o good can come of this, I thought, as a young police officer led me by the elbow from the Pistoia train station to the police station. What had started as a trip to this northern Tuscan town for a story I was writing had turned into a jaunt to the police station, and would quickly turn into a daylong fiasco.
“Perché Lei è qui?” the officer asked stiffly. It had appeared as though my blonde head, five-foot nine frame and pink flip-flops had betrayed me: I was not local.
“To write an article about olive oil,” I answered in broken Italian. Then, as if to validate myself, I added “I live in Florence.”
He eyed me suspiciously. “Florence, yes? Are you a student there?”
I shook my head. “No, no, I’m a journalist.” At once I regretted saying this. I had been living illegally in Florence for over three months now, my student visa having expired when my semester at Syracuse University in Florence expired. Feeble attempts had been made to secure an extension of my permessso di soggiorno but had failed miserably. I’d decided to stay on my own accord and risk getting caught. But was it possible that this smug officer had discovered me? Was the Questura on to my schemes?
Fearing retribution, my brain recalled the weak excuse my friends and I had devised while finding ways to justify our ignorance: “But I’m just an American!” In other words, “I don’t know any better!” (This pathetic defense was used for everything, from being incapable of counting the correct change for a cappuccino to forgetting to validate train tickets).
At this point, my pride was too thick to resort to this explanation; my language skills were pretty advanced, and I considered myself something of a donna fiorentina, having spent seven months living, studying and working (under the table) in Florence.
I tried quickly to clarify that I was, in fact, a journalist, and that at one point, I had also been a student. He stared at me. My editor, I explained, can vouch for me. I pulled out my cell phone to dial Rosanna, who didn’t answer. She was taking an early ferragosto in Elba, and was probably lounging on a sparkling beach while I, in Pistoia, was about to be deported.
“Who are you meeting here?”
I pulled out my notebook and read a name (a first name only) and his company’s acronym, which meant nothing to him. “He was supposed to pick me up at the train station,” I said, waving in its general direction. It slowly dawned on me that I was not a very good journalist after all: with only my interviewee’s first name, the generic acronym for his business (which I didn’t know the meaning of) and my editor on vacation, I had no evidence, no information, no chance.
The officer called his supervisor, an older man, and they loudly assessed the situation a distance away from me. I stood there, sweating in my American sandals, and wondered how I could scare up some work papers. The two men acted out a small drama: they yelled, shook their heads, looked at me and pulled out a large book. They consulted the big book, scanning lines of writing, still arguing. A phone call was made and they looked at me, pleased. Great, I thought, smiling weakly, they’re calling in someone to bring handcuffs. I’m going to Tuscan prison.
Nothing was explained to me (probably because my incompetence warranted no explanation) but the next thing I knew, my interviewee pulled up to the station in his Fiat, thanked the officers, and led me into the bright July sun. He told me that the two officers had called his office after scouring the phone book and deciphering the unknown business acronym. They had alerted him that a young woman was waiting to interview him.
Days later, my editor was back from Elba, and I related the story to her in her stuffy office. She laughed and laughed.
“I think, ragazza,” she said, smiling, “that you were meant to live in this country.”
I HESITANTLY returned to the States from Florence to finish school in 2004. Before my feet even landed on American soil, my college roommate and I began making big plans.
After graduating from Syracuse University, Andrea Lazipone and I would plan on saving money by living with our parents and bartending. After six months or so, we’d each buy one-way tickets to Florence, find an apartment and begin looking for jobs, if we hadn’t already established them before leaving. We both agreed we were in this for the long haul and were militant about making our stint abroad legal and legitimate. We would be pioneers, we thought; non-conformists in a sea of typical college grads forced to find domestic nine-to-fives. Our scheming well underway, we humbly called our plan “Operation We Are Awesome.”
Having gained the admiration of our contemporaries in our planned spontaneity, our first stumbling block turned “Operation We Are Awesome” to “Operation Inevitable Failure:” obtaining visas. After some hardcore research and brainstorming, we realized that the only realistic way to get over to Italy was to do it without visas and work service jobs for under-the-table wages, jobs that would not tap our skills or our expensive educations.
