A fragmented sense of political issues in Italy

As a Communications student interested in people, culture and art, I’ve done my fair share of attempting to delve into the minds of the locals surrounding me. One type of observation that always stands out to me are political issues prevalent in Florence (or in Italy in general). Through my cultural encounters, discussions with Italians, and lessons in class, I’ve developed a fragmented sense of five political issues in particular:

Snapped a photo with this street art for you, Dad.

  1. Silvio Berlusconi–that’s a funny joke. As I already knew before coming to Italy, the last prime minister was absolutely horrendous. He overstayed his turn, poorly used his power, contributed towards the European debt crisis, and, uh, touched young girls. Fortunately, he finally resigned in November 2011, but he sure is still spoken of today. Sometimes his name angers people, like the way one of my professors spoke about him. But sometimes his name is just a funny joke–like the “Bonga bonga” theme night at a pub that was all about mocking their ex-prime minister.
  2. Immigrant, shimmigrant. Acquiring your Permit of Stay is an expensive, annoying process demanded by the Italian government in order to stay here legally past a certain number of days. Likewise, it is mandatory to carry around your passport (or a copy) to prove your approval to be in Florence. However, complying with these perturbing tasks will feel absolutely useless as you pass illegal vendors on every main corner of this city. During our orientation, we were told what a major problem illegal immigration is in Italy right now–particularly from Eastern Europe and Africa. Many of these people make a living illegally selling goods on the street, and it’s amazing how it seems to just be accepted. It’s not like you see police going after them or asking for their documents. At night, I once passed a group of them sprinting to their van with their merchandise carried in blankets, so maybe they do get caught at late hours. The crime rate of illegal immigrants is high as well. Between the illegal selling and the crimes, it’s a shame that all immigrants here seem to be discriminated against by Italians–even if they’re legal. I’ve not only learned about it in my class, but have even talked about it with legal immigrants themselves, who are thankful for the better life here but are negatively affected with this. I guess these immigration issues are universal among different countries, because it sounds an awful lot like the US situation.
  3. What “mafia?” Especially in Southern Italy, you will find a complete denial that the mafia exists. It exists. That is all.
  4. American health care doesn’t just upset Americans. From the locals I’ve spoken about politics with, Italians seem to despise American health care. Their proposed solutions, to me, sound so socialized that it’s scary. The difference in philosophies doesn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me is how passionately angry they feel about the issue–even though it’s not even the health care system of their own country. So, be careful when talking about this issue with Italians!
  5. Youth in revolt. Every day I pass posters or street art with political messages–particularly anti-fascist messages. Sometimes, I even see protests of young Italians revolting against these issues. My generation here seems to want a more democratic government, and I’m not sure what they’re going to do about changing it.

Florence Underground Music Scene

As someone who grew up in the NJ music scene, I’ve been craving a taste of the local music scene in Florence–especially since the Florentine teens and young adults carry such a punky style. Well, I finally got my in.

Last week, a bartender I’m friends with (Simone) told me about an upcoming gig his band would be playing right near the pub (which is right near our apartment). After two past failures at attending a local show this semester, I was SO psyched to finally have an in–and to see a friend’s band! “It’ll be more like a giant party,” he told us, and man was he right!

On Friday night, Vicki, Heather and I found the place (thanks to the giant crowd of smokers outside of course) and presented the fliers (aka magical admittance tool) that Simone had told us to print out beforehand to the bouncer, who let us right in. We confusedly entered what looked like a typical caffe, but then were led back to the room where the show/party would take place. The entrance fee was 10 Euro, which covered two drinks at the bar as well.

Our friend's band, Cinderella Breakdown, kicked off the live set. They had the front of the room dancing, and even some fans who jumped up on stage to dance too.

When we entered the room, we were struck by the spinning party lights, DJ blasting jams, and pretty ghetto set-up of a bar. It was an energetic atmosphere though–definitely not what I’d expect for a local show based on the Jersey music scene, but definitely fun!

It felt so funny seeing our local bartender singing it out on stage!

The age range went from teens younger than us to adults in their 40s, and we were probably the only Americans in the place. We noticed a lot of other regulars from Joshua Tree Pub, where Simone works, so it was really cool to see everyone coming out to support his music and have a good time. Cinderella Breakdown played a very fun set, but we were surprised that all their lyrics were in English instead of Italian!

