Saturday, April 25, 2009

Being Ostracized

I have been ostracized by two people in Florence because I decided to no longer work for their publications.

People here take things to a personal level when it should stay professional. What makes my situation even more baffling is that neither of them paid me, yet they expected me to be at their every beck and call without consideration for my personal time.

One of them would invite me to free dinners, as if that should be sufficient compensation (last time I checked my landlord did not accept a plate of pasta for the rent); and the other only paid me about 300 euros for at least five months of work (and I had to ask for that amount).

When I had told each one that I was broke and needed to find paid work, I thought they would get the hint that their assignments for me would no longer be placed first — nothing personal, it's business.

When I informed one of the last month I would be working for free, they replied, “You have a lot to learn … I am not taking advantage of you.” Who said anything about being taken advantage of? That person was actually selling their product, and advertisements, yet there was not enough money to compensate me for my editing and writing services.

The other person, although not selling any advertisements that I was aware of, brought me into their idea for an English newspaper. The idea was I was supposed to be the editor. In a meeting last December the graphic artist, salesman and owner of the paper were all arguing about when to publish the first issue. It became clear that they expected me to write all 16 pages of the biweekly publication.

“What will the sections of the paper be,” I asked the owner (it was only natural that they would know what they wanted their future newspaper to be).

“No, you have to do that. You have to figure out all of the sections,” he said.

“But where was the rough outline that we decided on together last week,” I asked.

“No, no you have to do that. I don’t have any time,” they said.

In this meeting, I was told that I was not allowed to leave Florence to go to Sicily to visit my family, yet the same person that made this rule visited the United States for a week this month. After frivolous meetings and arguing over target groups in the months that followed, the group was falling apart, yet the owner made it clear that “the paper must come out before I leave for the United States,” yet they “did not have time” to commit to it. Somehow I felt that all the responsibilities were falling on me. I began to feel exploited for my knowledge of English, and writing skills.

That made me think twice about how appreciated I was, and if this person was as serious as I was about their so called “dream.” The day before they left for their trip to the United States, they told me I should look for a job since the economic crisis was not the opportune time to introduce a new publication in Florence. So that’s what I did. When they returned, I was still expected to commit my personal time. When I made it clear I was no longer going to be their writing monkey I was cut off — with intent.

It takes a lot of arrogance to dangle a work contract in the face of woman who does not know where her next meal is coming from. But what makes the vulture show through, is when they pretend not to know you when they see you on the street, blame you for the failures of their publication, cancel you as a friend from Facebook (my friend Christine and I laughed over that for hours), send a lackey to request materials back from you, and refuse to return your calls, all because you put yourself before their self interests.

I am realizing how the game is played in Italy. They try to make you believe that you need them, so that you will work for free. However, in reality it is they who need a mother tongue English speaker to develop their business idea. It is a psychological game. Some people that I have met in Florence are so good at this game, that they have made me feel ashamed for thinking that I deserve money in exchange for the work I do.

Those two experiences and more have made me realize that Italy does subscribe to a caste system. “You’re at the bottom freelance immigrant journalist! I am ‘so and so’ and I have been writing longer than you, living in Florence longer than you, and I have more connections than you; so you need to kiss my feet and work for free until I think you’re worthy of earning cash.”

And you know what I say to that: Fuck you. I have just as much right as anyone to make my living here, and write for more than one publication and to develop my ideas for my own projects — all for $$$$$$.

Competition exists everywhere, and so does jealousy. In Italy I see a trend beyond the normal competitive traits that these personality types have in common. They tend to be over emotional. They also talk themselves up and surround themselves with people who look up to them, such as students who come to Florence on study abroad programs. They keep their cards close; never revealing any information on their business or contacts; secrecy to the point of suffocation.

Maybe I am the naïve one; maybe I should be following those personalities and learning from their actions. But if being closed off and taking everything personal is what it takes to run a successful business in Italy, I hope I fail miserably.

I have deleted and added content to this post after its original publication in order to present the material in a more journalistic manner.

