The Ugly Side of Italy
“Ah, abject Italy, you inn of sorrows,
you ship without a helmsman in harsh seas,
no queen of provinces but of bordellos!”
— Dante Alighieri, ca. 1315
My American colleague and I were walking down a school corridor. The city was Bangkok, Thailand. We were both newly-hired teachers, on our first day on the job, so we were making small talk and getting to know each other.
“Where are you from?” she asked. A perfectly innocent question… yet one that never fails to elicit in me painful memories.
I hesitated, then I said: “Italy”.
“Wow. I don’t know why anyone would ever leave Italy!” she said. It was obvious from her tone that she thought highly of my home country.
I wasn’t surprised. From the Americas to Asia, millions of people have been led to believe — by tourist brochures and the mainstream media at large— that Italy is something of a slice of paradise: a romantic place, full of beauty and charm.
The reality? Like every other country, Italy is no paradise. It is riddled with social, political and economic issues that cause much suffering to its citizens and take a toll on their lives.
There is a dark, unsavory side to Italy that tourists rarely get to experience, and only us native Italians know.
I didn’t respond to my coworker and I scrambled to change the subject. I knew what kind of images were running through her mind: arts towns, idyllic landscapes, good-looking and fashionable people dining on great food. I didn’t have it in me to burst her bubble and tell her about the real Italy.
Should I have spoken instead? The question has been bugging me ever since. Which is the reason why today I set out to write this article about (some of) the things that are wrong with my country. I just had to take it off my chest.
It wasn’t an easy piece to write, and I hope that you will approach it with an open mind. (It’s also a long read… so you may want to bookmark the page and come back to it when you have an half hour to spare.)
Take off your rose-tinted glasses and hear me out, because I’m going to expose some facets of Italy that are not commonly discussed in the mainstream, and especially not in the English language.
In no particular order, here are a few reasons why I struggle to consider Italy a fully developed country, and I take issue with the romanticized views of it coming from abroad.
I was born and I grew up in the South of Italy, so my depiction of Italian life is mainly ascribable to the Southern regions of the country. However, having traveled extensively around Italy, I can assure you that many of my grievances are in fact nationwide issues.
Please note that this article is NOT meant to be disparaging of Italy and the entirety of its people. There are always exceptions. Think of it as tough love from an expat who would like to see his country improve and become a better place.
Some cultures value silence more than others. In Italian culture, silence is pretty much worthless.
Being loud is not frowned upon — not even in trains, hospitals and offices — so Italian children, by and large, are never exposed to the idea that making noise can cause pain and discomfort to other people. In the absence of social repercussions, they develop a habit of speaking louder then necessary, which they usually carry over into their adulthood.
I myself was oblivious to this aspect of my native culture until I traveled to countries like the UK and Romania, where people default to speaking softly (or not speaking at all) in most public places. As an introvert, I found that immensely refreshing and a welcome change of pace. Ever since then I’ve had a hard time readjusting to the loud, boisterous nature of social life in Italy.
Before you shrug off my complaint as nitpicking, you may want to read this scientific study linking noise to the development of mental illness; or this other study highlighting how — I quote — “mounting evidence also connects noise exposures with cardiovascular disease, sleep disturbance, stress, general annoyance, impaired learning and concentration, and other health effects”.
It’s no secret that a quiet environment allows us to feel more relaxed and to better focus on the task at hand. Why else would libraries around the world ask visitors to keep it down?
Speaking quietly is the hallmark of a civilized people, not to mention a basic act of courtesy toward those around us. Conversely, raising your voice is rude behavior at best, and a deliberate act of aggression at worst.
Now imagine the struggle of being a writer (or a programmer, or any other profession requiring deep focus) in a country where every street and alley is crawling with people yelling over one another as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It’s so ingrained in Italian culture that even televised political debates are little more than shouting contests.
I’m writing this in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — far from the quietest place in the world, with its 8.5 million residents, byzantine traffic and overabundance of construction works — yet I find it easier to concentrate here compared to my small hometown in Italy. Need I say more?
