Friday, November 25, 2011

Farming runs deep in family roots

Friday, November 25, 2011
I just read a column in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in which the author describes how he has discovered numerous famous relatives while doing his family tree research on It appears he may be related to Bob Hope, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mamie Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Booker T. Washington and Judy Garland.

I also have been researching my family tree on the same website. And what have I discovered about my own famous relatives? So far, that most of my descendants were farmers, not a profession that generally gains mention in the history books or tabloids. In Italy, the death certificate of my great grandfather Pietro Spadoni lists his occupation as colono, which translates as farmer or tenant farmer. His sons Enrico, Michele and Eugenio learned farming from their father, but only one, eldest brother Enrico, could inherit the family farm, so Michele, my nonno, set off to America in 1903. His occupation on the ship’s log is listed first as “peasant,” but then, perhaps as an early concession to political correctness, this is crossed out and the word “laborer” is written over the top.

Enrico Spadoni and wife Eufemia in
the Spadoni home in Italy.
Enrico was my grandfather's older
brother, who inherited the family
Michele did not farm as a profession in America, but he had a large vegetable garden and orchard for the needs of his wife and seven children, and the family also raised chickens and sold the eggs. On my mother’s side, both her grandparents were farmers, one in Eastern Washington and one in Carroll County, Indiana. The only one of my great grandparents that may not have been a professional farmer was Torello Seghieri, who is said to have been a musican. However, I spent three months this year living on a large Seghieri family farm in San Salvatore, so I know the Seghieri family is steeped in the farming tradition.

While I have found evidence of some Spadoni family members in antiquity who were distinguished (an ambassador, a cardinal, a lawyer for the Pope and various city leaders in Lucca), certainly none were household names that are still known today. However, I am proud to know that my ancestors worked diligently with their hands and with the soil to produce the fruits of an honest day’s labor. I believe that they would endorse The Farmer’s Creed, as do I.

The Farmer's Creed
I believe a person's greatest possession is their dignity and that no 
calling bestows this more abundantly than farming.
I believe hard work and honest sweat are the building blocks of a person's
I believe that farming, despite its hardships and disappointments, is the
most honest and honorable way a person can spend their days on this earth. 

I believe farming provides education for life and that no other occupation
teaches so much about birth, growth and maturity in such a variety of ways.
I believe many of the best things in life are free:  the splendor of a
sunrise; the rapture of wide open spaces; the exhilarating sight of your
land greening each spring.
I believe true happiness comes from watching your crops ripen in the field
and your children grow tall in the sun.
I believe my life will be measured ultimately by what I have done for my
fellow man.
I believe in farming because it makes all this possible.

-- Author Unknown

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

To pay or not to pay . . .

Friday, November 18, 2011
So now comes the time to figure out how to pay my traffic fine. Unfortunately, the only way to pay, according to the notification letter, is by an IBAN bank transfer. This is a common and inexpensive way to make payments in Europe, but U.S. banks do not participate in the IBAN system, so it will cost another $35 for my bank to wire the money. I do a web search to see if there is an alternative way to pay but come up empty.

I also find some forums where people have argued against paying the bill for traffic tickets received in Italy, but they are countered by even more people arguing the other side. It seems the arguments are split about three to one in favor of paying. Reasons for paying given: It is the law of the land and should be obeyed. Nobody wants traffic snarling the city centers or people driving at unsafe speeds. The fine nearly doubles if you don’t pay on time. Non-payers might be pursued by a collection agency and be reported to credit rating firms, or they might have trouble re-entering Italy or have their cars impounded if they are stopped again. Some simply said they considered it part of the tourist experience—there are always unexpected expenses on a trip, and this is just one of them.

Those in favor of not paying state that the fines are excessive, they discriminate against foreigners who don’t understand the traffic signs, and many said that they never even saw the signs. Non-paying advocates also say that the tickets come anywhere from six to 18 months after the infraction, an unfair delay that makes it more difficult to appeal, not to mention that appeals must be written in Italian. Some cite technical reasons, such as a law that the ticket must be delivered within a year of the infraction. Another pointed out that the tickets are sent by registered mail, but the directions are written in Italian, so the U.S. postal carriers don’t make the receivers sign, and thus the Italian police have no proof that the ticket was received.

