Like any love affair, my love affair with Italy was not as simple as it seemed to be. There were complications too complex and sometimes too heavy, that I was forced to think why that place was not kind to me, despite the intensity with which I loved it. The most complex of all was the constant bureaucratic struggle which Italy subjects every foreigner to, especially for people who are not from European Union and with nationalities or those who did not have passports which allow less scrutiny and worldwide travel and stay privileges such as those of United States, the UK, Australia etc. you get the idea. It was too much to fight at two battle fronts; one for keeping the bureaucratic documents in order such as residence permit which in itself had a long list of requirements to keep up with and secondly to find and keep a job which was looped with the requirements of the residence permit. Therefore, it was always a chicken and egg situation, meaning that if I did not have a job, I could not get a residence permit since I was no longer a student and if I did not have a job, the immigration office (Questura) would not grant me a residence permit, which means saying “Ciao” to Italy and having to leave. Similarly, not having a residence permit will mean the employer would not be willing to offer a contract seeing the uncertain situation with the documentation.
Sometimes I commend myself on keeping my nerves through that constant battle with all the odds to put bread on my table and to keep a roof over my head for which I had to call in favours from people who I would never have gone to, had I not been desperately fighting to keep my head above water with unemployment and related issues.
It was 2015; I had recently left the job in Piacenza for which I traveled a 100 kms each way to and from Como, changing two trains and a bus. I did not get a contract extension and was tired of the uncertainty of my employment situation. It was when I was travelling through France, with some friends who came to visit me in Europe and I designed their itinerary, when this company called me for an interview and I accepted that I would go for an interview upon my return. The company was a prestigious name, which in my imagination would have been another feather in my cap and a milestone in my very new career. The company conducted a series of interviews and finally told me they could only hire me for a part time job although I tried to explain to them that I was no longer a student and in the process of changing my student permit to work permit. Still they insisted they would want me part time only and will pay me 300 Euros a month.
Yes, you read it right, 300 Euros a month for having to travel to Stezzano which is a small town near Bergamo 96 kms from Como and then an additional 16 kms to Stezzano. To be there for a 9 am start to work, I had to take 5:46 train to Milan and change at Monza station after a 40 minutes journey, to a train to Bergamo, which took an additional 50 minutes. From Bergamo, there was a bus to Stezzano that was not frequent, which meant missing one would make me wait an hour to get another. The bus dropped me near the highway and I walked another 15 minutes to reach the company.
This made the length of my journey somewhere between three to three and a half hours one way, which was usually longer in the afternoon. I also tried using company shuttle bus, which used to leave at 4 pm and left the passengers at one of the Milan Metro stations, which took an hour to get there and then another hour and a half journey on two trains made me come home. Taking the 4 pm shuttle meant, I worked almost 7 hours instead of 4 and was still paid for half a day. Sometimes there were train strikes or a missed connection in between and I arrived home well past 8 pm. Upon reviewing closely, I found my commute time lasted more than the hours I worked but things we need to do to keep our life running are sometimes more toll taking than they are fruitful.
I tried to find joy in that commute and noticed the beauty of Adda River each time, I crossed Ponte San Michele which is a very old bridge built to cross Adda River which is very long river having a mouth at the foot of Italian and Swiss Alps north of Lake Como.
Sometimes while waiting for the train to Milan, I had a long walk in Bergamo and even went up to the Citta Alta (the historical walled city on the top of the hill). Bergamo is a very interesting city having two historical centres; one in Citta Bassa (Lower level city centre) and Citta Alta.
I looked at the people who were shopping or just strolling around beautiful fortress and always thought how it would feel to have that peace and contentment in life, which came with a stable job and economic situation. It had become a dream of mine to find a stable footing in Italy and to actually be able to enjoy what it meant to have a job, an apartment with no sharing with weird roommates and a steady income.
Working with Bergamaschi (People from Bergamo) was not easy as they are probably the most unfriendly of all Italians. There was such a pushback on the shop floor area where I worked as a Health and Safety Professional and to obtain day-to-day inspection and energy efficiency data, needed help from the operators who worked on conveyer belts. I used to work with an enthusiasm like that of Mindy Kaling in the movie “Late Night Show”, except that I was not in the US and was hired to enable the company to pay less and get the job done without giving recognition. The operators ignored me as I was a non-living object in the background. I persisted and went to them every day, trying to convince them to help me understand the semi-automatic robotic machines and their energy data, in my limited Italian. I shared an office with a lady who was working as an HSE Specialist having been promoted from the shop floor. With passage of time, I realized she was very enthusiastic in seeing me fail and not let her job threatened by me, as I was both more appropriately qualified and experienced in that particular field. Realizing this, I worked harder and used to wait for any of the operators to show me how to measure the data. The Manager had given me a task and forgot to see my face afterwards and still needed results. Funny, right? One day, I was almost in tears knowing that the deadline was approaching fast and I still did not have the data that I needed. One of the operators asked me what exactly I needed and I explained to him. He told me that he felt very bad that I begged and waited everyday as he had a daughter my age and he would not have liked to see his daughter in a similar situation. Well, thank God, someone had a heart and was willing to help me. He would take 15-20 minutes from his break time and would show me how it was done. Nobody ever gives up their precious break time in Italy and anywhere for that matter. I used to offer him a coffee as thanks and he was happy sharing little stories from his hometown in Puglia.
