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So far, one of my greatest culture shocks in Italy has been the sheer lack of customer service or willingness to be helpful.

Supermarket staff can be openly hostile if you upset them, which can be frightening if you don’t speak the language: eye-rolls and hand gestures abound when you fail to answer quickly enough on important questions like, “Do you have a store card?” or “Would you like some bags?”

But they aren’t the only low paid, low-level workers who can fuck up your day or, more likely, your sense of well-being. Since my role involves going into different companies and teaching people on their premises, I often deal with security guards and receptionists and there’s a ritual that goes with that territory. You start by introducing yourself in bad Italian. They switch to bad English and ask for your passport. You hand it over and wait on average, at least 5 minutes for a visitors badge while 3 other security guards or workers sit around, chat or even in some cases, have a smoke. Meanwhile the security guard who was dealing with your inquiry takes another phone call or strikes up a conversation with his colleagues.

It doesn’t stop with people like me who, without any Italian language skill, can be easily taken advantage of. In the staff room, me and my colleagues swapped stories about the worst treatment they’ve ever had from security guards. The winner in this category was a receptionist who read her magazine while a queue of ten or so different people formed, including one of my colleagues. As she kept them waiting, a man with a suitcase stepped forward and announced himself; “My name is Luca Di Montezemolo and I have an appointment with your director of sales.”

For those of you who don’t know who he is… well, you can find his wikipedia entry here…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luca_Cordero_di_Montezemolo

So, I complained about a lack of customer service when I was in Britain and lamented how I remember things used to be. Due to privatisation, the increase of outsourcing and the need for ‘flexibility’ from employers we’ve developed a workforce who simply don’t receive enough benefits or remuneration to care any more or even have time to do the job at end of the day when they do.

In Italy the story runs a little deeper.

It was explained to me by my colleague that people in jobs without much responsibility are highly protected by Italian law. It’s very difficult to fire them unless they mess up in a huge way – like assaulting someone or something like that and of course, you can’t demote them. If companies take them to court, under the current system which favours the employee, if the employee is not found as a completely useless screw-up who may or may not be likely to murder someone then generally the company has to rehire them and pay them lots and lots of money. But why?

I only have the basics of the story so anyone from the country can feel free to correct me on this one but this goes back to a time when the unions were strong and pushed for these laws that simply haven’t been updated for a long time.

However, that doesn’t really explain why it’s ok to behave like a complete tosser for no apparent reason. Sure, the law might be on your side but why not spend the 8 or so hours you do work a day trying to smile and get greet people by doing the best job you can?

And for that answer we have to go deeper still and unfortunately I’m simply not knowledgeable enough about Italian culture to give a concrete answer. However, I can sure as hell make an educated guess!

In Italy, there is a strong mindset, almost a motto: “If you can get away with it, you can do it.” It affects how drivers treat the rules of the road, how corrupt government officials can do what they want and in this case, how lackadaisical they feel they can be towards company visitors and customers. Apparently, this mindset is taught in schools to kids, or at least not quite so negatively. It goes more along the lines of, “Rules can be questioned, everything has different sides to it and thus everything is questionable,” or words to those effect.

So in the case of these workers who are backed by the law and won’t ever really get fired, they can effectively treat people how they want and if they want to take a toilet break and leave the reception unmanned for 30 minutes, well, va bene.

What does this mean for me? It means I’ll probably have to test the boundaries; the next time a security guard makes me wait 5-10 minutes for a card, I’ll be walking away well in advance into the building shouting, “Sorry, I don’t have time.”

It also makes me worry about Scotland. If we do go Independent and unions become strong, as they are likely to in a left-leaning country, can we expect ridiculously overly-favourable labour laws for our public sector workers, who for the most part seem to spend most of the day on Facebook? I hope some consideration to countries like Italy gives us pause.

In the mire of days where you follow a pattern, there are little moments you don’t want to forget, like waking dreams you want them to stick with you. In this post I will capture one of my waking dreams as best I can.

I stepped out of my last class, out of the work grounds at the company I was teaching at after dropping off my badge at security. The day was fairly unusual already in that my first two classes were cancelled meaning it went from being my busiest of the week to my least. As I usually do,  I put in my headphones and started listening. The last track I had been this (well, the “Bambi’s Dilemma” album version):

 

It was on repeat from some time last week: when I get stuck on a song I usually overplay it for the longest time until I am a little fed up of it, until of course I can go back to it a while later.