A number of non-payers commented that they never heard another word from the police after throwing their tickets away. No more letters. Nothing on their credit reports. No word from collection agencies. One official admitted in an interview that it was probably not worth the trouble of pursuing a non-payer unless he or she had five or more tickets. (Note: I have more information about a non-payer in a later blog: What will happen if you don’t pay your ticket for a traffic violation in Italy?)
So, knowing that there will probably be no consequences for not paying, and also that my postal carrier didn’t have me sign the receipt, I have considered joining the non-payers. In the end, though, I have decided to pay. I was speeding. I knew I was speeding. I agree with the concept of law and order and speed limits. I should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, a quotation which takes on extra meaning when the fine comes from Italy. In addition, I have the family name to uphold. How can I hold my head high in family gatherings if they know I am an outlaw? Besides, as Lucy points out, my cousins Claudio and Marco Del Terra are both police officers in Toscana, and if they read my blog, then I’ll be in trouble with my family and the cops at the same time!

Next: Final chapter in traffic ticket story?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Traffic cameras a common complaint

Thursday, November 17, 2011
My traffic ticket misadventure looks mild today in comparison with what other foreigners have gone through. Yesterday I talked to Rick and Debbie Gerke, who had to pay their Lucca parking ticket twice. After receiving a ticket on their windshield, they went to the post office and paid it. Several months later, they received a bill for the same parking ticket in the mail, but by that time they had tossed the receipt and were back in the states, so they paid again rather than take the time to try to dispute the second bill.

In searching the web, I found that we have joined a large club of foreigners who have been ticketed by camera. A discussion thread on has 243 posts, many from foreigners complaining about getting caught and fined by the ubiquitous cameras. Some are confused because they think that when they pay the car rental agency that they have paid for the traffic violation; then they don’t understand why they get a second bill for a greater amount months later.

A ZTL sign in Pisa
“Citman” from England writes a typical post: “Hi to all fellow victims. We went to Pisa on a short break end of May 2007, booked into hotel in centre of Pisa, asked hotel staff where to hire a car, hired car. Only warning that anyone gave us was to ensure that car was moved from outside hotel by a certain time in the morning. The hire car operator and hotel staff gave no warning of potential traffic violations caused by driving within the city. Last October we received the notification (in Italian) that we had committed three offences and that the hire company had debited our credit card for three separate amounts. Yesterday we received three separate letters from the Municipality of Pisa informing us of three ZTL violations, each carrying a 113 euro fine.

It's not easy for someone who doesn't know Italian traffic
regulations to understand what this means.
But that’s nothing compared to the misfortunates of Brian Appleton of San Jose, California, who reported on a discussion thread that he received 11 tickets during a two-week trip in the summer of 2007. His fines amounted to well over $1,000, and he was also charged by the car rental agency to report his information, presumably another 11 times. I also read that a Europcar clerk told someone that about one out of every three or four calls they receive concerns complaints about traffic tickets.

A number of the 243 posts on the TripAdvisor discussion argue, rather vociferously, the fairness of the traffico limitato zones, and I can see both sides of the argument. It is a good idea to limit traffic in crowded city centers, and it is often the foreigners who don’t understand the signs and customs, so they get many of the tickets. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. However, some people feel it has spoiled their vacation, that the police and car agencies are in collusion to scam foreigners, and the overall result will hurt tourism, Italy’s largest industry. It also seems that the car rental agencies are making a nice profit charging 36 euros for looking something up in their computers that probably takes about five minutes.

While it may have a small negative effect on tourism, it doesn’t appear that Italy is having problems attracting tourists. And the tickets are huge money makers, surely offsetting any potential loss in tourism money. The Florentine, February 12, 2009, reports: “Traffic police (in Florence) issue approximately . . . 1,253 tickets a day. The fines on these tickets average out to about 140 euro per year, per motorist, and they bring about 52 million to city hall each year.”

Florence and Pisa seem to have the most online complaints, but readers were reporting tickets from all over the country. And it is not just Americans who are nabbed. The Guardian newspaper cites the agency Euro Parking, which reports: “Six out of 10 foreign-registered vehicles don’t cough up. The Germans, it seems, are the worst. There are nearly 30,000 unpaid congestion charge notices against German vehicles, followed by Poland (15,376) Italy (11,846) and Spain (9,493).” It looks like I have joined a very large club, indeed.

Next: To pay or not to pay . . .

Busted for speeding in Italy

Thursday, November 10, 2011
This misadventure really started May 3, when I was taking Randall, Lela and Micah to the airport in Pisa in our rental car. The roads to the airport were well marked, but getting back to Lucca led to an hour of utter frustration. Coming out of the airport, there were signs directing me to Firenze, Pisa Centrale, Livorno and a half dozen other places, but none to Lucca, which was not in the same direction as any of these other cities. Okay, there was one sign, but it came with absolutely no warning and it is located exactly at the exit, giving me no chance to get into the exit lane. I can verify this because during the hour I was wandering around, maddeningly, I passed the same spot twice!

