Expats Working in Italy for fun and profit
After a sputtering restart following the summer holidays (we’re in Italy, after all, it takes a few weeks to crank it back up), our nutty group of expats has returned with a vengeance to tell you all about working in Italy without getting caught—I mean, how to find a proper job with a legal contract.
Never mind that 1/3 of the economy is in nero (under the table), we’re here to help you do it right. Sort of. I mean, if you’re not ready to master l’arte d’ arrangiarsi (the art of “getting by”) then maybe you should just stay in Kansas.
But very few things are black and white over here, so you’d better decide how much “gray” you’re comfortable with before you sell all your furniture. For those fearless souls like us that have more enthusiasm than common sense, let us explain a thing or two about working in Italy as a foreigner.
It should be mentioned that this particular type of experience is actually much more rewarding than that of the lucky few who can afford to finance their dreams without working. By immersing yourself fully into the culture by way of a job, you become an active participant in your journey rather than just an observer. From the start, you should view this as an advantage, and not just as a necessity—even if it is. (OK, yes, I’d rather be toasting George Clooney’s nuptials with him at his Lake Como villa, but short of that, working for a living isn’t so bad.)
Or perhaps you’re one of those restless Americans who feel unsatisfied with his/her successful career, generous salary, and comfortable lifestyle in The States. You long for a less complicated existence, something that holds that elusive quality of being more “real.” You want to live more deliberately, to take the time to enjoy simple pleasures like deep conversations, slow meals, and the pursuit of frivolous passions. In sum, your life won’t be complete until you rescue a crumbling farmhouse in Tuscany, right? That’s OK, I’ve read the book, too.
This seems like a sensible fantasy, but I can’t tell you how many Italians that have asked me, “Why does every senior manager from Milwaukee want to pick up a hammer, call himself a carpenter, and move to Tuscany?”
For many Italians, they’d jump at the chance to abandon the family village, move to Manhattan, and never look back. Just a few days ago, in fact, I was checking into a hotel in Riccione and the receptionist, seeing my U.S. passport, told me emphatically, “I like the America so much! I want that I could leave Italy for always!” (Obviously, he’ll need to work on his English first.)
Interestingly, an American could have the same “carpenter” experience in his/her own country if they really wanted to—there are plenty of old farm houses in small American towns that need restoring. And it would be A LOT easier to accomplish (and cheaper) in West Texas than in Tuscany. But again, I think it’s about being an expat in an “exotic” location, where you can put your past out of your mind and recreate yourself in a new, idealized version. Yes, there are even some crazy stories of Americans who left successful dental practices in Florida to teach English in Rome and write a blog about Italy. Madness recognizes no social or political boundaries.
But why teach English? And why Rome specifically?
Teaching English is the default choice for those of us who possess no other marketable skills—like me. Sure, I could have tried to get my dental license in Italy, but again, like restoring a farm house, if I wanted to do that, I would have just stayed in the U.S. Fixing teeth is stressful enough without worrying about paying the pizzo (protection money) to the local outfit. Teaching, while less financially rewarding, does not carry the burden of those pressures.
Speaking of finances, I should also mention that a teaching job is not a wise “career choice.” In fact, it’s not a career at all, it’s a job—a job with little or no hope of promotion or advancement. You can make enough to pay the bills, but that’s about it. People like me do it for the experience, not for building a C.V. It’s fun, low stress, and finding work is quite easy.
We are currently amid a very unique moment in history as globalization gains momentum and the English language spreads like a contagion across the planet. The Earth gets a little smaller every day. People throughout the developed world are realizing that limiting their career prospects to their own country is no longer a reasonable strategy for career success. The emergence of a global language has been a necessary outcome of this phenomenon. In 20 years it might be Chinese, but right now that language is English.
