Working in the Cinque cento factory

  • 2012-10-17
  • By Ilze Powell

Going about one’s daily business between Milan and Turin.

Turin - The bond between Latvians and Italians has been strengthening ever since the little Baltic country joined the EU and seeing the mutual interest and appreciation for the somewhat opposite cultures many choose to try their luck in an appealing new environment. I decided to see if they needed any English lessons.

My first stop was a small town near Turin in the north of Italy and I think for anyone considering moving here, starting off in a small town near a big city is the best  experience.. People are nicer and more open, options for living are fewer and therefore less challenging to land a great real estate deal, not even mentioning that sometimes rent is more than half as cheap as in the city.. The authentic Italy is also clean, organized and full of tradition and love.

I signed a deal on a tiny attic apartment with arching ceilings and a dozen roof tops behind my windows, in a place that’s between Turin and Milan. I figured that I would then have the option of working  in either city. Another beautiful thing about the Italian lifestyle, is that they take the train to work!  It goes from students to upper class business men who open up their Apples the minute they sit down. Most people don’t mind an hour’s ride  every morning, even if it means waking up at 5 a.m.

Based on research and intuition I chose Turin over Milan as it’s smaller and yet rich with money pumping industries, and  I made about ten calls a day. My approach was easy: ‘Buon giorno, do you speak English?’ I figured if they didn’t know that much what kind of an English school was it in the first place (at that time I spoke about fifteen words in Italian). It worked. Almost everyone gave me a functioning e-mail address for my CV and about one third invited me for an interview. I was like – Wow! Piece of cake!

The next month went by slowly, taking the train in every day to see one or two directors and being asked the same set of questions. Nothing special, very top-ten-interview-questions-on-Google standard, and most ‘hired’ me saying they’d call when the season started.

The wonders began when the first cold days arrived with no ‘season’ in sight and my savings started slowly running out inducing anxiety about having moved to a country I’d previously known nothing about.

I persistently rang back to politely inquire about any actual work but no one seemed too concerned with schedules or time tables. Dolce far niente, I thought? Then three weeks later I got a call from a company that was organizing Business English courses in Fiat and my life turned around instantly. Not only was I on that 6 a.m. train every morning with all the chic Armani suits and ladies wrapped in Dolce&Gabbana scarves, I also met the best manager and mentor I’d worked with and started enjoying the lovely and never-ending coffees and smiles from the working class Piemontese.

For those who are familiar with the stereotypical ‘Italians are lazy’ concept, I can say that I had never seen anyone working that hard in my, albeit not-so-long, professional life and I’d worked in PR in New York. They were in their offices fresh and clean-cut (to a whole other level of sleek!) before 8 a.m. and left the warm premises after 8 p.m. There was no siesta and instead of the usual idea about people running across the street to sip from their mini caffeine containers, a smiley man with Fiat-style-Starbucks was trolleying through the wide hallways routinely.

My insides were simply tickling, enjoying the students’ openness and heart-felt stories about their life or work. Enthusiasm is an understatement when you hear a top manager telling his climb-up-the-career-ladder tale or see the fashionably dressed middle aged mother happily describing her daily routine. The precision, attention to detail and devotion I saw in those eyes was admirable. Every such English lesson with the steep white mountain range behind the meeting room window made me want to walk home singing, arms wide open like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

Another valuable experience was my own language learning process. As I was spending a lot of time on public transport, Fiat factories were located outside the city center, the unavoidable eavesdropping gave me an insight into a very interesting communication pattern. First, I realized that riding a tram or train is ‘suited for a phone call.’ Virtually every Italian woman flipped her Motorola or Nokia open the minute she’d put her oversized Prada bag down on the seat and started passionately speaking in the melodic lingua.

The second fact that struck me quickly was that most of these polished ladies liked to repeat their stories at least three times. ‘You know what happened to me today . . .’, ‘I mean I can’t believe that this . . . could actually happen’ and finally ‘but to . . . like that, you know. Do you understand.’ By the third time, and accompanied with their animated facial expressions and charming hand gestures I could almost retell the story in English. Besides knowing English and Latvian, this language was comprehensible. I figured it’s because Italian is a romantic language and therefore derived from Latin, as is English. And somehow with their declamations and passive sentence structures their grammar is much like Latvian.

Sleep deprivation was another fascinating aspect when it came to the Italian lifestyle. Working, or at least running around in between lessons, sixty hour weeks, I could not get the eagerness to wake up at the same time on the weekends to travel around or visit their friends. On top of that, most people went out after work for an Aperitivo in the city. How do they manage such a busy life, I frequently found  myself in awe.

Finding decent food in between their fixed eating hours was a constant struggle too. It seemed that every bar and cafe ran out of sandwiches and salads by 3 p.m. which was the time I finally got away from my lunch time lessons. All you could get by that time was a plain and thin crust with cheese for 4-5 euros. Not tempting, knowing that I’d need at least three to fill me up! I often ended up with a packet of cookies in my bag or I dragged along a homemade panino. Funnily enough, during my seven months there, I lost weight to a runway model extreme that provoked many questions among my friends, ‘I thought you said you lived in Italy, where’s the pasta belly?’

Now looking back and revisiting the memories, I keep thinking of that one man leaning half asleep against the station approaching early morning train, the delicious aroma of espresso filling the air around him and a barely audible tune breaking through his headphones ‘knock knock knockin on heaven’s door. . .’