In medieval times, the cities of Italy were built on hilltops and enclosed in thick, fortified walls with battlements and other defenses. Their purpose was to keep foreigners who may have malevolent intentions out of the city. The modern-day equivalent of those city walls is the bureaucrat authorized to issue or deny visas to those foreigners who wish to “invade” Italy with the intention of staying there. As with their stony predecessors, these individuals are endowed with thick, impenetrable skulls and a complete inability to deal with reason. Those deemed by the “gatekeepers” worthy and with no evil motives are permitted entry while any who are “suspect” are denied. If denied, you have no ability to appeal because the higher court is located inside and you cannot get there.
Our “gate” was located at the Italian Consulate in Philadelphia. Our “gatekeeper” was the pattern from which the worst of Italy’s infamous bureaucrats have been cut. Officious, dogmatic, capricious and arbitrary, Italy’s law enforcers seem to have free rein to interpret the rules in any manner they choose, select irrelevant laws to support their positions or simply make things up as they go.
I never had to go through the process of becoming a legal resident of the United States so perhaps it’s unfair to criticize the requirements imposed on would-be immigrants by other countries, but I will say that nothing about the Italian government’s response to our efforts to become residents of Italy suggested to us that we were particularly wanted there. In our naiveté, we purchased Villa Tutto and executed an extensive renovation of the place without considering the possibility that we might not be permitted to become legal residents, assuming, I suppose, that if Frances Mayes and George Clooney could do it, we could as well. The Italians even let Berlusconi stay there, for crying out loud. And, given the dismal state of the Italian economy, who could think that the Italian government would not be welcoming of American expats with their expat bank accounts and expat penchant for spending money?
We learned that, in order to live legally in Italy, one must acquire three documents: a visto di residenza elletiva (a long-term elective residence visa); a permesso di soggiorno (permission to stay in the region); and, a local residency permit evidenced by a carta d’identita (identity card). The visa is issued through the Italian consulate offices and an applicant may only apply to the consulate for the states in which he lives. For residents of Pennsylvania (which we were), that was the Italian consulate in Philadelphia. The permesso is granted by the provincial government, in our case, the government of Bari. The comune (local government) issues the residency permit. For that, we would go to Locorotondo.
We didn’t know exactly when we would be making the final move to Puglia since the trigger for our relocation was the sale of our home in Pittsburgh and we couldn’t predict just when that might happen. We decided, though, to apply for the residency visa in advance of making our final preparations to move so that, when the time to depart for Italy came, we could get on that one-way flight, comforted that the legalities were behind us.
The visa acquisition process begins with making an appointment with the visa office at the applicant’s designated consulate, in our case, the one in Philadelphia. In the appointment confirmation email we received was a link to the visa application and listing of the documentation required for each of the visa categories that brought back fond memories of every April 14th. The type of visa we were seeking, the long-term residency visa, is the one that retirees wishing to stay in the country for more than 180 days a year need in order to be legally resident in Italy. Along with a completed application form that confirmed our identities and the nature of our request, there were the fairly-routine supporting documents to be provided. In addition, it required that we show (1) that we had a place to live; (2) that we had health insurance such that we would not be a burden on Italy’s national health system; (3) a confirmed flight reservation; and, (4) proof of financial means to live independently in the country. I diligently went to work putting our application packages together in preparation for our appointment at the consulate in Philadelphia.
Our first indication of what was to come was the response I received to my inquiry regarding the amount of financial assets required to satisfy the “guarantee of substantial and steady private income” criterion. The response: “SUBSTANTIAL and STEADY.” I followed up with the question, “Is there some minimum amount that you consider to be ‘substantial’?” The response: “Read the application.” Right.
Based on that most helpful clarification, I gathered all of the financial information I could lay my hands on, made two copies, and attached one to each of our applications. I also attached the deed to Villa Tutto to provide evidence of our having a place to live, a letter from our health insurer stating that we had worldwide coverage and copies of our USAirways flight reservations for our upcoming two-week trip to Italy.
The day before our 9:00am appointment, we drove to Philadelphia, checked into a hotel a few blocks from the consulate offices across the street from Independence Hall and, that evening, had a less-than-satisfying dinner at Morimoto’s, the iconic chef’s original restaurant. It was our third dining experience there and, while the first one was an experience we will never forget, each successive one gave evidence of the distractions inevitable with Chef Morimoto’s increasing fame.
Th next morning, we walked to the Public Ledger Building, took the elevator to the 10th floor and entered the offices of the Italian Consulate. I was brimming with confidence assuming that I, a trained lawyer and wordsmith, could manage a simple bureaucrat, control the situation and walk out of the encounter with visas in hand. After a proper Italian delay period of, say, twenty minutes, we were called up to a window that spoke of security concerns as the glass in the window was particularly thick and left only a narrow slot for the passing back and forth of documents. The well-dressed, middle-aged gentleman who called us to the window spoke excellent English and began by asking us what was the purpose of our visit.
