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South Working: Migration From Northern to Southern Italy

“We will discover in a few months what will be the fate of us “south workers” and of the areas we are repopulating.”

If in February 2020, they had asked me “Gianvito, where do you see yourself in ten years?”, I would almost certainly have answered “In Milan”. May 2021: I’m writing this piece from Conversano, the city where I was born and where I lived until I was 18.

I’m 30 today. It means that I spent the last ten plus years of my life in Milan, first in via Washington and then in Chinatown which was one of the symbols of the post-Expo “rebirth” of the city. What could have taken me away from a city that has the advantage of being small and, at the same time, offering so much? By admission of those who lived abroad, Milan today offers a lot from a cultural and lifestyle point of view: the Triennale has been renewed, the beautiful Prada Foundation has opened, the Hangar Bicocca organizes excellent contemporary art exhibitions for free. And then, before the pandemic, it opened an interesting restaurant every month. For a food enthusiast like me, it was pretty much heaven. Thanks to the care packages from down south sent by my mother, and my girlfriend’s as well, I also had Apulian food available at regular intervals.

Milan has been the symbol of a migration from the south to the north for a century. Some even call it the second or third extension of Puglia, and they have every reason to do so (there is even a district, Bisceglie, which is named after a city in Puglia). The north of Italy represents a place where many southerners have been able to find their fulfillment: first studying at universities, then working. It was not uncommon for me to meet Apulians and southerners wherever I went: in fact, I would say that it was more rare to meet a true Milanese.

Yet today I am here in Conversano. I’ll tell you, in short, how it went. At the end of February, coinciding with the first Covid case in Italy, the design studio where I work asked us to work remotely. I think I was among the first in the whole boot to undergo the work from home experiment.

After the three months of lockdown, spent in our small but cozy casa di ringhiera, with the neighbours singing their hearts out every day at 6pm, in June we decided to go down to Puglia to see our family again and relax in the places where we grew up. We spent three months apart, commuting between Conversano, my hometown a few kilometers from the eastern coast of Puglia, and Altamura, my girlfriend’s hometown, in the heart of the Alta Murgia Park.

One thing I always tell my friends is that I only brought my summer wardrobe, having planned to return in September. Just in September, however, the second wave of Covid arrived delivering a strong hit to Lombardy once again. In the end, I remained down south all September. Then October. Then November. Then December. It was at that moment, while my summer wardrobe was starting to get in the way of leaving the house, that my girlfriend and I decided to stay in Puglia indefinitely. 

So I went up to Milan for a couple of days to empty my closet. When I entered the city I remember feeling a light blow to the heart, but in 24 hours I emptied the closet and returned to Puglia looking for a new home.

We found that house and, so, we went up one last time to Milan to empty the house where we lived for five years. We collected our years of Milanese life in about fifteen boxes, which we filled using the know-how accumulated over years of parcels received from Puglia. You should know that our mothers really send us everything, including the precious glass jars with homemade sauce that need a particularly professional packaging. We succeeded in the enterprise and, thanks to the collaboration of a forwarder from our area, we brought everything back to Conversano.

We are not the only ones who have made such a choice. According to Il Sole 24 Ore, the most widely read economic newspaper in Italy, another 50,000 people have chosen to return or go to live in the South. To describe this phenomenon, even a specific expression was born: “south working”. For the first time in Italian history, the migration from the South to the North has reversed the direction. This is monumental in the recent history of Italy. After years of brain drain, those brains have returned. They did it because the pandemic rendered cities temporarily useless and meaningless. Everything was closed – restaurants, theaters, museums – but the cost of living and the size of the houses remained unchanged. And now that we spend so much time at home, the walls of small and expensive one-bedroom apartments in the cities were closing in.

Honestly, I don’t know how long this situation will last. After all, we hope that after the summer we can return to dine in a restaurant. And, in the long run, the problems that have always gripped the South could emerge, such as the low quality of services, or their total absence in some cases.

But, at the same time, it could be precisely those people, people like me who, as I like to say, have “their brains in Milan, and their bodies in the South”, who lend a hand to improve services. It is not easy, of course, but I am already collaborating with my Municipality to carry out some projects. I know that the quality of life in my country also partly depends on me, and I want to give back everything I have learned in ten years in Milan. This is something that we can all hope spreads to other parts of the South. 

Today in Puglia it is not uncommon to find people who have or who, even before the pandemic, had decided to leave the city to embrace the lifestyle of the South. Not only locals but also foreigners who want to “slow down” and invest in a land that is still largely a beautiful mass of clay to shape. Today it is easier to find interesting people even in the slow South, even if there is a big difference between a medium-sized center like Conversano, and a remote village in the Calabrian mountains. Southern Italy is varied and each area has its peculiarities, its beauties, and its problems. 

The important thing is not to set out to bring the North to the South. That would be impossible and profoundly wrong. The opportunity that we have in the South, and that I find when I talk to people who have started a business here, is to imagine a dimension where work does not prevent you from having a healthier, more relaxed lifestyle. In Milan, I remember, I struggled to find the time to take care of myself. Here, for now, I feel I have more time to devote to my life – even if the many projects I’m trying to start here have become a second job in practice!

We will discover in a few months what will be the fate of us “south workers” and of the areas we are repopulating.

What is certain is that, after a few months here, today I have this unstoppable desire to give something back to my land. It is the alleys of my historic center, those that we walk through on Sundays while the sun is out and the mothers prepare the ragù, who ask me for it.