The complexity of Italy’s cheating heart

#Furbizia

The members of the COSI blogging group were recently exchanging stories about the Italians who have lied and cheated us with an ease and nonchalance which is both infuriating and puzzling. Not to say other countries don’t have problems with corruption as the world is rife, but in most Anglo-Saxon countries a politician or public servant or any other important figure caught out doing dodgy deals is publicly shamed and practically disappears from circulation.

In Italy fraud is a sin easily pardoned, I’d go to the extent to say Italians expect their politicians to be sly. In the country where Machiavelli’s Renaissance masterwork of politicking The Prince has become a classic the idea of furbizia (which translates to a mixture of: cunning, shrewdness, astuteness and slyness) which has become a solid part of the Italian character, it’s not very attractive and as usual this trait becomes more pronounced in the South. At the risk of offending many Italian’s these crazy foreigners are carefully trying to understand why we are persistently being cheated by the country we love.

Taormina art studios

Really bad Karma

Organized crime rooted in Mafia-style practices such as bribery, extortion, murder, public contracts, vote-buying represents only a fraction of Sicily’s corruption which includes particular areas, such as building construction, restoration and money laundering. Certain practices, though deplorable, are not necessarily illegal in Italy, where conflict of interest laws are lax and things like nepotism and cronyism are a normal part of professional life. It is still possible, for example, to obtain a high grade at the University through an offer of money or even, in the case of a pretty studentessa, sex.

Corruption in Italy takes many forms from providing public contracts to politicians’ friends, bribery and illegal kickbacks. Funds for a construction project such as building or expanding a hotel, an education program, a skills development program, or agricultural subsidy are mismanaged and terribly corrupt. It took thirty-five years to complete the Palermo-Messina autostrada and some fifteen million Euros mysteriously disappeared during the restoration of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo opera house.

Widespread corruption is endemic especially where public funding is involved. The situations created by the project managers are real tragedies in a land of poverty and high unemployment, where there are vast differences between rich and poor and where even a simple job is considered a privilege. Rich project designers are paid millions to produce little or nothing, while others work humble jobs just to make ends meet. Most disturbing about these opportunists is their complete lack of any sense of responsibility or guilt.

Despite these incredible hypocrisies Sicilian’s often ignore project scandals and other forms of corruption because these things are part of their daily lives. Pay offs and even sexual harassment are considered perfectly normal in Italy. It is part of the usual system of self decay that has been going on for many centuries in Sicily. If it wasn’t a distinct reality it would be the perfect fodder for a biting satire.

Sicilian’s admire the quality of ‘furbizia’ or shrewdness, the ability of out smarting someone or maneuvering themselves around an unfair law or authority. This probably is another survival quality left behind from their history of being a so called colonized or conquered people. This ugly personality trait results in a lot of white collar crime which is detrimental to the country as a whole. A Sicilian who is being too ‘furbo’ is ultimately shooting himself in the foot. Not to mention exposing himself to a whole lot of bad Karma!

Trying to explain the intricacies of Italy to someone who doesn’t live here is like painting a caricature, you can barely scratch the surface and it can never do justice to the complex character of Italy, it’s not that Italy is filled with darkness, violence and injustices it’s more that this country is made up of many different faces which coexist with the darker elements. There is wonderful generosity and kindness in Italy too, I know it is a contradiction but Italy is schizophrenic and amusingly diverse.

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Duplicity of character

I was recently reading an anthology titled Cento Sicilie (One hundred Sicily’s) dedicated to the many writers who have attempted to depict the island, in the introduction Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino attempts to explain the reason behind the islands complexities:

‘Atlases say Sicily is an island and this must be true as atlases are trustworthy books. However one must have a shadow of doubt, when you reflect on the definition of an island, usually comprehends a compact concentration of race and customs, while here everything is dispersed, mixed, changing like in the most complex of continents. It is true there are many Sicily’s, we will never finish counting them. There is the green Sicily of the Carob trees, the white of the salt harvests, the yellow of sulphur, the blonde colour of the honey and the purple lava. There is the foolish Sicily, so relaxed as to seem stupid; a shrewd or sly Sicily dedicated to the most useful practice of fraud and violence. There is a lazy Sicily, a frenetic one who is consumed by the worries of materialistic inheritance, one who performs life-like a carnivalesque screenplay, and one who ultimately looks out onto a ‘windswept ridge’ into the beginning of a blinding madness…

Why are there so many different Sicily’s? Because Sicily’s destiny is to be a link through different centuries between the grand culture of the West and the temptations of the desert and the sun, caught between reason and mysticism, in the contrasts of logic and the heat waves of passion. Sicily suffers from an excess of identity, who knows if this is good or bad. Of course for whoever is born here the happiness of feeling like you are sitting on the center of the world doesn’t last long, it is quickly taken over by the suffering of not knowing how to disentangle the thousand complexities and interweaving blood lines to find a one true destiny.’