But if we wanted to be bartenders, why not just live at home and continue the jobs that we already had? We wanted serious jobs, jobs that would sustain us, challenge us and provide legitimacy equivalent to our friends on the home front.
There’s no real way of knowing how many Americans live illegally in Italy, and with millions of tourists and students coming and going each year, a logistical nightmare exists in trying to keep track of each and every foreigner. All 15 signatory Schengen states, including Italy, allow U.S. residents to freely circulate within their borders for up to 90 days at a time. Any amount of time spent within a Schengen state after 90 days requires that you obtain one of 12 different visas before leaving the U.S. The extensive list of requirements for a work visa is especially daunting if you want to live in Italy permanently.
ACCORDING TO the State Department’s American Citizen Services Bureau, if someone travels to Italy with a tourist visa (90 days maximum stay) and accepts a job while there, he or she is subject to deportation if discovered. A five- to 10-year ban on traveling to Italy, also extending to the Schengen states and possibly to all EU countries, could result.
There are two ways to work legally in Italy: an Italian employer can sponsor you or you can apply for an “independent work” visa. Even with sponsorship, you can only obtain a work visa from within the United States; consequently, if you travel to Italy to interview and are hired, you must return stateside, turn in the necessary paperwork to the Italian Consulate General and wait, often for several months. This seems like the grand paradox in visa bureaucracy: find a job in Italy while you’re there, but waste time and money traveling back to the States and getting your visa, or get an Italian company to vouch for you before you move across the pond.
Andrea and I wouldn’t even consider a “look-see,” a three-month targeted job search that Emma Bird, founder of howtoitaly.com, describes as “tiring with a lot of traipsing about.” Basically, a look-see involves spending up to 90 days (legally) in Italy on a job hunt, securing your job, and then returning to the States to take care of all necessary visa requirements.
Financially, a look-see was out of the question, and the chances that we would find jobs before moving to Italy looked slim, so Andrea and I opted for the independent, self-employment visa.
But the fact that you are self-employed in the United States does not automatically mean that you can work independently in Italy. A company or organization still must vouch for you, and the appropriate Italian authorities must recognize and approve your work. They also require a dizzying number of documents: tax returns from the organization sponsoring you, notarized contracts and financial proof that you make more than the Italian minimum wage to qualify for public health insurance.
Having studied journalism and gaining encouragement from an excitable professor, we thought our best self-employment option could be to write a book about our adventures in Italy and include helpful hints about living abroad, a sort of survival memoir. With this as our independent venture, we began filling out our applications for independent work visas and sought out a sponsor. When it came to two young American women living and working in Italy and writing a book about it, we garnered a lot of moral support — from journalism professors, friends, parents — but not a lot of financial support, the kind that we desperately needed.
The big problem in applying for any visa was that Andrea and I had no real proof of financial stability, something that the Consulate demands. Hey, we’re recent college grads, and financial instability is not only inevitable, it’s a relished rite of passage. And what college grad has serious finances? Where’s the spontaneity in flying to Italy, landing your dream job and then putting it off to fly back to the States and take care of the legalities? What recently graduated student can afford such things?
Our hopes waning, we looked at other visa options with no luck. A long-stay visa grants an exceptionally large chunk of time to hang out in Italy, but no permission to work. Our next viable option: pursue citizenship, a less likely prospect for me, a greater possibility for Andrea, whose Italian heritage was as rich as her mother’s meatballs.
She researched and realized that processing a citizenship application would take even longer than processing a visa application. “We’d be better off marrying Italians,” she told me. This was our absolute last resort.
OBTAINING A VISA, however, is not entirely unheard of. Every once and a while, permanent work rights are granted to a fortunate American.
Like many American college students, Alice (her name has been changed in this report ; see editor’s note below) spent a semester in Italy while attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She received the same warning from her mother that all of us American girls receive (“Don’t fall in love with an Italian boy”), but, like most of us, fell in love anyway. For Alice, a new relationship launched the possibility of staying in Italy.
