Tuesday, November 30, 2010

For the Love of God

The Palazzo Vecchio has been the seat of Florentine government for more than 700 years. It then became the home of the Medici family in the 16th century when the 17 year old Cosimo de’Medici became the new leader of Florence. For Centuries the Medici struggled for wealth and power, they commissioned some of the most important works of art from the Renaissance period and demanded the best that money could buy, only to be met by inevitable death and complete loss of family lineage.

Today I went to see the Damien Hirst piece titled For the Love of God, on display at the Old Palace and was quite frankly, fascinated. I simply could not take my eyes off of the 8,601 diamonds that cover the platinum skull. It was brilliant in every sense of the word, literally and figuratively. I had heard about this piece a few years ago when it was first displayed in the Rykes museum in Amsterdam but realized today that seeing pictures of the piece does not do it justice. It was quite simply amazing.

After  purchasing our tickets we walked into the museum through the normal entrance of the sala di 500,  the room from the 1500’s, complete with Renaissance sculptures by Michelangelo and fresco paintings by Giorgio Vasari. To our right there was a small line where after being met by a security guard and showing our ticket, we were allowed to enter thorough a small side door into a tiny room filled with more paintings from the 1500’s. From there we waited for a second security guard to communicate with the guard in the next room, once she was given the ok, the curtain opened and  stepped into yet another tiny pitch black room where the work is being displayed. It sits in a glass case, which, naturally is alarmed and we were warned not to get too close. It appears as if the skull is floating in mid air, each diamond dancing in the light that shines down directly on the piece from above, we then walked around it where we could see that every crevice of that head is incrusted in diamonds. Amazing. In fact, one’s first reaction may very well be, Per L’amor di Dio!! or For the love of God!! I personally have never seen that many diamonds in my life. 
 Photo courtesy of google images
And even though I was in awe of what was in front of me, I couldn't help but to think, standing inside this immense palace filled with all of this incredible 16th century art work,  of the old adage that you can't take it with you when you die. 

The piece immediately calls to mind the Renaissance scenes of the last judgment with reminders of death scattered throughout the works in the form of skeletons, cautioning people to be good Christians because God is watching and ultimately only He will judge you. It seems that Hirst’s work is a reflection of contemporary society that speaks to our attachment to wealth and beauty with the inexorable conclusion of death.  It is thought provoking and parallels many events in Florentine history such as The Bonfires of the Vanities in which the fanatic monk Savanarola convinced the Florentines that their focus on materialism would lead to an eternity al inferno!  And one must wonder, have we really come that far?

Death is ultimately the conclusion of life and this piece will not let you forget it. Try as you will, it all ends prima o poi. 
Contemporary art in a city like Florence is undoubtedly necessary.The city survives on its inheritance, the old masters did it all and the Medici left it for us to admire, and we all make our living through the thousands of tourists who pass though every year to see it. But what about now? There are many contemporary artists that are forced to compete with what history classifys as art, ignoring the progression and change that has occurred. I have heard many argue that they do not like contemporary art or find no interest in it, but my feeling is that a true art historian or lover of art understands its significance and the important role it plays in present-day society and how art arrived at the point it is today.
The Renaissance was one of the most important historical movements in history.  It was just as much of an intellectual movement as it was an artistic movement.  The Renaissance period allowed us to be who we are today.  It was about educating yourself and forming your own opinion, breaking free from the medieval ideas that life revolved around death and that your only reason for living was assuring your passage into heaven. It was about the freedom to think for yourself and form an opinion regarding the world in which we live.