Symbol of Sicily

The frustration of fraud

So now you are as confused as I am we can begin to admit how totally utterly overwhelming Italy is. Welcome to the life of a foreigner in Italy who daily confronts the labyrinth of double-dealing. All Italians are victims of their culture of duplicity, they complain about the impossibility of getting a job on merit alone, the necessity of seeking out a political recommendation, the convoluted public service, a banking system which is persistently trying to rip them off, rampant tax evasion, an abyss of constant political upheaval and corruption which affects everything from health care, law enforcement to education.

Lining up at the local post office everyone complains about the inefficiency and liberally share their stories of scams or rip offs they have suffered. Local GP waiting rooms are a source of collective therapy and gossip for people who are frustrated by delays and hand balling of medical treatment from one specialist to the next. It is one big mess which seems to overwhelm all who live in this country. Despite all this everyone gets along with the business of living life. After all what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, less naïve, more ‘furbi’ (shrewd) and not so likely to fall victim to the next fraud.

One particularly grating thing about being a foreigner living in Sicily is how a Sicilian hears an English/American or Australian accent and automatically rubs his hands, thinking about ways to rip you off. You can be living here for decades and still be treated like a cretin, charged double at the shops, ignored at the post office and spoken to as if you are simpleton. Sometimes when I am feeling overwhelmed by this resistance to foreigners I delegate phone calls and some errands to my husband or do as a Sicilian does, complain loudly with copious amounts of Sicilian swear words and tell them where to go.

Rustic Sicily

Italy’s Dark Heart

In 2003 English journalist Tobias Jones published The Dark Heart of Italy in which he described the diabolic character of Italy’s complexities focusing on the post world war two history right up to the Berlusconi dominated years. After the books publication Jones was hounded by the Italian press for being a preachy Englishman who didn’t know what he was talking about. I recently read the book and apart from a little Berlusconi bashing, Jones experiences and observations about Italy are insightful even if they are at times a little superficial. It is generally a good, truthful book and expresses the frustration many foreigners feel while adjusting to living life in Italy. It’s the kind of book one would write to vent a little.

I totally agree when he says things like: ‘What really, really pisses me off is the fact that talented people in Italy very rarely raise to the top.’ And knowingly nod my head at seemingly shocking statements like: ‘Every week I’m assailed by a new example of nepotism. My favorite is the fact that, at the RAI (Italian T.V stations), employment can literally inherited.’

Tobias Jones comes to the same conclusion most long-term expats and locals do, which is despite the ugliness you fall in love with the beauty and simplicity of day-to-day life in Italy which helps you to live through all the sordidness. Ending his book with the same note of acceptance most lovers of Italy come to: ‘And for all the complications, Italian life can sometimes seem incredibly simple. Sometimes I don’t even hear the noise of my gnashing molars.’

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As COSI’ members collectively grind their teeth, we are able to offer our valuable advice and even laugh it all off. If you want to join in the fun, use our hashtag #COSItaly.

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23 thoughts on “The complexity of Italy’s cheating heart

    1. Yes, it’s an international problem. Thanks for the comment, some of the others in the COSI blogging group have taken a more comical tone to their posts, I think I’m a little too bitter for that kinda thing 😉

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  1. Italy is a very complex place. Like you, I find it incredibly beautiful and I can forgive it for almost anything. I am very glad that I did not have to work for a living in Italy. I see many people in unfulfilling, poorly paid jobs. It could be so much better, without changing the nature of the place. I hope Italy’s young people can prosper and have better lives.

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  2. I love this blog its so very, very true! Coming from my Sicilian background I understand perfectly what you have written……I remember my dad speaking about being ‘ furbo’ as the best qualities one can possess….I was always naïve, not shrewd enough for him…..but as one grows older and becomes a parent those qualities seem to develop naturally!

