Tag Archives: Italian frustrations

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 Read More…

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.

What I Miss About Italy

unconscious (?) irony: a shop in downtown Milan displays this antelope head next to a photo of Brigitte Bardot, who, retired from acting, is a big animal rights activist Since I moved (back) to the US earlier this year, a number of people have asked me what I miss about living in Italy. It’s a Read More…

unconscious (?) irony: a shop in downtown Milan displays this antelope head next to a photo of Brigitte Bardot, who, retired from acting, is a big animal rights activist

Since I moved (back) to the US earlier this year, a number of people have asked me what I miss about living in Italy. It’s a hard question, and part of my agenda for this trip was to try to answer it. Yesterday provided me with a mini case study on the matter.

Although you can find individual items discounted year-round, Italian retailers are allowed, by law, only two big sales periods during the year, in early January and early July. The exact dates are determined by local government, and this year the Milan sales began January 3rd. After a fairly disastrous Christmas season, and in a very gloomy economy, both shop owners and customers were looking forward to this.

I wasn’t – I hate crowds and am not a big fan of shopping, so this was a nightmare scenario for me. But my business wardrobe needs updating and I wouldn’t have any other time before I leave for Dublin Monday. So I headed off to Milan, where at least I could look forward to also seeing friends.

Enrico drove me to the Lecco train station, arriving with five minutes to spare for the train I wanted to catch. Usually five minutes is plenty of time to buy a ticket, stamp it in the “obliterator”, and get on the train. But only two of the three ticket windows were open – apparently this period up to the Epiphany (Jan 6th) is a semi-holiday for the railways, so they were short-staffed. Both open windows had longish lines which would take longer because people wanted to discuss their travel plans in detail.

Usually you can buy “kilometric” (25 km, 30 km, etc.) tickets from the newsstand in the station, but they were out of the 50 km ones I needed for Milan. I poked my nose into the line at a ticket window to ask if it would be possible to buy a ticket on the train.

“Sure you can,” said the railway employee sarcastically, “if you also want to pay a 50 euro fine.”

I had to run to another newsstand down on the corner to get the !$!#@$@# ticket – all of 3.60 euros’ worth. Then run back, stamp it, and get on the train, which left the platform two minutes later. And no one ever came to check that I even had a ticket.

The train was middling clean and decent. Toilet paper in the bathroom, but no water to flush or wash my hands. Graffiti on the seats and walls. The real problem, however, was the heating. It was on, but not strong enough to cope with a very cold day. I was wearing a heavy sweater and sat with my coat over my knees, but still felt cold throughout the hour-long trip.

I arrived at Porta Garibaldi, one of Milan’s train stations, and had to take the metro to get to my friend’s place for lunch. I’d need to switch from the green line to the red, which I should logically do at Piazzale Loreto. As I was waiting on the platform, I heard a garbled announcement (in Italian only) about trains not stopping at two different stations, including Loreto, due to “works.” I couldn’t understand enough to know whether this would affect me, but thought: “This must be a pre-announcement referring to some other day. They surely wouldn’t be blocking stations today, of all days?”

They would. The train sailed through Loreto station without stopping. There were men laying tile on the platform on that side. Passengers who needed to get to Loreto had to go to the next stop and catch a train back in the other direction (the platform on the other side was open). This on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, at one of the prime stops for Corso Buenos Aires, a favorite shopping area. For work that could have been done in the middle of the night when the Milan metro is closed anyway. Probably there are rules preventing the tile guys from working after hours. Score: union rules – ten; customer service – zero.

I reached my friend’s home and had a lovely lunch with him and others. Then I finally, reluctantly, tackled my shopping. I was supposed to meet Ross downtown, which required taking the (now even more crowded) metro. Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, a large pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of Milan, was wall-to-wall people, many of them with lit cigarettes wafting smoke into my face. I saw two well-dressed young men who had stopped in the middle of the street to enjoy a snack of freshly-roasted chestnuts, and were casually dropping the shells on the ground.

Ross and I shopped for about two hours, an activity I find exhausting under the best of circumstances. And there is nowhere to sit in Italian stores. Italian retailers don’t seem to have grasped the idea that a tired shopper, given a chance to take a load off her feet for a few minutes, might feel refreshed enough to hang around and spend more money.

As the shops began to close, we made our way to the home of another set of friends for dinner. Enrico had come from Lecco with the car, so at least we didn’t have to wait in a cold station for a train to get back.

The summary of the day is that I was glad to see friends and spend time with my family, but the rest was non-stop hassle. Which pretty much sums up my feelings about Italy at the moment: there are people here I’m glad to see (which, for me, is true of many other places). Other than that, there’s not much I miss about living in Italy.

Leaving Italy

Once again, I’m doing something unusual: leaving my husband behind in Italy while I move (mostly) to the US for work. And, as usual, I’m struggling to explain to people what I’m doing and why. (The story of my life is that there is almost no question about me to which a simple answer can Read More…

Once again, I’m doing something unusual: leaving my husband behind in Italy while I move (mostly) to the US for work.

