Italy’s Biggest Problem

The COSI’ group is getting courageous this month, venturing into a theme that hits close to home for not only expats, but also native Italians: the desperate search for a job in Italy.

I wrote this post more than three years ago, but alas, in true Italian style the situation has remained practically identical.

Read on for my thoughts on the Italian job crisis, and what I believe is the only reason why Italy isn’t crowned king of the world…

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Italians are realists.  I don’t think I’ve met one who isn’t willing to recognize and/or openly criticize the current state of this country.  At the moment, many people around here have a tendency to concentrate on the negative, and for the sake of this post, so will I.

Italy is suffering from a terrible case of low self-esteem, and not without reason.  Reeling after the twenty-year reign of a tyrannical, pseudo-Roman emperor wannabe, the state of affairs in today’s Italy can only be described as molto triste (very sad).  This country, which has so much going for it, is in total and utter shambles.  Premier Monti’s recent efforts may have been baby steps in the right direction, but I’m afraid this black hole has been dug too deep and too dark.

On a macro level, Italy is teetering on the risk of a financial breakdown not far from that of its Mediterranean neighbors in Greece.  Overall, the global economic crisis has taken its toll, and things are tight for the working class (although this was the case even before the crisis).  Cost of living in the metropolitan areas is comparable to that of New York City.  Combine that with some of the lowest salaries and highest gas prices in Europe, and you’ve got tombola (bingo).

After countless brutte figure (bad impressions, oftentimes aptly dubbed, “The Berlusconi Show”), this country’s name has been dragged through the mud while its population has been brutally represented by a lackluster group of ego-centric politicians, each with their own variety of complexes, corruptions, and/or sexual disorders.  Gaffe after despicable gaffe from these pagliacci (clowns) has made Italy the laughing stock of the European Union and the entire Western world, time and time again.

Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment though: some members of the EU are quick to depict Italy as the black sheep of the group, criticizing its politics and dismissing it as an unorganized mess of a country – but then when it comes time to sip Chianti overlooking the olive groves in Tuscany, they’re all first in line.  Anyway, back to the topic at hand…

What I consider to be the most pressing, serious issue – which the same pagliacci I mentioned earlier still haven’t seemed to prioritize as urgent – is that the young, talented college graduates are fleeing the country at an alarming rate.  And with each of them goes a small piece of Italy’s bright future.  The most talented Italian youth is going, going, gone – in the hands of countries that can offer them something more, something better.

The worst part is, that something better doesn’t refer to anything so grandiose, like a better job or more money: all they’re looking for is a job (any job at all).  With the youth unemployment rate at around 30%, at this point they’d be satisfied to just be able to build a decent (albeit, humble) future.  This is hardly a standard the world’s most beloved country should have for its youth.  Since their own homeland isn’t even capable of offering them employment and a place in society, young people are forced to abandon it.  And who could blame them?

As for those who choose to stay and stick it out, well…  They win the chance to have their egos destroyed by interviewing for jobs as waiters and cashiers, with law/business/engineering degree in hand.  The youth of today’s Italy have been so beaten and battered down that they’ve lost all sense of enthusiasm before even getting out of the gate.  That’s because they know exactly what’s waiting for them once they finally finish their degree (after all, these are some very highly educated do-nothings).

They can already picture themselves hitting thirty, unable to find work in their field, stuck at home cooking carbonara with their parents because they can’t even afford to get their own place.  Forget about visualizing an illustrious career; they can’t even get past the hurdle of moving out on their own and entering the workforce.

In the States, anyone who still lives with their parents at that age is generally shunned.  They’re labeled as failures – lazy, pathetic losers who couldn’t get their act together long enough to afford rent.  In Italy, however, this is the norm.  And before you start with the insults, consider the following:

1. The university system is completely different from the American system.

And by different, I mean unstructured and non-sensical.  There seems to be no set amount of time to receive a degree.  Some finish in three years, others in eight or more.  In theory, university should last a maximum of either three or five years depending on your major, but because of the complicated course structure, it’s often longer.  And even after having had it explained to me numerous times, I still can’t really wrap my mind around it (don’t think the Italians really can either – they mostly seem disgusted whenever they’re forced to explain it).

