Surviving the Italian Winter

Winter in Italy

Have you ever worn a hat to bed?  I mean, you may have read stories or seen illustrations of people in days of yore, sleeping in night caps (as they were apparently called) – but have YOU ever physically slept with one on because it was that damn cold?  I have – and it wasn’t in the snow-blown, blizzard barren land I call home (Ohio), either.  Believe it or not, it was in Southern Italy, of all places.

When many think of “Sunny Italy,” thoughts of perpetual sun and sea come to mind.  This perception is greatly supported by the fact that most tourists visit the country in the summer months, so it makes sense.  What people don’t associate with Itay though, are those bone-chilling moments when you think, “Where am I?” It can actually get much more than merely freschetto (chilly) – in the winter months it’s downright freddo cane (literally, a dog’s cold – don’t ask me about the analogy).

The transition from the fall to winter months seems to be a genuinely tragic event for most Italians.  Although clearly experienced before, they tend to complain about it as if it was the first time it has ever happened.  They will whine and moan for weeks about the changing temperatures – and don’t get them started on the dreaded cambio di stagione at home.  Che palle!  That is the worst.  Since the majority of Italian homes are small apartments, the closets don’t have the space to house all four seasons’ worth of clothes at once.  Cue the cambio di stagione: the annoyingly necessary evil of switching out your spring/summer clothes with your stored fall/winter ones (often under their modernly functional beds, which lift up to reveal a mecca of storage space often crucial to existence).  What really burns about the cambio di stagione is you never think to do it until the weather’s already turned and you’ve already gotten sick from your lack of layers, which really adds to the likability factor of the whole process.

Then, there are the Italian homes themselves: structurally sound, no doubt – but built with materials one would classify as the opposite of cozy.  Constructed purely of cement and laid over concrete slabs, the builders are clearly convinced they live in the tropics rather than Western Europe.  The flooring is traditionally marble or tile (never have I seen a carpeted living area), and Italians are just not into textiles, meaning their homes can best be described as bare in respect to their American counterparts.  While I’m definitely into the modern minimalist thing and have been swayed by European style quite a bit, to me, a home still needs to be comfortable and inviting.  And being the americana I am, I was keen on adding wood flooring, multiple area rugs, hefty curtains, the oversize couch and an exorbitant amount of pillows to our apartment.  But I was well aware that my home decorating tendencies put me in a very small minority.  Style is subjective, but one thing is certain: when winter arrives in Italy, those undressed households surrounded by concrete walls become literal ice boxes, sealing in the cold, damp air and sending it straight down your spine and through your bones.

Of course, the remedy for this is one, simple gesture: turning the heat on!  Only problem is, most of the older homes don’t have central heating/air installed (like the one I wore a hat to sleep in), and their inhabitants are convinced it’s not that cold (all those years of freezing their culetti off has rendered them numb).  Alternatively, those who do have central heat don’t use it as much as they should.  I’ve walked into homes in the dead of winter that had their balcony doors open.  Don’t ask me why.  Better to stay freschi (fresh), they say.  As for me, better to shiver in silence.  Otherwise, not only am I the spoiled, exaggerating American – I’m the spoiled, exaggerating American who complains a lot.

Another important note: if you travel to Italy during the winter months, be prepared to witness the state of the country’s infrastructure literally crumbling around you.  Winter is the rainy season, and any significant rainfall is pretty much synonymous with the apocalypse.  Italy’s lack of emergency preparedness becomes painfully clear as inclement weather cripples cities and towns.  In the Northern areas, there are mudslides, lives lost, the whole shebang.  And in Rome, forget it: even a normal amount of rain wreaks total havoc on that city, flooding streets (and the Tiber river), and closing bus stops and the metro.  And god forbid it snows – in 2011 there was a freak snowstorm in Rome, and it was as close to a state of emergency as I’d ever lived through.  The day the storm hit, my usual commute of twenty minutes or so turned into four hours of treacherous driving, and when I finally arrived at our town one of the main roads was completely unpassable, leaving me no choice but to abandon my vehicle at a certain point and walk about a mile uphill to my house.  For the following three days, we were stranded at home (with my car still at the bottom of the hill), forced to walk another half mile or so hoping to find a store open with food and supplies.

Moral of the story: plan your trip to the Bel Paese in the spring/summer/early fall.  The rest of the world may have the same idea, but you’ll be better off and much happier with the experience.  Winter in Italy can be hazardous to your health, in more ways than one.

How do the rest of the COSI’ members take on winter in Italy?

Rick’s Rome: http://rickzullo.com/how-to-enjoy-winter-in-italy

Girl in Florence: http://girlinflorence.com/2015/11/16/what-to-expect-when-you-visit-florence-in-winter/

Surviving in Italy: http://survivinginitaly.com/2015/11/16/baby-its-cold-outside-and-inside-im-basically-dying-of-hypothermia-in-florence/

Unwilling Expat: https://unwillingexpat.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/winter-in-sicily/

The Florence Diaries: http://theflorencediaries.com/

Englishman in Italy: http://englishmaninitaly.org/

Married to Italy: http://marriedtoitaly.com/

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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…

——————-

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…

Tips for Happy Travel in Italy

So, some members of the COSI’ group got together and decided to share some words of wisdom on travel to Italy.  Who better to give the inside scoop than those who’ve been on the receiving side of the summer stranieri (foreigner) takeover year after year?