What was so significant about the Renaissance as an artistic movement is that the artists progressed from the Medieval and Byzantine period, they understood that it was time to move forward and be something different. The Impressionists challenged the ideas and practices of what came before them.  Then there were the Modernists who broke away from the traditional  ideal of art making, the Futurists spoke of the need to break free from the past completely, and the Abstract Expressionists who sought to ‘destroy’ the image entirely. And now we find ourselves searching for the next big thing- well its here. And what an interesting conversation it makes to place the most expensive work of art ever sold by a living artist, (it sold for 50 million British pounds) in one of the oldest buildings in the city which was occupied by the most important family in the history of Flroence and arguably the world who almost single handily funded the entire Renaissance movement,  only to die out and have no one left to carry on the legacy or family name – the connections are fascinating and the dialogue provoking.
 image courtesy of Wikipedia
Art is about progression and how we can respond to what has already been done and how we move forward. Your ability to understand the meaning of the work is not as important as it to understand the importance of contemporary art as a progressive movement.  I myself am not necessarily a fan of the 'image' of a shark cut in half and submersed in a tank of formaldehyde (as an example of other works by Hirst) but I do understand the significance of it and the significance of the artist himself. 

Artists are notoriously classified as poor or suffering for their work, and being misunderstood. As Hirst shows us through this piece, that is no longer the case, nor is it necessary. The artist purchased all of the diamonds himself - it is certainly a far cry from the contracted images of the Renaissance and the fact that the artist was not allowed the freedom of creativity and/or intellectual autonomy, but rather it was a job and based solely on ones technical ability to create an image. Some tried to break free, push the envelope and make statements but it was rarely understood.

There will always be a response to what happened before. The focus is not so much on the image that you are looking at but rather on what the artist is trying to communicate. Art is a language. It always has been. Contemporary art is a form of communication where the artist is allowing you think and decide on your own what you think the story is.  It bares your intelligence in mind, provoking you to think and form your own opinion based on your personal experiences and view of the world around you.  Perhaps Hirst is challenging the viewer in this piece to self-reflect and think about who exactly is your God.

Of course we cannot expect, nor would I suggest that we no longer focus on the history of this amazing city, but I would suggest that we not be so quick to deny the importance and relevance of the contemporary movement in a city like Florence. I believe that it is vital for the future of this city. But not for the thousands of tourists who come to visit every year, but for the young people who live here, to not be expected to take over the family restaurant or souvenir shop but rather to find a way of participating in a discourse with the rest of the world.   Florence in all of its splendor and historical glory can be surprisingly uninspiring at times. For those of us who live here, the Uffizi is amazing, but sometimes we would also like to see something new. Florence must move forward and give a platform to the young and talented artists who are living today. This is a good start.

You can usually find a contemporary art exhibit at Palazzo Strozzi which changes just about every 6 months. I always look forward to seeing the shows there, however it is a rather small portion of the city reserved for contemporary work. They have had some good shows in the recent past which have included one of my personal favorites, Gerhard Richter, and while the current Bronzino exhibit is quite beautiful, I have to say I was slightly disappointed that they decided to use the space to house a Renaissance show.

There are a few other contemporary galleries in the city, and I have noticed a few more popping up here and there as well, and a definite increase in the time that I have lived here. I will be posting links to these contemporary galleries very soon so be sure to check out the details.

The Damien Hirst piece at Palazzo Vecchio is definitely worth a visit if you are here in Florence. If you have seen it I am interested in hearing your thoughts. So drop me a comment below. I’m also including a video here of the artist talking about the work himself, its very interesting to watch especially after seeing the work.

Who knows, maybe you can take it with you when you die after all....

Along with this video there are many others. Here is another that I thought was interesting, yes it starts off in Dutch, but keep watching because the interview with Hirst is in English and he has some interesting things to say about the piece and about being an artist.  You can view the video here.

I'm also including another video on the work on one of my former professors from Art Center College of Design, he has some interesting points about the progression of art and how it creates the contemporary. Check out this interview with John Millei.

Ciao e buona visione!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

This Little Piggy Went to Market

Saturday is my favorite day of the week. Not only because I get to sleep in but rather because Saturday morning is when I go to the market. Mercato Sant'Ambrogio is literally 1 block and a corner away from where I live and even though it's open Monday-Saturday, I usually like to head over on Saturdaay morning to stock up for the week.  Luckily I can always run over during the week too just in case I find myself missing something. And much to our delight they have recently extended the hours on Wednesday and Friday to 7pm.  Every other day it is open form 7:30am to 1:30-2pmish.

