Saturday, February 28, 2009

Biblioteca delle Oblate

Biblioteca delle Oblate (Oblate Library) is one of my favorite places to spend time writing. It is situated in a building dating back to 1287, in the shadow of the Duomo, on Via San Egidio. Serving as a convent in the 15th century, the former home of the Monastero delle Oblate, was restored by the Comune di Firenze and converted into an active public library in 2007.

On each of the three levels, porticos border a green courtyard that contains stone sculptures. Students gather on the outdoor terrace to read, study and leisurely smoke cigarettes.

That is where I prefer to write. On a fall or winter day, I sit outside at one of the white small rounded tables. I try to pick a table graced by a ray of sunlight, to warm my fingers when typing, while the rest of me stays warm bundled up in my scarf and coat.

What I like most about the library, besides free Internet, is its setting. The tables and curved plastic green and clear chairs, add a modern touch to an antique building which holds to true to its original architecture. Even the coed bathrooms have a minimalist design — two white squared sinks and two mirrors, with silver hand drier and soap dispensers.

Inside there a computers available for patrons to use for free; A wide screen T.V. for people to watch movies or play video games, while sitting on one of the many black rectangle couches that envelopes its guests.

The library hosts movie nights and book reviews, along with speakers who discuss topics relating to Italian culture and literature, as well as issues in today’s society. I often come here to find information on cultural events taking place in the city. But the main reason why I come here is to feel Florence and keep in touch with my thoughts, ambitions, and the city I now call home.

Sometimes I spend hours writing on the top floor, only taking a break to roll a cigarette and enjoy the view of the Duomo’s cupola. Other times I pop in for an hour or two just to check e-mails and collect brochures about events. And once in a while, when passing through the city, I take a stroll to admire the arched hallways that support the structure, and artworks displayed throughout the building.

Although I visit to learn about what’s going on in the city, I am ashamed to say that I have never taken advantage of the events hosted by the library. This month I have made myself promise to use the library as a means to participate in Florence and to be involved in the issues and movements that are taking place in the city.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Prying Information from the Police

Anytime I tell one of my friends (who I will call "a." for this article) that I am going to call the police or go to the police station, for information about robberies in the news, "a." laughs at me. "a." told me that I will receive no information and they will tell me to “screw off.”

Many people that I speak to in Italy share "a.’s" negative attitude towards the police, though the reasons and severity of the negativity may differ by region.

My relatives in Sicily have no confidence in the police. We argued over dinner during the summer, about whether the police serve a purpose and protect the citizens. They said the police always arrive late, after the crime has taken place, and for this reason, they have no respect for the police; however, Sicily functions on a differnt code and culture compared to the North.

In Florence I have come across some people with an alternative political view towards police and the central government.

I dated a cop for a month or two, and three of my friends tried to convince me to break up with him, because of his profession.

"Don't dirty yourself with a cop," a friend said.

Public offices withholding information from its citizens, is such a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. I have never tried to get information on a robbery in the States, but I know that the documents on an arrest, crime, lawsuit etc … are public, and anyone can look at them.

I read in online version of The Plain Dealer, a daily paper distributed in my hometown Cleveland, that someone I knew had been arrested. From Italy, I called the county jail located in a small town in Ohio. They did not ask who I was, they did not ask why I wanted the information, and they just answered my questions about the facts of the case.

In Italy, journalists are not free. Reporters need to recieve accreditation from the government in order to be considered a "journalist," and recieve "private" information, a throwback to fascism and Mussolini.

Today I went to Palazzo Vecchio, a historic building built by the Medici family that houses the Comune di Firenze (city hall). I had originally gone there to speak to someone in the press office, but once inside the building I noticed a sign that said Polizia Municipale.

There have been several thefts against visitors of Florence in the past weeks. All of the robberies occurred around the same time, from 2:30 a.m.-3:30 a.m. and in the streets surrounding Piazza Santa Croce — all of the victims were women.

Tourists and American students frequent the area, Piazza Santa Croce, at night. The street that faces the Piazza has a string of bars that are popular with American students and other visitors of the city. In my opinion people are profiting on the fact that some student or visitor will be walking home from the bar alone. So I am hoping that the local police will step up security in that area, especially during the hours after the bars close.

I read about those robberies in La Nazione, a local daily, but wanted to find first hand information about the occurrences. So I walked into the Polizia Municipale office. A man in uniform greeted me. I told him about the crimes reported in the paper and explained what I was looking for.

He was not forthcoming about information.

“What time did the incidents occur and who intervened,” he asked with a touch of hostility.

Italy has three types of police and each has a separate jurisdiction: Polizia di Stato, Carabinieri and Polizia Municipale.

I could not answer those questions. I had no idea who intervened. Italy’s bureaucracy is tangled and murky, to fully understand who does what will take me years. I felt he was just being difficult for whatever reason. I mentioned that I was a journalist — big mistake.

“You cannot just talk to any police on the street,” He said repeatedly.

