Friday, March 02, 2007

The immigrant, papers and more papers

The longer I experience the Italian way of things, the more I realise in saying something, I may have to later contradict myself completely, Job protectionism thrives here, yet one day at a large market, some Senegalese and other Northern Africans, selling trays of lighters, CD.s and fake designer sunglasses on the edges of the market, are besieged, by the Guardia di Finanza, tax police. One of these African men is screaming, howling, baying like an injured animal, it curdles the blood. I ask among the crowd, that has gathered. “What's happened?” A Senegalese tells me it is his friend, and they have seized all his merchandise, hence he is rolling around on the floor, in agony at his substantial loss, hoping they will take pity maybe, and not arrest him, but no, its seems he has merely enticed them to act further. Three of them, dressed in their grey uniforms, pin him down on the ground and handcuff him I feel great sympathy for him, having probably fought his way through hostile Africa, to arrive here illegally, set himself up, making a living by wandering the hot streets, selling his trays of cd.s and lighters. (I reflect that this is the only violence I’ve ever witnessed in Italy, Luccas crime statistics are almost non- existent) I feel the kinship with this exile I've often felt before, when they stop me on the street to sell books of African poetry printed in Italian, to me, and I see the lines cut into their souls by the separation from children, wives, from family, and their culture. Yet the reaction of some of the Italian shopkeepers, whose shops front onto the market, surprises me. ‘Che schifo, schifo!’ - how disgusting they say at the rough treatment the Guardia are giving to the man. One would imagine, the storekeepers with their licences and tax to pay, exorbitant rents and expenses, would be contemptuous of the illegal trader, but no, they are partners with these drifters in their hatred of the Guardia. Italian ambulanti stall holders, have hidden the illegal cd’s under their wares, to prevent the guardia from finding them, and the illegal traders now retrieve them, and are immediately back in business while their friend is carted away to the Questura. This is but one example, of the Italian way of disregarding fiscal control whenever they can, controls enforced by the stealing government. Italians bend the rules wherever possible, only don't be caught, that's stupid, yet I can’t help wondering how this weighs up with everyone stamping their ticket on the bus voluntarily? Well, you wouldn't want to look like a fool if the inspector turned up, and pay a fine of two hundred Euro to those thieves, the government. Mai! Never.
Of course after you've been here a while in Tuscany, you realise that there are virtually no foreigners working in any of the shops, bars, tabacchi anywhere really, other than the backroom plate-washers or cleaners, you'll see one or two Chinese stalls from Prato, with their van at the market, but they are ambulanti, with portable stalls and even they have to wait for another ambulanti to die or retire, before they can by an ambulanti licence or trade for someone else in the area, No new ones are available. Ambulanti Licences cost anything from Euro 40,000 to Euro100,000, depending on the area traded in. Why is this? you begin to wonder, I did , because everywhere I'd been in all the cities of the world, there were waiters of every nation, dishwashers, street sweepers, multinational chefs, nurses of all nations.
I admit, I rather liked this about Lucca, and Tuscany when on holiday. No polyglot London this, No, here they had managed to keep their restaurants so Italian, their shops so authentic. In London you could spend a week in the city and never meet a Londoner. These people were born and bred Tuscans.! It was so thoroughly Italian, I rubbed my hands in glee, as I said ‘Buongiorno’ to Francesca at my bar on the
corner where she would make me a perfect latte macchiato, with zucchero di canna, brown sugar just like I like it. I could only hear Italian being spoken around me nothing else, the man who drove the rubbish van, the idraulico-plumber, the macelleria- butcher the panettiere- baker. All Italian, lovely, really lovely.
With the perspective of a few years spent here, I now realise why. Is it a government plan you ask? Maybe, but more importantly because family is family is family, and the red stuff is thicker than water. Shops are handed on to children when the parents retire, just as an apartment or house must be bought, for them all they will never be able to marry until they get a house, their own house of course. Licences are handed down too. Well, you may well ask, doesn't this also happen elsewhere in the world? There must be many foreigners with the Euro 200,000 necessary to set up shop Ah! But you see it's not that easy, first you have to get a licence, they only issue few of those in each commune - community. No new ones are available. So how do people come in? They could buy one from an existing licence holder whose son ran off to Milan to be in computers, and didn't want to be in the trade ‘Che Peccato’ - what a pity! at a hugely inflated price of course. The stall owner will manufacture figures as to how much money is to be made, to justify the price.
Every alimentari - mini-market/deli, I’ve ever been into, across Italy, is seemingly Italian owned and run, as are the bars, and the barristi who work in them. So what choice does the illegal immigrant have, but to walk the streets selling their wares? No place to set them down, the Guardia are around every corner, and a look-out must always be posted. They can, and do, resort to prostitution and hawking and this you see along the roads outside towns and cities. Just as in other places like between Mexico and U.S.A., where its unbelievably trying and complicated to apply for residency, immigrants find a well established illegal way financed by local criminals, to enter. Who then rent them houses for cash- or, in the black as they call it here- without paying tax. These people by necessity stay forever out of the system, and of course increase fiscal crime in Italy. Any one who, has ever applied for a permesso to stay in Italy, will tell you, how frustrating and time consuming this can be. Surprisingly, Italy requires British Nationals to apply for a permesso, against E.U. principles. (See footnote)
