John Murphy has lived in Italy for over 45 years. He has seen history unfold and has overcome the obstacles many expats face while trying to integrate into Italian society. He built a career, raised a family, reinvented himself and was the first to publish an expat guide in English for international residents living in Italy. He has gracefully maintained his Scottish heritage and has adopted and integrated into Italian society and culture, blending both sides, creating balance and harmony.
John sat down with Easy Milano to talk about his life and love of Italy. We talked about making the decision to come to Italy, making the decision to stay and coping with the challenges an expat faces while living in Italy.
Originally from Edinburgh in Scotland, John Murphy always wanted to live abroad. At school he studied languages and became proficient in French and German (not to mention Latin, but there were few opportunities to speak it). However, family tradition determined that accountancy was to be his profession.
After attending Fettes College and Edinburgh University, where he did a law degree, he qualified as a chartered accountant, much to the delight of his father.
“I qualified with a firm that later became KPMG. My father was a partner in another firm, on the other side of Charlotte Square, which later became Deloitte. He then suggested that I joined Deloitte, which was fine, but I was determined to go abroad.”
“The people at Deloitte said, ‘Come down to London to first learn our systems, our way of auditing, and then we’ll see where you can go after that.’ I didn’t want to go to an English-speaking country. At that stage I knew French and German, but Germany didn’t take British auditors as they had their own. France was taking British auditors, but for various reasons I was discouraged from going to Paris. I was quite keen on going to Spain at the time. But General Franco was still in place and it was very difficult to get visas. Which left Italy, which funnily enough I hadn’t considered.”
Deloitte had offices in Milan and Turin since the 1950’s when the main business was auditing Italian subsidiaries of foreign companies, and had just opened in Florence.
“At that time, Italian companies only had audits on a voluntary basis, so they were relatively few. Then the government passed a law obliging Italian companies quoted on the stock exchange to be audited – it was obligatory. So that’s when they started bringing in British-trained auditors. I didn’t speak Italian and had no real connection with Italy at all. The clincher came when a junior partner in Deloitte said to me ‘Go to Italy, John. You’ll love it.’ So I did!”
Milano Piazza Scala 1976 – Link.n.Logs / Wikimedia Commons
That was in 1976. In Italy, Giulio Andreotti was Prime Minister, it was the first time that the government relied on support from the PCI, the Italian Communist Party. Despite the “Peace and Love” movement taking hold in many parts of the world, for Italy it was a time of chaos and tragedy. Politically it was called National Solidarity, but it was swiftly broken by a wave of terrorist attacks by the Red Brigades. The period from the end of 1969 (the bombing in Piazza Fontana) until 1980 (the freeing of General Dozier and the capture of many members of the Red Brigades) is referred to as “Gli anni di piombo” (the years of lead) denoting the bullets used in the many crimes, assassination attempts and murders of that time.
“It was 1976, oh my, which I just realized is 45 years ago! It was September 15, 1976, I remember the day, I started in the Milan office of Deloitte.
I recently watched a documentary on Gianni Agnelli and the 1970s. FIAT managers getting shot in the knees and others getting killed. Watching it, I thought, ‘how aware was I at the time?’ Not at all! Otherwise, my parents would have said, ‘John, you’re crazy to go to Italy!’ I didn’t buy newspapers and I didn’t have a television, so I wasn’t that aware of what was going on. Considering it was 1976-1977 when there were mass demonstrations on the streets and tear gas, and whatever… I didn’t see any of it! If you ask me why, I was probably on a cloud of my own!”
Amid the social bedlam and disorder, a new love was blossoming. John had met Adriana at a party. Neither of them really wanted to be there, but fate brought them to meet that day and five weeks later they were engaged to be married.
“I was having drinks with a friend at a pub, when he ran into a family acquaintance who had invited him to a party. As a courtesy she said, ‘Bring your friend too.’ We went to the party which was out of town in Arese. Meanwhile, Adriana’s parents had been invited to the same party. Her mother said she wasn’t preparing any supper and they would eat at the party. So Adriana had to go if she wanted to eat too. My friend, his girlfriend, myself and Adriana were the only young people there. We got to talking and five weeks later we were engaged!”
They got married on March 16, 1978, the same day Aldo Moro was kidnapped. Aldo Moro was a former Minister of Justice in the 1950’s, a former Prime Minister (1963-1968) and later secretary of the Christian Democratic Party. Moro was responsible for social reform including policies on public housing, social security, education, public health and environmental laws. Aldo Moro is widely considered one of the most prominent fathers of the modern Italian center-left and one of the most popular leaders in the history of the Italian Republic.
