Espresso, Corruption, Murder….and the Bella Figura

Aurelio Zen, the suave police detective always dressed in Armani

“Aurelio Zen – he’s a cop in a world where the pressure is always on, the danger is always there, and he is in Armani.

He can’t help it if his name keeps getting into the papers,  he’s just trying to do his job, solve the crime and do it quietly.  Certain people in high places might get mad.  It is tricky, it is Rome where women walk on ancient cobblestones in stiletto heels and tight skirts, where cars are fast and lunch is slow.  He can handle it though.  He is smart, funny, daring, he lives with his mother. It is typical. He is Italian.  To be more precise, he is Venetian.

His name, Zen, has nothing to do with Buddhism. He is a police detective in Rome….. the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps, espresso, corruption, murder.….”

–Masterpiece Mystery Introduction by Alan Cummings to “Zen”

My blog friend, Adri Barr of  TheFrontBurner.us recently sent me a video with Alan Cummings’ introduction to “Zen” a “Masterpiece Mystery”.  She explained when she and her husband heard Cummings’ description of life in Rome they burst out laughing because it reminded them of some of the descriptions in this blog.

So I am sharing it with all of you:  Here is the link to the video.

And here are my posts on the topics:

Stiletto Heels on Ancient Cobblestones — Linguini and Luscious Legs and Teetering on High

Espresso – Coffee Italian Style

Italian Men and their Mothers – The Italian Super-Mamma

Corruption and Murder –  A Plot to Kill the Pope , The Butler Did It

There are a couple points mentioned by Cummings that I have not gotten to yet….fast cars and slow lunches and men in Armani.  I will put those on my blog to-do list, but in the meantime a little note on “la bella figura”.

The other day after I listened to the Cummings’s introduction I was covering a meeting between Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Before the meeting began I checked out all the plain clothes policemen.  They screeched up to Rome’s Renaissance Villa Madama in fast, silver unmarked cars, braking on the pebbles in the courtyard outside and jumping out ready for action.  There wasn’t much action since all they found were a bunch of hot sweaty, journalists with cameras and computers waiting. Still they made a “bella figura”. They were impeccably dressed, looking very sleek in expensive suits,  and mirrored sunglasses.  I wanted to snap a photo for my blog of one in particular with a dapper pin-striped suit, his mirrored sunglasses pushed back over heavily gelled dark brown curls to reveal intense blue eyes, a curled plastic wire going from his ear down to the back of his jacket for any urgent security messages.   He could have been Aurelio Zen.

At the meeting I bumped into an Italian journalist friend of mine from an important Italian daily newspaper.  We chatted briefly but I had little time to talk because I was coordinating the live of the press conference for AP television, plus trying to write and edit the story on my lap-top computer.

Trisha Thomas (apparently looking like a Neapolitan housewife), Pietro De Cristofaro and Gigi Navarra, frantically finishing the edit of the Monti-Merkel Press conference with the computer perched precariously on a car outside the Italian Foreign Ministry.

The next day the Italian journalist gave me a call and said he was near my office and would I like to pop down for an espresso.  When I met him at the coffee bar, he surprised me with a little lecture.  He told me I had made a “brutta figura” at the Monti-Merkel meeting.  He said I was dressed like a “Massaie” – a Neapolitan housewife—and I spent all the time hunched over my computer like a child with a new electronic toy.  I told him to “go to hell” that I was doing my job and my goal is to do it properly and make a “bella figura” with my bosses, not with other journalists at a press conference.  He insisted, pointing out that all the Italian government ministers and press office officials were there and if I want to be taken seriously as a journalist in this country I needed to dress the part.