Generally I let  myself wake up whenever I want and make some coffee for my husband and I and then I head on over the market with my trusty carrello. I love this thing let me tell you! And I fit in with all the old Italian ladies too!
I usually start outside and walk around the section that has all the clothes and housewares first to see if there is anything that I simply cannot live without.  You can find anything you can imagine here, from clothes to jewelry and shoes to linens to pots and pans.

I am loving all the recently added bead and jewelry supply vendors! Great stuff for great prices. 
 The vendors are on a rotating schedule which means they move around the city to the various outdoor market places. That means you will usually find different products and vendors each time you go.

     This guys had some great scarves today. I bought 2. They were only 
5euro a piece! Can't beat that!

After I look around a bit I head over to the front outside portion and pick up all my fruits and veggies.  The choices are plentiful and I never know what to choose. The good thing is that most of them are seasonal so the selection changes just about every 3 months or so. No broccoli in the Spring and Summer around here!

 People ask me all the time how its possible for the Italians to stay so thin. Its pretty hard to resist all this healthy goodness around here!
After I gather up all the fresh produce my heart desires I usually head indoors for all the rest. Meat and dairy products as well as grains and flours and anything else that may look particularly appealing that day. 

 While yes, Saturday Morning is the busiest day of the week, I don't mind. I love the idea of being amongst the crowds listening to all the noises watching the worker interacting with all the locals.
 This little guy is looking through the glass at all those yummy dolce! Just waiting patiently for his turn.

 Quite possibly THE best yogurt I have ever tasted in my life! I get a little container every week. In fact they don't even have to ask me anymore!
And then I head back home and throw it all together and have the most delicious lunch imaginable.
So if you really want to do as the Florentines, head over to Mercato Sant'Ambrogio any day of the week (except Sunday of course) and dig in! I always tell tourists this when they ask me where the most authentic place for a Florentine lunch is......are you drooling yet? I think I need a little snack myself!
Ciao e Buon Appetito!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Follow up to Feeling a Little Tipsy

So I am finding myself feeling the need to write a follow up to my last post Feeling a Little Tipsy. I’m not including pictures or (what I think are) funny antidotes as I feel that the lightness and fun have been taken out of the topic and now its time to get a bit more serious. I also felt it necessary to clarify that my initial post on the topic was meant to assure travelers that they will not be viewd as disrespectful or insulting if they leave a little something extra as I have found in my many years of experience that this is their primary concern.

The topic keeps popping up, I continue to think about the comment that was made by a reader but more importantly the link to the article posted within the comment referring to what the reader believed to be a ‘more sensible’ article about tipping.  I have to say that I am quite glad to have pissed someone off because it has given me the opportunity to read an article that I may not have otherwise and to reflect more deeply on the subject.  However, my opinion has not changed. I will continue to support the practice of tipping as long as necessary. And just so you will have an idea of what I am referring to I am posting the link to the article here.

Aside from the obvious, (striking and protesting for which, many of us that means not getting paid) we can’t really do much to force our governments into forcing our employers into paying us properly. Many have tried, many have failed and that’s not to say that we will give up but it does seem to be a daunting task especially here in Italy with one of the most corrupt governments in the Western World. 

You see the problem is this; you can suggest to do away with tipping and call the entire system ‘absurd’ but when you really start to think about why the system has been in practice for as long as it has and what kind a service this has allowed you to receive, you may want to think twice about making this suggestion.  Our society focuses on the negative much too often. For example if we go into a restaurant and have really great service sure we will leave a tip, (how much will depend on where you live) but probably nothing more than you would leave if you had just ok service. Why, because we expect it. We expect to have great friendly service everywhere we go. So you will go on with your day and you probably won’t go telling everyone you know about the great friendly service you had down at the little hole in the wall on the corner.  And you certainly won’t ask to speak to a manager to tell them how great your service has been or how that employee deserves recognition for a job well done, i.e; a raise or bonus of some kind. No you will walk out the door and go on with your life. And maybe you will come back one day, but maybe you won’t.

