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June 30, 2009

BANG

Miracles do happen.

My last asking for this year involves something I NEVER would have imagined doing last July.

I....

Hold on.

Let's backtrack.

Before this unexpected evening, I completed my first request for the day by asking something for someone else.

A friend called me for some travel advice. She is on a very strict budget, but wants to buy a plane ticket for her son so he could be with them when the husband/father turns 50 around Labor Day. This man just had a heart attack, so the whole family is excited to finally be together for this milestone.

Could I help her look online to book a supercheap ticket?

I checked a few sites, but it didn't look good. Prices are lower than last year, but not low enough.

So instead of giving her airline or website recommendations, I did something a little more extreme.

With her permission, I wrote an email to one of the airlines that services their two cities and asked for a discount or courtesy ticket.

I know this woman is in debt, and she really shouldn't put this on her credit card.

So maybe, maybe, maybe, the airline will agree to lower the cost.

Before I could write to any more airlines, she called and said she put the flight on her card after all, because she didn't want to risk a "no" and miss the last available seats at the lowest price.

Gained I: Tried to help. Didn't work out as I'd hoped. Glad the family will be together that weekend anyway.

As for tonight.

I was sitting at my dining room table, alone.

Tabulating the data from this year of inquiries.

Mr. A is in LA for a conference. The house seemed really empty.

And I was a little down.

It was not how I imagined I'd be spending the last night of asking.

Inviting myself to drive someone's cool car? Maybe.
Crashing someone's party? Why not.
Asking a pastry chef for his awesome banana bread pudding recipe? Yum.

But crunching numbers seemed like such a... whimper, not a bang.

Then the phone rang.

"What are you up to?"

It was Jem.

"Nothing much. How are you?"

"Good! I'm calling to see if you want to go to dajin."

"Where's that?"

"The gym."

"Did you say G-Y-M?"

"Yeah! The K-meister just got me a membership and we're on our way over."

"Really. Mmm, I'm not sure I have time.... I'm sort of busy..."

"They have a pool, and a sauna! Come on!"

"Really?"

I weighed the two alternatives: Sit home alone and stare at the wall. Or meet some friends for a workout.

"If I come, can we hang out after too? Get a drink or dinner?"

"I would love to."

Half an hour later I was on a stationary bike, watching CNN.

The place wasn't half bad.

Clean.

Good music.

Badminton courts, unlimited yoga. Stuff I'd vaguely considered looking into. One day.

On the way out, I stopped by the membership desk. The girl told me there is no signup fee -- today only -- and no cancellation fee, ever.

So I signed up myself and Mr. A.

But not before asking for -- and getting -- a free month.

Gained II: 3 months for the price of 2. Value: $30.

Did I sufficiently tantalize you? When you read that gooey first line, about miracles, did you expect I'd say I knocked on the door of the White House or asked Steve Jobs about his surgery or begged my grad school for an expedited PhD?

Well, until tonight, any of those possibilities struck me as more feasible than La Roxy joining a gym!!!

I crave sunlight, not elliptical machines.

But so be it.

So that's that.

365 days.

Done!

Poof!

Finito!

Results and revelations coming soon. But first I'm taking a break.

Until we meet again,

xoxo,

La Roxy

June 29, 2009

Free stock?

June 29. Day 364.

I decided to wrap things up on this second to last daily asking by revisiting a request I'd contemplated in the past but never got around to doing.

Back in October, it occurred to me to write to a bunch of companies, asking for one free stock from each. I didn't end up doing it, because I wondered how to phrase the letter and I worried it would be a shot in the dark, and a waste of time.

Well, now that I've been at this for almost a year, I know for a fact that trying is worthwhile.

Even when I was sure the other party would say no, I often got a resounding YES.

So... gotta try.

Today I wrote a letter -- a good, old fashioned paper letter -- to one company.

At first, I planned on writing to a bunch -- maybe 20, or even 50 or 100. Maximize my chances at success. But as I wrote this first letter, I realized there are few firms I could address convincingly. I mean, "Please give me a stock," is one thing, but "Please give me a stock because I really believe in your products today and your direction for the future" is another.

I've narrowed down the list to about 15 companies based on these criteria. For today, I'm sending this one off.

I'm not going to publish my letter until I hear back. But here's the gist of what I wrote:

--Love your company for reasons xyz.
--Would like invest in your company but I'm an indigent grad student now
--I decided what the hell, why not just ask for a stock?

Also, I vowed at the start of this project that I would not use my blogger "status" to get any benefits. All year I have asked as regular Roxy, not someone who can influence public opinion. I stuck to this rule to the end, or it would throw off the experiment.

Investment: two hours of researching companies and individuals and writing the letter.

Potential gain: Hmm. Around $5,000 if all the companies say yes. About $25 if this first one agrees. (Based on today's prices.)

BRING IT ON!!!!!

Results? You'll be the first to know!

Second, I posted a request on HARO, a cool service that connects writers, reporters, and bloggers with sources. I asked people to tell me their own stories about asking. Also requested to interview people who get asked a lot because of their professions. Over time, I'll start featuring their specialized advice, tips, and tricks.

The request still stands -- anyone with stories or strategies related to asking or negotiation, send them in!! I'm thedailyasker [at] gmail [dot] com.

Gained: Hopefully, tons of stories and insights. Material to kick off Year Two!

June 28, 2009

TWO DAYS LEFT!!!

June 28. Day 363.

I can't believe it's almost over!! I wrote Day 363 as if it were day 63. Unreal.

In a recent comment, IGC asked if I have any plans this week.

Nothing you can see immediately, but stuff is happening behind the scenes.

Starting July 1, I'm going to publish an analysis of all the data I've collected. I've been correlating and analyzing all weekend. Because this is indeed an experiment, a study, my goal was to understand more about how gender and other factors influence success rates in asking and negotiation.

Was I more successful in asking men or women?
Were people in New York or Milan more likely to indulge my request?
Was I more nervous when I asked alone or in a group, and when was I more successful?
And did I obtain more when inquiring on my behalf, or when asking for someone else?

That is a sample of the info you'll get.

I'm also finalizing a new website, which should be up in a week or so. It will be. Much. More. Informative. Interactive. Intriguing.

Meanwhile, you can help me in one way.

GET THE WORD OUT!!!

The year is almost over. And the more people that read this last week, the better!

Email my link to classmates, peers, reporters, researchers. Anyone interested in the results of a 365 day study about asking, gender, negotiation, persuasion.

Tweet and retweet the hell out of this post.

Send it to Facebook and beyond.

Post it to any blog or webpage about a possibly related subject.

Send me your comments or emails with what you've asked for over the course of this project, what questions it has left you with, or what you'd like to see in Year Two. I'll post everything!

And thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thanks to everyone who participated, read, wrote in, advised, asked, answered, or shared!!!!!!!

PS: Today, I asked Mr. A a question. A private, gossipy, nonbloggable question. Something about someone I was itching to find out.

Gained I: a cryptic answer... but cryptic good, not cryptic bad. =)

I also asked a cashier to give a friend a discount on a damaged shirt that costs $100, and he said no. Tsk tsk tsk, Nordsrom Rack.

Gained II: Nothing.

June 27, 2009

The end is near!!!

June 27. Day 362.

Today Mr. A celebrated his birthday with a picnic in the park, surrounded by friends and fam.

I was in charge of decorating and catering, so I called our favorite Thai place to see if they could handle an order for 15 people this afternoon.

The man on the phone said yes.

I hung up and said I'd call him back once I read the menu online.

When I called back, I realized I'd forgotten to ask!

"Since we're doing a big order, how about you give me 10 percent off."

"Fine."

The order came to around $80 something, including tax.

Gained: Around $9. In retrospect, he agreed to my request too fast. Maybe I should have let him make an offer, or aimed bigger. Oh well. Still $9.

And, an update from yesterday: I called the mother back after not hearing from her, and asked if she had time to think about my request.

She replied she wouldn't hire me at the higher rate.

I asked and lost.

And yet... I am glad I asked.

I am in not in rush to find a job, and I am confident there are better options if I look harder. That was the first attempt.

Now, if this recession keeps up, or I don't find something by graduation, I will change my tune. But right now, I feel I made the right choice.

Ultimately, I feel that not asking would have been more costly than losing the job.

That's a mantra I need to take with me, for the next time around.

June 26, 2009

Renegotiate salary? Put up a flyer here?

June 26. Day 361.

I had the mother's number on speed dial. Two days ago, she offered a job tutoring her three kids. We negotiated the salary. And since then, I've been conflicted.

PRO:
--it's money
--it can lead to future contacts

CON:
--hourly rate is much lower than what I earned at the beginning of grad school
--i've since added credentials and experience
--the job is too many hours per week given I need to finish dissertation
--i'd be driving almost 40 miles round trip, with little compensation

Ultimately, I decided to play out this asking experiment as far as I could. See if I could be successful in asking, one last round.

