Friday, July 24, 2009

Pensionamento (Retirement)

An omen is a phenomenon that is believed to foretell the future and often signifies the advent of change. Omens may be considered “good” or “bad” but the term is more often used in a foreboding sense, as with the word “ominous”.

There was, for instance, a time when while I was sitting by the steps of the Tuscan cathedral in San Gimignano, a pigeon deposited something reminiscent of 'white out' correction fluid on my head! Some might interpret this event as an omen foretelling good fortune, as indeed I was told it meant. In fact, I recall this as the interpretation given in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” when the Contessa, wishing to sell ‘Bramasole’ but in need of a sign from God, saw this exact same occurrence as just that - a sign from God that here was the anointed purchaser. Anointed indeed! Well, in my case, I saw it as simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do-do is simply do-do no matter what the source, circumstance or interpretation. Yet now that I think back on it, we now own a small place of our own in Italy purchased from a Baroness (vs Contessa), so is there something to all this after all? Could this pigeon spiritualism really be an omen foretelling a future real estate purchase?

The Romans, with their pantheon of gods and penchant for superstition, believed that the gods manipulated their lives and controlled everyday events. This was evident in the credence they afforded the meaning drawn from the natural occurrences about them. The interpretation of events, from signs in the sky to the arrangement of animal entrails, dominated their society. Omens became serious business and indeed did control personal behavior and even the actions of government. My grandmother actually believed that snakes materialized from rain-barrels after a storm. If only things were so simple today but then animal rights advocates would be outraged.

It was seen as an omen of disaster to have a black cat enter a house or have a snake fall from the roof into the yard. No black cat for us and it wasn’t a snake falling from our roof that got me thinking about omens in the first place and their portent for the future.

Go ahead, you play the augur with this one …. Marie Elena had been cleaning around the lakehouse in preparation for our full-time permanent arrival and the official beginning of our retirement. Basically, we will be living in a forest with a quarter mile gravel driveway there among the wild things. She’d washed the floor and was now standing on a chair organizing and dusting a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. She'd started at the top and was working her way down a shelf at the time when she noticed what she thought was a coiled flat snakeskin, which she went ahead and picked up to dust underneath. She hadn't seen it before and thought that I or one of the grandchildren had put it there without mentioning it to her. If it had been me, I'd have dusted right around it but then again I don't dust. No problem until the thing started to move in her hand and in an instant she realized this was the real McCoy, not just a misplaced snakeskin. She screamed and let the thing fly and, as she ran out of the house, caught a glimpse of it slithering across the floor going who knows where but in the opposite direction at least. No simple and passive comet or star in the East for us. Oh no, we had to have something special …… a snake in the house! Auspicious, inauspicious? Go figure. Were the gods trying to tell us something about our upcoming retirement or were they just toying with us?

In general, snakes have a bad image derived from centuries of bad press. This most likely evolved over time beginning with the Garden of Eden snake imagery, on through St Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes and continuing today with more recent Disney caricatures.

For the Greeks, a snake on Anchises' grave was a pleasant omen of fertility or of an erotic connotation. Given our snake visit and then add to it the fact that we are currently adding a new master bedroom to our home, well, ut-oh, ominous indeed - watch out …. ‘Danger Will Robinson’! It’s all in the tealeaves and the interpretation then, so I guess an omen can cut both ways. Without question, we have good and bad times ahead. Who ever said life was fair? Then again, it has always been this way ... stuff happens! Yet, with enough flips of a coin, it should approach a 50-50 proposition with the good and the bad of it coming out just about even.

On 1 July, I joined my wife in retirement and so far we have survived for three whole weeks! It's not that I fear some sort of mid-life incompatibility because together is all we have. There no doubt will be some need for adjustment because now I'm always around whereas before I wasn't. I wonder who will need the most adjustment, outright sanctioning, or worse, a restraining order? Gradually, but I sense it, I'm already being banished from the kitchen!

I’m not sure about retired Italians but now as one who has paid his dues and joined this select club I can assure you it isn’t for sissies. So far it has been a lot of work for someone over 60, as I am. I’ve been cutting trees and clearing brush. I’ve painted a deck, spread mulch all about the yard between honey-do requests and have been supervising construction of the addition. While I am luckily still without a sling or cast, I have in a matter of a few weeks accumulated enough cuts, scrapes and slivers to empty a box of bandages and a tube of antiseptic. Ah, the bliss of retirement.

I find myself now working harder than ever, though I grant you it is more of a physical nature with lots of moving around verses sitting behind a desk. My body is in some form of culture shock. It demands to be heard and wants a Freedom of Information Request answered to explain what has happened and how long this will go on!

Being in this new, self-imposed predicament, I began to wonder what other retirees thought about retirement and how they coped with the changes. I recalled all the retired gentlemen on the streets of Calitri day after day. I’d see them everywhere pocketed together in groups, large and small. Wherever there are benches or main intersections you would find two or three gathered, chatting and monitoring events. Some groups are like a tight rugby huddle with only their heads swiveling above the pack to keep abreast of who might be in that passing car or who is walking by on the opposite side of the street. In their beloved routine, they miss little. They move with the summer shade, undoubtedly along pre-choreographed paths to avoid the heat. Routine seems to now dominate their lives. Undoubtedly for most, they can only look forward to a tomorrow being just about exactly like today. Yet, while the days and time can blur, they have each other.

