Italian Language Blog

Living The Dream? Posted by on Sep 10, 2018 in Culture

Every now and then, inexperienced visitors to the beautiful part of Italy where I live tell me: “You’re living the dream!” A statement which I find difficult to respond to.

I guess my instinctive response would be: “No, I’m living the reality”. But that would entail long and complicated cultural explanations which would, for the most part, leave the visitor bemused.
In order to “live the dream” it’s necessary to remain naive of the realities that constitute daily life in Italy. The average tourist will never have the opportunity, even if they wanted it, to penetrate the veneer of beautiful romantic Italy, ‘il Bel Paese’. Tourists come and go. They brush the surface leaving hardly a ripple, and take home with them pretty images that correlate to “the dream”. Longer term visitors, for the most part, inhabit the cocoon of their ex-pat community. Many live here for decades without learning the most rudimentary elements of the language … let alone understanding the mystifying complexities of the culture!

Take the widespread and deeply rooted issue of corruption. Now, that certainly doesn’t equate with “living the dream”. Well, you may say, corruption exists in many cultures. True, but in Italy it’s been developed into a fine art.
Italian novelist Gianrico Carofiglio writes in his book Passeggeri Notturni: “Vede, la corruzione, in questo Paese, è una scelta facile, o almeno non abbastanza scomoda. Questo per molte ragioni. Le norme, il costume, l’inefficacia dei controlli. Anche la tendenza di autogiustificarsi.” (You see, corruption, in this country, is an easy choice, or at least not uncomfortable enough. There are many reasons for this. The laws, custom, inefficient monitoring. Also the tendency to self-justify.)
And Carofiglio certainly knows something about corruption. Before becoming an author he was an anti-mafia judge who specialized in prosecuting organised crime.

But corruption in Italy isn’t just limited to powerful businessmen, Mafia clans and politicians. Fare il furbo is a national pastime. Maybe you’ve come across this very Italian expression, fare il furbo? We can define it as: cercare di barare, di cavarsela usando la furberia o imbrogliando gli altri (to try and cheat, to get by using slyness or by swindling and fooling other people).

A local news headline from a few days ago may give you an insight into this phenomenon:

Furbetti del cartellino, 26 arresti alla Provincia di Massa Carrara
The sly scoundrels of the time card, 26 arrests in the Province of Massa Carrara

An investigation instigated by the attorney of Massa Carrara, and conducted by the Carabinieri, has revealed an insidious, endemic absenteeism amongst public employees. In total, 70 employees were investigated over a period of a year and a half, leading to 26 arrests.
The furbetti would come into work, clock in using their time card, then turn around and leave to ‘fare i cazzi loro‘ (do their own business). Whilst ‘officially’ hard at work in the office they would go shopping, go to the bar, take their children to school, go to funerals, and even attend mass. In two cases they actually went off to do another job! Amongst those being investigated are the commander of the provincial police and the chauffeur for the president of the province.

One of the most negative aspects of this incident is summarised in the prosecutor’s report:

“Ciò che ancor più destabilizza e preoccupa è lo spiccato senso di impunità manifestato da coloro che, nonostante i chiari segni di una inchiesta penale in corso, dopo una iniziale limitazione o interruzione dell’attività delittuosa, hanno ripreso con regolarità le loro condotte truffaldine”.
“That which is more unsettling and worrying is the strong sense of impunity manifested by those who, despite clear signs of an ongoing legal investigation, after an initial limitation or interruption of their criminal activities, recommenced their regular fraudulent conduct”.

It’s important to remember that these furbetti are a relative minority. However, as Carofiglio explains above, there are certain cultural attributes, which are way too complex to address in this brief article, that greatly contribute to the depressing prevalence of corruption, and help to cultivate a mentality of furbizia throughout Italian society.

Last but not least, this is the reality of the situation that my honest, hard working Italian friends have to deal with on a daily basis. Hence my inclination to reply to the statement: “you’re living the dream” with: “No, I’m living the reality”. Anything less would imply that Italians are simply picturesque, two dimensional characters posed in a quaint dream-like setting purely for the entertainment of us foreigners.

