Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The expat ritual

There’s a ritual developing here in our little corner of rural Marche. It’s amongst many of the foreigners, the majority of whom are English.

It’s the monthly trip to Ikea.

I’d never had any real exposure to the Swedish furniture giant before, save for a puzzling encounter with a Swede in Washington DC, whose fervent – even over-zealous, I thought – enthusiasm for a new Ikea opening in the area made me look at her with no small degree of incredulity. I took it for a sense of national pride, or homesickness. I didn’t understand.

Now I do. It’s the consummate shopping experience, and I’m succumbed to the ritual, willingly and wittingly, even as I recognize what they’re doing to me.

They’ve thought of everything, and more, to make your trip convenient, efficient, and economic. Most people leave with more than they came for.

Now even in a consumer-oriented society such as the US, such a shopping experience would be unique, and way above the norm. But out here in Italy, where customer service – or client sensitivity as I prefer to think of it – is non-existent, a day at Ikea is positively exhilarating.

Since most people are likely familiar with the Ikea concept, there’s no point in waxing lyrical about things that everyone already knows – the handy and appealing layouts, the channeled routes through the store, the specials, the ability to mix-n-match, the self-service section, the ease of returns (generally a foreign concept to Europeans), and so on.

But since I’ve become a convert, it’s the little things that I notice every time I go there – the organic milk used in the coffee, the healthy and diverse and tasty options at the in-house restaurant, the clocks dotted throughout all set to the same time – 10 past 10. I’m not even sure why they do some of these things (e.g. the clocks), but the fact that they went to such lengths makes it impressive.

The fact that it’s staffed by Italians adds an extra flavour too. Many of these concepts are beyond their natural tendencies – this is not a criticism, it’s just how it is, take it or leave it – and so the way they perform these foreign tasks is, I’m sure, a little different from the way the Swedes would, for instance. I can’t quite put my finger on it, perhaps it’s that ever-so-slight marginal degree of imprecision in the way things are laid out, or the shirt tail hanging out just slightly, the odd price tag missing, the package that doesn’t contain everything it should. (This last misfortune happened to me on our last trip there. It was the result of a product being returned without everything inside the box, and the staff simply sticking it back on the shelves without checking. Not one of the more endearing departures from the standard Ikea behaviour, I must declare.)

These positive Ikea feelings were no more evident when, on our last trip, we also went to the furniture store next door. First, it took about half-an-hour to get someone to help us. Next, when we went back to place the order, we found out that they had made a mistake in the pricing, by some 20%! And that’s without mentioning how uninviting the layout was.

So do Italians go to Ikea? Yes indeed, by their thousands. The fact that they’re cheaper, have a greater selection, and greater diversity in how your selections can be put together, all have something to do with it. It would hardly be a reasonable business proposition to make that size investment simply for the foreigner market.

But for those foreigners (me included), it’s a getaway, a reminder of what it used to be like, a sort of trip home, as it were. Here we are, making our commitment to this country and this culture which is foreign to us, and will probably always be that way, no matter how hard we try to integrate. Somewhere inside, at varying depths for each of us, we know this, and so we need our periodic home fix as a reward for the constant effort we’re putting into our new lives.

Or maybe I'm reading way too much into it (as I am occasionally wont to do). Maybe it's simply because we're all building new homes, are busy furnishing them, and it's the most convenient shop around ...

Friday, February 08, 2008

Internet and telephone update

There are aspects of living out here in the Italian countryside that remind one daily of that very fact – that we’re living out in the countryside. It’s been 17 months since I arrived here. We still don’t have a fixed-line phone at home, let alone a snail’s-paced internet connection. Here’s a microcosm of how it affects our lives on a regular basis.

In my daily trip to the internet point (which is open daily from 9:30-1, and 3:30-8, closed Thurs afternoon), I made an attempt to buy an air ticket to South Africa for mid-March. Halfway through, I was asked for my passport number, which, of course, was at home. So instead of simply walking over to my filing cabinet to get it and continue (if I had the internet at home), I had to wait until the next day. I got all the way through the reservation the next day, only to find that my US credit card rejected the transaction, requiring me to call my bank and ask them what the problem was. But instead of reaching for the phone next to my desk, I had to go into Tolentino – 20km in the opposite direction from the internet point – to make the call, since the charges to do so from a cell phone would be prohibitive.

