Stet by Ria Bacon

Thursday, March 31, 2005

No pictures please

The fourth of five posts about Italian election posters. One more tomorrow, then I swear I'll stop boring you with pictures of Italian wannabe politicos and start boring you with
[insert wry self-deprecation which commenters will contradict in a spontaneous outpouring of admiration for my wit and insight].

In a desperate attempt at novelty among all the headshots of middle-aged men grinning inanely for your vote, there is now the anti-image candidate who only shows the back of his head.
Meet Gerri.
I don't know why, but I suspect he isn't wearing any shoes with that pin-striped suit.

According to Italian law, as of one month before the election date, posters can only be of a certain maximum size. Any larger posters still remaining after this date are unceremoniously covered up.

Isn't this a great country?

Red Noses

There hasn't been the same rash of red noses that hit most of the political posters last year.

I hope you've been taking notes

After all my babble about these posters, I leave the final candidate's picture to you. Discuss.

World fitness champion

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Via Crucis

Talking of creepy images (see yesterday), here's a few from the "Way of the Cross" ceremony at the Colosseum last Friday night.

Glow in the dark priests
I had to attach my special "Righteous light" filter to get this effect.Glow in the dark priests

Creepy people

A group of tiny Paraguayan hitmen from Opus Dei performing an initiation rite.Creepy people
The main event inside the Colosseum
Broadcast on giant video screens to us plebs outside the Colosseum.
Stations of the cross
The burning cross
Not at all disturbing? Maybe it's just my own hangup with flaming torch parades (Nuremburg!) , hooded cloaks and burning crosses (KKK!).
Burning cross
The Pope watching TV
Only backshots, to hide the breathing tube inserted in his recent tracheotomy operation.
Pope watching TV
He looked very lonely.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Mug shots

The mug shots of the hopeful candidates at the regional elections stare out from every wall. You can imagine how often they must have practised the look in front of the bathroom mirror or with their Image Mentor: the look that shows compassionate strength, humble success and honest cunning. A man for all seasons, never mind the oxymorons and newspeak.

Looking at these heads, I was reminded by Cesare Lombroso's work on associating appearance and immoral or criminal behaviour (see two excellent articles here and here). It may be pseudoscience ... but look at this creepy guy!

Vampire candidate

Wasn't that once Michael Jackson's nose? And what about the lip gloss and glow-in-the-dark teeth? In later posters and on his website, his Image Mentor has clearly photoshopped his skin tones to try and make the living dead pallor less obvious.

Also on his website is a handy animation on how to vote.

An even more hilarious candidate website is here. What the hell does she think she's doing? Modelling for an 80s retro show? What does that oh-so-casual hand to her face signify? "Gosh, Mr Deputy Regional Oversights Auditor, have you been working out?" Maybe she's hiding a growth.

Her mission statement reads like a speech by a beauty queen ... I want to take part in the prevention of the AIDS, the fight against hunger and the diseases that decimate thousands of children and improve the lives of the old, disabled, poor and sick. ("Shouldn't we mention the puppies?")

In the selfless spirit of improving the quality of our representatives, I include the following checklist from Lombroso ... to help you eliminate the degenerates and feeble-minded from the list of candidates.
  • Unusually short or tall height
  • Small head, but large face
  • Small and sloping forehead
  • Receding hairline
  • Wrinkles on forehead and face
  • Large sinus cavities or bumpy face
  • Large, protruding ears
  • Bumps on head, particularly the Destructiveness Centre above left ear
  • Protuberances (bumps) on head, in back of head and around ear
  • High cheek bones
  • Bushy eyebrows, tending to meet across nose
  • Large eyesockets, but deepset eyes
  • Beaked nose (up or down) or flat nose
  • Strong jawline
  • Fleshy lips, but thin upper lip
  • Mighty incisors, abnormal teeth
  • Small or weak chin
  • Thin neck
  • Sloping shoulders, but large chest
  • Long arms
  • Pointy or snubbed fingers or toes
  • Tattoos on body
Put the two leading candidates to the test. It's a little tricky because you can't feel the bumps or see the tattoos of a naked woman mudwrestling a dragon, but give it a go. Based on the image they choose to present, who would you vote for?

