Arrivederci, Silvio (and the Italians who elect him) -

Arrivederci, Silvio (and the Italians who elect him)

Berlusconi is exactly what I was fleeing when I left Italy for good


I usually avoid writing editorials about Silvio Berlusconi. I also avoid reading them. I get tired of the usual arsenal of witty turns of phrase about “Italy’s gaffe-prone prime minister,” “the flamboyant media tycoon,” “the scandal-hit Casanova”…he’s just too easy a target.

And yet, the latest, spectacular verbal slip of the septuagenarian, who heads the country I was born and grew up in made me want to type away. He allegedly called Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel a culona inchiavabile, which roughly translates to—pardon my French—“unf–kable big-ass.”

The comment brought back memories of growing up in Italy. I remember a well-circulated story about a high-school professor of mine who was caught staring intently at a heart-shaped gold pendant dangling above the low-cut shirt of an attractive female student. He was “gazing at her heart,” he quipped—and everyone, allegedly, laughed.

Another one, years later: A male editor wondering out loud (loud enough for me to hear at least) how many average-looking female reporters on his team he’d have to give up to have that one really cute journalist added to his desk.

That Berlusconi sized up Frau Merkel, the world’s most powerful woman, using the dimensions of her behind epitomizes a common attitude in Italy. I do not mean to say that all Italian men are misogynist, and certainly few are as brazen as the prime minister. But Berlusconi’s latest uttering evoked the feeling I had in Italy of fearing the next sexual gag, regardless of whether it was about me or someone else, or whether it was meant to flatter or flout.

These remarks, you see, are always meant to be jokes. When Berlusconi comments on rape cases in Rome by saying that they’re inevitable given Italy’s abundance of beautiful women, a platoon of party men later lashes out at opposition critics and indignant reporters for having no sense of humour. The premier’s line of defense is that he was only kidding around–and so is everyone else’s.

What do you do when faced with one of these jokes, though? There are only two roads you can go down: one is putting up with it, pretending you didn’t hear or laughing along. The second one is turning it into an issue. You can act outraged, and turn into an advocate for things like stricter office policies against sexual harassment. I always felt awfully uncomfortable pursuing that second road, though.

I always thought that women today are better off not ranting against machismo, and calling for equality out loud. I like the way in which Barack Obama would methodically avoid taking up “the African-American issue” while campaigning for president. He behaved like there was no issue. By contrast, Hilary Clinton, who kept pounding on the issue of the glass ceiling, only made it thicker for herself.

The problem is that I never figured out quite how to pull off a Barack Obama in an Italian high-school classroom, or at the office. Eventually, I just packed up and left.

Of course there were many other reasons why I abandoned Italy at age 22 with no intention of ever going back. The most important of them was leaving behind an economy that’s been stagnating for thirty years, and where I saw no opportunity of doing anything worthwhile. But no longer having to deal with recurrent, demented sexual jokes is a big perk of living elsewhere.

I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. Claudia Cucchiarato, an Italian journalist who authored a book about Italian émigrés, once told me in an interview that, in a sample of 25,000 25- to 37-year-old Italians living abroad, starting a family in a country that does a better job of addressing women’s needs was “fairly frequently” an important reason for women to leave.

The way I felt about sexual antics—and gender discrimination in general—was the way I felt about most other things I disliked about Italy: there was utterly nothing I could about it. I could either spend my life turning into a miserable, bitter advocate of lost causes, or have a much happier, productive existence somewhere where I could actually make a difference. As a woman and an employee, I would be far more useful to the world outside Italy, I told myself.

People who drop out of a group they used to belong to—whether it is a firm, an organization or their own country­—often feel like this, it seems. Economist Albert Hirschman has theorized it brilliantly. Confronted with a perceived general decline around them, people who think they have no hope of positively changing their surroundings tend to pack their suitcases if they can.

This pervading feeling of hopelessness is apparently a big driver of Italy’s brain drain. Berlusconi, you see, is not even really the problem. The problem is the country that, inexplicably, still keeps him in office.


Arrivederci, Silvio (and the Italians who elect him)

  1. This is a very powerful piece.  Further proof that it’s a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there –unless you’re a lecherous teacher, boss, or prime  minister.

  2. Don’t feel bad. I can tell you it’s not only the Italians who exhibit this behaviour. Many nationalities approach the gender issue in similar fashion, it has been my experience. We are our own worst enemy. And unfortunately I really don’t believe it will ever change or disappear since we are very good at it! As pointed out time and again, “crosses all cultures and socio-economic boundaries” French,Italian,English,German,Japanese,Chinese,Spanish,Greek, … one would like to think in the “modern era” we would have shed these remnants of our neanderthal past. Not.

  3. It’s not so inexplicable that italians keep him in office. How do you say in english prescrizione, condono fiscale, condono edilizio ?

  4. I agree. Italians havent yet understood that the powers is with the people.

  5. Cara Sig. Cialini,
    what you forgot to mention in this little article is WHEN and HOW Berlu allegedly called Merkel “una culona inchiavabile”. You’re making it seem as if he released a press statement about it. Here’s the thing, he said that during an INTERCEPTED PHONE CALL- not to journalists. In turn meaning he was expressing his thoughts in private, just as any other men would comment on a woman? Anywhere else in the world? I don’t know how long you’ve been living in Canada, but I myself used to live in Italy, and i can ASSURE you guys here are about 50 times worse. Yes, Zio Silvio of course is known for his late night activities and I don’t argue there’s a lot he could’ve done differently as a prime minister…but please don’t write an article on the guy simply being A guy. You make it seem as if there’s an actual  discrimination problem against women  happening back home. There isn’t…comments of that sort are made everywhere and by everyone (women included)…Zio Silvio just got screwed over (as is his phone call was intercepted). Let the guy be, he likes to have sex- he’s a guy. When did that become illegal anyway? 

    • I see….so it would be quite acceptable to refer to Harper in this manner?

      • If Harper was simply PRIVATELY expressing his thoughts during a phone conversation and it was intercepted and released to the media…yes it would be okay to refer to Harper the same way. I’m sure you’ve expressed your opinion on someone else (whether it was the way they looked or something they said) to another individual before, have you not? 
        To make a long story short, everyone’s entitled to their own long as these opinions are controlled and aren’t harmful to others in any way. In this case, he was just privately expressing his opinion and his phone call got intercepted. Doesn’t make him irresponsible (at least not in this scenario).

        • No dear, I meant if another head of state made such a remark about Harper.

          Judging him on his weight and fuckability

        • Politicians are supposed to assume at all times that they are being watched or listened too.  If they don’t they are too stupid to hold office.

          Oh yeah – no hookers either.

  6. Berlusconi has to go.  He is a national disgrace.
    I live in a Canadian city with a large Italian community.  Sexual harassment (verbal, gestures) by Italian males was something that I got used to.  It came with the territory when I was growing up.  If you got upset they found it most amusing.  It was best just to smile or ignore and keep walking.

    When I visited Hungary in the early 70s some young men thought that I was a prostitute because I wore shorts in public.  They would hoot at me and call me “babee” from the other side of the street.

    Gender equality is still a problem in many European countries and even in “enlightened” countries like Canada.   


  7. I go the same feeling reading this that I got the first time I watched “Mad Men”

    “Ohhhhhhh…THAT”S what the feminists were talking about…..”