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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Italian Nirvana

I remember the first time my (then-future) husband led me down a tight staircase into a tiny underground bakery near St. Peter’s. It was there I tasted the most fantastic cornetto (the quintessential Italian pastry) ever. I could hardly believe my mouth. Who knew this apparent hole in the wall could produce the king of all cornetti?  It wouldn’t be the last time appearances would deceive me in Italy – and little did I know how many more occasions of total culinary shock and amazement were to follow.

Friends and family who see this blog will probably say, “Wow, she’s seriously been in Italy too long; all she can think about is food.” To which I will respond, “You’re right – how could I not?”  The culture I now find myself living, working, socializing, and dreaming in is completely out of its mind fixated with food.  What it took me a while to realize is this: Italians aren’t so concerned with food as sustenance, but rather with the entire lifestyle it represents – one that is unique, and nothing less than bewitching for everyone who experiences it. It’s pure intoxication for the senses, every last one of them.

I’ve been trying to discipline myself to document my experience here for a long time, but haven’t been inspired to do so until recently.  It’s been hard to find the words to properly describe the experience of these last couple years of transition.  When I thought about starting a blog, for some reason the title, “Sex, Lies, & Nutella” popped into my mind, and I liked it.  Not only is it amusing, but actually sums up some main themes of what life in Italy means to me:

Sex,” because it’s literally everywhere: from the moms who bust out the breasts in the middle of the mall, to the prostitutes working rush hour – in Italy, sex is a fact of life you can’t forget about, even if you try.  The human body in general is seen as normal and natural; it’s rarely, if ever, referred to with shame or embarrassment.  After all, this is Europe, not some red state. Feeling comfortable with the naked body simply comes with the territory, and that’s not a bad thing. Only problem is this intense “appreciation” is often exaggerated and almost totally one-sided.  Watch any evening variety show for five minutes, and the degraded role of women in general is painfully clear.  Sexism still runs rampant, and it’s evident the effects of the feminist movement are yet to be felt in their entirety.

The “Lies” part is a little harsh, since it would be wrong to say everything I thought I knew about Italy is a lie.  The vision I had while growing up is quite different from the reality, but this inconsistency can be better described as the normal evolution of a culture. For years, my immigrant grandparents were the only point of reference I had when it came to knowing anything about Italy.  Their memories and experiences shaped my perception of this country and affinity for its culture.  The truth is though, most Italian-Americans are stuck in the past, and those memories have very little to do with the reality of modern Italian society today.  This has been a consistent smack in the face during my time here, and has also made for some interesting introspection.

And now, for the best part: “Nutella,” which is certainly the most significant portion of the title.  Not only because it is, in fact, the hazelnut cream of the gods – but more importantly, because of what it represents almost four years into my residency in Italy.

To me, Nutella is the X-factor – that something special that makes people literally fall in love with this enchanting corner of the world, and leaves them wanting more and more.

In my business, this is the kind of brand loyalty we would kill for.  At its core, Nutella is an iconic brand built on the basic human sense of taste.  Its principle is clear: people appreciate things of good taste, and the easiest product to sell is one of true quality.  We, for example, can promote a television show to high heaven, but if it’s terrible people will eventually tune out, plain and simple.

Unlike many TV shows (but much like Nutella), Italy delivers on all its promises.  That’s why the world flocks to this country: all the wonderful things said about it turn out to be true, and then some.  You don’t have to work in marketing to know this place is arguably even easier to sell than sex.  Italy, just like Nutella, sells itself; all it needs is its own fantastic qualities to survive.

However, although its merits may seem endless, this country is far from flawless.  Similar to Nutella, Italy should be indulged in with discipline and moderation, or it can be overwhelming.  After all, you wouldn’t eat the entire jar at once. It could practically kill you.

People always tell me how lucky I am to be here, and on many levels, they’re right.  I’m fortunate to live this incredible place every day, and for that I’m very blessed.  It’s been an amazing time of personal and professional growth.  Many people though, tend to think of Italy as some kind of paradise where the wine flows like water (true) and life is always picture perfect (not true).

In reality, my transition here was quite challenging and is occasionally still a struggle.  Daily life isn’t always like some clichéd scene from “Under the Tuscan Sun” (although we do have a fantastic view of a vineyard from our balcony, but I digress).  As a residing citizen, Italy can be an extremely challenging place to live, and its frustrations can be endless.  The excessive bureaucracy, laughable politics, and general disorganization can at times be maddening – especially for an ultra-organized American.  These are aspects everyone on “vacation high” never gets the chance to notice (rightfully so – lucky them).

Not to mention the occasional nostalgia that creeps in at the oddest moments, provoking a sense of detachment that makes you miss your country, culture, and simply speaking your own language.  At its most severe, it can literally mess with your head and make you yearn for things you’d otherwise totally avoid in your home country – like WalMart, or a heart-to-heart with a member of the Tea Party, for example.

Then, without a doubt, there’s the worst pain of all: missing out on time with family and friends.  In fact, I’m convinced my three-year-old niece thinks I live in the Skype browser somewhere on the internet.  In my early transitional days, this brought me to the brink of anxiety and depression – sensations I wasn’t at all used to feeling.  For a while, I was desperately trying to locate the life I had created in America in a place where it just didn’t exist, and the more I stressed about it, the worse it was.

When I finally learned to grasp the reality of the present and accept that there was a new life waiting for me to create, things started to fall into place.  I overcame the initial shock of having thrown my life as I knew it into a blender, and crossed the threshold from bitterness to hope.  Instead of seeing everything as a negative obstacle, I started to imagine and welcome the possibilities.  I reminded myself that not only was I extremely blessed to be able to be with the love of my life (who I randomly met on a train), but also that having the chance to live abroad is a once in a lifetime, soul-enriching experience.

Sometimes when life throws you a surprise, rather than fighting it, it’s best to embrace it and live it to the fullest.  After years of meticulously planning my every move, I’ve learned it’s the unexpected things can have the biggest impact on your life, if you’re open to accepting them.  This experience has taught me the true value of patience, persistence, and determination – but it’s also taught me to relax and let go of the need to control everything.  Because the truth is, no matter where you are, the world always looks better through the eyes of a calm spirit.

And so, life and love have brought me here to the land of my ancestors, where my grandparents were married and my mother took her first steps; the place I heard story after story about as a child, and grew to be a part of in my heart before I had ever arrived.  I thought I knew something about this way of life, but I had really only scratched the surface.  Now, it’s all being revealed to me and I’ve been taking it in slowly, savoring each taste. I don’t know how long it will last, but this unique experience is meant to be cherished, appreciated, and most of all, shared.

Maybe it was destiny that I ended up here.  Or, maybe the secret is in the Nutella… After all, at this point Nutella is no longer just Nutella.  Nutella has become a sort of personal Italian Nirvana.

Nutella is taste, beauty, and inspiration.  Nutella is an art form.  It’s about life, and it is bellissima.

Nutella is my reality – and I’m going to scoop out all I can while the jar is still open.  Would you like a taste?