Tag Archives: working in Italy

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.

The Bi-Professional Couple: A Conundrum Close to the Bone

My life is lived in multiples.

I’ve read books, articles, and blogs about multicultural marriage, living, and child-raising. I have written about being a third-culture kid, raising a bilingual child, and living and trying to work in a foreign country.

But this is the big question, more difficult than any of the above: how can a marriage survive being made up of two people whose careers are equally important to each?

My life is lived in multiples.

I’ve read books, articles, and blogs about multicultural marriage, living, and child-raising. I have written about being a third-culture kid, raising a bilingual child, and living and trying to work in a foreign country.

But this is the big question, more difficult than any of the above: how can a marriage survive being made up of two people whose careers are equally important to each?

If you have ever been part of a two-career couple, you know how hard it can be to find jobs that make both of you happy in the same location, especially (but not only) when that location is far from home for one or both of you. When a couple expatriates for one member’s job, the “following” spouse may not even be allowed to work, depending on the working spouse’s visa in the foreign country.

When you follow a foreign spouse to settle in his or her country, there probably won’t be legal obstacles to your working (you may take on the citizenship of your spouse, or you can usually get a work visa), but there are many other hurdles: language, culture, job market, and your own feelings about who you are and what you want to do with your life.

When Enrico and I married in 1989, I gave up an interesting job just then getting off the ground (doing technical training in far-flung countries) in order to be with him in New Haven and give birth to our daughter. In retrospect, my “accidental” pregnancy was probably subconsciously designed to resolve our increasing conflict over my exotic (and from Enrico’s point of view, dangerous) travels: a baby was a reason we could both agree on for me to stay home.

And stay home I did: I was mostly a full-time mom for 18 months. I did not resent or regret this; indeed, one reason that I never had another child was that I would have wanted (and felt it fair) to do the same for any other child of mine, but, once I had got my career off the ground again, there was never a “right” time to take off 12-15 months.

Moving to Italy was, for many reasons, the obvious thing to do when we did it. Though Enrico, fresh out of a Yale PhD, could have landed a university position somewhere in the US, it would have been the usual long start to an American academic career: post-doc here, assistant position there, teach a lot, and pray for tenure.

The situation is very different in Italian universities: a ricercatore (researcher, the entry-level position) can stay in the same place as long as he or she desires, although (ideally) you eventually move up the ladder to become professore associato (associate professor) and then ordinario (full professor). Positions are few and promotion takes decades (and political savvy), but in the meantime you are guaranteed a stable, reasonably well-paid job in a single location. The teaching load is light, and Enrico can direct his own research as he pleases. Nice work if you can get it…

As for me, I didn’t have a strong desire to remain in the US, my putative homeland – I’d lived out of it as much as in it. I didn’t have a job to leave right then, nor was I established in any field. There was no strong reason for me not to move to Italy, and plenty in favor of doing so.

Enrico sought and won a university position in Italy, and to Milan we came.

I had no idea what work I might be able to do there (aside from the far-too-obvious: teach English), but I figured I’d figure something out, as I always had. In 26 years of being moved around the world mostly by others’ decisions, it had never occurred to me to express or even to have strong desires about the parameters of my own life. I simply responded as best I could to the situations in which I found myself.

It was mostly luck that I found a job in Milan; it took hard work and talent to develope that job into a career. But I was still in reactive mode: taking advantage of opportunities as they came my way, but not making any effort to create my own opportunities. It simply didn’t occur to me that I could.

The first proactive thing I did to influence my own future was the MBA (from the Open University, the world’s oldest distance-learning institution) that I began in 1999 and completed (with interruptions) in 2004. I had realized that I wanted a career in which I could really make a difference, and that an MBA was a basic requirement to thrive in the corporate world.

But it’s unlikely that I could have an important career in Italy. I work in high-tech, and there’s not much original going on in high tech in Italy – not because there are no technical or entrepreneurial Italians, but because it’s so damned hard to do the American-style startup thing in Italy (which could be the topic of a long article in itself, but it would depress me too much to write it).

Many of the world’s large high-tech companies have Italian offices, but these usually concentrate on regional sales and support engineering. The things I’m good at are run mostly from US headquarters.