I took a small risk by assuming there are more tutoring jobs out there, but I felt safe doing so because it's summer. If she said no, I would lose the job offer. If she said yes, I would obtain my lowest target of an extra $10 per hour -- or $540 over the course of the summer. It was still far below what I know I should be earning, but as a first tutoring job in this city I can take a pay cut, until other clients start rolling in. (And/or I finish my dissertation and get a real job.)

Plus, this rate is a compromise between my target and feeling like a total pushover.

I dialed her number. She picked up.

"Hello? This is La Roxy, how are you?"

"Hello! Good, thank you. You?"

"Great. Do you have a moment to talk?"

"Yes, now is good."

"Thank you. I was thinking about our salary discussion on Wednesday, and I've come to the conclusion that if I factor in preparation time, grading papers, plus travel, that brings my rate to around $25 per hour. I was wondering if you would be willing to pay $50 per hour, or $75 per session, instead of $60 per session. That would ensure my time is compensated fairly."

My voice was steady. It felt great to be asking.

"I need to think about it."

Gained I: Unsure.

Next, I headed to a nearby library to put up a flyer about tutoring. I asked where the bulletin board is, and the librarian told me only community groups can use it.

Gained II: wasted 10 minutes.

June 25, 2009

Best apartment rate? And some much needed advice?

June 25. Day 360.

My dad and stepmom are going to France, and they asked me to help them book a hotel or apartment. They're on a tight budget, and they want a kitchen, so I went for the Craigslist approach.

Rather than query 20 apartment renters separately, I opted for a more efficient approach. I grouped together all the listings that matched most of my criteria and sent a mass email.
Hello,

I am interested in renting a studio apartment for 10 days between the dates of July 11 or 12, and July 21 or 22.

It is for my father and stepmother. (They are unfamiliar with Craigslist, so I offered to help them find something.)

Their budget for 10 days is around 250 euros per week. They would pay cash at the beginning.

Is your apartment available in that period?

If so, would you please email me a photo of the bed, bathroom and kitchen, or give a website where these items are clearly visible. Also please tell me the address, and list the name(s) of the nearest metro stop(s)? Finally, if it is on the 4th floor or higher, is there a lift?

If it is occupied then, it is available at any later time? They may be able to shift their vacation to August instead.

Merci, bien a vous,

La Roxy
Got some answers with prices around my target. Yay.

Bon voyage!

Next, I asked for advice about yesterday's job offer. I got a tutoring gig that pays $40 per hour, or around $25 factoring in travel time and preparation.

I asked three people their input and they were unanimous: Don't take the job.

Mr. A said I need to be writing my dissertation, and the last months are the most grueling. He knows. He's been there. He also reminded me that I don't NEED NEED the money. If I couldn't cover the rent or had a family to feed it was one thing. But I have the basics taken care of. Do I really want to drive across the city just to pay for coffee? Isn't there a better job out there? What's the rush?

Eau, my friend in DC who visited a few months ago, who previously advised my sister to demand better pay in a similar situation, said I should be charging way more given I almost have a PhD from a top school and I've been tutoring for 15 years. I stammered it's tough times, people can't afford to pay a lot these days, and she listed half a dozen friends with less experience who are earning at least triple what I am charging. Ouch.

My grandma told me to skip the job and be a student. Then apply for jobs with all my might. But don't do things half way.

I think they all had good points. So my instincts were right -- I way undersold myself. I'm still thinking about it, but I'm leaning toward calling her back and either asking for more money, or turning it down entirely...

Gained: A preliminary room in Paris for my dad and stepmom. And advice from The Three Wisepersons.

June 24, 2009

My first (part time) salary negotiation!

June 24. Day 359.

Here's a brief rundown of my financial situation, as of this month. Grad school stipend has dried up. Savings cover the essentials, plus the occasional (read: rare) side project.

But I need to find the cash for extras, like all that coffee I drink. And jeans. And tango night!!

Which means I need more work.

I posted a message on Craigslist offering my tutoring services. I figured that if I pick up around $40/hour, give or take, for an hour or two per week, that would give me enough time to advance on the dissertation, and enough cash to feel comfortable.

Win win.

I got a call yesterday from a mother who wants me to tutor her three teenage children. I offered to go to their house for a free consultation, but she said she prefers to meet me at mine -- for privacy/security concerns. Fine by me.

They came over this afternoon, plopped onto the futon in and I asked them about their academic history, and a few personal details. Recent immigrants, trying to improve their English and get into good colleges. They wanted someone to work on essay writing, debate, reading comprehension and phonetics. Exactly my cup of tea!

Next, it was time to talk money and schedule.

The mom sent the kids to the car, saying "I want them to respect teacher. They do not need to know how much you earn." Thanks, I think!?

I started by saying that ideally, if she had no budget constraints, we should schedule one hour with each kid, and one together. Separately, I could work on their unique goals, and together they could practice debate, discuss books together, critique one anothers's arguments.

She said she prefers all the kids meeting at once.

I convinced her to meet part of the time together, and part separately, saying one-on-one is unrivaled when it comes to discussing feedback on writing.

She agreed to three split meetings.

Next, money.

I explained that if I normally charge around $40 per hour, it would be higher for three students. I'd be grading three times the number of papers, and preparing two summer reading book lists, not one. (Two of the kids are in the same class.)

At the same time, I'd give her a discount since we're meeting more than once per week.

"What about $80 per session? And a session could be a little more than an hour, since they can concentrate at that age."

"That is too much."

Ok. I imagined she'd say that. I tried again.

"How about $60?" This was my target -- what I thought would be a fair price. $20 per hour per student.

"That is too much!"

"Well," I spoke up, "actually I believe that is a great rate, considering my experience and credentials."

"I'm sorry, but that is too much."

"Ok, what is your suggestion?"

"$60 for an hour and a half."

Hmm. That was exactly my hourly rate, for one kid. Now I'd be doing three times the preparation? Not cool...

And yet, I could use the money...

"Ok."

Next: logistics.

I asked if she wanted to meet at my house or hers.

"Our home, please."

"Sure. If I come to your house, I do charge clients for travel."

"How much?"

"50 cents per mile."

"For three times per week? That is almost $20 per trip! Too much!"

"What if we meet halfway?" I offered. "A library or quiet cafe?"

"No, home is best."

Ok, now it was getting frustrating. If she doesn't even pay for gas, I'm earning less now than I did 5 years ago, plus taking time to drive across the city -- when there are probably other potential clients up my street.

I know there is a recession, and I am grateful to have any kind of job offer in this climate, but can't she be a little flexible?

But I offered another compromise.

"Ok, how about I just charge you for gas. Not time. If it's 35 miles round trip [I did a quick calculation] then it's something like $5 per trip."

"Ok."

She left beaming.

I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I got the job. On the other, it wasn't the WOOHOO salary negotiation victory I'd hoped for at the end of this project.

The timing couldn't be better, since it's the final week of asking.

But the results... well... they could be a lot better.

Gained: A job. I shouldn't complain about the salary, but I just hoped I'd be a better negotiator, after a whole year of trying.

And, one positive point: at least I asked. I didn't request $40 and let her drop to $20. I asked $80 and got $40.

A few reflections, after the fact:

1. Negotiating for a salary is HARD. Damn!!! I did not expect it to be so difficult. Truly, after a year of asking for discounts and standing up for myself, I thought I would get much better results here. Perhaps get my target, or a little below. Instead, I gave in at every step of the way. The conversation took a while -- it's not like I immediately said "Ok!" to each of her attempts to lower it. I thought, I calculated. And then I dropped. So, if asking for extra money is entirely different from asking for extra foam on your latte, I've just gotta keep practicing!

2. Negotiating for a salary is even HARDER when you don't have a job or really need the money. This is obvious, but I never realized the psychological effect it would have on me. Compared to the one time I asked for a raise, at the beginning of this project, this time around I knew I had much more to lose.

The refrain in my head, the whole time, was "Come on, you don't have an alternative. Take it. Take it."

What I should have told myself, in retrospect, is that I do have an alternative: grad school, and the other part time work I do, and the other people who could call and accept a better rate.

3. What could I have done differently?

I could have suggested two or three hours per week (not 4 1/2), at a higher rate -- within her budget, but still meeting my salary requirement.

I could have concluded the conversation at a higher hourly rate by telling her, "Well, I'm very sorry if that's too much, but this is what I charge... Perhaps you want to think about it and call me tomorrow?" Rather than giving in immediately.

I could have not caved on the driving. At least that.

I could have identified an ideal minimum (higher than my actual minimum) and, once the maximum failed, done everything I could to settle at the idea minimum.

