Thursday, October 04, 2012

Impressions: ripples in a pond, and some thoughts on raising children in Italy


Dear Readers,

I've been uncharacteristically silent a long while, I know. Change is in the air, and I suppose I've been on mental (as well as physical) vacation from Italy and the expat rat-race. I still have plenty of stories about life on this cockamamie peninsula, but whether or not they will all get told within the space of this blog--whose days, I fear, are numbered--remains to be seen.

I had the good fortune to spend another summer in Portland, Oregon--three whole months this time. Goodness, how that place grows on you! We've decided to make it our next port of call, and plan on moving away from Florence and the in-laws (very important) as soon as this school year finishes. A brand-spanking new chapter in our lives yaws before us like a genial, benign blue whale--and we can't wait to let it swallow us whole.


***

His cardboard sign read "Free: smiles, kind words, listening, hugs. Just ask!" The scruffy, blissed-out young man sitting cross-legged on the pavement on Hawthorne Ave regarded us passers-by with unmitigated good will.

"How ya doin', Sister?" smiled the young guy holding a can of beer, sitting on his steps with the sun on his face. "You have a good one now." Okay, he was probably drunk off his ass, but how could a smile not overtake my mouth?

The cashier at the supermarket said to me after taking my money, "Have a great day. Thanks for shopping with us!"

The 15 Belmont bus driver, all smiles, catapulted out of his little cubicle to help the young mother struggling with newborn, gargantuan diaper bag and chariot-sized stroller off the bus, while I struggled to scrape my lower jaw off the floor.

Small-talk. Casual pleasantries with strangers. A kind word here and there. Gracious bus drivers. Polite postal workers. Everyday people paying it forward in countless small ways. It all made me realize how much I've gotten used to casual indifference, systematic abuse, stony faces and disdainful scowls at the hands of petty Italian functionaries, cashiers, receptionists, shop-workers and the like. Really, at times living in Florence feels like being an unwilling participant in a Mean Contest, with each Italian contestant trying to outdo one another in churlishness. In the face of such daily--and, I would add, altogether unfathomable and unnecessary--unpleasantness one gets to feel utterly beaten down. It just makes everything so exhausting, and it all seems so utterly pointless, though I suppose so many Italians in positions of "power" act like jackals with PMS because it makes them feel good about themselves in some way. Or they're all sadists. In any case, that mantle of negativity is tough to shake off. In Portlandia--admittedly famous for the preternatural friendliness of its locals--I was often rendered nigh speechless by the unwarranted kindness and good-naturedness of strangers. It made me feel good. Put a spring in my step (turns out a smile IS contagious!). And more importantly, it made me feel human--whereas endless interactions with surly Italians makes me feel like something that ought to be scraped off the bottom of their shoes. 

If our actions are like ripples in a pond, then kindness and friendliness make the pond worth diving into. Don't you think?

ancient buddha, photo by David Smeaton

I was once told that the reason a rather sizable Buddhist community exists in and around Florence (my hairdresser's a Buddhist, for example) is because it's such a center of negative energy--as if it bubbles up here from some malign source deep in the earth's magma--and that the Buddhist prayers and presence are necessary for offsetting it. Buddhist ripples in the old, stagnant Florentine pond.

Which led me to think about the omphalos. An earthly navel, as it were, according to the Greeks. The center of the world, a godly orifice, a portal. If Florence is a kind of omphalos of negativity--a bizarro navel crouching in its Apennine-encircled conca--then Portland sure feels like its opposite: the center of positive vibes and creative energy.


***

I look around me in Florence these days and I see so very many old people. So very, very many. Nothing against 'em, of course, but it makes for a fusty country that resists change and modernity with all the tenacity of a moth-ball-ridden old biddy clutching her support hose, glycerin suppositories, and tessera sanitaria. It makes for a country that, though it wrote such a splendid history for itself, is unable to outline a future because who cares, it'll soon be dead anyway. It makes for a country that feels more and more like a giant, albeit artful casket that needs to be buried posthaste before its contents begin to smell. Italy is a country that recklessly squanders its most precious natural resource: its young people. They are its most wasted potential. But, compared to the old folks who doggedly run the show and refuse to give up the ghost, there are relatively few young people to make Italy's history anew, even if they were equipped or inclined to do so.

