Barcelona holds a special place in the imaginations of Italians, who see it as an almost-perfect city. However, behind this image lies a reality that can prove tough for many of them.
Juan Goytisolo declared himself a nationalist of La Rambla, with all the cultures that tread it. For some time now, Italians have stood out. The voices of tourists, immigrants, Erasmus students and business travellers from the country of Francesco Totti can be heard when strolling down a street that seems more like it goes by the Teatro alla Scali in Milan than the Liceu.
“Barcelona has two faces: its own identity, and the one on the postcard. In Italy, they think that I’m at the beach all day over here, our out partying”, explains Alessio Arena, a Neapolitan singer-songwriter, who mixes Catalan and Spanish just like he sometimes mixes Neapolitan and Italian. The Italian community is the one with the most residents in Barcelona —they make up 9.16% of the total foreign population— and is followed by the Pakistanis (7.42%) and the Chinese (6.02%). “What has happened over the past four years with the Italians isn’t what I would call immigration, it’s more like a diaspora to Barcelona” explains Sicilian Davide Perollo, an investigator on refugees and migrants and the author of the study The Socio-Occupational Integration of Young Italians Abroad: the Case of the Italian Community in Barcelona. “The Italians who live here are mostly in the age group between 18 and 35, and they’re from the north”, he adds. La Rambla is just the best example of the massive presence of this community, which is spread out all over the city, especially in Gràcia, Poble-sec and Barceloneta.
According to official sources, in this consular region —Catalonia, Andorra, Aragon, the Valencian Country, Murcia and the Balearic Islands— there were 13,400 Italians registered in 2000. Now there are over 80,000, although part of them are of Argentine origin. Of this total, from 32,000 to 33,000 live in the metropolitan area. However, Perollo rejects this figure: “There are some 130,000 Italians in the metropolitan area” he assures us, “it’s just that most of them haven’t gone to register at the consulate.” That is in spite of the fact that doing so is obligatory after one year of residence. “Those that got here in the early ‘00s could access almost any job without a problem. Barcelona was similar to Dublin in terms of the ease with which young people could arrive, get papers and start to work in something temporary”, he continues. “But the recession let everything good and bad in the Catalan capital really flower. Those that have arrived more recently, especially because of the 2012 reform of how to obtain a Foreigner Identification Number (NIE), have run into a situation that isn’t as easy as it used to be.”
An “almost perfect” image
But let’s ask ourselves the key question: why would a young Italian leave their country to come to Barcelona when many local young people flee looking for work elsewhere? “I’d say that all of us Italians come out of love, although there are different types of love. In my case, it was love of myself. In Barcelona, more than in other cities, you can live well. It has an almost-perfect image in Italy” states Cucchiarato, who is from Treviso, is in charge of communication at Salamandra publishing house and is the author of Vivo altrove, a report on Italians living abroad. She also insists that in her country, gerontocracy, nepotism and dealing in favours all dominate. “In Italy, an Italian practically isn’t valued. And an Italian, for example, knows how to speak in public because they’ve done oral exams since they were little. Abroad, people value that. For any young person in my country, Spain is a first step towards improvement”, responds Cecilia Ricciarelli, owner of the Le Nuvole Italian bookstore in the Gràcia neighbourhood. “Tourism, the restaurant sector and the whole technical sector are saturated in Italy. That’s why many Italians come to Barcelona or the Costa Brava. This is a starting point to head elsewhere”, Perollo explains.
Claudio Stassi, a comic book illustrator from Palermo, came to Barcelona with his wife with the intention of seeing what living here was like for one year— he’s been here for eight. He’s even had a daughter here. “In Barcelona, I found the things I was looking for in my city: more order, more control, more cleanliness, no difficulty in going to the hospital and having a doctor see you —that’s a nightmare in Sicily— and it’s easy to get a document from the City Council or the consulate”, he explains.
“Even in the middle of a recession, here there’s a climate of optimism that doesn’t exist in Italy. That has attracted plenty of people”, believes Alessandro Manetti, director of the Instituto Europeo di Design (IED) in Barcelona. “Every week, I get three or four petitions from Italians who want to come and work. But I don’t just get them from Italy, I also get them from other places, like London— from Italians tired of not getting to see the sun.” So, in summary, the bureaucracy and the difficulty of being properly attended to when you go to the doctor are the two main nightmares of Italians in their country. Not far behind is the quality of public transportation; most of those interviewed for this article find Barcelona’s transportation system quite efficient.
Perollo warns us that during his investigations, he’s found something that concerns him: in Barcelona there are starting to be first-class and second-class Italians. According to Perollo, “there are Italians that came over ten years ago that are exploiting their compatriots coming over now.” Since July of de 2012, in order to get a NIE you must have a work contract and €5.100 in a Spanish bank account to prove that you can maintain yourself and get medical insurance. “For plenty of Italians who come over here without a clear idea of what they want to do or a contract with a company or a university, things start to get complicated”, he explains. This is where the capolarati come into play. These are established Italians who exploit recent arrivals. The newcomers end up doing undeclared work in things like the restaurant sector or small industrial activities, until they have enough money to open a bank account”, he continues.
