Divorcing Italy

Rossella and I returned to Italy the week before Christmas, having been away since June 30th. That was the longest period I’d spent out of Italy in 18 years.

I was uneasy about this re-entry, expecting it to be traumatic. I thought I would be making a decision about whether I would ever willingly live in Italy again (not right away, but maybe, someday), and I didn’t expect that decision to be easy. But, in retrospect, I had probably made up my mind months – even years – before.

The immediate impact wasn’t good. I arrived exhausted (Rossella can sleep on planes; I am not so fortunate). We hadn’t even left the airport before Enrico was telling us about a typically Italian bureaucratic kerfuffle that had arisen just that morning and had him worried.

The weather was terrible most of the time I was in Europe: cold and gray, with unusual amounts of snow even for northern Italy. The humidity sank the cold into my very bones; I felt colder in Italy than I ever do in Colorado, where the absolute temperatures are often much lower.

As usual, we spent Christmas in Roseto degli Abruzzi, the small seaside resort where Enrico’s parents retired years ago. As usual, the town was dead and depressing in winter. As usual, Ross was agitating to leave almost as soon as the Christmas presents were opened, and I couldn’t blame her, especially when she learned that a friend’s mother had died.

We returned to Lecco, where I felt trapped by bad weather and my fear of driving in Italy (I may someday get used to this, if I could only have an automatic instead of a stickshift…). I realized that I had been feeling trapped for years.

Moving to Lecco was a good decision at the time. Milan’s pollution was killing me, Enrico’s job would be mostly in Lecco, and it was a good place for Ross to spend her teenage years – she had a lot more freedom there than we would have felt safe for her in Milan.

But Lecco is also a small, typically introverted Italian town. There’s not a lot to do there, we have hardly any local friends, and those tend to be busy with their jobs and extended families. We have given lots of dinner parties, but we rarely get invited back. With Ross gone, that leaves a lot of time when it’s just the two of us.

Lecco isn’t the only problem. By any measure, my career opportunities anywhere in Italy are scarce. I’m middle-aged, foreign, female, and opinionated, in a country where it is legal to specify “young and good-looking” in a want ad, and the current prime minister has appointed former showgirls of questionable qualifications to his cabinet, for very questionable reasons.

In “shocking but not surprising” news, a friend told me she recently saw a documentary on PBS which stated that female employment in Italy is at its lowest since WWII. I haven’t yet found any online corroboration for this, but do know that equal opportunities for women in Italy are nearly non-existent.

High-tech doesn’t do well in Italy, either. Although it’s a G8 country, Italy is only number 25 in an Economist Intelligence Unit ranking of IT competitiveness. In other words: not much original is going on there. Many large American/multinational high-tech firms (Cisco, HP, Sun, Microsoft) have offices in Italy, but those are primarily sales and support sites, not places where someone like me is likely to flourish. And they’re mostly in the suburbs of Milan, which would be at least a two-hour commute from Lecco, and put me right back into the pollution that was causing me so many health problems before.

All of these factors have been on my mind for some time. I’ve found lots of evidence to support my negative assessment of my chances in Italy. I freely admit to bias, but can anyone show me evidence to the contrary?

The upshot of it all is that I’m angry – very, very angry. And bitterly disappointed. If anyone should have done well in Italy, it was me. I speak the language fluently. I understand the culture. I gave one hell of a lot to Italy (including a horrendous amount of taxes on my American salaries), and got very little in return except years of frustration and underemployment. In the end, the only way to stay would have been to throw away 20+ years of work experience – work that I truly love – and do something that merely exploited my foreignness: teach English, run tours, write “Under the Lake Como Moon”, etc.

That I will not do.

So I’m divorcing Italy.

Not my Italian husband, mind. Living apart has been very hard on both of us but, for the time being, we’ve decided to try to stick it out.

But I’m definitely divorcing Italy. I’ll visit, as long as Enrico and friends and family are there, but I don’t expect to ever live there again (NB: I’ll be surprised if Ross does, either).