Now lets just say that you have really bad service in that same restaurant, or what you deem as inadequate, what do most people do?  Not only do most people not leave a tip, but also they would probably ask to speak to a manager, who would apologize profusely, and likely offer a free appetizer or dessert. (Although that would never happen in Italy, they would argue back and try to convince you that you’re wrong but I’ll get to that) Most people will then tell everyone they know about the awful service they had deterring others from going to that restaurant. And most people will probably feel satisfied that they spoke their mind and will continue to speak about the experience for months to come to anyone who will listen and essentially kept anyone else from making that same mistake and the others will probably all thank said person for the warning and then in turn replay that story to anyone who mentions that particular restaurant in the future.

Why is it that we feel this overwhelming need to talk about how horrible something was but never how wonderful it was? Again, because we expect it. Ok, so your thinking, well shouldn’t we expect to be treated nicely? Absolutely. But my point is this, take away the tipping system and you take away the persons desire to go out of their way to make sure that you are happy. Most people are not going to go and tell the manager how great the service was so just leave the tip already and everyone is happy. These waiters that are working are people too, just like you feel you should be treated a certain way by them they feel they should be treated a certain way by you. Tips are one of the reason many of use choose service positions to begin with. Take away tips and you are also limiting a vast population of people who are willing to do these jobs, in turn making your experience that much less pleasurable.

When one goes to this type of establishment or pays for certain type of service it is known that the price of that service is not only what is listed on that bill but rather the price listed on the bill plus gratuity.  Its not a surprise folks, its been happening for many many years.

Now, one of the points argued by the author is that tipping began as a criminal act. Maybe so, but do you know how many other well-established daily practices have deep roots in criminal and less than desirable history? Tipping is just the beginning. (just got an idea for another post)

Now I do not feel that people should be treated differently simply because of their tipping habits however there is a reason why the service industry offers a high end product and an economy product, people expect different things when they pay more for it so why shouldn’t they expect more if they are willing to tip more and vice versa. Why shouldn’t the person servicing you work more productively knowing that there is the possibility of receiving a bonus at the end?

Another example of our focus on negativity is a website like TripAdvisor. (For example uh, don’t want anyone accusing me of blaming trip advisor for the problem) You can have pages and pages of positive feedback about a company, restaurant, hotel, etc, but add one, just one, negative review about that same company and at the bottom of the review where it asks “was this review helpful?” you will see the answer “yes” on that negative review. Rarely, on the positive ones. Does bad service happen? Absolutely. We’re human; sometimes even the person providing you with the service has a bad day. We’re sorry. Its nothing personal.  

Perhaps if we started to recognize good service as much as we do bad service, maybe then, and only then could we consider the idea of doing away with tips, and only if that employer is willing to compensate for the level of employee.  It is also important to consider that it is incredibly difficult to do away with a system that has been as well established as tipping. Come up with a substitute and then maybe we could make a deal.

Now I do realize that this article so far has not been a focus on Florence or Italy, I do think, and I have a feeling many would agree with me here, that customer service leaves something to be desired around here, and that that little extra compensation could and does (where it is practiced) do wonders for this country's standard of service.

While yes, I do understand that there are other ways of looking at the situation this is my personal opinion. I am posting the article again that provoked me to write this follow-up as I am not one to say that my opinion is the only opinion, however I do speak from many years of experience in the service industry, 18 to be exact. I personally do not mind paying a little “extra” if that is going to assure that I receive good service. So have a look at the article and by all means tell me what you think.

I will assume however, that the person who writes an article such as this has never actually been in a position in which they have worked for tips. I am curious as to weather or not this author feels the same way about commission based jobs, as essentially they are one in the same, as the salesperson is going to be extra special nice to you and talk you into purchasing something that you may not necessarily need so that they can receive their commission and you’ve just spent your hard earned money on something you will never use. Come in be honest, how many times has that happened to you?   

I also find it quite telling that the author chooses to open his article reciting scenes from a Quentin Tarantino film, which glorifies crime and the obvious objectification of women. I am furthermore intrigued that the author chose to use the example of the 21-year-old waiter at the end, not only is her response shallow and entirely personal, but it also stereotypes an entire industry with the response of just one (very young might I add) person. Now I’m no sociological scholar, but I think that that classifies as “racism”  or at the very least discrimination.