The most beautiful thing in Cambodia isn’t the country — it’s the Cambodian people.medium.com
For this reason alone, I cannot imagine moving back to Italy, ever. As a novice author and blogger, I depend on my ability to focus and think clearly in order to produce good content. The ridiculous level of noise in Italy would disrupt my working and sleeping routines, leaving me anxious and frustrated.
I’ve gone through that and it wasn’t pretty. On my latest visit to Italy, in 2017, I developed such a severe case of anxiety that I had to resort to Valium just so that I could function normally and carry out my daily tasks. Sometimes the screaming and shouting around me was so off the chart that I had to put earphones on and listen to music at loud volume, in order to cancel out every other sound. Who wants to live like that?
As soon as I left the country my anxiety levels dropped, and I quickly got off the Valium. I’m now able to have a normal life again — one of productive work and uninterrupted sleep. I wish I was joking, but I couldn’t be more serious.
Perhaps some of you have thicker skin than me and could survive, even thrive, in Italy. However I must warn you: if your work requires you to be alone with your thoughts for any length of time — or if you enjoy quiet activities such as reading and meditating — you may want to pick a different country.
Before going to Italy, you should invest in some quality earplugs and/or noise-canceling earphones. As for me, I took extreme measures and invested in a plane ticket to the other side of the world.
Simply put, Italy has a vandalism problem.
If you have visited the country recently you may have noticed that every city and town is covered in graffiti. Few of those graffiti are of the artistic variety, with the majority being ugly scribbles — usually profanities, or declarations of love by hormone-addled teenagers.
The local authorities lack either the funds or the will to cope with this issue. And so it happens that, right next to centuries-old monuments and architectural masterpieces, one can also admire childish drawings of phalli and vulvae, or read ungrammatical accounts on how this or that girl is allegedly a slut.
Sadly, it doesn’t end with the graffiti. Traffic signs and bus stops all over the country are routinely damaged or downright destroyed. They typically lay in disrepair for years, eliciting endless complaints by the local residents, until a pious mayor musters the resolve to do something about them — only for the structures to be vandalized again in the span of a few weeks.
In my hometown, an underpass used by thousands of citizens every day — including late at night — has been posing a significant danger for years now, since all the security cameras have been broken (by the look of it, someone has thrown stones at them). The broken cameras still hang from the ceiling, as useless as the signage informing passersby that the area is supposedly monitored by CCTV.
A few meters away are some vending machines: their proprietor has put up a handwritten notice in which he swears that he’ll kill — yes, kill — some man who apparently vandalized one of the machines some time ago. The thought of going to the police doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. Nor do the police seem to have any problem with literal death threats hanging on a wall in an Italian city, for all to see. A chilling reminder of how lawless life can be in some parts of the country.
Those handwritten messages — ranging from the mundane to the bizarre — have been popping up all over Italy in recent years, collectively telling a story of deteriorating relationships and heightened tensions among Italians. I’ll never forget a message I saw one morning in a beautiful, sun-kissed piazza that wouldn’t have been out of place in a postcard. In the notice, a heartbroken shop owner implored people not to throw dirty diapers in his cafe’s garbage cans.
Then there was that time, about a decade ago, when I took a bus from Bari to Naples and halfway through the trip a man stood up and defecated in the back of the vehicle, in full view of the other passengers. We could ask ourselves why the bus didn’t have a toilet — an issue in and on itself — or why the man didn’t ask the driver to make a stop somewhere… but one thing is for sure: I don’t want to live in a country where people literally shit on public transport.
(N.B. — This section of the article turned out longer than I had anticipated, as the issue of fair employment is near and dear to my heart.)
A few years ago, before I resolved to leave my home country for good — a process that eventually led me to starting my own business abroad—I made a last-ditch attempt to find a job in Italy.
Up until that point, my employment history had been spotty at best. I was still in my twenties back then, a severe handicap in a country where youth unemployment is, to this day, over 30% as a national average, slowly improving from an all-time high of 43.4% in 2014. (It’s even higher than that in my native South, where it nears 60% in some regions.)
