Understanding Italian Strikes

Another general strike in Italy has been announced for this Friday, November 14th, that will affect almost all forms of travel and public transport throughout the country.  Such a strike seems like a crippling affair when reported by English news sources, one with the potential to ruin plans and strand travelers.  However, as with everything else in the Bel Paese, strikes are not the same as they are “back home” and the amount of fear and panic they induce is mostly unnecessary.

So how do strikes really work here?  Well, strikes work pretty much the way other stuff works here – that is to say, not very well.  In the US, a strike means the negotiations have failed and the result is a total shutdown until an accord can be reached.  The threat of a strike is powerful because if a strike comes there’s guaranteed to be serious losses.  It’s the end of the line.  And if the strike was ultimately carried out half-assed, then it would undermine the threat of future strikes.

Here that’s not the case.  Here, they are optional.  They’re flexible.  It means, maybe the bus will run, and maybe it won’t.

To understand strikes you have to understand Italian unions.  They operate with or without the support of the people they are calling to strike.  They are essentially independent entities who lobby government for laws that govern workers rights and will affect different categories of employment, but they don’t require employees to join the union in certain sectors to lobby for them.

When you see news about strikes, what you’re seeing is not a notice from organized workers themselves, whose collective voice is being expressed by a union official.  Instead, it’s the union which is calling the workers of that sector to strike – and whether they do or not is up to them.

I get up and I go on strike

A few important things to note, to get a better grasp of how severe a strike can be:

- the trains to the airport from Termini station, such as the Leonardo Express, cannot be affected by strikes.  This is guaranteed by law.

- often, the Freccie, or high speed trains, cannot be affected by strikes – only the regional ones.

- for public transportation, the buses and metro are obligated to run for a few hours that are crucial to get people to and from work – around 8-9am and from 5-6pm.

- workers don’t have to notify employers that they intend to strike, and can’t be reprimanded legally for participating, so companies have to operate in the grey area of not knowing how much a strike will affect them either.

To sum up: a transport strike doesn’t mean that there won’t be buses or that you won’t be able to get where you’re going. It means there will be delays and you can expect to waste some time and have to be a bit flexible and easy going about it.

But, wait, that’s what it’s always like here, isn’t it?

Updated news about the actual hours and the companies/unions involved can be found at this Italian website which is fairly easy to decipher and updated regularly:  http://www.mit.gov.it/mit/site.php?p=scioperi

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

by Steven Brenner

Thanks to the invasion of Starbucks, the worldwide thirst for coffee is higher than it’s ever been, despite the fact that their coffee sucks and is totally overpriced.  Coffee consumption and cafe culture has been around Europe for centuries, around North America for decades, and is now spreading into Asia.  It’s an enormous industry, over 2 billion cups of the stuff consumed PER DAY worldwide,  yet the division of these billions of dollars is completely screwed, with huge wealth being created at the sale and immense poverty forced on those at the origin.

I’m not an expert on economics or world history or agriculture, but what I’ve seen with my own eyes makes me question why these growers, who control this powerful commodity, are so poor?  And when you start to really examine the politics behind it, and just how artificial the whole thing seems, I have to wonder why poverty exists at all and how is it all connected.

I know, heavy stuff, but that’s the way we roll in the MB house!  We travel, we try to see things and form opinions about them from direct experience.  We take tours with people who are passionate and informative about their life’s work, and try to make the world a classroom for us and for our kids.

We were in Boquete, Panama, the mountainous interior part of the country, home to some of the world’s most valuable and prestigious coffee – the Geisha.  When grown at the right elevation, a few growers get such high rankings for this coffee that it is only sold at auction to the highest bidder.  We’d signed up for a tour at the Finca Dos Jefes coffee plantation, an organic coffee farm owned and run by an American expat named Richard Lipner and were amazed at what we saw and heard – eye opening, heart breaking injustices – hard not to think about every morning when you sit down, open your computer, and take a sip of a cappuccino.

Some basics:  coffee is an ancient drink with almost magical properties.  It’s made from little cherries that only grow between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 70 countries.   There’s an organization that was set up in the last century to protect the prices, probably helping to stabilize some countries by putting a floor on what other, more desperate countries can charge.  That was when there was a possibility of a coffee abundance.  Now, if anything, there’s a shortage.  And yet, despite the high demand, the farmers are barely able to stay afloat.

