The Financial Times
January 26 2007
Kathryn Cornelius, 44, grew up in the US and has an MBA in operations management. Formerly a consultant for Hughes Satellites and the US Department of Defense, she now works for BMS, an Italian managment consultancy firm. A soprano, she has sung in choirs in every place she’s lived.
I fell in love with Italy as a tourist. On a business trip for an aerospace company, I noticed that the office door handles were all different. There was a design element in everything – the light fixtures, the architecture. I thought “What a thrill, working where this is normal.” There was a good feeling at work. Everybody went out to dinner on Friday nights. Then I fell in love with an Italian. I moved to Turin with my daughter, aged five, and son, aged eight, to be with Norberto in 1992. Our son Gianluca, now 13, was born in Turin.
My two older children started at the American school in Turin, which was problematic. Now I think it would have been better – if tough – for them to start in an Italian public school. The Italian elementary school is welcoming and nurturing and the public schools are good. After a year, we moved out to Pecetto Torinese, a town of about 3,000 in the hills nearby. There my children moved to an Italian school.
After three years, my older children returned to their father in America. Norberto, Gianluca and I moved to Asti. I was at a loss because my daughter was not adjusting and I thought it was a language problem. It was probably a teacher problem. Two families on two continents has not been without consequences. It takes constant communication and e-mail has been essential. I go home [to the US] two to four times per year and for special occasions.
Commuting between Asti and Turin took about 30 minutes by car so we decided to move to Lodi, where my husband grew up. Moving near to the old family home is a real Italian thing.
My singing was fantastic for integration. In Pecetto I joined a choir that sang in its own dialect, which is different from those of towns only three miles away. In Asti I met a policeman through singing who smoothed out getting my residency permit. I joined to sing but it was useful too. In Lodi I sang in the cathedral choir. Now I travel too much but I can always find the wonderful people I met since they won’t move from where they were born.
In Italy, women my age won’t do what I do. I’m on the road 40 per cent of the time. Most women with children don’t have the energy or can’t go away because they’re responsible for the kids. They work an incredible amount: 8am to 7pm and later at home doing laundry, taking care of the kids and making dinner. It’s simply expected of them.
I manage because I have a support system: my mother-in-law. She does my laundry. She irons Norberto’s shirts. She cooks dinner whenever we are in town. My parents-in-law are stimulated by us. They are near 80 and Gianluca is an important part of their life. There’s a synergy. This isn’t typically Italian; ours is a collaborative family. I hear about mothers-in-law with ego problems. Mine has always worked and wants to be useful and I’m thankful.
I’ve mellowed here. Americans are black and white; they’re punctilious and not as interested in rapport, workwise. Americans live their resumés. It’s more competitive. You can blow it in one bad day by sending a project crashing. Over here it’s put in a different context. In America you can trust contracts – the black and white – more but it’s less human.
It’s a time question. My theory is this: the colder the climate, the smaller the measure of time. In warm climates they measure hours, not minutes. In America, it’s seconds; punctuality counts. Maybe because I worked in the Pentagon. At the Massachetts Institute of Technology they measured the shortest distance between classrooms. Here it’s: “Is there a good bar on the way?” From a management point of view, this is better because management is about relationships. Theory and strategy are essential but in the end effective management is all about relationships.
Italy is still sexist. However being an anomaly – an American expat with an accent – might take me out of traditional roles. To men, an Italian woman is something different from me. I often see women in management without any official recognition yet above them there is an incompetent male manager kept on because he
looks the part. My company recognises the skill and managerial strength of women and the women who created it are exceptional.
I’m an optimist. It doesn’t occur to me that I can’t do something. I’m still shocked that in interviews they ask about plans for children and that that will be a deciding factor. A friend was turned down because she was of childbearing age. I make sure people know how old I am so it’s clear.
I call Lodi home now. I miss Piedmont. I loved Turin. It’s elegant. It has a fascinating history and ethnic mix. At six years, Lodi is the place I have lived the longest. Over 44 years I have lived in 22 places. I am finally optimising storage space and finally taking things out of boxes.
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