Working for free and the arte di arrangarsi in Italy

This table on Wikipedia compares monthly salaries in different countries. Italy’s average wage is notably much less than most of the other wealthy or economically powerful European countries (such as France, Switzerland and Germany. The Nordic countries, in particular, have much more generous stipend levels).

Wikipedia table about wages

Italy looks pretty comfortable compared to the former Eastern bloc countries such as Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Latvia and Romania who’s economies are still developing.

The big surprise is when you see the difference between Italy, UK and USA, wages where most of the expats in our COSI group are originally from, it literally makes your mouth drop. That is a huge salary cut for an expat who is used to a comfortable income to get used to. So why is this so?

Italy is somewhere in the middle of other Europe countries, it’s economy isn’t as strong as the most wealthy countries, yet isn’t as bad as others but it does lag behind the US and UK. I’m not an economics expert, I can only share my own personal experience as an expat in Sicily.

Piazzale Marconi, Noto Syracuse
Piazzale Marconi, Noto Syracuse

From my perspective, you don’t move to Italy for the money, you move here for the lifestyle, in general, the cost of living in the south is a lot less than many other places in Italy so you aren’t going to need a huge income to make life work here in Sicily. Sicilian’s have been living in a backward economy and high unemployment levels for what seems like an eternity. Despite these and other problems they still manage to lead happy and full lives.

The work is often shared around, many people who work for the government work only part of the year which makes them eligible to apply for unemployment benefits. For example, the state Forestry department employs workers for a certain amount of days a year which allows many people to be gainfully employed.

So while you probably need less money to live there is also less work to be found. Sicilian’s are probably the least materialistic people I know, apart from the odd smartphone, flashy pair of sunglasses or designer clothes, most live in or near an old inherited family home and spend most of their money on food.

Often young people work for free or simply to gather experience (which I find to be rather sad). I have done tonnes of free work, some things like translations have been completed as a favour to friends and acquaintances and I once was paid in jewellery instead of cash.

My husband who is a surveyor does a crazy amount of work for nothing unless he works for the local town hall or for particularly conscientious private clients. Sicilian’s are constantly trying to get out of paying full price for services and my husband is too proud to ask. Luckily he has a bossy foreigner for a wife to get him paid sometimes.

Symbol of Sicily

What is the explanation for this lack of payment? Simply because we are in Sicily. The same reason why everyone gets an appointment at the same time everywhere from the hairdresser to the doctor, where life is an eternal waiting in line. Complacency has always been a problem in Sicily and I find it an unattractive feature, it used to serve Sicilians well when they were withstanding invading cultures, it stopped them from being overwhelmed by domineering conquerors but it has slowed them down, makes them old, weary and ultimately sabotages their own lives. Waiting times for medical procedures out live patients lifespan, unless you have the money to go private. Qualified teachers wait until they are well into their forties to find a position in the public schools unless they move their lives up to northern Italy. There are no houses available for the needy and no places for the dead in some cemeteries, everyone seems to be waiting for something even after life has finished.

So when there is no above the board work, as they are waiting for something better to come along Sicilians roll up their sleeves and invent their own employment. The art of getting along or l’arte di arrangiarsi is a southern speciality from Naples down to Sicily, it is an ingenious creative way of making ends meet by using the means around you. In regards to wages this means doing anything from: be being paid in cash, working part-time and then claiming unemployment, defrauding the state using paid sick leave, bartering, saving money by growing your own vegetables, shopping at discount supermarkets or handing down clothes. You save money where you can and find work as you need it.

After all for a Sicilian work is a means to an end, a necessary evil, employment interrupts Southerner’s lives.

I recently saw this shared graphic on Facebook about Sicily which pretty much sums up life in the south of Italy. (c/o The Sicilian way community, be sure to like their page)

About Sicilian lifestyle

Here’s my rough translation:

Life in Sicily is lived by another rhythm.

People open the stores when they wake up

not always according to an arbitrary time.

The street signs are few and not clear

because if you go somewhere you

usually, know the way.

Then slowly but surely, you realize that

living a slower life is better for you.

It is the natural rhythm of life.

When you leave Sicily, as the plane takes off

you aren’t leaving a place you are leaving

behind another way of living.

A way of life which makes you happier and

makes you want to return.


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