The cherries are grown, picked when ripe, usually by hand, then they are either dried outside on mesh beds, or a load of water is wasted and contaminated to remove the sticky “mucilage” around the bean.  There’s a fermentation process and a roasting process – which can be an art form itself, and a variety of ways to brew it (in my opinion, the moka is the best).

If you want to learn all about how coffee is grown and roasted, you can take a tour with Rich in Boquete.  But I don’t want to dwell on the details of coffee itself.  I want to dwell on poverty – because coffee and poverty, at least in Panama, seem to go together.

Around Boquete, cherry pickers make about 5-7 USD a day when it’s cherry picking season.  This is the lowest of lowly work, and almost entirely delegated to the indigenous people who were displaced in the early 1900′s when the French came to build the canal. Eventually, after having their land taken and getting pushed up almost into Costa Rica, they were then given a batch of wild land as an Indian reservation where they currently live.  They have no infrastructure, and thus, no way to get an education (unless you walk 10-20 miles to school in the rain) and lift themselves out of poverty.  Between the poor Panamanian (which by North American standards is quite poor already), and this lower caste of Indian who picks coffee cherries, you go so far down the ladder of “wealth” that there’s about zero chance of any of these people making it on to the ladder, let along climbing up it.

Here’s an example of living quarters for a family of 10.

Note the absence of windows and no ventilation.

Cooking on a concrete slab and dealing with the smoke.   These people actually aren’t the worse off.

Here’s a make-shift home where about 30 people live.  When it rains (which is often) their home is continually destroyed.

Like I said, I’m no expert and I don’t claim to know why the world is the way it is, but I do have to try to string some basics together, to understand what I’m seeing, and to respond to my kids who ask innocently why these people can’t build a bigger house; why they can’t get better jobs; why they can’t just leave.

As I travel more, and especially as I travel with my kids, I find that the more I learn about the world and our interconnectedness, the more I can’t untangle it all.

I don’t know if capitalism can work without cheap labor, or whether an alternative to capitalism could be an improvement.  I don’t know why rich countries can’t coordinate with impoverished ones more fairly, nor am I naive enough to think that simply paying people more will truly solve their problems – it can help, at times, but money, after all, isn’t the same as wealth.  The problem is political, economical, and the power play between them.

What I do know is that it’s 3:45 pm and I’ve just had an espresso, a fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua.  I know that, like it or not, I’m connected to those farmers, even as I leave to go get my youngest daughter from school.

 

The Top 10 Complaints

by Steven Brenner

Travel is not a perfect science.  The higher and more unrealistic your expectations, the easier it is to be disappointed.  Sometimes disappointment arises because people expect things to work in the place they are visiting the same way things work back home.  In regards to accommodation, the particular idiosyncrasies one has to face changes from country to country, so it’s important to understand which of these are actual problems and reflect a badly run place and which are just part of local life.  If it’s the latter, the sooner you come to understand the nature of these quirks, the better you’ll be able to accept them and not really regard them as problems.  Compiled from my 14 years of experience, the following is a list of the most common complaints we’ve received which I hope to explain and clarify here and put more into context.

1.  Where’s the bacon?  Disappointment with the Italian breakfast.

In Italy, breakfast is nothing special.  It’s a culture that eats a large lunch, and until recently much of the work force would have a number of hours available in the middle of the day to go home, prepare a meal, eat it and then relax before returning to work.  Those days are mostly a thing of the past unless you have someone at home doing the cooking, but you’ll find many of the local bars and trattorias packed full of people who are generally there for an hour or two.  With so much focus put on a mid-day meal, much less is put on breakfast as opposed to British and North American culture where a long work day with little break has pushed a focus on eating a larger meal first thing in the morning.

Culturally, breakfast just isn’t part of the equation.  A typical Italian breakfast is an espresso.  Add to that an overly sugary pastry that will leave you starving in 20 minutes (Italian pastries are NOTHING compared to a flaky, buttery croissant or pain au chocolat in France).  B&Bs and hotels, having to comply with food safety laws, unless they have their own cafe – aren’t supposed to serve anything but pre-packaged food items.  That means you might get a little pastry, maybe some dry toasts (called fette biscottate), cereal, yoghurt and maybe fruit if you’re lucky.  But if you’re a B&B owner, and have to go pre-packaged, in a market that doesn’t really eat breakfast anyway, your options are pretty limited!  Basically, assume that your breakfast is not going to be anything to write home about and you might do better spending 2-3 euro on a cappuccino and pastry at a bar – of which there will always be one nearby.  Or, go self-catering and do breakfast your own way.