The next band that played was a lot younger, called Ritmo Randagio. They certainly brought in a younger crowd with even more dancing, and they played a combination of original songs sang in Italian and covers of American songs sang in English, like Kids by MGMT an Stand By Me–both which the crowd loved.

I was so impressed by not just the party atmosphere of dancing, but particularly  by the way the young guys and girls interacted. These college-age kids would dance kind of old-fashioned style, with the guys taking the hand of a girl and twirling her around, etc. It was very cute and romantic, I thought.

I was really impressed with Ritmo Randagio, and actually returned to see them again last night at the Hard Rock Cafe in Florence. They played another awesome set, and I enjoyed getting to briefly meet some of them when I went to buy their CD. Apparently they’ll be playing on Monday night in Florence again, so I’m planning to see them then too. I could definitely get used to the Florence underground music scene 😀

Ritmo Randagio at the Hard Rock Cafe, Florence (April 24, 2012)

Rockin’ the Italian leather jacket

Yesterday was the day I finally caved in and bought myself an Italian leather jacket from the San Lorenzo leather markets.

Seeing how cool the locals look in their leather jackets, I had been wanting one all semester long. Plus, Florence is pretty well-known for its leather products — “You have to get something leather there!” my family friends who had visited here before told me.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been checking out the jackets in the leather markets, taking note of the different styles, prices and employees. There were two vendors I had actually spoken to about possibly buying a jacket, but one of them didn’t make a low enough price offer, and the other was so effusively full of shit with his sly charming techniques that I just didn’t want to close a deal with him. Oddly enough, both their names were Alex.

Yesterday I passed through the markets again on a beautiful, sunny but still-quite-chilly day. I spotted a jacket I really liked in a stand, except that it was brown. The vendor saw me looking and said something, so I told him in Italian that I liked that jacket, except would want it in black. He instantly lead me a little down the street to the actual store behind the leather stands that line the streets. He tracked down the jacket in black and was able to determine my size just by looking at me. As he zipped me up he said, “You have the perfect physique for the Italian jacket,” and based on how I looked and felt, I almost believed him. I did want to try on some other jackets too, though, and ended up spending about 30 minutes total with this vendor. We mostly spoke in English, conversing about school and the quality of the leather and Florence and which jackets looked best on me, etc. I liked this for two main reasons. First of all, it obviously makes me feel more comfortable and less like a victim of any tourist-trap strategies. And second, my bargaining strategy is to approach the vendor like a friend at your own level who you are just doing fair business with: be interested in him and kind to him, don’t react like you’re weirded out by anything he asks or says, speak all the Italian you can, and do not to go in with any hints that you’re already suspecting he’ll try to rip you off. He was actually the perfect balance of an approachable vendor–not at all too effusive with the comments of charm, a good conversationalist, and a source of information to track down the right product. Oh, and of course, his name was Alex too. What the hell, I thought, do these vendors do a group huddle of the month’s game plan and assign everyone a name or something? “Alright, scarf guys, your name is going to be Max. Jacket guys, you’ll be Alex…” Nevertheless, Alex III succeeded. The jacket I liked most was marked for 420 Euro, which he discounted down to 220 for me (I’m sure they’re all marked way higher than they need to be in the first place). I refused that, and kept trying on more jackets, asking him to only select cheaper ones. I told him that I had seen lower prices more in my college-friendly budget, like a 90 Euro jacket. He immediately took out a lighter and held the flame to the jacket I was wearing. “See this? This is real leather that resists fire and water. The lowest you’ll see for a real leather jacket like this is maybe 130,” he explained. I believed him because it did seem to match what I had observed for real leather jackets in both the San Lorenzo marketplace and back home in the US. I spotted another jacket I was attracted to on a rack, tried it on and loved it, did my best to hide my enthusiasm, and nailed an offer that was perfectly acceptable (the number I had in mind while going in in the first place)–and about 3 times lower of the marked price 😀

So, now I’m rocking the leather jacket on the streets of Florence. If I have one regret in Florence, it’s not getting my jacket earlier!

P.S. I have often been mistaken for an Italian local before here, but now I really am quite often! Time to put my Italian language to the test! 😀

The longest walk [down one street] ever.

Today we finally have that gloriously beautiful sunshine that’s we’ve been missing for weeks. The umbrella guys turned back into flower guys, and all peace is restored.