Eligible candidate #1

Eligible candidate #2

Previous posts on election posters:
I'm a patriot, you're a nationalist, he's a terrorist ...
Tits 'n' bums, kids 'n' mums

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The meaning of life

A Reuter's report of yesterday:
Feel like a cup of tea, but don't have the time to brew one up? Pop a "tea pill" instead.
Why would I do that? Isn't the whole point about tea that you actually take the time to make it then blow and sip it slowly, sit back and relax for ten minutes?

The inventors say the pill "peps you up just like a traditional cuppa."

Hey, if you want to get pepped and can't wait for the kettle to boil, try crystal meth.

Me, I'm stickin' with tea, old school.

- Disgruntled b.o.f., Rome

Monday, March 21, 2005

At least it's not rinderpest

I've been ill for the last ten days. I should have recognized the warning sign when I lost my voice two weeks ago. Still I soldiered on for five more days until I got a fever which sent me thrashing around in bed, delirious and raving for what seemed like several days, but in fact it was only four hours. After that, I had a gamut of influenza-like symptoms, including queasiness, aching bones, scratchy throat and generally feeling quite crapulous. The kids had a milder version and were back at school by Thursday. I stayed home the whole week, although I did sneak out to the Escher exhibition on Friday.

(Tip to visitors: the Capitoline Museum has a great cafe with a fantastic view from the terrace.)

I've since been told that I had una cattiva influenza (definition: a bad, naughty or wicked 'flu) and that half our service had been off last week. I checked out the range of this naughty naughty 'flu and found that I got mine just after it peaked in Italy. You can check out the rest of Europe or the US. It's reassuring to know you're not suffering alone.

Since we're on the subject, I can report that I have bought the T-shirt I mentioned previously, together with a new addition to the collection.

0% rinderpest0% bird flu
They're great quality cotton, cost €15 a pop and will certainly stand out from the other slogans doing the rounds this month. It's a serious business, too. Rinderpest never makes it into the headlines but is one of the reasons for the lack of economic development in affected areas. Imagine your enterprise wiped out by disease. All you know is that business and you have to start from scratch with no capital reserve or possibility of low-interest loans. It's not a question of bad management or corruption, just entrepreneurs trying to follow best economic practice. They don't need Paul Wolfowitz to tell them how to manage their herds [/rant].

We're on the case.

100% dedicated
I'm just waiting for the African Animal Trypanosomiasis edition to come out to complete this season's collection.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Oh no ... I've won!

The BBC ran a competition last month as part of the London African Music Festival. The prize was a pair of tickets for the concert of your choice and when I saw that the legendary Malian guitarist, Boubacar Traoré, was playing, I entered the competition, not thinking about the practicality of getting there from Rome. The BBC e-mailed me last Friday to tell me I'd won. Damn! I couldn't find a cheap flight (when can you?) for less than €180. More than I can afford for a concert - even a free one, I wrote back.

No. There's no happy ending. I've passed the tickets on to my sister.


To find out more about this wonderful musician, see here - be sure to check out the photos of him as the man who introduced the twist into West Africa. The trailer is also worth seeing. If you want to hear a truly original artist and get hit with some desert soul in your home, buy his CDs.

The only consolation is that Bamako is still on my list of possible future posts, working on an ilitaracy illetteracy whatever programme for UNESCO. The Beirut job was cancelled (oh ... dear), but Noumea and Kingston are still looking good. Go Noumea!

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Look at me! I'm alive!

For the extreme masochistToday was the Rome Marathon, 10,000 people puffing and panting past my house ... three times as the course design would have it, at 2 kms, 35 kms and 40 kms. The start and finish is on the Fori Imperiali, next to the Colosseum. Our preparation for the event is limited to moving our car off the street the night before and being dressed and outside before the best runners have finished.

Marathon runners are not attractive to look at. Many of them look extremely unhealthy, with shrunken heads and scrawny limbs - and those are the serious runners. Oh the suffering they put themselves through, and for what? They seem to be running to prove to themselves that they are alive. I can think of better, more enjoyable ways of feeling alive, with much less risk of damaging your knees.

Just as we left the house, we saw the inflatable arch marking the 40 km mark beginning to collapse.
Marathon obstacle course 1
Two men were valiantly trying to keep it up with brooms (il genio italiano) but to no avail. The marathon quickly turned into an obstacle course as runners tried to climb over the arch, then were shepherded round to a mini-arch which then also collapsed on their heads, despite a return of the broom engineer.

