Denial and Anger in Italy

time cover

The cover story in this week’s European edition of Time Magazine is on immigration to Southern Europe. It opens with a piece I wrote about the gap between Italy’s new ethnic reality and the perception most Italians have about their country and its citizens.

When hundreds of African immigrants rioted in the southern Italian city of Rosarno last month, the world got a glimpse of a very different Italy from the one pictured in the tourist brochures. Overturned cars, shattered shop windows and street battles are a far cry from tranquil villages on a Tuscan hillside.

Another contradiction uncovered by the violence is much more fundamental, and it has less to do with how Italy is perceived by outsiders than with how Italians themselves view their nation. As a country, Italy is becoming increasingly multiethnic, as immigrants from Africa, China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East arrive to work jobs locals refuse to take. But as a society, Italians have been slow to acknowledge the change.

Demographically, Italy is transforming faster than almost anywhere else in Europe. Last year, according to the Catholic charity Caritas, the percentage of noncitizen residents in the country — 7.2% — was greater than Britain’s. And that’s not counting the country’s illegal population, estimated at well over half a million. In a country where the native-born population is aging rapidly, 1 in 6 babies delivered in 2008 was born to a foreign-passport holder. La dolce vita is also becoming more dependent on immigrants and their labor. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that foreign workers account for 9% of Italy’s annual GDP. They pick the fruit in the country’s orchards, staff its restaurants and workshops, and look after its young and elderly. “If all the migrants just stopped working now, the Italian economic system would collapse,” says IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo.

Yet the country retains an intensely prescriptive streak. Rigid codes of behavior govern everything from how to dress to the proper time of day to drink a cappuccino. Far from being a melting pot, Italy remains a three-course meal, with the pasta carefully segregated from the appetizer and main course and no place for a bowl of hummus or plate of egg rolls. “People now accept that immigrants are here,” says Giuseppe Sciortino, a sociology professor at the University of Trento. “But they’re still in denial that they are a presence that will change Italy forever.”

Read the rest here.

Why Berlusconi Will Probably Avoid Jail Time

Time has just published my story on Berlusconi’s long battle with the courts.

The war between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his country’s judiciary was raised a notch on Wednesday when prosecutors asked for the immediate start of a trial that would see the Premier accused of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to cover it up.

“These trials are a farce,” said Berlusconi at a press conference in Rome. “The accusations are unfounded.” He added that he would attempt to sue the state, and declared that the taxpayer would be the ultimate victim because “the prosecutors can’t be held accountable, and that’s something that needs to be changed and that [our government] will change.”

Read the rest.

Jellyfish: A Gelatinous Invasion

Time has published my story on the danger of a world where the seas are ruled by jellyfish.

The jellyfish in the photos didn’t look like they’d pose a danger to swimmers. Thinly veined and translucent, they didn’t have stinging tentacles trailing behind them or dramatic colors signaling danger. But Ferdinando Boero, a professor of zoology at the University of Salento in Italy, knew that they meant trouble nonetheless.

The pictures, sent by a biologist in the northern Italian town of Lerici in July, marked the first time the species Mnemiopsis leidyi, a thumb-size jellyfish known as the sea walnut, had been documented in the western Mediterranean Sea. Native to the Atlantic coast of the U.S., Mnemiopsis was introduced to the Black Sea in the 1980s — most likely from the ballast water of oil tankers — and played an instrumental role in the collapse of the region’s fisheries. “Now the question is, Will it do in the Mediterranean the same thing it did in the Black Sea?” Boero says. “It’s harmless for [humans], but it can be deadly for the fish.”

Read the rest.

Italy’s Newspapers: Untrusted Sources

I’m now back in Italy, where I’ve written an essay for Time on the sad, sad state of Italy’s newspapers.

Any discussion of what’s wrong with Italian politics eventually leads to the question of what’s wrong with the country’s media. In a nation where the Prime Minister controls the airwaves, only one out of 10 people buys a daily paper, compared with one in five Americans and three in five people in Japan, according to the World Association of Newspapers. Italians, it seems, don’t care to read the news.

But what if the fault doesn’t lie with Italians’ appetite for news? What if the problem is with what’s on the menu?

Read the rest.