So, I’ve been spending every minute of my day outside that I can. While I briefly wait for my laptop to charge back up so that I can do work in the piazza, I thought I’d share a quick story about today.

The San Lorenzo leather markets take up a few streets lined with vendors selling their leather goods, scarves, trinkets and all sorts of souvenirs at their booths. Usually these streets are so congested with tourists and other pedestrians that it’s easy to duck into the crowd at any time. I often do this method when I don’t feel like dealing with the stares and comments from many of the Italian male vendors lining the streets.

Credit: sjdoesitaly.wordpress.com

Well, the sunshine put me in a great mood today. When I turned the corner and entered the first street of the market, I immediately got a friendly “Ciao.” So I politely smiled and said back, “Ciao.” A few steps later, the next vendor greeted me, “Buon giorno!” Well, I just said hi to that last guy so it’d be rude to just ignore this one, I thought. “Buon giorno,” I replied. A few steps later and again, I get a “ciao.” Then a “hi” from another. Followed by a “ciao, bella” from the next. And as I am automatically responding to each of these individual vendors as I walk through, I suddenly understand why this felt so weird and abnormal: I was basically the only person walking down the street. Where the hell is the giant crowd? It definitely was awkward enough to implement the duck-into-crowd-and-disappear strategy.

I must’ve turned down the least popular street at an odd moment of little pedestrian activity. At this point I was only maybe halfway through the street. Shit, I’m gonna have to say hi back to every damn person now. “Ciao, bella!” “Ciao.” “Buon giorno!” “Buon giorno…” “He-llooooo” “Hi.” “Aaaah, bella” [shakes head and blushes]. I think they noticed my enthusiasm dwindle as I progressed further on. By time I got to the end of the street, I was laughing, and even some of the vendors were laughing because they saw how absolutely ridiculous this whole episode was. It was the longest walk down one street ever, and the most hilarious one too.

“Ugly American” students in Italy

Warning: Incoming rant!

This morning I spent two hours waiting in the Italian Immigration building to have my number called so that I could be fingerprinted for my Permit of Stay. No, I’m not going to rant about this process of red tape similar to going to the DMV. But, I am going to share some thoughts about the “Ugly Americanism” that I see too much of in Italy–the blatant insensitivity and even disrespect towards the Italian culture that is too-often demonstrated by American students here. Remember–as sitting in the Questura this morning reminded me–we are foreigners here, and foreigners who have been here for enough months to understand respectful etiquette and behavior. There is no excuse for the blatant obliviousness, obnoxiousness, insensitivity and lack of effort to respect Italian culture that portrays you as an “Ugly American” student.

Stop expecting Italians to speak English. If someone walked into a shop in America and asked for something in a language other than English, the shopkeeper would be annoyed and look at that person like he or she is crazy. Believe it or not, this concept works in other countries too! If you are in a country which speaks Italian, then you should expect that the people speak Italian. After months of taking an Italian course [and living in Italy], you should at least know how to say the simple phrases that you need in order to get by…and you should actually use them. It blows my mind when American students capable of saying something simple like “Buon giorno. Posso avere il panino con mozzarella e pomodori, per favore?” will instead ask “Hi, can I have [points to desired sandwich].” Some students will even get frustrated and annoyed with the shop keeper if he/she reacts in a confused manner. You’re in a different country that speaks a different language: why the hell would you just expect them to gracefully receive your speaking in English? Just TRY to speak the Italian you know!–A failed effort at Italian is much better received than an ignorant assumption of English. Furthermore, if you don’t know how to say what you need to say in Italian, then you should first ask if the other person speaks English. “Parla inglese?” is all–hell, even just “English?” can communicate that question. Stop walking up to a front desk and immediately speak in English without any respect for the possibility that the Italian you are speaking to in Italy might only speak Italian and therefore not understand you.

Stop getting frustrated with people for cultural differences. Once again, you are in a different country, so some things will probably be different. No one can make you stop being frustrated with adjustments you can’t handle, but you need to stop attributing your own culturally-conjured “faults” towards the people from another culture. That barista is not a horrible employee for not serving you coffee in a to-go cup: to-go cups for coffee are not the norm here. That waitress is not giving you bad service for not bringing your bill yet: the norm is to not rush your dinner, and to wait for the customer to ask for the bill. Stop evaluating people based on your own cultural norms.