Marathon obstacle course 2Marathon obstacle course 3Marathon obstacle course 4Marathon obstacle course 5Marathon obstacle course 6Marathon obstacle course 7Marathon obstacle course 8Marathon obstacle course 9Marathon obstacle course 10Marathon obstacle course 11Marathon obstacle course 12Marathon obstacle course 13

Man downImmediately after, we heard cries of Medico! and saw a man collapse by the road.

ResuscitationVarious medical teams arrived within minutes and tried electrical defibrillation, then intubated him and put in an IV drip.

After that they continued pumping his heart for so long that I can't imagine he pulled through.

***update 16 Mar 2005***
He didn't.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Dove trovo il tasto "any"?

The World Economic forum has just published its Global Information Technology Report 2004-2005 which assesses "the state of the networked readiness of 104 economies". Top of the charts is Singapore, where half the population is selling duty-free hi-tech stuff to the other half, and Iceland, where all six people know how to use a computer to check the weather forecast ("Oh no. Snow again."). Italy boasts the seventh largest economy in the world, yet in the Technology Report it is ranked 45, down from 28th place last year. Where's the money coming from? How many shoes can people buy? (This is a rhetorical question.) I reckon there's some fine Parmalat book-cooking going on.

The reality is that Italy is not very well connected. Given the choice, most Italians would prefer a new telefonino to chat to their girlfriends rather than a computer to surf the interweb. I'll give you two true stories, but you mustn't pass them on to the World Economic Forum or else Italy will be below Botswana next year.

Last year, I worked in a French Catholic school in Rome, run by Dominican nuns. The office had two secretaries, one who worked in the mornings only and the other who worked the afternoons. On the office computer were two files, yes, only two. One file belonged to the morning secretary, the other to the afternoon one. When I asked one of the secretaries to print off a copy of my contract, she opened her file and scrolled down ... down ... down ... to where she had added my contract. All her documents were in a single Word file.

The second story is also Catholic-related (hmm, Vatican City is not in the Report) and comes from the office of a cardinal. He was well past normal retirement age and had devoted his life to the Church, sacrificing the pleasures of cooking, cleaning and washing his clothes, which was all done by devoted nuns. He kept up a vast correspondence across the world but never wrote a letter himself, preferring to dictate to his secretary. The secretary had a computer but used it like a typewriter, hitting Enter at the end of each line. I once watched her work. She typed the letter, printed it out, filed the paper copy in one of the numerous filing cabinets, then deleted the text from the computer file. Gospel truth!

Et plus ça change ...


: It's the latest generation of computers: 16 colours, with a fixed drive and mouse.
King's adviser: You should wait a bit. In 6 months it'll be half the price.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Little Odessa

Rome is not as cosmopolitan a city as London or Paris, and almost the only obviously non-Italians in public view are windscreen cleaners, newspaper sellers and informal Prada sales reps, ever ready to scoop up their street wares in a sheet and leg it when the lookout signals police approaching. Yet Italy is the main gateway for European immigration: most move on further north, but many stay and take up the low-profile, low-status work most Italians would prefer not to do - cleaning, pumping gas and looking after their elderly parents, for example.

On Sundays, however, the parks and open spaces of Rome that tourists don't visit, fill with immigrant groups, each national or ethnic group claiming its own territory to recreate something of the homeland for an afternoon. Walk around the Termini station district and you will first pass a group of Moroccans, then Albanians, Senegalese, Peruvian, Filipinos, and so on - round the world in an hour or two.

[Eastern Europeans probably make up the largest immigrant group in Italy, particularly Albanians and Romanians. There is a particular antipathy among Italians towards Slavs - geographical proximity breeds contempt, perhaps. My friend Petar was once introduced by his Italian neighbours to another Italian couple thus: "He's Croat ... but it's OK because his wife is British." This was said without any hint of irony. Such prejudice is commonplace and banal.]

My own neighbourhood is host to the Ukrainian community of Rome. There is no particular reason why they meet here, but the force of their Sunday presence has begun to take more permanent status as phone centres open on Via Ostiense, advertising the lowest call rates to Ukraine. A Ukrainian couple has bought the café by the bus station at Piramide. When I went to pick up my sister last Friday at 5 a.m., it was already (still?) open, a warm glow in the dark, blasting out songs from the homeland for the early shift workers.

