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An Italian Experience: Working as an Insurance Underwriter in Rome

By Lydia Wilmot

It was an emotional day in JFK when I said goodbye to my parents, boarding a plane for Rome, Italy and setting off on a life full of uncertainties.

My mom left me with parting words to the effect of "Go follow your dreams, oh my first born!,"  but my Dad, the more practical of the two, left me with something to the effect of, "Find a job."

This was a valid point, because when I moved to Italy, I left behind a great job in New York City as a Professional Liability Underwriter with the American International Group--a job that I was good at, a job that I loved doing, and a job with many possibilities for the future. 

But I had always dreamed of moving to Rome.  My Grandma was raised in Rome and so I grew up begging her to tell me about Italy.  She taught me Italian, and then I majored in it in college.  I first saw Rome for myself when I was 16. I knew I had to come back, and in 2003, thinking that a full year here would calm my desire for Italianita (Italianess), I came to spend my junior year at the Universita degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza" (The University of Rome). 

Later, after gathering documents back to my great-grandfather's birth certificate, making three trips to the Italian Consulate in New York, and waiting for over a year, I was recognized as an Italian Citizen and on my way to living in Rome.

I headed across the ocean with an arsenal of freshly printed resumes in both English and Italian and a uniquely American "go get 'em" attitude. Three months into my stay, I found a job in my given field: insurance. A British woman was going on maternity leave, and since this brokerage house was looking to replace her with somebody who spoke native English and had experience, I was hired as a junior account executive. Finding a professional position with a Government contract would have been nearly impossible had I not had dual citizenship.  Otherwise, the company would have had to sponsor me to get a visa, which is a costly process that almost no company wants to undertake unless you have proven yourself with years of work dedicated to the company.

It was admittedly foolish, however, to think that because the industry was the same, the way business is conducted in Rome would also be the same.

The first glaring difference came in the interview stage of my job search.  I'm not even going to mention the interview in which a man talked at me for over an hour about how he prefers working with women--because in the US it would have been a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen.  Instead, I'll mention that on any interview here, one of the first things they asked me was my birth date, to gauge how old I am.  This is something that, legally, you cannot even ask in the States, but here it is completely fine. 

As for the rest of the interview process, I did not find many differences between interviewing in New York City and Italy.  They inquired about my previous working experiences, my degree from George Washington University, why I was interested in the position, and my career goals.  I told them that I ultimately want to attain an upper-management position, to which they responded, "Here, in Italy, your chances of that are much better."

However, age has made a big difference in my working experience here so far.  In New York, I was one of many underwriters in their mid to late twenties. I was hired right out of college and started working at twenty-one. An active social life within and outside the office facilitated a good work rapport and generated a definite ?team spirit? within our group.

In Italy, by contrast, I am working with two full years of experience at an age where most Italians are still in college. Everyone I work with is a seasoned professional, but ten or more years older than me, so there is less of a social aspect and more of a feeling that we come to work, do what's needed, and then go home. That's not to say that there is no talking at all, but it's more limited to "water cooler chat," which makes it more difficult to know your colleagues well. Sometimes, I think that my colleagues don't trust my working capabilities simply based on the fact that I'm twenty-four years old.

The stereotype of the typical Italian as someone who waltzes in at ten or ten thirty, takes a dozen cigarette breaks and then goes home for a three-hour lunch is simply not true, in my experience. We clock in between eight thirty and nine and are required to stay until at least five thirty.  Just as people in the States who work 9 to 5 rarely leave on time, most of my colleagues here leave the office between six and seven at night--a full working day.

Still, subtle differences exist that I never expected. Obviously, I was prepared for conducting business, negotiations, even simple telephone conversations in Italian. But something that is of utmost importance here is the Lei form. Lei is the formal "you" in Italian, and you don't address a person informally unless you're already friends or the person is a child. My first inclination, though, is always to talk to somebody as "tu," the informal version, which can essentially cause a Jerry Springer showdown: "YOU!??! How dare you speak so informally? You don't know me!"

Emails and conversations are peppered with politeness--words like "kindly," "courteously," "if it pleases you to do this"--while English is much more direct: "We need," "send us," "we are waiting for."

The difference between working in New York and Italy is like the difference between night and oranges, but to me, the beauty of this city and of this country make it all worthwhile.  Trying to compare New York, with its hustle and pulse, to Rome, with its ancient heart but modern life, is almost impossible. 

Still, I do well here.  My gross salary is just over a third of what I made in New York (which, after taxes, is about a half). This, I found, was non-negotiable because my company hires under a Nationalized contract, which essentially means that everyone with my profile will make the same amount of money.  While this may initially appear to put me into a dire financial situation, my rent is only 320.00 Euro.  For an apartment of this size and location in Manhattan, I would expect to pay about $1,500 a month, so in Rome you can live well with less money. 

As part of my contract I also get a whopping twenty two days of vacation a year, plus Buoni Pasto (which are like grocery store and restaurant coupons, totaling 150 Euro a month), and medical assistance for private doctors and dentists.  Italy has a fairly extensive socialized medical system?meaning that hospitals are free. However, it can sometimes take 2 or 3 months if you want to see your doctor and not pay for it.  Having this Rimborso Spese Mediche (Medical Spending Reimbursement) allows me to go see my doctors in their private offices with a 36 Euro deductible.

People always ask me how long I plan on being in Rome, and honestly I don't know.  I love it here, but I miss my family. Right now, I'm living life one day at a time and seeing what comes around.  Moving across the world is something that can be petrifying--but taking the jump before I got too settled into my life in New York, before I got too old and "wise" to second guess my decisions, before I put too much into my 401k, was definitely the right choice for me.

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