26 December 2009

When The Weather Outside is Frightful

SARONNO, Italy - It snowed in Saronno last week and the town was paralyzed. It's not that we don't have snow plows, we do, even if they remind me of toy Tonka trucks. And they do clean some of the streets some of the time, but in general the snow policy is to ignore it. It will all melt in a day or two anyway, so why stress about it.

The storm dropped about 4 or 5 inches of snow, which may be an all time record. A few of my neighbors were doing their best to clean off their cars, but this isn’t an area that has a lot of experience with snow storms so they don’t have a lot to work with. From my balcony I watched the woman across the street trying to clean her car off with a plastic dust pan. Some of the men were using brooms, which as a snow removal tool is probably better than the dust pan, but their technique left a lot to be desired. Call me judgmental if you want, but I grew up in upstate New York, close to where the U.S. Army does its Arctic training, so if there is anything I know about, it’s snow.

A few years back, after another not particularly heavy snow storm, the city of Milan hired a few North Africans to clean off the sidewalks. They were working in groups of four and five and it was obvious they had never tackled this kind of problem before. Dressed in traditional hooded djellabas and armed with Italian twig brooms, the kind witches ride, they were fluffing the snow this way and that, everywhere but off the sidewalk. This year 800 soldiers were brought in to do the job.

And speaking of Milan, after last week's storm all hell broke loose. Commuters at Milan’s Central train station waiting to board the train for Lecco got fed up with all of the delays and stormed the train. And passengers waiting for a train to Puglia became so frustrated a scuffle broke out and the police had to be called in.

In another incident eight hundred passengers on a train coming into Milan from the hinterland were held up for six hours due to a break in an electrical line. With no electricity the train’s heating system couldn’t function and emergency medical crews had to intervene.

Even the newly launched much publicized high speed train the Freccia Rossa, the Red Arrow, was brought to its knees by the weather and had to be towed into the Parma train station by an old diesel engine. The three hundred passengers on-board sat on the track in the middle of nowhere with little or no heat for four hours until they were rescued.

The situation was so bad the train engineers wrote an open letter of apology to the public in which they said they were embarrassed by the offensive and insensitive behavior of the train company management toward passengers. In uncharacteristic bluntness the engineers said that the FFS – Ferrovie dello Stato, the State run train company is full of executives and managers who have chosen to simply obey the government’s directives even when the objectives are wrong and sometimes dangerous. They even pointed a finger directly at the CEO of the FFS, Mauro Moretti, saying that instead of apologizing to the public and removing the people responsible for the problem he chose to attack everyone including the passengers, the newspapers and the train engineers.

Traveling by train has always been one of the best ways to get around Italy but it has become less of a pleasure and more of a chore these past few years. When I wrote for the New York fashion newspaper Women’s Wear Daily, many of the shows I covered were not in Milan. I often traveled to Florence and Bologna and beyond and I witnessed the gradual decline in quality and service. My hope for 2010 is that the train engineers get their wish. In the meantime, the beat goes on.

Photo: 19th century painting of Milan’s Porta Ticinese under the snow by Anonimo.

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