Monday, April 20, 2009

My First Interview with a Famous Person: Garrison Rochelle Speaks about Fame, Success and Life After "Amici"

“Amici are coming! Do we have enough food for Amici?” asked one of the owners of Angels Restaurant, the place where I waitress for the Sunday American brunch run by Florence For Fun.

I am now embarrassed to say: I thought she was talking about her friends. I was annoyed. Didn’t she know that we stop serving at 3 p.m.?

Then Matteo, one of the Italian servers told me who was coming to brunch. “Amici,” is a popular Italian television show, comparable to “Fame” with a splash of “Big Brother.” It’s been on the air since 2001, and is part documentary, part talent contest that shows young talents’ quest for stardom in the entertainment business. Viewers determine who will win the televised talent show based on participants’ ability to dance, sing and act. The professional dancers from the show were in town to perform "Io Ballo" at Teatro Verdi, and called the restaurant to see if we could accommodate them so shortly before closing.

I seldom watch T.V. ever since moving to Italy — I get my information solely through the Internet. So I remained unfazed, while some of my colleagues scurried in preparation for the arrival of the “Amici.” This with the exception of the boss, Federico — he always portrays a minimum level of charm, enough to keep everyone smiling.

“I am not serving them,” I said to Federico. “I don’t kiss anyone’s ass.  I treat all customers the same, so it’s best that someone else serves them. I will only place things on the table where you tell me.”

While I was walking back and forth from the kitchen, I was stopped by one of the professional dancers, José Perez. He asked if the shops were open on Monday. I do not remember if it was at that point or another that I said a word in English.

“You’re American,” said Garrison Rochelle, a former dancer and famous choreographer of the show.

And that started our conversation.

I took him into the kitchen to meet the rest of the staff, mostly Americans. Matteo was red and could not speak. That gave me a sign that this guy was someone worth interviewing. 

 Besides my professional interest, I sincerely liked speaking with him. I chatted with Rochelle about living in Italy, the struggles and the show. I told him I was a journalist, and asked if I could interview him if I ever came to Rome. He readily agreed.

The next day, I thought: why am I waiting? Maybe he has time for an interview today. With newfound determination, I called him and set up the appointment.

At 7 p.m. I entered Teatro Verdi through the artists’ entrance. A lady with thick black glasses walked me to the backstage. Bright, hot, almost blinding lights shone on the dancers practicing the routine for that night’s show.

I have to admit it was great to see the “behind-the-scenes” of a performance. Many people wearing black walked past me. I took it they were permanent staff of the theatre, and probably wore black to blend in with the stage.

Eventually, Rochelle arrived, and happily arm-in-arm, escorted me to his dressing room.

There his two dogs greeted us, and I interviewed him while he put on his makeup. We faced the large lighted mirror. I wasn’t sure where to stare, at him or the mirror. I chose to communicate by looking at his reflection. Before I pressed record on my digital recorder, I told him that he is my first famous-person-interview.

That comment initiated the interview. Rochelle really does not consider himself famous.

“Famous almost sounds like a dirty word to me, because it has negative aspects,” he said.

Traits usually associated with famous people, like vanity and neuroticism, are qualities that Rochelle does not possess. That makes him a genuine person. It also made it comfortable for me to simply converse with him. He does not put much worth in being famous or popular.

“The last 10 years have been good because of ‘Amici.’ But before that I worked for a program that was really popular. And so I would be ‘famous — really — famous’ (he made the familiar quote-mark sign with his fingers) where I couldn’t walk down the street. And then I’d be off T.V. for a year, and people kind of forget the face,” Rochelle said. 

But Rochelle does not have a problem with that. From dancing on Broadway to performing on various Italian entertainment shows for more than 25 years, Rochelle acknowledges that fame is momentary. After experiencing the downside of show biz, he places value on other types of success defined outside of public esteem. 

In 1984, he had his first encounter with fame. Italian fans noticed him with his mother in Milano’s Piazza San Babilo. They overtook the square in a matter of minutes, causing the police to be called. The experience’s impact was twofold. 

“It freaked me out … than after that I thought: Wow, I’m famous! I thought the deal was done … I could just wait for the contracts to come in.”

