While Sarkozy was preaching federalism at a debate with students at the University of Strasbourg, and Merkel was prepping for the European Union Summit; Mr. Mario Monti, Italy’s new Prime Minister, was busy delivering the largest blow to the Italians morale since my tenure in the “Bel Paese”.
A new austerity budget of €30 billion ($40 billion) achieved through tax rises and spending cuts has been proposed to the Italian government and, according to the word on the street, will in fact win parliamentary approval.
Now, while my pocketbook is not immune to the implications of the new austerity budget, it appears that my American optimism is. Mr. Monti calls the budget “Save Italy” and although it is not all-encompassing it is definitely a good start. More importantly, it has already begun to rebuild Italy’s credibility in the international community and that achievement should not be underestimated.
And yet – the Italians are thoroughly depressed. The reason is twofold. First, I believe that the Italians have given up hope that corruption amongst politicians and tax evasion will ever be eradicated (or at the very least curtailed) in Italy. Second, is due to the fact that the Italians tend to sensationalize their afflictions whatever they may be. (See BBC Magazine article on How to avoid getting ‘hit by air’ in Italy by Dany Mitzman).
At the end of the day, it is all just a storm in a teacup to me. Now I am not trying to minimize the very size and scale of Italy’s sovereign debt problems. What I would like to remind everyone is that this is the leading country in fashion and design. This is the land of Lamborghini and Ferrari, the land of Fendi and Ferragamo. It is a top tourist destination (for good reason) and the birthplace of one of the world’s most loved cuisines. It has survived numerous conquests and wars. Life will go on, and if we can manage to get some of those wealthy entrepreneurs to pay their taxes, then life should go on quite comfortably. After all, a friend of mine once said “ Sara, so long as the Italian man’s belly is full and soccer is on the TV, he is content.”
I received an email from uncle today asking whether I had a contingency plan should the euro go belly up. To be totally frank, I find this to be shocking. It is obvious that journalist propaganda is behind a question like this and has made me realize that the news on the Euro zone as reported in the US has been dismal indeed.
It is hard to tell just how weak the euro really is. From a market perspective it is still stronger than the dollar (averaging at $1.33 these days which is a far cry from the $1.48 we reached this summer). But markets are fickle and are often influenced by personal sentiment. The real question is the strength of the euro zone economy. But that too is tricky given the size and power of the underground economy which is not evidenced in the official statistics.
I personally am confident that Europe will ride the wave successfully. In Italy in particular, with the Technocrats in office we can hope that the tough decisions will be made at least in the interim (for the simple reason that the current government does not have to worry about being re-elected). Spain could follow although with professional politicians handling things the work might not be so easy. You see the fear of re-election is a common ailment which, in the Greek instance, proved to be disastrous. Greece will bail but will ultimately survive on agriculture, tourism and the maritime industry. These sound foundations are not likely to waiver. The Chinese will realize their mistake in lending to greedy social welfare states and be forced to devalue their loans through costly write-offs. You see if you owe the bank (in this case the Chinese) $1,000 and cannot pay then the problem is yours. If you owe the bank billions then the problem is yours … and the banks.
And then where will we be? I predict that Italy will pull itself together to look presentable when being questioned. Like a child being interrogated at school, Italy will come prepared with the lip service necessary to appease its European champions. Germany and France will continue to point their critical fingers for a while until something else catches their attention (perhaps the financial robustness of French banks?!). Then ever so quietly Italy will slip back into its old behavior; living beyond its means and ever so discreetly shutting one eye to tax evasion. But in the end, it is enough to get by. The real crisis is bound to come when the Italians run out of their grandparent’s savings. That will be the point of no return!
Recently a friend of mine put it this way “Italy is like a third world country dressed up in Gucci”. I am not sure about the third world bit, but the country definitely has looks to kill!
Few words stimulate a natural and immediate vomit reflex in our bodies. “Administration” is one of the them and I am convinced it is an international phenomenon. Tedious, seeming needless, rigid and boring …
administration is a constant thorn in our side and yet we apparently can’t live without it. It is like the digestive system for an organization or some other paramount process to which our vitality is linked. I say this because it is still everywhere and one would think that if it were avoidable, it would have been abolished a long time ago.
We cannot escape, although we might try. As I mentioned I am convinced this is a universal phenomenon. In my work I see the tale tell signs from customers, suppliers and service providers located throughout the globe. Careless, inaccurate invoices and reports. Rigid employees who clearly hate their job (and rarely have a solution to a problem but can think of a million obstacles).
The carelessness, inaccuracies, the blatant refusal to adjust procedures or modus operandi.
But nothing, in my experience, beats Italy. I will share an experience which (rare as it is) actually made me smile in bewilderment.
I received a phone call from an obviously annoyed admin employee. She worked for one of my company’s suppliers and was demanding to know when we would pay our invoice. “It is seriously overdue and I will not get off the line until you promise me it will be paid immediately!” she said. Baffled at her tone and the situation in general I was at a loss for words. I asked her to hold and took a few moments to investigate. Picking up the receiver I informed the livid counterpart, “but that invoice was paid a long time ago, are you sure you didn’t receive the payment? ”
“How am I supposed to know?” she said “I don’t work in the collections department, I am in the billing department!” SERIOUSLY! I couldn’t believe it. She would rather call to harass a customer instead of looking
into the matter internally (and professionally). Which brings me to another point, why are those in administration so often non-entrepreneurial? Do they have any idea how precious customers are these days?