I am reminded of this, when Enzo tells me he was shocked when his English girlfriend came over to stay for nine months, and was required to get a letter of employment for her permesso, while he, an Italian, had gone to work in London for five years freely without any documentation, other than his passport.
Scores of Italians from the south, take government jobs in the northern Italian cities, policing, nursing, and driving trains and buses as this is considered hard labour by the Lombardi. You too, will discover this fact if you ever try to go south from Milan by train, over a public holiday, and fail to get a seat.
Where do the illegal Africans live and work? Often, in broken down houses, all together, charged rent in cash, and often owned by the same man who supplies them the goods they sell on the streets. They set up some kind of life, at least they have each other, and are glad to be out of the war zone of Africa. They definitely pick up Italian quicker, either because the North Africans speak French, and for the Central and West Africans the vowels and sounds are more similar, to their own languages, than English is.
But, if you are English or American and are a sun or lifestyle exile, you can offer some kind of service to the wealthy in Italy. Teaching, nannying, restoring, gardening, have no permanent contract and earn a low salary. Alternatively you could be self employed as an artist, tour-guide or translator, here you will compete with Italians too, State schools and universities are filled with Italian teachers, who teach English with an authority that’s rarely questioned. In case you’re wondering, the majority of Italians find the notion of an English chef, incomprehensible, since most of them regard all English food as hideous, and a good English chef, an oxymoron.
Of course the same rules and bureaucracy apply, if you want to rent an apartment. If you are Italian you will have to be referred, and if you are unfortunate enough to speak English or American, you will be charged tourist rates, given a short lease, and, in my case, kept waiting to be accepted in to the stable community of Lucca. ‘Chi sa,’- Who knows. They like the monthly tourist rent, you pay in cash, no receipts, the taxman, you know. They are very nice and smiley about it all. The children are at university, and may get engaged soon and need an apartment, or they will never be able to marry, “Is better not you to believe you are here per sempre, no”?. Somehow you find yourself sympathising with their ferocity in getting their children hitched. ‘E’ La legge’- Its the law, they suddenly quote at you. ‘All tourist, must to give the passport at the carabinieri before three days’ (sic). These people who have been happily breaking the law, all their lives tell you this, you, on the other hand, have never broken any laws that you are aware of.
‘I live here!’ You lament, ‘I am not a tourist’ (at this stage you’ve been renting for a year). Whereupon, they look at you through narrowed eyes, as if you were trying to pass yourself off as baby Jesus. “You will always be a tourist, even after forty years”, this advice is given to me by my Lucchese friend.
Of course like the employment laws, which state you cannot fire someone summarily, making it harder to get a job in the first place, the letting law states you cannot kick someone out of the apartment (once they have a contract) if they are a family.
So perhaps, being single then would have its advantages, you say. Well ….single people are always on the fringes of Italian society. The ticket in to the best seats, the royal box, is to be a family with one child, neatly packaged, with your marito- husband safely out of harms way. To be house-owners. It’s unthinkable to most Italians, to produce a child in rented accommodation, and a scandal to use furnished accommodation what’s more. Among my friends are two women who have been virtually excommunicated by their families because they followed their husbands and produced a child in rented accommodation. The shame of it!
I am aware as an author that the reader may find it hard to believe that these social norms still exist in this day and age, yet they do. My neighbour, Francesca , is a house-owner with a boyfriend. Recently, she has come to know Sergio from across the street, they have become friends over the months and visit each others homes. The signora in the house next door, and indeed his own family question them constantly as to when they will marry. What a bella coppia they would make, and what a waste to keep two houses, so close. They could live together at Sergio’s, it's bigger more comfortable, more than enough for a family, she could cook for him.
What they have failed to see, refuse to see, is that forty year old Sergio, is a member of the gay community, and on occasion has been known to bring home young men for the night, who slip out of his door in the morning, into the same piazza that the neighbours are standing talking in. While Francesca's boyfriend visits her regularly. Who can say what they may be thinking as they continue to press the two of them on the issue of marriage. The words they anxiously wait for him to say are Voglio sposarmi e avere dei bambini - I want to marry, and make babies. A baby! the ticket to Italian affections, they must produce a bambino, but when, when will they marry?

Como the beautiful

Como the beautiful
walk near the lake

Hidden Italy, the places we visit regularly from Tuscany to the lake district above Como.

When I became a resident in Italy in 2001, I already knew how visitors liked to praise her places, food and art.
I had visited many times as a visitor myself, and been enchanted.
This site is rather designed to show the hidden Italy, the real Italy experienced by it's residents.
The events of the year, from registering as a resident, to celebrating Christmas, Easter and many other festivals, buying a house, working, banking, and still enjoying its beauty, are to be found here.

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expresso machine

expresso machine
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click on picture to glimpse Roses lime

my mother

my mother
my mother's pizza tuscany




My favourite writings on Italy

  • Italian Education/Cara Massimina Tim Parks
  • Where angles fear to tread E.M. Forster ISBN0140180885
  • A small place in Italy ISBN0330338188
  • D.H.Lawrence and Italy ISBN 0140095209
  • The Italians by Luigi Barzini Touchstone books ISBN 068482500