In the early 1980’s, he moved to Italy, where he and Brian Bullard formed the duo-dance act “Brian and Garrison.” One of their first performances was on RAI Uno’s variety show “Fantistico 4,” where they danced alongside Heather Parisi. Like most television shows, the program eventually finished. People called them with offers that he and Bullard thought were beneath them, such as “putting a woman between us.” 

“We thought: we are ‘Brian and Garrision.’ Why do we need to do that?” he said. “So you say no once, you say no twice, you say no three times, and they stop calling you.” 

In hindsight, Rochelle admits that they should have taken those opportunities, both for financial reasons, and to maintain a level of popularity. However, the lull in his career taught him to live independently of popularity, and to separate his professional and personal lives.

“I try to keep the two things (professional and personal) apart.” Rochelle said. “I like the person I am outside of television.”  

Rochelle’s career spans dancing on Broadway for renowned choreographer Bob Fosse, to being accepted by Italian audiences for what he describes as “being dizzy.” Rochelle now only wishes for what many people desire: enough money to live comfortably and to have free time.

 Looking beyond “Amici,” Rochelle foresees two or three prosperous years left in his career, and then hopes to retreat to three modest homes he would own. He already owns a house in Rome; his second home would be in Barcelona, and the third in Miami or Tampa, Florida.

Luckily his career has afforded him trips all over the world. However, because he was working on those trips, he did not get the chance to explore and enjoy those places. Now Rochelle is trying to set up his life where he will have time to travel.

I’m always amused about how men’s eyes get wide when I tell them that I belly dance. I am sure they imagine how my hip drops and twists play a role in bed. I prefaced my next question to him with that story. I had to ask him if he thought being a good dancer translated into being a good lover.

“Yes,” Rochelle replied without hesitation. “When I see a dancer, or male or female, when they dance bad, first thing I think is ‘God they must be awful in bed,’” he said with a playfully ghastly look. “You know,” he said to me.

“Yeah.” I completely agreed with him.

“I mean, I could be wrong, but someone that’s uncoordinated when they move, how could they be coordinated when they have (he put his hand over his mouth)… make love?” he asked. I assured him he could use any word he wanted to, as we freely exchanged opinions on the matter.

I admire Rochelle for his candidness, and for letting himself show through the interview. More importantly, I admire him for not putting too much worth in his popularity and fame.

As far as defining success, he does not use fame to measure success.

“You don’t have to be famous to be successful … you have to figure out what’s successful for you,” he said. Being successful in his career, as well as in his private life, “that’s a success.”


Rendezvous with My First Lover

Why is that you always hear from a past lover in those times when you least expect it? Today, I was minding my own business, when I received the unexpected call. I recognized his voice immediately.

There was a bit of uneasiness in his words that followed after he identified himself: “How are you? How is work? Have you found a job?”

He was my first lover, but neither of us has actually been in love with the other; we had always kept our attraction for each other low key and secret, since he has a family and a “wife” (to understand why wife is in quotes, please read my former post Runaway Love about how unions between a man and a women are recognized by some Sicilians). In fact, I have never given him my number, he obviously received it from one of my cousins giu (down South; literally means down or below, and is a way to refer to Southern Italy).

Years ago, after a theatrical chase and purposely created sexual tensions (I was saying “no” and he was insisting on “yes”), he and I had spent an unforgettable, drama and emotion filled night together — I would angrily slap his face every time he said my name wrong and he in turn would aggressively rip off another piece of my clothing. I did not know if he was saying my name wrong on purpose, but either way his reaction heightned my excitment. We consummated our desire for each other in a vineyard on a cold winter night, with a full moon spotlighting our shameless act.

I think back to that night, and know that any man from any other background, would never act with such intensity for the sake of being dramatic nor would they find my purposely disobedient non-submissive conduct so attractive. An American man would never find drama, fighting and lust that borderlines hate or my antics magnetic. An American man does not have the edge to pull off up-front crudeness with sex appeal.  

But regardless of the attraction between us, today I feel differently about him. At that time I was not fully aware of his circumstances. Now that I know his situation I feel a responsibility to keep my feelings capped, and to recognize him truly for what he is, furbo (sly). Being that we have relatives in common, we have always been cordial to each other the few times we have seen each other since that night, and I avoid being alone with him, while he avoids direct eye contact with me.