And to answer your question kind sir, “Does it really take more skill to serve a $100 dish than a $20 dish, and should it really fall on the customer to pay no matter how poorly that dish gets served?” Actually yes it does, and no, no one should leave a tip if it was served poorly, that is precisely the point, nowhere in the world is tipping obligatory. I have worked everywhere from 4 star hotels and restaurants to beach bar & grills, and yes it is an entirely different standard of serving a dish. Trust me. Just as much as providing a high end service anywhere (think first class on a plane, private tours and private car service vs. taxi) is much more impegnativo and exhausting then providing a standard service.

There is one thing that bothers me more than anything else, and that is when people speak so matter-of –fact-ly about subjects in which they have absolutely no knowledge and/or experience. I challenge you Mr. Kamer or anyone else for that matter, to try it out for a while and then tell me how you feel about tipping.

And just one last point, I worked in several tourist locations in Santa Barbara California with a high percentage of European tourists and never once did I or any of my colleagues “chase down” a European patron for not leaving a tip. Nor have I ever seen an Italian chase down an American tourist for the same offense, simply because they expect to be tipped by Americans. That is simply void of class no matter where you live and once again a stereotype inflicted upon an industry by one persons lack of knowledge. And if you have seen it, it is the exception not the rule. 

Please note that I am using the example of waiter as a response to Foster Kramer’s article as this is the example he uses. Please do keep in mind however that there are many occupations classified as service jobs that do in fact deserve to be tipped.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Feeling a Little Tipsy?

No, I’m not talking about wine. That will be a different post…..I promise. No but seriously, I am talking about the whole tipping, gratuity, showin’ a little love with a fist full of euro, ya know that kind of tipsy.  The diplomatic response here is, uhum; “Tips are greatly appreciated, but certainly not obligatory by any means” (insert big cheesy smile on my face) People ask me this question all the time and since I always try to be as professional as possible while I am working this is usually my response but what I really want to say to them is this:  

TIPS ARE PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE, anzi, (that’s Italian for actually quite the opposite) they are GREATLY appreciated!! Yes, by all means, tip your waiter, tip your cabbie, tip your bellhop, just like you would at home, but most importantly TIP YOUR TOUR GUIDE!!! Please remember that these people are providing you with a service and they work very hard and are rarely paid accordingly.  Now I know that Rick Steves says you shouldn’t, but please take it from me, I and many of my colleagues, we depend on it. The person providing you with the service is only getting paid a fraction of what you paid for it. Italy has THE lowest wages in Westeren Europe, even lower then Greece.  (See previous post She Works Hard for the Money) People are forced to live at home until they are in their mid to late 30's because even professionals barely pull in 1000 euro per month. These people are working very hard and that coperto that you are paying at the restaurant is NOT going to the server, trust me its not, its going to the owner.  
I work in the service industry here in Italy and let me tell you that without tips I would not be able to pay my rent, bills, etc. It doesn't have to be a large tip even a few extra euro is appreciated and very much needed. Even my ITALIAN husband leaves tips in restaurants. You don't have to tip for your coffee at an espresso bar but, your concerige who just spent 15 on the phone for you making reservations for museums and dinner, yes you should tip her. Your taxi driver who lifted your heavy suitcase in and out of his car, yes you should tip him too, your waiter who brought you bread, then wine, then olive oil, then water etc, yes you should tip her too. Your tour guide who just spent the last 4 hours talking non-stop explaining every little detail of the paintings in the gallery with the utmost enthusiasm and booking your tickets as well as answering all of your questions related to the tour and not, yes you should tip her too!!!  
 It is incredibly frustrating to me to read in guide books or on other web sites and blogs about traveling to Italy that one should not tip. My colleagues and I are constantly looking for ways to spread the word about tipping in Italy knowing that it is a common misconception that one should not, and then to find out that there are still those who are saying not to is like taking a GIANT step backwards for us! Obviously I'm not saying that you should tip if someone has been rude or not performed their job properly, but I know for example that I am ALWAYS nice and gracious and not getting a tip after putting in all of that time, energy and effort is slightly frustrating.
While yes it may have been true once upon a time that it was considered an insult to tip, I assure you 110% that, that is no longer the case. The times they are a-changin’ and you gotta change with the times.  Now I’m not talking your life’s savings here but a little sign of appreciation is never taken badly. I made my way though college waiting tables in the U.S, I don’t know how to NOT leave a tip.  I leave a little something extra for everyone from my waiter to my hairdresser, to my dry cleaner and I assure you that no one has EVER been offended. I mean think about it, who would say no to a little extra money? Now you may be thinking to yourself, ok well I’m Australian or English, we don’t tip, well, maybe you don’t at home, but you really should here. When in Rome people, when in Rome…….So give a little bit, give a little bit of your love……
P.S. I just wanted to add for those of you who might be visiting my blog for the first time, that the purpose of this blog is to answer question that I am asked regularly about visiting, studying and living in Florence honestly and candidly. My purpose is to share with you my thoughts and opinions from a realistic point of view. Thanks for stopping by. Please let me know if you have a question and I will do my best to answer it for you. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Writing's on the Wall

