Thursday, June 23, 2005

Living in Italy vs. "Living in Italy"

Living in Italy as a member of the military or a civilian working for the military is like living in two different worlds. For those who are intimidated by living in a foreign country, they need not worry. It is possible to live in Italy and not worry about ever having to deal with anything or anybody Italian. This is because you work on a military base that is run by Americans. It’s sort of like a little slice of America right in the middle of another country. On base, you can buy American goods at American prices at an American department store (called the PX). You also have the shoppette, which is sort of like a 7-11. Inside our shoppette, you’ll also find a video rental section and a small bookstore. For your potent potables, there is the Class VI store, also in the shoppette. In the Class VI, you can buy several different types of liquor and all those watered down American beers, as well as a decent selection of local (and European) wine and beer. There is a well stocked library that includes free video rental and public internet access. There is a movie theater that shows movies about a month or two after they come out in the US. There are a couple different physical fitness centers (free of charge) that rival many stateside gyms and fitness clubs. For your dining needs, we have Burger King, Popeye’s, Taco Bell, Baskin Robbins, Charlie’s Subs, and Anthony’s Pizza (and you wonder why Americans are so fat?!). As you read this, consider that our base is one of the smaller ones in Europe. Many of the larger bases have twice as many facilities as we do.

So, as you can see, you can do a tour in Italy without ever having to give up many of the comforts and frivolities that you enjoy back home in the US. Sadly, many Americans that come here do just that.

Not me.

When I arrived in Italy, I wanted to get as far away from the American stuff as possible. I wanted to feel like I was actually living in a foreign country. I wanted to get out, meet the people, learn some of the local language, and see what life in Italy is actually like. So I requested to live “on the economy”. The term “on the economy” is one you hear quite a bit overseas. It basically means outside the base. For example, if you go down to the local mall, you’re shopping “on the economy” instead of on base. If you eat at a local restaurant downtown, you’re eating “on the economy” instead of on base. If you rent a house or apartment from an Italian, you’re living “on the economy” instead of on base. This is exactly what I had in mind when I came to Italy. The beauty of living on the economy is that you are able to experience more of the local culture. And the safety net provided by the government is still in place. The government pays you a living allowance that pays for your rent and your utilities (this does not cover phone and some other bills). The amount of the allowance is based on your rank and how many dependents you have (the government is not in the business of paying you to live in splendor).

Then you have COLA. COLA stands for Cost of Living Allowance and is a great thing. The way it works is that there is a certain cost of living in each area. The cost of living in your area is determined quarterly and is compared to the cost of living in the US. If it is determined to be higher, then you receive a monthly cost of living allowance to offset the difference. Right now, the Euro rate is extremely favorable to the US dollar, so anyone stationed in Europe is receiving unbelievably favorable COLA. Often I talk to people stationed here who rave about how much extra money they’re making in COLA each month. I always respond by telling them that when you factor in the extra you’re paying on the economy, you’re not really making out too much. And I’m always disappointed to hear them come back with “Well, we just don’t ever do anything on the economy – we do all our eating and shopping on base, and we don’t really do any traveling so we’re pocketing the whole thing!” Fine. Great. But why the hell are you even here? Why not just stay in the US if you have interest in seeing and experiencing the beauty of Italy? People like that really make me sad. They’ll leave Italy after their tour never having seen anything. And then complain about how much Europe sucked.

Giampietro, Agnese, some vino buono, and some damn good cheese; The benefits of living on the economy.