Twice during the Internet boom I tried to persuade Enrico that we should move to the US to let me pursue my career. The second time he agreed, reluctantly, to come with me for a year or two while I helped to launch Roxio, the software group being spun off from Adaptec in 2000-2001. For a number of reasons, that move was aborted, and I returned to Italy, beaten and frustrated, to the same distance-working situation in which I had previously felt so alienated and vulnerable. I quit after a few months, and would have been laid off soon thereafter in any case, as the bubble burst and the economic downturn began.

Fabrizio Caffarelli, my former boss at Incat Systems, is a rare example of a successful Italian high tech entrepreneur, and I was happy to join his new startup a few years later (as the consulting/tech writing gigs I’d had after leaving Roxio also dried up). I had high hopes for TVBLOB when it began, but four years in startup mode at a salary I could have equalled as a supermarket cashier… well, that got old, and personal circumstances conspired to force a change.

I began working for Sun Microsystems as a contractor in March of 2007; they hired me as a regular employee a year later, on the condition that I move to the US and work from an office.

I was ready to go. I had initially loved Sun’s willingness to let me, and many other employees, work from home. I still believe that this works very well for many people, especially those who have kids at home: workplace flexibility is a huge help in achieving the much-prized “work-life balance.”

But the year I had spent as a mostly long-distance contractor reminded me of all the problems I had experienced before, as a very long-distance employee of Adaptec. It’s hard to schedule meetings when you’re eight or nine time zones away from most of your colleagues; you end up having them late at night in Europe – not my best time of day, I’m a morning person. And when you can be neither seen nor heard by your colleagues… well, out of sight, out of mind, out of the decision-making loop – and, eventually, out of a job.

Conclusion: if I want a challenging job, I need to be in the US (or, at least, not in Italy). So here I am, with a job that I enjoy very much both for its current realities and its future possibilities.

But my life here so far is mostly about my job. So much for work-life balance (said she ruefully). It appears that I can have work or have a life, but not both. At any rate, I can’t have a regular home life with my husband, because his job is there, and mine is here, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to make the two meet.

And I don’t have an answer to that one.


Update, 2014: Enrico and I never did find a solution. We separated in 2009 and are now divorced.

Update, 2017: I have since found someone with whom I happily share both the personal and professional sides of me.

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.

Pandecena Milano June ’07 – In Which a Cunning Plot is Hatched

Famed Italian blogger Luca Conti (pictured at top right, showing off his Nokia to Sara Piperita) has pulled off what many bloggers dream of (and quite a few actually do, in other parts of the world): making a living by blogging. Or, at least, managing to get paid for various kinds of consulting (as a Read More…

Famed Italian blogger Luca Conti (pictured at top right, showing off his Nokia to Sara Piperita) has pulled off what many bloggers dream of (and quite a few actually do, in other parts of the world): making a living by blogging. Or, at least, managing to get paid for various kinds of consulting (as a result of his blogging) while also running around the country blogging various interesting events he now gets invited to, plus other perks like fancy cellphones. The Italian PR world has figured out that bloggers are influential, and is courting them assiduously – or at least a small fraction of them. I am jealous that Luca’s job now includes boat trips on the Amalfi coast but, hey, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. (And I’ve got nothing to complain about: my own professional life is shaping up interestingly lately…)

Whenever Luca comes to town there’s a dinner (Pandecena), and these are excellent occasions for social and professional networking (aka lots of conversation with people I enjoy). This dinner was particularly well-populated because it had been scheduled for the night between the two days of a conference called Web 2.0 Oltre (Web 2.0 – Beyond) being held in Milan at which many of the “usual suspects” of the Italian blogosphere were panelists, speakers, etc. No one in the room had actually paid to attend the conference, for the excellent reason that it cost 1600 euros to do so!

I’ve been using Twitter lately (not today – stuck til I get my password fixed), which breeds an odd sense of familiarity with people I’ve barely met, and, having seen something day-to-day of how their minds work, it’s fun to then spend some face time. One such person at this event was Marco Formento, but the photos I got of him were scary…

I also enjoyed meeting Madga of Spotanatomy, a fun and insightful blog about advertising that has been referenced on this site before.

Quintarelli, Orban

^ A woman I didn’t meet, Emanuele Quintarelli, David Orban, and Marco Palazzo of DueSpaghi, an Italian social network about restaurants. The structure of the site is due to be translated soon, but that doesn’t help with the meat of the matter, the actual reviews. Translation is a thorny problem for websites. It’s so hard (and expensive) to do it well.

occhiali

^ Marco had fun with some PR stickers.

