Monday, February 18, 2008

The archaic side of Italian business, and general lack of shame.

Monday in Milan. With one half hour lesson of English at 10 am, and then nothing until 4:20pm, when I had to take a train to Bergamo to substitute a teacher, I was looking at a free stretch of time to catch up on things.

Upon exiting the building from the center of Milan, I figured I'd walk the mile home, since I knew I'd be passing through one of the most commercial streets in Milan, which would have the hardware store I needed to purchase odds and ends for my room upgrade.

I had forgotten just one tiny detail: Monday mornings do not exists for Italian business owners. Everything is closed until 3pm. I passed in front of at least 5 hardware stores. Nothing. Most shops were closed, with only the main chain stores or some small food suppliers open, although they were pretty deserted inside.

Mildly annoyed, I headed home, and I knew I wouldn't have time to head out again before my train. I spent the rest of the day eating and watching Bones (just "discovered" this series, it was pointed out to me years ago but I never watched it. It's pretty amusing!) until I had to head to the train station.

Then I went to Bergamo. The first time I had ever been there. Getting to the branch was easy enough, within walking distance from the train station. They were doing some remodeling themselves, so it was pretty chaotic. I managed to teach two phonetics lessons and carry conversations over the sound of drills and the random shouts of the work crew. I was amazed that not one student complained.

At 8:30pm I headed towards the train station again. The next train was going to be at 9:30pm. Whoop-dee-doo. I bought my ticket with my debit card, I had only some coins on me and figured I should keep them to buy something to drink. 45 minutes wait. Inside the station, a cafeteria was still open. I purchased a can of coke for the absurd amount of €2.00. I should have checked the vending machines by the tracks, a whole bottle was "only" €1.50. Never leave your home without something to drink if you visit the center of a city. They will charge only €3.00 for a sandwich, but the price of coke and water invariably spikes anywhere near a traveling hub, or near touristy areas.

The past few days have been cold in Milan, but I hadn't seen any waiting room, the cafeteria had no chairs, so I figured I'd tough it out on the tracks and hang out, smoking a cigarette and playing with my DS, with gloved hands and ear-muffs.

The train was on the track 25 minutes before it had to leave. Thanking the god I do not believe in for small favors, I got on, after checking about 3 times that the electronic board did indeed say it was the train for Milan and not some other train I shouldn't get on. I settled down in a deserted area at the head of a car, and kept playing my game (anyone into Picross? It's like sudoku for pixel artists...). At 9:35, as scheduled, the train left the station. I was enthralled by the videogame and figured the hour would go by quickly.

Then the controller came by. I paused my game, grabbed the ticket from my bag, handed it over, smiled politely, and waited for him to hand it back. He looked at it, turned it over, read it again. Then he said:"You didn't validate it." I had a moment of hesitation. Crap. That's right, in Italy you have to punch every ticket you purchase, even if it was just stamped by the machine at the station, at another machine which puts the date and station on the edge of it. I was too concerned with finding sustenance and shelter to remember that stupid detail. It had been a while since I had last forgotten about it, too. Although nothing much had ever happened from me not punching the ticket.

He coldly continued:"That'll be €5.00." I paused. I knew I had no bills in my wallet. I had some coins in my bag, but I guessed they didn't amount to much. I proceeded to explain that to him, while I fished around for anything I had. I showed him my empty wallet, and pulled out a handful of coins littered with an eraser, a paper clip, and the measurements for my screws. I counted. €4.54. I showed him that's all I had. I also kept mumbling about not having been paid at work yet and how I had gotten the ticket with my debit card, and I could pay with that, if it worked. Of course he wasn't equipped for it.

He paused, perhaps considering the option to let it go. But he didn't. He suggested I go around the train asking people to lend me the 50 cents I was missing. I looked at him baffled. I wasn't going to go around asking for money! I told him that, but he just said he'd be back later and to find the money.

I didn't manage to get too concerned. I figured he'd actually meant he would close an eye and not come back. I put the ticket back, put all the coins in my pocket, and continued playing.

20 minutes later he was back, asking for tickets to the newcomers. He looked at me, then turned to the guy on the opposite seat. I figured if I played dumb, we'd play the game together and he would move along. And that's when he turned to me. I told him I hadn't found the extra coins. I also thought if I kept the conversation generic enough, he might move along, without losing face. I offered again the €4.54 I had. He said I had to find the rest. I asked him why didn't *he* lend that to me. He didn't even acknowledge my sentence. Instead, he turned to the guy opposite, and said "Don't you have 50 cents to lend to this lady?"


Besides the absolute rudeness, and the fact that I was feeling (or was supposed to feel) like absolute crap for that, he had just spoken to a middle-aged guy, who seemed of quite modest means, and definitely wouldn't say no. He mumbled a humble "yeah, sure", fished around his pocket and pulled out the money, handing it over to the controller, who put it into my hand. I had just been forced to panhandle...

I do have to say, somehow I felt quite detached from it all. I didn't blush nor was I feeling any true shame which I rationalized would be the appropriate response... I started to dig into my bag and pulled out a crappy pen from my work, and handed it over to the guy, who didn't want it, but I made him take it anyways, feeling at least it was *some* kind of exchange rather than a forced act of charity. The controller, without batting an eyelash, wrote up the ticket, took the coins, and moved along.

I then felt like I had to enter into some small talk with the guy, apologize again, explain what happened, and thank him one more time. Although I did kinda do what I though was rational rather than what I felt... He agreed the guy had been an ass and after a few sentences we returned to our own worlds.

He got off a couple of stops before me and I didn't even look up.

At the train station, I debated stopping at the grocery shop which is extraordinarily opened until 11pm with only a 60% price spike on products, to get beer and forget the night away. I then remembered I only had 4 cents in my pocket, and the nearest ATM was too far away to be worth it. I could have paid with the debit card there, but somehow I felt it'd be wrong. I had some left-over wine from the un-valentine's dinner. That would work.

So here I am, a couple of hours later, none the worse for the experience, but it certainly made me think. When I filed for a refund a year and a half ago for a delayed train, I never heard from them. And yet I was readily fined for forgetting to put a double time stamp on the ticket I had just printed from their machines...

What a stupid ass backwards country this is.

Friday, February 15, 2008

happy un-valentine's day!

From plans for a night out with a couple of girls, it quickly became a dinner party with 8 friends at my place. Tonight the roommates chipped in and we had a nice time hanging out, eating good food (home-made lasagna from one of the roommies, and home-made fruit tarts by yours truly, with a heart-shaped strawberry in the middle... aawww) and just laughing about random Italian and American movies and culture things... from football to rugby, which I've recently taken a shine to with the 6-nations cup being shown on local TV. That is one amazing sport to look at!! I love Oscar Wilde's quote: "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by beasts. Rugby is a beasts' game played by gentleman". Right on the target with that observation!

Previous to this dinner night, last weekend it was Carnevale in Italy, and I went to a random party hosted by a friend of a friend of a friend... A loft crammed with way too many people having tons of fun. Extremely cheap beer and random fun contributed to a very lousy Sunday afternoon spent at work in the bookstore, 5 hours in which I kept wondering when I'd puke my brains out... which finally happened a half hour before I had to get out of there... a mad dash to the bathroom with the cash register's keys in my pocket and hoping no one would grab any books while I was gone a whole of five minutes...

Besides that, I've been working my usual random shifts teaching English, with a few interesting encounters along the way, which I might blog about later on. Right now I'm ready for bed, having managed to clean up the worst of the party, and being lucky that my shift for tomorrow starts at 4pm.

Happy un-valentine's day to everyone!