Hell’s Kitchen

The New Yorker has just published my decription of a descent into midtown with the Italian actor Roberto Benigni as my Virgil.

It begins:

For the record, the Italian actor Roberto Benigni does not believe that New Yorkers are going to Hell. “I hope they go to Paradise, every one of them,” he said last Thursday, in the back seat of a taxi, blinking against the swish and roar of traffic. But that might be because he thinks it’s a journey the city’s residents have already made. “This is the beginning of Hell,” he said. “The deeper we go, the greater the range of utterances of grief and fury we will hear. Different colors of people. Slang! Obscenity! Curses! Sighs! Keening!” He paused while a van blasted its air horn. “This is really the sound of Hell,” he said. “But we need to pass through the Inferno to reach Paradise.”

read the rest.

Behind the Turn Around at Fiat

This story on the turnaround of the Italian car company Fiat was the cover story in Fortune Magazine. It’s archived below.

May 8, 2007
Behind the turn around at Fiat
Yes, a car company can be fixed. Look at Fiat.

By Stephan Faris

Luca De Meo, head of the Fiat car brand, was given his job after just one interview. It was a hot Turin summer day in 2004, and Sergio Marchionne, the new CEO of the Fiat Group, was prowling the company’s holiday-drained halls. “In Italy the CEO of the Fiat Group is a kind of mythical personage, somewhere between Pope and Prime Minister,” says De Meo, 39. “He knocked on the door and said, ‘What do you do?'”

Fiat was a wreck – it would lose more than $1 billion that year – and Marchionne, just arrived from Switzerland’s SGS, the world’s largest goods-inspection company, was looking for a team to strip it clean and hammer it into shape. De Meo was in charge of the group’s Lancia brand at the time, and during the two hours they talked, he felt as if he were being X-rayed. “Marchionne has a real ability to read people’s psychology,” says De Meo. “Three months later he said, ‘You have to run Fiat.'”

Continue reading “Behind the Turn Around at Fiat”

Ferragamo’s Step

This article on the handover of a family-run fashion business appeared in Fortune and is archived below.

January 22, 2007
Ferragamo’s Step
The family-owned Italian shoe business, now in its third generation, tries on its first outside CEO.

By Stephan Faris

Last summer Wanda Ferragamo ordered a special gift for her 22 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. The fashion-family matriarch took a plastic Weeble, the egg-shaped doll that wobbles but doesn’t fall down, and had it recast as foot-tall artisinal silver statues. Hand-soldered lace curled around 45 bellies. “My Dears,” read the inscribed dedication, “regain your balance and continue straight on the path of principles and moral rectitude shown to you.”

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Sarmi’s Army

This article on Italy’s innovative postal system ran in Fortune. It’s archived below.

June 21, 2006
Sarmi’s Army
Poste Italiane’s CEO and his 150,000 foot soldiers are making money on everything but delivering the mail.

By Stephan Faris

The town of Percile, northeast of Rome, has two groceries, a snack bar, and a tourist booth. Medieval houses climb a hill of overlapping archways and cobblestone footpaths. With only 260 residents, most of them retirees, the town hasn’t attracted a newsstand, much less a supermarket or a bank. But it does have a post office.

For Poste Italiane, outposts like the one in Percile are at once its greatest liability and its greatest asset. Postal companies are by nature spread thin, and the Italian state monopoly is no exception. With 150,000 employees and 14,000 offices, the company says its mail operations lose hundreds of millions of euros a year. But those same offices provide the backbone of a company that offers everything from investment plans to vacuum cleaners.
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Emperor of TV

This story on what the left might do to Silvio Berlusconi’s companies ran in Fortune. It’s archived below.

April 7, 2006
Emperor of TV
Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is fighting for his political life — and the fate of his media empire may hang in the balance.

By Stephan Faris

One evening this winter the Italian talk-show host Enrico Mentana played a clip for his guest, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in which Oscar-winning actor Roberto Benigni mocked Berlusconi’s five-year reign.

The Prime Minister was clearly irritated by the attacks. But as the show’s director prepared to broadcast Berlusconi’s fidgets and frowns, his media handler intervened. Without asking permission, he climbed onto the set to warn his boss that the cameras would soon be rolling. When they did, Berlusconi was all smiles.

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