Italians Paralyzed by an Inner Void

"Italians" and "paralyzed by the huge void inside them": phrases you might not have expected to see in one sentence. This short piece from the Daily Telegraph reports on a 2003 study that showed something like 3 million Italians pretend to go on vacations that they don’t really take. They drop off plants at the neighbors’; they have someone pick up the mail, they even order appropriate "travel souvenirs" from their supposed destination over the Internet. Why?

Massimo Cicogna, a psychologist who carried out the association’s study, blamed Italy’s economic crisis for the boom in pseudo-holidays. But Massimo Lattanzi, also a psychologist, said solitude was probably even more of a reason. "People are unable to find a friend with whom they can go on holiday. So in the end they remain at home, as if paralysed by the huge void inside them."

But that’s not all the Italy-bashing for today. A friend of mine who’s trying to establish himself in Rome recently visited me. Normally extremely pleasant and even-tempered, he spewed a stream of obscenities when it came to life in Rome. No, not the people, or the art, or the refulgent beauty of the place, but the fact that it’s completely impossible to live there. And with that, we come to Sebastian Cresswell-Turner’s immortal 2003 piece in the Daily Telegraph, a minor masterwork in the genre of host-country vituperation. Take it away, Sebby:

[A]fter a while, you begin to appreciate the true cost of the many undoubted joys of living in Italy. You realise, for example, that the flip-side of the cheerful noise and chaos is the mind-boggling complication of life here, the Italian inability – no, refusal – to organise anything or to think ahead.

Thus, paying a utilities bill or collecting a registered letter is a major operation, while registering a rental contract, which you have to do to make it valid, is a hallucination-inducing bureaucratic odyssey (in my case, four mornings of queueing, elbowing, grovelling, begging and pleading on the other side of the city).


After a while, then, you are haunted by a vague sense of the absurd, which is only exacerbated by opening a newspaper or switching on the television. What is quite clear from the interminable chat shows in which politicians talk with great fluency and urgency about what the government should do, is that, in Italy, the government either cannot or will not govern. The looming pensions crisis, the huge problem of illegal immigration, the hopelessly clogged-up judicial system – not one of these issues receives serious or consistent attention. Giulio Andreotti, seven times Italy’s prime minister, summed up the Italian approach when he said, to general approval, that most problems went away if you waited long enough.

Regardless of its membership of the EU and of a constitution which in theory safeguards every imaginable right, in practice, Italy is a land of almost unbridled anarchy. Although you are strangled by red tape and persecuted by a million arbitrarily imposed petty regulations, the rule of law does not exist. It is quite common for the simplest legal cases to take five or 10 years to complete. And if – God forbid – you come up against the dark side of Italy, you realise that the only real protection here is not the law, but wealth or family. Without these, you are lost.

The whole thing is very funny, and also required reading for anyone insane enough to be planning to go establish a career in Italy. Just for amusement’s sake, I emailed my friend this piece when he originally moved to Rome. At first, he shrugged it off. Now — after more than a year of waiting for haughty, incompetent bureaucrats to process a simple work and residency permit request; a thousand missed bus connections; 10 pounds of dogshit scraped off his shoes; and uncounted hours boggling at the mindless triviality of Italian television — he tells me "What Cresswell says — it’s all true." (And there’s even more here.)

The moral of this unusually edifying post? If you are not Italian, you must only entertain the idea of moving to Italy to live there if you (a) have a lot of money; (b) have a secure job and have arranged a place to live.

4 thoughts on “Italians Paralyzed by an Inner Void

  1. Quite true.

    In Italy, family is still everything. Italians don’t make friends easily and are quite reserved towards family outsiders. That will become a larger problem in the light of all the one-child families that are common nowadays due to the non-existent family pilocy. Plus, it is almost impossible to get a job without knowing somebody or having parents who know somebody.

    Italian buerocracy is legendary.


  2. I’m afraid a lot of this is sadly true. I lived and worked in Italy for 18 months as an IT consultant making good money and life was mostly a joy. But most Americans I saw either worked for the same company and were well-paid or were married to Italians (and taken care of by the ‘clan). The exceptions were exceedingly poorly-paid language teachers. They had no rights and no money and were treated like homeless mongrels much of the time.

    How you do in Italy is a function of how much power you have and the image you project – not the value of what you produce or how good you are at what you do.

    Even foreigners married to Italians were sometimes mistreated. Much depends upon the spouse and even more depends on the family. A lady I knew was a language teacher married to a prestigious ‘Il Professore’ – and he treated her like dirt. Part of the problem was that his clan lived in the South while they were hundreds of miles away in the north. The clan served to moderate his behavior (la bella figura is all), but they were far away so the beast came out more often than not.

    She eventually escaped with her son and is teaching Italian in New England & being treated decently – a secure job and a decent wage – neither of which is available in Italy!


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