#50 Good Italy - Bad Italy
People often ask me what it's like living in Sicily. And I struggle to find the right way to describe it. Life in Italy is complicated.
I always dislike how much everyone idealises Italy. Life isn't about sipping Aperol Spritz and Negroni's on a terrace looking over the Colosseum and living the dolce vita.
Italy can also be ugly and challenging, especially for foreigners who must negotiate a very complex culture and landscape, often without help.
Italy isn't only about finding your place under the Tuscan sun, drinking fine wine and eating the best food in the world. It isn't all glamour, sunshine and beautiful palazzi.
It is also about corruption, high unemployment, and positively elaborate baroque bureaucracy, which results in crumbling infrastructure, teeth-grinding char grid slowness in the public service, an outdated education system and decaying healthcare. It is about innate systematic political corruption simply because the system is so broken. A country where nepotism and cronyism are unabashed and conflict of interest isn't considered a crime.
Yet despite all of these problems, Italians have made Italy one of the most pleasant places to live, not for the issues, and despite all of them, they have created a mentality of perseverance.
Often Italians are the first to complain about all the problems, yet they are conditioned to put up with everything with astounding resilience. They negotiate the corrupt system with a level of admirable creativity and determination. If there is an obstacle, they find a way around it or go through the gauntlet with the help of their families, friends and communities.
For example, a young person who starts high school will figure out how to work smarter, not harder, through the education system. A clever kid will know when to present himself in the predominately oral assessments and target what he says to the particular requirements of each professor, and even for the final exams will memorise and regurgitate what is required. They jump through hoops.
In Italy, it is often the way you present yourself that is the key to success. If you can present yourself to be well dressed and speak in a certain way, it will cater to the superficial requirements of society. Italians are all about putting on a good face, speaking in a particular accent correctly and being able to charm those around you.
That is why historically speaking, the likes of Silvio Berlusconi had such a significant impact on Italian culture and society. In any other culture, Berlusconi was a figure of ridicule, a man steeped in corruption, embarrassing sexual scandals and megalomania.
Yet, for Italians, he was the absolute model of furbizia. This cunning self-made man negotiated the system to obtain what he wanted, benefiting those around him and whose achievements also trickled down to other Italians. While he was hated and loved in equal doses in the days after his death, he has been recalled with almost saint-like adulation.
Soccer fans loved how he bought and spent money to create an unbeatable team of Milan, who dominated the sport for almost twenty years.
The entertainment industry loved him for buying a small local television station in the 80s and gradually expanding it into a media empire. His Mediaset station was a welcomed alternative to the government-dominated state tv service of the RAI. He discovered and nurtured new talent like an Italian Harvey Weinstein.
The world of Italian politics was forever changed by his Forza Italia political party, which unified all the different factions to the right of Italian politics in a populist movement that kept the left out in the wilderness for years. In every place, Berlusconi tread he was able to charm, manipulate and work the system to his benefit. This is why he was so loved.
Because in a country rife with corruption, you need to be shrewder than the system to achieve anything. In a place where the odds are stacked against you, manipulation is vital to survival.
That is why organised criminal organisations like the Mafia thrive here and in other countries where the government is corrupt, and bureaucracy is crippling. In a search for ways of negotiating a broken system, the MafiaMafia is seen as a way of getting around the problems, especially for those with little education or financial means; it presents itself as a helping hand to suck people in, but ultimately it is a double-edged sword.
As you can see Italy is a complex place, it has many faces and facades. The political history is a reflection of the country's multifaced identity.
I am reminded of two extremely helpful and exciting books that shed light on the true nature of Italy that I highly recommend reading.
Good Italy, bad Italy by Bill Emmott and The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones. Both of these books will tell you the truth about Italy's contradictory and true identity.
No country is perfect, Italy never pretends to be anything other than imperfect, and I think people should stop idealising this place because it is what it is.
As an ex-pat in Italy, I have to put up with being considered an extracomunitaria, which is even worse than simply being a foreigner, but since I am from outside of Europe, not even my education is recognised, I cannot work in the schools as a teacher or participate the 'concorsi' for public service jobs. In the last lot of public service applications, I was told that since I was educated outside of Europe, not only was my degree not validated, but not even my high school diploma was considered.
Even though I am a professional with a university degree, for Italy, I am not qualified to be considered to work in blue-collar Italy.
So what have I done in all of these years? I have become furba like other Italians around me. I make my own work. I tutor individual students, teach in private schools and online. Even though I cannot teach in the local schools, I am considered an 'English conversation expert' so I can apply for special after-school programs and insert myself on the list of English experts for Licei linguistici (language-based high schools). This is what life in Italy is about, adapting to the culture and negotiating through it the best way you can.
I am also quick to point out that it isn't all doom and gloom; even though I will always be considered a foreigner thanks to my foreign accent, it hasn't stopped me from making friends and becoming a part of the local community.
I am constantly being surprised and reminded of how excepting Italians can be; here, there is no sense of competition and refreshingly enough, you are accepted for who you are, which is very liberating.
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here for now.
I'll keep trying to write something worthwhile, well thought out and new here every week, perhaps more often if I get in the zone.
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