What I have been able to understand is that rather than a standard course semester, where your overall grade is comprised of multiple tests, projects, mid-terms, and a final – as well as class participation – each course here consists of just one, overwhelming final exam that determines whether you can move forward to the next course.  You technically don’t even have to show up for class the entire semester, as long as you pass the exam on crack (which would be practically impossible, but nonetheless, some do try).  There is minimal interaction between professors and peers, and word on the street is some professors are actually instructed to hold a certain number of people back on purpose to keep the course fees coming.

2.  Salaries are not commensurate with the cost of living in most cities.

If they’re lucky enough to find a job, university grads are barely scraping by with €1000-1500 per month (take home pay).  Yes, you read that correctly.  And sadly, that’s not just a starting salary – many can expect to earn that sum for years, perhaps decades.  It’s so pathetic I can barely even stand to write it.

But don’t feel sorry for them just yet, or think you necessarily have it so much better – because many of them are driving the newest Audi, regularly buying pairs of €500 shoes, or perhaps just returning from a 5-star resort in some exotic location.  No joke.  All of that is easy to do when you don’t have to calculate a mortgage, rent, food, or utilities into the equation.  Without all those pesky, inconvenient… wait, what are they called?  Oh, yeah – living expenses – there’s plenty of liquidity to be spent on, well, pretty much anything you want.

After all, what’s the point of putting away that measly salary?  At that rate, you could work for forty years and still not have enough for a down payment on a half-million euro apartment in the center of Rome (and for that price it’d be about the size of a large American garage).

3.  The mammoni (mama’s boy/girl) stereotype still rings true, but only to an extent.

It’s true that deep down many people in their late twenties and early thirties love the fact that mamma still does their laundry and irons their shirts.  She even prepares lunches for work, and who wouldn’t love that?  Mamma makes it extremely difficult to face the cold, cruel world alone, and she knows it.

Italian mothers certainly do find joy in the fact they’re still needed by their adult children, so they don’t push for any changes.  Children know the world outside is expensive and not worth their effort, so the option of living within the comforts of the home they grew up in looks more and more appealing.  From the point of view of American culture it’s a strange phenomenon, but also an understandable one, given the economic conditions as well as the strong familial cultural tendencies.

The reality of this “failure to launch” stage is that it’s incredibly frustrating for most young people, and it’s stifling to their growth and development as adults.  In the US, we pride ourselves on being entirely self-sufficient very early on, but the Italians simply don’t have that opportunity.  And if they do, they’re either: a. very lucky; b. being bankrolled by someone; or c. have to make some immense personal sacrifices.

The million-dollar question to the politicians is: WHY can’t they get it together?  Do they actually want this country to go to hell?  From the outside it would seem like it, although it seems ludicrous since their children live in this country, too.  Or, do they?  There’s such a great divide between rich and poor here, that sometimes the elite seem immune to this society’s problems; it’s literally as if they’re living in a completely different country, within the same borders.

Wake up, and smell the espresso, Italia…  The future of this country should not be in the hands of those who only want to exploit it and suck it dry.  If the Italians don’t take back their cherished paese soon, Italy’s best and brightest are all going to end up with British and German accents.

What are your experiences working in Italy?  Join the conversation with #COSItaly.  Here are some links to other expat points of view on the subject:

Unwilling Expat – “Working for Free and the Arte di Arrangiarsi”

Rick’s Rome – “Finding a Job in Italy”

Girl in Florence – “FAQ on Working and Salaries in Italy”

Others to come…

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Tourists Beware: Fighting Furbizia in Italy

Since this month’s COSI’ theme is Italian furbizia (cleverness), I want to share a real-life tale from a couple years ago depicting what happens when my husband and father are together for too long, combining forces to create the perfect storm against i furbacchioni (clever tricksters) in Italy: a seemingly clueless tourist with military authority (or something my mother and I like to refer to as, “The Adventures of Tommy and Gimmi”).  It’s a great example of why tourists need to be on the lookout for scams in Italy:

Over the years, my father has developed a solid bromance with my husband, as well as a semi-unhealthy obsession with the fact that he has a certain position in Italy that makes anyone who may have something to hide immediately squirm.  This has become a somewhat dangerous situation while my parents are visiting us in Rome.  Tommy has become quite accustomed to preferred treatment such as the occasional discount, free tickets, and well, the general respect that comes with my husband’s title – so much so, that he now seems to be on a one-man vigilante mission to correct all the wrong-doings he encounters in this city.  Of course, he only attempts these antics when his cohort is close by for moral support; otherwise, he would likely risk being picchiato (beat down) Italian-style, and he knows it.