I duly go and do so, clear up the matter, and call back the airline to complete the reservation i.e. process the payment on my now-cleared credit card. Sorry, they can’t do it – the reason wasn’t clear, but, given my experience of how quickly and easily things get bunged up here, I accept it rather than push them to do something destructive, and ask what I need to do. Make another reservation, they say. Can I do such a thing over the phone? No, I need to do it online. So now instead of walking over to my desk and the computer, I have to drive 20km back to the internet point to make a new reservation. Only now it’s closed, and so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

The measure of the temperature in my writing doesn’t begin to reflect the rapidly rising heat that all of this ignited. But that’s all past now. I have my ticket, 2 days later instead of 2 hours. I’m just thankful that I was able to get the ticket at the same bargain price. So I suppose I shouldn’t complain – with each trip I was driving through the beautiful Italian countryside, notwithstanding the fact that I was doing so past homes with telephones and internet connections.

We’re now on our 4th or 5th application for a telephone with TelecommItalia (TI). The penultimate one was simply cancelled by TI after they were not able to determine where the telephone line on our property came from (yes, this is the very telephone institution that installed it). And then when we reapplied, they connected us with a year-old application for the house we were renting back then. Every time we speak with them, they ask why we’re changing the address of our application. They even called us twice to ask why we want the telephone at 31 Regnano instead of 27 Regnano.

They’ve told us a technician will be calling us soon. I’m not holding my breath.

The simplest solution to an internet connection is, of course, through TI’s ADSL service. A friend down the road set it up himself and it’s working wonderfully for him. But having to work through TI every time there’s an issue seems to me to be a brazen request for high blood pressure, and so I’m looking for alternatives. They’re not encouraging.

Our closest town, Colmurano, have – unlike all their surrounding villages – opted not to lay in TI’s optic fibre lines so that everyone can get broadband internet. They’ve even snubbed the approach of the local computer outfit (where I go for my daily internet fix) to erect a tower so that everyone can get wireless access. That’s because the mayor – a not insignificant position in these reaches – has struck a sweetheart deal with a company some 40km distant to upgrade the town’s computer setup for free if he goes with their broadband offering.

On paper, not bad. Only the company wants a minimum number of subscribers in order to do it, and, needless to say, the potential subscribers – being tech-novice, skeptical rural Italians – want to see evidence of a working service before they’ll subscribe. The fact that over 130 locals signed the initial petition asking for the service seems now to be irrelevant – they want ink-dried signatures.

So it’s a stalemate. I should have known not to get all hopeful when I attended the late-night meeting some 3 months ago, where, after 2-plus hours of wanton waffling, I discovered that they would start the process within the next ten months … once they had the minimum number of subscribers. Ten months???? What are they going to do, mine the ore and turn it into steel themselves? Even in this neck of the woods, that timeframe astounded me. And I know it was an optimistic estimate, as all such things around here are.

So – back to the internet point I go on a daily basis. I ask them what I can do. They say I need to be able to see one of their towers, and since I’m in a dip on the side of a hill, Colmurano is the only direct option for me. However, someway up my driveway, it is possible to see San Ginesio and its towers. What of that? It turns out that there are 2 more-expensive-than-normal options. (1) Put the receiver on a pole up the driveway, and run a network cable from the receiver to the house. Only problem is, the network cables don’t work beyond around 100m. How far would the receiver be from the house? You guessed it – 100m, or just a smidgen over that. (2) Install a set of 3 antennae – one picking up the signal from San Ginesio, one to take that signal and beam it to the house, and one on the house to pick up the signal. Needless to say, the extra two antennae are not cheap.

So we’ll probably give (1) a try first. Am I hopeful? I know I need to be – these things, like horses and other beasts upon which we are sometimes totally dependent, have an aptitude for sniffing out fear, skeptism, despair, and other negative emotions, and providing their in-built, exacerbating responses. In other words, history has now taught me that any hint in my thinking that it will not go well, and ... well, draw your own conclusions.

The other vital thing, as I’ve also learned, is to figure out all the questions to ask, and ask them. It seems to be a human law here that information is only given when requested. It could be vital, pivotal, fundamental, core – it doesn’t matter, unless you ask, ye shall not receive. It’s not malicious, or premeditated, or negative in any way, it’s just the way it is.

Our challenge, then, is to figure out all the questions that we don’t have the slightest clue we should ask. And on this score I suppose I should express some gratitude – who would have thought that out here in the rolling hills of Italy, wallowing back in the 1950’s, I’d be taken to brainstorming, lateral thinking, and open-minded blue-skying on a routine basis. I guess sooner or later (more than likely later, much later) I’ll finally figure out how to take my flash-point blood temperature and soothe it to the point that I’ll achieve the calmness that I came for in the first place. After all, everyone else around me has managed it …

Going postal

It’s my lucky day, I can’t believe it – today (February 7th) the fourth and last of my Christmas and Julius-birthday (January 8th) book purchases arrived. They were mailed from the US and the UK respectively on December 5th. [English titles at bookstores in our neck of the woods are both scarce and prohibitively expensive.]