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    1. Thanks for reading. Being furbo is good if you don’t want to get ripped off but it is terrible when you try to cheat others. Nobody wants to be thought as being naïve, everyone needs to use their heads and be fair.

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  3. Very good writing ! Fluid an interesting. I live in France, where we find much of the same, but less obvious to the naked eye. My elderly mother said the other day that ‘corruption increases from north to south, with the sunshine’.
    I would be wary of generalizing, one quickly gets into trouble. It would be best to be a ‘willing’ expatriate !
    Best regards

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    1. Thanks for the compliment and comment. I think to a certain extent it is part of human nature but when it’s rife it makes life difficult. Yes you are right it pays to have an open attitude 😉 I actually was thinking about changing the name of my blog as these days I am much less an Unwilling Expat 🙂 Thanks for reading!

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  4. I really enjoyed this article Rochelle, you hit the nail on the head on so many valid points. I have always been very curious on how wide-spread corruption is in the south so I was very much looking forward to your post. It is very true that talented people rarely get ahead here, hence the pretty incredible brain drain. It does feel like at times, its only about connections and family money here.. but I try not to let it personally get to me.

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  5. It’s always great to hear the perspective from Sicily, Rochelle, where Italy expresses its most intense “Italian-ness.” But you make a great point about the history of this sort of behavior; as a survival method in a land continuously occupied by foreigner invaders… including Australian bloggers. 🙂 (Scherzo!)

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    1. Thanks Rick, yep things are always so much more intense in the South which is great for some things but not for the life of anything considered foreign.
      Tell me about it, it is a constant war against furbizia 😉 Mah me lo cavo 🙂

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  6. Rochelle and others,

    Thank you for a great post and post-post comments. I live in the Caribbean and it is the same here; lies, corruption, nepotism, and outright piracy. Here, Furbizia is called “taking care of business”. I believe that it is just an element of human nature that flourishes more in certain cultures but is a part of life everywhere. It is amusing to me that the Sicilians, my cousins included, believe that it is worse in Sicily. Some humans are pure and some are evil. Most of us live in the grey world in between. We can only marvel at the cross section of the human species and how we interact.

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  7. My mother was having a bit of a rant when I was last in the UK about how people there are less honest than they used to be – if given too much change for example, not handing the excess back over as she alleges everyone would have done 50 years ago. I’m not sure I agree with her standpoint that people’s slyness has increased since she was a child; on the contrary, I think, as ctfree says above, that furbizia is an intrinsic element of human nature. It’s just whether we feel we can get away with it or not, and maybe in this modern world of big corporations and nobody knowing their neighbours or local shopkeepers that sense of being able to get away with it has grown stronger.

    Back to the main point, however, of furbizia in Italy and, specifically, in Sicily: is it really worse here than anywhere else? I may not have been ripped off in the UK with quite such naked glee as I have been here at times, but then again neither in the UK have I been offered discounts for cash/for being a regular customer/for giving a friendly smile and having a chat as happens to me regularly here at La Fiera in Catania. In the UK, there are stricter controls which means that people can’t get away with their furbizia (scamming/dodgy dealing/sneakiness/whatever you want to call it in Br.Eng) so easily. But are they maybe less kind as a result?

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    1. Yes, you are right to a certain extent it is part of human nature and I do think it has grown stronger as people have followed a materialistic happiness, but as you put people before anything else, respect takes over and the furbizia disappears. I don’t think it is worse here in Sicily but it is more that islanders ‘sicilatudine’ makes them mistrust foreigners, it’s more a defence mechanism, ‘hurt them before they hurt me.’ Because if you gain people’s trust the furbizia disappears. Sicilian’s are wonderfully open, giving people once they take you into their hearts you become a part of their family and community. It’s a prickly part the Italian character which leads to many problems,it doesn’t have anything to do with kindness really, it’s something you have to negotiate.

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  8. A little note on Machiavelli: in the Principe he does write a prize to shrewdness in politics, but only when such shrewdness is justified by “great deeds”. Most of all, The great deed was the unification of the country; it was all about “virtue against furor”, not about the daily mutual screwing that we observe, nor about politicians like Berlusconi.

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    1. Yes you are right to clarify Machiavelli wrote his treatise addressing a very specific political context and always for the greater good. But this subtlety is often forgotten and I’m sure Machiavelli wouldn’t be happy with modern day politics and the corruption of his very name to describe their Machiavellian deeds.

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