My savings were dwindling and I had temporarily gone back to living with my parents, so I was desperate for work. So desperate that I decided I would take on literally any job I could find, no matter how menial or unintellectual.
An offer came along for an unskilled position (you’ll forgive me if I don’t say exactly what the job was) that paid €600 a month — that’s $700 USD — for up to 10 hours of work a day, five days a week. Basically, I would get paid $3–4 USD an hour at a full time job. Needless to say, I wasn’t even offered a contract and the whole thing was under the table.
It was just a notch above slavery, but that sort of salary was the norm for a person my age in post-recession Italy (and it still is!), so I accepted. It was better than being out of work entirely in a nation without welfare.
(The topic of unemployment benefits has only recently surfaced in the Italian political debate, decades after social security has already been implemented in the rest of the Western world. A rudimentary form of universal basic income is set to be rolled out in early 2019, in an absolute first for the country.)
Italy’s aversion to welfare is not even an issue of government budget (the 7th-highest in the world!), but rather something that’s deeply embedded in Italian culture. In the South of Italy it’s still common for people to refer to their own employer (or landlord) as padrone, which literally translates to master or owner. This should give you a hint as to what kind of power plays occur on the workplace, and in Italian society as a whole.
Thousands, if not millions of employers in modern Italy hold a 19th-century view of subordinate work, with the only result that exploitation of workers is yet another social plague among the many stifling the country. I’ve lost count of the people I know in Italy who had their salary withheld for no particular reason, and were being paid in arrears by several months.
Against my best judgement, I bit the bullet and went to work, day in and day out. I did it mostly for my parents — to make them happy and in order not to be a burden for them.
At my new workplace I had to deal with not one, but four different bosses, all partners with equal shares in the company. One of them was kind to me, but the other three were precisely the kind of nasty ass****s that you’d expect. In between releasing bogus invoices and surreptitiously snapping pictures of female customers, they would always find some time to berate me or make fun of me (and the other two employees).
I soon found out that their business was bringing in revenues in the region of €200,000 a year ($230,000 USD), with minimal operating expenses, so their net profits were sizable. On top of that, each of the four partners had at least one other source of income. There was no excuse for them to evade taxes or to pay me $3 an hour (my two coworkers were being paid even less, if you can believe that). They were just being greedy for the sake of it.
I ordered a burger. When it came to my table it was nothing like the picture on the menu. False advertising at its finest.medium.com
My shift would usually start at 3:00 PM and it would end between midnight and 2:00 AM. I couldn’t afford a car, so every night after work I was forced to either walk several miles on poorly lit roads, or to wait around until 6:00 AM to catch a bus that would take me straight home. It got tiresome quickly, especially when winter came around and the weather turned freezing cold.
Once home, I barely had enough time to take a shower and sleep — then I had to rush toward another stressful workday. If it weren’t for my two days off a week it would have been unsustainable. Even so, I found myself inching closer to depression each passing day.
With several hours wasted every night as I waited for the morning bus, I would often slip into a bar to escape the cold, and squander what little money I was making on alcohol, just so that I could numb the pain.
One night a flirtatious girl approached me at the bar, and within minutes I found out she was making as much as me working as a waitress in a pizza restaurant. It was as if Italian small-business owners had formed a cartel and fixed their wages at $700 a month (a ludicrous figure when measured against the country’s high cost of living). My sister too was getting paid the same amount, working at a jewelry in a shopping mall.
My sister was married though, so she could rely on her husband for food and a roof, and her entire salary went toward discretionary spending. For a young man like me, instead, there was no other option but to live with my parents, well into my late twenties. (To add insult to injury, the internet was awash with foreigners poking fun at young Italians for not moving out — as if we had a goddamn choice in the matter.)
My highest-earning Italian friend — a videogame developer with a master’s degree — was making less than $1,500 a month in Milan. With that kind of salary he could only afford a room in a shared apartment, and he was living paycheck to paycheck. The situation in Northern Italy was marginally better than in the South, but still far from ideal.