As I finished walking up the street and towards the end of the road that leads away from the company, I walked onto the main road; a junction to an airport, with a bridge on the left that shielded my initial stroll towards the main road itself and into bountiful rays of warm sunlight – the kind that blinds you a little.  Through the rays I saw all these seeds that the nearby plants had released; young kids in Scotland sometimes call them “fairies” and hold the belief that if you catch on in your hands you can make a wish. There were literally thousands of them floating through the haze, past you, through you, onto your clothes and hair and away again.  They danced through the shine like aimless ghosts – drifting in the sunlight like some kind of purgatory. Out from underneath the shadow of that motorway bridge, I had stepped into some other ethereal world.

I was snapped out of it by a small lizard that had managed to retain it’s awareness while sunbathing as it ran away from my looming shadow. I’ve been meaning to write a poem about those little lizards on that walk for a while now. I’ll get to work on a haiku at some point when I’m not being stopped by conductors on buses…

As you know I’ve started a new job. Some regular readers will know the job title and the basics of what I do but I thought I would drop the specifics of what work here is like. I won’t name my company as I don’t feel it’s necessary but who knows, if they treat me badly I might feel the need to shame them! I am writing this post to be give you an idea of what work is like out here for me and my motivations in becoming an ex-patriot again.

In my quest to further my career as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Teacher, also known as an English as a Second Language (ESOL) Teacher, I have decided to move into the Business English sector of the Market. There are plenty of subdivisions in the EFL market including teaching kids, teaching for educational purposes, teaching classes of multiple nationalities and so on. However, I wanted to add a notch to my belt and tick the Business English sector off on my CV. It also ties into the business background I have with my marketing degree and business work experience from jobs past and supports my generic experience of teaching EFL in Japan where I taught different groups for different reasons.

So why Italy? As some of you know, my original application was to work in Germany for the company that I work with now. I have a background in the German language and have always wanted to live there. Although I was turned down for 2 positions in Germany, the company helpfully asked me if I would consider Italy, which as it so happens was relevant as I took a year-long language speaking course in Italian and so it was another European country that I would consider. Although I’ve forgotten all of my Italian bar the pronunciation, I jumped at the chance and thankfully landed the post; third time lucky.

I was getting pretty desperate too. It had been 3 months since I had been out of work, where before I was working in a call centre as a temporary agent and before that I was 6 months out of work after coming back from Japan. However, what this means is that my current salaried pay as a teacher is comparable to that of a call centre worker in the UK but with the obvious experiential benefits of working in another country and developing my CV.

My work is a very well organised though. The company has a full syllabus and offers courses for people with zero English all the way up to an advanced level with specialist courses on different business practices like how to conduct a meeting or a telephone call in English. This means that for everyone except the near native level speakers, which I have a couple of, I have a lesson plan ready to be printed off that I simply need to prepare the materials for and read up on to carry out. I wouldn’t be able to deliver a good level of service if I had the same number of contact hours without a syllabus – as I’ve experienced in the past. The fact that the syllabus is pretty damn good too is a massive bonus as there’s nothing worse than going into a lesson, having glossed over the plan and realising that there is no way in hell that your students are going to understand it.

Facilities are great too. The school itself has a speedy photocopier (essential!) and quite a few computers meaning you can always get online access when absolutely necessary. They have a big catalogue of learning materials from different publishers and online access to a lot of resources that normally you would pay through the teeth for via a monthly subscription as an individual teacher. OnestopEnglish.com is a good example of this.

The vast majority of the staff have been really friendly too. The folks who do a lot of the heavy lifting like the administrative and managerial level staff have been fantastic, from helping locate an apartment when I was seriously stressing about it to just being very nice and friendly and checking up on my welfare. Of course, in every workplace there’s the odd bad apple, which I’m putting down to the Milanese lifestyle I described in the post prior to this one but because of how we work, I don’t need to encounter them often and can gloss over them when I do.

As for the teaching itself, I often work outside of the school in-company at different locations around Milan. Some days I work at a company all day, others I’m juggling different transport routes to get to different companies and others I spend mostly at the school itself. I spend at least an hour and a half travelling each day to and from work if not more getting to other in-company locations. Naturally I get travel expenses.

So in all, my average week  is pretty heavy. I work an average of 26 or so contact hours of teaching time though my contract says that I can work up to 30. Lessons last about 1 hour 30 minutes on average but can be less or more depending on what the client has booked. I generally teach about 4-5 lessons a day, totalling at least 6 contact hours a day, which is about equal to most school teachers. I generally plan all my lessons for a week and spend about 3 hours doing so after my final class on a Friday. In total I work and travel a 55-60 hour week.

My clients vary from top business executives in command of 200+ people to IT and administration staff. Our clients are generally very, very well known brands in Italy, if not recognisable in the world including banks, supermarkets, engineering firms, oil companies and so on. My lowest level students have a basic grasp of English while my highest is a tri-lingual super hero who is pretty close to native English speech. This can often mean they refer to terms in English that I have next to no expertise on. It can also mean I get to see the real lives of people who often put on business faces to maintain a professional mindset, which is enlightening because you soon realise that these people, however powerful or hard-working, are still people at the end of the day and have very real emotions and concerns.

