Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Viva Italia -- Part II

The view from St. Peter's at sunset
The on and off rain when we landed in Rome didnt last long.  It cleared up by the time we registered at the hotel and wandered around the corner for lunch at Café Teatro.  I had the carbonara; Suzanne had the arrabbiatta.  It was fabulous. 

When I wrote about our prospective trip in August last year (Viva Italia), the Euro was at $1.45.  I speculated that 2012 would be a good year to go as I thought the Euro might actually be worth as little as one dollar.  Unfortunately, the foreign exchange market had other plans.  The Euro was $1.28 by the time we left and nearly $1.30 by the time we headed home.  I am not looking forward to my American Express bill. 

I remember fondly the days of the Italian Lire.  On my last visit, I bought a leather coat for about $140.  The Lire was losing value so fast that I was able to negotiate a better price by paying in dollars.  In fact, I never bought any Lire.  I just used dollars for everything.  The Euro has changed all that. 

Of course, the debt crisis has led to talk of Italy leaving the Euro.  In Rome, the general manager of Hotel Mascagni was pretty clear that he did not want Italy to leave the Euro.  I asked him how he thought the new president, Mario Monti, was doing.  After 8 years of Berlusconi, he was doing as well as he could, he told me.  But, taxes were going up.  “He has to find money somewhere,” he said in perfect English.

In Florence, we stayed at the Hotel de la Ville on Via Tornabuoni.  It’s Florence’s equivalent of Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue.  Luxury goods were flowing from stores including international brands we know in the States:  Gucci, Rolex, Ferragamo et al.  We met designer/proprietor Davide Cerasi in his 12 by 20 foot shop along the River Arno where my wife bought a beautiful leather jacket.  Signor Cerasi is not well known here but he does sell his goods through Nordstroms.  There were no bargains to be had and paying in dollars is no longer an option.

Curved buildings in Siena
On a rainy day, we took a tour to Siena.  The walled city and the winding streets were lined with the same luxury brands we found in Florence.  No bargains to be had here either.  The beautiful young woman behind the counter in one shop wasn’t upset by the rain.  She had been told by her boss to work a double shift to cover for a sick co-worker.  I asked her if that stressed her out.  She shrugged.  “How do you say stress in Italian?”  I asked her.  “There is no word for stress in Italian,” she replied. 

Vogue Night Out
September 18 was Vogue's Fashion Night Out in Florence.  The paparazzi were out and the high end stores were serving free booze.  The Rolex store next to our hotel was having a private bash.  The street party was still going when we headed back to our hotel at around midnight.

Before we retired for the night, we stopped in a little square where local designers had set up some stalls.  It was there that I spotted a tee shirt for sale emblazoned with the slogan, Capitalism is Over.  I tracked down the proprietor and asked him how much.  35 Euros, he said. I guess capitalism isnt over for makers of tee shirts, I replied.  He mumbled something about the profits going to earthquake victims.  Really, I said, Which one?  He looked a bit embarrassed and finally admitted that well, maybe there is about 10 Euros of capitalism left in that price.  If capitalism is over, it wasnt evident during Vogues Night Out.

The bellman who helped us with our bags when we checked out of the Hotel de la Ville offered a perfect counterpoint to the earlier perspective we got from the GM of Hotel Mascagni.  We were better off with the Lire, he said in broken English.  As for Berlusconi vs. Monti?  Sono uguali.  The same.  Una macchina grande, una casa grande.  Once they have the big car and the big house, they dont care for the little guy.  Of course, if you want to throw a party, he added, then go with Berlusconi.  Hah!

How will Italy overcome its fiscal dilemma?  Will they drop the Euro?  How will all this affect the Italian economy?  What will happen to the common man the bellman, etc.?  I might have learned more about all that by staying home and reading the Wall Street Journal.  But, heres the lesson I would never have learned by staying home: 

There is no word for stress in Italian.


  1. maybe that's why I seem to remember a large number of native Italians saying "You're making me crazy"
    Posted by Robert Spencer

  2. You might have gotten that comment in my old neighborhood too. :-))

  3. Edgar Antonio Jiménez Dorigo • John, interesting article on Italy. I live in Italy since 1998 and I must agree with most of your impressions during your trip. For instance, one of the few industrial sectors that hasn’t been hit by the crisis is the luxury sector and you were able to see it for yourself. I'm not sure what you mean "there is no word for stress in Italian", though… I can assure you that Italians are very much stressed today, especially for the last three years. I, as a citizen, have seen the switchover from the Lira to the euro and how Life has become progressively tougher for Italians. There's a widespread discontent and pessimism among Italians today. The political class has managed to shield themselves under an impenetrable bubble. Italian politicians are by far the oldest, the largest, the best paid, the most privileged, in Europe (and compared to the US, too). Italians, the people, are aware of this. President Monti is applying a lot of fiscal pressure on the people, but this pressure does not even touch the ruling class. Despite all of this, Italians seem impotent to raise their voice and change things; the system doesn’t allow it. Everything is imposed on them. I could give you many examples; everyday life things. My point is: "there is no word for stress in Italian", as I see it, is a perfect observation about the people you saw, but in the sense that they don’t seem able to react effectively and they turn their heads down and continue their daily activities under the changing circumstances that have been decided for them. Still, Italy must be one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but many people are leaving.

  4. @Edgar. A very articulate response and totally consistent with my observations. My blog was intended to be whimsical in a sense while describing the perspective of the Italians I met. If there is one consistent feeling I had it was that Italians have given up on their government.