I looked around. I thought I was in the town hall; normally a place for citizens of a community to interact with the administration, but maybe someone had slipped some hallucinates in my coffee. Maybe this conversation was taking place in the middle of the road.

He told me to go to an office near the Cascine to speak to the Segretaria Comandante. The Cascine is the most west part of Florence. It is located in no-man’s-land. I asked for the name of the person with whom I should be speaking to.

Again he told me that I could not speak to any police on the street. I explained clearly that I completely understand this concept.

I changed the question. I asked him the responsibility of this particular office. Again he told me to go to the Cascine and that I could not just speak to any police on the street.

I asked again. I am stubborn. His colleague stepped in.

“No let me explain it to her, because she keeps insisting,” he said

I understand that the men were not authorized to give me a statement related to the incidents that occurred in Piazza Santa Croce; however, as a citizen of Florence, it is a normal question to ask about the responsibilities and services of the Polizia Municipale, and in particular, the purpose of the office found in the comune.

They would not answer my question. Actually they did, they rudely and repeatedly told me that what they do there is “un segreto (it's a secret).”

I am hard headed and sometimes people need to say things directly to me, because I cannot read between the lines. A third man appeared and he shouted the same response, “è un segreto!”

"a." was right, they were telling me to "screw off." Naïve me did not catch on for the first minute. Maybe I was really in Langley, Virginia.

It turns out the men I spoke to were Vigile Urbani, not the CIA. They can give out tickets pertaining to city codes and ordinances, and cannot make arrests. I discovered that later, from the informative and forthcoming policewoman of the Polizia dello Stato, located in Piazze del Ciompi (she could not give details on crimes, but could explain the responsibilites of the police).

I do not understand why the men in the comune could not tell me that themselves. Having three men shouting at you is not fun. So I gave up and left the Polizia Municipale, and continued on my search for the press office.

I spoke to the policewoman who stood near the entrance of the comune.

“Where is the press office,” I asked.

“I am not sure, go to the Polizia Municipale and ask them,” she said

I have changed this post several times due to sources taking offense that I published private conversations, and colleagues advising me to be more specific on the reasons why some groups are against police; and I posted a photo as proof that people lack respect for the police, however I do not want the reader to confuse other's opinions with my own, thus I deleted the photo.

I may have lost some friends over this post, but what I have written is the truth and I believe that people need know that information that should be public, is actually private in Italy.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Secluded Immigrant

Francesca invited me to see a movie about Ethiopia last night at the Circolo Il Progresso, a community and cultural center of ARCI, a left-aligned association that promotes democratic ideals and Italian culture in Tuscany.

When I first arrived, I was one of about three women in the place. Mostly Italian and immigrant men, from Ethiopia or Eritrea, were waiting for the film presentation and a genuine Eritrean meal that Francesca’s co-worker’s grandmother prepared for attendees.

Francesca helps many immigrants and refugees from African countries assimilate into the Italian culture. She introduced me to several of her utente (this translates to client in Italian, but I have a feeling that is not how I would refer to them in English).

Each one was a bit shy or hesitant to meet me, and surprised that I had heard of their home country. Their reaction made me think that they do not meet many Italians or Italian women in Florence, and that many Italians do not know much about Africa.

Only one was bold enough to approach me without a formal introduction. He was from Ghana, and he told me things about his past life that made me seriously feel for him.

He was shocked when I told him this was not the first time I had met someone from Ghana. I feel like I am living in a country that is 1,000 years behind when African’s and other immigrants in Italy are shocked to learn that they are not the first person I met from Ghana, Ethiopia or Eritrea or that this is not the first time I have eaten African food, because this translates into Italians do not intermingle with anyone whose origins are outside the Italian border. Where am I living?

After we ate a traditional Eritrean meal with our fingers, we gathered into a cold room to watch the film “Come Un Uomo sulla Terra.” Everyone had their jackets on during the film and the meal.

My new acquaintances, were both polite and equally interested in me, sat next to me while we watched women and men from Ethiopia speak about their hellish travels from their homeland to a prison in Kufra, Libya.

It is unbelievable that a slave trade is still happening in Africa. They are not forced to work land. Instead they are forced to pay their way out of Libya and Africa, physically and financially over and over again; repeatedly being arrested without cause and released for a sum of money.

What was even more unexpected was the audience's reaction to the movie. Some had arrived to Italy via Libya. As horrible and unforgettable that their traveling experience has been, it is nothing compared to the treatment they receive in Italy, attendees said. One person said living in Italy is like living in an open-air prison. Many agreed with him.

Now I understand why the young men I met were uncomfortable when meeting me. They are not used to intermingling with natives, for whatever reason.

I feel like a small group of Italians mingle with immigrants, but I question their motives. I feel that some do so because they see immigrants as a novelty or they are rebelling.

I sometimes feel like a special trinket to Italians that I meet, especially Southern Italian men. It may be that they are attracted to “different” or go against their society by racking up internationals: African friend — check; American friend — check; American girl in my bed — check.