“I was so into New York City that I never ‘fell in love’ with Italy,” she said. “I wanted to have a relationship with [Riccardo], so I just did what I had to do.” After returning to New York to finish school, Alice spent the next two years commuting between Florence and Syracuse, her hometown, every three months. Not wanting to exceed her legal limit in Italy, Alice made certain that she was never in Italy longer than the 90-day maximum. “Sometimes it meant that I actually got on an airplane on my 90th day in Italy,” she laughs. “I would stay right up until the end.”
During her first 90 days, Alice immediately began looking for fulltime employment while staying at her boyfriend’s parents’ home outside of Florence. She started by looking on the Internet (which, she claimed adamantly, is not the best job-hunting method in Italy), and because she didn’t speak any Italian at this point, relied heavily on Riccardo’s family to help her make contacts.
After an interview, a fashion design company decided that they were interested in Alice and wanted to hire her: after, of course, she got her work visa. The company was willing to vouch for Alice but unwilling to help her with the practicalities of obtaining the visa, a process that takes months of paperwork, travel, time and correspondence.
Alice and Riccardo considered other options. They called the labor office in Pisa and asked how Alice could obtain the rights to work. “Oh, it’s very easy, you just have to get married tomorrow,” an official told the couple. Alice and Riccardo heard that all they would need was a declaration of marriage, a public announcement that would be posted in their town and expire after six months.
“We went to the comune (city hall) and made the announcement that we were engaged,” said Alice, “and a little piece of paper was posted outside the office. I thought this might help me get a permesso.”
But it only sparked rumors: a friend of Riccardo’s grandmother saw the announcement and told his nonna, who became distressed. “She was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were getting married?'” said Alice, laughing. “The whole town was talking about it. In the end, it got us nowhere: it got me nothing, and it cost me €60.”
Riccardo’s family suggested that Alice make a bid for a place in the flussi, the quota that opens up every year to allow a certain number of foreigners permission to work service jobs in Italy. Because the employer must be the one to sign for the foreigner at the flussi, Riccardo’s parents agreed to “hire” Alice as a domestic housekeeper. The process would include hours of standing in line at the post office long before the 8 a.m. opening time, scrambling frantically to beat the masses and getting an official stamp from the Italian Department of Labor. Alice’s stamp was administered at 8:01 a.m.; her number was 16.
“If you don’t get in within the first five minutes, you can count yourself out,” she said.
After waiting a month, Riccardo’s parents received notice that Alice’s flussi was accepted and that she must report immediately to her Italian Consulate in New York City. She returned stateside, where more paperwork and patience was required. After some confusion and several terse phone calls between the Consulate in New York and the Embassy in Rome, Alice was granted a work visa. Of the little man who worked at the Consulate, she said, “If there wasn’t a glass window between us, I would’ve kissed him.”
But it wasn’t over. Now with an appropriate visa, Alice returned to Italy and had to apply for a permesso di soggiorno, yet another fundamental document that would solidify her status and grant her full eligibility for gainful employment in her comune. This meant more standing in line, this time at the Questura, pushing through crowds of immigrants in the wee hours of the morning. Once Alice’s permesso was processed, she needed to be “fired” from her current job as a housekeeper, get rehired by the fashion company and obtain insurance.
“The flussi opened in February, by April I had my visa from the Consulate, by September I had my permesso, and in October I finally began my job,” she said, whose job description included designing embroideries for Cavalli and Blugirl in Bologna. “The whole process was miserable. But it was worth it.”
Alice admits that she’s been fortunate, more fortunate, she said, than many young Italians, who struggle in their own country to find decent careers. Her two years of vagabonding between Florence and Syracuse didn’t give her many options for a professional life, but she sold clothing designs to a high-end boutique in London and worked at her parents’ dry cleaning business when in the States.
“I was willing to work hard for this but I didn’t have the financial means,” she said. “My parents recognized what I wanted, and they were financially supportive of me. Also, Riccardo’s family has been so giving and helpful. Really what it comes down to is the devotion of two families. I’ve been very fortunate in that.”
