Getting Ready for our Trip to Italy

We take off on Thursday.

I feel that we have our schedule and packing under control, but what I am worried about is making sure that we make the most out of every minute. This trip represents a rare opportunity to be with my closest relatives whom I rarely see, and a rare opportunity to get to know a great number of artists and artisans who could become important suppliers.

We will arrive in Rome, then take the high speed train, and go to Milan. I can’t believe that the high speed train that promises to connect Milan to Rome in 3 hours is actually operational. That is such an improvement over the way things used to be!

My best friend: the hardest but funnest person to shop for

My best friend – let me call her I – and I have known each other since the fifth grade – strangely enough, we only saw each other one day a week at Japanese school for one year before she move back to Japan – but somehow we kept in touch and our friendship grew stronger throughout the years. I and I would visit each other as often as we could, send eachother birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, and occasional care packages, we would even do this thing called a koukan-nikki, or Diary-swapping (just as it sounds!). Although about as far apart as two friends could be, and despite weeks going by at times without communicating, we were always closely connected in some quantum-physical, universal-consciousness way. 

The biggest fault that I has is that she is tremendously difficult to shop for. First, she has impeccable taste – an asset in her profession as a buyer for one the the premium haute couture brands, I’m sure, but it does inconveniently raise the bar when it comes to choosing a gift for her.  Second, her job takes her to Italy at least 4 times a year, which means the automatic coolness value that usually comes with “look! I got this for you in Italy!” becomes diminutive. In fact, she is rather well-traveled, so the “look! I got this for you in fill-in-the-blank!” generally does not work anyway. 

Capibara keyholder
The retractable capibara keyholder: ridiculous, but cute!

So just how un-fun is it to shop for this friend of mine? Well, actually, it’s not un-fun at all … she is in fact the funnest person to shop for! Why is that? Because when we shop for each other, we think beyond how much we want to spend, or what we think the other might need, or whether she already has something similar. We both look past the overt usefulness or functionality of an object and revel in the meaning of the gift – whether it be a pair of pig dolls locked in an embrace (they look just like us!), or a ridiculous but cute retractable key holder in the shape of a capibara (reminds us of when we took photos of each other making faces like the oversized rodent) . 

These are the best kinds of gifts to give and receive, and will far outlast the gifts that may be higher in dollar value but come with little or no personal meaning. I still own a fork and spoon set I gave me back in 1985 … the same day we set the world record in longest time spent in a Sanrio shop without getting kicked out (well, they didn’t have to get the security guards anyway). Today, I get overwhelmed by nostalgia and joy as I watch my 2-yr old daughter eating with the same fork and spoon.

Un Gelato al Bacio e allo Zabaglione for My Birthday

What a great surprise it was.

Today I turned 39 and I went to the office where my birthday was officially forgotten. Then, when I had lost all hope of any birthday treats, I got called into a meeting that turned out to be a meeting about the announcement that we were about to go to Cafe` Campbell for some gelato. Because it’s my birthday, of course.

Well, I don’t scream for ice cream but I do scream for real gelato. And Cafe` Campbell offers the kind of selection of gelato that I got used to when I lived in Italy. They even offer my favorite flavors: bacio and cocco. But today I found something that I could not pass up: zabaglione (a.k.a. zabaione). Zabaione is a simple Italian cake made with eggs, sugar, and Marsala: it is very hard to resist and this ice cream was delicious.

Zabaione is the kind of flavor that has to be handmade to be any good. And that is what made my day.

Japanese convenience store dessert: mass-made can be handmade

Last night I was watching a Japanese TV program showcasing a wildly popular item sold at a convenience store chain in Japan. It’s a cafe-style roll cake: a ring of fluffy, moist sponge cake loaded with real whipped cream.

Premium Roll Cake

Now, let me take a step back and explain the concept of the konbini, or Japanese convenience store. You can start with an image of your typical neighborhood ampm or 7-11 store … open 24/7 selling snacks and basic sundries. But the similarity stops right there. In a konbini, you can find anything from fresh produce to makeup to bento (lunch) boxes; you can even print photos, ship packages, or pay your bills. And there are a couple of them on every block.

Japanese convenience stores brand their own snacks and other products, so it’s not surprising that one of them has come up with a “premium” dessert to cater to the sophisticated palate of their clientele … what IS surprising is that they decided to tackle the roll cake, the Holy grail of konbini desserts. You see, the roll cake is difficult to mass-produce: from slicing single-serving portions without squishing the creme to making a creme that maintains its light, luscious texture on the shelf, it comes with more than its share of challenges.

But one company has apparently succeeded, and the product has won the Gold Medal at the prestigious Monde Selection  – something like a Nobel Prize for confectionery.

The thing that struck me the most watching this show – asides from how I would love to live within walking distance to a konbini – was that this dessert, sold at one of the top convenience store chains in Japan, is actually made by hand. The cake gets mixed and cut by a machine, but the rest is done manually to achieve optimum quality. Now that is a dessert I would like to try!

One-of-a-kind Cappuccino

Today I had a moment when the meaning of handmade became a little clearer.

