Not many people would expect relocating to London, New York, Paris or Moscow to be easy. They wouldnt anticipate picking up a well-paid job, a cheap (and beautiful) apartment in the centre of town, an excellent neighbourhood school for their children and settling into a satisfying circle of friends all at the drop of a hat. But people who move to Rome often expect everything will fall into place overnight. It doesnt. And when foreigners find that life in the eternal city is as difficult as anywhere else they get upset and disillusioned.
Why are the expectations so out of tune with reality? Part of the answer could be that Rome is such a beautiful and fascinating city that those who move here expect life to be the same, beautiful and fascinating. Another more mundane reason could be that not so long ago life in Rome was much more easygoing than it is now and that images of La Dolce Vita days still persist.
Those were the days when notices for apartments to rent appeared on walls all over the historic centre; when a flat with a view and maybe even a terrace was not just a pipe dream. That was when Italians were keen to rent their apartments to foreigners, knowing they would pay over the odds and would move on before too long, freeing up the apartment without a fuss. In those days rental laws made it almost impossible to evict tenants, so foreigners who would eventually go home (or at least that was the logic) were preferred to Italians who would probably stay for life.
In those days, before the advent of the euro, rents seemed cheap to foreigners, partly because of the favourable exchange rates of most hard currencies against the lire, partly because they were cheap compared with those in other capital cities. The arrival of the euro in 2002 changed all that. Apartments which had been renting for L.1 million a month, were suddenly going for 1,000. And to add insult to injury the rent sounded cheaper, not double the price. To the unwary, 1,000 sounded so much better than L.1 million, until it dawned on flat hunters that in the space of a few months there were no apartments available for 500 anymore.
In the days when flats were relatively cheap and plentiful, jobs were also easier to find. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was one of the biggest and highest-paying employers in town. A job at FAO is still much sought-after but it is now much more difficult to obtain and the salaries and benefits are not as favourable as they once were.
Today the biggest employer of English-speaking foreigners is the language industry. English is an essential tool for most Italians, either for educational or professional reasons. The demand for teachers is therefore high and probably most English-speakers in Rome have done some language teaching or translating during their stay, if not always with the flair of a modern-day James Joyce. But getting a good language teaching job is not as easy as it first seems. Competition is high, hours are long, travel to the workplace can be tedious and frustrating, and not all language schools are reliable employers.
The language business is now what au pairing once was. Today English language teachers are as thick on the ground as au pairs once were. Italian parents with young children used to be in constant search of English-speaking au pairs, but now they are having fewer children and are sending their offspring off to school at an early age. Compulsory education still starts at six but pre-school establishments now take in children at three, if not sooner. Today the demand is for people to look after the ageing, not the young. The au pair of years gone by (usually a pre-university student with a year to spare or someone looking for some sun and fun) may have been able to look after kids, but todays equivalent is certainly not interested, or equipped, to care for granny and grandad. So Italians have turned further afield, usually outside the European Union, to find a badante (a carer) to help them out.
Domestic work is just the bottom rung of the ladder for foreign workers, who move into jobs Italians no longer want as quickly as they become vacant as portieri in apartment blocks, as cooks and waiters, as checkout staff in supermarkets, as labourers on construction sites, as paramedical staff in hospitals.
European Union nationals are also moving into jobs that were once reserved for Italians. Professional qualifications recognised in one European Union country are recognised in another and although it is still a difficult process to get the paperwork right, doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, engineers, architects and university teachers are moving into Italy in increasing numbers.
If finding a place to live and a job to pay for it has become tougher in recent years, so has the attitude of Romans to foreigners. The previous welcoming interest and polite helpfulness is giving way to a a growing impatience with foreign ways.
However, some aspects of a foreigners life in Rome have improved in recent years. There are more help groups available and advice and information about life in Rome is easier to obtain. Rome has more international schools, universities, religious centres and churches, associations, cultural institutions and counselling facilities for foreigners than any other capital city of a similar size. Life can still be lonely and difficult (foreigners always feel that new-found friends are forever moving on) but the support mechanisms are there in case of need. And when all is said and done Rome is indeed a beautiful and fascinating place to live.