Unlike her American counterparts (she claims to have no American friends who are working legally), working off the books was never an option for Alice. “It’s just really how I feel, that I should do this legally,” she said. “You can try and be sneaky about it, but I believe that in the end, it’s better to take the time and energy and to do it right, and it is really possible.”
THEN THERE are those who recognize their impermanence in a foreign country, and make plans to visit, but not overstay their welcome. After graduating in May 2006, Kelly R. — she preferred her surname not be used — took her international pursuits one step further than Andrea or I ever managed: she bought a ticket to Italy.
Kelly, a 22-year-old public relations major from Chesterfield, N.J., will come in on a tourist visa. She said she’s wanted to return to Italy ever since studying in Florence in 2005, and with proper preparation, alumni connections and a few language classes, she’s ready to make the move. She hopes to work “under the table” for the duration that she’s abroad.
“I don’t really consider it a career move,” Kelly said, “because I’m not looking for anything permanent. If I was offered a professional job, I might consider taking it, but I don’t think I want to live my entire life so far away.”
Since deciding that she wasn’t ready to “never have a summer again,” Kelly looked into her options for working abroad for three months: she’s contacted nannying agencies, explored different writing opportunities and even looked into interning for an Italian public relations firm. “I need to do something there because when I get back, I don’t want to be totally unmarketable when I actually start looking for a career,” she explained. “I’ll already be behind my friends, financially and professionally. I need to show my future employers that I wasn’t just running around Italy for a few months.”
When asked if she’s aware of the consequences associated with not having legal status while in Italy, Kelly said that she looked into getting a visa, but was told that a 90-day tourist visa wasn’t necessary.
“I’ll only be there for three months; whether or not I can find work, that’s another story,” she said. So far, Kelly has not been able to find work. “I think once I get there, I’ll be able to do some groundwork and will be a lot more successful. If not, I’ll just come home after the 90 days. I’ve saved enough to support myself for this time, but I’ll probably just come home broke.”
Kelly’s more casual approach to legal matters regarding international work may mean she takes a greater risk, but it’s a risk, she said, that she’s always wanted to take. “I just really want to fulfill this dream, and go back before I have serious commitments,” she said. “I’ve always been very independent, so I’m just going to do it. Maybe I’m a little crazy, too.”
I DROPPED OUT of the visa pursuit after several months. Andrea clung to the idea until she couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity for full-time employment in Syracuse. Another friend, who had earlier joined us in on our visa attempts, temporarily put all efforts on hold for graduate school. The reality was that we just couldn’t continue to pursue legal status for the future without focusing on our immediate futures: we needed to get on with life, and find real full-time jobs. Applying for a visa had already turned into a full-time job: one without health benefits or a retirement plan.
The fact remained that we had taken ourselves very seriously and had convinced others to do the same, but we’d ultimately failed. We had exhausted our resources, run every gamut and ended up right back where we’d started: tired, irritated and without visas. We were mentally and emotionally unprepared for the work that was involved, and unwilling to try a different route, such as waiting a few years to see what kind of opportunities arise with steadier finances, or even employment with a multinational organization willing to transfer its workers abroad.
It also occurred to me that we had been completely oblivious and disrespectful to think that we inherently have the right to work wherever we want, and without consequences. Regardless of how European we’d considered ourselves during our studies abroad, we were still guests in a foreign country; even with legal status, we would still be guests, and never truly Italian. It is a privilege to be a guest; it is a greater privilege to be a guest with permission for gainful employment.
The I-can-do-anything approach innate in many Americans, Alice added, served no advantage in her experience. “That whole American gung-ho attitude just doesn’t work in Italy,” she said, and added with a laugh, “there’s just too much paperwork involved. You can’t expect to live an American life in Italy because you will live a miserable life.”
But where’s the post-college spontaneity in all that sensibility? After all, we’re just Americans.
Editor’s note: the identity of the woman referred to as “Alice” in this story is known to the author of the report and to her editor. Her name was excised for reasons of discretion.