When most people think of Italy the first things that usually come to mind are probably history, art, culture, food, wine, fashion, beautiful countryside and the crystal clear blue waters of the Mediterranean sea. Or maybe you think of sitting in a cafe sipping a glass of chianti with a gorgeous Italian whispering sweet nothings (that you don't understand a word of) in your ear. While this is all very true, (yes, including the whisperings of sweet nothings) one thing that you probably don't think about is graffiti. Yes that's right, it's everywhere.

I know, not quite what you expect to see when you come here, and for some of you it may be a bit disappointing. I get many a shocked reaction form tourists that are visiting Italy for the first time.  In fact I am asked ALL THE TIME, "so whats with all the graffiti around here?, its so horrible, why do people do that?" While yes they are right, it is horrible especially when its on the side of a historical building or the first thing you see as you approach a new city by train, I have never, in all of my years working with tourists been able to understand why they think I have the answer to that question. I don't know!! I imagine its the same reason why people graffiti anywhere in the world. A form of artistic expression? A rebellious act against authority? I really don't know what's with all the graffiti! So please stop asking!  But maybe we should think of it as part of the culture and something that the Italians have been doing for centuries and that they are simply continuing with tradition, its new contemporary form.....
As it turns out, it is in fact, the Italians who invented the idea of graffiti, or writing or decorating the outsides of buildings,  however it was originally known as sgraffiti, which means to be scratched into the surface.  (of course they did, what didn't the Italians invent? Ok so yeah it was used in ancient Greece too, but the Renaissance artisans, they perfected it.) It was a technique that was widely used here in Florence during the 16th century to decorate the facades of buildings. If you keep your eyes open you can see this throughout the city. It really is quite beautiful. Unfortunately this style of graffiti is no longer the preferred method of young street artists today.
photo courtesy of Stefano Gusmeroli http://www.viabregaglia.com/ita/route/06/index.php
photo courtesy of Roma Antica http://www.roma-antica.co.uk/page_1260630366807.html
So try not to be too disappointed when you see this. Not all Italians are well behaved and respectful, you still have the same rebellious kids here that you do everywhere else in the world. And while most Italians do see the incredible beauty and historical significance of a 500 year old church and the importance of showing their pride in keeping their city clean, there will always be those who don't care and Florence is no exception. Oh and be careful not to step in the dog poop as your looking at all the graffiti on the walls. :-)
I hope I didn't spoil your spotless image of all things Italian, it is still in my opinion one of the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Graffiti and all.
this is actually a site that the city decided to dedicate to the graffiti artists. I love the idea and think this looks great, too bad there are not more spaces like this for them to work!