Yes, I should have brought a map or had GPS, but I had checked the map before I left and saw that it was relatively easy to get to the airport, and I assumed getting back would be the same, which it would have been if I could have started out on the correct highway. Anyway, I didn’t, and I got lost in the early morning darkness and mist, and I became especially frustrated when I realized I had passed the only Lucca exit sign I had seen in the last hour, for the second time. By this time, I had a pretty good idea how I could get back to that same spot, and with mounting anger, I sped up. That’s when I observed what seemed like a flash of lightning, only very close and not nearly as bright as lightning, and my frustration reached a new level, because I knew what it was—a camera flash. I had just been photographed by an automatic traffic camera for speeding.

I knew about these traffic cams because I had read about them while researching car rental agencies online. I had read reviews of the Maggiore rental agency, and people had generally had decent experiences with the agency, but some had complained about getting charged twice for traffic tickets. First, Maggiore charged a fee a month or so after the camera-recorded infraction for the administrative costs of giving the traffic police the names and addresses of the driver on the day the ticket was issued. Later came a ticket from the police. Doing a little more reading, I found that this was standard practice for all auto agencies in Italy, so I rented from Maggiore and overall had a good experience.  I also read that most of the tickets came from automatic cameras in large cities, Firenze and Pisa included, for driving in lanes that were for buses or in a zona traffico limitato, where one has to have a special permit to drive.

I hoped I was wrong about the flash, but it seemed pretty likely that it came from a camera. And sure enough, on July 10, two months later, I received a charge from Maggiore of 36 euros, or $50.81, on my credit card. No explanation was given, but I asked the credit card company for documentation, and a month later I received a document showing that Maggiore had received a request for information from the police, so my fears were confirmed. Now, six months after the camera flash, I have received my speeding ticket. It states that at 6:11 a.m. May 3, I was near Pisa and going 121.6 kilometers an hour in a 90 kph zone, or 76 mph in a 56 mph zone. It further states that I must pay 240.27 euros within 60 days of the fine notification. Otherwise, the fine will be 454.27 euros.

Okay, so how do I pay, and what happens if I never pay? How is Italy going to collect from all the foreigners who are accumulating traffic tickets under these relatively new traffic cameras? Right now I am too busy to look into this, so the bill sits on my desk while I take care of more important issues, or at least less unpleasant ones.

Next: Traffic cameras a common complaint in Italy

Finalmente! Ho il passaporto italiano

Tuesday, October 18, 2011
After a futile attempt to obtain my Italian passport in Italy last spring, today I have an appointment in the Italian Consulate in San Francisco to try again. I am encouraged by the fact that the Consulate has responded promptly to my email requesting an appointment for me and daughter Sandra. They will see me at 10:30 a.m. and Sandra at 11:15 a.m. Yesterday Sandy and I went to Walmart to have our passport photos taken, and then we went online to fill out the two-page application and print it out.

I show up at the Consulate around 10 a.m. and check in, and am further heartened to notice that the line is short and the lobby is not crowded. When I came here in 2000, I had to wait in line for almost an hour, and I remember some of the people ahead of me having long arguments with officials who seemed to be low on patience. Apparently, much has improved procedurally since then, and I hope this impression will soon be confirmed.

However, I wait for nearly an hour until I am called into the office of Sr. Giuseppe Penzato, and when I do, he tells me that the computer system appears to be blocked. He was able to process the passport application of one man earlier today, but when he tried to process the man’s wife, the system refused to respond. He will enter my data and hopes that the problem has been resolved. He collects my cash fee of $113.10, makes copies of my American passport and drivers license, takes three imprints of each of my index fingers and enters my data into his computer, which operates extremely slowly and has to be restarted once. The problem, he explains, is that the data has to be sent electronically to a computer in Rome to be authenticated and approved, but there is no response from there. He can’t call to find out why because it is nearly 9 p.m. in Rome, and the offices are closed.

After nearly a decade of stumbling through this process, I am mentally prepared for more obstacles, and I am not in a hurry, so I take this latest delay in stride. Sr. Penzato explains that he has entered my information, and he can finish the process later today or tomorrow and mail me my passport, which is fine with me. He can do the same with Sandra, who is next in line.

We are left with one more curious encounter with the Italian bureaucracy: I must provide Sr. Penzato with a stamped, self-addressed envelope for the mailing of our passports. The receptionist gives me the address of a stationary and mailing store about five blocks away, and when I arrive there, I meet the lady who had the passport appointment before me. She is in a hurry, she says, because the Consulate will close for lunch in a few minutes, and then we will have to wait at least an hour to give our envelopes to the receptionist. I sprint back and make it with three minutes to spare. Meanwhile, Sandra has had her fingerprints and data entered, and we are off to enjoy the rest of our week-long trip to California. (Additional note: When we arrived home, the passports were in my mailbox!)