Despite the lack of a high salary and the long slog at work, I am in the privileged position of teaching some of Milan’s top talent. This adds to the pressure and when things get hairy, they get hairy, however I am in a job I want and am motivated to do and have a lot of support to do that. I have a lot of worries about money, not knowing the language, not having much time and the constant possibility of screwing up in a big way but due to the good conditions I can handle it. My main point of excitement about this job is that it is going to make me step up my teaching game in a big way.

Although I can’t see my family and friends every day I have hope for the future that I can improve my lot with this job so that perhaps one day soon I can give myself some leeway to take better-paid jobs in my first choice locations as well as learn a bit more about myself in environments outside of my experience.

Disclaimer: I will highlight differences in the Italian cultures and compare them with cultures that I am familiar with. These comparisons won’t always be favourable and will be pretty judgmental on my part. I have lived here now for 20 days so no doubt I will be missing a lot of information to make these calls. This post is for my reference as much as it is for anyone else viewing it as are most of my posts.

Before describing anything about Italy I think that I need to make an important distinction that most Italians make themselves. As you will know if you read this blog, I work in Milan and Italians from this area make the distinction that they are Milanese before they are Italian just as we Scots often do. My best guess is that the origin of this goes back to history when Italy was a number of different states lead by different feudal leaders but it’s also worthwhile noting that, unlike different Americans who claim their states but are often very similar to anyone who isn’t from America, the people from different areas of Italy are very different.

As such, most of my comments will be directed towards the Milanese, whom frankly, I really don’t like. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some very nice Milanese individuals but for the most part, they’re not very friendly. There’s very much a sense of town mouse, country mouse. If you are a Milanese person reading this and it doesn’t resonate with you, blame your fellow city-dwellers.

Before I weigh in with the sledgehammer though, I want to say that the city of Milan, the place itself, is really great.

For starts the transport system is fantastic. There are usually at least 2-3 different ways to get to one place, whether it’s by one of the 3 Metro underground lines that spiral around the city, on one of the trams – vintage style or new; both are just as functional, or through the vast network of buses around the city, you will probably be able to get on your choice of transport for where you want to go very quickly. By comparison, the Japanese transportation links are more of a maze and very expensive or are shamefully unrepresented in rural areas. In Milan a 30 euro travel card will take you anywhere within the city’s boundaries for a whole month and even outside it up until a point. Can you imagine if they implemented that philosophy across rural Scotland rather than a 90 quid monthly restricted ticket like they have now with zone cards?

Then you’ve got the multi-cultural aspect of the whole city. If I had only spent my time around the central area where the Duomo cathedral tourist attraction lies, I might not have noticed how truly ingrained the sense of multi-culturalism really is here. As you move out around the city centre, you notice the different people of different heritages all around – and not just in pockets either: Turks and their families with restaurants and bars, chinese areas but no specific China town that they needed to declare like they sometimes do in other cities, Jewish people with their skull caps and long curly hair mixing with Africans: it truly feels like an European Union city. As you move to the boundaries of the city you can see pockets of travelling Romani people flitting around the skirts of the city where there are more parks and countryside. Milan is generally as welcoming to other cultures as it is the native Italian just as their Roman forebearers were after their initial enslaving of other cultures, when former slaves could attain the same standard and level as the native aristocracy.

Unfortunately, Milan is the London of Italy meaning snooty, overpaid people, fashionistas who think barging down the street is an acceptable way to behave and housing prices that mean strangers share apartments with one another and lead paranoid and insular lives. A part of me doesn’t blame them: you really don’t want to talk to anyone in the street here. There are a lot of people out to steal or trick tourists, unfortunately, most of them black, which I’m sure leads to stereotyping. Beggars come onto trams and the underground, playing bad music on violins and accordians and generally get up in people’s faces much more than would ever be acceptable in the UK or Japan.

But then Italy, as a whole, seems to be a country where if you can get away with something it’s generally done on mass. If you’re a football fan, you’ll probably know how the Italians are famous for cheating. Then of course there’s the government, which my students regularly complain about due to the level of blatant corruption. One is a lawyer who deals with banking corruption, the others just bring it up in conversation whenever they can.

