​November 2003
 
FEATURE


Coming to the Land of Plenty


by Happie Testa
 

Accenti FEATURE : Coming to the Land of Plenty by Happie Testa
 
"I miss the warmth … not so much the weather, as the people," says Marco Luciani Castiglia, as he sips his espresso at a sidewalk caffé. It's a warm, bright September morning in Montreal, just after wrapping up his gig as morning man at CFMB 1280, Montreal's multilingual radio station, and his mind is wandering back to Italy.

 

Fall is just around the corner, and with it the snow and the freezing temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius that will gradually grip the city until next spring. The mercury won't drop that low in Ascoli Piceno, in the Italian region of Le Marche, where Luciani Castiglia was born 41 years ago. And even if it should get a little cold, the warmth of family and friends would carry him through to the next summer. We've heard this all before, the homesickness, the nostalgia.

 

But his next statement is like a jolt. "Italy was suffocating me," he says with a sense of regret. "Canada fascinates me because it doesn't suffocate you." Luciani Castiglia first came to Canada as a tourist in 1994. He liked it so much that the following year he returned to work at Cittadino Canadese, a local newspaper. And he never left.

 

He is part of a small but steady contingent of about 500 Italians who, each year for the past 10 years or so, immigrate to Canada. It's a far cry from the 12,000 plus who came over every year throughout the 1960s.

 

Until the sixties and into the seventies, Italy was a country of emigrants; now it is home to over 1.4 million "foreigners" who have straggled to its shores over the past 15 years. And each year more arrive. In 2001 in Italy, there were 2.5 per cent more immigrants than the year before.

 

The days of mass migration to Canada, the paese della cuccagna (the land of plenty) are behind us. Italy is now a solid part of Europe's economic engine, with a GDP of $1.6 trillion in 2002. Life is good there. So why do some Italians still choose to leave all that behind to start anew here?

 

There are no statistics on who these modern immigrants from Italy are, what their education and background is. Once here, many even change career paths and explore new fields. But there is a sense that this flow from Italy is following the same pattern as in other countries.

 

"They are mostly young professionals," says Gian Lorenzo Cornado, Italy's Consul General in Montreal. "Most of them are between the ages of 25 and 40, not older since there aren't many cases of family reunification. They mostly come for a specific purpose, to pursue job opportunities, to start a business or conduct trade."

 

In fact, according to statistics by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, in 2002 over 60 per cent of all immigrants came for work, while only 28 per cent came for family reunifications. Immigrants these days are also better educated; 46 per cent of those who came in the last year had university degrees.

 

Today moving to Canada does not present the same challenges as it did 30, 40, 50 years ago. Canada's multiculturalism policy makes it easier to settle here, thereby diminishing the impact of culture shock. The availability of foods, clothing, magazines from the country of origin, the presence of an established community, and the possibility to access public resources in one's mother tongue are all important factors. The country of origin is also not as distant, psychologically, today as it was in the past.

 

Cornado sees this trickle of immigration from Italy in a positive light. "It represents a good opportunity for mutual benefit for both Canada and Italy," he says optimistically. "With today's technology, those who come here nowadays do not completely leave our country behind, so to me this is not so much a ‘brain drain' as it is a gain for both countries."

 

When he applied to immigrate to Canada, Ernesto Salvi decided to settle in Vancouver. The 39-year-old law graduate from a prestigious Italian university set up a successful financial consulting practice in the beautiful city and never looked back.

 

"It was Monday, August 11, 1997, when I landed in Vancouver. I had never been here and didn't know anybody, but the first impression was very positive," he says, as a smile brightens his voice. "It was a sunny day with the mountains on one side, the sea on the other; it was great… It was love at first sight."

 

Still, Salvi echoes Luciani Castiglia's bitterness when he talks about why he decided to leave Italy. "I did not come to Canada for financial reasons. In fact, our income decreased in the first two years," says Salvi who is married and has a four-year-old daughter who was born in Canada. "It was a matter of quality of life."

 

At the age of 32 Salvi had a promising job at the Credito Italiano, one of Italy's most important banking institutions. His path lay before him ready for him to follow it. "Within the bank I was, after all, one of the privileged ones. I would have become branch manager. They thought I was crazy to leave, but I could no longer live in Italy. I would have gone anywhere else in the world."

 

After graduation Salvi spent two years studying for a Master's Degree in the United States, and that experience changed him profoundly. When he returned to Italy he was so disillusioned with the reality around him that he decided to apply to come to Canada. One day a few weeks before leaving, while sunning on a beach in Pescara with his wife-to-be, he made himself a list of the reasons that brought him to that decision.

 

"The problem with Italy is the whole system," he says with conviction. "Italy is a beautiful country from a tourist's perspective. But tourists do not have to deal with daily problems like keeping appointments, traffic jams, taxes, buying a car, the political system and the widespread nepotism."

 

This disillusionment is the same reason that brought Luciani Castiglia to leave Italy. "I felt the need to change, to do something different from what I was doing, because in Italy I had jobs that were outside of my professional field." Back home, Luciani Castiglia was a journalist. He sharpened his skills in various media, working for a number of radio stations and national newspapers in and around Ascoli Piceno.