But it’s usually just simpler to smile and nod.

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  1. Louise Fincham:

    Corruption is in every country throughout the world. I am
    passionate about Italy. It is the birthplace of western civilisation. All I dream about is my next visit there and I have been there twice in the past three years. Hopefully next year when I visit Venezia I will be fluent in Italian. I am taking lessons each week.

    • Geoff:

      @Louise Fincham Ciao Louise, perhaps one fair day, if you should come and live here, you may discover what lies beneath that pretty surface!

      Saluti! 🙂

  2. AnnK:

    Ben detto!

  3. Ex-Expat:

    Living near Lucca for 5 years we learned that not all is rosy in beautiful Italy. The worst for us was the crushing bureaucracy that made life so difficult. I don’t know how Italians survive…oh wait, they “fare il furbo”. Love your posts!

    • Geoff:

      @Ex-Expat Thanks Ex-Pat, a good dose of cynicism and a healthy sense of humour certainly helps! But sadly, most Italians have no choice. You either live with it … or like many hundreds of thousands of Italians have done for decades, emigrate!

      A presto, Geoff 🙂

  4. T fedora:

    Having lived in Italy for four years, I absolutely agree with you! You have explained it so eloquently! I could not have explained it better, when confronted with the same

    Thanks you!

  5. Natalia Krawetz:

    A provocative article. Some of us just want to dream about living in Italy but, as you point out, living the reality is otherwise. When you get the strength, I’d be very interested in an article on the cultural attributes contributing to corruption.

    • Geoff:

      @Natalia Krawetz Ciao Natalia, I perfectly understand that you want to dream about Italy, everyone needs a dream, vero?
      As for having the strength to discuss the cultural attributes contributing to corruption … that’s a tough one! It’s not just having the strength, but also the time as it’s so huge.
      I don’t know if you read in Italian, but you should check out Gianrico Carofiglio. In my article I cite his book Passeggeri Notturni, which is a collection of anecdotes and very short stories (3 pages) that often deal with this topic.

      Saluti da Geoff 🙂

      • Natalia Krawetz:

        @Geoff Grazie, Geoff, per la sua consiglia. Non vedo l’ora di leggere le opere di Gianrico Carofiglio.
        Cordiali saluti,

  6. Mike Nicolucci:

    Thanks for another thoughtful post. It’s good to have reality included because that is what helps us really understand a culture and it’s people.

    • Geoff:

      @Mike Nicolucci Ciao Mike, come va?
      Yes, the ‘reality’ factor is essential. But I try not to overdo it as I don’t want to scare you all away! 😉

  7. Christine Percival:

    Thanks, Geoff, for shedding light on a very important part of your culture. I have visited Italia multiple times and know that there is always a segment of any culture that is corrupt. Yes, the food, Italian people in general, the culture is a wonderful experience for us, but you have to deal with things that never seem to change because there is no critical enforcer. I appreciate your insight and your narrative should not be forgotten considering the those hard working folks that have integrity. Well said, Geoff!

    • Geoff:

      @Christine Percival Ciao Christine, it’s so nice to have readers that understand Italy’s problems. I like your “no critical enforcer” remark. How true!
      A presto, Geoff 🙂

  8. Sharon:

    Great article. I’m an Italy travel specialist working in the states. I always get the question…’you know Italy so well and love it so, why don’t you live there?’ I travel to Italy 2 to 3 times a year and speak the language…love the people, seeing new places and selling travel there. However…the bureaucracy could kill you–so I could never live there permanently…but rent there, yes. The widespread acceptance of corruption is sad and little to be done. I fall back…watch old (and new) Montalbano’s and live his dream of being a just person — doing what you have to, to make it worthwhile. Love your blog and lessons!!

    • Geoff:

      @Sharon Thanks Sharon, that’s a great, and insightful comment! It looks like you’ve found a way to make it work for you.
      Buone cose!
      Saluti da Geoff 🙂

  9. Richard:

    Thank you for this article. But I’m not surprised by the ‘furbetti.” We all have a dark side, some more than others, in every culture. I think Boccaccio used ‘fare il furbo’ in an entertaining and postive way. The idea of outwitting somone as the final word.– I think Italians get a big kick out of doing this.