This decision comes with a raft of emotions, probably similar to those surrounding a divorce. Anger. Betrayal. “I gave you the best years of my life!” Sadness. Grief.

Italy has a lot going for it still, and, for some people, it’s their ideal place, even if they weren’t born there. I don’t deny that nor attempt to dissuade them. But, for me, it’s over. And that would be a painful revelation even without the complication of an Italian husband who still lives and works in Italy.

So if I’m not very enthusiastic (to put it mildly) about Italy these days, now you know why.

NB: A year and a half later, I left Enrico as well.

14 thoughts on “Divorcing Italy

  1. kataroma

    Ciao Deirdre

    I’m very sorry to hear this and sorry that you feel like this. I really admire the way you are able to summarise Italy’s ills in such a succinct and easily understandable way. I feel exactly the same (as does my husband, thank God!) and we don’t plan to stick around too long.

    It’s really sad to see so much potential squandered here. I feel like with the effort my husband puts into his B&Bs he would be quite the successful businessman anywhere else – here he’s mired down in ridiculous red tape, taxes and stress.

    good luck, Deirdre!

  2. Lisa

    Deirdre: I’m originally from Connecticut and have been following your site since the spring when when I was researching a trip that my husband and I took to northern Italy last summer. For a frustrated world traveler many of your topics appeal and your narration is fascinating.
    I can relate to a lot of it personally, the good and the BAD. That’s what prompted me to write today. Your frustration and anger are palpable.
    I have a new empty nest,a sister-in-law whose family hails from Lahore, but who met my brother in India-so a long time interest in Indian culture and the Himalayas, some tech knowledge, and I’ve even been to East Rock. (Or is it West Rock? Anyway, I’ve been there. Once with my Mom and once on a date…)
    As a woman in my late fifties I understand the job frustration all too well. I hated what we used to call the “good ol boy” network. I left business decades ago and (happily) teach science helping kids (boys AND GIRLS) to soar. (Or at least I like to think they soar. Some do. And most of them at least “land on their feet.”) Teaching isn’t for everyone, but I’m also a life long learner, so it’s good for me.(I also take perverse delight in teaching skills that equip kids for the “real” world. Many of my teaching colleagues have never been out of school. First as students, then as “educators,” they’ve been in a classroom environment their entire lives.)
    I also have a supportive and pragmatic middle aged husband (not a bad thing to be in these days of global economic turmoil) but it has landed me in places where I have ABSOLUTELY NOT WANTED TO BE. Frustrated. Stuck. Sometimes broke. Sometimes with small kids. I didn’t always view him as supportive and pragmatic. It was more “stubborn” and “selfish.” For a while I viewed him as a Neanderthal.
    I’ve adjusted, I guess, because I no longer silently (or otherwise) scream. And I’m happy, but I’ve found pursuits that make me happy. (Gardening, nature walks, reading, archaeological digs during summer breaks, blogs, scotch, girl’s nights out, household traditions and household gods.)
    We generally travel a minimum of two hours to spend time with real friends. In the course of raising kids we connected with others in our rural village, but are usually by ourselves. (NO FAMILY CLOSE BY EITHER.) Generally speaking, our connections are either through the wives or through the husbands and many times it lasted only as long as the kids were in scouting or Sunday school or whatever. Nearby simpatico “couples” friendships have been fleeting due to divorce, relocation etc. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in the past twenty-four years that we’ve been included in someone’s family gathering. Those kindnesses are also a thing of the past for the same reasons. “Getting away” to visit those real friends got complicated once the kids (who were inconveniently five years apart in age) got involved in sports and part time jobs. Now we’re able to go again and as luck would have it, those friends bought lake cottages near one my husband inherited, so I can imagine a retirement “compound” of sorts a few years down the road. (Maybe a few decades with the economy the way it is…)
    Finally, for the last eight years, this country has not been one that you’d exactly want to live in…I wish that I had a dime for every time I’ve silently screamed, “Not in my name!”) (Think Paul Simon’s American Tune)
    So, what’s the answer? What’s important in the end? Don’t know. But I hope you find it…that place called home….because it has to somewhere, I think…even for a third culture kid. Good luck!
    I have to go now to serve my husband some beef stew-ragu over polenta (Grandma was from Liguria, Grandpa from Piedmont) and keep him company while he watches the end of the Superbowl without a boy around for the first time in years and years. Lord, I hate football. Lisa
    PS. Your site was really helpful in understanding Italian life. I was able to “dazzle” my husband with all kinds of information about daily Italian life as we traveled the north including the bit you posted about Italian window shutter/blinds whatever you call them. On the way to Varenna the train stopped in Lecco and I told him about reading blog written by a “girl who lived in Lecco.” He looked at me increduously and asked “You blog?” Men are from….