 

But he found that a career in journalism presented challenges that were beyond his control. "In Italy nepotism is very strong in journalism; that is to say that sons, daughters, grandchildren and relatives in general are given jobs sometimes even against their own wishes." To him Italy was becoming more and more "suffocating."

 

"Nobody asked me to leave, but it is as though you are invited to someone's home and they keep you standing. There are chairs around, but the host does not ask you to sit down. I feel some bitterness, but it is more than made up for by my new life and accomplishments, which I have achieved entirely on my own, with nobody's help. When you think that in Italy, even just to talk to a newspaper editor you have to be introduced by someone, I'd say that this is a pretty big difference."

 

Cornado finds this assessment of the situation too harsh and restrictive. "I would say that pointing the finger at bureaucracy and nepotism is unfair." He himself has been in Canada a total of seven years, first in Ottawa at the Italian embassy from 1987 to 1992, then in Montreal since 2000 as Consul General.

 

He speaks enthusiastically of Canada, but judges the criticism directed at Italy as unfair. "Nepotism is an issue everywhere, not just in Italy," he says in defense of the country he represents. "As for bureaucracy, we are streamlining the system. It is certainly easier in Canada as compared to Italy, where there is less red tape, fewer documents and fewer stamps of approval required. But I think it is mostly a matter of opportunity, because in Italy there are hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, mostly in the north, who live very well, and are able to overcome this type of difficulty not because they are raccomandati but because of their own abilities. If there is an entrepreneur who left Italy for these reasons, there must be ten thousand who stayed because their business flourished there."

 

For Adriana Monti the challenge did not lie in "making it" in Italy. After all, she was already a teacher and an accomplished filmmaker. When she came to Canada in May of 1996, she left behind a good teaching job, many students and an extensive repertoire of films and documentaries. But she had reached the end of the line and needed to broaden her horizons.

 

"It is a personal challenge," says the 52-year-old reporter who found a new form of expression at OMNI, a multilingual television station based in Toronto. Every week her stories reach tens of thousands of Italian viewers in southwestern Ontario. But it wasn't easy. "When you leave you want to prove to yourself that you are still able to reach goals; you set yourself goals that have more to do with personal growth and are not easily recognizable by those around you," she says. "I wanted to prove to myself that I could start over again."

 

Monti, a Milanese by birth who travelled all over the world, met her common-law husband in Milan. The self-defined "citizen of the world" had decided to study Arabic. "I told myself ‘Arabs are coming to Italy, and they're here to stay, so I want to learn their language to understand what they're saying.'" That's where she met Michelangelo Iaffaldano, a musician and graphic artist. They fell in love and decided to start over in Canada together.

 

Although she agrees with Salvi and Luciani Castiglia that nepotism and bureaucracy cripple Italy, there was something else that bothered her. "In Canada I found a lot of respect for the different communities. What I couldn't stand anymore in Milan was the explicit racism; it was something I found unbearable. It's not by chance that Michelangelo and I met in a school of Arabic. In Italy there is a lack of openness and desire to understand the new communities. Toronto, instead, is a bridge to the world."

 

But at the end of the day, it comes down to personal circumstances. Uprooting oneself is a difficult endeavour at best. Even for those who become very successful, the first few months, even years, are difficult. "In hindsight I'd say that immigration is a very educational experience from the point of view of personal growth," ponders Monti. "You find yourself in a situation of extreme weakness. After seven years I see it as a tough, very tough experience, especially if you come from a background where you had achieved recognition in your own country."

 

Cornado joins in: "Many leave because they are attracted to the new country, others leave perhaps because they were let down, personally or professionally. They all had their reasons, it is impossible to express an opinion on the individual experience of each. I don't blame anybody who came to Canada, rather I think they did well, because this is wonderful country. But I certainly don't feel like saying that Italy is more backwards than Canada, because problems of this sort exist here too."

 

And for all the criticism that can be directed at Italy, Monti, Salvi and Luciani Castiglia grew up there and came over here as adults. Their core is Italian, they have professional and personal ties to the Italian communities in their respective cities and, as much as this is home and they have embraced Canada, there are many things they miss about their first home.

 

"In some corner of my head, of my heart, there is always the idea of going back to Italy," says Luciani Castiglia, who got married in Canada. His wife Mariama is not from Italy, but from Niger. She lived in Italy with his family for over a year and learned to speak Italian fluently. "We have no problem imagining a possible return to Italy. I miss the sun, the sea, the opportunity to see friends, the gaiety, the warmth, not just environmental, but human as well." For Monti it's something more tangible: "I miss good mozzarella - the fresh mozzarella you can get straight from the cheese-maker, especially from Battipaglia, Avellino and Napoli."

 

Cornado sums it up nicely. "Those who came are happy they came, but those who stayed are happy as well."

 

 

Happie Testa is a freelance writer and broadcaster dividing her time between Montreal and Toronto, happietesta@yahoo.ca.

 

 

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