Italians don’t know Slovakia. Spaghetti bolognese doesn’t exist. Following the traffic rules is a pure rarity. Kids participate in Italian nightlife without restrictions and public breastfeeding is not judged at all. This article sums up myths about Italy from the viewpoint of a young Slovak woman living in Bologna, Italy.
Italy, known by many as a country of a fiery temperament, is often related to the perfect holiday relax mixed up with absolutely delicious cuisine. And yet, this dreamy place can turn to hell quite easily as soon as you start to live here and expect things done, especially at the offices.
Despite the chaos and tiring bureaucracy, there is something unrepeatably fascinating about this 60-million-inhabitants country. Besides impressive architecture and intense culture, it offers extraordinary socializing opportunities and entertainment even during the workweek.
Denisa, originally from Slovakia, decided to settle down in the historical city of Bologna, that is also home to the oldest European university. She reveals the difference between the Italian holiday idyll and ordinary dailiness, true nature of Italians and why some of them never try sushi.
Why have you decided to leave Slovakia?
I was always fascinated by the multilingual environment and somehow knew that one day I would try living abroad. When I was 10, I started to attend a bilingual Slovak-English grammar school in Košice. Similarly, my extracurricular activities were mostly focused on learning foreign languages.
This passion for languages continued also at university, where I decided to enroll for Erasmus+ student mobility programme. This was the initial reason why I left Slovakia in the first place.
Why have you chosen Italy?
I have been influenced by my friend and a classmate who enjoyed Italy very much as a mobility student. It was also the best compromise in terms of the distance from my home and cost of living, taking into consideration the financial limit of the grant. I also went secretly bonkers over Italian movies and TV series, which made my fondness for Italy simmer even more.
During the Erasmus+student mobility, I encountered my current partner who is a native Bolognese and with whom we enjoy perks and setbacks of the Slovak-Italian household.
How are Italians?
I found out many stereotypes about Italians are true. It’s a total difference coming here for holidays – enjoying marvelous food, awesome climate, and breathtaking architecture and actually living here.
Integrating into everyday life had taken me more time than I expected.
Italians are amazingly hospitable and obliging, even though they speak almost no English. Yet, I have never met a grumpy person at the help desk, bar counter or a checkout counter.
Is there anything you can’t get used to?
In spite of the fact Italians live ‘on the wheels’ and not having a car is considered an anomaly, they define road signs in their own relative way. For instance, a STOP is hardly taken into account as a place where you have to stop the vehicle. Who cares? Even crossing a zebra on the green light as a pedestrian means double-checking all the angles in order not to get hit by a car. Blinkers are used approximately by one out of 10 drivers.
One of the key difficulties I still come across is striking a bargain. It doesn’t matter if we talk about shopping at the greengrocer or the apartment reconstruction. I have seen people striking deals even in Ikea! For someone who’s used to come to the shop, ask for a product and pay for it, take it or leave it, these neverending negotiations truly are a nightmare. Things tend to get even more complicated if you’re the seller and you have to constantly justify your price list.
Italy is well-known as a culinary superpower. What is the Italian attitude toward food?
I have learned about the fact that spaghetti bolognese doesn’t exist on my very day of arrival in Bologna.
For Italians, food is a topic no.1. If Italians don’t eat or cook, they just talk about it.
They can be incredibly picky. Sometimes they refuse the meal coming from the different Italian region or, God forbid, ethnic cuisine. I personally know some Italians who would never eat kebab based on their political beliefs. Or they come to the Asian restaurant but order a fried eggplant instead of sushi.
They always stick to the proper order of the dishes. First are the starters, primo, secondo, dessert, coffee and lastly a shot of liquor.
Their eating habits are also very different from ours at breakfast time. In Northern Italy it’s common to see people drinking cappuccino and biting to some sweet croissant. Lunch is also very light – usually a salad, while dinner starts at around 8 pm, which is super late for me. The biggest eating extreme I have ever experienced was in Calabria, where we literally spent 4 hours at the table at both, lunch and dinner.
Do you have any negative experience with Italy?
Coming from Slovakia, I am used to punctuality and a stable regime of institutions. Briefly, I’m a stickler for the rules and that made my first two years in Italy impossibly uneasy.
The local statal high school where I worked as a teacher hadn’t paid me at the end of the project. I have been “bombarding” the headmaster’s office for months and by all means. I received money 8 months after. That was my first real working experience in Italy.
At first, I thought to myself “Maybe I wasn’t just lucky with the first employer”. But the same thing happened with the other projects.
I had an immense cultural barrier to ask money that belonged to me. I still can’t get used to the fact that if you need something, be it your boss or an office, you basically have to go beyond what we call stalking in Slovakia.
How do locals treat you – do you feel equal?
When it comes to my nationality, the majority of Italians have no idea where Slovakia is sited, let alone mistaking it for Slovenia.
The second most common association is Czechoslovakia, to which I correct them and say we have been split for more than two decades.