  10. Martie Manley:

    You have not seen corruption!! you must come to South Africa.

    • Geoff:

      @Martie Manley Thanks for the offer Martie … but I think what we have here is more than enough to deal with!!! 😉

  11. Lesley Brennan:

    Well said! Italy is my favourite country but I don’t live there, I live in New Zealand, the country of my birth. (I believe my country is one of the least corrupt in the world). Having lived in Italy in my ’20’s for just 18 months, I was very aware of the difficulties of day to day living but from afar it is so easy to forget the ‘realities’ and to ‘dream’ only of the many wonderful aspects of living in il bel paese.

    • Geoff:

      @Lesley Brennan Ciao Lesley, yes, it’s lovely to have that dream, and part of me secretly envies those that maintain it!
      Funnily enough, when our pleasant neo-fascist government recently took power Serena started dreaming about escaping to New Zealand! I even checked out the immigration web site for her (us!) … and had to break the news to her that we wouldn’t be eligible due to the very stringent requirements. Another dream down the drain!

      A presto, Geoff 🙂

  12. Carolyn:

    A worldwide problem that bears exposing by local small examples like this (not corporate or other corruption)- essentially common citizens flagrantly cheating. What does the community want for common standards of conduct benefitting all? Thanks for the reminder Geoff.

    • Geoff:

      @Carolyn Ciao Carolyn, ‘what does the community want?’. That’s a good question! But I’d perhaps go even further and ask ‘what is the community?’ Here, as you will have seen, it feels like an infinite amount of tiny communities constantly at battle with each other. And this is another core problem, the lack of cohesion and cooperation for even the simple things that would theoretically make life more pleasant for everyone!

      As we often say, boh! 🙂

  13. Dede:

    Insightful article, Geoff and a good reminder that our traveling experiences only scratch the surface. I feel for your honest and hard working Italian friends!

    • Geoff:

      @Dede Grazie Milee Dede.
      A presto, Geoff 🙂

  14. Babs:

    What a wonderful passage. I’ve been trying to learn Italian for many years, had the rose tinted glasses on but it’s not all that it seems. And the language you put into it with the explanation is not the usual text book one. It’s exactly what I need. Thank you Geoff.

    • Geoff:

      @Babs You’re welcome Babs, exactly as you say: “it’s not all that it seems” Saluti da Geoff 🙂

  15. Judy:

    I love the great variety of your posts!!!

  16. Judy:


  17. Rosalind:

    I’m sure we have our share of corruption in France as well but what gets me down most is the wasteful way in which public money is spent (and the cheating, eg Fillon) by people in public office. It shows a total disregard for small taxpayers contributing to the state and regional coffers.

  18. Maria:

    Ciao Geoff: pensavo che tu stavi parlando dell’Argentina.

    • Geoff:

      @Maria Ciao Maria!
      Perché, è uguale anche lì? Immagino di sì! 😉

  19. Maria:

    Ciao Geoff: è un tanto peggiore. L’Argentina è un paese veramente molto corrotto. Questo paese non esiste più. La povera gente vive speranzosa di avere un paese normale ma governo tra governo il paese va giù. Adesso con il prestito dal FMI non potranno mai mettersi in piedi. Almeno l’Italia con i suoi problemi va avanti.

    • Geoff:

      @Maria Ciao Maria, mi spiace molto per la situazione in Argentina. Ma tu ci abiti?

      • Maria:

        @Geoff Ciao Geoff:
        Fortunatamente, da molti anni non ci abito più in quel paese. I nonni di mio papà ci emigravano dal Piemonte. Nonostante, io e la mia famiglia non ce la facessimo più di vivere in mezzo al caos. Pertanto ci siamo andati a vivere in Canada.

        • Geoff:

          @Maria Ciao Maria, non conosco il Canada, ma sono sicuro che vi trovate meglio lì che non in Argentina! Ho sempre sentito che è un bellissimo paese.

          Saluti da Geoff.

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