Milan, Christmas 2008

^ sparkly crystal display in the dome of Milan’s Galleria

After a disastrous trip from Denver, Ross and I made it back to Italy the Saturday before Christmas, rather than the Friday as originally scheduled. Which meant I was still exhausted and jet-lagged when I made a dash into Milan to see friends that Monday. After having tea downtown with Mary Ellen, I had some time to kill before meeting Enrico, so I wandered over to the Duomo and Galleria area to enjoy the Christmas decorations. It was a foggy night (typical of Milan in winter), which lent a magical softness to the scene.

This year’s theme at La Rinascente, the fancy department store next door to the Duomo, was apparently crystal, resulting in some unusually attractive escalators: Swarovski crystal decorations at La Rinascente, Milan The outside windows contained tableaux of “Swarovski-inspired” fashions which mostly looked weird, but I did like the beds of crystals the mannequins were standing in. Swarovski space family Beneath the central dome in the Galleria is a mosaic floor including this representation of a bull which I believe is a symbol of the city of Torino (torino literally means “little bull”). There’s a custom in Milan to place your heel firmly on the bull’s testicles and spin, as this man was illustrating to his wife: img_5525 …resulting in the damage you can see below (the mosaic is repaired from time to time). the bull in Milan's Galleria This is supposed to bring good luck, though it seems to me it might have originated as a dispetto (sign of disrespect) for the rival city. La Scala, Milan, in winter fog La Scala. I’m still not used to it being painted white. The vertical and horizontal strips of lights behind outline the new wing that was added in the recent restoration.

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?

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.

Leaving Italy: The Practicalities

On March 31st, 2008, my residence in Italy was officially revoked. This was easy to accomplish. A few days before, Enrico and I had gone together to Lecco’s Ufficio dell’Anagrafe (I guess a reasonable translation would be “Population Records Office”). This is where you go to record transfers of residence (within Italy), births, deaths, and marriages.

To undo my Italian residency, all that was required was to write a letter which the nice lady at the window dictated and Enrico transcribed (his handwriting being much more legible than mine). She photocopied my carta d’identita’ (Italian identity card) and gave it back to me, then told us to go to the Registry Office (within the same building) to officially hand in the letter. The lady there gave us a dated and signed photocopy, and that was all there was to it.

You may be wondering: why did I so easily give up what so many foreigners would give their eyeteeth to have? Taxes, my friend. Most countries in the world, including Italy, make all their residents, citizens or foreigners, pay some sort of income tax. The US is perhaps the ONLY country in the world which requires its non-resident citizens to pay tax. So, if you’re an American living overseas, you’ve got two sets of taxes to file per year. There is a tax treaty between the US and Italy such that the US gives you tax credits for the Italian taxes paid on the first $86,000 of your income. Beyond that, you’re paying both governments for the privilege of working. There was a time, in my Dotcom boom heyday, when I was paying over 50% of my income in taxes.

Since I will no longer be availing myself of Italian national services such as health care and education, I see no good reason to keep giving money to the Italian government, especially when I have to put a kid through college in the US. So I’ve cancelled my Italian residency. I can still visit at least as often I’m likely to have time to, I think the limit is three months out of every six. Supposedly at some point someone official will show up at our house to ascertain whether I’m still there or not.

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 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 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?