An entire generation of Italians had been expropriated of their dignity by the powers that be, with hundreds of thousands moving to Britain or Germany or anywhere, in a new wave of emigration that was reminiscent of the early 20th century, when millions of impoverished Italians would show up in New York with their tarnished coats and cardboard suitcases.
What was I to do? I had already tried London a couple years prior, working at a restaurant near Piccadilly Circus for a while; and although life in England was much better in general, British employers could be just as nasty as their Italian counterparts. At that restaurant in central London I had come across serious violations of health and safety standards, and once I quit they refused to pay me for my last two weeks of work (until I threatened them with a lawsuit and the money suddenly showed up in my bank balance).
Disillusioned with England, and after a year working as a teacher in Romania (where ironically I was able to save some money), I was now back in Italy and still at square one. As I pondered what to do with my life, I kept my head down and endured the daily abuse at my three-dollars-per-hour slave job.
At that time, I was in a long-distance relationship with a Thai girl, whom I had met on a previous trip to Bangkok. After several months apart she had grown so impatient to see me again — and to see Italy, a country she had heard so many great things about — that against my protestations she flew to my country at her own expense.
She knew I was struggling financially, so she was gracious enough to pay for the round trip and the visa herself, even though both in Thai and Italian culture there is a strong expectation for the man to shoulder all the costs of a relationship. That made me feel ashamed and inadequate — but the worst was yet to come.
The moment she stepped off the plane she became something of a celebrity in my hometown. She was one of the only Asian people to be found in the area, and she would have turned heads for that reason alone — never mind that she was also pretty.
In typical Italian fashion, every man she came across — young or old, single or married — proceeded to hit on her, sometimes even in my presence. It was shameless and farcical, not unlike a b-movie. She seemed to enjoy those attentions and I was growing uneasy. That’s when I made the huge mistake of bringing her to my workplace.
As soon as my bosses saw her, they too started hitting on her, right in front of me. It wasn’t even subtle: they knew that I knew. But since (in their minds) they had power over me, they couldn’t care less about my feelings on the matter. After all, to them my life was only worth 700 bucks a month, if even that. I was a nobody — the proverbial cog in the machine.
I stood there powerless while they offered her candies, smiled at her, and put their arms around her waist. She smiled back at them, seemingly oblivious to my shock. I felt something break within me — my pride, my self-worth — my soul itself.
That night I had a furious fight with her over what had happened. We made peace the following morning, and we went to Rome together for the weekend, but things would never be the same again between us. A few days later she returned to Thailand as scheduled, our relationship gravely strained. I broke up with her shortly thereafter, going as far as blocking her on Skype.
I never confronted my employers about the incident, but I knew I wouldn’t last much longer at that job. I had a lot of pent up anger waiting to erupt. At that point, all I needed to quit was an excuse.
The excuse timely presented itself a week or two later, when they “forgot” to pay me, on what should have been payday. I immediately knew what was up: they were testing my boundaries even further, feeling increasingly confident about their grip on me.
As I already mentioned, withholding a salary for no reason is not out of the ordinary in Italy. My mother, my stepfather, my sister, and a close friend of mine had all gone through the same ordeal, at different points in their lives, so I knew exactly what was in store for me if I had stayed at that job.
Bringing up the subject with the boss is considered a big no-no. In the upside-down pantomime that is Italian “work culture”, a worker must be grateful to have a job at all. Demanding to get paid on time would have been perceived as arrogance, nothing short of a slight. The choice for me was simply between accepting slavery or quitting.
I quit. The following day I didn’t show up at work. They besieged me with phone calls, but I didn’t pick up the phone. After two or three consecutive days of unanswered calls, they finally caught the drift and decided to leave me alone. (And no, they didn’t send me the money. Shocking, I know.)
My self-esteem was in shambles, my parents blamed me (God bless them), and it took me a while to recover from the whole experience, but eventually I started feeling a little better. By then I was utterly sick of Italy, so I dusted off my degree and once again I started looking for work abroad.
A few months later I landed a job in Thailand as a high school teacher. It wasn’t a prestigious job by any stretch of the imagination, but it paid almost double my last job in Italy, while being less than half the hours. Plus I got to wear a tie for a change — and I was always paid on time.