This was just one example but I can assure that there are numerous ones just like this that plague my otherwise joyful day. As the Romans say, in Italy you can live well but to work here is terrible!
And now for the good news (my sweet friend Niccolo could not bear it if I left a post on a sad note!)
As my brother likes to say (after almost every dreary piece of information) “but the good news is ….” (with his eyebrows raised, eyes sparkling and a smile to die for) …. The good news is that you can live well in Italy. The charm, the weather, the artisan handiwork, the food! It is here and in abundance.
I recently went to a play by the Miracle Players set in the Roman Forum. A warm summers’ night with a most glorious backdrop (and the acting was superb) made for a truly unique experience. Afterwards a walk along the Tiber took us to the countless restaurants and bars set up on the river basin. Here we were met by friends from around the world and an Australian priest (sorry ladies, it wasn’t Ralph de Bricassart!) for a delightful dinner and conversation.
Few cities can offer so much.
And this is what I remind myself, as I mosey my way back home after a long day’s work!
Anyone living in Rome knows just what a spectacle this city can put on. I am not just referring to the traditional street performers, which are … ubiquitous. I refer to the little idiosyncrasies which make this city a live theatre. As Paul Hofmann says, Rome truly offers a sweet and tempestuous life!
Here is a selection of some of my favorite cast members …
Arthur the Jack Russell
In such a tightly knit city, one cannot help but feel that their life and personal space is shared with their neighbors. Every morning I wake at 7:15am. This is not of my own will but rather by force of a loud shriek. “Arthur!!!” beckons a mischievous 7-year-old girl. “Arthur, come back!” she yells with all her might. The shriek is followed by the slamming of a door and the pitter patter of footsteps as she chases the dog down the tiny alleyway over which my bedroom window faces. Without looking at the clock I know what time it is.
Arthur is still a puppy and as such rarely obedient. It is for this reason that I cannot help but think that this little girl, knowing that the dog will bolt the moment the front door is opened, does this on purpose….every day. But the little girl and Arthur are not the only actors in this play, there is the girl’s mother who each morning crosses the threshold with a sigh. “Humph!” She is clearly frustrated with Arthur but more so with her daughter for once again opening the front door so carelessly. Like every other morning she will spend the next half hour chasing the light-footed jack russell through the winding streets of the city center. Once again her daughter will be late for school. Once again she will scold her daughter for being so careless. And just like Ground Hog Day, yet again I will be woken in the same manner tomorrow at 7:15am.
One particular character who recently caught my attention is a tall dark man in his early 40s. Forever dressed in a silk shirt and black leather jacket (despite the season or weather), he bears startling resemblance to John Travolta in Grease. “Danny” spends his days visiting the various cafes and bars around the Roman neighborhood Trastevere. Morning and night, “Danny” can be found visiting with the locals or animatedly conversing with his Ukrainian girlfriend. She too dresses the part. I am quite confident that the likeness is not intentional.
I often wonder, does “Danny” have a job?
The knife sharpener
Called “arrotino” in Italian, in Rome if you look hard you can still find professional knife sharpeners. Making their rounds in the early morn, the arrotinos walk their equipped bikes throughout the city streets and alleys alerting their clients with their deep and melodic voices. “Arrotinoooooooo” they shout as they walk a slow pace on the unforgiving cobblestone streets. I have never actually seen anyone have their blades sharpened which brings me to the conclusion that this archaic profession will soon be lost. It is however delightful to see a piece of the past.
The hallmark of Roman life is surviving by one’s wits. There are no auditions, no dress rehearsal. Just come as you are.
Lights, Camera …and ….Action!
My very wise grandmother says that life is 90% attitude and 10% circumstances. While you can’t always choose the cards you’re given, you always have a choice as to how to approach the game. In other words, will you be a victim or a good sport?
So you aren’t a classic beauty. And perhaps you can’t hold a tune like Barbara Streisand. So you aren’t independently wealthy. In fact you may still be wondering if you will ever manage to save enough to buy your own home (that is not in the boondocks!). Well, let me spread a little good ole American optimism. Beauty is temporary, few people can sing like Barbara, and wealth is a moving target … you will never have enough.
I have met many victims over the years and what surprises me the most is how they manage to ignore the good bits. Skepticism takes over their every thought and good circumstances are interpreted with such caution that the moment passes and no pleasure is begotten. This is repeated until their theory becomes reality and unhappiness is corroborated and justified.
I don’t know about you but I prefer enthusiasm to sympathy. The same wise grandmother also says that the difference between joy and happiness is that joy is a choice while happiness depends on circumstances. There is nothing wrong with being happy, but it is entirely linked to a turn of events. You win the lottery and as a result are happy. You may not win the lottery but you chose to be joyful nonetheless.