“We are here to apply for a residency visa,” I replied.
“Why do you want to move to Italy?” he asked. I had been asked that question before and was prepared to answer it again.
“My wife and I are planning to retire there.” His look suggested that he questioned our sanity for wanting to move to his native country and that that alone may disqualify us.
“So, you are applying for the residenza elletiva?” he asked accusingly.
“Yes, that’s correct.
“May I see your applications?” I passed the two sets of documents over to him and he began to go through them much as an IRS agent in Cincinnati reviews a Tea Party tax-exemption application. As he did, he asked some questions. “Do you know Italian?”
“We’re studying, but we are not proficient.”
“By law, you must learn Italian,” he chided. “It is required that you know Italian.”
“We are very anxious to learn Italian,” I said somewhat defensively. “We wouldn’t think of moving to Italy and not learning the language.”
“Well, you must learn Italian,” he said for absolutely no apparent reason.
He was perusing the deed to Villa Tutto. “The deed is dated over a year ago,” he commented, though I couldn’t find the point of the comment. My look of incredulity prompted him. “How do I know that you still own the property?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” I asked still not getting it.
“This tells me that you bought the property in Puglia but not that you still own it,” he said matter-of-factly. “What can you show me to prove that you did not sell it since?”
I was speechless. That’s when Jessica took over.
“We just finished the renovation a couple of months ago and we’re going to live in Italy,” she said very directly. “Why would we sell it?” The intellectual giant on the other side of the glass answered with a shrug as if to say, “How should I know?”
“Can you show me a tax bill for the property?”
“There is no property tax in Italy,” I said.
“Well, there soon will be,” was his completely unpredictable response. “Monti is going to impose the property tax.”
Jessica again. “Well, there isn’t one now so how can we show you a tax bill?” Again, perfectly logical.
“There will be tax bills soon,” he said in yet another non sequitur.
“How about a utility bill with our names on it?” I asked. “Will that work?” He shrugged again, raised his dense eyebrows, and rolled his eyes, gestures I interpreted as, “I suppose so.”
Then he began digging into the financial information. “What is this statement?” he asked pointing to my 401(k) documents. I told him. “But your wife’s name is not on it at all,” he noted.
“A 401(k) account is only the property of the employee by law,” I said.
“Then we cannot count it as an asset for the two of you.”
“But Jessica is a beneficiary of the account,” I protested.
“I do not see that here,” he said simply as if, not seeing it meant that it wasn’t real. “And what is this?” he asked pointing to a printout of an internet bank statement. I explained.
“This is a printout from a computer but I need an original statement.”
“It’s an internet bank,” I said emphatically. “There are no original statements. It’s all done on the internet.”
“So it’s not a real bank?”
“Yes, it’s a real bank, but everything is done electronically.”
“So, how do you know that your money is really in the bank?” I was beginning to understand the adversary I was up against and to appreciate just how unprepared I was to deal with him. He was armed with power, the ability to provide me with what I wanted or to deny me it, at his whim. It was the only thing he had, but that just made it all the more important to him that he wield it as brazenly as he could. I realized that there was nothing we could say or do to wrangle our visas out of this impotent-in-all-ways-but-one representative of the Italian government.
He looked at the rest of the paperwork, made some notes and finally said, “You cannot be approved for the visa.”
“What do we need to do?” I asked knowing that there was nothing to be gained by making logical arguments to this person.
He sent us away to prove that we still owned Villa Tutto and that Jessica and I each had interests in each other’s retirement accounts. We left the offices of the consulate disappointed, discouraged and a bit despondent. The drive back to Pittsburgh was a long one but it gave us an opportunity to listen to our Italian lessons in the car for 5 hours because, after all, we had to learn Italian
I got a copy of the most recent ENEL electricity bill, copies of beneficiary statements for all of the retirement accounts, and sent the additional information on to our “friend” (to whom we were now referring as Spawn of Satan), and waited for the response.
It came several weeks later:
You have met the financial requirement for the Elective Residence Visa. Unfortunately, at this time the visa has not been approved. Both you and your wife are still employed at your respective places of employment. Your flight itinerary shows that you are traveling to Italy for 2 weeks at this time.
When you can demonstrate that you are ready to establish permanent residence in Italy, that you have terminated your employment, then you may resubmit your request.
The fact that there are no such requirements among the many pages of Italian information on visas, it is also a fact that the bureaucracy, not the law, determines how these things work and, served as an object lesson for us: what we call “following the rules,” Italians call “doing it the hard way.”
Next: The Move – Part 2