You know the world has changed when the working conditions are suddenly better in Thailand than in Europe.
A lot more has happened in my life since then, and now I find myself happily self-employed. These days I would pass on any teaching job, but suffice it to say that I haven’t looked back on my decision to never work in Italy again.
… and Awful Employees
The behavior of Italian employers can be explained in part — but never fully justified, as far as I’m concerned — by the fact that many Italian employees also fall short of expectations.
I would be remiss and dishonest if I didn’t mention that Italy is crawling with lazy, unproductive workers who essentially steal their salary. Nowhere is this more evident than in the public sector.
It’s a running joke among Italians that anyone who is employed by the government essentially “gets paid to do jack shit”. The Italians’ penchant for calling in sick and going on strike is also legendary, as is the very Italian propensity to hire unqualified relatives over qualified strangers.
It’s a well-known fact even among foreigners that Italy is corrupt… but you will never understand just how rotten the system is unless you were born there or you spent decades in the country.
Cheating and irregularities are commonplace at selections for government jobs (including police jobs); every major infrastructure project is mired in scandals of fraud and misappropriation of funds; all universities are rife with nepotism; and to top it all off, some local governors think nothing of giving out jobs and contracts in exchange for votes (a.k.a. voto di scambio).
To give you an example, the island-region of Sicily — a mafia-controlled territory, for all intents and purposes — employs a whopping 30,000 forest rangers: more than the entire country of Canada. At last check, Canada was over 350 times larger than Sicily and had plenty more trees, so there’s clearly something fishy going on in Sicily: a prank that costs the Italian government half a billion US dollars a year. I don’t imagine those 30,000 rangers have much to do during the workday.
Walk into any government office or bureau and you’ll find that not only they are overstaffed, but the employees seem more concerned with chatting up one another and sipping coffee than actually doing their job. The last time I went to a post office in Italy there were a dozen clerks with nothing at all to do, three customers (including me), and somehow I still had to wait ten minutes before being serviced.
I could give you endless examples of unprofessional behavior I witnessed in Italy, but nothing quite comes close to that job-center employee — a middle-aged lady— who once started yelling at the top of her lungs and threatening to blow up the office with a bomb, right in front of a queue of people.
Another time, I was on a city bus when the driver suddenly pulled over and abandoned the vehicle without a word, leaving us passengers scratching our heads for a good fifteen minutes. When he came back, we found out that he had gone to a cafe to grab a croissant.
If you think things are better in the private sector, think again. Few if any businesspeople in Italy seem to know what customer service even means.
A recurring experience you’ll have in Italy is walking into a shop only to catch the clerk on the phone, engrossed in some mundane conversation about sweet nothing: they won’t even acknowledge your presence until they have finished their call (which always takes a while), and if you try to complain they’ll look at you puzzled, like you are the rude one. How dare you interrupt them!
All of this may sound like fantasy, but it’s the sad reality of a country where nothing works like it’s supposed to. Italian society is not just inefficient: it’s nothing short of dysfunctional.
My Thai girlfriend had plenty of flaws. For one, she was very materialistic and she loved dragging me to expensive restaurants and rooftop bars (needless to say, I was always expected to pick up the tab). She was also disorganized and couldn’t be bothered to keep her room clean.
However, one thing she never did was curse. Not once, in our year-long relationship, I caught her using a swearword. Even during our most heated fights, she would refrain from being vulgar.
She’d reprimand me whenever I used a swearword myself, to the point that I became very conscious of my language. Even after breaking up with her, I was still having a hard time cursing: such was the influence her good manners had had on me. (Only recently has coarse language made a comeback in my life.)
I’m afraid one Thai girl has forever spoiled the entirety of Italian women for me. That’s because, for the unaware, Italian gals can be rather loose with their language. Scrap that, there’s no need to be euphemistic: the reality is, your average middle-class Italian girl is more foul-mouthed than a drunk construction worker on a big sports night.