  3. Lisa

    D: Still unsettled because of sadness and what you see as the end of your relationship with a place that still holds people and things you love.

    Unlike you, I never left. The kids were still at home. But sense of place has always been important to me so I’ve been mulling over whatever it was that made me feel less trapped and more content and allowed me to be with my husband and kids without losing my mind.

    My job, an avenue closed to you in Italy, has provided bouts of satisfaction and daily purposefulness along with the stress. I actively pursued that getting a Masters degree at one point when the kids were small. After reading about your options, it probably helped more than I realized.

    My experience with cancer and Hubbie’s sojourns in intensive care unit? (You know those scary times when you vow to embrace your situation whatever it is…if only you survive the crisis.) I’ve never been good at “resolutions” so that’s probably not a factor. And I hope that nothing like that ever calls you back there.

    Maybe it’s surviving the raging hormonal storms of my forties and coming out the other end of the menopausal tunnel. (Oh, boy! Truly a shriveled dried up crone, but a placid one.) Lovely thought! But I am, strangely, less volatile….. Oh, Great! I got old. I was supposed to rage against the dying of the light or something like that…. Hold fast to your dreams…and instead I fell asleep at the wheel.

    Did I sell out? Give up? Abandon my dreams and my “self?” Or did I just “make the best of a bad situation?”

    This village is home for my kids, but like Ross, I doubt if they’ll ever return to live in the area. (Did I/we convey that to them? Analytical outsiders that we are.)

    And will I be sad when I leave as I think we inevitably will….thirty years later than I would have liked…..when we retire and monkeys fly?

    Or have I been steeling myself against the negative and disciplining my thoughts all these years? Something that I’ll do then? If I did that, it was unconcious!

    Your situation is in some ways easier (no kids at home) and in others so much more complicated (distance, borders and culture.) Once again, I wish you luck …and peace.

  4. Rana

    Very interesting, and touching. Is it only Italy that you are ruling out, or is it “anywhere except the USA”? It seems that the problems you refer to are largely Italian, but various bits (weather etc) are shared by much of Europe and other bits (bureaucracy etc) are shared by much of Asia.

    Some of the problems you mention in Italy are a reflection of the current PM, I wonder if that affected your decision, and perhaps the political climate will change soon. As there is today arguably a “new hope” in US politics, perhaps there will be an Italian revolution in new technology and new attitudes. Though in either continent, I guess there is about 50% of the population who are intrinsicaly opposed to your worldview.

    Just musing.

  5. Jake

    Wow. I was somewhat shocked to read about your anger towards Italy. I have often thought about retiring in Italy and only to the very deep south. I thought that the southern weather, the laid back lifestyle and not working would make this area an ideal retirement spot, but your column leaves me wondering if Italy is such a good place after all.

  6. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    Thanks, everybody, for sharing your thoughts.

    Lisa: Menopause is probably a factor for me right now. As I recently read, “menopause is like adolescence, without the fun parts.” The shutdown of my mothering hormones it coincides with or was driven by our suddenly empty nest; maybe those hormones were what enabled me to deal with a stifling situation for so long, because it was the best thing for my family at the time. But now – oh, freedom!