2.  Hot water / plumbing problems

There’s a number of things that can go wrong here:

First is the amount, or lack of, hot water. There are two kinds of water systems here – one that works on gas and produces hot water on demand, and others that use electric boilers.  The latter will have a fixed amount of water that, once consumed, will need time to reheat.  If you have an electric boiler and many people in your apartment or using the same bathroom, that means staggering out your showers a bit, and not standing there for 20 minutes taking an indulgent shower, no matter how good it feels.  The other thing to know is that these electric boilers often have on/off switches in the bathroom that can easily be switched off accidentally.  If you’ve turned it off, you’re sure to not have hot water until you’ve turned it back on and left it for about 30 minutes.  I would say that most of the complaints for “no hot water” we receive were caused by people inadvertently turning it off!  Normally, B&Bs will have a gas water heater which provides continuous hot water, but many self-catering apartments still have electric boilers. Keep this in mind if you’re a family of 8 staying in an apartment with 1 bathroom!

Second is the plumbing in general.  Even a semi-historic building, built in the 1800′s (not that old for Italy!) were built before internal plumbing was the norm, and most B&Bs and some apartments will have had bathrooms added in a part of the apartment that is often far from the septic column.  This means having pumps or raising the floor to add an incline so the waste can run “downstream”.  Add a bit of distance to the column and a daily dose of hair in the drain and you’re bound to have some stoppage.  The key thing to remember here is that buildings and apartments that weren’t “purpose built” will never be as perfect as those that are.  If you want perfect plumbing, you need to stay in a big hotel, that was designed and constructed specifically to be a hotel.  In the city center, those are generally 5 star hotels or they are chain hotels located outside the city center (where new construction is easier to do).  Staying somewhere historic has its charm for sure, but often the price you pay is that plumbing will not be perfect.

The smell:  in the bathrooms of old buildings, it can happen that when it rains, it smells.  Not much can be done about this.

Mold:  this is connected to the whole “bathroom-built-later” problem.  Old pipes pass through concrete walls and with multiple daily showers and not enough ventilation, you get mold.  This gets cleaned off with bleach and killed, and can leave stains that look like mildew, even though the actual live mold is gone.  No matter how often it’s cleaned, it will come back and can only be covered with a fresh paint job, maybe once every year or so.  The bright side is that it’s not that your owner doesn’t care, they’re just in a losing battle with nature and the elements.

3.  Language barriers

In a perfect world, everyone would speak the same language, but back to reality!  To me, travel has been an eye opener in learning to develop the skill of  communicating in a language that is not your own, and finding a way to express kindness and flexibility and all those traits that make individuals get along, no matter how much or how little they can understand the words being said.  Don’t expect people to speak your language and understand that what might seem to you like a “lack of interest” from an accommodation owner might be that they’re shy and embarrassed about speaking English and simply lack the vocabulary to express themselves well.  It’s easy to misinterpret people who don’t speak your language.  Maybe they aren’t rude – it could be a language barrier thing.

4.  Lack of useful information

A handful of superstar accommodation owners print out all sorts of information – about the surrounding area, the apartment, what to do in case of emergencies.  I love all this stuff.  But it’s a rarity.  Why is it so hard for owners to do this?  No idea – I even offer, every year or so, to help put one together in English, and they rarely take me up on the offer.  I guess it’s hard for someone who isn’t looking in from an outsider’s perspective to know what information is necessary and what is (to them) totally obvious.  TVs work differently from country to country, but only people who travel a lot realize this.  Same goes for washing machines and lighting stoves and circuit breakers and the water heater switches I wrote about earlier.  However, not all of the owners we work with are world travelers and it’s hard for them to anticipate what things will or won’t be easily understood.  Keep in mind though that if something doesn’t work, it could also be that you don’t know how to work it – even something as basic as a television.  If something doesn’t seem to work, ask the owner to show you – more often than not it just needs some explanation, and by asking them to show you it’ll open their eyes to the fact that it’s not universally understood.

5. It’s HOT

If you’re in southern Mediterranean Europe and it’s July or August, and you’re walking around under a blazing hot sun, you have to accept that it’s going to suck a bit and you’ll be a sweaty mess.  It’s not worth getting in more of a huff about – just get over it.  The US is kind of the gold standard in air conditioning, often to the point of absurdity.  In Europe you’ll find that air conditioners are turned off when you’re not in the room (pay an energy bill here and you’ll see pretty fast why this is so!); and you’ll find that even when on full blast, it’s not going to get sub-arctic like you might want it to.  We have less kilowatts of power in Europe, especially in old buildings, and due to high costs of electricity, we are forced to use A/C units that for efficiency produce less cold.  It’ll cool things down a bit, but the reality is that we don’t control the climate – we have to live with it.