Call me old-fashioned or out of touch, but I find it disturbing whenever I pass by a group of Italian girls, accidentally overhear their conversation, and find that each of their utterances is punctuated with a storm of “f*cks” and “shits”. This happens all the time, and it’s another one of those things I was blissfully oblivious to, until I traveled abroad (to Asia in particular).
Digging into my childhood memories, I realize that this was always the case in Italy. I remember how in middle and high school my female classmates had no qualms about informing all bystanders that they were heading to the restroom “to take a shit”. Talks of periods and bodily fluids were also ubiquitous. Surely I can’t be the only guy who finds this gross.
That isn't to say that Italian men are any better. They swear just as much, if not more. But I’m not sexually attracted to men, so when I hear one swearing it doesn’t turn me off; it simply leaves me indifferent. When a woman does it, on the other hand, I can almost feel my genitals shrinking. Sorry folks, I’m just being honest here. I guess I spent too much time outside of the West.
The only thing worse than that is when I hear little kids curse… and in Italy, kids can be downright wicked with their language. By the age of 7 (or even earlier) they have learned every single insult out there. It’s a regular thing in Italy to come by children swearing loudly in public places, such as parks and supermarkets. Every time it’s like a punch in the stomach for me.
Obviously it’s not the kids’ fault, but rather their parents’. Then again, what does this tell you about Italian society as whole?
I don't even know if this is exclusively an Italian issue, or a Western issue in general. If American pop music and movies are anything to go by, I would say that most Westerners think little of swearing in public. But after spending a few years in Asia, I have a newfound appreciation for good manners.
Feel free to dismiss this complaint as a pet peeve (I’m not looking for sympathy, nor am I claiming any moral high ground), but believe me when I say this: Even though I've been single for two years now, I'm in no hurry to cuddle up with an Italian woman and hear all about her bodily functions.
Inflated Cost of Living
Italy is far from the most expensive country in the world, but I’m convinced the cost of living in the country is too high in relation to the quality of life. In other words, Italy is overpriced.
After traveling to a dozen countries, I’m left with the distinct impression that in Italy you get less bang for your buck compared to most other places.
When I was living in London I didn’t mind shelling out a fair amount of money for a monthly pass for the Tube, since the subway system in London is efficient and well-maintained (or at least it was in 2013, the last time I was there). In Italy, on the other hand, spending even a couple euros for a single Metro ticket feels like I’m being robbed, seeing as the subways are aged and in decay.
The same could be said about rents. In Bangkok, a vibrant megalopolis full of bustle and charm, you can rent a brand-new furnished apartment for as little as €300 a month. Yet in my hometown in Italy — a medium-sized and overall lackluster city — the same amount of money will only get you an old, basic and unfurnished apartment, in a postwar-era building that may or many not have an elevator. You can also expect everything from the heaters to the plumbing system to be faulty and unreliable.
In a nutshell? Italy has first-world prices for third-world services. By most counts, you get less than what you pay for.
I can understand paying a premium for a juicy Florentine steak or Neapolitan mozzarella that you wouldn’t be able to taste anywhere else in the world; and I’m not saying a Ferrari or a Lamborghini isn’t worth the price tag; but when you are just a regular Italian citizen trying to live a normal life, little things that aren’t supposed to cost a fortune (getting a haircut, groceries, etc.) end up being incredibly expensive.
Goods and services in Italy are priced about the same as in Germany or France, which doesn’t account for the lower wages in Italy. There’s a stark mismatch between the ever-falling purchasing power of the Italians and the ever-increasing amount of money they are forced to part with for even the most basic of necessities.
One miscalculation in particular could prove fatal to the EU project.medium.com
Although financial institutions in Italy currently set the poverty threshold at 780 euros per month, in practice you are looking at double that amount (€1,500 a month) for a dignified and stress-free existence. And if you want to have some fun (eat out regularly, do some traveling, etc.), double the figure again and don’t bother with Italy unless you’re making €3,000+ a month.