Ukrainian fish for sale in RomeRoman supermarket label in UkrainianBaltika Strong Beer
In the supermarket at Ostiense station, the manager has expanded his market niche from selling cheap beer to the drunks in the station carpark, to stocking Ukrainian speciality products, putting up signs in the supermarket in both Ukrainian and Italian. It's the only supermarket open on Sunday morning and is chocka with people getting last minute items for their Sunday picnic in the park. Most of the men just buy beer, Italian beer rather than the more expensive Baltika imports. The atmosphere is happy and relaxed in the anticipation of free time with friends (very different from Vit's experience in Portugal).

Built for comfort, I ain't built for speedWhen the shopping's done, they move on to the park opposite our house, and spread their picnics out on the benches. They stand in small groups, talking, eating and drinking for hours, occasionally breaking off to form impromptu choirs singing traditional folk songs and hymns. You can also get a haircut from one of the open-air hairdressers who has set up shop on a stone bench.

Towards the end of the afternoon, the alchohol begins to take its effect as mothers turn teary at the thought of their families back home, while young people turn up their car stereos and dance in the Post Office carpark to that Кгаzў Яосk 'л' Яоll мцzўkа.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

International Women's Day

“There is no tool for development more effective
than the empowerment of women”

Here are some of the issues the UN is dealing with:

Women and health – Often women have different and unequal access to and use of basic health resources, including primary health services for the prevention and treatment of childhood diseases, malnutrition, anaemia and health care during and after pregnancy.

Women in armed conflict – While entire communities suffer the consequences of armed conflict, women and girls are particularly affected because of their status in society and their gender.

Women and poverty – More than 1 billion people in the world today, the great majority of whom are women, live in conditions of extreme poverty, mostly in developing countries.

Violence against women – Women's lives continue to be endangered by violence that is directed at them simply because they are women. Violence against women knows no class, race, or age. It exists across all socio-economic groups and it is a daily phenomenon in the lives of women throughout the world.

Refugee women – Refugee women face ongoing violations of their human rights. Often, they are subject to unequal access to food, water, shelter and essential health care.

Trafficking of women – In countries all around the world, women and girls, desperate for economic opportunity, and seeking to follow their dreams of a better life, are lured from home by promises of jobs and security. However, they often find themselves trapped in a nightmare, forced into prostitution, imprisoned by employers, mistreated and sexually abused.

Of course, it could all just be lies and propaganda (OMG!).

Still, it's good to know that help is just round the bend.
Help is just around the corner
That's so thoughtful. Because it's all about helping people help themselves, right? To be free from violence, free from the fear of dying when giving birth, free to earn a fair wage to support your family. Thanks Uncle Sam!

All together!
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me
(I can't believe I quoted that, but admit it, you recognize the words.)

Comment if you knew it was International Women's Day
(read more about it ...)

Monday, March 07, 2005


It's 10:30 and I'm going to bed already. I've got laryngitis and have been whispering all day. Everyone thinks it's hilarious. Before our editorial meeting this morning, I scribbled on 2 pieces of paper with a pink day-glo marker. The first said
I've lost my voice
and the second said,
Stop laughing!

They shoot heroes, don't they?

The White TypewriterYesterday was the third car-free Sunday in Rome this year. Since we couldn't get out of town, we decided to go for a walk in the historic centre. We ended at the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument, otherwise known as the white typewriter. Although the kids had been complaining of tired legs, they insisted they wanted to climb up the steps.

Queue for Calipari
As we got closer we saw that there were barriers at the entrance forming an orderly channel for the stream of people trying to get inside. There were dozens of police and vigili watching over the procession up the steps.

Calipari lying in stateAt the first level is the tomb to the unknown soldier, which held the attention of most of the foreign tourists; the Italians, however, headed higher up to the left, massing at the entrance to a makeshift chapel where the body of security agent, Nicola Calipari, was lying in state.
Only minutes after successfully negotiating the release of Italian hostage, Giuliana Sgrena, Calipari died while shielding Sgrena from "friendly fire" on the way to the airport. Said Sgrena,

The most difficult moment was when I saw
the person who had saved me
die in my arms.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Love rules without rules

Italy! Land of creative design! Land of lurv!

