Friday, January 12, 2007

Working in Italy - Maria's experience

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Maria got a call from an employment agency that she’d registered with, for a German-speaking job in Civitanova Marche, a half-hour from here. After the interview, she was hired on a probationary basis, and so our lives changed.

The job entailed talking on the phone to German car sellers for an Italian who buys them and resells them to his clients here. The cars are identified on an online German website, and then drivers are sent up to bring the cars back. The proprietor is a 30-something-year-old choleric who walks about the office yelling and screaming, and has yet to direct a word Maria’s way. Apparently he’s been inside the clink.

Also in the office are an Italian (a qualified schoolteacher), and a Croatian. They are the first responders to phone calls coming in from the Italian clients. Leticia, the Italian, is friendly and an ally. Maurizia, the Croatian, is sullen and prone to outbreaks of tears and frustration, and, as it turns out, not to be trusted.

The atmosphere is barely short of a penitentiary – cameras monitor every move, phone calls are recorded, and all work on the computers is tracked. Talk about Big Brother! Here’s a man who clearly doesn’t trust himself.

When Maria returned from Germany, she discovered that she didn’t have a contract for January, and so decided to stay home until they resolved it (given that she wouldn’t be paid without a contract). The boss wanted to make it the Croatian’s decision so that she could be blamed if something went wrong either way. The Croatian didn’t want the decision because she’d be blamed if something went wrong. Wonderful situation.

It’s now been 3 days, and they haven’t even bothered to call. Chances are they’ve decided not to continue with Maria, but they simply don’t have the guts or the courtesy to pick up the phone and let her know.

Not that she’s sweating it. Having someone peer over your shoulder at your every move for €7 an hour isn’t exactly what I’d call motivating…

Daily update - parte quattro

A lot has happened – or not happened, as the case may be – in the month-plus since last posting a general update. The events relating to Mr Young have dominated, but these are documented in other postings, so I won’t spend any words on them here.

On the building side, the official absolutely last day (according to our contract) that renovations would start – December 11th – came and went neither hide nor hair of Paolo (the builder). Finally, the day before we left for Germany (December 22nd), a platform was built for the crane. When we came back two weeks later, the crane had been delivered and installed, but nothing more. Another week later, and we’re still waiting for some real activity, although there have been a few symbolic hammerings coming from down there.

The story on the Internet, telecommunications, and postal fronts are no better, but then who would have expected these services to change their attitudes in the space of two weeks. I’ve railed enough in the past about their ability to take incompetence, indifference, and laziness to a whole new, mind-boggling level. So I won’t spend too much time on it, except for one thing that I must confess I simply marvel at – the Italian’s propensity and unscrupulous tendency to simply put the phone down when things aren’t going their way. This doesn’t apply just to government agencies like the telecommItalia or posteItaliano, but to private companies as well. I am astounded by this. But I also realize that if I am to be happy living in this country, I will simply have to accept it, and live with it.

On the car front, we finally found an insurance company that gave us some credit for our period of coverage in the US – and a break on the premium – on the Honda that we bought. It’s a German-based company, perhaps not surprisingly.

Julius returned to school on Monday (8th), to a brand new building, renovated after earthquake damage in 1993. Apparently it took this long to complete because some of the relief money was only released in 2006. It’s beautiful, with high ceilings, arched windows, and a fully-functioning, commercial-level kitchen and canteen. On the Sunday before school started, the whole village turned out for speeches, food, and wine to celebrate its opening.

Monday was also Julius’ 11th birthday, an uneventful and somewhat sad one this year. Given the events of the past few weeks, the only presents we were able to muster were some brightly-coloured flowers for Julius to tend and plant in the spring in remembrance of Mr Young. It’s been a tough week for him, but our borrowing of The Two Towers (Lord of the Rings) has helped to distract him.

Today he called to be picked up early because of a headache. This was really a euphemism for claustrophobia, and a ruse to get out and about on a gorgeous, 15°C (60°F) day. Given their freewheeling approach to life, the Italian attitude to the outdoors is a little surprising – at the slightest hint of cold weather, they recoil and run scurrying for cover. And the fact that it’s January (winter) seems to taint every consideration of the weather, regardless of what’s actually happening outside. As a result, Julius was severely scolded for opening the window “to get some fresh air”.