Friday, November 19, 2010

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

Good friends and familiar traditions. Thanksgiving, Halloween, 4th of July, baby showers, bridal showers, birthday cakes, and Sunday brunch. We do get homesick sometimes and this is how we get through it.
Last time I was in the U.S I remember having a conversation with a friend of my brothers who had visited Italy and was interested in talking to me about the idea of immigrating to another country, the conversation lead to immigrants in the United States and how they all tend to group together with others form their home country and why that is.  She seemed almost offended by the fact that these immigrants don’t do more to integrate themselves with other Americans. Her opinion was that this is why they moved to the U.S in the first place was to become American and that they should really make more of an effort. This conversation really hit home for me as I began to understand for the first time that this must be how foreigners are viewed in every country in the world. I then proceeded to explain how the immigrant views the situation since I happen to understand it very well…
 Sometimes, I need to talk to someone sometimes who REALLY TRULY understands what I’m saying, and I’m not just talking language barriers and things being lost in translation.  I mean someone who really understands.  What it’s like to be homesick, what it was like growing up in the U.S, how it feels to be the foreigner, and why its so funny that I once said in a restaurant that the food here in Italy is so much better because there are no preservativi (which actually means condom in Italian) someone who has the same fears and reservations and finds the same joys and triumphs in living here. And probably most importantly understands what it means to have an Italian husband/boyfriend or date Italian men.  It is necessary for our survival, its not a conscience choice that we make to seek out only other American or natives English speaking friends, it just happens, we enjoy each others company are able to partake in easy conversations in which we can honestly express ourselves and vent all of our frustrations about Italian bureaucracy, healthcare and everything else that is different about living here. I have developed some of the greatest friendships in my life with other foreign woman here in Florence. We become each other’s family and surrogate sister’s (don’t worry Ali Cat you’ll always be my one and only) We look out for each other and make sure that we spend time together, its also a great excuse to go for an aperitivo once a week and we really look forward to that time. 
And on that note only one more week until Thanksgiving!! Yay! Oh and trust me, the Italian boys are NOT complaining about having to eat an American feast! In fact, one of the boyfriends is coming even though his significant other is in the U.S at the moment. Figuarati!

Its not as if we don’t want to have Italian friends, because many of us do, we just find a stronger connection to others who are like us, those that we have the most in common with.  Isn’t that the case with most relationships in life? And as well as one may speak a second language, it is still always just that, your second language and it is an effort.  It is those times that I spend with my girls that I can truly relax and enjoy the familiar and not worry about the cultural differences.

And while yes, sometimes those friends do decide to move back home, the true friendships always remain and continue to be as strong as they ever were
I also truly believe that there is a strength in female bonds and friendships that exists no matter where you live which I think is very difficult to explain in words, but for most women it is inherently understood, and I do believe that that bond is increased ten fold when one goes abroad.  As it turns out, there are not nearly as many American/Anglo men living here in Florence as there are women and there is certainly a connection that forms for that reason as well. 
So there you have it, to answer the question as to why we all tend to stick together, us stranieri, foreigners, immigrants in any country, I think the answer will always be the same…..

….Because it’s the bond, the bond, the bond, the bond that will bring us together…….da dada dad a, da dada da dada da…..
…..that’s what I always thought that song said anyway.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

She Works Hard for the Money

Oh wow you really live in Italy? It must be so wonderful! You are so lucky! It’s like you’re on a permanent vacation!…..
Yes it is wonderful and as I mentioned in an earlier post I do love living here, but I often times get frustrated when people think that I am sitting around sipping red wine in a little café somewhere living La Bella Vita. Trust me, I wish that were the case. Unfortunately, for the Italians and those of us that have decided to make Italy our home we face a very different reality.
(Yes I know I used this photo already but it just seemed so fitting)
As it turns out, La belpaease has some the lowest salaries in all of Europe. The average monthly wage around here is approximately 1,000euro (or 1,300 U.S. dollars) give or take. Average. A clerk at the local grocery store or the sales girl in the clothing shop is making about 800euro ($1,085) per month. It’s no wonder they don’t really care to help you when you come in. They’ll be smoking a cigarette outside or sending text messages on their cell phones. When you ask them for help its as if you are disturbing them. Yeah, I get frustrated with this often, but on the other hand can you really blame them? It’s not exactly the most stimulating work environment. I know I certainly wouldn’t be thinking, “How can I help you?” I would be thinking, “4 measly euro per hour?” That’s almost insulting! Especially considering that most of the time these people are working 6 days per week.
A monthly income of 1,200 euro or more is considered pretty good around here. And I’m not just talking about college kids that work in stores; I’m talking about professional people. People with college degrees and have families to support. If you get lucky maybe you can make it up to 1,500 euro but what’s left after paying rent/mortgage, groceries, utilities, car insurance, gas, etc? Not much. Especially considering that the cost of rent for a 1 bedroom apartment in the city of Florence can run anywhere between 800-1,200 euro per month.