Here's a card produced by Cecami, a renowned card company in Milan.
I first thought it was a scissors-and-paste job by an eight-year-old girl for her parents, but no, it was a professionally made, commercially sold card. Can you imagine who would have bought it?

Ti aaammmo!

Well, as they say in Italy, "A woman who loves to be at the window is like a bunch of grapes on the wayside".

I have no idea what that means.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Leave the gun. Take the wasabi.

T minus 30

I hadn't planned it this way, it's just that I had a sushi craving and then I started smearing on the wasabi and it came to me - a pre-emptive attack! If I've got to suffer jaw ache trying to hold my mouth open wider than it was ever intended, listen to that whining high-pitched drill, feel the grinding vibrations in my skull, smell the friction burns, almost choke on the water spray and my own blood, all while staring up into his nose?? Well he's going to need a face mask, 'cos when he gets a whiff of my wasabi, pickled ginger breath, he's going to speed up the operation a bit.

Fisherman's Friend, anyone?

Update: someone'd tipped him off. He already had the mask on when I arrived.

*aïe! aïe! aïe!*

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A good job

When my Scottish grandparents used to talk about their friends' offspring, they would say things like, "Aye, ye remember Sandy McDuffus' lassie, Moira, aye, she got a good job at the post office, y'know."

A good job at the post office. For my grandparents, who grew up in Glasgow between the wars, any job in an office was "a good job".

A better lifeI was reminded of how relative job values are by the Bosnian woman who sits in the street all day near our office, with a sign and a bowl for money. Every day as I pass, she smiles and says, "Buon lavoro".

"Buon ... giorno", I reply.

It was 0° C when I took this picture at 08:30 this morning.

The other day, a friend of mine, Suzie, chatted to her in Croat. She had lost everything during the war and brought her family to Italy to seek a better life.
A good job
The woman asked Suzie what she was doing in Rome. "My husband works over there," she said, pointing over to the left. "Ohhhh, he works at the petrol station!" replied the woman, obviously impressed.

Suzie didn't have the heart to say that no, in fact he worked for the United Nations in the building just behind.

A good job at the petrol station.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Italy's finest

Carabinieri are regularly voted to be the sexiest professionals in Italy, which compensates for their traditional image of being the stupidest professionals in the country. I’ve dealt with them only twice in two years, the first when I had to make a declaration saying I’d lost my building pass for work (turned up in my bag a few days later). The carabiniere on duty could type very well with two fingers and the foreign passport didn’t faze him. He rubbed the pages, wiggled the hologram under the desklamp, photocopied the relevant pages, input the data, wrote it all out again by hand, all so smoothly that I was in and out in little over an hour.

The second encounter was when I was driving back from the school run, 200 metres from home, in a borrowed car for which I had no papers and without my driver’s licence. I had a premonition that they would pull me over for a spot check. It was destiny. The tallest officer saluted me and asked for my papers. I started jabbering (Io ... inglese ... molto stupido) in such an obviously and genuinely pathetic way that he let me off. Woo-hoo!

It’s actually quite rare to see carabinieri doing roadside checks; that’s mainly done by the infamous tax brigade. I have only heard stories of their awesome powers, how they can rip your car apart, empty all the contents on the street and demand to see receipts for every item. In our car there are two sets of armbands still inflated from summer, a spiderman ball, a grubby cloth for wiping the windows, sweetie wrappers, A-to-Zeds for Rome and Amsterdam, and and 3,000 E’s in the bodywork. (Well, I had to make it a bit interesting.) No receipts for any of it. Obviously we’re undermining confidence in the rigour and probity of the Italian tax system (*stifled snigger*) by not being able to prove we paid VAT on the grubby cloth. Maybe I’ll never get pulled over by them, not until I really have the E-shipment of course.

This post was triggered by a series of sirens that seemed to be close enough to drive through the kitchen. It made me think of how a carabiniere starts the day. Step into the car, adjust the mirrors so you can check your hair and three-quarter profile at any moment. Place your hat on the mini hat rack, bizarrely called a handbrake. Put on the siren and the flashing lights and off you speed to the tabacchi for coffee and doughnuts! Ciao Mario!

Let's do it to them before myummm yum does no one want that doughnut? Mmmm ...
As part of a recent efficiency initiative, our local boys in blue now skip going to the police station and head straight for the cafe for their morning briefing. Mouse-over the photo to eavesdrop ...