The final nail in the coffin is the fact that countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal are way less expensive than Italy, while offering a remarkably similar — or even superior — lifestyle. In those countries you can enjoy the exact same weather and eat more or less the same things, but it won’t cost you nearly as much as in Italy.
So, whether you are craving a holiday in the Mediterranean or a full-fledged relocation to Southern Europe, keep in mind that your wallet will suffer more in Italy, and with little to show for it.
I just mentioned having fun in Italy, but I don’t know that you actually can. Truth be told, I can’t think of a more dull and mind-numbingly boring place.
I know what you are thinking — what about all those beautiful pictures I saw? — but that’s just the backdrop. You can only stare at ruins, hills and medieval churches for so long before losing interest in them. I’m talking about doing something fun.
In order to have a good time, the first thing you need is the right company… and if you happen to be a young person (like me), Italy won’t make life easy for you. The median age in the country is 46, meaning more than half of the population consists of old farts. Sorry for being so blunt, but it’s the truth!
I don’t mean to disrespect elders — someday I’ll join their ranks too, and that’s assuming I don’t die in a car crash tomorrow — but it’s only natural to seek out people in the same age bracket. When I’m in Italy I feel like a fish out of water: wherever I go I’m surrounded by seniors. Young people in Italy are few and far between, and thousands are fleeing the country as we speak, looking for jobs just as much as for thrills and excitement.
This bleak demographic composition is reflected in the country’s general lack of innovation and forethought. Clearly you can’t expect a bunch of old people to care much for technology or the future, let alone for wild entertainment in the here and now. Those are young people’s games, and at this point Italy has all but withdrawn from the international competition in those fields.
Take it from me: there’s nothing vibrant or promising about Italy. It’s a very tired place, and there’s a staleness about it that will drive you crazy if you are younger than 40. Many restaurants and cafes don’t even have Wi-Fi!
Whereas Asian cities like Shanghai and Saigon are 24-hour operations where you can go buy toothpaste at 3:00 AM if you so desire, basking in neon lights and surrounded by large crowds, Italian cities can sometimes feel like Wild West outposts. Most shops close at lunchtime (for up to four hours), and then they lock their doors again by 9:00 PM and stay closed until morning. They are closed all day on Sundays, because of Jesus or something.
Sex shops, strip clubs and other “naughty” venues — a common sight worldwide, including in most of Europe — are virtually nonexistent in Italy. The ageing population, coupled with the overarching Christian morals, makes it so that adult entertainment is at the bottom of the country’s priorities.
There isn’t even a half-decent underground scene for university students, something that you may have come to take for granted if you grew up in a place like Berlin or Bucharest. Italy’s nightlife is remarkably subdued.
Most clubs and bars are uninspiring, overpriced, and filled with tight-knit groups of friends who only go out with people they already know and trust — not for the purpose of mingling and meeting other people. It’s depressing.
Young people in Italy are old inside. When they go out, they do the exact same things their parents would do: eat pizza, have a few beers, play cards (I kid you not), or simply go for a walk — the famous passeggiata. We are talking about a country where people’s idea of fun is literally walking in circles.
I believe really strongly in imitation, actually.medium.com
To this day online dating is a complete waste of time in Italy. It never took hold there, and nobody is on Tinder. For the Italian youth, the most common way of meeting romantic partners is by far through mutual friends.
Relationships are usually taken seriously and treated as engagements from the get-go. One-night stands do happen, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
This article is approaching 7,000 words, but believe me when I say that I’ve been merciful. The above are only a few of the problems I had to face in the 25+ years I spent in Italy. If I wanted to address every single gripe I have with my homeland, I would have to write a book. Maybe even a series of books.
There is plenty I left out, including organized (and disorganized) crime, disgraceful politicians, cumbersome bureaucracy, predatorily high taxes (and the correspondingly massive tax evasion), widespread ignorance, an outdated education system (which insists on making Latin a mandatory subject in many schools), the well-known economic woes, the North-South divide, and more.
Above all, it’s the people’s general rudeness and obnoxiousness that leave me floored on my (increasingly rare) visits to Italy. I can’t quite understand why Italians are so rude and nasty with one another.