    Rana: Though I’m enjoying Colorado right now, I’m not wedded to the US or any particular part of it, in fact I hope very much to have opportunities to live elsewhere. Australia and/or New Zealand have always interested me, and I could easily picture myself living in India again. There’s a lot of world out there, and as long as I have an interesting job to do, I’m flexible about where it is.

    The new hope in American politics, and contrasting lack thereof in Italian politics, may be a factor, now that you mention it. What I felt about that was very well described by another ex-expat-in-Italy blogger: http://theverges.blogspot.com/2008/11/days-of-hope-and-glory.html

  7. Kelly Eickhoff

    Hi Deirdre, I have to say your ‘divorce’ has reinforced the decision Sergio and I took a long time ago, and that was that he would come to Australia, not that I would go to Italy. Although he loves his country, he sees the flaws, sees it stagnating, sees how many of his friends have no sure hope of getting employment in the field they desire. As a clear foreigner with a degree in Social Work and International Studies I would not get serious employment in Italy, and he would have a far better chance of getting any kind of work in Australia with far less discrimination as we are a much more multicultural country. It isn’t unusual to speak a language other than English here! As beautiful Italy it can be, Australia has better opportunities and in many respects life is more laid back and simple. Best of luck with everything, especially with the long distance relationship with Enrico. You’re welcome to come say g’day any time!

  8. Barbara

    Hi Deidre, thank you for posting this. You are speaking from my heart. I have never felt particularly integrated in Italy and professionally I never really got my feet on the ground either, still I stayed on because of my husband’s job. But since this summer when I got back to Milan from my summer holidays in Florida I am just not able to life here anymore. I am fed up with having to excuse for being who I am and for thinking what I think. I don’t want my two girls to grow up seeing only the restrictive female role models that Italy offers and I can’t stand the feeling anymore of living in a place that is 50 years behind the rest of Europe and the US. So me too I decided to divorce Italy and I am putting all my efforts and energy into leaving the country. I wish you all the best.

  9. Keith

    Just to offer a different view – my wife and I (both natural born USA citizens) lived in Pavia for 4 years and had a wonderful experience. The decision to return to the US was tough. We had LOTS of local Italian friends and almost felt like rock stars being in a country that seems to love American people (although not our government). Some of what you say is very true: my wife had difficulty practicing her profession (physical therapy) and settled for the same career choices that you list. I still miss living in Italy!

  10. Rosaly Palma Torvnes

    Hi Deirdre!

    You haven’t written here in a while so I wonder where in the world you are now. It makes me sad to read what you wrote about Italy..Well, it makes me sad because it confirms what I already supected/knew, that is, that my dream to live in a Italy is an idealistic one and that life there would be so hard I would regret forever having decided to leave Norway, where I live now (I am Brazilian) for Italy.
    The only hope is that my husband becomes so rich I can do whatever I please there someday and do not depend on me finding a job to make ends meet. I am only an administration consultant, in other words, Executive Secretary, who does not even speak Italian yet.

    Would be wonderful to hear from you
    Rose

  11. Gregory Rasputin

    Dear Deirdre,
    Thank you for your straightforward and direct thoughts. I couldn’t escape the feeling as I read ‘Divorcing Italy’ was a discontentment that would have colored anywhere you might have been. I’ve lived all over and one can always see the half empty glass.
    I don’t doubt that your time in Italy was rightly through… but I also don’t doubt that you might have fared better with a divorce from your unappreciativeness first… before trying one from Italy and or Enrico. I also don’t doubt that this influenced the lack of second invitations as it is human nature to prefer to be around the appreciator instead of the un-. If my clumsy terms fail: then what I am really trying to say is that your happiness was and hopefully still isn’t waiting to be created from inside. Best Wishes, Totma11

  12. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    To set the record straight, there were plenty of 2nd and 3rd and 4th invitations from Italian and expat friends over the years – and no one turned down an invitation to dinner at our home, so I assume they at least liked my cooking. My point was that many Italians are so immersed in their own extended families that they don’t have much time for extra-familial socializing.