This is dangerous for my husband because he really doesn’t identify himself much with his position, since his daily work is in a specialist health clinic.  He is a Maresciallo of the Carabinieri (Italian military police), but he’s never actually worked on the street fighting crime or restoring order.  Therefore, he tends to keep a low profile and play that card only when absolutely necessary.

Tommy, on the other hand, will mention it in any and all situations, and with a very bad Italian accent, causing a certain reaction of disbelief/amazement/confusion in anyone he encounters.  Want to get to the front of the ticket line at the Forum?  ”My son is a Mariscial!” he’ll proudly state, waiting to be escorted to the front.  The person will then look at my husband, who at that point slinking back in embarrassment, is forced to own up and try to diffuse the situation with humor and charm, as only he knows how.

But there’s never been a scene like the one they put on this weekend: Tommy had been venturing off into the city on his own during the day, when my mom didn’t feel like putting up with the oppressive heat.  On Thursday, he found himself at a bar for breakfast directly in front of the Colosseum, just past the exit of the metro.  Using the most decent Italian he could muster, he ordered a cornetto and cappuccino.  Only problem was they charged him €5.00, when it really should have only cost €1.80.  Not having been his first breakfast standing in an Italian bar, he knew the price was excessive – especially since the man in front of him had ordered the same thing and paid €1.80.

Tommy leaves the bar immediately and calls Gimmi, who of course quickly realizes the cashier had taken him for a ride.  Yes, Tommy had just become Rome’s most recent victim of tourist price gouging, which essentially means once you open your mouth (as an obvious tourist), you risk paying double or triple the price at some places.  That’s discrimination, and Gimmi and Tommy weren’t going to stand for it.  Besides, Tommy’s no tourist at this point; he spends six weeks a year here and has an Italian passport, for God’s sake!

So, they scheme up a plan to return to the same bar on Saturday morning, but this time, together.  Tommy walks in and nonchalantly orders the usual cornetto and cappuccino, with Gimmi a few places back in line.  This time, for some reason, the cashier has some mercy on him and charges €3.50.  Gimmi follows with the exact same order, pays €1.80, then proceeds to the counter and asks the waitress (actually, demands) to see Tommy’s receipt, which she had just collected.

At first, she gives him attitude and refuses.  Then, given Gimmi’s clearly authoritative tone, she complies (this is before he has identified himself in any way).  She fumbles through the trash can, creating confusion and claiming to have lost the receipt.  Gimmi tells her if she can’t find it he’ll be happy to come behind the counter and find it for her.  She finally locates it, and he asks to speak to the owner immediately.  Meanwhile, Tommy’s sipping his cappuccino and enjoying the scene with a smirk, understanding only about ten percent of what is actually being said.

Out from the back of the bar apparently steps the tallest Italian on record, scowling and impatiently asking what the problem is.  The problem, Gimmi explains, is that his bar is charging different prices for the same orders.  ”That’s not true,” the owner responds, “we have a discount for Italians.”  ”Oh, really?” responds my husband.  ”Quit with the stronzate (bullshit), or I’ll have this place closed down in an hour.  You’re speaking to a Maresciallo of the Carabinieri.”  Those magic words are truly the only thing that will strike fear in the heart of any swindling Italian from Milan to Palermo.  And now was a great time to pull them out of the arsenal.

The bar turns silent, and the owner’s demeanor changes from bullying mafioso to profusely apologetic quicker than milk turns to froth.  Then Gimmi says, “You will now give my father-in-law the €1.70 you owe him for this morning’s breakfast.  And keep your eyes open, because you’re under surveillance from this moment on.”

And just like that, Gimmi the “Conquistador” (as Tommy calls him), and his trusty sidekick, “Sancho Panza” (as I’m calling Tommy and he’ll hate me for) ride off into the sunset together, continuing their crusade to fight injustice – one steaming hot cornetto and cappuccino at a time.