The low birth-rate here is no secret. And I wonder about the reasons for it. While there are doubtless many factors--economic considerations being perhaps primary--I think the "Great Italian Bambino Paradox" is at the heart of it. On the one hand, Italians adore children--they are petted and fussed-over and cherished--enthroned is a better word--and encouraged to live at home for most of their adult lives. But on the other, very little is done for children and young people by the various governing bodies to enrich their lives and give them opportunities for growth and experimentation. Schools are bare-bones basic--with education varying in quality, just like anywhere--offering almost nothing by way of art, music, computer sciences, or sports (the concept of "extra-curricular" does not exist; hell, my kids don't even have toilet paper in their school). Nothing much to set the imagination aflame. It surprises me that in a country with such a rich artistic and musical heritage, little is done to foster this kind of creativity in children. In summer, kids' brains are left to lie fallow; cities do not offer activity programs, the centri estivi being an expensive, limited-term day-care option only. But it goes deeper than that. There is no overarching gestalt that puts a high value on the renewable energy that is the youthful outlook, the natural eagerness to see and do, the drive and fresh perspective that each age of humankind calls for. No wonder people don't feel like having babies.

Perhaps because of this decided lack of appeal to their imaginations, there seems to be some sort of malaise that afflicts many Italian schoolchildren at some stage in their academic life. And doubtless because of this, relatively few are motivated to go on to achieve college degrees. Of course, perhaps they think why go to college? Jobs are won not by merit but by who you (i.e. your family) know, and career success/recognition/advancement doesn't depend on individual achievement but again, on those many-tentacled familial connections. (The national motto really ought to be "Nepotism, Protectionism, and Cronyism--Evviva!"). The stagnant economy, corrupt politics, overburdened social security system (which treats old-timers like sultans and newcomers like buggered whores) and the decrepit machinery that is Italian labor law doesn't help matters, of course. With all these obstacles, it's easy to understand how apathy can take root, and I think it's safe to say that a kind of collective weltschmerz (see how cool-sounding German words roll off my virtual tongue today?) has overtaken the majority of Italian youth, whether they realize it fully or not. In fact, a point has been reached where intelligent, educated and energetic young Italians are leaving the country in droves to seek their fortunes elsewhere--Godspeed, I say. Meanwhile, the graying of the piazzas continues apace, and there's that electric-charged hush in the air as if before some kind of cataclysmic tempest or götterdämmerung (sorry).

Italy is not a place in which to be young.


A fresh perspective: Portland, omphalos of the Pacific Northwest


Portland feels so invigorating by comparison. Young people are everywhere, young parents toting their two, three and four children about, hipsters young and old crowding the outdoor tables of beer gardens and eateries, everyone seemingly so up on the latest technology and freshest ideas in everything. The place hums with creative energy, a vibe that can only be described as "happening," and an exuberant physicality typically exemplified by the enthusiastic and ubiquitous adoption of the bicycle as the preferred mode of travel. I could not help but fall under the spell of this evergreen Shangri-la. I realize that I have perhaps painted Italy in shades of rather stark black and white, and of course nothing in the world is either--subtle gradations are everywhere, good and bad make strange bedfellows but bedfellows they are, and exceptions take exception to being forced to abide by the rules. But in the end I decided that I don't want my children living in a place where they're so powerless to shape their future (two strikes against Gemma because she's female), where they're not encouraged to think outside the box and experiment because, for one thing, nothing could ever possibly come of it*, where enrichment opportunities are are so scarce, and where their precious youth counts for so little. So we're going.

Change is good. Change is needed. We need it; I need it. Time to splash around in this stagnant old pond and seek new shores upon which to stake our claim to happiness. There are risks, there are unknowns. Che sarà and all that. But to paraphrase the Bard: bless us, bless us indeed--we're about to be translated.


My best regards,

Campobello

* I read a very thought-provoking piece in an Italian newspaper a while back detailing the reasons why Italy could never grow its own Steve Jobs. Essentially it said that any potential innovator must overcome the twin evils of a pervasive defeatist mentality and a ponderous, ham-fisted bureaucracy. Double-barreled death to entrepreneurialism assured. Plus broadband here sucks.





23 comments:

  1. Liz, I am sorry your experiences here have been so bad and wish you luck in the States. I could not get past the second paragraph, it was too strong for me and I am very happy here in Florence. In boca a lupo. Barbara

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    1. Barbara, I have been in Florence 12 years now, and my experiences have been varied--good, bad, and everything in between--just like they'd be anywhere. I think it's nigh impossible to hack off any 12 years of your life and characterize it monochromatically. It's simply time for a new adventure--the same sense of excitement over the "new" that made me come to Florence is the same inspiration for moving on. Though, I have to say that having kids always changes one's perspective on things and--if you'd read further--you'd understand that it is my concern for them that is the primary impetus in reaching this decision.