It’s a cause for concern – boys of his age need a channel to expend energy, but the schools here don’t even let them go outside, regardless of what it’s like or how they are dressed. And they keep them there until 4:30pm, often sending them home with homework, leaving precious little time for activity when they get home. In Columbus, Ohio, as a 4 and 5-year-old, Julius went outside for several hours a day, whether rain, sleet, or snow. Not sure what we’re going to do about this one…

Christmas in Germany

Aside from the cheap airfares, another advantage of living in Europe is that you can get in your car in the morning and be in another country in the afternoon. Of course, being in relative proximity to Maria’s parents, Christmas in Germany was a given.

It took 10 hours to get there, driving through northern Italy, western Austria, and Bavaria in southern Germany, a relatively pain-free passage. Traffic going the other way was stopped dead, in some places, for 10km, without any apparent reason. Driving on European expressways is a pleasure, too, since, unlike the US, people know what lanes are for, and “the fast lane” has true meaning.

The two-week visit was tainted by Mr Young’s death within an hour of arriving, but in some ways it was the best place it could have happened, with loving and caring family and friends around to provide solace to Julius and Maria.

The Advent calendar is very big in Germany, and many towns – Forcheim near Maria’s parents being a great example – have larger-than-life calendars in the central plaza, accompanied by the ubiquitous Christkindlmarkt. Niklaus (Santa Claus) himself comes on December 6th, and the tree is decorated and gifts are exchanged on the 24th. We enjoyed venison and goose with Maria’s sister on the 24th, attended a (long and laborious) Christmas service at 10pm, and the next day stuffed ourselves again with duck at Maria’s parents.

New Year’s eve was spent with friends of Maria, culminating in fireworks all over the village at midnight. Fireworks are freely available to the public, and Germans spend some €60M on the stuff at New Year. Amazingly, there are very few incidents of injury. Imagine the same in the US – it would be pandemonium, if not life-threatening, providing ample reason enough to stay at home on New Year’s eve.

Aside from the obvious value time with family, we enjoyed good beer, schnapps, and food, with fish – carp (a local specialty), mackerel, and “waller” – on a few occasions providing welcome relief from the ever-present carnivorous diet. Also played some great tennis (for the first time in years) with some 40- and 50-something-year-olds. Strolls in the woods and exploring on bicycles with Julius were amazingly (in comparison with rural Italy) free of barking and attacking dogs – on one occasion as we approached a particularly large yet obedient and unexcited German shepherd, I said to Julius: “If we were in Italy, I’d turn around and flee.”

Julius didn’t want to leave, wanting to make sure that the candle on Mr Young’s grave was kept alight, and the fact that it would just “be easier” to stay in Germany. Maria’s parents were of the same opinion, and I heard from her mother about the folly of our Italian escapade on a few occasions.

Parting is always hard, and it was no easier on this occasion – I have this picture in my mind of Maria’s aging and frail parents standing tearfully and forlornly in their doorway as we drove away. The 1,057km drive took 11 hours coming back, with one long 25km stop-start stretch around Munich costing us the extra hour. Getting back to the house without Mr Young was, of course, wrenching, and it felt totally empty.

But being back in Italy helped also to highlight the stark differences between these two countries separated by a mountain range and a cultural chasm. Here are just a few:

  • In Italy, strangers – men or women – greet you with kisses, while Germans stand their distance and extend only their hands.
  • After clean streets for two weeks I’m now back to dodging excretory mines on the sidewalk.
  • After the cold, grey, German weather, the sunny skies and blustery winds are welcome indeed, even if there’s no snow to please Julius.

Walking through the streets in Germany I was struck by how, well, Germanic everyone looks – square jaws, thin lips, deep-set eyes, strong bones. Duh? I guess somehow I don't subscribe to generalizations. In this sense, though, the Germans seem to conform to their caricature.

However, in another sense – efficiency, reliability – they did not, although I’m not sure if it was the Internet curse I brought with me that was the cause. The network of the only wireless hotspot I found was not working on the day I dedicated to catching up …

Trip to England

One of the advantages of living in Europe is the cheap air fares that facilitate shuttles between countless countries and cultures. At the end of November, we took advantage of one, from Ancona (our closest airport, an hour or so away) to Liverpool. €1 per person each way, plus tax, making it a total of €118 for all 3 of us. (That, however, is where the economic side of things ends – England, with its super-strong pound, is very expensive in euros, never mind dollars!)

We flew in and out of Liverpool, and were treated to the warm and welcoming hospitality of our friends and landlords, Al and Vron, in West Yorkshire in the High Peaks area. Aside from being just a bloody good time being together, we got to see York and its Minster, Whitby with its moody abbey ruins on the blustery coast, and the stately Chatsworth, home of the Duke of Northumberland. Had fish ‘n chips in Whitby, Yorkshire pudding at home (along with several other superb meals), drank some good bitter in a few warm pubs, and watched the SA vs World XV rugby game live on TV (going to the game was the original impetus for the trip, but it just didn’t work out).

