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 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Good point, Simo, but, sadly, going out of date in many parts of Italy.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?

18 thoughts on “Italy Changing: La Dolce Vita Ain’t What It Used to Be”

  1. Quindi, tutto ciò lo vuoi fare a “casa tua” dove le opportunità di lavoro sono (secondo te e molti altri) migliori.
    Lo capisco e lo rispetto. Credo che molto dipenda da quelle parole “casa tua”, nonostante tu sia una Globetrotter. Uno può girare il mondo, vivere 20 anni in un posto, ma “casa tua” sarà solo un luogo al mondo, altro che storie. Ne sono convintissima.
    Tuttavia, per me, l’Italia è ancora il pese migliore dove crescere i propri figli, forse perché è “casa mia”.
    Forse perché, tutto sommato, ce l’ho fatta senza bisogno di andare all’avventura nei paesi che “offer broader job opportunities, where the people cheat less” pur conoscendone molto bene il mercato del lavoro e gli stili di vita, per averli frequentati a lungo. As you say: just not me. Forse perché sì, ho ancora la possibilità di lavorare per vivere, anche qui, nell’Italia globalizzata che, credimi, ha ancora l’orgoglio di offrire, nel 2008, un modello differente. Forse sono fortunata, forse per me la dolce vita in Italia esiste ancora, forse significa qualcosa di differente da quello che significa per te. Chissà.
    Il diavolo che si conosce, spesso, è meglio di quello che non si conosce.

  2. Hai ragione, aparte il fatto che per me gli USA non sono “casa”. Ho vissuto piu’ fuori che dentro e – piu’ importante – sono cresciuta principalmente all’estero, dunque sono diventata Third Culture Kid

    Questo e’ stato di grande aiuto per la mia vita in italia, ma tutte le consoscenze culturali alla fine non potevano superare quel problema del lavoro.

  3. ps

    scusa le mie provocazioni su expattalk
    It’s only zest for exchanging ideas and opinions.
    All the luck for your new adventure, really

  4. This was interesting, and to a certain extent I agree with you. I’ve noticed this in Rome, too.

    But la dolce vita is still to be found, even if it isn’t like it used to be – hell, nothing is. I like the option of going to a large store on a Sunday when I need something, and at the same time I love that I can go ten minutes outside of Rome and see fields, vineyards, sheep. As a former New Yorker, that hasn’t lost its thrill.

    And August still means a 45-minute trek to get cigarettes, and blocks of closed stores and restaurants. (At least in our neighborhood, Casilina).

    Currently I’m living in France for a bit, and there is even more modernisation here – way much more. Italy is still my most beloved third world country!

  5. There are plenty of smaller towns in Italy where you can’t just “walk down the street” to the bar or newspaper stand, just like a suburban american town… cities like NYC, Boston, San Fran are walkable and doable even without a car; just like Rome, Florence & milan are. It doesn’t have to do with america vs Italy, it has to do with location.

  6. My thoughts? It’s Saturday, This morning I cleand the apartment I sahre with my grandma and my mom, then I prepared lunch (enough to last for two meals so that one day of the next week I will just have to heat up the leftovers), then ate, then ran at the local supermarket to stock up on fresh stuff (the packaged and heavy stuff will be delivered on Monday afternoon), and now I am sitting at my desk for some extra working. Sorry, this Italian has no time fro thinking ^_^

  7. My opinion is that everyone has their own personal experience, and that is the common thread here. I live in Berkeley, California (for 3 more months at least) and we have great shops and cafes with outdoor seating, a real neighborhood/local feeling, people out bicycling and walking their dogs and kids- and why? Because that is what people want and value in this area. We are moving to Torino in June, and obviously we are not going for small-town living, in fact I want to live in a bigger city. More than anything, I think my half-Italian son will benefit from more time in Italy. So, in the end, as I always say on, you make personal choices at certain times in your life and maybe living in Italy is right for someone now and may not be right for them later. We might decide to come back to the States, or move to Holland, or somewhere else in 5 years… so, I will conclude by saying that the “Italian Experience” is just as varied as the “American Experience”, and everyone’s story is valid and true for themselves. Good luck Deirdre, and thank YOU for all of your invaluable advise that you have given to me (“jenna”)- I can tell you are a brilliant and thoughtful woman- and a great mother.