That is, I could have planned a dollar figure below which I wouldn't want to take the job, and stuck to it. For example, let's say $40 the lowest figure I knew I would do the job for. What if I acted like $50 was? If I countered $50 to her $40, that would have added up over the summer. Since I didn't do that, we ended at my minimum, not my ideal minimum. Does this make sense?

I should not have I assumed that if I start high, we will automatically end up somewhere between her goal and mine. That depends on me, not her. And I was a softie.

I should have factored in prep time and grading, and made that explicit: "For every lesson, I will take about 15 minutes per child to prepare and 15 minutes to grade and write feedback. That is reflected in my fee." As it stands, by not doing that, my hourly rate dips from $40 to $30 (given half an hour of driving time per meeting) to even less, considering I'll spend around an hour per week to prepare feedback.

4. Learn from the other party. Next time, when I'm negotiating, if the other side is good at bargaining, I'm totally going to mimic. This woman was deteremined. She wanted three meetings per week with three kids, for $40/hour. I firmly believe that was her target when she picked up the phone yesterday. And she was determined enough to get it. Kudos!

I could have turn her refrain on her, "That is too much!" by saying "That is too little!"

Instead, she asked, asked, asked. I caved, caved, caved.

5. Conclusion? I'm writing this after the fact, and let me just say that there's another chapter. But what are your thoughts now? Disappointed in the Daily Asker? I admit I am... Not so much about the money, actually, but about the utter failure in this attemtped negotiation...

June 23, 2009

Improve my credit score?

June 23. Day 358.

Today I emailed a reporter in response to a query I read online. Danielle Gorman, who writes for Money Magazine, was interested in finding people in their 20's and 30's with questions about their credit scores, and that would be me.

I recently signed up with Credit Karma, which gives you your score for free, no strings attached, no limits (unlike Uncle Sam's free once-annual credit score). According to their site, since I have a short credit history (less than 10 years) and I don't have many types of credit -- just debit/credit cards and student loans -- that has put a damper on my standing. Yikes.

Here's my email to her:
Hi Danielle,
Thanks for this opportunity! I would really love to ask an expert the following.
My score is 696, according to the super awesome creditkarma.com. I pay on time, stay below balances, etc. I have student loans, and a credit card which I pay off every month. What are some concrete steps I can take to improve my score so I get the lowest possible interest rate when I decide to buy a house? (ballpark target: 2 years away). I'm in the market for a car, so maybe I could build credit there?
Name: Roxy
Age: 20-something
City: San Diego
Photo: [is this necessary? I would prefer to stay anonymous for several reasons. If it's a requirement, I can give you something that obscures my face.]
Best wishes, thanks again,
Roxy
She replied saying she needs my real name and picture.
Thanks so much for sharing. Unfortunately, the people we feature in the magazine cannot remain anonymous (readers love to see and learn from other “real” people), so we would be unable to use your question...
Darn anonymity. Maybe it's time to shed this veil!? No, no, no. Not until the moment is right.

Gained: Nothing!!

June 22, 2009

Asking RX

June 22. Day 357.

I met a friend for a glass of wine this afternoon. She is an ear nose & throat doctor, and she has received an out of the blue job offer from a coveted institution.

"Do you know what the offered salary is?" I cut to the chase.

"Yes."

"Better than your job now?"

"Not by a lot."

"You're going to negotiate your salary, right?" I checked.

"I don't know..."

Turns out that this woman who had the courage to start her life over in a different country, who had the tenacity to attend medical school in the U.S. to validate her studies abroad, who has kicked butt at several prestigious fellowships and who helps people lead liveable lives by giving advice and instructions... is scared to ask.

"It's just that I don't feel like I'm anything that special or remarkable. Why should I get more money than they're offering? Why would they give me more than what they're offering? I feel grateful to get the job offer in the first place," she confessed.

"Why? They're expecting you to negotiate, and you ARE awesome. They came to you."

"But what if they have budget constraints? Especially these days. Or if I price myself out?"

"That's why you have to snoop around first. Once you know there's some flexibility -- and, I have no reason to know this, but this is what I'm guessing -- there's always a little flexibility, even when they say there's not. You should at least try."

"So when we meet I'll say, 'We need to negotiate my salary!' "

"Something like that. Maybe not sounding quite so forceful. But what if before talking to them, you got some practicing asking? We can role play."

She agreed. I know she thinks I'm kooky. And a little obsessed by this asking project -- and she's right on both counts.

Anyway, I took out my pad and wrote out this "prescription." (I took a picture with my cell phone, but it's blurry. Here it is part of the page).

The idea is based in spirit on a weeklong asking exercise called the Negotiation Gym, created by the writers of Ask for It (and Women Don't Ask). The idea is to help you discover that asking 1) isn't scary even when you're rejected and 2) gets easier over time.

I created each daily goal together with my friend, checking at each step to see if it would help. Here's the list.

Ask for something random you'd normally not ask for that...
Day 1. you know you'll get
Day 2. you might get
Day 3. you definitely won't get
Day 4. Break.
Day 5. Actively negotiate something, anything
Day 6. Ask/negotiate for more TIME (she's busy, and I wanted to give her a goal she really cares about to see how that affects her methods and success)
Day 7. Ask in a nice way something that seems to you offensive or rude or difficult, but might not be to the other person. Look for a solution to a problem you have, etc (i.e. to help her get over herself, since many times I think people stop themselves, shock themselves, when the person being asked wouldn't mind in the least helping out or providing said service/favor/courtesy)

In the first three, I told her to ask for stuff she doesn't care about, has no investment in. Just to get a feel for it and feel ok taking risks, getting rejected, letting loose. In the last three, it has to be for goals she is actually interested in obtaining.

Every day, she should keep a log with what she asked for, the result, an analysis of her method (what could improve, what went well), and how she felt asking.

After seeing the list, she thought about it and realized she's been negotiating left and right already. She just hadn't seen it that way ebfore.

"Ok?" I asked.

"Ok!!!!"

Gained I: Spread some askerly love. With her permission, I'll let you know how her week o' asking goes... and how that salary negotiation turns out!!!

As for what I asked. I ended up on someone's email list, and many months ago I requested that he remove me, through email and voicemail. Since then, he's kept spamming me and I've kept asking him to stop. I could just put his email in the spam filter, which is what I do with most other annoying message senders, and which is much easier. But now I'm actually intrigued by the the process of getting him to stop.

That is, I've been fairly successful in getting people to do something, but how do you get someone to not do something?

It's much harder, it turns out.

After various attempts, with no success, today I sent him this email. Is the all caps excessive? Maybe I could have saved them for the last paragraph. I don't know. I've never sent an all caps email before, but maybe this will get the point across that I mean business? We'll see next Sunday... Here it is:
PLEASE REMOVE ME FROM YOUR LIST.

I HAVE ASKED TO BE REMOVED APPROXIMATELY 10 TIMES.

IF I RECEIVE ANY MORE MESSAGES FROM YOU, ROB/RAOUL APPEL AND/OR SD THEATER SCENE, BESIDE A MESSAGE CONFIRMING THE END OF MY UNDESIRED, UNREQUESTED AND UNTOLERATED EMAIL SUBSCRIPTION TO YOUR NEWSLETTER, I WILL TAKE THE FOLLOWING ACTIONS:
--REPORT ROB/RAOUL APPEL TO AMERICA ONLINE, WHICH MAY RESULT IN THE SUSPENSION OR TERMINATION OF HIS ACCOUNT
--REPORT YOU TO THE SAN DIEGO COMMISSION FOR ARTS AND CULTURE
--REPORT YOU TO THE SAN DIEGO FOUNDATION
--REPORT YOU TO THE TIPPETT FOUNDATION
--REPORT YOU TO THE FTC BUREAU OF CONSUMER PROTECTION
--REPORT YOU SPAM GUARDS DATABASES, WHICH MAY PLACE YOUR EMAIL ON A BLACK LIST AND HINDER YOUR ABILITY TO SEND UNSOLICITED EMAILS TO NEW ADDRESSES IN THE FUTURE
--ENCOURAGE MY FRIENDS, FAMILY AND INTERNET CONTACTS TO THE SAME
--USE YOUR ASSOCIATION, NAME, AND THE NAME OF ROB/RAOUL APPEL IN INTERVIEWS WITH OR PIECES PUBLISHED BY THE MEDIA ABOUT THE SUBJECT OF *SPAM.*
PLEASE CEASE AND DESIST.

I HAVE ASKED KINDLY. I HAVE ASKED PATIENTLY. NOW I AM TIRED OF ASKING AND I WILL TAKE ACTION IF YOU DO NOT COMPLY WITH MY REQUEST.

PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gained II: I know, what drama. No results yet, but I advanced the experiment of making someone stop, rather than start, a behavior.

June 21, 2009

Give me a kleenex? And a free pizza?

June 21. Day 356.

I went on a bike ride today with Mr. A and a friend, the K-meister. We started in the middle of Point Loma and rode up to the lighthouse.

For those readers not from San Diego, i.e. most of you, that means we rode approximately 5 miles each way, up hill and knoll, and then careened back down the gentle slopes after a lovely break at a historic lighthouse overlooking the bay.

5 miles is an objective standard.

Subjectively, allow me to add that it felt like I skinned a 2,000 pound potato with a butter knife.

We rode long enough that my legs were trembling and I hee-hawed the whole way.

It was so intense that at the top, when our ride was half over, I stretched out on a bench and actually fell asleep, while the guys rode up and down a steep hiking path that led to the beach, for a real workout.

To top it off, I had a runny nose, and there were no stores where I could buy tissues or even ask for a napkin.

Instead, I decided to beg mercy from a fellow human. I thought of knocking on anyone's door, but an easier option presented itself.

Before my nap, a couple with two young kids walked by the bench where I was recovering.

"Excuse me, do you have a kleenex?" I asked, eyeing their generous diaper bag.

They have two toddlers and look the part. Meaning it probably takes more than the request of a sweaty, sleepy biker to phase them.

"No, sorry! All we have is wet wipes," the mom offered.

"Oh, no, that's okay. Thanks anyway."

Gained I: Nothing. Because a wet wipe would only make things worse.

For all my dramatic whining here, the trek was actually awesome. The ideal 72 degree Sunday afternoon breezy bike ride with postcard views. Great to be back in San Diego. And, today makes me think that I should try to build up some muscles or resistance. Sheesh.

Out: Feeling like you're 70 when you're almost 30. In: the exact opposite!!!

Afterward, we stacked the bikes onto the car rack, made a detour to see a movie, then drove to the newest branch of Pizzeria Luigi, which has my favorite NY-style pizza in San Diego. A seditious faction of the storied Bronx Pizza, a San Diego popular favorite, broke off a few years ago and started its own joint, pruning and culling staff from the other NY-style pizzerias around the city.

Or so goes the rumor.

Some say the sauce is just perfect. Others prefer the crust. I dig, and dig into, them both.

We tumbled in, exhausted, but before we ordered I checked one key thing:

"Do you guys take credit cards? Cause we don't have cash."

"We don't, but that's okay. Today is free."

"What?"

"We're testing things out this weekend, making sure everything goes smoothly, so we're giving everything away free."

"Really???"

"Yeah. What can I get you?"

"I don't know. What's your favorite pizza?" I asked.

"I love the margherita. It's really light and fresh. I'd say that's my favorite," he told me.

Pause. You know what the old La Roxy would have ordered, same time last year: a slice of whatever. Must not impose. Must not be, or seem, greedy. Enjoy the offer, but not too much. It would be unseemly.

For an instant I was tempted to do precisely that, even today. Even after a year of asking.

Instead, I snapped out of it just in time and asked for two slices and a water.

"Sure -- so one whole margherita pizza and a slice of mushroom?"

At that point I was confused.

"You're seriously giving away whole free pizzas?" I checked.

"Yeah."

"Oh my God, thank you!!!! I live in the neighborhood and I promise to become a very good customer."

He laughed.

We ate.

And I am spreading the word.

Anyone in this town, or passing through, listen up: I liked Luigi's pizza before today, and now I like their attitude, too. Seriously the best thin crust "a-round." Heehee.

Gained II: About $25 worth of food, with 3 slices, the pizza, two waters and sales tax between the three of us. Not exactly a direct gain, i.e. by walking in and asking for free food, but I'm including it because I started with a question, and then I milked the situation for all it was worth: a guilt free acceptance of a generous pizza-fest. (Yes, we left a nice tip.)

The pic above is a nice angle from the Fifth Deadly Sin.

June 20, 2009

Student discount?

June 20. Day 355.

Mr. A and I decided to continue the anniversary weekend at tango -- which was how we met.

We went to Tango del Rey, an amazing, recently opened venue I've written about before.

At the door, a woman told us the cover is $15 which seemed steep to me for a moment. I'm used to paying around $5 or $7 for tango dances. On the other hand, I mean, the location is gorgeous, the music is great, so why not pay? $15 seems like a reasonable price. Still, I couldn't not try: I asked for a student discount.

She replied they don't do that, and we forked over the full amount.

Gained: No discount.

June 19, 2009

Teach me how to take a man down?

June 19. Day 354.

Mr. A and I rang in our fourth year together tonight.

Since I know you'd rather read about asking and negotiations, I'll spare you the intimate, mushy, high-res blow-by-blow. (Except you. Yeah, you. I'm sure you'd like to read about it. Well, dream on, perv. We are not interested in that Canola oil themed "adult" weekend. Stop sending me samples!!!)

So.

We started the evening at the Red Fox Steakhouse, a retro restaurant reminiscent of an English hunting lodge, enhanced by 60s style pleather booths and a live blues trio. We sometimes stroll over for a nightcap, but never dinner. I'd eyed the menu when I was hungry after midnight -- and Mr. A is always up for red meat -- but the kitchen was always closed when we were there.

Tonight was the night. We got there at 7, in time to chow down.

To kick things off I ordered a stiff drink, a gin and tonic. The waitress carded me, but it took me a while to dig out my ID. She went away, came back with our waters, and in the meantime I found my ID -- and a flash of inspiration. A more celebratory drink was in order.

"Could I actually have a pina colada?" I asked, handing her my ID.

"Sure!"

She walked away, then came back to check.

"So you want that, and the gin and tonic." She wasn't insulting or accusing. Trust me. It's the kind of place where you could order two drinks at a time all night, and then the waitress would cheerfully call you a cab at the end. But she wanted to make sure, I guess.

"Instead, actually."

"Oh! Because that's a gin and tonic," she said, pointing to my 'water.' "Do you want me to replace it?"

I told her not to. We had plans after dinner -- a play at a nearby theater. I wasn't interested in passing out.

Gained I: Accidentally asked for two drinks, but downgraded just in time.

After dinner we walked a few blocks to a tiny neighborhood theater. They were putting on a Christopher Durang play, "Baby with the bathwater," an uplifting farce about a disturbed couple who has a child and manages to fck it up in every possible way.

Then we went to a nearby dessert place, where a guard was standing by the gate.

"Wait here," he instructed.

There was a shooting here a few years ago, so the bakery hired him.

But rather than keep the peace, he's also a bouncer of sorts. He waits for people to leave and tables to clear before he lets the next eaters in. And he makes the place seem exclusive. Lame, but the desserts are good.

As we waited for a table, I started talking to him.

"Are you're here because of the shooting?"

"Yeah."

"So are you an off-duty police officer?"

"No, but I'm trained in security and combat."

"You have a gun?"

"Yes."

"Mmmhmm. So can I ask you a question?"

"Go ahead."

"If someone were to storm in here with a gun, you'd be prepared to take him down?"

"That's what I'm here for."

"What about self-defense? What tips do you have for a woman?"

By now he'd loosened up, and he told me several points I already knew (aim for the eyes and other sensitive parts). But he also said some things I didn't know:

1. Go for the Adam's apple. Swift and strong. Hurts a lot, and could leave the assailant out of breath.

2. Stomp down on the crown of his foot, which is sensitive and delicate. But use your HEEL, not the ball of your foot. That's something I never would have thought of. (Picture drawn by Matthew Taylor, an artist and designer)

Gained: Expert self-defense advice from the Keeper of the Desserts.

June 18, 2009

Ice the mice!

June 18. Day 353.

A few months ago, I discovered mice in our garage and attic.

A company hired by the property manager came over the inspect and putz around the back yard. One of the company's representatives gave me his personal card, saying to call him in case of problems, because he wanted to make sure the job was done right.

Mouseshit.

Over a month since he first inspected the garage, there's been no improvement and I am officially fed up.

My first impulse was to call his boss and complain. Demand better service. But because he's a subcontractor, I figured I'd have more pull with him -- at first, at least. So I opted for a different approach. I called the guy directly, and acted surprised. How is it that after a few weeks of his service, there's no improvement? I was just shocked, completely baffled, that there were still mice in the garage when that's what he promised to eradicate. He said he'd take care of things.

What? He was confused. He didn't realize they were in the garage.

He promised, again, he'll take care of it.

I don't believe him, but I'll give him one more try before the next step: complaining left and right. Then hiring a replacement, even if it's out of my own pocket.

What a welcome back to the USA.

Gained: Spoke my mind, held someone accountable. That's about it, since I don't have much faith in this company.

June 17, 2009

Everybody wins!

June 17. Day 352.