I was curious about these Italian pensionati (retirees) so I searched for some information and was surprised with what I found. A recent survey* of my Italian retired counterparts revealed some startling statistics. It depicted many as poor, depressed and isolated. For 50% of them, retirement is a sad time engendering a negative image of this stage of their lives. For a third, the word “retirement” means death, old age and illness. For 11%, “retirement” recalls poverty and financial difficulties, for 6% loneliness and for 2% uselessness. WOW! What have I gotten into! Was this what that snake was trying to tell us?

In fact, Italian pensioners have a more negative image of retirement than any other nation. Their 49% unfavorable rating is much higher than the 28% world average and that of Western Europe with an overall unfavorablity rating of only 32%. The most satisfied pensioners are the French, where 81% are favorable on retirement. Couldn't you have guessed that?

On a more optimistic note, 10% of Italian pensioners consider the word “retirement” to mean rest and peace, 7% consider it means enjoying life, 10% equate it to freedom and having time for themselves and 6% with not doing anything. Although on the positive side of the ledger, these numbers are terribly low and when contrasted with broader worldwide attitudes, their 39% positive association is dwarfed by the 65% world average.

The survey found, for the most part, Italian retirement is a time of emptiness. The numbers show only 8% of Italian pensioners travel, 9% dedicate time to voluntary activities and only 4% engage in sports. For the rest, retirement equates to a private life of activities mostly performed inside the home. For those who remain at home, it is because their lifestyles had declined with retirement. 37% of pensioners experienced deterioration. Above all, only 41% of pensioners consider their retirement income sufficient. For 35% of pensioners this prompts the bitter observation that the quality of their lives has deteriorated with retirement. This bitterness is shared by 30% of pensioners worldwide, but by only 26% of pensioners living in Western Europe. What is it with these Italians and their contrarian outlook on retirement?

Here is an outside the box news article symptomatic of the plight of many Italian retirees today – it might shed some anecdotal evidence on what is going on there:

A widowed 80-year-old teacher in Italy has taken a novel step to stop being lonely - advertising for a family willing to adopt him as a grandfather. Giorgio Angelozzi, whose wife died 14 years ago, placed his appeal in an Italian newspaper over the weekend and has been inundated with replies. "Families have called me from all over Italy," said Mr Angelozzi, who offered to pay 500 euros a month. Italy has seen an increase in older people living alone in recent years. "Elderly retired school teacher seeks family willing to adopt grandfather. Will pay," read Mr Angelozzi's advertisement in the Corriere della Sera newspaper. The classics teacher, who has lived near Rome with seven cats for company since his wife died in 1992, said he was lonely after spending his life teaching Latin and Greek to young people. The advertisement obviously struck a chord with dozens of families. "So many families answered my appeal and want me to teach their children and grandchildren Horace and Catullus," said Mr Angelozzi. He was not expecting so much warmth and interest in his story, Mr Angelozzi said. "But remember that my problem is one that affects so many elderly people in Italy." Despite the traditional importance of the family in Italy, changing family structures mean more elderly relatives are left on their own.

Was it Giorgio’s offer to contribute monthly, the vision of a built-in babysitter, interest in the classic languages or some underlying philanthropic phenomenon at play, which explains the public’s newfound interest in him? Surely, it’s a combination of these and other factors in the stew of this Italian-ness.

There is no lack of enthusiasm about one fact - Italian pensioners are firmly convinced they are still young, even though retired and possibly lonely. Don’t we all! And young they are since Italian pensioners stop working at an average age of 57, while believing that old age begins at 75 and that, in any case, they are still fit and able to work up to the age of 68. This is significant.

Italy is a place where things are always about to happen. Take that bridge from Sicily to the mainland, that new but never finished highway into our town of Calitri or that electrician who promised he’d be there yesterday. In 1994 for instance, the first Berlusconi government hit a wall when it tried to reform the Italian pension system. That experience, however, hasn’t stopped Silvio, who undaunted as with his experiences with marriage, is having another go at pension reform, as watered down as it may turn out to be. Truth be told, Italy, along with the rest of Europe, faces a mountain of future pension debt it must climb or somehow skirt since there are far fewer contributors and too many takers in the present system. At least in this regard, Europe is united and has something in common.

Tough decisions definitely lie ahead and it is doubtful that any timely increase in birthrate will occur to allow Italy to sustain its present pension system, no matter how many snakes might cross Anchises' grave denoting the pleasant omen of fertility! Unfortunately, state pension promises soon become entitlements with little chance thereafter of successfully taking them away, as the Berlusconi government can surely attest to. If I were to dabble at augury here, I would foretell that Italians will soon be required to work beyond their current entitlement age to claim a full state pension. Here in the States that age is around 66 for most of us. Retire earlier than that and you'll get a reduced pension. It's one way for government to get the numbers to add up.

Yikes, what was that? Something just slithered across my feet as I type this! For better or worse that persistent omen is back! So here we are - Maria Elena, myself and the snake of foreboding or erotic bliss. You can probably guess my druthers on that one, the gods willing.


* Portrait of Italian Pensioners, Results of the 4th AXA Retirement Scope “New Dynamics” Survey, 8 Apr ‘08