Foreign Invasion

Marcello Mastroianni, Italian "cool" personified

In addition to the usual season of turisti, Italy is seeing an influx of immigrants, including the relatively well-heeled.

In the last few years, a certain mania has hit the world of travel writing: move to a village in Tuscany or a mud-hut in Africa or a Bohemian apartment in Paris and all your problems will magically be solved. You will find the man of your dreams, every day will be beautiful, and you will feel happiness like never before. As world travel becomes fast and more available to the middle classes, recent years have seen an increase in a different kind of immigrant: those from developed nations who are seeking adventure, romance, or God only knows what else.

In a way, it's true: life in another culture, in another country, does take on a different sheen. You may think the sun shines brighter; the days are more relaxed, the men better looking. And, as is the case for Italy, you may be right. But all of the same rules of survival still apply. For example, your bank account does not magically replenish itself. When meal time rolls around, beautifully prepared food does not just appear on the table. Or if you eat too much of that gorgeous chocolate, you put on a couple of pounds. In short: you have to earn your bread and take care of yourself just as you would at home. There’s also a whole new set of rules to learn as well; language, legal system, social etiquette, a different currency.

All of which is complicated by the fact that when you violate these new norms you stand out far more than if you had made a similar mistake in your own country. Even something so simple as greeting friends has a whole new set of rules. For example, in the US, friends commonly hug when they meet or say good-bye. In Italy, on the other hand, hugging is primarily reserved for lovers. A kiss on each cheek (or: attention! three kisses in Milan) is the accepted greeting. Try to hug an Italian without warning and you will find them acting confused, awkward and even alarmed.

In his short story, "Il lungo viaggio" (The Long Crossing), Leonardo Sciascia captures perfectly the desperation that many Italians, particularly in the south, fe;y when they had to leave their homeland. He tells of a group of Sicilians who sold everything in order to purchase illegal passage to the United States. They felt there was nothing left for them in Sicily and hoped that the shores of America held the promise of fruition for their dreams. Unfortunately, they trusted the wrong man with their passage and were taken on a grueling 11-day voyage around the Mediterranean before being unknowingly deposited back on the shores of Sicily. The depth of their desire to go to America and the corresponding depth of their disappointment is the very definition of the clichéd phrase: 'heart-wrenching.' While most Italians were not so unfortunate in their efforts at immigration, the story certainly delineates just how much some people wanted, or needed, to leave their homeland.

And so I’ve had a lot of learning to do. When I arrived eight months ago, I didn't have a job, I didn't speak the language, and I didn't have any family-to-call-in-case-of-emergency. At least none that were within a few thousand miles. Basically all I had was a proverbial gleam in my eye, registration papers for a course in teaching English as a foreign language, a slightly overweight suitcase, and the address of an apartment in Florence where I was to live for one month.

Post-university I found myself at loose ends and decided it was now or never to pursue my lifelong dream of moving to Europe, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly why I chose Italy out of other contenders such as Spain or Greece. Maybe it was the fact that the Italians I'd met on previous trips to Europe and during my semester studying in Budapest were such charming, friendly people, or maybe I'd just watched Under the Tuscan Sun one too many times. I think also my Italian heritage had a little something to do with it. I was curious to learn about and absorb the land that my great-grandparents bravely left at the young ages of 22 and 23, small children in tow. In any case, here I am. And I will be the first to admit that I am probably the most satisfied that I've ever been in my life. I have a fantastic job at a private language school near Milan, I’ve made loads of new friends at the school and in the city, and am always traveling somewhere absolutely fascinating like Rome, Florence, Turin, or Sicily.

But the thing is: I tend to spend a lot of time reflecting on the impact that all this new culture is having on me -- for example my progress with the language or my increased knowledge of art and history -- without giving equal weight to how I might be influencing Italy or its people, in turn. For it's undeniable that my international friends and I have an impact on our new community. I hope that for the most part it's positive: we provide the service of teaching English and that's something, right? As is the case any time a foreign element is added to a situation, however, our presence is naturally disruptive to the status quo. And we are not the only ones perpetrating whatever changes may result. Unmistakably, the recent influx of immigrants to Italy is leaving its mark on the landscape of the country.