This brought back to me a memory from decades ago when I was a young journalist and I had to cover a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel with the Italian and Israeli Foreign Ministers.  The Italian journalists showed up in their Armani suits and ties, the women in heels and tight skirts, reeking of expensive cologne and perfumes.  The Israeli journalists, men and women, showed up in shorts, Birkenstock sandals, sleeveless shirts with some hairy armpits showing and a few had not bothered with deodorant.  Just a few minutes into the press conference an intense verbal battle broke out between the Israelis and the Italians over the translation.  I stood back in utter amazement.  Here were two cultures with opposite attitudes towards dress but with the same Mediterranean style of arguing—loud and full of gestures.

But back to my brutta figura.  I thought I was dressed rather nicely for the press conference, but I certainly was not thinking about impressing anyone.

Italian columnist Beppe Severgnini recently wrote a book called “La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.” His definition, “La bella figura”, the beautiful figure…. It means making “a good impression”, in an aesthetic sense.

I went back to Luigi Barzini’s classic “The Italians” to try to understand this better.  He noted, “In other parts of the world substance always takes precedence and its external aspect is considered useful but secondary.  Here, on the other hand, the show is as important as, many times more important than, the reality.  This is perhaps due to the fact that the climate has allowed Italians to live mostly outside their houses, in the streets and piazza; they judge men and events less by what they read or learn, and far more by what they see, hear, touch and smell.”

Well Blog Readers…that’s it for today. I need to go out and get to work on my bella figura!!  I will start with a tight skirt, some stiletto heels a potent perfume and try my luck on the ancient cobblestones.  Maybe I will bump into Aurelio Zen….as Adri says he’s awfully  “easy on the eyes.”  Or heck, maybe I will just go get a gelato.

 

 

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Post in: Italiano

Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

27 Comments

  1. Julie zjanzen Shires
    2012/07/08

    As an ardent followers of the “Zen” series, I enjoyed reading this entry about life on the ground in Rome. Keep up the good work. I look forward to your blog.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/09

      Thank you Julie. I have actually never seen the “Zen” series. It doesn’t air in Rome, but I am going to buy the DVD because I am so curious now.

      Reply
  2. AdriBarr
    2012/07/08

    Trisha,

    The Zen of being Zen. I could just hear Alan Cumming’s masterful delivery as I read the text of his intro. I found your description of the Italian plainclothes police quite fascinating. It is good to hear the BBC got the attire right. The Zen TV shows were a delight. Pity only three episodes were filmed. A detective in Armani – I like it.

    Of particular interest was your own experience with la bella figura, a concept of which we Americans seem to have no grasp whatsoever. One evening in front of an American TV will give you a taste of that – from vulgar clothing to the proverbial dirty laundry – it is all on display. I recall an interview with Roman mezzo Cecilia Bartoli. The interviewer brought up the subject of her brother’s illness and subsequent death from cancer. Ms. Bartoli said she did not discuss his illness and death and closed the topic with saying “…la bella figura.” I found it refreshing that she maintained the illusion of perfection and kept the family tragedy out of the public eye. Thanks again for a terrific post!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/09

      Thanks to you Adri for making such an effort to send me the video clip. I really appreciated it and now I am so eager to see the series.

      Reply
      • AdriBarr
        2012/07/09

        You are going to love it. I can’t wait to hear what you think. The series was based on the late Michael Dibdin’s Zen books; there were 10 in the series, but regrettably only 3 were made into TV shows.

        I knew nothing of either the books or the author prior to viewing the BBC shows, and I just started reading “Vendetta”. It’s great. Dibdin passed away on 2007. In the New York Times obit that ran April 7, 2007 Margalit Fox wrote “…Above all, the novels were read avidly for Mr. Dibdin’s masterly distillation of Italy, ” Here is a link.

        http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/06/books/06dibdin.html

        Reply
        • Trisha Thomas
          Trisha Thomas
          2012/07/09

          Wonderful. I will get the books and the dvd. Thanks again for introducing me to it.