Rome presents a unique opportunity because it is a large international city in a country that has a history of poor English instruction in the school system compared to the rest of Europe. In general, their citizens are highly educated—just not in languages. So when they graduate from university, they find themselves with an excellent education in their chosen field, but without the one absolutely necessary skill to compete in the international job market. English. Consequently the proliferation of private English schools in the last decade or so has opened up a huge market for native speakers. Finding a job as an English teacher in Rome is not quite as easy as falling off a horse—but it’s close.
The Italian Work Environment
For an American working in Italy, adjusting to the norms of Italian business and commerce can be somewhat of a challenge. You really need to downshift by a couple of gears and stop trying to impose your former work ethic on your current job situation. Not to say that Italians don’t work hard. They do, but they go about their workday at a different pace than what an American would come to expect.
In the U.S., employees are encouraged to be pro-active, self-starters, or at least try to look busy. Italians don’t appear to be troubled by such concepts. Don’t get me wrong, some actual work does manage to interrupt the constant string of coffee and cigarette breaks. But the project at hand is considered a mere annoyance, an afterthought, to the real task of discussing soccer or comparing family recipes for lasagna.
For a while I worked for a large American pharmaceutical company at their Italian headquarters just outside of Rome. I won’t mention their name, because that would be indiscreet—but let’s just say that they sell a popular blue pill, used by middle-aged men, as well as actors in the adult film industry. Enough said. Anyway, when working for a larger firm or international corporation in Italy, you can occasionally observe the unwanted intrusion of an American-style business philosophy. These companies even try to inject a fair amount of American vocabulary into the workplace, which can sound very strange to the Italian employee. Terms such “staff,” “meeting,” “productivity,” “competitiveness,” and “showing up to work on time,” have now (reluctantly) found their way into the corporate lexicon. Nonetheless, the actual meaning of these terms still tends to get lost in translation.
More exasperating still is dealing with government workers who often regard your presence at the same level as they would a gnat or a persistent rash. You may get angry with this attitude and be tempted to take out your frustrations on the postal employee, for example, who is talking on her cellphone behind the glass. However, this will do you absolutely no good. She has a very secure job and has no qualms about telling you precisely where you can put that package you wanted to send. Congratulations, now you get to take a new number and go back to the end of the line. Or better yet, just go to another post office at that point.
For small businesses, the workday isn’t quite as brutal. Even if you put in a solid 2 or 3 hours of work in the morning, you still have your “pausa” to look forward to. “The Pause,” is the time of day in Italy when all of the local businesses shut down and the workers go home for their three hour lunch break. I suppose it is the equivalent to the Spanish “siesta.” I don’t know where, when, or why this tradition started, but what I do know is that it can be quite vexing to the uninitiated American expat. We’re used to 24 hour access to everything. We naively expect things to function efficiently and in a timely manner. The world is supposed to cater to our every need or whim. When doing business in Italy, you can forget about all of that—just toss away your “To Do” list, go find a sunny piazza, and have a glass of wine. NOW you’ve adjusted to working in Italy.
I’ve written a few post on various work-related topics in the past. Here are some of them:
As usual, you’ll need to visit my friends’ pages if you want to garner any real information. Check out their blogs via my COSI links, and collectively you’ll have a pretty good overview of the job situation in Italy.
*A side note: this group is intentionally comprised of expats living in different Italian cities—big and small, north and south—in order to give a more diverse perspective on life in Italy as a foreigner. As a result, we don’t often (ever) meet each other in person.
However, this week I have the honor and privilege of attending a very important travel trade show/blogger conference with one of my accomplices, Georgette, aka The Girl in Florence, at TBDI in Rimini. Her presence ups the street-cred of this gathering by 200%, and I’m left wondering why I’m even here. I’m not complaining, though, just keeping my eyes, ears, and notebook wide open at all times. Hopefully I’ll learn a thing or two.
Read Georgette’s thoughts on the subject here: Living in Italy, what is it really like?
Rochelle, The Unwilling Expat in Sicily explains: How to pretend NOT to work in Southern Italy.
And from Pecora Nera’s perspective: How to find work in Italy or a warning to other foolhardy immigrants.