The better part of the 20th century saw mass emigration out of Italy: overpopulation, low wages, and high taxes drove literally millions of its citizens to seek greener pastures. People in many parts of the country, particularly the south, found that their communities no longer provided them with the economic opportunities they needed or desired. My great-grandparents were among this group. In 1909, they left the, at that time impoverished village of Caserta, to take a ship from Naples to Ellis Island. Their departure was most likely due to a combination of the damage caused by the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 1906 and a general lack of work in the region. With no idea whether they would return and what they would find in New York, they bravely set out. They were among the majority of emigrants that never returned to Italy. They eventually became US citizens and had sons that served in the US Army during World War II.

Photo from

The '80s saw a turn in this tide, however, and now statistics reflect that far more people are arriving in Italy than departing. No longer are people leaving in droves at all costs, but instead, they are coming and overwhelming its shores. These days, due to war, starvation, and/or poverty in their own countries, people risk life and limb to reach Italian shores, whether it be from Tunisia, Albania, Morocco, or from farther afield, such as China. Due to its lengthy shorelines, Italy is a prime target for ‘boat people', a term which was originally coined after the mass migrations from Vietnam in the late '70s, but is now used in reference to any refugees who risk their lives on dangerously crude and overcrowded 'boats' in order to escape poverty and oppression in their home nations. Lampedusa, an island south of Sicily, is often the destination for 'boat people' from African nations, and there have been numerous incidents of individuals nearly dying from exposure or starvation before eventually landing at Lampedusa.

The reception of all these immigrants is mixed. Hearing racist or xenophobic comments here is not uncommon, nor even viewed as unacceptable. Many Italians express a general disdain for refugees who are unemployed, viewing them as a drain on the economy. There have been examples of refugees being welcomed warmly, however. For example, the southern Italian town of Badolato, whose population had shrunk from 7,000 to 400 since World War II, became home to 400 Kurdish refugees about three years ago. As a town where the birth rate is down, longevity up, and most of the young adults have left because of unemployment, they received the asylum seekers as an opportunity to generate new life in the town and to see children playing once more. At first the refugees were housed in the town's long since closed school, but now many of the original group have found work in Germany and elsewhere as funds from the Italian government for housing and start-up businesses never materialized. Nonetheless, Daniela Trapasso of the Italian Council for Refugees reported to BBC that she was both surprised and impressed by the warm welcome that the refugees received from the residents of the town.

The incomparable Claudio Villa

Refugees, however, are not the only ones seeking Italian shores. Italy has also become a popular destination for expats from first world nations who have decided to move abroad. I fall into this category. Just as they often regard refugees with suspicion, Italians regard this second group with confusion. They cannot fathom the idea of moving to another country for education, pleasure, or simply a change of pace. The term mammone, which has no direct translation in English, more or less means 'tied to the mother'. The very existence of such a word demonstrates how Italian culture is still, for the most part, strongly family-oriented. In fact, unless driven to by economic necessity or marriage, the majority of Italians never move away from their city of origin, often residing on the same street or even in the same apartment building as their parents.

Naturally, there are numerous differences between both the reception and the experiences of the western expats and asylum seekers. I arrived here safely on an airplane, with plenty of transferable US dollars in my pockets, as opposed to on a makeshift raft and requiring immediate social assistance. I also am fortunate to have the luxury of being able to go home to my family in the US for the holidays or whenever I decided to visit. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are truly here for the long haul: most of them know that they will never again seen their homeland and a large majority may not want to. Nonetheless, we have in common the identity of stranieri, an Italian word which sounds more like 'strangers' in English than it does like its translation, 'foreigners.'

So what do the mass numbers of immigrants mean for the future of a country whose native birth rate is declining at the most rapid rate in all of Europe? It is estimated that without immigrants, the population of Italy will shrink to 40 million people (down from approximately 6o million) in the next 50 years. How will the Italian culture change as the landscape is gradually repopulated by those from other nations? Neither type of immigrant -- those in hope of a better life than from that whence they came, or those just seeking a bit of adventure -- show any signs of lessening their numbers any time soon.

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