Today is a beautiful Sunday in Rome and I am choosing to be joyful. The warm sunshine has left and the moon is still hiding low behind the horizon. As I look over the quaint rooftops in the city center, I can see grey clouds weighing heavy with rain. Nothing out of the ordinary for February but somehow still mysterious. I refuse to read my work emails, which despite it being the weekend are accumulating steadily. Tonight, I shall listen to Emilie Claire Barlow sing C’est Si Bon, open a bottle of red wine and count my blessings.
So what will you choose today? Je vois la vie en rose.
P.s. As an ironic side note, a dear friend who is married to a Frenchmen informed me that the French were recently rated at the most pessimistic nationality even behind Afghanistan. Life is full of surprises!
I like to call Italy the “I” state. The “I” standing for Individual. Although all humans are self-centered, there is distinct difference between the way the Americans and Italians approach life. While we tend to focus on “what is good for the community” in the States, Italians focus on “what is good for me as an individual or as a family unit.”
To give you an example, most city dwelling Italians do not know their neighbors. Oh they might know their names, but there is not a relationship. There are no block parties, or checking up on the elderly, or organizing cooked dinners for new mothers. When it comes to a new land fill or corporate lay offs, Americans tend to think beyond themselves. “If the community needs it” or “if reducing overhead means others keep their jobs” we say. We roll up our sleeves and move forward.
Now I know what my Italian friends will have to say about this … “American’s are not altruistic, they are looking after their own interests, just like everyone else.” Well as a nation in the world community that is arguable, however internally that is simply an exception and not the rule. In Italy if one farmer has a problem with a wind farm or land fill which would provide cheap clean energy for over 150,000 homes per year, the local government puts the project on standby. The ignorance or preference of one individual can ruin the chances for improvement for 100 others. Without full consensus, nothing moves. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to quickly deduce that this approach doesn’t just hinder progress, it stagnates it.
Interestingly, teamwork is not taught at school. Teaching methods usually consist of self study and individuals reciting their homework to the class. Group projects are rarely if ever assigned. This is also true at university. One can imagine why Italians struggle to collaborate in the workplace, after 20 odd years of going it alone!
Although I do know that Italians have an inherent distrust of one another (and often rightfully so). Personally, I find it difficult to understand how communities have dismantled. I mean Italians are normally good-natured, warm people. Historically Italians were split into small communities, their city state under Feudalism and counties within each city state. Were the Italians not community focused then?
The only explanation I have thus far is Benito Mussolini. After the Italian Dictator was removed (and killed) the new Italian state was created so that everyone would have a little power but no one would have ultimate authority. I mean why else would the Italian government be so populous (630 member in the house of representatives and 315 senators)? …. to create chaos of course and ensure that no one individual could ever take control.
So if community is not taught at school or in the home and is not favored by the political system, it is only inevitable that the concept dies. So how does anyone get anything done in this country, one might ask? A new acquaintance put it to me this way, “The Italian culture is a mirror reflection of the Catholic church: first you sin then you ask for forgiveness.” In other words, you build the wind farm and then ask for the community to approve it (and pay off the disgruntled farmer).
p.s. Niccolo … I promise to write something more favorable next time 🙂
While members of the Ukraine government were having a wrestling match, and Julian Assange was released on bail .. Rome was recovering from the worst riot I have experienced in my 12 year tenure.
Although security forces had been deployed in expectation of a protest, it appears that the caliber was underestimated by government and Romans alike. Initially appearing like a pub brawl, the violence escalated quickly as cars were torched and windows were smashed. All in the very heart of the Eternal City.
Now we all know that Italians love a good drama, but this?
We let’s just say it has to do with our dear friend and Prime Minister, Berlusconi. It all started a short while back with the breakup of a close ally Mr. Fini (now nemesis). After heated discussions and public name calling, Mr. Fini was exposed to the full strength of Berlusconi’s political biceps. Scandals regarding Mr. Fini’s family and political party were suddenly revealed. The news coverage was ruthless and relentless. It was clearly the worst political attack on Mr. Fini and undoubtably the most damaging to his lengthy career.
But this outright political attack, came at a price. In an effort to abate the pot calling the kettle black Berlusconi had no choice but to call for a “vote of confidence” from the Italian parliament. And to no one’s surprise, he won … albeit narrowly. (In fact many have called this a Pyrrhic victory .. in other words, the victory before the fall). And so those who have the least to lose (the Italian youth) took to the streets. Naturally others joined in on the fun as one’s voice carries further with a backup chorus.
I remember speaking to a well-travelled economist a few years back about the social-economic health of Italy. He opined that indeed Italy was much healthier from a social-economical standpoint than the statistics show. According to the official data, Italy has unnerving issues with unemployment, achingly slow GDP growth, and is not far from a nationwide financial crisis (after Spain and Portugal). However, he continued “if this were truly the case, then we would see a lot more violence and protesting. There would be riots in the streets,” he had said.
I would be curious to hear his opinion now. Is this the beginning a new disgruntled generation or a one-off event? Only time will tell, however this might be a good time for the Italian banks to reveal just how many investments they had tied up in Eastern European real estate. The smell of toxic assets is unmistakable.
Better to deliver bad news now while the Italians’ attention is diverted 😉