I feel that he is like all the other Sicilian men I have encountered since living here:  Always thinking of themselves first, married or single, they are constantly trying to conquer a pretty woman in order to upkeep and assure themselves of their raw Southern machismo. Just like furbo, as soon as their female companion turns her back, or as soon as she is out of sight, they take their chances and go out on the prowl for a one-time thrill.

So when he said he was passing through Firenze and he wanted to meet for a caffè, I accepted, but I was not sure if caffè equaled sex. I called one of my good male friends, who I thought would give me a straight male opinion.

“Well maybe he just wants to meet with his old lover for coffee, there is nothing wrong with that,” my American male friend said.

“But do you think he is calling me to have sex?” I asked.

“This is a question for Christine,” he said reminding me that he was not one of my girlfriends.

Well my friend Christine and I gave furbo the benefit of the doubt. I met him.

I waited for him; he walked towards me with that walk, that Sicilian unrefined walk where their male organs go first and the rest confidently follows.

We talked for a good 20 minutes. Small talk. Then I said I should be getting back. Somehow, someway, he got me into his vehicle. He said he would bring me back to the bus stop. I could not say no. I mean what do I say, “no I cannot be alone with you because I am afraid I’ll start tearing off your clothes.” That’s ridiculous.

So we waited for the bus. It came and went without notice. I said “there’s my bus,” but he ignored it. So I had to ask if this meeting was a secret, if anyone knew he was visiting me.

Those questions opened the door.

We talked about that night — if there was regret, if there was a tie between us. He asked if I ever wanted to repeat it. That is when I started thinking about how much it hurt me, when I found out that my ex, the Albanian, was cheating on me. I do not want to do that to another woman, especially when I know that I am not in love with furbo. If I was in love with him, I would take the risk, I would fight for him, and he vice-versa; but our feelings for each other can only go so deep.

We are from two completely different worlds. He could never fully understand me, just because of the way he was brought up to view a woman’s role in society. And I could never be what his “wife” is to him and his children. Sometimes, it makes me sad, but I am happy that we both can recognize that it could never be. He is the only man that I have had relations with and I can truly say I have no hatred or negative feelings towards him.

“Of course I would [like to do that again], but you are not free, you have a family. And in the end, I will be left with nothing. So no,” I said.

He understood and made it clear that he did not call me to sleep with me. Sure of course not. I tried to probe deeper to understand how he could have a family yet, look for other women.

“I do not look for other women, you are the only one that, that has happened with,” he said. “And it never happens to me … I am happy; I have my kids … giu we have a saying that it is okay to have an  avventura (adventure) once in a while.”

I wonder if his “wife” knows that.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Drinking Bombardini in the Mountains on Easter Monday

Dawn on Pasquetta (Easter Monday), five sleepy young adults piled into a station wagon, and tolerated a long twist and turn uphill drive to take advantage of a sunny day snowboarding, and soaking in the rays on the slopes of Cimone, in the Emilia-Romagna Apennines.

I, one of the five, couldn’t speak on the drive up to the mountains. My stomach was still trying to digest Sunday brunch and a late Easter dinner that was regrettably topped off with a cake that looked like panettone, smelled like panettone, and tasted like panettone, but strangly called columba.

Once we arrived at the foot of the slopes, the men brought over three chairs so we girls could chill, gossip, and witness their attempts to gracefully slide down the snow covered track. We carefully planned our day: 10 a.m. cappuccino; 12 p.m. lunch; 2 p.m. another cappuccino and 4 p.m. bombardini.

On the way to Cimone, we spoke about how many bombardini we would drink. It was going to be the extra highlight of the day. Made of a thick egg liqueur VoV, espresso and whipped cream, the warm, but heavy drink is popular during the winter at mountain spots and ski resorts.

In the late afternoon, after the guys were done snowboarding, we all gathered around the fire and drank our bombardini.

We drank them slowly with a teaspoon. In Italy, and other European countries, thick drinks and concoctions topped with whipped cream are served with a teaspoon. When I visited a friend in Madrid, we chatted in Starbucks while scooping our frozen coffee drinks.