      Thanks for reading as always and thanks for your kind well-wishes :) un bacio

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    2. P.S. I'm so glad you're happy here in Florence, Barbara!

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  2. Your Florence experience and mine, as well as your experience in the States are very, very different. I think you are making the right choice to move back there. Good luck and best wishes. Portland is a beautiful place.

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    1. Hi Karen, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Please see my reply to Barbara, above: my intention was not to characterize the range of my entire experience in Italy. I've had a great time, a wild ride, I've learned a lot and challenged myself in a million ways--there have also been very, very difficult times [see my Lotuses Bloom in Mud post], and yet out of these has come growth. And the knowledge that I know what I want and I'm going to go after it--which is a common characteristic, I'd wager, among all us expats! :)

      Thanks again for stopping by.

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    2. Portland doesn't actually feel like it's part of the U.S. :)

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  3. Your last few posts gave a sense of your increasing Angst with life in Italy. And Portland sounds truly wunderbar (in keeping with the German theme). Looking forward to 'Letters from Portlandia'.

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    1. Excellent, Isabel, excellent! You get extra points for two fabulous German words. I may have even have to sing you a Wagnerian aria.

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    2. Of course, it's not said that I won't move to India someday in the not-too-distant future. Talk about a happening place!

      Letters from Mumbai?

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  4. Wow! I must say you will leave behind a gaping hole when you leave. What will we do without your hilarious, gorgeously worded and biting missives on the things that drive us all a bit batty here?! You also hit a sensitive spot in this reader. The degree of my ambivalence towards Italy is overwhelming sometimes. I've been fighting the wave of pessimism washing over this country tooth and nail by focusing on the good things, and there really is so much to love. But I too am wondering about my kid's future. Tough times. At any rate, I wish you well and I too look forward to hearing about life on the other side of the pond!

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    1. Michelle, as always, thank you so much for reading and thank you for your kind words. It is always good to focus on all that there is to love here (I really liked your blog post on Five Great Things about Motherhood in Italy, for example--and I would agree with them all). There's a reason so many people visit Italy and dream of living here. But as you point out, the future of our children is something all parents contemplate. In some ways, it's a lot more difficult for us expats because, blessing or curse, we usually have choices that most of the "natives" do not, with regard to real or perceived greener pastures. And yes, these are tough times indeed for many of us.

      I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on Maple Leaf Mamma (www.mapleleafmamma.com)--it's a fabulous expat blog and I look forward to reading more :)

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  5. SarahW3:33 PM

    I am living in another part of Tuscany and I agree totally with your observations. Glad that you are back at this page...for a while anyway - and don't you dare stop writing a blog wherever you end up! Love your work.

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  6. Could be that getting away from the inlaws can't hurt either or are you taking them with you? (ha)

    Seriously I understand your concerns for your kids..you have written about the "mama" culture over there and the lack of ambition...those of us who travel there for a couple of weeks and fall in love with the food and scenery have no idea what it means to live there day in day out...

    goodluck to you and keep writing..you crack me up!

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  7. Hi Debbie--yes, you nailed it: I'm importing my in-laws to the U.S. where they'll raise rabbits, try to get the Latin Mass reinstated, and hit every Big n' Wide shoe emporium west of the Mississippi... NOT. Oh the horror.

    I must thank you for introducing me to MJ's Paris blog--hilarious! Every now and then I drop by her Seattle blog because she's so darn funny.

    As always, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts :)

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  8. Alexandra1:48 PM

    I'm sad you're going (selfishly)...but not entirely surprised. Il Lapo won't be the same without you, sister. Onward and upward!
    See you soon?
    Alexandra

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    1. Thanks, Alexandra. I feel very at peace :) Would love to see you.

