Knocked Up Abroad

Unlike the show, “Locked Up Abroad,” I can’t say I’ve ever been placed in a foreign jail – but I can chalk up “having a baby” to the list of things I never thought I’d be doing in a foreign country. And not only am I ecstatic to be having my first child, I’m actually grateful to be doing it here in Italy. After all, I’m about to become a sort of untouchable institution in this country: una mamma italiana.

Lately, I’ve been nesting like it’s my job – because technically, the Italian government has mandated that it is. Having reached the eight month mark, I’m no longer permitted by law to be working. In fact, I had to file a special request accompanied by a doctor’s certificate to stay in the office an extra thirty days, since the standard rule of leaving work actually kicks in at the completion of the seventh month of pregnancy. How ‘bout them cannolis?

Giving a bloated, anxious, sleep-deprived expectant mother the chance to relax and adequately prepare for one of the biggest events of her life, instead of working up until the day she gives birth: now there’s a novel idea.

In Italy, maternity leave lasts a total of five months, at full pay. Traditionally, these months are divided up into two before the due date, plus three after. Otherwise, as I’ve chosen, there’s the option of working an extra month before the due date then carrying that over for a total of four months of leave after the birth.

And it doesn’t end there:

Once you go back to work, you’re only required to be there for six hours a day – a little something called allatamento, or a nursing benefit. This reduced schedule is automatically extended to mothers until the child’s first birthday.

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to the standard five months, there’s also aspettativa, or an elective, additional leave of absence, paid at 30%. These available months total as many as twelve and can be used anytime – either all together, or split into days, weeks, or months. And get this: they don’t expire until the child is four years old. So if you need extra time (months or even years after your initial maternity leave) for whatever reason, you’re entitled to take it. Oh, and all of this is protected by law, meaning you obviously cannot be let go from your job for having taken advantage of these benefits.

All in all, not too shabby – and light years away from what we’re used to in the States.

Aside from the generous, kick-ass maternity laws, being in dolce attesa in Italy just seems a little sweeter in general. I’ve never had the experience of being pregnant in the States, so I may not be aware of the perks that exist at home. Whatever they are, though, they certainly aren’t as noticeable in daily life as they are here, or I’m sure I would’ve been aware of them at some point.

For example, all the major malls in Rome have special parking places next to the handicapped spots called posti rosa, which are reserved for pregnant women and recognizable by their pink painted lines and a sign like this one:


Welcome future mothers. We invite you to leave this spot available to expecting women. (Small writing) This request is not part of the street code (law), it’s an invitation to make a gesture of civility.

Of course, these spots are designed as part of an honor system, so who knows how many people don’t respect them. But hey, at least they exist.

Parking privileges are just the beginning. The pancione, or pregnant belly, elicits big smiles and “auguri” (congrats) from just about everyone I come in contact with. It comes along with quite a bit of unspoken respect and a certain sense of entitlement in public. I notice that older women especially take an extra second to lock eyes and give me a wink as they pass by, as if I’ve entered into some kind of secret club.

It’s also normal practice not to have to wait in lines of any kind. In fact, most major grocery stores actually have a separate line marked for those with special needs, where pregnant women are welcome to cut in at any time. And at stores without this designated line, all it usually takes is a pop of the belly and people move aside, graciously (or occasionally, not so much) leaving you to pass them and head directly to the checkout.

In terms of the quality of the medical care I’ve received throughout my pregnancy, I can honestly say it’s been top-notch and incredibly thorough. Between regular checkups and special screenings, I’ve had at least one ultrasound a month, with the newest equipment in an exceptionally clean and modern facility. I do consider myself lucky, since my insurance through work covers this private clinic – but it’s worth noting that all women, even those without insurance (the overwhelming majority), are entitled to the same routine checkups and tests in public facilities at no charge at all, thanks to Italy’s state healthcare system. No doubt, these public visits most likely mean more time, energy, and hassle, but regardless, they cost nothing. And having a baby in a public hospital, even via c-section, is completely free as well.

Both my gynecologist/obstetrician as well as the specialist I’ve seen have been great, and experiences in themselves. They’re both well-known as complete pros and baby delivering machines, but at first glance, you’d never know it.

My obstetrician is in his early forties and is so chill, he seems like one of our friends. Totally no-nonsense and relaxed, he never indulges me much in the “what happens if” questions. He’s pleasant, straight-forward, and delivers a slew of babies per week at one of the best maternity hospitals in Rome.

The specialist is so calm and collected, it’s almost unnerving. A bit older, I’ve seen him three times for the in-depth trimester checkups. Each time I walked in, he was leaning on his hands, looking like he was about to fall asleep at any moment. Instead of a white coat, he’s always in his street clothes, which consist of a tailored, decidedly snug (from his substantial pasta gut) button-down shirt and a Gucci belt.