I was happy something worked out. I used to engross myself deeply in using the data to make the report that was my task. I distinctly remember that the radio played in the background to keep the operators entertained and I remember the playlist of the songs, which were a hit those days. Adele’s voice would suddenly echo through the halls saying “Hello from the other side” and played several times a day, followed by Vico and Vinz’s “Am I wrong”, and Flo Rida’s “Whistle Baby” as almost a daily occurrence. There was also a French song which escapes my mind now. If I remembered someday, I will make sure to update it here. The songs have become etched into my memories of my time at that company and even today when one of the songs play, I am taken back to that time which might have been the one of the many very difficult periods in my life.
The long commute and the fact that sometimes the bus drivers who used to deliberately leave me standing on the bus stop or sometimes just 2 metres short of reaching the bus stop, took toll on my health. Standing in snow and cold brisk air every day and little to no rest made me come down with Bronchitis. I was very sick and the doctor told me I was also lacking nutrition. Obviously out of 300 Euros, I made a transport pass for 103 Euros and was left with 197 Euros. I was sharing the room with someone who let me live there without rent so I could at least eat something with those 197 Euros. The company at least offered me lunch, which allowed me to save the expense of lunch food at the very least.
My sickness made me not go to work for 3 days and I did send my sickness certificate which in Italy has to come from the Physician and has to be electronically verifiable with a code and everything making it an irrefutable document. Upon my return to work, I was still not feeling very well and had to travel this long to reach the company which made me late sometimes. I got a call from HR and was given a warning that I was late a few times and that I also skipped work, ignoring my sickness. I apologized and assured I would not be late again. A week later on a Friday, the HSE specialist told me that I had to clean the cupboard in the office and sweep the floor. I looked at her and wondered if this was the way to treat a qualified Engineer in that country but said nothing and did as I was told. Around noon, I received an email from HR that they wanted to see me at 1 pm. I knew it was not a good sign and put all my completed reports and presentations in a USB and took to the office with me so if needed, I could show them immediately. The HR room looked like an intervention scene with the other HR and my manager looking at me somberly. The HR took a long time to bash me over my “unprofessional” behavior and my incompetence and mentioned mockingly that I was not even able to work part time and at some point, I had implied the possibility of working full time since I had successfully converted my student permit to work permit (how did that happen is a whole other story in itself). The manager who had not bothered to show up or allow me to see him in weeks, yet had regularly received my work done, told the room that I was causing him inconvenience and making him lose face in front of the leadership management in France because I did not complete any of my assignments on time which in turn delayed his deliverables. The HR said that that was not acceptable and that the manager had to be supported and I had failed in that etc. etc. I was looking at their faces and had a very bad spasm of cough that had still not subsided and tried to explain myself in my then limited linguistic skills in Italian. I was totally ignored and the verdict was out that my internship is being terminated before its natural end, which was a month and half away. Like an expendable item, I was sent home branding me with unprofessionalism and incompetency. On my way to my cubicle, the manager caught up with me and called me in his office. He put one hand over my shoulder and said that he tried to reason with HR and she just did not agree because my absence and my lateness has not left much room for discussion and that he was very sorry and understood that me losing job would affect my livelihood. I looked at home and just wondered what a load of lies it was. Was this a ploy? Yes. It was all a ploy. They all wanted me gone since the “Straniera” (foreign girl) had not come up to their expectations. The HR used Manager’s reasoning and the Manager used the HR’s. I remember I said to him that the work he said I had not completed is still in the USB in my pocket and I had also uploaded it in the company drive and sent it to him via email weeks ago. He just smiled with a hypocritic smile on his face and told me he was sorry which he wasn’t. I realized that being new to office politics in Italy had not let me realize it earlier, that it was coming.
I came back to my office and was sitting there in the after effects of a cruel bashing, when the HSE specialist told me I did not have to wait until the end of the day and I could leave immediately. She also said that she had warned me earlier that my behavior was being watched and that there would be repercussions. I looked at her and it dawned on me that she was the one who had been going behind my back and that she has accomplished what she had been wanting. I went to say good bye to the few nice people who had helped me and guess what? They all knew I was going to be fired. How? This lady in my office made sure everyone knew how incompetent the “straniera” was and multiplied everything with a 100 to make me look like a total failure. Only one of the foreigner operators said that the company was never going to hire me after the internship was over and that the manager himself had told him that they were going to replace me. You can very well guess the level of “their” professionalism in all of this and how they all ganged up against “Stanieri”.
I left the office, with tears in my eyes on a cold crisp February afternoon and wandered aimlessly in Bergamo. I called my mom and cried on the phone asking her why life was so unfair to me. What did I deserve to see one trouble after another and not even having a family to lean on? My father had passed away and my mom could not have helped me in any way so I knew I was all on my own. I still am.
Another failed endeavor in Italy ended and I had to start looking for another avenue. It was 2016 and it had been 4 years since I had graduated. I decided that it was enough of a struggle in Italy and I had to look for a job elsewhere in Europe or leave the continent for good and try in another direction. Despite all that happened, I did not hate Italy but just wanted to change strategy to find stability in career and my life, which was increasingly becoming difficult. I will recount my hustles through 2016 in another blog.