          Reply
  3. Cyndy
    2012/07/08

    I vote with the Israeli journalists! Comfy clothes :-)

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/09

      Good for you Cyndy. Everyone has to do what is best for them. I do feel a lot of pressure in Rome though to keep up the “bella figura”

      Reply
  4. Alan
    2012/07/08

    . . don’t forget the calogen and silcon – how can you possibly do a proper job without you are puffed up and ponsified?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/09

      Oh good Lord! You are probably right– there is plenty of silicon in the breasts, and lips — botoxed foreheads and lifted faces in Rome…but I find that almost too frightening to write about.

      Reply
  5. Stephen Thomas
    2012/07/08

    Thanks for this blog Trisha. I had fun watching the “Zen” promo with you and hearing your daughter imitate a Scottish accent in her Italian accent…. I would also like to recommend readers to your blogs about Carravagio, which were fascinating. More later,

    Your brother,

    Stephen

    Reply
  6. Ruth Raymond
    2012/07/08

    I think you look nice. It’s a very pretty dress.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/09

      Thank you Ruth. I love that dress and always feel very happy and a bit frivolously feminine in it– had no idea that to some I looked like a “massaie”. Oh well.

      Reply
  7. Mary Jane Cryan
    2012/07/09

    …and at a wedding yesterday I was informed that as a signora of a certain age I should do like the other signore of my age who were all elegantly gotten up with a wrap, a scarf, una giacca, even if it was 35°C …meanwhile the young 20s-30s could get away with strapless, mini skirted outfits..
    My response,(like yours) I am not the mother of the bride nor the groom, just an honored guest… taking photos too… you can see photos on my FB page.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/09

      I am with you Mary Jane! Friday night I took my daughter to see Joan Baez giving a concert in Rome. She was fabulous. She is now 71 years-old and her voice is a beautiful as ever and so is she. She was dressed in a simple sleeveless black dress with a bright red scarf around her neck and her spikey gray her looked terrific (gray hair is almost unheard of among women in Italy.) She also did the whole concert in bare feet. She made a bella figura! Evviva Joan Baez!!
      (For some reason I can’t get on your facebook page, but I did get on your website and your picture there is lovely)

      Reply
  8. Lisa | Renovating Italy
    2012/07/09

    I still remember when we first arrived in ITaly from Australia. We were at a cafe and my husband who has Italian parents but was raised in Australia suddenly changed into some crazed man concerned about the noise level of our children..and “can’t you control them so we don’t look like idiots” or words to that effect. Suddenly our Aussie kids had to be like the other Italian kids in straight jackets and tight designer shoes! Needless to say it never happened and very quickly he realized how silly it all was. We never did manage to cut a bella figura xxx
    PS I think you look fabulous x

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/10

      Thank’s Lisa!! I agree, I never tried to have my children meet the “bella figura” standards, but I have noticed my 17-year-old son is very conscious of his own appearance/behavior in public and that of his sisters– it must be in the DNA. My second child, Caterina, couldn’t care less. She must have gotten the American rebel dna.

      Reply
  9. Barbara Landi
    2012/07/11

    Trisha you must come to Alaska where I live, and the brutta figura is always so very “in”

    LOL….and I am going to make sure not to miss Zen on Masterpiece!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/11

      I can’t wait to come to Alaska — it’s hotter than hell in Rome these days. I will wear jeans and timberland boots go snuggle up with a polar bear!

      Reply
  10. mario bracci devoti
    2012/07/11

    just few words about “bella figura”. Armani is not considered “bella figura”, becouse is too “dandy”. So are considered high heels and silicone, restricted to the show business. Bella figura is everything. coordination in colours, never too bright, always oppropriare to the place and the people you are going to meet. The soft calm voice and slow movement are a must. Never try to attract attention more than necessary, and always show appreciation for the others and their ideas. The bella figura comes before you and follows after you have gone. Two thousand years of civilisation have mastered the italians in “bella figura”, which is non easy for the others to understand.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/12

      Mario, Thank you for this comment. It is fascinating. You have taught me some important things I did not know. For example you say colours should never be “too bright”. Just the other day there was a reception at the US Ambassador’s residence in Rome for the 4th of July which is always a very formal affair with lots of government ministers, and important cultural and business figures in Rome attending. I wore a new bright, tomato-red dress and several Italians commented to me how “american” I looked. I don’t think any Italian woman would have worn such a bright color. Now I know why. I also did not know about the soft, calm voice and slow movement. That is fascinating and good advice to all, as is “show appreciation for others and their ideas.”