And, as usual, I’m struggling to explain to people what I’m doing and why. (The story of my life is that there is almost no question about me to which a simple answer can be given.)

So…. what am I doing?

I have accepted a job with Sun Microsystems, which comes with a requirement that I be based in the US. I’ll have an office at Sun’s Broomfield, Colorado campus (though I’ll also travel a lot); I’ll have a home within easy commuting distance of that office.

My husband Enrico will remain in Italy, where he has a good job as a university professor, and we will maintain our home in Lecco as it is today. We will travel as much as we can to see each other – fortunately, both our jobs allow for flexibility. But the cold fact of the matter is that we will mostly be living apart. No, I’m not happy about that.

So why am I doing this?

Because I aspire to challenging work in which I can make a real difference to at least some small corner of the world. I want the possibility of growth in my profession, commensurate with the skills and hard work that I bring to it. And I need to make a dignified living, to help provide a secure future for myself and my family (not least: our daughter has just been accepted to college in the US!).

I have tried for seventeen years to achieve all this in Italy, in my industry (high tech). For part of that time I have made progress along my chosen road. But it’s never been easy, and it’s only getting harder. Italy is in a zero-growth slump from which neither I nor anyone else sees much hope of near-term recovery. As much as they love their country and the lifestyle they have historically had here, many Italians despair of the future, for themselves and especially for their children. (More on that, too, in a future article.)

Most Italians don’t have or would never make the choice to leave Italy – they are deeply rooted (which has its upsides, of course). Some foreigners, too, have chosen to make lives for themselves in Italy, and are far more emotionally invested in living here than I ever was. For many years I chose to be here for my family, and that was the right thing to do at the time. Now that Rossella is grown up and gone from home, probably for good, I have more scope to make choices that are right for me. And I’m very excited about that.

So I have a chance to get out, and I’m taking it. Better yet, I have a chance to do something new and exciting with a great company. There are risks, and there may be costs. But, weighed against the certain costs (both financial and emotional) of not taking the risks, this is the best choice I can make right now.

Wish me luck!

ps. For those who come here for my articles and info about Italy, don’t worry – there is still plenty to say about it, and I’ll be travelling back often enough to keep plenty of ink in that particular well.

Italy Changing: La Dolce Vita Ain’t What It Used to Be

A few days ago I posted a message on the [now defunct] Expats in Italy forum about the fact that I am (partially) leaving Italy to take a job in the US. This has engendered much discussion, and has raised some points that I want to expand on. Simo, an Italian now resident in the Read More…

A few days ago I posted a message on the [now defunct] Expats in Italy forum about the fact that I am (partially) leaving Italy to take a job in the US. This has engendered much discussion, and has raised some points that I want to expand on.

Simo, an Italian now resident in the US, wrote:

“Life in the U.S., with the exception of few cities like New York, is about getting into a car and driving, not exiting a portone and finding people walking to places. After riding on the free/expressway, one heads to work, where another “island” awaits you. The mall is next for any shopping. This is what I mean by seclusion: no macellaio, no edicola, no bar. Irrespective of how many friends one has, I find this type of life much less communal and more isolated than any life I have had in Europe, in particular Italy, Germany, France, and Switzerland.”

My response to him quickly grew too large for a forum post, so here it is:

Good point, Simo, but, sadly, going out of date in many parts of Italy. We lived in the same apartment for 13 years in Milan, our corner barista, maccellaio, fruttivendolo, etc. saw our daughter grow up, and that was a nice feeling. I shopped at the stores near home even though I knew they were more expensive than the supermarket, in part because the small shops gave me better service – they knew who I was and what I liked.

We lived in a neighborhood which had been built in the 50’s, then on the outskirts of town. When we first arrived in 1991, many of the residents were still the first purchasers of their homes, by then retired. While we lived there, they mostly died off, and their apartments were sold or rented to immigrants. The man downstairs who grew deaf and played his TV too loud died and was replaced by a bunch of Singhalese who were very quiet, except when they got together to sing on Sundays (worship? I was never sure), and whose cooking smelled delicious – except on the days they cooked fish.

Chinese grocery stores appeared (I could finally buy all the spices I needed for Indian cooking!), and each bar in a six-block radius developed its own regional clientele: one for the South Americans, one for the North Africans, etc. The Italians felt under seige. The same week that we moved to Lecco, I learned that our corner barista had sold his bar – to a Chinese family. I haven’t had the courage to go back and find out whether their gelato is as good as his was.

In the 17 years I’ve been in Italy, the small, family-run businesses that gave Italian life so much of its flavor (literally as well as metaphorically) have been under increasing pressure from American-style big box stores. The big French chain Auchan has arrived, Ikea has added locations, and there are new, large specialists such as Mediaworld (my personal favorite: appliances, electronics, and movies). Not to mention international clothing chains, both Italian and foreign. All we’re missing is a Staples or OfficeMax.

