December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Italy at home

By |2018-03-21T18:47:50+01:00February 5th, 2012|"Notebook"|
The men are hotter, the women are prettier, the work landscape abysmal.

ust the other day I received a kind of letter I get every few months from college alumnae and friends of friends.

It goes like this:

Dear Ms. Johnson,

I fell in love with Italy during my junior year abroad/vacation/reading a book/watching movies. I love Italian culture and lifestyle and I want to come and live and work there. Do you have any contacts in something glamorous, trendy and fun (restaurants, fashion, “the arts”)?

Here is an open answer to that letter.

Dear Italian Dreamer,

Thank you very much for your letter requesting information and help about moving to Italy and working here.

No doubt you loved your Italian vacation or junior-year abroad. The Italians you met were fun, interesting and welcoming. Your hotel/dorm was probably immersed in incredible monuments and history; America can never compete. Great artworks were around the corner. Also around the corner was food better than in a hundred-mile radius at home. The men were hotter; the women prettier. You lingered in bars and walked everywhere (or tried a Vespa). In short, your experience was not real life in Italy. It was not real life anywhere, which is why you liked it so much.

Real life, as my grandmother’s cook said so well, “… is just so daily.”

It’s daily everywhere. Italy, which is complex and capricious, can be more daily than is good for you.

Here’s the reality.

Glamorous contacts, if I had them, wouldn’t matter much.

To work in Italy as a foreigner you still must have a permesso di soggiorno. Many sites and blogs explain how to get this work permit.

Getting one is hard. Italy’s labor laws are restrictive, which means that employers are reluctant to hire and prefer to string people along with short-term contracts. This may not scare Americans, who do not expect Italy’s sacred posto fisso contract, which basically means you can never be fired.

Nevertheless, Italy currently has the highest youth unemployment in Europe. You will be scrapping with Italians for very few positions. They have the advantages of language and connections over you. You might not get paid, and if you do it will be little and probably late.

Your U.S. college degree has little value here. Italian degrees have a legal status, which I won’t bore you with, that American ones don’t. In some fields it doesn’t matter, but it does bar you from state institutions such as museums and universities. Italians know little about U.S. education and think only two or three American schools — Yale, Harvard and MIT — are as good as theirs. However impressive your degree, an Italian may not be interested, or able, to hire you. Sad, but true.

In Italy, jobs that are classic stopgaps elsewhere are professional here. Waiters and lifeguards, for example are career choices for people who have families to support. They don’t want amateurs and short-termers. And if they take them, family and friends have first dibs.

I know, talk of realism feels like a bucket of cold water to your Italian dream. I may seem mean and bitter. Some of you already have said this on LinkedIn.

But realism is not defeatism. As any general knows, a good military campaign means understanding the reality and knowing the objective.

So now let’s look at the objective of your Italian Dream.

Be careful it is not recapturing a lost period of your life, such as junior year or vacation. Nothing can do that. Period.

However, if the objective is lifestyle, try it at home in the meantime. Whether home is Wall Street or Wichita, create some Italianità every day.

— Dress better. Ditch the yoga pants. Ditch the fleece. Wear fitted clothes and shirts with collars. Get real shoes. Buy fewer, nicer, clothes. Care for them.

— Notice when your wife/girlfriend/husband/companion looks nice. Tell them.

— Bike, bus or walk instead of driving.

— Buy fresh food; eat less of it. Eat at a table with a place setting.

— Drink good wine and less. Don’t get drunk.

— Pretend English has a formal form of “you” and stop calling everyone by first name.

— Drink espresso in a small china cup, fast and standing up.

— Make time for friends and family. Keep work in its place.

— Invite your quirky and dysfunctional family for dinner every Sunday. Pretend they’re normal.

— Toss the credit card; pay cash. Buy less stuff. Think more about what you buy and why.

— Read a real paper newspaper.

Pretty soon you’ll be feeling Italian, but without this chaotic peninsula’s frustrations. You may improve the quality of your life – and those of others.

Thank you for reading my letter. I hope it will help you realize your dream. If you do come and live in Italy, I hope my thoughts saved you some disappointment. If you can only visit, I’m sure your escape from real life will be just as pleasant as it was before. And your dream will remain intact.

Con i migliori saluti, Madeleine.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."