And that is the Italians if they are lucky enough to find jobs. Nepotism is still very much a part of Italian culture even today. As if their father were King and its their inherent birth right to be given a job simply because they are the bosses kid or because they know someone who knows someone who owes them a favor, if you know what I mean. Even if you are a highly trained specialist with years of experience, if there is a job available, likely it is going to the bosses son or daughter who just graduated by the skin of their teeth and is completely unmotivated by the job set before them. Too bad, that’s just the way it is.

And if you are a foreigner, ha! Good luck! There are basically 3 possibly 4 main options for you around here.

Option 1: Tourism on some level, tour agency in the administrative department, unless of course you have gone through the city run, guiding-mafia training course (in which any previous education or training you may have means absolutely nothing) and then you can lead tours, which yes, can be interesting, but is REALLY hard work and incredibly competitive. I know everyone always thinks OMG! How great what a wonderful job! It must be so fun! Yeah, great especially in the middle of the July heat pushing thorough crowds of people, dripping sweat and answering questions like, “what does p.i.z.z.a mean in Italian?” And dealing with guides who have been around for years, and don’t want to see you succeed because you might take work away from them. Dirty looks abound and maybe even some scheming and conniving to make sure you don’t get work.
There is also possibly the option of working in a hotel.
Option 2: Study abroad. Every semester hundreds of American University students come to study in Florence for anywhere from 3 months to a year. Many of those schools need someone to basically baby-sit these kids while they are here. Not only will you be responsible for finding them housing ahead of time and making sure their paper work and visa’s are all in order, but then you will be given an emergency cell phone that the students can call you on 24hrs a day. As in, its 3a.m and they’ve been out drinking all night and for some strange reason their key no longer works in their door (true story). Ok, so yeah, I have one friend who really enjoys her position as a student coordinator, but she is working with grad students, a little more serious in their reasons for being here. But those positions are few and far between.
Option 3, teach English. Sounds simple enough right? You speak English already, how hard could it be? Well first you will have to be certified to teach English abroad, which means taking an exam though TEFL an internationally recognized certification program that you will pay approximately 2,000 euro for. And that generally means working in ESL schools in which you will be teaching mostly adults. Working in an actual elementary or high school requires years of moving around from school to school and building up ‘points’ so that eventually, some day, maybe 5 years from now, you will be given a permanent position. And then, you can expect to get paid the exalted salary of 1,000 euro per month….if you’re lucky. For example I know a teacher with a master’s degree in early childhood education with a specialization in children with special needs; she often works with autistic children and brings home 1,000 euro per month. Vergonia! I know another who is a Registered Nurse, trained at one of the top nursing schools in the U.S married with 2 teenagers and brings home 1,500 euro per month. Wow! I made that in college waiting tables. Well maybe not exactly, but you get the idea. One thing is for sure, most of us did not move to Italy to make money.

Option 4: Au pair, (or glorified babysitter) Not much to explain there.

So the long and short of it is this; living in Italy yes has it perks, but it does take a bit of denaro to thoroughly enjoy it. Most people cannot afford to live on their own and Italians will typically live with their parents until they are in their mid-30’s. The Italian birthrate is amongst the lowest in the world and if people do have children, it is usually only one child because they simply cannot afford more.

I sometimes become frustrated when students come to Italy and state that they ‘live’ here. Living here means dealing with this type of thing, job hunting and dealing with the politics and bureaucracy of it all.  The idea that it is always wonderful and worry free is a false impression and can undermine the difficulties and efforts many put into making a decent living here. Its important to keep in mind that studying here and living here are two totally and completely different experiences.
Perhaps in the end it’s better this way. Maybe it forces us to be creative in other ways; to find our passion and create a career that we love and make for ourselves. Or to discover a talent that we never realized we had. It is certainly not easy but worth every moment! After all being creative is what the Italians do best!

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