to get anything resolved quickly. In this case, be nice, but extremely assertive. And use Twitter’s direct message feature to get Airbnb’s social media people to make your case marked as urgent.

If the host doesn't have a ‘security deposit’ on their listing, they have only 24 hours—or until the next guest checks in—to make a claim against you for any ‘damage,’ and some hosts will invent damage. If they have an actual security deposit on the listing –it must have been there when you booked—they will have 14 days to make a claim against you. If a host does come asking for money for some ridiculous reason (i.e. asking €500 for a broken Ikea table that cost €50 and was already broken when you arrived), make sure you stand your ground when communicating with Airbnb, which will ultimately decide what, if anything you have to pay. The same goes when requesting money from a host for broken or missing amenities, or problems during the stay.”

One other important piece of advice from LaMesa regards extended stays. If you stay for 28 days or longer, you have a special ‘long-term cancellation policy’ applied to your booking, which means you can’t leave early without paying for the entirety of your first month,” he said. This is a big deal. Even if the host has a ‘flexible’ cancellation policy, if you book for a month or more, you’re covered by this more restrictive policy.”

Fanciulli is also well-traveled, using mostly HomeAway (formerly VRBO), and he chipped in with additional advice. It’s important to note that there are major differences in definitions and expectations for certain creature comforts in Italy versus the United States,” Fanciulli said, making the following points:
  • The first floor (1° in Italian) means the second floor in Italy. The ground floor is zero. This can be important for those who are stair-challenged, as elevators are rare and often small and precarious in older buildings.
  • The number of rooms usually refers to total rooms, including bedrooms, living areas, kitchen, etc. Bedrooms don’t necessarily have closets or doors. A living area may qualify, for the person listing it, as a bedroom. Look for clues about things like this in the reviews.
  • The second B in B&B often gets lost in translation in Italy. Unless explicitly mentioned, there will be no breakfast. However, I have found it to be common that if there is a kitchen, they usually leave you well stocked with things to munch on.
  • If you’re driving, parking should be a top consideration. If you’re staying in a city center, forget it or be prepared to park outside the wall or whatever designates il centro.
  • There will be no air conditioning unless explicitly stated. Italy gets hot in the summer. I opt for ground floor rentals in old buildings during hot seasons as they’re usually within thick stone walls and stay naturally cool. Upper floor apartments, while tempting for views, can be miserable in the heat. You’re going to spend most of your time out and about, so opt for practicality and function over views.
  • Quiet’ is a relative term. Bring earplugs.
  • Beds are rarely the spring mattresses we’re used to in the US. A typical Italian bed is foam on a board. I don't think there is a such thing as a box spring in Italy. Spare beds are often futons or something of the like. If this is an issue, ask before you book and look for clues in the reviews.”

Armed with solid information and by taking a few precautions, your experiences at vacation home can be even better than at a hotel stay.

I’ve actually had more issues with hotels than I have ever had with vacation rentals,” Fanciulli said. ‟Overbooking. Bad rooms. Noisy neighbors. Poor service. Accommodations being nothing like what the website represented.”

If you research a listing well—read most of the reviews, message the host before booking with any questions and negotiate the nightly rate if you feel it’s too high—and are prepared to be an advocate for yourself if things go wrong during your stay, you can have a pleasant Airbnb experience in a unique property,” LaMesa added.