Not only was I lucky enough to have this tantalizing and uncertain wait, for 2 of them I had to pay a total of €14 custom’s duties and “postal expenses”. In each case the fee amounted to more than the value of the contents of the packages. But I know after a prior experience, when the postal clerk threatened to return my package to sender if I didn’t pay it, there’s no way around paying these spurious and extortionist “tolls”.

In truth, I’m just thrilled to get everything I ordered. Clearly our multiple begging trips to the post office, along with the considerable time spent waiting on the phone for lethargic and uninterested dispatch clerks – all of which yielded nothing more than indifferent shoulder shrugs – paid off, at least in the sense that we had done our due diligence. I believe that – this time, at least – we appeased the Italian god of the mail sufficiently for him to lift the “hide-it-in-a-dark-corner” spell from our meager packages in one of his random moods.

As for the €14 in tolls, I think I’ve found a way around it – from now on I’ll order my books from the UK (part of the free and easy EU) instead of the states. In fact, I’ve found a bookseller online who delivers FREE from the UK, and whose gross prices are comparable with those in the states. (Their net prices, after taking into account the postal tolls, anguish, enamel loss from frustrated teeth gnashing, and blood pressure medication, are vastly cheaper.) Of course this is all just theory right now, but I’m confident that my latest order of about 10 books is winging its toll-free way to me as I write.

As a result of our regular postal experiences and the effect they have on our mental health, wherever I can these days I pay the extra and ship via UPS, Fedex, or some such trackable means other than USPS (United States Postal Service). Unfortunately these options are not available for online book purchases, and so we’re left to the vagaries of the government postal services.

There’s one anecdote worth mentioning with regard to the one trackable method I won’t use – the USPS. It turns out that the tracking number the USPS uses – and which the customer innocently uses to try and find out where their phantom package is – is changed once it is received by the Italian postal authorities. No one tells you what the new number is. So when you go to the post office or call up the dispatch company, confidently brandishing your USPS tracking number, needless to say they can’t find it, and trump you with a retort that starts something like “without a tracking number …” The defeat is positively humiliating.

Worse still, if and when the package finally turns up and you explain to the postal workers what happened with the number switching, they look at you blankly as if to say, “Yes, and …?”

But I have my books, and if my next batch actually makes it here, I’ll be set with reading material for a while. Ironically, the bulk of the subject matter relates to life in and the culture of this wonderful country I’m living in. At least I’ll be able to verify their tenets and conclusions.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The look

The Italians have a reputation for being xenophobic. Having been exposed to just a small fraction of its landmass and population, I can’t really say one way or another. And I don’t know if the predomination of Fiat and Lancia and Ariston and Vulcan and other locally-made products supports it or not, just as the knee-jerk tendency to blame the Albanians for every theft that happens in this area doesn’t necessarily imply a distrust of things or persons foreign.

What I have noticed, though, is a tendency for the locals – particularly the older ones, the contadini (peasants) – to examine you rather closely when you drive by. They interrupt whatever they’re doing – bending over collecting chicory or fallen chestnuts, or gathering at the local bar for their prolonged daily chin-wag (the men, at any rate) – and stare long and hard, turning their heads to follow you and your smile, wave, serious look, or return stare as you pass them and move off into the distance.

I can’t tell if it’s a hostile, unwelcome once-over … a pained, squinting attempt with failing eyes to identify an unknown intruder … or simply an innocuous, innocent gawk of curiosity. Funny though, how it repeats itself – the fellow up the road from Anna’s house, where we stayed for 6 weeks, gave me the same examination every time I went past him on the road, which was almost daily. I always drove the same car, gave him the same smile, occasionally tried a wave, and without fail got the same response – a long, intense stare with mouth agape, as if he had stumbled across a new and virulent germ that threatened to wipe out the human race.

It’s not as if foreigners are new to this place. More recently, the English have been coming (and now settling here) for years, but the trend dates back to years with a “BC” after them – after all, the Italian peninsula has seen the Greeks, Spanish, French, Saracens, Lombards, Barbarians, and Byzantines ebb and flow through the land throughout its colourful and somewhat jerky history. These visitors I’m sure gave the locals far more to stare at and ponder than a harmless, somewhat reticent, admittedly slightly quirky South African and his family.

So why then do I still get “the stare”? Even one of our neighbours in Regnano, who I once stopped and chatted to (with some success I might add), still gives me the glare, even though I know that underneath it all he harbours a disarming smile and a friendly disposition.

I don’t know, perhaps – given their history of a constant stream of strangers treading their paths – they’re simply wondering “Who’s it this time?”, investigating with a prolonged gaze how their lives might be affected by the new aliens.

Who knows, maybe it’s a property of the atmosphere here, the water, the air, the land. But hold that thought for a moment – I just heard a car coming along the road, and I need to check out who on earth might be passing through our little hamlet …