My wife loves cappuccino and I felt like cutting back a bit. So I thought that increasing her portion a little and reducing mine a lot while at the same time reducing the overall production just a tad would accomplish the goal and go unnoticed.

But I had forgotten a small detail.

Years of perfecting the perfect cups of cappuccino for two using our stove top espresso maker had paid off. And years of daily training of my customer number one had developed quite a connoisseur! She told me exactly what was different without a hint of criticism… But perhaps she would have appreciated some notice before I went in and messed with a good thing.

To me, this section of the blog, is about the attention to details and how details matter to those who can tell the difference. At Marcopoloni we really strive to pay attention to details and I really hope that our customers notice.

Our new Flip video camera: just a cool gadget or a floodgate for our business?

The new video camera has arrived earlier than expected, and it’s been providing us with some much-needed entertainment here at the office. As we fought over the little palm-sized device (smaller than the iPhone!), we’ve already come to love its simplicity and ease of use.

Here is a test video I shot of Daniele doing what he does best – finding silly geeky things to do during his lunch break. Today, it was testing some dictation software. Tomorrow, it will be coding an interactive recipe application.

But the big question still remains, “is this just another cool gadget, or could it possibly be the big thing that opens up a floodgate for our tiny business?” The reason for getting the device was to do video reviews of products that have unique features that are hard to describe with static images, such as our Snaplink key chain. Well, that, and it was Daniele’s birthday.

We hope this proves to be …  if not a floodgate, at least a floodgatino, or a little floodgate.  Time – and lots of amateur product videos – will only tell.

How Do You Create a Decent Video Review?

I know a few things: that I am not a very good presence on screen, that I speak in a boring monotone, that I make pathetically funny facial expressions when I am in front of the camera, and that I want to create video product reviews to help our customers find out more about our products before buying.

So what’s the solution? Throw money at it, of course.

As I often do when faced with a problem, spending a nice chunck of change always makes me FEEL that I am starting to solve the problem. Only to later realize that my plan for solving the problem is a little too grandiose and my money would have been better off staying put.

But this time is different.

I only spent a couple of hundred dollars on a small HD video camera. It already records in the desired file format and is supposed to be easy to move video to your PC and edit it.

So, now let’s wait for the camera to arrive and let’s hope that I will miracolously become a great presence on camera. You will be the judge.

P.S. I’m considering trying to be funny.

Polishing my old Affari

Today I took a briefcase to work because I needed a little more space than my Colombo. Why, you ask? Because, I had to carry my knives to get them sharpened. Our neighbors sell knives and I haven’t sharpened my knives since I bought them seventeen years ago.

Since I hadn’t used my Affari in a while it had gotten a bit dusty and dull and I definitely would not be advertising the beauty of Italian vegetable tanned leather if I did not take the time to polish it a bit. So I wiped the dust off with a soft cloth and I applied ample quantities of Meltonian Leather Lotion, again using a soft cloth. We love the Meltonian Leather Lotion because it really helps leather regenerate nicely. Now I look at my black Affari and it looks great. I can’t say that it looks new because it has shaped a little bit around the things that I put in it and the leather is so much softer today than it was when it was new.

My New Belt and Italian Belt Sizes

Last year we decided to start carrying leather belts because both Marco and Vincenzo made some really cool belts. When we placed our first order with Dionigi back in January I had an eye on a belt that would make the perfect replacement for my aging, not-so-cool-anymore, brown dress belt.  Unfortunately, when the belts arrived none of them fit a 32 waist. That came as a little of a surprise because we had done some research on Italian and American belt sizes. So we placed another order to make up for sold inventory and to take care of… people like ME!

Last month my Aldo arrived in the big shipment from Italy and it fit! I got one in espresso and said goodbye to my old belt–finally! I like the Aldo because the stitching lines give it a refined and unique look. The leather is of very good quality and the color looks sharp with my slacks.

The next step was to come up with a system of sizes that would not confuse a potential buyer. So we now show you the range of pants sizes that will fit a certain belt size. If you wear a 30 pants size and you buy a 32-37 belt size, the belt is not going to help you very much.

Now that I am getting used to having a nice belt I am starting to think that I need a black one, and a pair of shoes. Should we starting importing shoes?

Issue Detected and Fixed. NOT! Or at Least: Not So Fast

So we recently upgraded to a newer web hosting plan to be able to take advantage of some nifty features included in wordpress. Everything was playing out smoothly for a few days and then the new server we were on got hit with a denial-of-service attack. So our web hosting company responded to the issue in a way that disrupted our ability to send e-mail from the web site (automated order confirmations), at first, and to browse certain pages the next day.

The first problem was bad: nobody could enter an order because the web site would blow up at the moment of submitting an order. Actually it wouldn’t blow up. It would gracefully display an error instead of the order confirmation. Our first response was to remove the offending code, but by the time we were done we could not load any pages in our intranet and our ability to fulfill orders was slowed to a crawl.

We do not like to be a pain in the neck. But finally we had to give up and ask to be moved to a new server. That worked well. We still ran into a few problems but fixing them was easy.

What a boring day! I was already tired, had to stay up late trying to fix and solve things, and my 2-year-old decided that 6am was to be the everybody’s get up time. I’m really looking forward to a goooood night sleep tonight!