Italy’s traditional town centers don’t have room for enormous establishments like these, so they are to be found in large shopping centers or strip malls out of town – forcing their customers to drive. Judging by the state of their parking lots, plenty of people are happy to go the extra 20 kilometers to enjoy the cost savings and, probably, the “experience.” Hard as it may be for Americans to believe, when you’ve been looking at the same quaint medieval streets all your life, a new shopping mall can be exciting.

Economic changes in Italy both lead and follow the trend towards bigger, cheaper shopping. In the past few years, especially since the advent of the euro, consumer prices have risen faster than salaries. Most urban Italian couples find that both members must work to make ends meet. There’s no longer a mamma at home to do leisurely, daily shopping: Italian families now pile up their carts weekly at a big supermarket. When they get everything home, they have larger refrigerators to keep it in. And the Italian food industry is exploring ways of making foods, such as milk, last longer. Sound familiar?

The famous Italian leisure lifestyle is also changing. When we first moved to Italy, it was unthinkable for anything to be open on Sundays except restaurants, bars, newsstands, and a handful of pharmacies on scheduled emergency-service rotation. Shops were only open on Sundays during the run-up to Christmas, which was far shorter than the American “holiday season.”

Now you’ll find many big, out-of-town stores open on Sundays, and ongoing political battles between in-town chain stores who would like to do the same, and the small, family-run shops who need a day of leisure but would lose a lot of business if the bigger shops were open on Sundays. Many Italians who don’t own shops are impatient with this: they no longer want to sacrifice convenience for tradition – and many really can’t afford to.

Italy will never be suburban in the way the US is – the geography and history simply don’t lend themselves to that style of development. But, like the rest of the world, Italy is rapidly globalizing. I believe this is a good thing for the world and, ultimately, for Italy. But it does mean change, and change is rarely easy, even when it’s for the best. And change means that both Italians and foreigners must adjust their cherished notions of what life in Italy is really like.

We all have romantic ideas of Europeans spending endless hours chatting over coffee and cigarettes at their local café, taking a Sunday afternoon passeggiata (stroll) in their stylish clothing, stopping to chat with family, friends, and neighbors they’ve known for decades. For some, all that is still true.

On the other hand, my recent experience of living in Lecco and working in Milan presented quite a different reality: I left the house at 7:30 am and got home at 7:30 pm (by which time all the shops were closed). If it weren’t for my husband’s more flexible schedule, we would have been eating take-out pizza every night. I was far more likely to spend Sunday afternoon grubbing in the garden (my only opportunity for exercise and relaxation) than dressing up (can’t afford designer clothes anyway) and strolling around.

From my many hours on Italian commuter trains, I know I wasn’t the only one living this way – I was even one of the better-off, because my journey ended in Lecco. Many commute from much further, every day, because the job market is lousy in their quaint little hometowns, but, even if they wanted to move, they can’t afford to rent or buy a home in the big cities.

Four to six hours a day commuting, then you spend Saturday doing the basic shopping you can’t do any other time – by Sunday you’re probably in a state of collapse.

La dolce vita?

Mad at Italy

Is it possible to be angry with a whole country? At the moment, I am furious with Italy. It was never particularly my dream to live in Italy. I ended up here because I married an Italian, he got a job here, and it seemed like the logical thing to do at the time. When Read More…

Is it possible to be angry with a whole country? At the moment, I am furious with Italy.

It was never particularly my dream to live in Italy. I ended up here because I married an Italian, he got a job here, and it seemed like the logical thing to do at the time. When the going got rough, as it sometimes did, keeping my family together was my paramount consideration, so I stayed on.

My career suffered for it. I have for decades been on the cutting edge of various high-tech trends (I’ve been online, one way or another, since 1982!), but being in Italy considerably limited my opportunities. Not much original work in high-tech goes on in Italy. The multinationals have local offices, but those mostly do local sales and support – not my cup of tea. There are very few Italian high-tech startups, and I’ve been intimately involved with two of them. I had high hopes for TVBLOB when we began, but after a while it became clear that, even if the company does well (and I still hope it does), my personal opportunities within it would be… far less than I had hoped.

So I couldn’t turn down an offer of work from Sun Microsystems, even though it came with the condition that I move to the US. (“But I thought Sun was all hot on remote working?!?” I hear you cry. There are good reasons why working remotely from Lecco won’t work long-term, which I will explain later.)

What’s even sadder is: I’m not the only one. Foreigners who came here pursuing a dream of la dolce vita are giving up and returning home, some because they are afraid of raising their children in a country which offers so little to young people. Even some Italians, in spite of their deep attachment to their hometown, country, and family, are getting out – or at least facilitating their children’s escape.