Needing to see a lawyer, my husband’s office referred us to a swanky law office on the heels of the Pantheon. I showed up around noon on a Monday and knew I was pushing my luck, but amazingly the office was just opening. The lawyer was a type you see a great deal of here: bottle blond, thin as a rail, skin forever charred from too much sun and too many cigarettes, face lined with black and ruby red, all perched atop fancy stiletto heels.
“What can I do for you?” she asked in perfect English.
“Just need some papers notarized,” I replied.
“Where are you from?” she asked me.
“New York,” I told her.
“Ah, New York. I think I would like to move there. I need to move there,” she said slowly as she hung her head low and I worried she might start to cry. “I am just so tired,” she explained.
“Yes,” I answered, “Why? It seems so many young Italians I meet say the same thing.”
In Italy contracts are airtight. The joining parties forever together. This is why we were warned many times before we came, “DO NOT SIGN ANY CONTRACT FOR ANYTHING!”
The lawyer went on to tell me everything. Having been educated at Harvard, she wanted to model her firm as such, working full weeks. Now, not to be misunderstood, this simply meant the office would open Monday morning at noon, instead of after siesta as many, or Tuesday, adhering to the 3-day weekend that’s still held by lots. Lunches were still epic and doors always closed at 5, but apparently this “early week start” was too much for her colleague, who declared a “nervous breakdown,” because he was “overworked.” Now sitting at the sea shore for the next six months “recuperating,” the lawyer is not only not allowed, by law, to fire him, but she is not allowed to hire anyone to replace him for those 6 months. So, she is alone, doing twice the work and can barely keep her head above water, but as she told me,
“Sabrina, when there is a contract, you can do nothing. The government will always protect you. You don’t even have to work. You cannot ever be fired.”
“Oh, is this why there is no customer service in Italy?” I asked her. “Why you can’t get anyone to help you in a store (outside of tourist areas, of course) or why the post office takes not just hours, but days?”
“Yes. Why should they help you? They have a contact,” she replied.
This is a contradiction in a country with a contracting labor market and high unemployment or under-employment for young adults. University graduates work as baristas, or worse yet, leave the country to be baristas elsewhere. This structure of labor market, favoring those in established positions, contractual or otherwise, and especially favoring a middle-age or older demographic, risks pushing people and capital outside the country.
It’s not all wine and cheese in Rome.