Read about some more expat experiences with furbizia:

Girl in Florence: Why Being Furbo in Italy is Anything but Cool

Rick Zullo: What does it mean to be Furbo?

Englishman in Italy: Furbizia

Surviving in Italy: The Italian Art of Being Sly

Unwilling Expat: The Complexity of Italy’s Cheating Heart

Married to Italy: Furbizia: Blessing or Burden?

The Florence Diaries: A Life Lesson in Con-Artistry

Be My Italian Valentine: “Viva l’amore – abbasso i sedili”

This month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, our COSI‘ blogging troupe couldn’t wait to share their experiences with amore all’italiana (love Italian style).  That means that – FINALMENTE – my blog is living up to its name with an article about some SEX!  Proceed with caution (and mom, go ahead and close this page now).

So, today, I pay homage to the most quintessential form of modern Italian romance: bumpin’ and grindin’ in a tiny-ass vehicle.  Ah, l’amore.  Nothing more romantic than that!

 

viva l'amore 2

“Long live love. I’ll put the seats down.” (Actual Fiat ad!)

 

In all my days in Italy, I experienced and saw many a strange thing.  But the timeless escapade of boy chases girl (or vice versa) takes on a special meaning as a young American expat in Italy.  You get gawked at, whistled at, flirted at, mocked at, stalked at and adored – and all on the same street block.  It’s almost overwhelming, at first.

My most favorite, overtly inappropriate pickup line of all time:  I once stepped onto a public bus and took a seat within view of the driver’s rear view mirror.  Without missing a beat, in front of everyone turned around and said: Complementi alla mamma – ha fatto una meraviglia” (My compliments to the mother – she produced a wonder).  Volevo morire (I wanted to die).

As a wise, informed American trying to fit in you realize Italian men make sweeping generalizations about American girls that are often unfair and untrue.  But then you remember the drunken scenes in the middle of Campo dei Fiori after midnight and realize maybe they have a point.  Sometimes you’re flattered, other times you’re disgusted.  And you find yourself thinking, “How do the Italian girls get so much respect from their men?” (10 years later, I can say the answer is amanti [multiple lovers] – but that’s for another post!)

At twenty-three years old, it’s easy for anyone to give the wrong impression – but in Italy, it’s a given.  In the minds of Italian men that age, American girls are absolutely certain to give it up immediately, like giving candy to a bambino.  In their defense, someone must be proving them right for them to keep up their shenanigans, right?  It’s as if they feel they can behave and say anything that they never would to the Italian girls they grew up with.

As a young woman actually attempting to date and have a relationship, it takes a long time to break through that stereotype and create a barrier of respect.  Their directness is a jolt to the system, especially compared to their American counterparts.  It really is a part of the Italian DNA to romance, flatter, and floor you into seduction.

However, one aspect of Italian culture I’ll never understand is the fixation with doing it in cars.  And I’m not just talking about horny teenagers – I’m talking about grown thirty year olds.  One of my funniest memories of those early days was being on a double date and deciding to pile four people into a Smart car to ride to the other side of the historical center and “park.”  When we finally got there, no one knew what to do since one couple inevitably had to vacate the vehicle.  Don’t remember who won that one…

But anyway, why the fetish with getting freaky in a Fiat?  Someone, dimmi perche’ (tell me why)!  

Ah ha!  Here we go again.  The answer to this is the same the explains so much about Italian issues: no jobs and/or bad salaries.  What does that have to do with anything, you say?  Everything.  If you can’t work or earn decent money in your twenties, you can’t afford to rent your own shag pad.  And, of course, you can’t get busy at mom and dad’s house – so where else can you go for some private time?  Buckle up – beep, beep!

Let me tell you: you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a street lined with tiny cars, bumper to bumper, with newspapers plastered against all the windows, bouncing around like no tomorrow.  I seriously could not believe my eyes.  And I can now attest that the scene is common weekend practice throughout most of Italy (especially in the South).

And you’d think perhaps they’re all a bit embarrassed to be out in the open, all near each other, with no shame.  There’s a reason for that, too: they actually all band together for safety, since apparently distracted lone lovers have been targets of thefts in the past.

So, some parting words of wisdom from one hopeless Italian romantic to the next: If the Peugeot’s a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’!

Buon San Valentino a tutti!

Baci,

SL&N

Check out the other COSI‘ romantics have to say about amore in Italia (links to be added as their posts are published).  And if you’d like to join the conversation, use our hashtag #COSItaly to publicize it!

Italy Magazine 2014 Blogger Awards – SL&N needs your votes!

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Ciao amici!  Bella notizia (great news) to share: Sex, Lies, & Nutella has been selected as a finalist in Italy Magazine’s 2014 Blogger Awards in two categories.  What an honor.  Evviva!

So, it looks like my little hobby has just turned competitive!  If you love you some SL&N (as I know you do), I ask you to per favore spread the Nutella love and help bring those awards home.  All you have to do is click on each of the two links below, find my blog, and vote.  Basta, that’s all!

Best Living in Italy Blog: http://www.italymagazine.com/blog-awards/2014?field_blog_category_tid=44500

Best Living in Italy Single Post: http://www.italymagazine.com/blog-awards/2014?field_blog_category_tid=44501

If you haven’t checked out Italy Magazine, you should.  They have a staggering amount of interesting information, pictures, and everything any Italophile could ask for on their website.

Lastly, congratulations to my fellow C.O.S.I. bloggers who are also finalists in various categories.  Forza, C.O.S.I.!

  • Rick of Rick’s Rome has been nominated for Best Overall Blog for Lovers of Italy
  • Misty of Surviving in Italy with her post: Dog Boarding, Adoption, And Dog Parks In Florence, Italy
  • Rick again with his post: The Definitive Guide for the Permesso di Soggiorno
  • Maria from Married To Italy for Best Living in Italy Blog

9 New Year’s Resolutions for Expats in Rome

1. Never trick yourself into thinking that purchasing a Smart car will somehow increase your odds of finding parking – it will actually only encourage you to park even more illegally and absurdly than before.

2. Make life interesting and try to order something other than a Spritz at your next aperitivo. Martini Royale, anyone?

3. Realize that you will never fully make sense of the Italian political system, or the university one, for that matter (wait, you’re 28 and have how many exams to pass before you graduate?).

4. Embrace the insanity. Rome is a chaotic, frenzied place that sometimes seems out of control. Keep your cool and go with the flow when things don’t go the way you’d expect (or the way any reasonable human being would expect).

5. If you don’t already have one, find a friend with a Vespa who’ll regularly take you on a “tour di Roma” on late summer nights. There is nothing better.

6. Never ignore the call of the occasional street food schifezza (junk food). Screw calorie counting – eat that massive piece of fried baccala’ in Piazza Santa Barbara. Like, right now.

7. In fact, eat whatever you see in front of you right now. Don’t worry, you’ll walk it off.

8. Keep your amici Romani close, but the gelato closer.

9. When all else is lost and you’re feeling desperate, just remember you’re on a journey that so many yearn to experience, and one that may not last forever. Enjoy it, and don’t let the setbacks frustrate and derail you. Sorridi (smile), you live in Italia!

Check out what my COSI friends are up to for New Year’s as well:

http://marriedtoitaly.com/2015/01/01/capo-danno/
http://theflorencediaries.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/new-years-eve-in-florence-or-as-i-like-to-call-it-the-italian-hunger-games/
http://rickzullo.com/new-year-in-italy/
http://unwillingexpat.wordpress.com/2014/12/26/an-expats-resolution/

Plus more posts to come from the rest of the COSI group; check out their home pages for updates:

Surviving in Italy
Girl in Florence
Englishman in Italy

Buon 2015 a tutti!
Baci,
SL&N

Operation: Italian Thanksgiving – “La Festa della Gallina”

Ciao amici!  This is my first collaborative post with the C.O.S.I. (Crazy Observations by Stranieri (Foreigners) in Italy) blogger roundtable team.  A fun, talented group of expats taking on Italy one day at a time. We all post once a month on a common theme with different points of view. You can connect to the other members’ fantastic blogs here.  Also, if you would like to share your own experience in Italy about our monthly subject (this time it’s regional foods with a Thanksgiving spin), just use the hashtag #COSI when posting.

For as long as I can remember, in my house Thanksgiving had another name: “La Festa della Gallina” (The Feast of the Chicken).  This term was coined by my immigrant grandfather, Papa Guy.  Every year we would joke about it and ask him to explain the significance of Thanksgiving; he would just shrug his shoulders and ask to pass the stuffing.  It was a holiday all about food – an exorbitant amount of food – and that was good enough for him.

The Italians don’t have much of a clue about how or why this unique holiday is celebrated (then again, neither do some Americans) – but they are quite intrigued by it (Ma quanto pesa ‘sta tacchino?! How much does this turkey weigh?!).  The only saving grace is the fact it’s essentially all about food, as most of their holidays are, which they can certainly relate to and appreciate.

Celebrating Thanksgiving as an expat, as with many other things, has been an adventure and an evolution.  I like to think I’ve mastered it over the course of passing six of them in a country where it doesn’t exist.  But it hasn’t been easy.

My first year here, I’m pretty sure I had either inadvertently forgotten about it, or ignored it all together for the sake of assimilation.  The second year, my husband (then-boyfriend at the time) knew I really missed being at home that day.  I called him from work, glued to my computer screen watching the live streaming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ridden with nostalgia, tears rolling down my cheeks.  So he very sweetly surprised me with an evening out at the Hard Rock Café Rome, where they have a special menu every year.

The third year, I was motivated to see if I could remotely pull off a mini-Thanksgiving for two.  I quickly realized though, since Italians don’t eat a lot of turkey in general, at a last-minute glance the bird was no where to be found.  So, I asked myself: what looks like a turkey and tastes like a turkey, enough to pass off as a turkey?  The biggest chicken I could find, that’s what!  And it was then, during that first attempt at a Thanksgiving re-creation abroad, that I finally understood and celebrated the true meaning of Papa Guy’s “Festa della Gallina.”  I whipped up some mashed potatoes and peas and called it a day.  Gimmi was mildly impressed.

By the fourth year, I finally got my act together and was ready to attempt a true reproduction.  I successfully formed a troupe of brave Italians to share my table with whom, incidentally, were way more excited about it all than they should have been.  Hey, it’s not every day un’americana invites you to Thanksgiving dinner.  But little did I know the search for proper ingredients would be una vera rogna (a royal pain in the…), and they would cost a small fortune when I finally tracked them down.

One of my most enthusiastic friends directed me to her favorite macellaio in Parioli (a wealthy area of Rome).  Never had I seen a more glamorous meat market; it looked like a film set of handsome actors making jokes and suave glances between their choice cuts.  They could get us a turkey, but it would take a month and cost €75.  “Were they going to have to go on a group hunting trip to the Tuscan countryside and shoot it themselves?”  I wondered.  The famous specialty foods chain in Rome, Castroni,  turned out to be the best resource for all the rest of the accompanying delicacies – but at what cost?  A can of Ocean Spray cranberry jelly was €8?!  Porca troia!  I’d have to sacrifice next month’s rent to put this meal on.  But I was committed; there was no turning back on Operation: Italian Thanksgiving.  And it was a grand success.

Last year,our group reunited again and had a fantastic time cooking and enjoying together.  I had created a new tradition in my new home, and it felt great.  Oh, but I did wise up and ordered the turkey from my local butcher.  He only wanted €30.  Had a great laugh when I went to pick it up though.  The conversation went something like this:

Macellaio: That’ll be 60 euro.
Me: Seems like a lot – the guy I ordered from said it would be around 30…
Macellaio: 30 euro, for a 35-pound turkey?
Me: 35 pounds?? I asked for a 10 to 12-pound turkey!
Macellaio: Ooooh, wait a second – you ordered the female turkey… You must be the other American (good to know there were only two of us in town, and she had the bigger oven).

Pulling off a stellar Thanksgiving in Italy means adapting to what’s available and unifying it with as much tradition as possible.  Trust me, your average peas are much better with a little pancetta added in for good measure anyway.  Italy makes everything taste better, so of course, Thanksgiving does, too.

Happy Feast of the Chicken to all!