Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Italian Coin Craze

Remember the coin craze in the US when the Fed started minting special state quarters and only 4 new ones came out each year? There was a mad rush on every bank and endless phone calls for customers desperate to get their newly-minted quarters, desperate to snatch up a roll or two while they were still spankin' new, to fill that lonely CA or TX whole in their coin collection.  I worked in a bank for one of those years and dreaded every time a new quarter was released.

Fortunately, the Italian coin craze is not like that.  There is no mad dash over the euro, no coin collecting, and no urgent bank runs.  And therein lies the real problem: not only no rushing the bank, Italians don't ever (or...very rarely) go to the bank.  Not merely average citizens, but the shops, supermarkets, restaurants, etc, just never go to the bank.  They rely on their customers to have exact change or make change in such a way that they give you the least amount of change. The idea of requiring change from a vendor is seen as an insult of the highest kind, one only perpetrated by tourists.

Let me give you an example.  Just yesterday I was in the supermarket, a large grocery store chain called Billa.  It is always crowded and must have a thousand customers a day.  The kids and I went at 9am to avoid the hoards of crazed Italians staunchly marking out there territory before the deli, in the aisle, and waiting to check out.  You would think that -- this early in the morning -- making change would not be a problem (they open at 8am).  But shops do not make a morning run to the bank to get the change they might require for the day, like they do in the US.  My total rang up to 20.49 euro.  I handed her a twenty and then felt the need to apologize when I also handed her a five.  From experience, I knew this apology was necessary to avoid being shunned.  After all, I was asking that she give me two two-euro coins and a fifty-cent coin and a penny.  That's a lot of change isn't it?  How dare I not carry exact change?!  She looked at the five as if she didn't quite know what to do with it.  She pondered a minute looking at my shopping cart, then she spoke her brilliant scheme.  "You have a cart.  When you return it, bring me the euro." And she returned my five-euro bill and gave me fifty cents instead, expecting me to bring her the euro when I finished returning my cart.  To get a shopping cart, you put a one euro coin in as a deposit.  When you return it, you get the euro back. 

Other times, Matt has tried to buy bus tickets from a tabaccheria and been refused because he didn't have the right change.  He only wanted two, so it should cost 2 euro.  But, as no one else gives change either, he only had a ten.  This would entail giving him a five-euro bill, a two-euro coin, and a one-euro coin.  Outrageous!  Once it was around 9:30AM, and they asked if he would wait for them to grab change at the bank because they had none in their registers.  He just decided to buy enough tickets to prevent that waste of time.  (Once he had to come all the way back from a pizzeria because he only had a twenty-euro bill for a twelve-euro purchase! He needed to come back and grab enough coins... But he would have had to wait for the pizza to bake anyway, I guess.)

Routinely, Italians round up or down by up to 10 cents so that they can give you nothing smaller than a ten-cent piece.  Pennies are forgiven if they ever come up.  I'm not quite sure why they even exist.  And most prices are usually on the euro itself.  1 euro, 2 euro, etc.  The idea of .99, .85, etc is simply anathema to them, as it well should be. Who ever thought of doing things that way, anyway? And tax is already included, so, the listed price is the price you'll pay.  That's convenient.

But, here in Italy, have the right change, or you will be the utmost inconvenience and have scorn heaped upon your head.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Day Trip: Villa d'Este

This is the beautiful Renaissance estate of Villa d'Este located in Tivoli, Italy, about an hour bus ride from Rome. It was a sumptuous feast for the eyes and lovely respite for the soul to walk amidst plush manicured gardens and gaze in awe at the water theater playing all around us. We strolled through magnificent fountains of ancient deities, some shooting water 20 feet in the air, some spurting out of stone boats, some lining a sidewalk arena-style, and still others toppling gracefully down the terraced hillside into a gazing pool.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

How cool is the Colosseum?

We visited the Colosseum on my birthday. I figured it would be an absolute shame to spend two months living in Rome and never actually go inside Flavian's famed amphitheater. Built in just ten years during the first century ad and still standing today is quite a feat! It held 50,000 spectators and even had underground tunnels to pipe in water for their mock sea battles! Just standing in the ruins of it almost 2,000 years later still impressed me, but maybe I'm just easily impressed. Dominic, no, he didn't think it was that cool. Check it out for yourself.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

San Giovanni in Laterano's most compelling sight

After slathering up with sunscream, as Dominic always insists on calling it, we headed out for another adventure.  It was misting away for the fourth day in a row, so we decided to treat ourselves right and take the "short bus" (also thanks to Dominic, fortunately this name holds no connotations for him yet) and head over to San Giovanni in Laterano, a famous, enormous and old church in Rome and then walk from there to the Roman Forum and the Mamertime Prison where Paul and Peter were held.  The church was quite a sight, although not my favorite as far as churches go.  A few too many plaster cherubim for my taste.  The cloister was very peaceful, though, and would be a beautiful place to make the rounds and pray or contemplate.  The highlight for the kids, however, was not the astonishing gold mosaic of the disciples, or the palm tree and roses in the cloister.  Quite naturally it was the handicap ramp on the front steps of San Giovanni.  After our picnic on the steps, they just climbed the steps and ran down the ramp for at least half an hour, laughing till their little bellies hurt and attracting quite a few amused onlookers.  I was fortunate enough to actually capture a little video of it for you...