I don’t think I could have stomached drinking a bombardini in one or two gulps, as I typically have been brought up to do with alcoholic drinks served in shot or demitasse glasses. The bombardini did not go down as smooth as hoped, but it quickly warmed me up my insides.

I can see why it is popular. I always fantasize about going to the mountains with friends, wearing the sport appropriate J Crew outfit, laughing while holding a warm festive drink in one hand and cuddling a hot guy in the other — all of this of course occurs by a fire. The bombardini is that festive drink of my fantasy.

I know my fantasy is a product of me looking at too many J Crew catalogues. Nonetheless, this day was close to it. I say close, because my fantasy involves Christmas tree cutting, and today I was without the “hot guy”; but my friends and I decided that when we return next year I will have the “hot guy” and we will fit him on the roof. I guess he will have to hold the Christmas tree.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Store Fronts Dressed Up for Easter Day

As I walked around the city today, I noticed that all of the coffee shops are adorned with giant chocolate eggs that are meticulously wrapped in pastel colored paper, held together by a large ribbon tied into a pretty bow.

In some of the shops, the displays are the main attraction. The eggs, made in anticipation for Easter, and other festively wrapped sweets, cover any open space, transforming stores into magical lands of creative fruits and candies. The chocolate shop Vestri, on Borgo degli Albizi, 11, is dressed in playful decorations from head to toe.

The shop is brimming with embellished chocolates. The Easter ornaments, overflow onto the entrance way, converting Vestri into a colorful, springtime bouquet.

I stopped to take some pics, and spoke to the owner about possibly watching them make the eggs that usually contain a surprise inside. He said that they have already made all the uova di Pasque (Easter eggs) for this year. But there is always next year. Till then, I cannot wait to unwrap and eat the chocolate egg on Easter day.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Keeping Friends

Meeting people in Florence is easy, but keeping them in your life is difficult. The circumstances that draw people to and away from this town are many. 

Some come here to study, knowing their days here are counted. Others come without an expiration date; there is the lost person, who comes to Italy with a personal mission to rediscover, reinvent and find themselves; there is the dreamer, who sipped a cappuccino, looked into their cup of coffee and saw visions of a new life reflecting back at them; then there is the lover, taking a chance or trying to forget a bad decision, he comes here to escape or submit to love’s power, letting fate and destiny determine his life.

I have made a handful of friends, and I use the word “friend” in its truest sense, but every now and then, one of us questions whether the other will stay around.  We size each other up, trying to categorize each other by the characters listed above, determining the probability that the winds of change will carry one of us away. Since I am the newly arrived, it is usually falls on me to convince the other that I will stay.

When I meet people, one of the first conversations we have is why you are here and how long will you stay. Depending on the connection, they delve deeper to find out my true intentions for being in Florence.  It’s like they need a contract or guarantee that I won’t suddenly up and leave, making the time we spent together a wasted investment.

Before my closest friend became my friend, we had a conversation about how long I intended to stay. I could hear distress and hope in her voice that I would not be one of those people who come and go, leaving her with a yet another disappointment. I had to assure her that I came here with the decision to build a new life, to make Firenze my permanent home.

At that time, I did not see what the big deal was. I could not understand the fuss. I love meeting new people. The more people you know the better.

This week I invited one of my readers to meet me for a coffee. Her response was yes, but she was kind enough to warn me ahead of time that she would soon be leaving. When I first read her e-mail I thought, no big deal, meeting someone is never a waste of time.

But today I am no longer the newcomer. Today I understand. My friend, who I consider family (although he may not want that big responsibility), told me he may be leaving Florence for at least three months. I don’t know why, but I started crying. And I am crying now just thinking of it.

I could not believe I was crying. What’s wrong with me?

“You’re growing up,” he said.

Is this what happens when you grow up? People leave?

Now I look back at all of my relationships and people I have encountered since that day in June that I arrived. I can count a handful of loves and friends, that I have left behind in Sicily to return to Firenze, and that have left me behind in Firenze to return to their home. It truly makes me blue.