But as soon as he starts the ultrasound, he’s all business – not saying a word, just moving decisively from one side of my belly to the next, calling out measurements for his assistant to record. During my first trimester screening at twelve weeks – without even asking if we wanted to know the sex – out of nowhere he blurted out, “Ecco, guarda che cosa abbiamo qui… un pisellino” (well, look what we have here… a little pee-pee). He then proceeded to print me a 3D picture of said pisellino.

And at the end of the big second trimester screening, which really confirms the solid development of the baby, he simply said, “Tanti cari auguri, signora,” (many heartfelt congratulations) and walked out.

I guess that’s all you really need to hear anyway.


Sometimes the Italians don’t consider lyrics at all when using American songs in certain situations.  It can be quite amusing – and also just plain wrong…

Honestly, can you think of a more inappropriate background song to use as the answering service for the main line of a hospital?

This is real, I swear!  I couldn’t make this stuff up.  Reminds me of when the band played “Purple Rain” during the cocktail hour at our wedding reception.

Press 1 for a pediatric visit.

Press 2 for a dental visit.

Press 3 for a generic visit.

Count the Putans

It’s summer in Rome – and in this city, when the temperatures rise, the clothes come off.  Which reminds me, time to play one of my favorite seasonal games: “Count the Putans.”

Some may have already guessed how the game works.  It’s not a complicated concept, but it is nonetheless quite amusing.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, by putans (the Italian-American slang for the word puttane), I’m referring to prostitutes, women of the night, hookers.  Whatever you choose to call them, they are a living, breathing part of the scenery here in the outskirts of Rome.

I happen to live and work in Roma Nord (the typically highly-regarded North end of the city), and therefore use Via Salaria every day for my commute.  La Salaria is a main vein leading out of the city.  Throughout most of the year the area is your standard, four-lane business district lined with hotels, businesses (including my office), and luxury car dealerships.  Continuing on after the commercial area, in about fifteen minutes you reach our suburb of Monterotondo.  But something bizarre starts to happen once the warm weather breaks around May: spring fever hits, the weather heats up (along with libido, apparently), and the girls start their high season.

All of a sudden, a wave of putans hit the street – and as summer progresses and the heat scorches, they get progressively more naked.  Yes, from May to September, the world’s oldest profession is alive and well on Via Salaria – so much so, the scene has inspired this impromptu game we’ve shared with friends and visiting family (and have had great fun with, I must say).

The game begins on the way home from Rome’s city center: once we reach the start of this 2-3 mile stretch of sex for sale, everyone in the car has to guess how many putans we’ll spot by the end of the road.  At the moment, we have a standing record of thirty-four (and that doesn’t count those who may have been on “business” while we were passing).  That’s pretty staggering for such a small area.  If it’s true that supply reflects demand, then the numbers are quite telling.

So you just can’t help but wonder: who are these men who keep this business thriving? Every now and then, you get to answer that question in first person: when you’re lucky enough to be behind a car that happens to be dropping a girl off, and you use all your powers of peripheral vision while trying to pass and get a good look at his face without actually turning your head.

My colleagues and I have become so accustomed to it by now that we’ve actually started to be able to recognize the putans personally, since they’re usually always the same and in the same locations.  It’s entirely possible to hear one of my colleagues say, “Anyone notice the blond with the 10-inch white boots wasn’t by the entrance?  She must be sick today.”

And Via Salaria is only one of the areas where you’re guaranteed to get a show; let’s not even get into the “tranny” zone, which happens to surface after a certain hour in one of the richest neighborhoods in the city.  Oh, che scandolo!

So, prostitution must be legal in Italy, you say?  No, it’s not.  But that’s clearly not stopping anyone.  Sure, the occasional squad car pulls up to take record, and shoot the breeze – but rather than threatened, the putans always just look blasé and mildly irritated at best by police presence.  Prostitution seems to be yet another of one of those “look the other way” laws in Italy – just another subject that stirs the usual response from most Italians when they feel powerless about something: “It’s always been that way; it’s just the way it is.”

While in the States there would probably be protests galore and a new organization formed within a week (perhaps MAS – Moms Against Sex – or something similar), here in Italy, everyone is so immune they don’t even pay attention anymore.  After all, who are they going to complain to, the politicians who frequent the escorts (aka, higher-paid, more glamorous cousins of the puntans)?

So, when our child is old enough to ask, “Mom, why is that girl standing half-naked on the side of the road?” I think I’ll go with the answer my mother-in-law used to give my husband when he was little: “She’s just waiting for the bus, honey.”

Let the blind eye philosophy continue.  After all, when in Rome…

Italy’s Biggest Problem

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 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.