Italy: The Nation That crushes It’s Young. (NYT Oct 30, 2013)
Italy Breaks Your Heart. (NYT Oct 26, 2013)
These two recent articles published in New York Times captured my attention. They both comment on exodus of Italian young people, particularly males, and their travel to France, England and for more lucky ones to the United States. Both articles cite stagnant economy and unemployment of 40% for 15-24 olds as a most probable reason and lament the future of this magnificent country. I know some of these people. They were my teachers in Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles.
For very many reasons Italy is very dear to my heart. Sometimes I have a feeling, that my Polish ancestors a long, long time ago came from Italian peninsula. And more important, I myself at age of 30 left Poland and moved to the United States.
Move as such, from one country with its history, language, customs to different part of the world is a big deal and it gets bigger the older I am. One leaves behind his or her old roots, friends and goes to completely new environment, most of the time to start everything over from square one. There is a necessity to find new friends, new way around in a unfamiliar environment. Language is usually a problem. It was for me, even though I thought I knew it reasonably well. I had to start my medical education from the beginning, although before leaving I was a faculty member in revered Department of Surgery in Warsaw Medical School. My medical diploma had to be verified in a grueling test in American Embassy in Warsaw, entrance to which we knew was watched around the clock by our security agents. Then getting a position in a residency program in this country was a task, especially from across the ocean. When I was leaving, my Mother had tears in her eyes. For me there was no problem. For her my future looked dark. For me it didn’t look rosy, but white and much brighter than for my parents. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was excited and full of optimism. Next year she came to visit me in Cincinnati during the winter which was as tough as ever. City was snowed in. Airport was closed. So were roads and highways. Nurses had to be brought to hospitals in National Guard trucks. I was on call every other night which meant that after my work overnight and then the normal day, I went home to see her, sleep a little and then go back to hospital. TV set which I got from my uncle for her didn’t work and I had no money to buy a new one. I didn’t watch TV that much, although it was recommended for us to improve our language skills.
After a couple of weeks living in my apartment, when I was in a hospital almost all the time and she even couldn’t go out by herself for a walk, it was time for her to fly back to Poland. “What kind of life do you have here?” she said. “Why don’t you come back home with me?”.
I was not the only one from my Medical School who left. Almost 50% of my classmates did the same. We were called the ones, who “chose freedom” by the other group, frequently with a devilish smirk in their eyes.
So why did we do it?
Our political situation in Poland was grim. Communist party was supervising every aspect of our lives. I was told, that my career in Medical School will be jeopardized, if I will not join the party. And I didn’t want to do it as a matter of principle. Economy was in shambles and standard of living was not great either. My family was poor and we didn’t have anybody abroad to at least invite us to visit nor did we have funds to buy trips on our own. Traveling in Eastern Europe was not a big problem and I’ve done it. Getting a passport was a project and a lottery, but when you were lucky enough to get it, $15 was all you could take with you. Legally.
But the most interesting part was, that I wasn’t set on staying after leaving first time. I was planning, and was sent for the purpose of learning how to do open heart surgery and to establish the program in my Medical School. I really was expecting to come back after a year of scholarship and experiencing the life “on the other side”. I came back to see my Father after he had a big surgery and spent a few days with him. I visited my hospital and after several conversations with people in my department, I realized that I will have more professional and life opportunities on the other side.
So I went back and stayed here.
There were problems, of course. I was solving them one by one and after getting married, together with my wife. Then there were joys. Many of them. And these we also celebrated together.
Would I make the same choice, if I had a chance do it again? Absolutely!
Would I have a successful life staying in Poland? Probably yes, but there is no way of knowing.
A year ago we had our 45 year reunion of my class from medical school. It was a fascinating experience to meet old friends. Some of them were more recognizable than others. Some couldn’t come for health reasons, some just weren’t around any more. But each of those who came had something left from the old days, something for what he or she was unique. It was this special way of smile, talk, laugh or voice. This stays with you forever, I guess ingrained in your DNA. Gray hair or lack thereof can’t change it. Like your handwriting or fingerprints.
There is also another, very proper question being raised from time to time, mainly by myself. If I didn’t like the direction in which my country was going , why didn’t I stay and fight to change it. It is a very legitimate issue and one faced by many young people and asked, mostly silently, by the people who lived back in Poland. At the time, when I decided to stay in the United States, I was very comfortable with my decision. I still am. But there are people, who are not. They wish, they would have remained in the place they were born and now are going back, if they still can. I wish all of them well.
To my Italian friends: Domani è un altro giorno.
To my Polish compatriots: Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła…