I lived overseas for thirty years, more than half my life. I’m a glocal citizen: a little bit global, a lotta bit local. I’m attached to my origins– my magnificent stretch of land between Bologna and Imola in the mythic Emilia Romagna– but I also completed an MBA at Harvard Business School in Boston, then worked in Europe, the US, Latin America, and Asia.
Even today I divide my time between Emilia Romagna, Boston, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. I have always interfaced with foreigners, and I’ve never been “an Italian overseas” in the traditional sense.
International jargon goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” On my part, I’ve only done this in the eternal city when I worked for Professor Romano Prodi, then president of IRI, but I interpreted the expression authentically wherever I was. I lived overseas with the locals, which is to say those who could have appeared as “strangers” to my eyes. Work then forced me to document myself, to relate myself with different styles and habits that may have seemed disconcerting, and definitely to interact with people who could judge me and my country. Therefore, I believe that I can offer a reasonable picture of Italy’s image, and this book is the fruit of reflections steeped in such competencies and experiences. It’s a amalgam of notions united by a thread of conclusive ideas, not preconceived notions. There are evaluations that go beyond statistical analyses, which, although frequently valid, are sometimes insufficient and downright misleading. If this were not the case, Italian museums would be the most visited in the world, Pompei’s ruins the most secure, and our historical centers the best equipped. An old film title recites that men prefer blondes, but they mary brunettes. Italy is perceived as the greatest cultural reservoir in the world, but tourists, intellectuals, and students prefer France. That being said, I confirm what people frequently say at home, which is that we are often an envied population.
Abroad, our lifestyle is used as a model; the majority of foreigners think that we work little, we have excellent food, and beautiful beaches. This is the classic stereotype: “Italians live well, too well, actually!” Germany’s fury towards us is due precisely to this vision. They think we’re rich, lazy, tax evaders! In effect, there is some truth to this: ours is objectively the most beautiful country in the world, with unparalleled natural wonders.
Yes, many envy us: the Japanese are rich but live like sardines, many Chinese are rich but they breathe polluted air, and the majority of rich Americans live in anonymous cities. I mean, everyone wants to live in Italy.
Italy has a very real fatal attraction, but it’s superficial. Foreigners think we live better than we do in reality. Overseas, Italy’s image is on par with the commercials: for example, a relaxed young man drinking a glass of wine with his girlfriend in Perugia, not the worker from one of Milan’s suburbs; or, glamorous women strolling along Rome’s Via dei Condotti, not the streets they actually live on in Rome’s lackluster periphery.
So, when a foreigner decides to move he, he discovers the hard and bitter truth. Italy is not the paradise he imagined, and when he begins to work and his children enter our schools, his feelings pass from love to hate. Hate for our terrifying bureaucracy, for the disservice our public schools do to our kids, and for many other aspects of daily life.
We need to eradicate the idea that all foreigners can’t wait to be like us: this is not reality! We Italians are not– and are not considered– the center of the world. Where does this conviction come from? From our habit of misconstruing dreams for reality. We like to believe that all Italians attend fabulous universities, go to beautiful museums, play musical instruments, wear Armani, read the Financial Times, eat homemade pasta everyday, buy the best wines at affordable prices, walk in immaculate historical districts, savor the best coffee, and are obviously employed in gratifying industries like fashion design. And we like to think that everyone else– all the foreigners who judge us– have been condemned since time immemorial to the factories in their bleak countries. We are convinced that they’ll come to Italy to bask in our sun and beaches, each pasta al dente, and party with kids in dance clubs as soon as they get the chance.
This idea, which is in decline but dies hard, is deeply wrong, counterproductive, and superficial. According to the general public, Italy is an extraordinary laboratory of consumer goods. People believe (wholeheartedly) that the best articles to liven up our daily lives are Made in Italy. The two best-known Made In Italy macrosectors are the home system and the person system. The former includes marbles, tiles, furniture, lighting, faucets, and coffee machines. The veneration for these products is notable as soon as people arrive in our country: from the customs officer to the policeman, from the taxi driver to the hotel manager, everyone loves Italy through its products.
The second macrosector, the person system, includes textiles, clothing, shoes, leather, and jewelry. If you add foods the picture is complete. Italy seems like a country with an extraordinary quality of life: envied, esteemed, and imitated.
But this picture needs many corrections. First of all, not everything Made in Italy springs exclusively from ingenuity. There’s also blood, sweat, and tears. We recall Michelangelo for every scarf and Raffaello for every tie, but there are also people operating machinery, taking care of warehouses, truck drivers, and accountants. These are the people that make our dreams and winning quality possible, the “beautiful made well.”
We think that genius is the inspiration, but it’s frequently discipline. Overseas, they only recognize the best, almost never the second best. Goods are not enough to engender admiration, or spectacular imitations. Quality of life is created by other factors, too. We undervalue them while foreign countries improve them. Is a decrepit 18th century building better than a clean one from the 20th century? Do we prefer a a disorganized parking lot built on the foundations of an ancient fountain or a comfortable and respected area? I’m not exaggerating; it’s the simple vision imposed by such reflections.
