On a hot summer's stay in Rome, on the hills overlooking the city, Europe's top politicians are meeting once again. They stand in a Medici villa, under a wall fresco of Polyphemus, a one-eyed giant from Greek mythology, and declare how they intend to save Europe: with "growth" and "discipline," and by doing their "homework." There is little sign of any real vision.
The future they describe sounds gloomy; it's full of promises and reassurances. But one number is painfully concrete, and for a second it reverberates throughout the reception hall: "36 percent" -- Italy's current youth unemployment, a record high. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti utters the number, adding that he finds it "unacceptable."
After the meeting draws to a close, the four leaders -- Monti, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy -- assemble for a family photo in the labyrinth garden of boxwood hedges. The average age of the four Europeans posing in front of Roman statues is 60.25 years. Young Europeans don't trust such photos or such politicians. After all, it's their future that's at stake.
A Symbol for Europe
That same evening, a large crowd gathers down in the city at the old slaughterhouse in the Testaccio district, where there's a neighborhood center with organic food markets and businesses for ethically correct lifestyles. "L'altra economia," they call it -- the parallel economy.
Two filmmakers, Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi, set up their projection screen. They are here to show their film "Italy: Love It or Leave It," which hasn't been shown much in Italy yet. It deals with a highly personal issue, one which is also political: whether, as a young Italian, one should leave the country or not. It's about Italy's future.
The film has been a surprise success internationally. For months, it's been screened at film festivals around the world, is always sold out, and always the audience's favorite. During the follow-up discussions, Hofer, 36, and Ragazzi, 41, become complaint boxes for expat Italians who are suffering bouts of nostalgia.
The film was shot two years ago, when then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was still governing the country. They didn't plan it this way, but now, in the midst of the current financial and economic crisis, it appears they asked the right questions in the right place. "Italy has become a symbol," says Hofer: "Here the future of a generation determines what's in store for all of Europe."
Helicopters are circling in the evening sky as Merkel, Hollande and Rajoy fly back to their countries. In the film, the journey through Italy begins. A monk, a poet, a gay politician, striking workers and protesting women search for reasons to remain. We see Berlusconi during an election campaign, cleavage-obsessed television shows and plenty of gloom. One wonders whether it is still OK to like Italy.
'I Have No Choice'
Then a young woman from the audience stands in the light of the credits. It's no longer a question of leaving or staying, she says. She has given Italy so many chances, she says, but "Italy didn't want me." Her voice seems to crack as she recounts that she's going to move to London in early August. "For ever," she says. "I have no choice."
The next day, this woman, Alessandra Bertolini, is riding her sky-blue bicycle through the streets of Rome. She says that she will miss the sound of water splashing in the Roman fountains, the smell of food in the narrow streets and the rattling of the motorini scooters. She already suffers from pangs of nostalgia -- a very Italian quality.
Bertolini is 36 years old and still lives with her parents. She fits the cliché of the Italian boomerang kid -- no matter how hard she tries, she always returns to the family abode.
She studied architecture, graduated with top grades, was a young entrepreneur, and managed construction projects. Most recently, she was employed by an engineering firm. She hasn't been paid for the past six months and her employer is on the verge of going bankrupt. She applied to over 200 Italian companies, but didn't receive a single reply.
But suddenly, last week, things happened very quickly. She got three job offers, from Dubai and London, with twice her current salary. "They liked what so many people like about us Italians," says Bertolini, without sounding at all boastful. "We're flexible and resilient, and we've proven that we master 'l'arte di arrangiarsi'" -- the art of somehow getting by. She gets on her bike again and says that she sees it as a personal tragedy that she has to go at a time "when my country needs me most."
The latest figures are indeed unsettling. Young people in Italy are not seen as a resource, but as a burden. The unemployment rate among young people under the age of 25 hovered for a long time around 20 percent. Now, it's shot up to 36 percent. This is the figure that Prime Minister Monti finds so alarming. In the south, in a number of cities in Sicily and Calabria, it's over 50 percent -- as high as in Spain and Greece.
This has to do with Italy's extremely unfair labor market, which protects 50- to 60-year-olds with permanent, nearly irrevocable contracts. By contrast, young people are paid peanuts, strung along with fixed-term contracts, and are the first to be fired in times of crisis. Indeed, it's no wonder that two out of three Italians under the age of 35 are mammoni, mama's boys who still live with their parents. With starting monthly salaries under 1,000 ($1,250) and shockingly high rents, they simply have no choice.
Young people remain benchwarmers -- perpetual interns who are seen as not capable of doing much of anything. "There's no hunger for the future," writes the liberal newspaper La Stampa. The generation of their parents should take a step back -- that would be "the only real gift" to the nation's youth, writes the newspaper. Or, in the words of national soccer squad coach Cesare Prandelli: "Italy is an old country with old ideas. Perhaps we're simply not yet ready to win."
Italians love their country, but they're also eternally dissatisfied with it; there's a lot of grumbling and not much get-up-and-go. The future is everywhere, they say -- just not back home. Indeed, a phenomenon can be observed in Italy that is normally more typical of developing countries: the exodus of the elite, la fuga di cervelli or brain drain. Up to 60,000 young Italians leave the country every year, and it's estimated that half of Italy's 100 leading academics and scientists are working abroad.
Moving to a Different Universe
Sandra Savaglio was one of the first to go. She fled "to other universes" -- first to the US, then to a Max Planck research institute in Bavaria. These days, she only comes to Italy for the scenery, during vacations, or to attend international conferences, such as now in July.
Savaglio, a graceful, blonde southern Italian, is standing in front of a deserted abbey in Tuscany in the pitch-black night. She briefly turns her head away from looking at the stars and says that she owes her career to the obstacles that were placed in her path. In Italy she would never have come this far, she contends.
Savaglio is a super brain, an astrophysicist who ranks among the best in the world. She left because she ran into the difficulties that tens of thousands of young Italians so often experience here. The only difference is that she had the courage to tell an American journalist about it. She once proudly gazed from the cover of Time magazine with the headline: "How Europe Lost Its Science Stars." That was in 2004, when she was 36. Italians react sensitively to criticism from abroad. Today, Savaglio is famous in Italy -- for publicly criticizing her own country.
When she worked at the Monte Porzio Observatory near Rome, she was the girl from Calabria, who was promising but unimportant. She left because a superior said: "You want to publish your results? Fine, but only under my name."
To make matters worse, Savaglio had been granted a permanent position, but this was challenged in court by a father who felt that his daughter deserved the job. Four years later, the court ruled in favor of Savaglio, but she had long since taken a position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Three years ago, she and her colleagues made a discovery that was a worldwide sensation. At the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, she provided proof that galaxies in the early universe were significantly more highly developed than previously assumed.
Savaglio has long since put Italy behind her, but she's concerned about the young generation. "Energy is there," she says, "but it's not amassed. Italy lacks the flow, the exchange of ideas and people. Everyone leaves, no one moves there."