I kept it short and sweet with mine:

1. Cross the street with confidence: Roman drivers can smell fear.

2. Embrace the bidet (yes, you heard me).

3. Dress the part – but don’t overdo it, for god’s sake.

4. Take advantage of the free, fresh water flowing out of Roman fountains.

5. Good wine and great food makes it all even more beautiful – so eat and drink as much as possible!

Check out the details of these, plus more great advice from Rick’s Rome, Surviving in Italy, and Girl in Florence in the video below (it’s our first time, so cut us a break):

Buon viaggio!

SL&N

How To Be An Authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)

 

Jersey Shore? Not exactly.

 

American culture is filled with misconceptions about what it really means to be Italian, and has essentially created its own subculture of false italianità (Italianism) – consisting mostly of excessive amounts of muscles, gold jewelry, and bad manners.  The truth is, those things couldn’t be further from what true Italian culture is all about.  

I have (obviously) been Italian all my life, but after traveling and living in Italy for more than a decade, I’ve realized that these days, being Italian seems to be more a state of mind than an actual heritage.  Each time I merely mention having lived there I get the same reaction: “Oh my God, I just loooooove Italy so much.”  Just about everyone has either been to Italy and adores it, or dreams of vacationing or living here.  And I get that reaction from all walks of life – it’s one of those rare topics that seems to transcend age, ethnicity, and financial status.  Being Italian is often associated with belonging to the “coolest” (and best-looking) of all ethnicities – although with each passing generation, its authenticity in America is so greatly diminished and misconstrued.  

Over the years, upon consistent reflection of this intriguing phenomenon, I’ve learned to separate various groups of Italophiles in my own mind: 

The first is made up of those people who have that one great-grandparent who immigrated from Italy in 1905, and – although equally of Polish, Irish, and German decent – (ex)claim themselves as Italian to everyone they meet, despite their measley 25% bloodline connection.  

Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong, 1/4 Italians, we’re happy to have you, and honored you choose us as your go-to nationality.  Go ahead, keep making your “dago red” in the garage all winter long (while wearing your “I have roots in the boot” t-shirt), but please have the decency to accept that those of us who grew up in real Italian households – or who now have their own real Italian households – cannot be fooled by those stronzate.  While you were out during high school getting hammered (sporting your “Italians do it better” t-shirt) I was home around the dinner table with my nonni (grandparents), cracking walnuts and polishing off my homemade red mixed with gassosa (Sprite).  

The second level is reserved for those fortunate enough to have traveled or studied in Italy, who upon return from a magical Mediterranean getaway or limited time abroad, desperately try to reproduce a bit of that dolce vita by way of a fancy local perfume, a handmade ceramic, or a bottle of specialty olive oil.  While a genuine appreciation for Italy’s fine cuisine and design aesthetic is a great start, all the overpriced wines and restaurants on Earth (or even Clooney’s fancy espresso machines) can’t afford you the education of either growing up with or living amongst true Italians, which brings me to the third group…  

Even if you’ve never once set foot in Italy, you automatically earn an honorary place in this group if you: a. had an immediate family member who spoke broken Italian at home; b. regularly assisted in the preparation of fresh pasta in a basement; or c. ever took a nap on a plastic-covered couch.  

Finally, the fourth group is made up of freaks like me, who have really taken their fascination to the extreme, and actually decided to make a life in this crazy, amazing country.  This choice affords a knowledge by default that none of the other groups can have: a thorough understanding of the modern Italy of today – which has its own unique wealth of information to share.  So, if you want to do as the real Italians do, start with these suggestions: 

1. Live and breathe (and eat, duh) food.  If you don’t appreciate food, you can’t be Italian – and if you’re Italian, it’s impossible to not appreciate food.  The obsession is so profoundly woven into society’s fabric that it’s impossible to ignore.  Italians don’t even realize how fixated they are with food in its purest form; they analyze it, dissect it, savor it, interpret it.  It’s the only thing they actually care to be anal retentive about.  In Italy, you find yourself inadvertently talking about it before a meal (Cosa ci mangiamo oggi? What should we eat today?), during a meal (Mamma mia, quant’è buona questa ricotta! Wow, this ricotta is so good!), and after a meal (Abbiamo mangiato così bene, ci dobbiamo tornare. We had such a great meal, we have to go back.).  Per l’amor del cielo, spaghetti and meatballs and fettuccine alfredo do not exist in Italy;  there is a digestive strategy to the creation of proper pizza dough, people; and no, you do not put parmiggiano cheese on seafood of any kind.  If you don’t know these things, well then, just go back to the Olive Garden. 