You may not notice that as a foreigner, but when you speak the language and know the ins and outs of the culture, you pick up on many covert (and overt) displays of antagonism in everyday life.
So, rather than delving deeper into the seemingly bottomless pool of Italy’s shortcomings, I will try to end this article on a positive note.
Is there anything good to be said about the country? Well, the answer is yes.
Even a renegade like me must admit that Italian food, when properly cooked with the right ingredients, is fantastic (although I prefer Japanese and Thai). I’ll keep eating pizza and tiramisu for as long as I’m alive, to say nothing of some lesser-known regional delicacies.
Italy is also surprisingly safe, with a murder rate about two thirds that of Germany or France. Daily life in Italy can be stressful, but you are unlikely to die prematurely, and Italians have a life expectancy among the highest in the world (80 years for men and 85 for women). The Italian healthcare system consistently ranks as one of the best worldwide, and it’s state-subsidized (i.e. “free”) for the most part, as is higher education.
For whatever reason, you are statistically less likely to get divorced in Italy than in many other Western nations. Divorce rates have been surging as of late, but they are still lower than in most of Europe. What’s more, the average length of a marriage in Italy is 18 years (compared to 13 in France, 12 in America and Australia, and 11 in Japan and Britain).
Despite its sluggish performance in recent years, Italy’s economy is still the 8th- or 9th-largest in the world (out of 200+ countries), not far behind France and Britain, and slightly ahead of Canada and South Korea. There are some 307,000 millionaire households in Italy (for comparison, Germany has 473,000), and more millionaires per capita in Rome than in Los Angeles or Dubai. Evidently, Italy is still an attractive market to tap into, at least for those brave entrepreneurs who are undeterred by taxation and red tape.
Last but not least, the beauty of most Italian towns and landscapes can’t be overstated. There are countless examples of marvelous architecture; some truly breathtaking vistas; and with more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country, there’s no shortage of ancient ruins to feast your eyes on.
However, these perks weren’t enough to convince me to spend my life in Italy, as opposed to simply vacationing there. It’s nice for a holidaymaker to know that Italy is safe, has great food, and that there’s plenty of sightseeing to do… but when it comes to building a life there—career, family, etc. — the positives are vastly offset by the negatives.
As a tourist, you may find it fascinating that the oldest university in all of Europe is located in Bologna, Italy. As an Italian citizen on the other hand, you will ask yourself why the hell the government doesn’t invest more in education and research, and how come less than 20% of Italians hold a university degree.
As a history buff from another country, you may be blown away by the fact that the first bank, the first stock exchange and the first nuclear reactor were all invented in Italy. As a resident however, you can’t help but worry about the dreadful state of the country’s banking system, and you have to wonder why Italy is the only major European nation without nuclear power plants.
The more you get to know Italy, the more the dream you were sold morphs into a nightmare. Every additional week spent in the country will chip away at your sanity, very subtly at first, then more noticeably… until one morning you wake up and you can’t wait to pack your bags and run away.
For those of us who are well-traveled and know what the world can offer in terms of economic opportunity, entertainment value, and overall comfort, life in Italy is a veritable hell to adjust to, especially in the Southern regions.
When I think of Italy these days, I picture a gigantic open-air museum. Its ancient cobbled streets, full of history, are being walked for the most part by elderly people, idly killing time as they themselves wait to die.
By all means, do visit the great museum. Have a look at the unrivaled exhibits. Check the country off your bucket list.
But don’t make it your home. The dolce vita days are over. Nowadays, you can have a more fulfilling life just about anywhere else in Europe.
It’s no coincidence that the best Italian film in years, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, is a bittersweet reflection on ageing and the passing of time.
Casting only actors in their fifties and sixties for the main roles — with young people on the sidelines and relegated to extras — it encapsulates the squalor, decadence and self-defeating egotism of a Rome on its last legs, filled with people as unlikable and feeble-minded as the city itself is majestic.
“Italy, a beautiful country to be in,
aside from those 10,000 things that suck.”
— Fedez & J-AX (contemporary Italian rappers)
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