    As for discontentment, indeed I was discontented to be unable to earn a living wage in my chosen professional field. And, as the Italian economy continues to lag the rest of the developed world, many others are discontented – and broke – in Italy. Contentment is a moot point when you can’t even find a job.

  13. Gregory Rasputin

    Dear Deierdre, You do look externally when deciding what makes you happy or not… which would be in contrary of what an ancient Italian by the name of Epictitus would say… “To be happy: focus on what you can control- and as you can control nothing but your state of mind… so focus yourself upon it.” I don’t believe that your discontentment arose exclusively from your professional woes. There are many things here that don’t meet the eye, but others that do… like the fact that your writing reveals you as a sharp-eyed, brusque, and loquaitiously persnickety, (the very thing that drove you to leave your own country in the first place) and exceedingly urbane person… someone who in any country would find it hard going in such a place as Lecco. You belong only in a place such as San Francisco or Milano… which when it became clear to you was no longer physically possible, should have only been replaced by like. When you say that you were well set-up to succeed in Italy because of your language skills- obviously there is some truth in that… but it also takes many other things… and more importantly than that is how your personality will play our ‘on the road’ as the visiting team. Picking a country is like picking a lover… we haven’t the foggiest real idea how it shall play out. When you mention that Italians were absorbed to excess in their families you should also mention that you were absorbed to excess by the notions of your own abilities to go to a strange country and succeed with little or no network of support. Like falling in love- it is optimism on such a high level, that it could be classified as a certain specie of self-imperiling folly.

  14. Caree

    Very interesting post. I just discovered your blog today. I hope your medical treatments succeed. My comment is 7 years after you wrote this post! Sorry to hear your marriage ended, but it seemed inevitable once you relocated. Not surprised you decided to leave Italy; completely understandable. You gave it a good 18 or 20 years, made the best of it. I could never have done what you did; I applaud your cultural flexibility. It couldn’t have been easy, even for someone accustomed to a transient, though gentile, family and background such as you were raised in. I have an Italian heritage on my mother’s side (she was first generation American). Some relatives have visited the ancestral town, high on a hill at the foot of a mountain range, where both sides of my maternal family have lived since (probably) the 1300s. I have travelled elsewhere in Europe but never there; for some reason I never had a desire to do so, although my remaining distant relatives are prominent there in local government and the church and the experience would be different from some random American showing up in a little town. From what I can gather, one cannot “become” Italian in the same way one can “become American” or Australian or one of the other countries settled, colonized, and developed by an amalgamation of (mostly) Westerners in the part 300-400 years. Italy is a land of ancient ethnicity and they have their own ways, many of which seem backward. I’m glad my grandparents left Italy for the US….glad my mother wasn’t born there, glad I am American and not Italian. The religion, the limited opportunities for women, I am glad I was not subject to it. Outside a major city, even in the US, small towns, rural areas or villages are insular, clannish and essentially unaccepting of an outsider – though they may be tolerant or cordial, you will never, ever be one of them (neither will your children) and you will always know it. I take it you are an atheist and/or humanist, which also set you apart in a small town in Roman Catholic Italy. Your bio is fascinating with an unusually varied upbringing – it was privileged and Westernized, even Americanized it seems, mostly in third world countries where you could also never “become” one of the local ethnos or gente, even less than you could in Italia. It made you flexible as to locale but not culturally or socially interchangeable, because you have your own individual traits that travel wherever you go. I read some advice given to potential expats considering marrying into, and just moving to, a foreign country. One will always be foreign and never be completely accepted, never be completely at home, and though you may learn to ignore it, you will always feel it, if only under the surface. One will always be a stranger there.

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