      I will add another one of my own. A young American documentary producer I met went to the US during the last election campaign. He managed to get into a campaign rally of the republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. At the end of the rally she approached the group of journalists and he managed to ask her a question. Sarah Palin is an attractive woman, but the whole time she was answering the question she was always chewing on a piece of gum. It was unattractive to say the least and a “brutta figura.”

      Indeed two thousands years of civilizaton have put you Italians a step ahead on many social and cultural questions. I hope that you will continue to read my blog and provide more excellent insight from an Italian perspective.

      Reply
  11. dario
    2012/07/13

    Mr. Bracci may be right but he is talking of a very limited minority of people.
    Unfortunately the 2000 years have left not much to be appreciated at least in the
    last 50 years a lot of this so called story has disappeared ; it is enough to look at
    the city centers where small artisan shops have been eaten up by the globalized horrible shopping centers young girls desperately try to look like veline, and young boys throwing
    bottles on the street at night and drinking until 6 in the morning. Mr. Bracci where do you live?
    Trisha keep dressing as you wish and write nice articles like the one about Zen.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/07/13

      Dario — You are right. It is discouraging to see beautiful cities like Rome getting ruined by people who have no respect. Did you hear the news about the young couple who had sex outdoors in Florences beautiful Piazza Santa Croce the other night, with other people standing around filming them with cell phones. What is the world coming to? I get discouraged if I ever had to pass through Campo Dei Fiori (Rome’s famed Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Market) and Trastevere (one of Rome’s oldest and most traditionally “Roman” neighborhoods) and see all the beer bottles and garbage that people throw on the ground. I also get depressed seeing young girls to dress up like Veline (tv show girls) looking so trashy.
      I guess we need more of Zen and the Bella Figura of the past!

      Reply
  12. paolo
    2012/08/28

    Commento da tuo lettore e non da amico visto che non ci conosciamo: il vestito, se è quello della foto, mi sembra adeguato.
    Il commento del tuo amico giornalista mi sembra di cattivo gusto…deve avere proprio poca considerazione di te per dirti una cosa del genere!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/29

      Grazie Paolo! Sei molto gentile!

      Reply
  13. paolo gallo
    2012/08/31

    gentile trisha non si tratta di essere gentili o meno. Anzi, mi scuso per la mia schiettezza. Oramai viviamo in una società dove ad imperare è la superficialità e la viltà e questo mi irrita molto. E’ il trionfo dei messaggi subliminari…Ad esempio gli uomini quando si innamoraro di un’altra donna tendono a sminure quella che hanno accanto da tempo sottolieando elementi che in passato gli andavano più che bene. (attenzione non è il suo caso perchè da quanto leggo ha ina bella e numerosa famiglia!). La nostra è una società che va ripensata oppure imploderà! mi auguro almeno che il suo collega alla fine si sia scusato! Ha scritto che commenterà per la Rai le elezioni Usa…se possibile la seguirò con interesse.
    Con stima
    Paolo

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/31

      Grazie Paolo. Stamattina stavo su Unomattina parlando del discorso di Romney di stanotte e stasera fra 11 e mezzanotte parlero’ di nuovo di Romney e il Republican Convention a RAI News 24. Mia collega non si e’ mai scusato ma abbiamo fatto due risate sopra. E’ difficile per una Americana — anche una che e’ vissuta a lunga in Italia di stare all’altezza della bella figura. Voi Italiani lo avete nel sangue. Lo fatte per istinto. (Non tutti ovviamente, ma tanti). Io faccio mio meglio ma anche mi sento ogni tanto che devo fare l’americana perche’ e’ quello che sono.

      Reply

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