In LAX's terminal 8, the home of United Airlines, I had three hours to kill before my flight to San Diego. After asking to move to standby and recheck my luggage, and being told my discount ticket isn't eligible for changes, I staved off sleep and wandered around the terminal.

On a corridor in the middle of the food and shopping section, between clusters of gates, a young woman was standing next to a big wheel and smiling.

"Come get your prize!" she was calling meekly. I stared at her suspiciously, walked past and then grabbed lunch. Probably from a credit card company or someone trying to get me to trade miles for a duffle bag. Typical.

On the way back, I walked past the "fair booth" again in a hurry, but remembered something: I'm supposed to be asking at every opportunity I can. Once a day isn't the rule, but the minimum. So what if I asked already to leave earlier. The result was nothing special. And what did I have to lose by trying? So I approached her.

"Hi. What's this for?"

"You can spin the wheel and get any of our prizes, like a free upgrade, door to door luggage service, a bottle of water, extra leg room on your next flight."

"I don't need to pay or give you my contact info or anything?"

"No! Nothing at all! I just need to check off your boarding pass. And everybody wins"

"What's in it for you?"

"We're just here to promote the airline, give people a little cheer. And let them know about our new Travel Options program."

"Well good golly! All right!"

I gave the wheel a brisk spin and it approached a free premium status voucher -- then ticked past, to a book of games.

"This will keep you entertained on your next flight!"

Actually, this will serve as a good chewing gum wrapper, or regift, since I am as passionate about sudoku as Berlusconi is about women over the age of 18.

After I collected my prize, I asked her if she's been swarmed with wheel spinners. The answer was as I suspected. People usually react the way I did initially -- suspiciously, in a rush, scared about their privacy. They don't get over that, don't come back. My day is no better for spinning the wheel and getting that book of games. But what if I had won an upgrade, free miles or a bottle of crisp sparkling water??

That is asking at its core, actually...

Never shoot yourself down. Just got for it, and let people or situations tell you no, if they must.

Gained: A book o' games. A chance at something better.

June 16, 2009

What is a panzerotto?

June 16. Day 351.

For my last few hours in Milano, the plan was to meet up with La Divina, Il Divo and some of their friends and have a farewell drink.

(By the way, I've gotten one email vote for Il Grillo -- it's more original, this reader says. Hmm. Sounds reasonable. Perhaps I should just defer to the subject himself. Cosa ne dici, carissimo???)

On the way to the bar, we passed by a locale brimming with people.

"That's Luini. The panzerotti place," La Divina explained.

"Panzerotti?" I asked.

"You don't know what a panzerotto is????"

She redirected me to the counter and ordered one for each of us.

And then I discovered.

Panzerotto, n, masculine. Pocket of pizza dough folded into a half moon and stuffed with tomatoes and mozzarella, occasionally variants like pesto, then deep fried and served steaming hot, to go. Originally from Naples. Frequently used as an alcohol sponge, dinner substitute, salty dessert and/or pre-happy hour thirst instigator.

June 15, 2009

Women in the workplace?

June 15. Day 350.

La Divina and her boyfriend teased me that I don't have to do a lot of asking around them. It's true. I don't even open my mouth and things are already awesome. I can't think of a thing to ask for, in the current state.

Instead, I asked them about, rather than for, something: women in the workplace, In italy. As in... any progress since 1600?

The verdict was that it's still not an easy place to be a professional gal.

It's still ruled by an old boys club, literally, because to be anyone or anything you need connections. And those are usually passed down from daddy to son.

Gained: confirmation of what I feared, I guess.

Any Italians care to agree or disagree? Men or women? Bosses or employees?

Moving on!!! Next blog posts coming right up!!!

June 14, 2009

Live to eat, or eat to live?

I owe you an apology... I realize there's a huge lag between today and when these posts are dated. Trouble is, some days I'm inspired to write and some I'm not, and if I force it, if I plow through and write them in the time it takes you to read them, I know I will regret it later. You can always skim or skip a post, that is, but I cannot. And I'd rather make it worth my while. ;)

But here we are, catching up bit by bit.

***

June 14. Day 349.

I've mentioned before, though it goes without mentioning, that Italians like to eat.

This weekend, this tenet was applied to its most vigorous maximum, as I sampled the cuisine of the Italian countryside with La Divina and her beloved, Il Divo.

I wavered between nicknames for him -- Il Divo, I think I'll stay with. Other options were Il Grillo (the cricket, but also a reference to a movie character he loves, Il Marchese del Grillo, pictured here) or Il Papi (in local parlance, the affectionate name for Berlusconi -- and his idol.) Any votes?

After my business trip wrapped up in Florence, from Friday though Sunday we've been spending nights in Montecatini Terme, in a hotel that seems like it was designed explicitly for the purpose of housing one night stands between Russian aristocrats with diminished fortunes and their Swiss mistresses circa 1958. Double twin beds, chinzy wallpaper, undoubtedly the height of luxury about 50 years ago. And zee staff is very discreet, my darlink.

As for days? We've been touring Tuscany in La Divina's peppy MiniCooper, looking for food.

Yesterday we got up, decided whether to eat lunch sooner or later, decided where to eat lunch, drove toward lunch, where we spent a lot of time discussing when and where to eat dinner. Oh yeah, and somewhere between all that we saw Pisa and bought some leather.

Then we drove to dinner, discussing dinner and lunch, had dinner discussing tomorrow's plans (including dinner) and then drove back discussing future culinary plans.

Today, naturally, we planned the itinerary around where to eat, since Il Divo had read about a restaurant in a cute town.

Over lunch, I explained to them that in America, there's an intriguing group of people called "Foodies."

"Foodie? What is this?" Il Divo asked.

"They are a special group of people who will drive 100 kilometers to try a restaurant, they will buy a cow in the countryside so it produces milk for them, they only want the best ingredients and love to obsess over food -- the finest details, the quality of the salt. That sort of thing."

"Bello. But why this is special?"

"Special, because that's not the normal way. Foodies are rare, a minority. Normally, meals are more rushed, food is about ingesting and satisfying hunger between long workshifts. There's a controversy: to eat well or cheaply? eat at length or be efficient? Are foodies heroes -- daring to prioritize taste and company at the dinner table when fast food reigns -- or are they decadent snobs?"

We went on to talk about lunch time: In Italy, according to them, you must take an hour, by law. And they milk that hour. Eat a proper meal. See a friend. Sure, go home later because of that. But it's a pleasure, a right, not an obligation.

I confessed that when I've had desk jobs, I routinely worked though lunch.

But Italians are faced with the same dilemmas, in a grand scale: Eat well or eat affordably? Be productive or perish? Grocery stores deliver mass produced super cheap crap, and the cost of commodities make many better foods prohibitive. And it's not that they hold back -- eat less, to afford a good quality. As for productivity, lunch time in Milan is becoming more of a time for errands -- even if lunch is still sacred in the rest of Italy. So maybe, maybe the empire of calm, caring meals will collapse, there, too.

Despite all this, I suspect that for many people here, it's a moot point. If you can afford it, of course you buy the hand sliced prosciutto. And even if it cuts from other options, you make the time. You take a day to visit the truffle festival three hours away. Pick up the tastier pesto, even if it adds 10 minutes to your commute. That's not time wasted, it's time that will improve the meal with your loved ones. Live to eat, not eat to live. Of course.

Am I rhapsodizing? Romanticizing? Am I just hungry again?? What are your thoughts, Italophiles, Italophobes -- and others?

As for what I asked: after dinner, which was a three-course meal of penne pomodoro, chicken, and tiramisu, topped off with coffee and liqueur, I asked the waiter for a slice of lemon. (Helpful hint: lemon works wonders against car sickness.) Because as much as I adore this lifestyle, as much as I enjoyed every bite and every conversation about every bite, there's one sad fact I can't ignore: Tuscan mountain roads in a Mini at 60 mph + La Roxy on a full stomach = a recipe for disaster.

June 13, 2009

Best leather?

June 13. Day 348.

For four days, I've been doing research. There are a few leather items I've been wanting to buy -- a little something for Mr. A, a few accessories for friends, and one special piece for a friend who's about to celebrate a birthday, graduation, and a promotion.

In Florence over the course of three days, after concluding that the leather sellers at the market by my hotel were way overpriced, I talked to people on the street to find out the best place for such a purchase.