6. No international TV channels

I know for some it’s nice to come back “home” after a long day and turn on the television and go brain dead for a while.  In some countries, like France, it’s cheap to get phone, internet and cable all in one go.  In other countries, like Italy, it’s a separate cost for cable, and even then there are a limited amount of International channels (they wouldn’t be part of the standard package).  As the saying goes, “when in Rome…” – in other words, you really shouldn’t expect to watch television in your language in another country.  Maybe you’ll get a few hours of BBC international news or something – which is hardly going to help you relax!  But remember, you’re on vacation – you’re away from home and ideally away from your home-habits too.  Have a conversation instead.  Drink a glass (or a bottle) of wine.  Play cards.  Read a book.  Go back out again, get a gelato or a drink and sit somewhere and people watch.  You aren’t missing anything.

8. Beds too soft / too hard

Sometimes we’ll get feedback from multiple people about the same place that reads like the Goldilocks story.  For person A the bed was simply too hard.  For person B, it was just too soft.  For person C is was just right.  I personally like very firm.  Others like soft.  It’s a personal thing, and I think when you travel you just have to go with the flow here.

9. Dodgy power

As I mentioned earlier, electricity costs are high in Europe and the available wattage is low.  Turn on the washing machine, a few lights, and the hairdryer and you’ll blow a fuse.  It’s just the way it is.  Many apartments don’t have dryers simply because they consume too much.  In the summer, with AC, this is something that can easily be a problem.  Just realize that almost all European cities were built before the automobile and don’t have huge lines of infrastructure in place to bring the amount of power that only recently is requested/demanded to apartments.  I love how the above picture shows the utility lines just under the street passing over ancient Roman ruins.  Kind of puts things into perspective!

10.  Noise

Rome wins the prize of being the loudest of the cities we work in, and it’s no doubt a cause for some very valid complaining.  Personally, I’m used to it, and I think it’s part of the overall package – the loud, crazy Romans honking their horns and yelling at each other, or the sound of elderly Venetians banging around in their kitchens all afternoon.  And if it’s not a quaint people-produced noise, it’s the trash collection at midnight or the recycling truck dumping glass bottles at 5am.  Or the construction/renovation that starts next door (or the next building over that has a shared wall) at 7 or 8am.  Or someone in the apartment above your bedroom who leaves early for work and walks around in high heels on their tiled-floors.  Really, the list is never-ending.  Good windows can help (but are very costly) and being somewhere that’s not either on a highly trafficked street or bus line or popular with drunk, reveling foreign students can also help.  But I would be doubtful of anyone in Rome with a guarantee that their place is absolutely quiet.  It’s the equivalent of selling the Brooklyn Bridge.

If you’re prepared to handle these top complaints with some understanding and patience, your bound to have a much better trip!

Location, Location, Location – where to stay in Paris

by Laura Bauerlein

Does it matter how central you are in Paris? Of course it does. But perhaps less so than in many other cites, thanks to such an amazing metro system. Having just returned from a recent trip, I’m able to compare what it’s like staying in the center vs. staying farther afield.

Paris has an Amazing metro system, with a capital A. You can literally get from one end of the city to the other in 40 minutes, and that is, from ANY end of the city to any other end. In Rome, for example, a similar endeavor would take you between 1.5 to 5 hours, at least (with a possibility of never rather than 5 hours). In Paris, it’s: hop on the metro (and not one place that I have visited was farther than 10 minutes – absolute maximum – by foot from a metro stop), switch trains, maybe switch again (a switch-switch can easily be done in less than 5 minutes) and get out.

The best thing about metro-hopping is that you won’t miss out on some of Paris’ biggest and maybe most neglected attractions: metro musicians! There are also all kinds of buses, tramways, etc that I didn’t even really consider as I could never get enough of the metro (a great place to study people, too, of course!).  If you want to stop and smell the roses, the metro at Châtelet, with the Symphonie Metropolitain, is a great way to experience something of beauty in stark contrast to the hordes of people busily rushing by.

The best thing to do is to buy a 10 ticket carnet at any one of the automatic vending machines – 10 tickets are 12.70 Euro as opposed to 1.70 Euro for a single ticket (hint: the machines are operated by a ‘rolling’ thing to move change your selection). The tickets are still good when you change trains as long as you don’t EXIT the metro system. The same kind of ticket is good for the tram, too.

