February 25, 2024 | Rome, Italy

The underbelly

By |2018-03-21T19:01:12+01:00June 30th, 2014|First Person|
There's a gulf between the Rome tourists meet and what lurks beneath its surface.

ne of the perks of my job as a Rome food tour guide is regularly meeting people from around the world. Naturally, there are differences in language and culture. The Scandinavians are generally more reserved than the boisterous Americans. I’ve learned to swap lemon granitas for cannoli (fried in pork fat) when I have Muslim clients. Most Asian clients seem averse to strong cheeses, which don’t exist in their traditional cuisine.

Yet the tourists have one thing in common: all of them agree I’m lucky to live here. “If I were you, I’d never leave,” a woman from Melbourne told me the other day. She and her husband were visiting Italy on their honeymoon, arriving after a whopping 24-hour flight. They doubted they’d be back anytime soon.

The tourists are right of course — I am lucky to live in Rome. I chose to. I’m not locked in. I know I can sell my Ikea furniture, quit my job, and fly back to America whenever I please.

But tourists are tourists. They barely skim the surface of the city. They’re delighted by pasta and pizza and the Coliseum. They enjoy the accordion players who serenade them at night. Some cherish the myth of the handsome Italian lover.

This kind of thinking conceals more than it reveals. Hardcore Romans love eating tripe (stomach lining) and pajata (intestines over pasta). “Chicken parm” is not a dish, and spaghetti and meatballs are eaten separately, but never together. Alfredo is a name, not a pasta. The musicians playing “O Sole Mio” (and photographed on so many iPhones) are most likely impoverished, and often not Italian. Italian men bear little resemblance to Raoul Bova in “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Most are still in school in their 20s, and live at home until marriage — if they choose to marry at all. The slow pace of the Italian culture is wonderful on vacation, but exasperating when trying to complete day-to-day tasks. I want to tell them about Italy’s startling youth unemployment rate (more than 40 percent). I think of the slender job hopes faced by my intelligent, ambitious Italian friends. Giulia is 30, trilingual, with a degree in economics, but has only been able to find work as a waitress. Manuela, a lawyer who’s been lucky enough to find work at a firm, earns €800 a month (an annual salary of under $15,000). Enrica is a chemical engineer stuck at an accessories shop in the city center. Paychecks are low — €1,050 if you’re lucky — and savings hard to put aside.

“They must just love their job,” my clients say, pointing to an elderly couple in their late 70s running a butcher shop. Maybe they do. But another possibility is that they have no choice but to but to continue working well past the average retirement age. With salaries too low to finance children, some couples are having one child or opting out of parenthood entirely. The large, Catholic, Italian family has become extinct.

Some Italians have chosen to andare altrove, or move abroad, taking their chances in Berlin or London, maybe even Stockholm. Some go willingly, others grudgingly, signing up for tedious English courses and perfecting their CVs. An exodus of young, smart graduates is leaving the country in droves, and I can’t help but think of my own grandfather’s immigration in the 1930s for precisely the same reasons.

How do these realities affect me? After all, I’m an American citizen with a family on the East Coast. Why should the plight of Italy’s present trouble me? I suppose because no matter how much I love my adopted country, I know that one day I’ll have to leave. Hard work, education, and determination mean little in Italy. I now know it would be impossible to build a career or raise a family here. I want a job that allows me mobility and lets me save money. I want any children I might have to grow up free of Italian-like limitations.

“Be careful,” an American friend living in Rome recently warned me. “This place can be like Neverland.” She’s 29, supports herself and her husband on a low salary. She spends two-and-a-half hours commuting. In September she and her family are moving to the U.S. to try their luck there. Rome is beautiful, but you can’t live off beauty.

I don’t stand in the way of tourist misconceptions. I’m happy they see Rome’s charm. I smile when I’m told, “What an amazing place to live!” They’re on vacation and will soon return to their own politics and problems, their recessions and taxes. After all, no place is perfect, not even Rome.

About the Author:

Alexandra's "Second Generation" column ran from 20012 through early 2017.