On March 16, 1978, a unit of the Red Brigades blocked the two-car convoy that was carrying Moro and kidnapped him, murdering his five bodyguards. The Red Brigades proposed exchanging Moro’s life for the freedom of several prisoners. The government immediately took a hard-line position: the “State must not bend to terrorist demands”.
Tragically, months later in May, Moro’s body was found in the trunk of a red Renault 4 on Via Michelangelo Caetani in Rome. He had been shot 10 times.
The news of the kidnapping on March 16, 1978 disrupted entire cities. Strikes and assemblies of solidarity for Moro shut down businesses, transportation and caused general disorder.
John & Adriana got married in Milan on March 16, 1978
“That morning, I went to the hairdresser. The hairdresser was a bit of a joker and said, ‘John, they kidnapped Aldo Moro’, and I thought this was the lead into a joke, so I asked, ‘what’s the punch line’ and he said, ‘No, it’s true, the punch line is Italy is on strike’. The whole of Italy was on strike! I thought, ‘Wait a minute,’ I went back to my flat to phone Adriana, and she confirmed that the only place in Italy that was working, apart from my barber, was the Villa Reale in Via Palestra, where they do civil weddings. Amazingly, the wedding venue was open! Only that the hotel for the reception was on strike. She and her family were phoning around all the friends and relations, saying that the wedding was on, but the reception was being rescheduled to the next day. I had booked a band for the reception, so I called them. Even before I said anything, they said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be there’.
We got stopped by the Carabinieri on the way to the wedding. They were checking everybody. It was pretty hairy. And that’s really when it came home to me who the Red Brigades were. Someone had said there was a foreigner involved. Luckily none of my relations had come, as we had planned to do a second ceremony up in Scotland with my family. Only my best man and his girlfriend, who drove from London to Milan on a motorbike!
After the ceremony we had an informal reception at my in-laws’ house and the wedding reception the next day. The band came and they had learned to play Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre”, without me asking for it! They also learnt to play enough Scottish country dance music so that we could do the Eightsome Reel! We then drove up to Edinburgh and had a second wedding with our family and friends, which was actually a ceremony of blessing as we were already married.”
John and Adriana wanted to settle in her hometown of Arese. But John had been offered promotion to junior manager to be in charge of the entire audit of Iveco, Italy’s largest trucking manufacturer and Deloitte Italy’s biggest client. The only catch was that the job was in Turin.
Adriana & John
“The personnel manager, who was a Scot, by the name of Ian Wilson, offered me a promotion to junior manager. We talked about the terms, one of which was to go to Turin. My initial reaction was no. I told him I was about to get married and that my wife was from Milan. So he offered us a weekend in Turin to see what it was like. We didn’t see the harm in going for a free weekend to see it. That was our downfall because this was in January when Turin should have been, well, pretty dismal. Instead, it was sunny and we were quite impressed. The center had just been repainted, plus it had a river, which I always thought was the one thing that Milan lacked, and a hill, a bit of movement and it was really quite nice. So, we accepted and moved to Turin.”
They lived there for two years, then moved back to Arese when son Robert was born. But John couldn’t get a transfer back to the Milan office, so he commuted from Milan to Turin.
“I was there for three years from a work point of view. But then Robert came along, and Adriana wanted to have her mother’s help. It was 1981 when Robert was born, we gave up the house in Pino Torinese and moved back to Milan. So I had to commute to Turin every day, getting up at some ungodly hour to catch the seven o’clock train from Stazione Centrale. They didn’t have the fast TAVs like today, so I had to get that train to reach the office by 9 o’clock. And then back in the evening, which was a bit stressful. But better than staying in Turin during the week, which my employer suggested.”
In 1983, Deloitte changed policies regarding their satellite offices. All branches were to operate independently, meaning their losses would no longer be covered. In Italy, it was a time of “Italianismo”, when Italian companies wanted to reinforce their Italian identity and character. Italian universities had started training Italian auditors and companies were bringing in new blood. Little by little, the British auditors were being replaced.
“So at a certain point, around 1983, they more or less made it clear to the British audit managers that their careers weren’t going anywhere. The firm had been very British up to then and I think the Italians resented that to a certain extent, so in a way, this was their comeback, which from various points of view was perfectly reasonable.”
So John decided to look elsewhere and landed a job as an internal audit manager for GTE, the American telephone company. With his extensive experience in Italy and knowledge of the language, John became lead internal audit manager for GTE Italy.