“The capolarati also control the real estate sector. When I got here, a one-person room cost €200-250 a month. Now, in imitations of Airbnb managed by Italians, it costs €500-600. The Italians that manage it earn €5,000 or €6,000 that they don’t report to the tax agency. Plus, they don’t live in Barcelona, but in Ibiza. They have their little slaves, who are usually recently-arrived compatriots who take care of the check-ins and check-outs.”
The dark side
Lysh is a fictional name. But Lysh exists, and so does Barcelona. After coming to the city for the first time one summer to start learning Spanish, Lysh returned to Catania, where she didn’t want to live any longer. The next summer she gave herself a second opportunity with the intention of staying. Soon after arriving, she fell in love with a boy who lived on the street and who dragged her with him. They lived from day-to-day, asking for change and spending too much money on drugs. Eventually, they decided to invest everything they had saved to make mini-sandwiches to peddle at the Festes de Gràcia. The police confiscated the sandwiches on the first night and fined them. After that, Lysh affirms that she and her boyfriend had no other option than to sell drugs to be able to eat and occasionally sleep under a roof. This was a much easier way of earning money, as was both of them undressing in front of a webcam to earn a little extra.
Meanwhile, they started taking more and more drugs. Lysh was in a living hell, and her father paid for her ticket back to Catania. However, far from being the end of it, this was just a short break. She believed that she deserved to conquer Barcelona, which she one day hoped to call the city of her life. She thought that the third time might be the charm, if she kept away from the boy who had dragged her into the streets. She started to give Italian classes to individuals and businesses, and with her saved money she rented a huge flat in Plaça Urquinaona with two extra rooms. Re-renting them to tourists was an option; it was illegal, but it was an option. She took advantage of the opportunity without letting the owner of the apartment know. Before long, she had saved enough money to rent another apartment, which she intended to rent out as a whole. The last time I saw her, she told me that she was really excited about her new project: creating a network of illegal tourist apartments.
The cultural world
Accessing Barcelona’s cultural scene hasn’t been at all easy for Arena: “it’s hard for people from away to get into the local cultural scene as protagonists, to take part in its richness. Foreign artists basically go between La Rambla and Gran Via. Moving further up is really hard, it’s hard to be part of the cultural elite here if you’re a foreigner. That makes Catalan music really hermetic”, she says. However, in her case, Arena admits that after plenty of hard work she’s managed to find her place. She’s collaborated with artists from the elite, like Marina Rossell in her recent performance at the Jardins de Pedralbes Festival, as an opening act for Índia Martínez.
“When I came to Barcelona at 22, I was expecting to make culture in Catalan even though I’m Italian. I did it. As a matter of fact, so far I’ve recorded more songs in Catalan than in any other language”, Salva TVBoy explains in good Catalan. He’s an urban artist who started in the streets of Milan and has grown up in Barcelona. “I try to interpret politics and give my opinion, touching a nerve if I can. Sometimes people get angry, like when I turned Ada Colau into a saint near Plaça Sant Jaume.” One of his works, which has since disappeared, generated a good deal of media attention: located in the window of a gasoline pump on the lower part of Passeig de Gràcia, it showed Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo kissing while the first held a rose in his hand; it was an homage to the day of Sant Jordi, which last year happened to coincide with a Barça-Madrid football match.
Dashed hopes in employment
“Since 2008, the capacity for job insertion of Italians living here has fallen by 60%”, explains Perollo. He also notes that Italians in Barcelona are mostly spread out between telemarketing companies, restaurants, realtors, and everything that has to do with the semi-legal exploitation of Airbnb or similar web platforms for online sales like Privalia and Rumbo, and El Prat airport. Others, the most fortunate group, are in the scientific sector.
“20% of our investigators are foreigners”, declares the director of Synchrotron Alba, Caterina Biscari. “Of these, the biggest group are the Italians. In Italy, on the other hand, no outside investigators arrive, and the locals leave much more than the Spaniards do, especially the young people. There are no Spaniards working in Italian investigation.” But Perollo insists that “very few arrive and connect directly with a medium or higher business level. Once here, in order to be able to stay in Barcelona, they accept precarious employment they never would have accepted in Italy.”
These dashed hopes for employment can result in the situation mentioned by Cucchiarato: “There’s a critical moment four years after leaving your country. If you haven’t achieved what you were planning on, what you were dreaming about or what you wanted, you’re tempted to go back.” She was lucky, and when she marked her fourth year in Barcelona, she was living one of her best periods in the Catalan capital. “Of those that come over with the idea of Barcelona as a marvellous place to live, 60% change their opinion in a couple of years because of the lack of work, the rise in the cost of housing or the expenses self-employed workers have to pay. And once they’ve been disappointed by Barcelona, they move to the Canary Islands”, concludes Perollo, frustrated.