It is so bizarre that people who are common in my home country, are looked at as unfamiliar objects to be avoided by the majority of Florentines. I just cannot get over it. In the States it is not unusual to meet and be friends with people from different nations and cultures.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cooking with Benedetta Vitali

Cooking with Benedetta Vitali is like being informally initiated into a fraternity of impressive, regional Italian cooks, all openly bestowing their vast food knowledge on you via one expert chef.

The only requirement to be a member of the secret Italian food society and to enter into its revered kitchen is a willingness to learn.

Vitali does not believe in “secret” recipes and invites all who share in her passion for good food to prepare classical Italian dishes beside her. She has been making foodies, professional chefs and the average person like me part of the menu at her restaurant Zibibbo for over six years.

Like her “lessons” she is hands-on when it comes to running her restaurant and deciding on the day’s dishes. She visits San Lorenzo Market every morning, buying foods that are in their seasonal prime. The first time I met her, she was walking into her restaurant carrying fresh local tuna.

“We do not keep any of our food frozen … our menu changes everyday depending on what is fresh and at the market,” she said.

Her philosophy of using seasonal ingredients when nature intended them to be eaten is strewn into the menu and passed onto those who cook with her.

I spent the morning and good part of the afternoon on February 4, observing her pass on that philosophy to Jeanette Lykke Kristiansen Gulley, professional chef trained at the French Culinary Institute located in Soho, New York and now a private chef for guests aboard their own yachts.

Her method of cooking is “the right way to cook, because she cooks what is in season, it’s the right way of eating,” said Gulley.

The kitchen has a window that faces the formal dinning room, allowing guests a peek at the restaurants operations. It is here, that Vitali explains how to test a gnocchi for elasticity so that are light and airy when cooked, tells which is in her opinion the best anchovy paste — Balena — and how to eyeball cardoons for greenness when ensuring they are properly cooked.

Rated as one of the best restaurants in Florence by Michelin and L’Espresso, Zibibbo’s reputation as an “elegant, yet comfortable” atmosphere extends in the kitchen.

“It’s a hard job, you work all day in a small kitchen,” she said.

She sees no point in making an already difficult job, more difficult. She sets a serious yet relaxed tone when she is sharing cooking techniques with others.

Gulley was delighted to hear the kitchen staff chattering while they busily prepared for the lunch crowd.

“It makes me feel like I am in my mother’s kitchen,” she commented on the vibe of the kitchen and Vitali’s method of teaching.

Around 11 a.m. Vitali insisted everyone take a coffee break. No task goes without a bit of history and knowledge. She encouraged Gulley to make cappuccino and espresso, giving her tips on how to work the elaborate espresso machine.

They exchanged opinions about how to sugar coffee. Vitali spoke about how Romans place sugar inside the Moka machine, recounting an experience she had while spending time teaching in the ancient city.

I find her willingness to happily allow eager hands prepare the traditional Southern and Tuscan recipes that her restaurant serves unique, because Vitali is a renowned chef, author and a celebrity in her own right, often appearing on local T.V.

Communicating the knowledge of food through the senses of touch, taste and vision, Vitali gives a part of herself when she teaches others how to cook.

“It's like a love. Like transferring a love,” she said.

Learn more about cooking courses with Benedetta Vitali at Zibibbo's Web site and through EUROPASS.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Being Chased by a Political Campaign

A man that I never met is chasing me. Anytime I leave my home I see him in the passing corners within eyesight. He is at the coffee counter. He stares at me when I am in line at the cashiers and I swear I catch a glimpse of him in store windows while I walk the street.

Today he made his way into my home when I picked up Il Reporter, a local monthly newspaper. As soon as I tore the plastic covering that enclosed the news, I saw his conservative wave-to-the-left brown hair and pink shiny lips peeking out at me.

That is when I realized there is no escaping one of Florence’s mayoral candidates, Matteo Renzi. As the primaries grow closer I see him more often. Today I came across his image on fliers, newspapers and inserts.

I honestly do not have time to read up on every candidate in the election. I think he will win the first step towards office that takes place this Sunday because up until this week I have not sought out information on the election or the candidates, yet I know his name and recognize his face.

He is young and running a modern campaign utilizing all the latest modes of communication and social networking. On his Web site’s home page songs by popular Italian artists, like Jovanotti, play while a computer that leads to videos of him on flashes “Renzi TV.” An Ipod that has a play list of songs with underlying political messages like “si può fare” (you can do it or yes you can), and a facebook logo so I could request to be his friend, are all arranged on the page that resembles his personal desk.

The page is innovative, fun and easy to navigate. But pr is one thing and following through is another. I cannot give an honest opinion on him yet, because I am not informed. I did request his campaign team to send me information in English because there are many expats who live here, who can vote, but cannot speak or read Italian and I think they deserve information in English.

I am interested to see if his campaign efforts will push him through the primaries.