Don’t parade effusive American patriotism. The other night, a bunch of students threw an “America Party” at an Italian bar I was at. They piled in with their red, white and blue and exerted their American pride, even with Italians in the same place. Another night, someone kept hollering an obnoxious “TO AMERICA!” at dinner in a quaint Italian restaurant. Stop making us all look like arrogant assholes, please…


My 21st birthday in Italy

They say your 21st birthday won’t feel special in Italy, where you can already legally drink. But my wonderful friends and family made this one hell of a birthday! 😀

First, I was given the greatest gift of all, which was for my family to come visit for the extended Easter/birthday weekend. (My birthday actually fell ON Easter this year). We were disappointed that it rained their whole stay, but it was still something very special to spend time together here in Italy. We even went to Siena to visit a winery, which I can blog about in a later post.

On my “Birthday Eve,” as Chelsea calls it, my family took Heather, Chelsea and me to local restaurant called Osteria dei Centopoveri, where Chelsea’s uncle and cousin work. (If you’re ever in Florence, I HIGHLY recommend this restaurant. It’s off-the-beaten-track but has some of the best food I’ve tasted in Florence along with fair prices and a cozy family-run atmosphere). We did the Italian-style dinner — several courses and lots of wine! My primi piatti of a homemade gnocci dish with lobster is possibly the best thing I’ve ever consumed.

Salute! ...To good company and good times 😀

After a couple hours of eating this extravagant and madly-delicious meal, the lights shut off and “Zio Claudio” and his staff surprised me with a birthday cake celebration. I was so touched by their kindness. With a smile gleaming on my face, it suddenly really did feel like my birthday. I was already so stuffed, but I managed to have a couple bites because it was SO GOOD.

Then, Claudio and his staff kept the celebration going with champagne! This restaurant and Chelsea’s family really live up to the heartwarming-and-generous-Italians stereotype. Then, Zio Claudio brought us shots of a strong Italian liquor that I can’t remember the name of. All I can tell you is that it BURNED, and somehow induced a hot flash. It definitely fit the occasion, though.

After dinner, the birthday surprises and spontaneous celebrations continued at our favorite local bar, Joshua Tree Pub…which truly is my “home away from home” in Florence. I intended to just stop by for a couple drinks with my family, but around midnight my friends started piling in until we accumulated a pretty big group in the back. Then, at midnight, the music lowered and the bouncer/bartender who we’re good friends with, Paolo, came in with a little cake that had a lit candle stuck in it, and the bar was singing me happy birthday. (Paolo is the cutest thing ever). I couldn’t believe it, and couldn’t have possibly asked for a better birthday celebration! The cake was followed by shots on the house, cheers and hugs from the other bartenders, and then an extremely fun night of good friends, good drinks and good times at one of my favorite places in Florence.

Whoever said that your 21st birthday won’t feel special in Europe was wrong…I can’t thank my family, friends from home and friends in Italy enough for making this one of the most special and memorable birthdays I’ll ever have 🙂

“Bella, bella, you want umbrella?!”

Apparently the Archbishop recited special prayers for Italy’s much-needed rainfall last week: apparently it worked.

My friends and I have been fortunate enough to experience NO rainy days since our arrival in Florence in late January. Maybe it drizzled once or twice, but other than that we’ve had nothing but clear skies.

Now, we’ve had nothing BUT rain for days! I was so happy to have my family visit this weekend, but we were so disappointed that it rained miserably their entire stay! (We of course still loved being able to spend time together in Italy — but the rain definitely dampened the trip and stopped us from doing all we’d do).

Today the rain is back again in full force. Natalie and I swam to our 12:00 class, splashing through the cobblestone puddles. “Why did I wear white pants today?!” screamed Natalie as we dodged umbrellas left and right. Our entire class sat through the two and 1/2 hour lecture cold and soaked.

At least the damn flower guys who transform into umbrella guys are probably having a few good days of business, hitting up all these tourists splashing through the streets like lost ducklings who don’t understand water or traffic. I feel like I encounter vendors at every corner of this city. “Bella, bella, you want umbrella?!”

With only about one month left in Florence, I just hope the rain goes away soon and stays away. So far, the forecast shows rain for as long as we can possibly view in the future…and in a city environment like this with tons of amazing outdoor places to spend our time, the rain really is a problem.

Maybe the Archbishop would be willing to recite a special prayer for the Mets this season 😀