Going down to a less obvious viewpoint, at a local level even I, as a new visitor to the city, could see how this, “we’ll do what we like and get away with it” mindset effects day-to-day life. In my first week here I went to a Burger King to avoid having to speak Italian and waited 30 minutes amongst the massive throng of people – had they queued I imagine it would have went down a lot quicker and with less tempers flaring. Then there are the rules of the road. Thankfully, I don’t drive since Italian drivers just cut others off when they like. There aren’t as many traffic lights as there are pedestrian crossings, which means if you walk most of the time like I do, you have to pretty careful; sometimes drivers will stop, sometimes they just won’t bother. The number of parked cars on pedestrian foot paths is another testament to this mindset. There are times when I have wondered how Italy even functions on a daily basis, never mind as one of the main players in Europe.

Of course, sometimes Italy just doesn’t function. These days are typically known as one of two things: “Holidays” or “Sundays”. Today is the former of the two and trying to get anything done on these days is almost impossible. Transport grinds to a near halt as you rush to get your shopping done at supermarkets or other shops that close just after midday. Typically the natives spend most of these days at church and then together in groups of friends or family and either spend time doing hobbies like playing sports together, eating a lot of pizza and ice-cream together or sitting chatting together. Next to football, sitting on park benches is the favourite national past time. Well, that and dog walking.

Italians love dogs. Where we Brits are generally much fatter than our dogs could ever hope to be, in Italy, the opposite is true. Anything bigger than a pug is overfed until it’s eyes are permanently blotched red and a permanent slobber ensues. A dog walk isn’t so much as that as a waddle. After 5 minutes of “walking” most dogs have to take part in the nation’s other past time on a park bench or at their owners’ feet.  Toy dogs, at least in Milan any how, are generally speedy little trotters that spend most of their time inside Gucci or Louis Vuitton handbags when they aren’t wiggling their feet forward with delighted little expressions on their faces. The other location of choice for dog walkers is around specific dog areas or “Area Riservata ai Cani”. If such a area existed in space-conscious Japan, you would probably pay a fair amount of Yen for the privilege to use it. Truly the Italians do love their mutts.

They’re not really cat people though. The first enounter I had with a cat was one I saw around my temporary residence. The second was the sound of what I can only presume was the cat’s kittens meowing regularly to the point where I thought the meows were a ring tone for the first 30 seconds. That was in central Milan, where I guess most people keep their felines indoors. Even here in Segrate, on the outskirts of central Milan, I’ve only seen two cats compared to the multitude of bleary-eyed, sumo pooches. Another indication of the city mouse, country mouse factor at play in Italy.

The other distinction I would make about Italians, particularly the Milanese is the strong sense you get of there being a divide between the young and the old. It’s stark from the moment you step off the metro; you walk into this old, yet bustling city, with churches, castles and cathedrals around every corner, cobblestone beneath your feet and ivy-covered houses in residential areas.

And yet all of it is covered in spit and graffiti. Since I’m from Glasgow, I wouldn’t normally point fingers at a nation of people who want to redecorate their buildings with scrawls of their names but here, it’s everywhere. It’s almost like everyone and their little sister picked up a can and decided, “This gothic building isn’t pretty enough, I’ll write my name on it in bright pink.” You can find graffiti about almost every topic from your usual name-writing, to political beliefs, witty jokes to sprawling pseudo-art pieces. It even comes in different languages. I was surprised to understand a lot of it as a good chunk of the stuff is written in English.

Then there’s the spit. Oh, christ it’s horrible. It’s a horrible habit any way but at least in Scotland people keep spitting to outside where the regular rains will wash it all away. Here though, ugh! It’s like it’s in fashion! Maybe the people who do it do so to emulate their football idols, I really don’t know, but there’s nothing more galling than stepping down into the subway after an 11 hour shift and having to stare at a spit pile as you sit down and wait for the train to come… Thankfully the time difference between trains is only 2-3 minutes or so.

For the most part it’s the younger Italians, with the bravado, increasingly outlandish hair cuts and gang-like mentalities that engage in the spitting. I really don’t know about the graffiti as I’ve not caught anyone in the act of it yet but I suspect it’s done by the same demographic. Contrast this with the older generations that I teach and spend hours working to keep the declining Italian economy going, you can’t help but wonder what went wrong… You see the older generations going to church in their Sunday best, like little Emperors and Empresses and wonder how they let their kids get away with so much. Nor their leaders for that matter.

Every day on the Passante, a train line heading outside of Milan, I pass a graveyard of trains, all rusted and brown When I pass it, it feels like an infinitely long minute as the train carcasses stretch on for what feels like forever. I get off at a small, un-signposted train station and pass through a dusty industrial area, smothered in graffiti and walk 5 minutes into the lovely little neighbourhood where my apartment is and I wonder, what is the future for these people? Will they be able to keep their dogs so fat in ten years? Will the bravado of their gangs of spitting teenagers be enough to keep them afloat? Will the older generations continue to put up with their shit?

Then I think back to the UK and it’s not so different after all.

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