^ Thomas Christel, a Chicagoan now living in San Benedetto del Tronto, gets tagged by Lele. How one earth did he end up in San Benedetto, you may ask? (And I did.) The usual story: married into it. But he’s managed to keep a high-tech career going, in addition to running a B&B: Thomas is an executive for Yoo+, an online project management application now in beta testing.

^ I can never resist taking pictures of Fabrizio (Biccio) Ulisse – he’s so damned cute!

^ Emanuele and Luca Mascaro manhandling the spumante, courteously supplied by Reed Business.

I did have a bone to pick with Emanuele. He was (one of? chief?) organizer of the Web 2.0 Oltre conference, which somehow did not manage to feature EVEN ONE WOMAN speaker in two days of talks and panels. I had noticed (and been irritated by) this lack on the Web 2.0 Oltre site months ago, but didn’t know then who was responsible.

later – Emanuele tells me there were three women on the stage: Daniela Cerrato (who was in the original program and I must have overlooked her – my bad), Anna Masera (who was added after I saw the program), and a manager from Renault who spoke about that company’s recent push into Second Life.

I had had a battibecco* with Emanuele a few months ago in his own blog comments about the Italian Web 2.0 boys’ club he (and others) organized. He now came over to ask whether I was happy with the presenza femminile at this dinner.

I counted. Maybe ten women out of 40 people. Not great.

“Is that our fault?” he and David Orban asked.

No, not directly, obviously – anyone who wished could join this dinner. But the women aren’t coming to these events, and we need to figure out why. For starters, about that conference of yours…

Emanuele said something about not knowing any women who could have spoken.

“I’ve been online for 25 years,” I said. “And am now a Senior Web Producer for Sun Microsystems.” At which point he asked for my card.

I probably came off as bitter and aggressive in this exchange – a woman making her points strongly always risks being labelled a bitch. So be it.

I don’t believe that Emanuele (or Lele, who also recently had a restricted-invitation event to organize, and somehow ended up with very few women) is a chauvinist (or, as Italians would say, anti-feminist). But there’s a dangerous mindset in which, when you’re drawing up a list of influencers and experts to consult, invite, etc., somehow the people who come to your mind are all male. Women aren’t consciously excluded from your thinking, but… they don’t end up on your list either, do they? And that perpetuates a vicious cycle in which men are publicly identified as the experts, and women remain on the margins, waiting to be invited to the dance.

Well, I went to a school where anybody who wanted to, got out on the dance floor and danced – both literally and metaphorically. And I am by now too old and wise and bitchy to play the wallflower.

So, ladies, it’s time to do something about it. In October I will be hosting Web Women Weekend, at my home in Lecco. It will be an opportunity for girl geeks / technedonne / web women to get together, have fun, and figure out how we can support each other. (Invitation only, so, if you’re a woman in technology in Italy, let me hear from you.)

And that will be something to celebrate.

^ Coda: I took this picture just so we could start a nasty rumor that Luca only organizes these dinners because he makes money on them.
; ) – just kidding!

* battibecco – “a clash of beaks” – umm… birdfight?

What do you think? how do we get more visibility for women in technology in Italy?

FemCamp Bologna 2007: Sessions & Reflections

In the afternoon I attended some sessions, though I missed the most popular presentation of the day, Iocelopiulunghismo (“Mine’s-the-biggest-ism”), by Elena and Feba, a funny and ironic look at (male) bloggers’ obsession with their (blog) statistics. I poked my head into Andrea Beggi‘s unfortunately-titled presentation on “Blogging for Ladies,” but the room was so crowded Read More…

In the afternoon I attended some sessions, though I missed the most popular presentation of the day, Iocelopiulunghismo (“Mine’s-the-biggest-ism”), by Elena and Feba, a funny and ironic look at (male) bloggers’ obsession with their (blog) statistics.

I poked my head into Andrea Beggi‘s unfortunately-titled presentation on “Blogging for Ladies,” but the room was so crowded I couldn’t stay. I hope and assume that he intended the title to be tongue-in-cheek, but it was risky, and evidently a number of people did not take it as ironic. After what was apparently a useful bunch of technical how-to’s on getting more traffic to one’s blog, he came in for some flak about “what makes you so sure women want more traffic to their blogs?”

If this comment was really made, it was more than a bit silly. There are indeed private blogs intended for specific, closed audiences (e.g. one’s family), and hopefully the people who write them are smart enough to make them accessible only to the desired readers. But anyone else who’s blogging probably does want to be found and read – if you blog and nobody reads you, have you truly blogged at all?