Leaving Liverpool airport introduced us to the new UK, uncompromisingly and unflinchingly unmovable on the “no liquids” rule. We tried to travel light and not check baggage, taking everything on board the plane. Big mistake.

Granted, I can see how my Gillette Sensor razor blades could slice off the plane’s wing in mid-flight, so I gave them up willingly. But marmalade and a tape measure? Into the bin they went, along with the peanut butters, lip glosses, and other weapons of the terrorist’s arsenal. The shaved-headed twenty-somethings that conducted the pillage even took one tiny bottle away (a very expensive essential oil) because “I don’t know what it is, luv.”

Perhaps it’s our own fault in the end – we should have known – but we really didn’t think that the English could match, let alone surpass, the security zealots in the US. But then again, who’s to say that the marmalade made by the Housewives League of Holmfirth isn’t packed choc-a-bloc with explosive ingredients, or that they are secretly funding Al Qaeda operations? The England of olde – friendly bobbies without weapons – is clearly a thing of the past. Apparently, there is more surveillance in the UK than anywhere else in the world. Perhaps this is all necessary. I don’t know. All I know is that it’s a shame.

The eventful nature of our return didn’t stop there. Ancona was fogged in, so we were diverted to Pescara in Abruzzo. Thankfully buses were laid on by Ryanair, and we were on the road in short order, finally getting home around midnight instead of 9:30pm.

We were then greeted with another stark reality – Mr Young was nowhere to be found. We had left him with enough food and water for the 5 days, and left the upstairs bedroom window open so he could at least get outside on to the roof of the patio. But it was too long for him – he had fled. We searched all around, calling and pleading, but no response. So we went to bed, anxious and concerned.

Maria found him the next day, perched high in a neighbour’s tree. He probably got down from the roof after a few days, and then, when he found he couldn’t get back into the house, sought out the safest place to him in a hostile environment of roving dogs and wild cats. For a highly-strung creature like a cat, it must have been terrifying. Apparently severe stress like this can cause a thrombosis, and this could well have been the cause of his mysterious affliction a week later, and ultimately, his death on December 23rd.

Now that he’s gone, I’m constantly brought back to this incident. What were we thinking, for 5 days leaving a totally dependent creature that identifies so strongly with its family that it relies on them for not only food, but also for comfort, security, and general wellbeing? And what goes through an animal’s mind at times like this? Was he going to look for us? Did he think we had abandoned him?

There are no answers, only haunting questions …

Our beloved Mr Young

There’s a spirit burning brightly in the winter air beneath Julius’ tree in his grandparents’ garden in Röttenbach, Bavaria. Our beloved Mr Young lies there, a premature victim of the stress that our roving lives created for him. Julius has lost his brother and best friend, and we a loving member of our family.

The days are different now, there’s something missing, and that empty part in each of us still cracks wide open as we struggle to adjust to life without our loyal and trusting companion. At least once a day I still hear his bell, and just half-an-hour ago I heard his “hello” chirrup from some shadowy corner of the house. And as with each and every instance of these audible reminders, I turn in hope, only to realize that it’s my heart making echoes of our wishes.

As time goes on, all this will happen less frequently I suppose, until we remember and talk of him – both happily and sadly – with steadier voices and drier eyes.

In the end, I think all of our roving was just too much for him. The move from the US first to Germany, and Maria’s parents’ yappy poodle … then to the Italian countryside with its overpopulation of wild cats and world of strange and ominous things … then to our rental house with the 4 dogs across the street … our 5-day absence in the UK in early December … the mystery blight that leveled him and hospitalized him for 2 days … and the 10-hour car trip to Germany.

He knew that something was afoot, with all the packing of suitcases and trips to the car. He knew that we were going away again. And whether he was coming with us or staying on his own, somehow he knew it would be too much for him, still recovering from his undiagnosed brush with death. After returning from the vet hospital, every time we went out, he sat at the front door, waiting for us to return.

In his own way he tried to tell us, huddling silently and sadly under the trampoline as we searched for him, our last precious piece of cargo before hitting the road. We didn’t recognize his signal – or subliminally chose not to – and he died less than an hour after arriving in Germany. We simply shouldn’t have left. We shouldn’t have left.

In the end, I am left with a picture of him sitting, like a compact ball of woolly silk, in quiet submission to the will of his family, resigned to his fate. He trusted us. We let him down.

We’re so sorry, Mr Young, we’re so sorry.