As usual, we got a little lost on the way back from the church.  We made up for it by stumbling upon the Villa Celimontana, which has a great playground and made the kids far more happy (and tired!) than the Roman Forum or Prison would have.  So, we revised our plans and took our time wandering back home, past the forum and Palatine hill through the Galleria and Via del Corso, back to our quiet little apartment.  I enjoyed a very peaceful walk home, despite having tired, tired feet because my tired, tired children were both sleeping contentedly in our awesome stroller.  I even stopped for a cappuccino and cornetto and ate it all by myself, at my own pace (usually I have to eat things faster than I like so Dominic doesn't beg me for more of mine, whatever it is, he's sure to want it).

Enjoy the video!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rome: Week 1

So, the real pictures of our new apartment are still forthcoming. But in the meantime, Dominic took a series of pictures from his point-of-view. Matt just flew home today for a week long mandatory "teacher training" session, taking with him loads of heavy books, winter clothes, and other no-longer-necessary items. So only now is the apartment just about settled enough to take decent pictures...stay tuned. We're having a great time and are getting the hang of making daily outings. There are some pictures from the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and Castel Sant'Angelo.

Miss you all! Say some prayers for me and the kids this week while Matt is gone in Philly.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

At home in Rome

Or at least that's the goal.  We spent last week packing up, running around doing last minute errands and library requests, and saying good byes.  With the help of my very generous and kind neighbors--one drove me to the various (hidden) post offices and the others watched the kids--I mailed 80 kg of stuff so that we could just take the train with a few small suitcases, the kids, and the stroller.  I had been dreading renting a car and driving it in Rome.  Italian rental cars and all stick-shift, and I'm the manual driver in the family.  Unfortunately, Matt is the city driver in the family.  So...bad news for everyone.  He would have had to tend the kids while I maneuvered the tiny one way streets, going up on curbs, and cutting everyone off like my life depends on it, in an unnervingly small car.  I opted for the risk of using the Italian post.  In the past, Italian post has not turned out so well for us.  It was cheap, however, and I'd heard that inter-country mail works much better than international.

With misty eyes, we boarded the train for Rome, psyching ourselves up for the six-hour trip ahead of us.  We had decided on the slow, regional train.  Besides saving money, there was more luggage space, six-person cars with a door (better for the kids to be contained but allowed to stand), and a better chance of there being empty seats.  It turned out well.  After Florence, there were two empty seats, one for each kid.  They behaved themselves, and we had a fairly seamless journey.  Perhaps the only error of the trip was deciding to take the metro instead of a taxi from the train station to our apt.  We thought it should be no problem since it was only 3 stops on the metro and then 2 blocks.  And indeed, it should have been no problem, but Termini station has no direct elevator to the metro.  Neither does our stop.  The stairs were horrendous.  The bags were heavy.  Fortunately, some people were helpful.  We made it, but we were very tired.

We met our landlady with no problem and were escorted into our new place, just a few blocks from the famous Porta Popolo.  Despite having a strange floor plan: elevated loft with bookshelves for no reason, door and window that separate the living room and the rest of the house, and a galley kitchen with a sliding door, the apartment seemed clean and comfortable.  We had already decided the quality of our meals would go down a notch.  In Rome, we would sightsee and relish the once-in-a-lifetime experience rather than stay home and spend precious time making elaborate meals in a kitchen that made our previous apartment's kitchen seem spacious.  To be fair, although it's small, we now have the advantage of a four-burner gas stove and a larger fridge with freezer.  Don't even get me started on the glories of a gas stove!  Oh my goodness...  It is hot immediately (cutting down on cooking time immensely!).  It stops immediately (making it unnecessary to move pots when they need to stop cooking).  Fire, ah fire, how I love thee.  The freezer also makes it so we don't have to shop every day.  I can keep some things in stock there.  But, as I mentioned before, we'll be doing simple meals; no roasted duck or chocolate rum cake in Rome.  Instead we'll have creative picnics in amazing piazzas.

So we're settling in.  I'm finding the grocery stores that'll work for us.  The kids are getting used to the new place and enjoying the new sites.  Dominic was fascinated by the Roman Forum.  He just stared and stared at it, as I pointed things out and explained that a really, really long time ago these were the Romans houses, church, market, etc.  As if to add to my list, he pointed at a large stone and sagely added "And rocks!"  I think they'll enjoy our time here, although it will be very, very different than our calm routine in Padua.

And, as a good omen, all the boxes came on Monday without a hitch!

Pictures and more adventures to come later.