However, the European headquarters of GTE were not in Milan. Once again, the Murphy family uprooted and moved, this time to Brussels.
“I was based in Brussels but spent most of my time in Milan. The three of us went up there and I would come back down, which was pretty crazy. It was good for expenses and tax rebates, because if you worked outside Belgium, the Belgian tax authorities refunded your income tax, which was very high – like 50%.”
Sara & Robert
After a year living in Brussels, they discovered that another child was on the way. Their daughter Sara was born in 1984. The Belgian weather had been all too similar to Scotland’s, so they abandoned any idea of moving north to Edinburgh and opted to return to the moderate climate of northern Italy, remaining close to Adriana ’s family.
The question was what work to do? John’s idea was to set up a business catering to the expat community. This started with the foundation of The Informer, the newsletter that he went on to edit for almost 30 years. Of which more later. Adriana had been a freelance translator for many years, but wanted to open her own business. So together they set up Buroservice. John went back to his former colleagues at Deloitte and closed a lucrative contract for financial translations. Soon after, other companies outsourced their translations to Buroservice, making it one of the first companies specialized in financial, legal, economic and investment translations with mother-tongue professionals trained and accomplished in the field.
At that point, John had been in Italy on and off for about 10 years. He was speaking Italian fluently and felt integrated into Italian society. Even though he had the support of close friends, his wife and family, it wasn’t always so simple.
Cultural Adjustment Curve/ Researchgate.net
“There are the famous U or W curves of cultural adaptation that most people go through. But I only found out about them afterwards, which I blame Deloitte for. Any employer ought to be aware of the fact that when you’re bringing somebody in from another culture, they’re going to go through a classic phase that just about everyone does, if they’re going to integrate. It’s a change crisis.
In the first stage, for the first three months you’re full of enthusiasm and everything’s wonderful. Then things start going downhill after four or five months and there’s a severe risk of depression. Which hit me. I had a bad period of depression for about six months.
It’s not so much a feeling of being homesick, it’s because you’re struggling to understand things. There are some who don’t really care about integrating, some who say ‘I’m not going to learn the language, I don’t need to’. There are some people, for instance, especially at partner level, who don’t want to be seen making mistakes and make everybody else around them speak English, but they’re missing out on a huge side of their experience. It’s a pride issue. So what happens to them is that they don’t change and then after maybe two or three years they go back to England or America or wherever, and the Italy that they talk about is probably all wrong, because they hadn’t got into it. They hadn’t taken the trouble to adapt.
Companies ought to know this because it’s inevitable and will help performance. They need to hold your hand. My company was convinced it was my fault. I wasn’t ‘performing up to par’, and nobody said, ‘Don’t worry, John, this is part of the change cycle, it is normal, don’t worry about it’. I was worried about it in my mind, because for me it was really bad. My curve went way down. And I’m convinced that is why people leave. Let’s say American executives who have been brought in high paying job, family paid, house paid and school paid for the kids and after a few months either he or the wife says ‘I can’t stand it. I’m going home. I hate Italy, and I hate Italians’.
In my case, it went on far too long. I wrongly thought that I would sort of come out of it because I tended to get a bit down in the spring, the “change of season” as they call it here. In March, I always had about a week where I was sort of listless and down, and bit bluesy, and then I just got over it. I was convinced that the same would happen here, but this time it lasted six months. Somebody in the company should have been saying, ‘’John, you need help’, but nobody did.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been through that. Plus, I also think that an awful lot of highly paid footballers go through it and are criticized as a ‘bad purchase’, because they’re not scoring enough goals. In reality, it’s probably because nobody’s looking after their psychological needs. Any sort of company should look after their foreign staff from that point of view.”
John was able to get over his bout of depression with the help of Adriana who persuaded him to speak to a professional. The feeling repeated in Turin, probably because of the combined stress of getting married and moving house, but it was a bit easier to cope with knowing that it was natural. Now, with the help of organic remedies like Ginseng and Pappareale (Royal Jelly) the springtime blues are no longer a problem. His openness and frankness about mental health is comforting and encouraging.
Anyone who has lived in Milan for a long time surely came across The Informer, the monthly magazine that John founded in 1986. As an expat living in Italy, he understood the trials and tribulations expats go through to fit in and get things done. His experience in law and finance as well as his knowledge of Italian language and culture made the publication a great success. The “Red Tape” section explained the ins and outs of Italian bureaucracy and became a go-to source for anyone moving here.
“I also wanted to offer services to the expat community because there were very few sources for expats. The idea behind The Informer was trying to interpret Italian bureaucracy for the benefit of foreigners living here.