What’s especially painful is that Italians have this little pigeonhole called “Eastern Europe” consisting of all the nations eastward from Slovenia.
Did you have to get rid of something, which is considered normal in Slovakia?
It might sound cynical but in my case, leaving Slovakia meant giving up better possibilities to get employed. Even for Italians, finding a full-time job with a proper contract (pension levies, health care, etc.) is extremely superhuman.
There’s a common joke in Italy about “what do you wanna be once you grow up?” The answer is “posto fisso”– a stable job. I personally have been searching for the dreamed-of “posto fisso” for three years while doing the performance contracts jobs. Not having a full-time contract makes your touch with offices or residence request very difficult. You feel like you’re not entitled to do anything, not even open a bank account. The major demotivating turn off about finding a job in Italy is that even speaking 5 languages doesn’t mean any guarantee of finding a job.
The locals are not worried about working illegally though. They don’t care about pension or savings, not to mention the young generation’s lack of interest in these matters.
The whole gastronomic culture. A great example would be the concept of aperitivo, where you only pay for your drink up to 10€ and have infinite access to basically entire cold buffet for the rest of the evening.
There’s no need to introduce the Italian cuisine. Their assortment of vegetables is just overwhelming. I have adopted much healthier eating habits here than what I was used to in Slovakia. Italians make vegetables sexy!
Another enticing aspect of living in Italy is their unflagging social life even throughout the workweek. They don’t mind hanging out with friends at bars and restaurants at the time when Slovaks are already in their beds.
In Italy, children play a huge role in nightlife. It’s absolutely okay for Italians to bring a newborn to a concert or what particularly brings me joy – public breastfeeding. The overall mood when it comes to babies and children is very relaxed. No one chivvies Italian parents for a boob or crying baby.
Bologna can boast about nice hospitals and excellent health care facilities. Housing estates are neat and green and equipped by the climbing frames as well as dog areas. Almost everything is dog-friendly. There’s a minimum of decaying buildings or chuckholes in roads.
Italian bureaucracy is in a catastrophic condition. The biggest problem is that despite the clerks are really nice, rarely you get the information you came for. Many of the white-collar employees delegate your problem to the different office until you find the competent person familiar with the solution to your problem.
Paradoxically you find many solutions online on the web pages of the European Union than from the actual clerks. Brace yourself that fluent Italian doesn’t solve a thing not even in this case.
What is the relationship between Italian employers and their employees?
Working for a private entity makes any problem-solving easier. Should you work for the state, it’s a long-term issue. The most common problem I’ve come across was the afore-mentioned late paycheck.
As for founding your own business, the attitude of the offices is very similar to the other procedures – long, unclear, tiring. Italians call it a “love triangle” as for a couple of months you begin oscillating between Prefecture, Italian Agency of Revenue and Chamber of Commerce.
What would you like to bring from Slovakia to Italy?
Work ethic. The labor market is a delicate topic for Italians. Let’s take into consideration the working habits of the university students. Italian universities are bloody expensive for the Slovak standard (Slovak statal universities are for free, but only if graduation is completed within the 5-year period). In any case, the majority of Italian university students are not nudged by their parents to find a job while they’re studying. Students don’t ease their parent’s burden in paying for school fees or rent in the university city as Bologna is.
This goes on until 25-30 years of age when many young Italians have zero working experience which consequently results in the personal delusion of finding a “dream” job.
Talking about university life, Italians are a bit of the eternal students. I came across many people not being able to graduate after more than 5 years. Locals have the privilege to repeat the failed exam until it’s done. In Slovakia, after not coming twice to the class, you’re not entitled to the exam anymore. Failing the same exam two years in a row in Slovakia means you’re out of university and if you want to continue, you have to start from the very beginning.
Is there any Slovak peculiarity you miss in Italy?
I would like seeing Italian women having the same maternity leave as we have in Slovakia. Italian mothers are only allowed 5 months of maternity leave, while they usually stop working circa two months before the actual delivery.
This means that a 3-month old is ready for the creche. Many families have their own nanny which, unlike in Slovakia, is not considered luxury but a necessity. Childcare is extremely expensive though and it’s very easy to end up in a vicious circle: going to work to pay a “stranger” who takes care of my child. I find this incredibly counterproductive.
Has your stay in Italy changed your view on Slovakia?
I realized many qualities Slovakia has with respect to public life as well as overall culture. Compared to Italians, I find Slovakians more curious to learn, more resilient and having much broader general knowledge of the world around them. There is also a “thing” about Italian sense of humor, which I don’t consider funny and funnily enough, this works reciprocally as Italians don’t get Slovak sense of metaphorical humor either. Last but not least, Italians are too liberal in matters, where Slovakians keep their adherence to the principles. Slovaks are definitely the sticklers for the rules.
Translated from the original article Slováci vo svete: Slovenka v Bologni: Práca na plný úvazok je úkaz, k výplate sa treba prebojovať.
Author of the article: Monika Radošovská
Column: Slováci vo svete