Each year, Jessica and I must ask the Italian bureaucracy for permission to stay in the country for another 365 days. The document at issue is called permesso di soggiorno, permission to stay and, despite our good behavior and dutiful payment of fees, taxes, assessments and impositions demanded of us by the Italian political class, the process of simply renewing our permessi di soggiorno, the credit-card sized piece of plastic that I responsibly carry in my wallet just behind my Conad grocery store loyalty card, is an uncomfortable experience reminiscent of a prostate exam. Not actually painful, but the mere thought of it makes one squirm. Renewing the PdS (as we in-the-know expats refer to it) provides one more opportunity to come face-to-face with the vaunted Italian bureaucrat, famous among their worldwide brethren for being more officious, capricious and preoccupied by the next cigarette break than any other. What makes the process all the more infuriating is the fact that the only time we have ever had to produce the card is when we apply to get a new one. There seems to be no other call for it by any Italian authority.
Our PdS renewal starts at the post office. Now, unlike the post office in the US, an Italian post office deals with far more than the simple to-ing and fro-ing of letters and packages. It is here that you pay some taxes and some utility bills, apply for government assistance, plan for retirement and do various other things that I am quite unaware of but, given the volume of people who show up everyday at the post office, there has to be a lot going on there. The day we went to the post office in Cisternino with our dear friend and guide, Francesco, the place was jammed with all sorts of folk and we pulled the next number from the machine that provides numbers to be pulled and noted that there were 17 people ahead of us. That didn’t sound all that bad to me until I began watching the manner in which the post office employees were dispatching their customers. I observed one case, start to finish. The interaction included an introductory conversation about the customer’s family and the health of each of its members, proceeded to a negotiation on the matter at hand. This was followed by a conference between our bureaucratic friend (Let’s call him Luigi.) and one of his colleagues during which it seems that they concluded that it was time for coffee. On their return, Luigi pulled several thick forms from a file that was probably labelled “Thick Forms,” and handed them to the customer who complained to Luigi that these were the wrong thick forms. Another negotiation ensued but, once a set of acceptable thick forms was handed over to the customer, the latter proceeded to write answers so as to fill in the many blanks on the thick form. Once completed, the thick forms were handed over to Luigi who felt it necessary to, once again, consult with his colleague. They, apparently, suggested that a cigarette was in order. On their re-return, the receipt for the thick forms was handed to the customer and he was off on his merry way. It was only natural that, after such a grueling exchange of papers, Luigi was in need of a break so he took one. I reassessed my original conclusion that having only 17 people ahead of us was not a problem. For Francesco, however, being that far back in line was simply an opportunity to be creative and to come up with a way to be served next.
With an ease that would make an eagle in flight seem awkward, Francesco slid up beside the person then being served at the counter looking as if he were with the current customer. As soon as the customer’s transaction was completed, Francesco was in position to make his request for our PdS application.
“Can we please have an application for a permesso di soggiorno?” he said.
It was then that the bureaucracy first reared its ugly head.
“What is the address of the applicant?” Luigi asked. Francesco gave him the information. “Contrada Palmone is in Locorotondo,” Luigi responded. “You must pick up the application at the post office in Locorotondo.”
“But I came here with Scott and Jessica last year and got the forms for the permesso di soggiorno,” Francesco protested.
“The procedure changed last week,” Luigi said. “Now they must go to Locorotondo to get the application.”
“Is the application different in Locorotondo?” Francesco asked.
“No, it’s exactly the same,” Luigi said quite matter-of-factly.
“Then why can’t we just take an application from here? Why do we have to go to Locorotondo to collect the same form that you could give us here, now?”
Luigi responded with a simple gesture, one that the Italian bureaucrat must practice with religious zeal for years until they get it just right. Until the message is so much deeper than words could ever convey. It says, at once, “Heaven only knows,” and “You’re Italian. Why would you even ask such a question?” The head tips to one side, an eyebrow is raised, the shoulders shrug and the upturned hands move with the shoulders. We got back in the car and drove to Locorotondo where a woman in her sixties with over-sized glasses and curly, bright red hair, at least the half of her hair that was farthest from her scalp, took a thick form from her Thick Forms file and handed it to Francesco. This was the same woman who had processed our original PdS so she remembered us and, thus, we had our first encounter with an Italian bureaucrat that did not involve drama.
We returned home and I worked diligently filling out the seven-page document but, because it was in Italian, I used pencil. The final revision would be done by Francesco. He reviewed my handiwork, made some changes and pronounced the form duly complete. The next step was to take the completed application, along with proof of private funds sufficient to live on while in Italy and a copy of our private health insurance policy, (both intended to make the bureaucrats comfortable that we were there only to pay into the system, not take anything out of it) back to the woman at the post office in Locorotondo. Her job was to then give me a receipt for the application that included the date and time that I was to appear at the questura, the provincial police station, in Bari. Fully confident that the form was in a completed state and that we had all of the other necessary documentation, I told Francesco that I would deliver the package to the post office myself and would not impose on him for this simple task. Besides, I thought, the woman with the wild red hair remembered us. She would be kind.
The next day, back at the post office in Locorotondo, we tried no trickery to advantage ourselves vis-a-vis the other occupants of the lines and finally it was our turn. We handed our documents to our new bureaucrat amica. After conducting a review of the documents that would make an IRS auditor proud, the woman of the red mane said something in Italian that I could only translate as “You, Scott, were a fool to think that this would go smoothly.” In fact, as we were to find out later, she was telling us that we had forgotten to check a box on the form to indicate whether I was applying for my first PdS or for a renewal of my current one. In short, because the form was incomplete, she was rejecting it and, because I could not understand what the problem was, I could do nothing but take the package from her and, tail between legs, leave the Locorotondo post office secure in the knowledge that I could not accomplish even the simplest of tasks where they involve the authorities in Italy.
The next day, we returned to the post office with Francesco. He walked up to the counter where the woman of scarlet locks sat behind the thick glass and she explained to him what I was incapable of understanding the day before whereupon Francesco removed the form from its envelope and checked the box that indicated a renewal.
“But you knew them from before when they got the original permesso,” he said to her. “You knew this was a renewal, no?”
“Yes, I knew,” she said guiltless.
“But why didn’t you just check the box for them?” he asked.
I knew it was coming long before the head began to tilt to one side and the eyebrow lifted.
Next: Mamma, May I – Part 2