As for me, I prefer a life that combines the best of both worlds. I live on the economy. After work, I often go down to the local bar to have an espresso or a glass of wine. Sometimes we have dinner at our upstairs neighbors, Giampietro and Agnese. They have thoroughly embraced me because from the day I moved in; I embraced the local culture and customs of Italy. I made an effort to learn a bit of the language. I was respectful of people who lived around me (In contrast, as I would later discover, to other Americans who had lived there before me. One previous tenant drove a Harley Davidson and would wake up the whole neighborhood with it every morning at 5 am. Another used to crank his stereo up all the way at all hours of the night). Eventually, Giampietro started bring me bottles of wine with recommendations of how to serve it and which foods to accompany it with. Often I would have my morning espresso with them and talk with them about a variety of topics, from religion to politics, to history. Much of my love and knowledge of Italy has been acquired from Giampietro and Agnese. If I had chosen to live on base and never venture out on the economy, I would have missed out on so much. In fact, I probably would have left after one two year tour.

And the point of all this is that I still have access to everything that the base provides so I didn’t have to give up any convenience by choosing to live on the economy. I still use the gym on base everyday after work. I buy all my magazines, books, and CDs on base. I buy some clothes on base and some from stores on the economy. I buy all of my shoes on the economy. Italy has very fashionable shoes so I don’t mind paying a few extra bucks for them. We do almost all of our grocery shopping at the grocery store on base, but we do prefer to buy some groceries on the economy such as fruits and vegetables, pasta, and fresh seafood. One thing I NEVER do is eat at the fast food restaurants on base. I avoid them like the plague. But we have several restaurants around town that we frequent and are always trying new ones. I understand the convenience of eating on base, but whenever possible, I’ll take a fresh Italian meal over some processed, pre-packaged fast food any day.

There’s so much more to living on the economy versus living on base. But hopefully this will give you a pretty good idea of some of the differences between living in Italy and “living in Italy”.



Ed Abbey said...

In the times that I have been overseas, I always get embarrassed when I see fellow countrymen. Once while riding the tube in London, a bunch of loud obnoxious, McDonald's carrying Texans got on and started yelling and carrying on. Instead of feeling pride, I sank back in my seat and tried to pretend I was English. Other countries I have experienced similar things. Why do people travel half way around the world to a island country like the Philippines to eat at McDonalds? I never understood that. Like you, I always try to embrace the culture and second, I try to distance myself from the other tourists by getting off the beaten path. As the saying goes, "When in Rome do as the Romans." Whoever said that was very wise indeed.

Rik said...

ED - Yes, I agree with you. The "ugly American" sightings are all to common here in Europe. I intend to pledge an entire entry to this topic soon, so I'll leave it there for now.


Dutched Pinay on Expatriation said...

That's exactly what the Dutchman has told me that you Rik must be living in 2 separate worlds, "Italy" and the "little America" (the US base). Dutchman is quite familiar about the US bases and had previously been in and out of Soestberg (the US base in NL but its now closed) in the past. I can also relate a bit since I have been to both Clark and Subic bases in the Philippines.

I also almost never eat fastfood. I just find it dirty and fattening. Dutchman though likes to eat the standard burger and fries at Burger King or McDonalds at least once every two months! Haha.

Rik said...

DP - You, of all people, would probably appreciate why I love being able to live in "two worlds" here. Imagine being able to live in the Netherlands without having to learn the language and being subjected to the Dutch bureaucracy. And then having the Philippine gov't pay for your housing and utilities as well! It'd be paradise, wouldn't it? I'm sure it's a lot more difficult when you have no choice but to conform to a whole new society without a safety net.

BTW, tell the Dutchman I said hi. Can't wait to hang out with you guys again...


eThib said...

Do Giampetro & Agnesse benefit from your American connection? Do you ever bring them on base or fill up their car for them? What do they think of the little slice of American economy in their neighborhood?

kitty said...

When DogMan was in the Army stationed in Germany (long before I ever met him), he, too, lived on the economy. He was fairly fluent in German already. He climbed the mountains and learned Schutzhund training for German Shepherd dogs. He befriended the locals and gained their respect.

schatzli said...

you made the right choice of living outside the base. What saddens me of my work is we live aboard the yacht where English is spoken and we live in a different world. BUT.......... i try to live in both worlds. I make friends withe the locals eat local food and run away from the crew when we have day offs and not hang around at the bars where most crew do.

Good for you Mr Rik!