Let’s consider the relationship between the United States and works of art. When visiting American galleries, the sense of a private collection prevails. Rich and uncultured capitalists celebrate their own success with indiscriminate art acquisitions. They sublimate their lack of history with masterpieces that are not the fruits of their labor. They acquire culture without having lived it. Italians, on the other hand… Are you thinking about it? Italians on the other hand what?
Our museums are closed because there aren’t enough people to run them, while young people with architecture and archeology degrees can’t find jobs. Immense masterpieces collect dust in basements, uncatalogued, hidden from the public view.
It’s easy to remember how Pompei was managed, but let’s ask ourselves a non-rhetorical question: who loves art? Who values art? A country that lets it rot in basements, impedes their viewing, lets cobwebs multiply on their surfaces, and allows paintings to be stolen from churches? Or, is it a country that, not having any of its own, buys them, curates them, exhibits them, and makes something of them?
In the rest of the world, museums are organized and have adequate personnel. To see Italian masterpieces, you frequently have to travel overseas. Maybe its time to stop considering others like nouveau riche boors compared to us Italians, steeped in art and culture.
So, who loves art more? If we prevent ourselves from being trampled by prejudice and bruised pride, we know that the answer isn’t the one we take for granted. The truth is another, and it’s alarming: for a young art historian, it’s easier to find work overseas, especially if she is a specialist in Italian masterpieces.
In part, the same reasoning applies to food. Italy can’t protect its products, caged as they are by incomprehensible acronyms, but this is not the only problem. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a large foreign city. You’ll find a Starbucks, a Pizza Hut… what does it mean? It’s simple: two typical Italian culinary products– espresso and pizza– have made tons of money for other people. At this point, pizza is associated with big brands and is considered international cuisine. Coffee and the cappuccino are consumed in small, medium, and large doses at any time of day.
There are no chains of Italian restaurants actually owned by Italians with any sort of international presence. There are hundreds of thousands of Italian menus in restaurants all across the world, the pronunciation of dishes are butchered by well-meaning waiters, but they sound Italian enough. And there would be nothing wrong with this, except that the profits don’t end up in Italian pockets.
Why? Because we are incapable of engineering things. We are not good at organizing. We live on individual talents.
Our successes cannot be replicated on a global level in an authoritative way. Our successes are tied to individuals: in family businesses– companies, shops, or restaurants– the “owner” must be preset. It’s sad, but when the son of the illuminated businessman arrives at the helm, it’s frequently a disaster. Instead, when Americans find a good formula, they replicate it. We are incapable of this, with very rare exceptions.
If we observe “Italian” restaurants overseas with a critical eye, we see that their prestige and reputations enrich only the most entrepreneurial. Therefore, I’ll reformulate the question: who loves Made in Italy food? Those who dissipate and diffuse it, getting rich in the process? If we can manage to not get run over by insane prejudices and useless pride, and if we accept the second option, we can ask another question: why shouldn’t chefs, sommeliers, waiters, and hosts seek employment abroad?
I’ll offer you a nugget of perspective: in New York, the best restaurants are Italian, their quality in Tokyo is legendary, Italian restaurants in Shanghai sell Parmesan cheese made in Australia, and the pizza makes in the Gulf are Bengali. Aren’t these work opportunities? One or two generations ago, people started as waiters in Germany to then open the most chic restaurants along the Rhine.
It’s not just the origin that determines the quality or a product’s popularity. Beauty alone doesn’t make something attractive, we need to offer comfort and security. Being able to park your car factors into quality of life, as well as getting a receipt reflecting an accurate bill.
In summary, there is another aspect of Made in Italy that isn’t creating work in Italy that’s also limited to the perception of consumer goods. Made in Italy also applies to lathes, drills, and textile machinery. The extraordinary Italian consumer goods wouldn’t be possible without the industries that provide the machines to transform the raw materials. An unquantifiable heritage gave life to Italian exports, a knowledgeable mix of technicians, engineers, and specialized workers. This was the backbone of the Italian miracle: making trustworthy, durable products at reasonable prices. Such a treasure, which was frequently neglected in favor of more captivating Italian style– today we’d call it “glam”– is relatively unknown overseas. With the exception of insiders, few identify industrial machinery with Italy. This is a grave error.
International public opinion tends to relegate images of our country to fashion stereotypes, food, or soccer championships, but our economy is based on perennially active factories, and all the small businesses that fight for survival each day. Our engineering schools, starting from Milan’s excellent Politecnico, promote undeniable talents; fashion and food are minor players among our exports. In any case, we preferred to diffuse fashionable lingerie rather than a complex, technical center.
Today, our industries face a double-sided obstacle: a recession at home and competition from Asia. Obviously, the two phenomenons are connected. Therefore, what can millers, engineers, and mechanics do? Follow work where it’s available.
ManagerItalia interviews Alberto Forchielli