Check this to see how greatly organized it all is.

On top of that, there’s the Vélib bike-sharing stations throughout the city, even in the most remote areas.

During my recent stay of more than 2 weeks, I changed neighborhood three times: I stayed in one very central apartment in the 5th arrondissement, and two less central ones – one in the 18th and one in the 20th.  Naturally there are advantages of staying in the center. Being able to walk to many sights and feel the center’s vibe, stumbling upon the Eiffel tower or the Arch du Triomphe when you least expect it – are all pretty cool.

But to be honest, I almost liked it better to ‘come home’ to a more remote, residential area – just like thousands of Parisians coming home from work or school every day. Living in a neighborhood somewhat removed from the center, you get to live more closely with the local masses, cue in the less known but just as amazing boulangeries, sit in a park in the evenings, away from tourists and the busy center. And just because you live in a more remote ‘quarter’ doesn’t mean you won’t get Haussman buildings, rooftop views or other sorts of Parisian-ness! Living in neighborhoods where the majority of Parisian everyday life takes place (as opposed to the areas where everyday Parisian tourism takes place) just made me feel more at home, and knowing that everything is really just a metro ride away should put that part of you that wants to see the famous sights at ease.

Life in Italy vs. Spain

by Amy Knauff

One would imagine the two to be pretty similar, right? After all, they’re both sunny Mediterranean countries with Latin peoples who have a history of taking post-lunch naps during the workweek, a love of good food and wine, and are known for their gregariousness, hospitality and good humor. But despite the similarities, the two countries — and more specifically, Rome and Barcelona — are worlds apart, each with their own characteristics and ways of doing things.

Scene: The historic center of Rome, which is jam-packed with souvenir shops, newsstands, bookstores, and tobacco shops selling racks full of postcards. It’s also jam-packed with tourists, some of whom presumably want to send postcards home to their loved ones.

Monday: I stop in a tobacco shop near Campo de’ Fiori and ask if they have stamps. Before I’m able to finish saying the word “stamp” (francobollo, in Italian), the cashier shakes her head no to dismiss me and starts talking to the person behind me in line. Later that afternoon, I stop in two more tobacco shops. Same result. One of them tells me to come back in the morning because apparently they’ll get a delivery of stamps then.

Tuesday: Walking near Piazza Navona, I stop in a tabaccaio. No stamps. Try three more tabaccai the same day: no luck. “They haven’t come in,” they tell me. Is there some sort of federal stamp shortage I’m not aware of? I also stop by the tabaccaio that had told me to come back today. They still don’t have them either. “By now you’ll have to wait till Thursday,” the girl tells me. Thursday? Oh yes, Wednesday is a federal holiday and everything is closed.

Wednesday: I don’t even bother trying.

Thursday: I visit three different tabaccai; no stamps to be found.

Friday: I finally give in and go to the post office. Get my number from the machine and settle in for a 35-minute wait to mail one stinking postcard. When it’s my turn and I go up to the counter, the woman says, “Oh, you’re just mailing this? You could have just bought a stamp, you didn’t need to come here.” She starts pointing to a nearby tabaccaio and telling me to get out of line and go buy my stamp there. I give her a Look of Death and say through gritted teeth, “Can’t you just print the postage on it?” As if that hadn’t occurred to her, she assents and prints the postage and I pay.

RESULT: 5 days to mail a postcard.

*******

Scene: A residential part of L’Eixample, not particularly close to the Passeig de Gràcia (which is the more touristy part of the neighborhood) in Barcelona.

Thursday: I’ve just spent a few minutes sitting in a sunny park writing a postcard. I spot a nearby tobacco shop and go in to ask for a stamp (sello, in Spanish). I ask the owner, almost nervous, “Do you have stamps… for the US?” She replies pleasantly as she takes out her giant book full of stamps: “Yes. How many?” This has been way too easy. I decide to push my luck and ask her if there’s a mailbox nearby. She points out the door and says there’s a mailbox one block up. I find it right on the corner, bright yellow, and drop my postcard in.

RESULT: 5 minutes to mail a postcard.

*******

CONCLUSION:  Sometimes the simplest tasks that can be easily accomplished in most other places somehow become Herculean in Rome. Organization is not Italy’s strength and although this is usually considered an acceptable sacrifice for good food and inexpensive wine, Barcelona doesn’t lack in either, and works surprisingly well, from the flow of traffic to public transport to basic everyday chores and interactions.