I asked four people and got four answers:

1) Waiter, eyes flashing greedily (ok, not really, but wouldn't it be cool if they did?) "Go to Luca and tell him Antonio sent you. His booth is two streets down, hang a left, first right, halfway down the alley, by the bar, on the right. You can't miss it. Make sure to tell him I sent you. He will make you a special price."
2) Real estate agent: "There's a leather school near Santa Croce where you can probably find better prices."
4) American tourist by the leather school: "The leather school is totally overrated. I spent 250 euros on a bag. I just bought it because I spent nothing in Florence and so I had to buy something. Definitely not the 50 euro artisanal steal. Keep looking."
3) Shopkeeper with an antique bike and nerdy glasses: "San Lorenzo has a good leather market. You could explore that. But all these merchants are going to overcharge. The quality sucks, the patterns are outdated, and you're not going to find a good product for a good price. Be prepared to overpay for something equivalent to what you have in your home country. Florentine leather is a myth."

Over the course of four days, I shopped in one store and about three street stands, all with different prices and willingness to bargain.

I got two wallets for 20 euros instead of 30, by shamelessly flirting. I whacked off 2 euros from a different stand, by claiming the dollar was weak. I tried to bargain down a purse in a store but failed. Still bought it, because it was gorgeous, and something I think the recipient will like.

That was yesterday. I'm writing this all today, since today is the culmination of so many days of leather hunting.

I spent the day in Pisa with La Divina and Il Grillo (aka her boyfriend - more on the pseudonym later), who drove down from Milano last night.

And here, in Pisa, the dilemma of "where to get the best price" suddenly melted away. Because I came across a merchant with products so exquisite that were completely worth every cent. I did try to negotiate, but the woman was firm, confident. People were crowding behind me to grab the things I put down. Clearly, this was the place to shop.

In all, over four days, I saved about 12 euros on a handful of wallets.

June 12, 2009

Coffee with Valentino?

June 12. Day 347.

This afternoon I passed through Cetona, a thimble-sized town knwn for its oblong piazza (pictured below), its fat old men sitting on the shady patio of the only open bar around 4 p.m., and, my business acquaintance told me, Valentino's vacation home -- tucked behind a thick wall.

"Are you serious? You have it on authority that Valentino lives here?"

"Yes! Only in the summer, on weekends. Not all the time."

"So what are the chances that he's here now?"

"It is possible."

After a day of meetings, we were heading back to the train station so I could return to Florence. As we passed through Cetona, he drove slowly, and then indicated the palazzo from the car.

"There."

It was massive, the color of orange sorbet.

What I wanted to do: Get out, run up to the buzzer and ask Signor Valentino to tea, coffee, a drink, a conversation, anything. But I held back. What if this man driving me to the station, who is not exactly a client, but certainly someone with whom I need to act professionally, thinks I'm a totally immature American tourist with a star-f*cking complex? (And hey, maybe I am, but does he need to know?)

I decided to test the waters.

"Have you ever had the impulse to ring the bell? I mean, do you think people ever do that?"

"I'm sure they do."

"Do you think he'd be nice?"

"I heard that he is. When he's in this town, especially, he acts like one of the locals. Has coffee in the square, talks to people."

"Would you be interested having a coffee, the three of us? If I rang the bell?"

"What do we have to lose. If he says no at least we tried."

A kindred spirit! Eccellente.

Behind the wall, the villa was barely visible. The door was huge and imposing and wooden, tall enough to let a horse carriage with lit torches to pass through, wide enough for an RV.

We both got out of the car.

I approached the buzzer.

My heartbeat quickened.

I rang.

"Si?" an old woman's voice answered.

I looked into the eye of the camera that was surely watching me.

"Buongiorno. Cercavo il Signore Valentino. E a casa?" (Hello. I am looking for Mr. Valentino. Is he home?"

"Non c'e. Chi lo cerca?" (He's not here. Who's asking?)

"Va bene. Non importa. La ringrazio. Arrivederci." (Ok, forget it. Thanks. See you later!)

Gained: Nothing, and yet something. I tried to ask a fashion icon to hang out for the afternoon. Or even just chat for a minute. Something I would have never done before last July... It was an attempt that could have ended with coffee at his villa, or maybe a swearword and the boot. But at least I went for it. Worth this story, if nothing else.

June 11, 2009

The great elevator escape.

June 11. Day 346.

Italian elevators, like mediocre wine, are best enjoyed in moderation and ideally not too aged.

Italian elevators are like gnocchi in summertime: sound better than they taste.

Italian elevators are like Stalin. They suck.

Ok, so I'm not inspired tonight. But I think you get my drift.

All this because of the blasted Florentine ascensore of via Calimaruzza, 3.

I was running around all day, meeting with people, and I was pretty tired. All I wanted to do was leave some books in the hotel room and have a final meal before leaving this enchanted city.

I stepped in and hit the button labeled "4."

At the fourth floor, it stopped. I opened the inner doors. (Italian elevators are like trauma operating rooms: they have two sets of double doors and you're lucky to get out alive.)

Outside, the next set of doors was blocked.

Locked.

Almost sealed, save for a thin crack of light shining through.

I closed the inner doors, tried again. Closed them again, hit the "4." Then, the ground floor button. Niente.

A few thoughts went through my head. Fragments, disorganized, a cacophony of ideas, worries, possible approaches. All in a flash.

--Is it just stuck, or is something really wrong -- i.e. could it fall?
--Am I strong enough, or do I have any tools, to pry or break the outer door?
--Would messing with the doors cause the elevator to plummet?
--Should I wait for someone or take immediate action?
--Can people hear me if I scream?
--Would those hearing me be inside, or across the open window and in the next building or street?
--Am I liable, will the hotel blame me, or what's Italian law like?
--How long until someone passes by?
--Is there enough oxygen in here?
--How long is my cell phone battery going to last?
--Should I post this on Blogger, Twitter or Facebook? (I kid you not, I actually considered this, along with the next equally essential question:)
--Where would I go to the bathroom?
--Damn it, I'm really can't afford to miss my meeting tomorrow morning.
--Damn it, I really don't want to spend my last night in Florence in an elevator.

Several of the answers came indirectly, from the horrific and beautiful video clip I was now replaying in my head -- the video that made waves on Youtube a year ago. If you haven't seen it, DO. It's amazing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM679Zwpp8E


I saw I had a lot of cell phone juice left, and a strong signal, so I called the hotel.

I could hear it ringing, somewhere in the cavernous rooms behind me.

No answer.

I let it ring and ring, and finally someone picked up.

"Pronto?"

"Hello, I am a guest in your hotel, and I am stuck in your elevator. Can you help me?!" I asked.

"Ah! I'll be right out!"

A guy emerged, smiling but anxious looking.

He instructed me to try the door, try pushing a few buttons. Then he told me to press "ALT" or stop.

He said he'll be right back. I could hear him run down a flight of stairs, where he stopped. A moment later, the elevator car lurched down, then resumed its calm course to the third floor.

This time around, all the parts lined up, both sets of doors opened and I tumbled out.

"GRAZIE!!!!"

"I'm very sorry that happened. It happens quite frequently. They don't maintain the elevator very well in this building."

Italian elevators are like Italy, come to think of it: Ancient, attractive, comfortable, quaint, but rotten beneath the seams, and damnably predictable for those who know.

Gained: Freedom.

June 10, 2009

Want my seat? And why do you cheat?

Dear Reader,

I am back in Milano and back in wifi-ville.

Here we go!!! Cut and paste time. For even with no internet, in the Tuscan countryside, your faithful asker was jotting down blog posts on her laptop, blackberry and scraps of paper, knowing this day would come...

The teaser/recap, since I can't hold back: It rocked. Got tons of discounts, met charming people, escaped from a cranky elevator, even had a brush with haute couture... all by asking!

Read on, and drop a line if you're so inclined. To rant, or rave, or just to say ciao.

Ever thine,

La Roxy

***

June 10. Day 345.

In the train heading to Florence, I approached my seat, number 95 in cabin 11, and I noticed three children were occupying the entire booth, including my place. Their aunt (not mother, as I later found out) looked stressed.

I moved into a row across from where I should have sat.

"Want my seat?" I asked the woman.

"Oh, would you?!! Are you sure?"

"Certainly. It makes no difference to me. As long as no one needs this spot."

"Great, thank you so much!" And later, she said to her husband, who arrived after everyone settled in: "That girl just gave us her seat, so we don't have to worry anymore, as long as no one else has the other seat."

Soon after the train took off, the kids started stuffing their little faces with some homemade panini. Looked like prosciutto on a thick baguette. Everyone here, all the time, is eating. More on that later. But perhaps my favorite example, until now: Milanese bankers in tailored suits patching together a crumbling economy -- who still make the time for ice cream.

What a land.

(I snapped a photo of the chomping children, but I'll refrain from posting it here. Privacy, ethics, legal stuff. Instead, here's a picture of the Arno promenade at sunset, a few hours after I arrived in Florence.)

Gained I: Made someone's day less stressful.