I attended a session on women in the open source community, basically a report of statistics which, while I had not heard them before, did not surprise me in the least. I knew instinctively that women are a small percentage of the people working on open source software (I can remember seeing only one on my particular beat – storage – in the OpenSolaris.org forums). The interesting question is: why are there so few? One possible answer (given) is that people tend to do open source work in their free time, which women have less of than men (this is not fair, but that’s a topic for another time).

Something was said about technologies designed by and for women, a concept that wasn’t clear to me. In that context, we certainly weren’t talking about recipe organizers. Marzia responded with an example, Cercatrice di Rete (“Web Searcher”, the word searcher being in the feminine in this case), which she explained in more detail the next day at the E-Wit conference. It’s a search engine tuned to highlight women’s issues, e.g. searching on violenza returns results related to violence against women.

I suppose it’s one more example of a vertical search engine. I may be missing the point but, if I wanted to research “violence against women”, wouldn’t I just type that in? And if I needed immediate resources to protect me against an abusive spouse (the example Marzia seemed to have in mind), I would probably search on something more to the point, like: “how to murder your husband and get away with it.”

When it was my turn to present, I was disappointed that few of the younger women I’d seen at the camp were in the room. I was aiming mostly at them in my talk Fuori dagli Schemi – Aneddoti e Lezioni di Una Carriera Insolita (“Outside the Box: Anecdotes and Lessons from an Unusual Career”). I was afraid that what I had to share would be obvious to career women closer to my own age (well, okay, in their 30s), who seemed to be the bulk of my audience.

But several friends were present to cheer me on, and everyone seemed enthusiastic in spite of my quavering delivery in unusually shaky Italian (a result of nerves plus jet lag). If you want to hear it, go to this page and look for my name (towards the bottom), and click video at the end of that line (actually, it doesn’t sound as shaky as I had feared, though the grammar is not perfect).

Afterwards one woman told me she had needed to hear my admonition to “make sure the people who count know about the work you’re doing”, because she, too, had suffered from accomplishments that went unnoticed.

There wasn’t time for discussion, unfortunately, so I missed the opportunity to raise the question of what next steps the group could take for us women to help each other in our professional IT careers. I do have some ideas, though, which I’ll be discussing shortly in these pages.

Lele then got up to introduce a group of “cheerleaders.” I was about to rip his head off – the idea that my “go get ’em girls” talk should be immediately followed by sexist, male-pleasing bullshit was just too much. Then I realized that he had been asked to introduce a presentation I’d been curious about, “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World,” on gender in the fan communities of Heroes. Lele had gotten the wrong end of the stick in introducing the three young women doing the presentation as cheerleaders – the cheerleader referred to is character Claire Bennett.

One of the three did a good job of presenting the research carried out by a (mixed gender) group of students at the University of Urbino, but we didn’t actually hear any conclusions: those will be presented in a video to be posted on YouTube. It’s a pity her two colleagues didn’t get to speak, and I wasn’t sure of any of their names as Lele made a joke of them. But I appreciated that they had stood in the audience and smiled at me through my own presentation – I hope they gained something from it (e.g., don’t let someone else do all the talking for you, even if she’s female). later – I know at least one of them did: she left a very nice comment.

Amanda then gave a well-researched presentation on women in IT in Europe. That ties in well with what I heard the next day at the E-Wit conference, so I will talk about it in that context, in a future article.

Organization

There’s been a lot of bitching about how hot and crowded the venue was. In fact there would have been a lovely and capacious alternative venue, the one used for E-Wit the next day, in quarters shared between the Women’s Library of Bologna and the University of Bologna’s Department of Visual Arts.

However, as Federica (one of the organizers) explained to me, Internet access there was so hemmed about with firewalls that it would have been impossible to stream the video which allowed people from all over Italy (and the world) to follow the event live. Many of us present had also attended RitaliaCamp, hosted at a branch of the University of Milan which turned out to be very grudging in allowing attendees network access, to everyone’s frustration. (Hyper-bloggers gasp like fish out of water if cut off from Internet access for more than 15 minutes.)

The organizers of FemCamp opted instead for via San Felice, and, thanks to a sponsor, were able to provide the best wireless coverage anybody has yet seen at a camp in Italy – lack of which would surely have been cause for complaint at the other venue (note to conference organizers: you can never please everybody).