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Bread-winning badante

Diana Ivanova examines a unique form of intercultural dialogue - the exchange of suffering between elderly Italians and Bulgarian women.

It all started with my cousin from Vurshets. I remember her enthusiasm three years ago as she was about to leave for Italy. And I remember what she said when she returned home a year later: "I would never ever go back". She had had two successive jobs: taking care of an old man and later a woman in the south of Italy. She'd lost weight. She had been through a traumatic experience: her father had died and she hadn't been able to go back for the funeral.

Vurshets is a small spa town of seven thousand in northwestern Bulgaria, 85 km from Sofia. Despite its recently restored early 20th c. mineral baths, the town has a high unemployment rate. A caustic (and probably exaggerated) internet opinion I recently read claims that what makes this resort distinctive is that "no Bulgarian celebrity has ever been spotted visiting."

From my frequent visits to the region I know that Vurshets lives two parallel lives. Its men and children stay home, while the women travel to work in Italy. Almost every woman in town has either already worked in Italy or is making plans to do so. Some have not been home for years. They all work as badante – the new profession for women from the East, as I am to learn – care workers privately hired to look after the elderly.

When I speak to people in Vurshets about the women who work in Italy, I sometimes hear envy in their voices. I am told that some of the women return from Italy "covered with gold" and like to show off, parading up and down the main street. Everyone seems to be attracted to this job – "you make 500 (Euro) plus a month, you eat and sleep with the person you are looking after, and you are able to save – there is nothing to spend your money on." Badante is currently the top bread-winning job in Vurshets and the secret behind extensive house renovations over the summer.

A few questions keep crossing my mind. Why is it the women who go on gurbet while the men stay at home, what has reversed the old patriarchal model? Are there really so many old people in Italy to look after? How do these women find themselves a job without knowing the language? How do they deal with the psychological pressures of this job? What happens to their families back home?

I pack quickly and I am ready to go. I've got two addresses. My cousin has spoken to a friend who is looking after an old woman near Ponsacco, Tuscany. The woman's house is big and she has agreed to put me up for a night. Before that I will stay with Svetla, another Bulgarian in Ponsacco who rents out rooms for 10 Euro per night. I take a minibus. It's the driver, me and another six women, all in their fifties and sixties, returning to their jobs in Italy. The square in front of Sofia's Central Railway Station is heaving with buses, cars and minibuses, all of them bearing 'Italy' signs.

The stories I hear on the road are many and varied. It was all once illegal. From border crossing to actually getting a job. There are several Bulgarians in Rome who rent out rooms and serve as middlemen, a service for which you pay around 500 Euro. Now that Bulgaria is in the EU, more and more women are acquiring legal status and are able to get social security and benefits such as a 13th month salary and paid leave. They are also free to look for employment on their own, if they like. Bulgaria's EU membership has given them more independence. Everybody is pleased with the EU (I’ve never seen a more Euro-optimistic group).

By 1 a.m. we reach Ponsacco, a small sleepy town the size of Vurshets, not far from Pisa. None of the women I meet in here thinks of her work as badante as hard work. "It's hard for them (the Italians), not for us. They don't know what hard work is. I want to see them work a two-decare field of corn, the way I used to." For many, taking care of an ailing elderly person was part of their responsibilities at home. The only difference here is that they get paid for it. No one thinks of it as hard work…. especially after they've worked hard, physical jobs in Cyprus or Greece, or poorly-paid ones in Bulgaria.

Yet most of the women I talk too are categorical that once they learn the language and sort out their papers they are going to look for another job – in a bar, cleaning part-time or something else. One of the things they didn't think about before they came here is that this kind of work builds up psychological tension that needs to be addressed.

Something that came as an even greater surprise is that they encountered loneliness – the loneliness of someone who is confined to one space for 24 hours a day. It's a new, unfamiliar experience for all of them; their previous lives were lived in the company of husbands, children, family, friends and colleagues.

Some of the women have divorced their husbands back in Bulgaria; others maintain parallel lives. They keep sending money home to support their families and they spend short periods of time with their husbands and children during the summer. After which they return to their new lives.

None of these women think that it's strange for them to be here, abroad, working, and that their men and children are not with them. They explain it away in economic terms. "It's very hard for men to find work here. No one is going to hire a man as a care worker and, without language and a permesso (work permit), other jobs are impossible to find." All of the women support their families at home, including those who have started new relationships in Italy. Of the ten I speak to, there is hardly one who hasn't experienced a change in her family life.

One of the days I wake up to the bell of the Ponsacco church. There is a funeral. I later take a walk around the piazza, where Ponsacco's old men spend their days sitting and chatting. I don't know if I was aware of it there, but I later realise how much suffering and death there is in the working lives of Bulgarian women as badante. Almost all of them have been through a death already. A 26-year old woman has experienced it twice – people dying in her hands. To be taking care of foreigners in their final years, to be surrounded by dying people – it can't be easy, I find myself thinking. At the same time, I try imagining it from the point of view of the old Italian people: it can't be any easier to allow a foreigner so closely in your world in the final years of your life, before death. It's an exchange of suffering suffused with an intimacy I am unfamiliar with – something deeper and more important than meets the eye. True intercultural dialogue – the subject of so much talk across Europe – is under way in these lonely moments shared by two people from two different worlds. It's a quiet, gentle, imperceptible kind of process: one of these two worlds, the more affluent, is outsourcing its suffering; the other, the world I come from, is accepting to service this suffering with lightness and a certain dose of naivete.

I try to obtain statistics about the number of Bulgarian women working in Italy but without luck. Those that are legal are still very much in the minority; a lot depends on the initiative of individual Italian employers. What I do know is that most of the women from northwestern Bulgaria end up in Tuscany.

I wonder about the consequences of this type of emigration on Bulgaria. It seems to me that there are at least two scenarios. A positive one is that through the experience of these women we are going to turn our eyes on the pain and suffering many Bulgarians are experiencing at home. A new understanding of psychic health may arise, a new understanding of what it means to provide adequate care. But someone – here in Bulgaria – must help these women talk about their experiences and their feelings when, or, perhaps more appropriately, if they return. Otherwise, the population drain will continue, possibly accompanied by new psychological problems and illnesses.

In the end, I think that what is happening to these women is the best that can happen. Each of them is implementing her own version of Virginia Woolf's notion of creativity – a steady income and a room of her own.


Diana Ivanova is a freelance journalist and cultural manager. She received Austria Presse Agentur’s journalism award for "Writing on Central and Eastern Europe" in 2005.

This article originally appeared in Bulgarian in Capital
on 8 February 2008.

Translation: Boris Deliradev - let's talk european