Speaking of eating. Il Latini is the one restaurant I can't not visit when I'm in Florence. It is ancient (since 1911 I think -- old by restaurant standards, even for Italy). It is fetching, thanks especially to the ham hocks hanging from the ceilings and the wines lining the walls, not to mention the waiters who would probably insult your ancestors and your reproductive abilities if you dared leave sooner than three hours after sitting down or failed to drink your weight in chianti.

The food is delicious -- my roasted pork was so perfectly salted and so exquisitely balanced between its soft and tender interior and carmelized, slightly chewy exterior that, a day later as I write this, I can still evoke the taste and texture in my yearning tastebuds.

And the mood, barking waiters and all, is supremely friendly. The kind of place where, as a single traveler, I can always find a spot at the communal tables and instantly make friends for the evening.

During this particular dinner, seated to my left were two men of middling age. After getting the basics out of the way (who what where), the conversation touched the subject of relationships. One man had a girlfriend and the other was married, they informed me, and then they asked my status.

"In love," I stated.

"You are, aren't you," the younger one replied. "She is. Look at the smile."

"Lucky," the older, married man said, a tad sadly.

"Why lucky? Aren't you happy?" I asked him back.

"That's complicated," he answered.

"How long have you been married?" I tried.

"23 years," he sighed.

He had the tone of someone reporting he lost his business in a fire or found out the sugar he'd been putting into his coffee all these years was actually Equal.

Lingering disbelief, mixed with a recognition that struggling is futile.

At which point I asked this complete stranger, "Did you stay married just because, or are you actually happy? Or where did things fall apart?"

"Wow, that's personal!" he replied, but he didn't seem offended. Just surprised.

Blame the wine, blame my lack of personal limits, blame this blog, but at that moment I pushed harder.

"Come on. We're strangers. We'll never see each other again. Let's talk frankly, shall we?"

It was a risk, sure. On the other hand, his tone and the general mood suggested it was ok to ask, and even to insist.

Suddenly, the conversation sprang from small talk to real talk. About recognizing and keeping love, and being decieved by chimeras. About the nature of commitment. Why people cheat. What it takes to make a relationship strong. Early clues of later joys or heartbreak.

"Do you like to hold your boyfriend's hand?" the younger one asked, as an example of such a clue.

"Of course," I answered.

"Good. That's good," he confirmed.

I wasn't sure how telling that test was was, because -- well, what couple don't like to hold hands when they're young and carefree? What honest marriage doesn't start with love?

Thus I was more interested in the perspective of the old guy, the married one. The one with the lover. Why did he get tired of his wife? What went wrong? Did he know from the start he'd want to leave her?

His story was typical -- and triste. He married because he felt he should and because he mistook enjoyment and company for a sufficient reason to built a life with someone.

And build a life they did. They have three kids. He's a successful [CAREER REDACTED].

Then he met a lady who truly understands him, with whom he feels he can speaking openly, about anything. And he realized what he was missing: a listening, curious, patient, and interactive ear. His wife was a mother, perhaps a lover, but not much more, for him.

Is this the story of every lothario? The collective narrative of rationalization that every little Tuscan boy learns to tell himself from junior high school onward, as his girlfriend waits in the cafe, wondering why Gianni never showed up -- only to discover that Gianni was looking up Sylvia's skirt?

Or is it the tale of a man who made the wrong decision half a lifetime ago and has been paying for it ever since? A man who doesn't have the heart to divorce the mother of his children, and who would feel as guilty for staying as he would for going? A man who tried to be good, do well, but failed?

Gained II: Emboldened by the anoymity, my dinner companions offered frank perspectives on love and life. I ended the evening completely stuffed and only partially enlightened.

June 09, 2009

Who do you want to be?

June 9. Day 344.

Here's a thought for ya.

In a few days I am meeting someone for this consulting project. When I set up the meeting with the other party's associate, she asked me to show up at the site -- which is a few miles outside of Florence and not entirely easy to get to without a car.

This morning I dutifully plotted my trip, researched local bus routes and found out that I could catch a bus from the Florence train station, where I arrive. That bus ride takes a little more than an hour, since it stops in about 400 places before finally getting there. (I was also considering a cab, which would be a lot faster, but it could be pricey and I don't want to risk it. Also, I'm not sure I'd have a way of getting back.)

To catch the bus in time for the meeting, that means I must leave extra early from Milano or take a more expensive (faster) train, and I won't have time to deposit my bags at the hotel. No matter. The meeting is my priority.

And then, a revelation. Why let things be HARD when they could be EASY?

I called the other party directly and inquired if he will also be departing from Florence, and if so, could we meet up at the office and go to the site together? After all, if someone is already driving, and the ride takes 10 minutes, couldn't we save 50 minutes of my time at no cost to him?

As I asked the question, my tone was sweet and apologetic -- since I figured I might be imposing, and I was asking for a favor of sorts.

He instantly agreed. In fact, he seemed eager to accommodate me.

Which left me with two afterthoughts:

1) It was, after all my fretting, so easy to ask! In the past, years ago and even recently perhaps, I would have just taken that bus, simply because I was told to do so. I would have felt it was my duty to not inconvenience anyone. Assumed that if the associate requested I show up on the site, it was for a good reason. Tried to appear self-sufficient and "professional." Silly child.

2) More intriguingly, his tone made me think that I'd been misreading the situation. He was extremely polite and sounded, in fact, a teeny bit deferential. He called me "Signora." I'd hadn't seen it that way before: that to him, I am a signora, a lady, making the time to come from Milano to meet with him, and making the effort to provide a service. We are two professionals meeting to discuss something.

I simply figured that I'm some upstart, me, moi, little La Roxy. That he was doing me the favor and that, consequently, I needed to bend over backward, be courteous and unintrusive.

How often we assume characters, personae, faces and mannerisms for the world. And how often should we examine these and readjust?

To me, naturally, I'm the grad student, the part-timer. I automatically assume other people are more busy or more important that I am. And -- very true -- when I'm a grad student I have a flexible schedule and I'm low on the totem pole.

But when I'm on the clock, when I brush shoulders with other professionals, I'm a consultant arrived from America. I'm a busy woman! Until they meet me, I could be 60! 38! I could be someone's boss! I could be a mom or have grey hair. And even after they meet me, I could still be a wheeler and dealer, a diva. Or a has been, or a wannabe. Or a talented, successful and ambitious pro.

All depends on what I think, and (more importantly?) how I train them to think.

I just need to remember that: I will only be treated as well as I ask to be treated. Act like a grad student, schlepping around, accepting to waste time on a bus -- and people expect the same from me. Act like a star and get the royal treatment.

Hmmm, which do I want to be?

Who do you want to be?

Gained: Saved an hour, probably made myself more respected in his eyes, and remembered that I'm only worth the price (or time, or attention) I claim.

June 08, 2009

Rewind (Polentomania) and... help me get a job?

June 8. Day 343.

And the What city am I in? winner is... Anne!! Congratulations, and check your email!

I am in Milano.

To get in touch with the winner, I clicked on her name where she left the comment. Her name led me to her blog, I turn my camera on, where she has published the most amazing pictures of places that make me dream. Here's one, chosen almost at random since there were so many beauties:

So, yes. I've been staying with my cousin La Divina and her ragazzo! She's the one I offered to help last night, since she had to leave on a last minute business trip today. Hang laundry to dry so a sista has time to prepare for a client meeting? Anytime!!

As a matter of fact, last night I was so tired and viral that I totally skipped over the (slightly) more dramatic asking!

Yesterday I spent the day at Lake Como with a group of their friends. We had lunch at a polenteria, which does for polenta with the Bubba Gump Company does for shrimp. Fries it, boils it, bakes it n' broils it. I suggested -- indeed, asked outright -- if we could order fewer dishes and share them, since we were planning a spate of appetizers, a first course, a second course, sides, and a dessert, coffee and grappa finale. Maybe six portions for eight people?

I wasn't trying to boss anyone around, but I thought it made sense, since everyone seemed worried that it would be too much food.

The idea was rejected the same way my various other requests have been approved -- enthusiastically.

"No way!!! That's just not how things are done in Italy!!!"

Okay!!!

I ended up with more food than I could handle, but there were enough supereaters in the group (one guy in particular, was phenomenal -- he had the wild mane, cool smile and devastating but elegant precision of a lion tearing into a gazelle) that not even a sliver of salami was spared.

At the end, though, they were beating each other up for drinking more water than wine. "We're losers! Lightweights! An embarrassment!! Impossible!!"

It was a lovely meal and a lovely day. Afterward, to walk off 3000 of the 15,000 calories we'd just collectively enjoyed, we went for a short hike. Here's a happy cow, clinking bell and all, here's where I have decided to move if I ever become a cheesemaker.