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  9. Anonymous11:41 AM

    I've popped in on your blog from time to time and enjoy it. The funny thing is, reading about the sour attitudes made me think "what is she talking about?" But I realized I have become so accustomed to customer service and civil servant 'pleasantries' here I had a difficult time making the connection. I'll elaborate...lately when home in the States I abhor the faux-friendliness and try to not engage in small talk or idle chit chat thinking it's "so weird" and "why are these people trying to talk to me, I don't know them.. why won't the person at the cash register stop engaging" What have I become? lol. Because....when I really stop to think about it, I do appreciate the helpfulness found in the US, the fact that if you drop something, someone will likely get it before you can even bend down (instead of stepping on it or pretending they didn't see), doors not slammed in my face....especially by men, people making room for each other on the sidewalk, respecting the lines etc. I'm fairly content in Firenze but I could see how it drains after a while. Your post is quite thought provoking, at least for me. Good luck.

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    1. I'm so pleased you took the time to comment--thank you. I've had experiences similar to yours in the past in the U.S., and have shied away from many commonplace pleasantries as well (I'm fairly reserved by nature). Of course, those kinds of exchanges are by their very nature superficial--we can hardly expect them to be otherwise--but you and I seem to be in agreement that they make for more civil everyday experiences. There's a reason they're called PLEASANT-ries, after all! ;-)

      I have to say, though, that Portland is bizarrely friendly, friendly to the extreme; on a Richter scale of friendliness it'd be off the charts. I've never experienced anything quite like it, anywhere. And I have this pet theory that it's self-perpetuating: the more everyone is friendly and helpful and polite to everyone else the happier people are and hence the more they're friendly and helpful and polite to everyone else. It just keeps going around and makes for a nice lifestyle. We'd all do well to take this philosophy to heart :-)

      Thanks again for stopping by!

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  10. Anonymous5:49 PM

    I have never had an experience such as yours in Italy. I
    have travelled all over South America and Japan and found them to be warm and kind. However, wherever you go
    to find "greener grass", there is nothing like our beloved U.S.A.! God bless America! That is why my ancestors came to this country, because of freedom and
    hope for a better life.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting :-) Every place has its pros and cons, I think, and it's a matter of weighing what's important to you at that particular stage of your life. We are certainly looking forward to our U.S. adventure--but I hope there will be other adventures yet to come as well! Would love to visit Japan.

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  11. Anonymous11:14 AM

    I don't know how I feel about this post...I appreciate that you reference Florence instead of making these comments to apply to all of Italy (as I despise Florence for its fighetti/vecchaia/ignavia ways) but there are plenty of success stories with the youth in Italy. Me being one of them, and I can completely appreciate your sentiment as I am from Seattle and also an Italian/American expat. There are lots of wonderful changes happening and things that are changing and improving in Italy. I am under 30 and have the fortune of a future here and surrounded by other young people with bright careers ahead of them. Granted, its not like the states but I don't agree with how Italians are giving up and abandoning ship. We can't let this ship sink. We have to fix what the older's generations hunger for ignavia has created for our generation. All is not lost and will not be buried. It does get frustrating as a foreign immigrant (ha, but as an anglo? Try telling that to the refugees who are shunned and exploited in Italy) but portland and the PNW has their sterile attributes. Yes, people are civil in comparison but are they honest? Do they bring you into their homes if you need a surrogate family? Do they really respect the land unless its some portlandia eater.com trend? I appreciate that you are aware of the pros and cons and not painting a totally stark picture of Florence, and I can't imagine how it must feel to get robbed and knowing the injustices in the lack of public protection these jackals fail to provide, but please don't give up on Italy! There is hope! Have a great time back home, you deserve it after all of these years.

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    1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful and encouraging comment. I am glad to know that there are hopeful situations for younger people in Italy, and that there is change on the horizon. I certainly didn't mean to paint it as all black/bleak--nothing is that cut and dried--but I do feel that the older generation of Italians in power need to yield to the younger generations in order for there to be any meaningful progress.

      I agree about the good fortune in being an Anglo immigrant. I have observed discrimination in varying degrees directed towards immigrants of color, and I've always felt so terrible for them. Not saying that everyone participates in this, naturally, but that there is an insidious close-mindedness at work.

      I have to say that right now my choice to live in Portland feels great. It feels like the absolutely right thing for me at this time, just like the move to Italy all those years ago felt right for that time in my life. I am fortunate in being able to choose and move around relatively easily, I know. (Expat privilege?) I have not given up on Italy--and I certainly will enjoy visiting, and there are things that I miss, of course--but it grew too complicated for me to live there, too exhausting; it felt like too much of a struggle for what I was getting in return. I am happy that this isn't the case for everybody :-)

      Thank you for your well wishes and for taking the time to write. All the best to you, too!

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