La Dolce Vita? Going Broke in Italy

What Women Really Think
Nov. 3 2009 4:04 PM

La Dolce Vita? Going Broke in Italy

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News of another round of layoffs at my old place of employment, the Time Inc. mothership, is heartbreaking. Another dent in the undead dream of that Mad Men company of yore where drink carts rolled the halls on Fridays, and Brooks Brothers correspondents were sent to Timbuktoo, wallets bursting with Yankee dollars for fixers and enough left over to score bits of archaeology and Oriental rugs to line the floors and walls of paid-for Manhattan apartments.

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A year ago, I was at the Time & Life Building during the previous round of cuts, listening to the same whispers and gossip, feeling the blade whistle past my own neck. It didn’t fall on me then, but I left anyway. There was something scarring about the sense of helplessness, of being judged worthy or not.

We should be able to choose the hour and place of our demise. And so here’s my family, a year later, going broke on our own terms, in Italy.

From back home, it appears we are "living the dream" or some version thereof. In Italy, the dollar is like the peso against the euro, but we can still strut around with the old Yankee sheen because the fact of our nation’s malaise and my profession’s implosion hasn’t permeated the Italian psyche.

We are saving money, too. A bottle of Santa Margherita pinot grigio costs about 8 euros (about $12), sometimes even less, compared to $30 in the States. The local red, Montefalco Rosso, goes for 5 euros ($7.50) at the grocery store. The cheapest bottle of it in the United States is $16, and some merchants sell it for as much as $40 or $50, depending on vintage.

Food is cheap-great for raising kids!

Health care is free-and they don’t kill old people either, judging by the large numbers of them to be seen shopping at the markets every morning. I am told that if we go into a hospital with something serious, they will fix us without asking about insurance or swiping our credit card first. I have not tested this out, and based on what I know of Italian science (Google "Amanda Knox forensics"), I am a tad leery-but I will definitely take advantage when and if needed.

So far so good, tutto bene, as they say here, except that there are so many things we crave but cannot afford. What good is an Italian existence without a Vespa, for example, or an antique Fiat cinquecento ? We could maybe scrounge up a couple thousand for a used motorbike, but then we’d have to splash out on license and insurance and helmets and all. Tempting, but so far, no. A car of any vintage is out of the question. But the buses are almost free.

Fashion is a great sore spot. As winter sets in, all the Italian women have donned new boots. I am trying to emulate my wise and dear friend DeeDee in D.C., who vowed not to buy any new clothes this year and who has admirably stuck to that. On the other hand, I can’t be seen walking around in summer shoes, and not having the last cut of boots pains the vain part of me deeply. I am drawn inevitably toward the shop doors like the little matchstick girl, big-eyed and pitiful, only to be overwhelmed with grief by the sticker shock. I find myself whining to the clerks about the dreadful exchange rate between the dollar and the euro, as though perhaps they might consider a barter-my clever English words for a little sconto (discount), perhaps? Their impassive sellers’ faces reveal no sympathy whatsoever, maybe even a bit of malice.

There’s a Zen to going broke in Italy. It’s easier to throw up one’s hands and say, whatever. For one thing, the too-frequent ATM withdrawals of 250 euros (maximum withdrawal allowed in the machines, horrifically equal to $400 or more) yield receipts that, because I am in a foreign country, don’t usually include the "remaining balance."

When we eventually decided to stay here through the winter, one of my convincing points of argument with my husband was, "Where would we rather go broke: New York or Italy?"

Going broke in New York, along with all our fellow media employees, offers the benefit of misery with company. Here, we run out of money among olive trees, grape arbors, ancient ruins that have seen more sorrow than we yet know, and magnificent villas that taunt us, owned by generations of nobility dating back to Caesar or to Chiantishire Brits whose pound sterling only recently wavered.

We were never in their league anyway.

In New York, having to factor in credit-card debt every time I thought about hailing a taxi in the rain would just ruin my week.

Months ago, when we had more money in the bank, I was proportionately more worried about running out of it. Now, as the bottom looms upward, I am perversely less afraid. Why? In Italy, the old material desires are tamped down, and the pain of not having things we want is ameliorated by the beauty of the place. Italy breeds optimism. I trust that somehow we will be able to earn money over here, even if it means teaching English as a second language like rag-clad Ichabod Crane.

For the moment though, I am writing even this for love, not money.

Photograph of boots on display in Milan by Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images.

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