2. Get used to everything miniature-sized.  Apartments, cars, desserts: it all looks like it’s been shrunken down by Wayne Szalinski’s laser beam.  Not that I’m protesting, since I’ve always been a fan of small things – but it can get a little ridiculous after you’re forced to reorganize your home after any significant purchase or shopping spree.  It’s like playing a never-ending game of Tetris (and I freaking hate Tetris).  

3. Invest in clothing.  This is not the country of 80% off red tag blowouts, or buying as many TJ Maxx fashionista finds as your paycheck will allow.  This means making less, more significant purchases and having a smaller wardrobe.  Almost everyone really cares about how they look, and knows basic styling rules.  And when in doubt, wear black: by no means is this color reserved for old Sicilian women in mourning, anzi, it’s the preferred go-to hue of anyone who wants to look elegant, stylish, or just snello (slim).  Bonus tip for women: never underestimate the power of black eyeliner.  I’m not talking about exaggerated, Snooki-style eyeliner – I’m talking tasteful, but ever-present, like a tattoo you’re never seen without.  A face-full of colorful makeup is uncommon, and mainly reserved for puttane (the real ones, that is).  Not a look you want to go for.  

4. Be a clean freak.  Obsessive compulsive much?  Not in Italy.  It’s common practice for everyone’s house to be practically spotless – and very rare to come in contact with a zozzone who doesn’t keep a tidy home.  I’ve always said, for the first few years of my life I was convinced my Nonna’s mappina (slang for dishrag) was an extension of her hand.  

5. Learn the art of lingering.  You know what Italians find hilarious?  The fact that when Americans invite people to a party or gathering, they set an end time to the event: “Join us for Billy’s birthday party, this Saturday from 2-4pm!”  That is unheard of in Italy – not only because they find it incredibly rude to actually tell guests when to get the hell out, but really, what’s the hurry?  Isn’t this supposed to be your free time?  For a long while, I had to fight the feeling of “imposing,” and often ducked out of many an Italian festa way early; I just couldn’t relax after that second or third hour.  But whether it’s a lengthy lunch, a cornetto stop after an already long night out, or yet another cigarette after that last dose of grappa – Italians are really good at wasting time and letting the good times roll on and on (and on).  After all, this is the country that made the dolce far niente famous.  Take a lesson, and learn to chill out.  

6. Be cautious.  Italians aren’t exactly the world’s biggest risk takers – actually, you could say they’re a little bit cagaroni (someone who literally craps their pants out of fear).  Sorry, ragazzi, but history itself confirms this (when in doubt, the Italians aren’t usually on the front lines, and side with the winning team).  They don’t appreciate deliberately causing themselves harm, whether it’s by binge drinking, skydiving, or leaving the house without a scarf from November to March.  

7. Pay in cash.  I think my grandfather, Papa Guy, was most likely the only man in town who bought his cars entirely in cash.  And even nowadays, Italians aren’t big on debt.  What many Americans see as easy access to things they can’t afford, the Italians see as a terrible burden to be avoided as much as possible.  In general, accumulating cash is still a preference to riskier investments, with a general public not very interested in the stock market.  Italians are all about putting their money in real estate, often purchasing apartments for their children to help give them a head start in life.  In fact, some of the most anziani (oldest) generation still don’t even trust the banks – that’s why, in some apartments, it’s not uncommon to find hidden stockpiles of cash saved over a lifetime in wall-mounted safes.  

8. Accept the unacceptable.  Because of their ever-changing politicians and lax regulatory system, Italians are forced to accept a series of impositions that go beyond any logic or reasoning.  Consequently, that rassegnamento (giving up) tends to spill over into other aspects of their lives.  I think they just feel hopeless about their government and economy, like they’ve seen it all at this point.  There’s a new tax on baby formula?  Um, ok.  People have decided it’s ok to push their grocery store shopping cart through the rest of the mall?  Sure, why not.   That guy missed his exit and is backing up on the highway?  Alrighty then, go right ahead.  

9. Know how to ask for (and receive) favors.  Italians are experts at tit-for-tat, and they have certain unspoken expectations when it comes to lending a hand.  Whereas we Americans accept a special favor or even a job lead with nothing more than a simple, “thank you,” there’s a little more to it in Italy.  Proper appreciation for significant help from someone can take many forms, depending on the level of assistance obtained (from a bottle of wine to a more costly item, or gesture of equal weight).  No one will admit it, of course – but the important thing is that you give more than just a “grazie.”  One could call it bribery; they simply call it gratitude.  

This post is brought to you by the COSI’ blogging troupe, who has joined forces this month with another powerhouse expat group, “Italy Roundtable.”  To read their takes on the theme of “authenticity,” kick back with a nice glass of wine and browse the links below:

COSI’ members:

Italy Roundtable members:

Have something to share on authenticity in Italy?  Use the hashtag #COSItaly to join the conversation!

Came across “Austin Powers Goldmember” on TV, dubbed in Italian…

It’s all quite hilarious, but the best part is Fat Bastard, or ‘Ciccio Bastardo’: instead of a Scottish accent, he speaks in Neopolitan dialect – which always seems to be the go-to choice for the most colorful/eccentric/lovably ignorant characters.