Well, I went to talk to somebody who had set up another magazine. And he told me, ‘If you don’t have a rich uncle who can give you un miliardo di lire to start up, then forget it.’ That was discouraging, but then a friend (Henry, my motorbike-riding best man) suggested that I could use desktop publishing. I got an Apple Macintosh and did it myself. That’s how The Informer started. It was run off a laser printer, and we folded it, stapled and stuck tape down the side. We went on like that for some time before I started getting it professionally printed. It then went online in 2000 as a sort of proto-blog, but I sort of ran out of steam in 2005, just short of 30 years. It was quite an experience.”
Another topic which was popular in The Informer was about cultural differences. Some issues were faced with lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek excerpts, other times full page articles were dedicated to cultural differences and social issues. John wrote about his own experiences and his articles reached out to the many expats who were learning how to adjust and integrate into Italian society.
Now, after 43 years of marriage, John has (almost) mastered inter-cultural relationships. His five-week whirlwind courtship, meeting the in-laws and making decisions about the family were sometimes initially met with sideway looks and skepticism. He explains how point of view and cultural differences play an important role in inter-cultural relationships.
“Yes, after five weeks we were engaged. I was totally convinced but maybe she wasn’t, she didn’t really believe that it was a serious offer. Maybe she wanted to see how far it would go, but then she married me twice!
I had read a book, in English, I can’t remember the title, but it was about culture shock. Written by a woman, a psychologist, who was talking about marrying somebody from another culture. It said that couples always argue as it’s a way of sorting out differences. But most of the time when a mixed culture couple argues, they’re not only arguing about their own points of view, they’re arguing from different cultural points of view, which makes it worse. It’s far harder to understand why the other person isn’t agreeing with you. Fortunately, I read this book just after getting married.
We’ve been married over 40 years, but it’s absolutely true. It’s not only during arguments but differences come out regarding other issues as well. For example, my parents sent me to boarding school, first to Cargilfield, a prep school, then to Fettes. In Britain, a boarding school education is considered a privilege. It costs an awful lot of money and parents do it believing it’s for your own good to ensure a good education, more sports and a rich social life. It is considered a good investment. When I told my future Italian in-laws that I spent 12 years in a “collegio”, they felt sorry for me! Here in Italy, boarding schools are for children from poor and broken homes. They must have thought there was something terribly wrong with my family, which of course wasn’t true, but they were coming from a different cultural point of view. So when it came to making decisions about schools for our children, the boarding school idea was immediately thrown out the window. In fact, it was never on the table”
John & Sara with members of the Milan Scottish Country Dancers
Today, John has reached retirement age but is still working as daughter Sara wants Buroservice to continue. Their son Robert now lives in Brescia and manages a family caregiver agency.
John and Sara not only share a passion for languages, but they are active in the local community, teaching others about their Scottish heritage through the Milan Scottish Country Dancers, a registered association with the goal to practice, teach and promote traditional Scottish country dancing and culture.
If you don’t find him tapping his feet and swinging his kilt to the rhythms of jigs and reels with the Milan Scottish Country Dancers, you’ll find John roaming the Navigli area tracing the ancient canal routes and lost waterways of Milan.
John has a collection of antique maps of Milan that help him trace the canals
“My favorite area of Milan is the Cerchia dei Navigli. I discovered the story of the Navigli quite early on. Most people think that there are only the two canals, the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese, but there was really a whole system of canals, and they are still there, underground. They were covered up in the 1930s to facilitate the traffic (all too successfully!). So, what I like to do is walk the route of the Navigli. There are the chiuse, the old locks studied and improved by Leonardo Da Vinci – it’s not a secret, but not many people know that you can still see the bed of the canal and the old sluice gates in various parts of the city. And if you go up Via Melchiorre Gioia, you can see – and walk along – the Naviglio della Martesana, which used to run all the way down to the Tumbun de San Marc, feeding fresh water into the system and keeping the current moving.
The hydraulics of the canals were not created by Leonardo DaVinci, but they were improved by him. It’s amazing to discover how much of Leonardo’s work he did in Milan and not in Florence, as many think. I find the history of Milan fascinating and I always try to learn something new about it.”
After 45 years of living in Italy, John is still learning about Italian history and culture. His passion for Milan history and Scottish Country Dancing keeps him curious, enthusiastic and fit. He has taught us that a balanced identity which blends one’s own heritage with a fair dose of Italian culture is key to living well as an expat in Italy.
Article by Celia Abernethy for Easy Milano