Speaking of vocations. Back to today. I asked for something banal, career oriented, practical. And important. I'm applying for jobs, and I asked a friend back in the states to look over a version of my cover letter. She's a pro, a total whiz, and her opinion is worth its weight in gold: weightless, ergo priceless.

I don't know what's in store tomorrow.

But on Wednesday, guess what: I'm heading to Tuscany, for round two of my research. If Milan was low key, asking wise, since I had a clingy cold and a long professional to-do list, I promise to push the envelope in wine country.

un bacio,

La Roxy

June 07, 2009

Can I be domestic so you can be professional?

June 7. Day 342.

Today, I offered to help someone. This person has a professional appointment which prevents her from taking care of some domestic chores. So I asked if I could hang her laundry to dry, on her balcony, just a few moments ago.

She said no.

I insisted.

She agreed.

I can't give you more details than this, or you'll instantly figure out what city I'm in. And that is your final hint.

The contest ends tonight at midnight California time.

The winner will be announced tomorrow.

Gained: Helped someone in a bind.

June 06, 2009

Help me talk to the pharmacist?

June 6. Day 341.

Years ago, I took a latin class as part of my grad studies. I don't remember much grammar now, but it was a daily class, which means I do remember the following: that for 6 months, every morning at 10, I met with 10 other people. We saw each other get sick, come to class excited about work or personal lives, stressed about other classes, hung over. We saw the teacher, also a grad student, wear the same purple sweatshirt every day -- I'm not kidding -- for the whole semester. We witnessed each other's haircuts and changing facial hair. And one student's monstrous pimple swell and disappear.

Sounds like work? A MTWThF job? But it's not. Because if in most jobs, you more or less try to keep up appearances (or so my employed friends tell me), at college, and especially at grad school, you don't give a shit.

So latin class was intimate. It was raw. It was reality with no quotation marks. It simply was.

As I write this blog I feel a little like I'm back in latin class, only the info is going one way. Amid all the asking, you see me get sick, plan career moves, try to finish my blessed dissertation, drink coffee after coffee, get haircuts, and fight mouse invasions. Sometimes, I get to read your emails or comments, and I love it!! And getting your contest entries is another reminder that people are out there, reading. It makes me so happy to get an occasional answer. But I know what blogging is: a one-way dispatch, a shout into the abyss. Any answer is sugar on the rim.

As for those intimate daily dispatches: I'm stuck sickville. I asked a girl I met tonight to help me out in the pharmacy. She was the friend of a friend, and when I was coughing up a storm, and should probably have been in bed, I turned to her in the middle of the party we were at and asked her if she could rescue me. She was having fun, and maybe it wasn't the most thoughtful thing to do, but I felt like we'd been talking all night and she was really cool, so hopefully she wouldn't mind.

There was a 24-hour pharmacy a block away, and I wasn't sure what medicine to buy or how to describe my symptoms. Could she possibly come?

"I'd be happy to come!"

In a minute we were at the pharmacy. I rang the bell, and out came the pharmacist, who looked about our age and like he'd been woken up from a nap. He gave me two things: a tasty cough syrup sweetened with honey and a magic pill that's supposed to make colds go bye bye.

We'll see. For now, just looking forward to sleeeeep.

Gained: an Italian interpreter at my hour of darkness. And, actually, a potential new friend. This girl has an interesting job (Latin and ancient Greek private tutor - incidentally!), she is pursuing interesting studies (cognitive psychology) and she's nice enough to walk a sick foreigner to the nearest pharmacy. In fact, we ended the night with tentative plans to hang out Monday!

Your hint today points to a different hour of darkness. See below. This image too, was snapped locally and it's a good metaphor for this city, these days. Not to mention the rest of the financial world. Ahem.

June 05, 2009

Take me with you to Brazil?

June 5. Day 340.

When I was around 8, 9, 10, I was in airports all the time. My parents, who moved to San Diego a few years before I was born from a distant land, kept picking up and dropping off friends and family visiting from The Old Country, and various other countries.

These people came, stayed on our pull-out couch, and brought stories and strange clothes and strange habits from far away. I adored every minute of every visit.

At 11, my whole family pitched in for my first flight over the ocean, to see The Old Country. I stayed with my mom's childhood best friend, who had a son my age. We became friends instantly. And from then, I was hooked. Every time I went to the airport, I wished I was the one on the next flight out.

Little has changed since then. Airfare sale? Summer job opening? Research project? Study abroad? Spare couch? I'm there!!!

So when, tonight, I overheard a conversation between two people at a bar -- a travel agent and a friend who lives in this city -- about a trip they were planning to Brazil, I couldn't help myself.

The agent, two times older, cooler and calmer than the twenty-somethings downing cocktails all around him, proceeded to explain the trip he was envisioning in lyrical detail.

Arrive I forget where. Take a jeep to I don't know where. Travel around from south to north with his local guides, into rivers and swamps, where the jungle is so dense it looks like the deep of night. His fingers, pointing at an invisible map of Brazil, stopped at the top right corner, where the trip would conclude two weeks later.

I couldn't take it anymore.

"Can I come?!" I cut in.

They both looked at me, not exactly unfriendly, but a little taken aback.

"I've always wanted to go to Brazil," I added, as if that were a credential.

"Actually, she's a good traveler," my friend interjected, as the agent considered my somewhat frantic request. "She's been to Peru."

"Peru, really? Where did you go?"

"Into the jungle. The north. Got eaten alive by mosquitos and had a brush with malaria."

"Ok, then you'll come too," he pronounced.

The trip is tentatively set for August.

It would be a dream come true.

But.

The price tag, which he outlined for us at the end of the conversation, could top 3000 euros.

Pocket change for a successful corporate travel agent.

But for a daily asker used to budget vacations and occasional freelance gigs, with a car on the edge and a grad school stipend drawing to a close? Forget it.

Gained: Invited myself along on a dream trip to a Brazil, and got the green light to come. I realize I can't go. And yet... didn't dreaming about airplanes and faraway places get me here, now? So if not this August, with this group, maybe the next one, or the next, or the next...

June 04, 2009

Lend me cash? (f)or gelato?

June 4. Day 339.

This is kind of embarrassing. But since I'm here to document, indiscriminately, my triumphs and their less exalting cousins (defeats, near misses and total fall on your face screw ups), here it is. In high-def slow-mo.

And consider, gentle reader, consider that it all started with a photo. A photo I shot for this project. To think!

And now... onward...

Judge as you please...

I was supposed to meet an acquaintance, a friend of a friend, for a midday chat over coffee or gelato. He works as a financial consultant, and I invited him out so we could catch up. I was going to be in his neighborhood, and I thought it would be nice to hang out briefly. I'd been working all day and I was definitely craving a walk. And he had told me to call him if I was ever downtown.

Since getting here Monday, I've spent most of the 100 euros I extracted from the airport ATM. One taxi ride to get to a spot with no metro, a few cocktails, some medicine for my cold, one lunch and dinner out, two ice creams, some groceries. Poof! Gone! Just two more coins were snuggling in the coziest recesses of my purse.

On the way to meet this individual, I was planning on stopping at an ATM. Instead, I ended up talking to an old lady about politics. She's the one who approached me. I was taking this picture (your next hint -- a dead giveaway, if you ask me. Better than any marble monument or postcard.)

"Are you a photographer?" she asked.

"Oh, no! I just take pictures for a project I'm working on."

"You're not from here."

"No. America."

"Ah. I have a son in Denver. Nice place. Big highways."

Over the next few minutes, we talked about politics, Obama, the students protesting university funding cuts right in front of us, how the city has changed for the better in recent years, the opera rehearsal she was about to attend thanks to a ticket her daughter-in-law snagged, and the recession. Now a universal "the," she specified, not "mine" or "yours" -- the recession is everywhere. She drove the whole conversation. I was just listening, answering and considering how nice it was to be accosted in a piazza by a random retired elementary school principle in a blue dress, a self-declared socialist, a person I'd never talk to if I were anywhere else but here and now.

I saw the gentleman across the street. Excused myself. Ran over.

We approached Grom, his preferred gelateria.

We stood in line, and he made his recommendation: vanilla with biscotti. I was leaning toward apricot.

All was bene.

And then I remembered. Never stopped at the ATM.

I had invited him. I had asked him to come down from his office for a break, I had suggested coffee or ice cream. And now I had 2 euros to my name.

Of course the place didn't take cards. And the cheapest portion was 2.5 euros.

So I asked.

"Listen... I feel terrible about this, but is there any way you can cover this? Or can I run really quickly to an ATM? I'm out of cash and I didn't make it--"

"Of course!!!!!"

"I'm sorry."

"Stop!!"

"I got held up and totally--"

"Stop!! Don't be ridiculous!!!"

Gained: Ice cream for two, courtesy of the person I was supposed to treat. $10. D'oh! Or as they say in this country... D'oh!