  8. In response to Simo – I live in the centre of Rome (Esquilino) yet all the Italians I know who live around here own cars! We don’t and we don’t plan to. They think we’re crazy foreigners – particularly since we’re expecting a child. And why do all the Italians I know own and love thier cars (and motorini) and think we’re crazy for walking/ taking public transport everywhere? So that they don’t have to walk down the street to buy groceries or take the kids to school – or take the bus or metro and sit next to other people. They love their motorized vehicles (despite the horrendous parking situation here) so that they can be isolated in their little bubble of car when they drive to their kids school, the park, the supermarket, Auchan, IKEA etc. Italy has the second highest number of cars per capita in the world after the United States – car culture and the isolation which comes from that is definitely here to stay.

    I’ve always lived in big cities (Rome, New York and Sydney) – in all three I’ve got to know the people at my corner bar (in Sydney it was my local pub), newsstand or corner shop. I don’t see any difference there. And I’ve never owned a car – I prefer to walk.

    I would never chose to live in suburbia though in any country though. I agree that that would be very isolating. I’m sure that there are isolated suburban areas of Miami where you have to get in your car to go to the mailbox just as there are isolated boring suburban areas of Rome like that.

  9. your description of the changing life of Italy is really great. Comparisons of Europe and the States are somehow endlessly interesting to most of us for some reason … I’m in London and remember being offended when I read in an American magazine about how Europe is ‘mouldy’ – until I went to the States and realised that where I lived in London was indeed, by comparison, mouldy – more or less literally … although it maybe still seems a bit unfair about some other bits of Europe … and then … Starbucks are now invading Vienna, which as you probably know has the most fantastic, genuinely used by everyone, coffee houses …

  10. I think Simo’s point about “islands” connected by car journeys is very apt. I’ve lived in Edinburgh, Florence and Castle Rock, CO, and although Castle Rock is a small town and should be walkable it isn’t because everything is criss-crossed with huge roads. You have to drive from the café in the old centre to Safeway and from Safeway to the library and from the library to the Denver bus stop. Yet it is a real town unlike, say, Highlands Ranch where a town centre has recently been created to serve what is really a massive housing complex but over the last 15 years as the population of Colorado has mushroomed town-planning has been completely subjugated to the car and I don’t see that happening now in Italy or anywhere else in Europe. Globalisation, out of town malls, Ikea, big fridges, etc, are all good or bad depending on your perspective but there’s one thing none of us in Europe will ever be able to do and that is develop the car culture based on cheap gasoline that America once did. I think in the long-term that will be very good for Italy and the rest of Europe.

  11. Deidre

    I think anybody thinking of moving to Italy should read this because what you say is true. Life is very different now. I’ve linked to this post over at HowToItaly.

    Good luck with your latest adventures!

  12. After just spending 11 days in Italy and buying a house in Abruzzo, I still find it the most relaxing place to be. People still stroll on the weekends, the food is amazing and for the first time in years I did not have “restless leg syndrome.” Just driving the twenty minutes from the airport to my home in Westwood (Los Angeles) I was ready to kill. Yes, I am going to find “La Dolce Vita” in Italy. Times maybe a changing, but in Italy they are changing at just the right rate……

  13. Dear D, I agree with your posts and sentiment entirely, however Milan could be the actual problem, although this way of life is disappearing fast all over Italy.
    I have linked you on my blog going for 2 years( been busy editing books lately) please do the same if you wish, Few people actualy include real opinions in articles or books about italy you do. Look forward to your mail D

  14. I am interested in relocating to Italy. Where is there an american expat can settle for retirement. Who do I contact

  15. #13 – Bruce: When was the last time you actually got from LAX to Westwood in 20 minutes? – As Los Angelinos we are used to saying “it’s 20 minutes away” no matter what the distance but it has actually been some time since that was true – for any distance. Just before I left L.A in disgust 2 years ago it was taking 20 minutes to get from my place in West L.A. to my local supermarket. Now I’m in Portland, Maine – where you can walk to the corner store or the local cafe, where everybody is connected to everybody by only 1 degree of separation, and there is no traffic or parking problem. Now if only the weather actually permitted walking………

    I knew la dolce vita was over in Italy when I saw frozen heat-n’-eat pre-sauced carbonara in the supermarket in Rome. I burst into tears right there, knowing that everything I cherished about Italy was corrupted (by corruption, no less!) I still get the willies at the thought of that pasta.

  16. Don’t forget many people in the states work 2-3 jobs. You are lucky if you only have 1 job and can make ends meet here. Long commutes in traffic are dangerous and I wish we had trains here like in Italy as an option. At least one could DO something with the time instead of having to drive the car.
    I guess things are changing everywhere. I still love Italy and wish I could live there. I would at least like to try. If it doesn’t work out then I can say I tried and not regret.


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