Divorcing Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That I will not do.

So I’m divorcing Italy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.


^ 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?

Girl Geek Dinner Italia

Some years ago Silvia, who had been one of our tech support team (of two) at Incat, paid me the enormous compliment of saying that she considered me a role model. This from a woman with a laurea in physics who holds a managerial position in a team supporting HP servers, and certainly never needed any advice from me on how to do her job!

I was extremely flattered, of course, but startled: I had never thought of myself as a role model for anybody. But it now seems that I am, and the job comes with responsibilities. Such as, um, eating free dinners and giving speeches.

Amanda Lorenzani (whom I’d enjoyed meeting at barCamp Roma), organized Italy’s first Girl Geeks Dinner, which took place in Milan last Friday. And she pulled it off magnificently: sponsorship from Excite, Dada.net, and San Lorenzo (who contributed the bubbly) ensured a very good dinner, complete with wine (though my request for a gin & tonic was turned down on the grounds that “then we’d have to give the strong stuff to everybody”).

At least 60 people were present, most of them, indeed, women. By the rules of Girl Geeks Dinners, women couldn’t be fewer than 50% of the guests: each woman attending can, if she wishes, invite one and only one man. (My date, by his own request, was Luca Conti.) After years of attending tech conferences at which women are always a minority and often silent, I was thrilled to meet and talk with so many smart, capable women. They had plenty to say for themselves, all of it interesting. Conversation flowed easily for most; I did what I could to involve those who seemed to be shy, though I was constantly distracted by new/old friends, and my feet hurt (I’m not used to wearing heels, but Ross had insisted I should).

We didn’t have a main speaker (as Girl Geeks Dinners often do although, surprisingly, they often seem to be men), but Amanda had asked four of us to each say a few words:

My two-minute speech was neither as off-the-cuff nor as nervous as it probably sounded. I had been trying all day to decide how to translate that immortal line from Thelma & Louise: “You get what you settle for.” I finally settled on (which is different from settling for): Nella vita, ottieni quello di cui ti accontenti. And added, as my own closing line: Vi auguro di non accontentarvi mai – “I hope you never settle.”

Then I could relax and eat dinner and talk with people rather than at them. It was great fun to see in person someone I’d been following on Twitter, Svaroschi, who is heading off to grand new adventures in the Big Apple.

Almost everyone in the room had a blog, several specifically food blogs, which I will now go and read although it’s dangerous for me to do so, especially now when I have no time to cook.

Apparently I terrified at least one person in the room. Sorry about that – totally not my intention. I was a little weirded out – though extremely flattered – by people coming up to tell me they admire me, and/or like my site. Okay, it wasn’t that many, but it’s a strange experience nonetheless. Am I really somewhat famous, or just a legend in my own mind?

I was therefore a little manic, and very tired – had woken up at 4 am from jet lag, still wasn’t well (and destined to get much worse the next day), and had to get home to Lecco, with Luca in tow (as our house guest) at a not-too-unreasonable hour because we had to get up for rItaliaCamp. I hope for the next dinner I will be more relaxed and awake. There were so many topics in the air that I would have liked to hear more about.

Just one example: Beatrice came to represent TechneDonne, a project to study gender (in)equality in the world of IT. Among other things, they are asking themselves: “Is software different when women write it?” Interesting question. These are the folks who have asked me to speak at FemCamp in Bologna on May 26th; by then I hope to have had some opportunity to explore the roles of women at Sun Microsystems – in one week, I saw more women there than in any other tech company I’ve ever worked for or visited!

Another nice ego-stroke for me was that Tara (of Passpack) told me she’s loving my unfinished fantasy novel, Ivaldi. And she hadn’t even got to the good part yet! <grin>

It was altogether a fun and stimulating evening, and I would/will be delighted to see all of these people again, and hope to have time to talk with the ones I missed this time around. In fact, I’d like to do it more often – maybe we can do regional lunches or aperitivi in between dinners?


April 2, 2007 – My pleasure in reminiscing on the joys of the dinner was somewhat soured by this:

(photo by fullo via Pandemia)

This group represents a new (and very laudable) initiative by Alberto D’Ottavi, Stefano Vitta, Lorenzo Viscanti, Luca Mascaro, Chiaroscuro and Emanuele Quintarelli to encourage the development of Web 2.0 in Italy. But, boys, what’s missing from this picture? That’s right… girls!