A Welcome Note: On Filling the Gaps

Dear Friends and Family:

Although I haven't added any posts since the summer of 2007, this blog continues to be a warehouse of my thoughts and experiences from my time abroad.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On Italian Bureaucracy

So everyone knows about it. Even the Italians. Outsiders find it difficult to understand why it exists in such a pervasive way, but when you’ve spent a bit of time in Italy and understand the politics behind it, it’s easier to understand. In the United States, when one refers to “government, he or she means the general body of people, and organizations that literally govern the country; when one refers to “administration” he is usually indicating the specific officials holding office. When an Italian says “government,” he is referring to these actual public servants in office, such as the President of the Council of Ministers, his secretary, etc. When Italians speak of “administration,” no longer are they referring to individuals or even a general governmental structure, rather this word simply means bureaucracy.

Here’s a case-in-point: This wonderful example begins months before any of us even made it to Rome, way back in the U.S., when we were required to submit a host of documents and money via Platform3000 (a horrible company in its own right) to the Italian consulate for permission to stay longer than the maximum 90 days as a tourist.
We had been informed that upon arrival there would be a short permit to stay process (usually not taken very seriously by the Italian government as they knew we would only be studying there) and then we would be done with the process. Of course, within the first week, we learned from Manuela, one of the program employees that the entire process had been changed and that now the Italian Postal Service, not the Police, would be administering the process. And, with this new policy, we would have to pay another 56 Euro, wait in a day-long line to turn in even more documents and then wait another few weeks to even receive our temporary permits-to-stay. We complied of course and sure enough, about a month later, received the small slips of paper indicating that we had begun the process of obtaining our permit to stay. So we carried those with us at all times and were assured that since the permit-to-stay wasn’t really necessary, we would probably never have to use it anyway. It was surprising therefore when we were all summoned in late March to actually appear at the police station and obtain our permits-to-stay. That morning, I was to appear early at the Questura di Roma and after a struggle to find the place, tucked in a back alleyway, I stumbled upon the non-descript entrance. I walked in, saw a few other students from my program there to do the same thing, and sat down to wait with them. Finally my name was called, I entered a small room, and sat down across from a jolly policeman. We exchanged a few formalities and I handed over the passport photos and documents I had to reproduce yet again. I was then instructed to leave the office with my documents and make a fourth or fifth (I can’t even remember anymore) set of copies. Once again, I had to shell out money for the copies (because the police must be too cheep to have a photocopier) and when I returned with everything, was attacked by a stern woman in a white coat and gloves who literally covered my hands and fingers with thick, black ink. She pressed and rolled my hand against a handful of papers and I must have used up an entire pen’s worth of ink. Finally, she gave me a cloth to clean my hands and then I sat down with the happy officer to converse once again. He then informed me that I wasn’t even going to be getting my permit-to-stay that day and asked me when I was planning on leaving the country. I briefly gave him my travel itinerary and explained that I would be flying out of Rome on the 9th of June. At that point, he made some notes in his little book and looked up with a smile, “Va be. How about we set that up for June 5th?”

“June 5th,” I replied, “but I’m leaving a few days later, so what does that do?”

“Oh no problem, the officer continued, “It’s not even important if you show up. It’s really just a formality. . .” he trailed off.

Just a formality! I thought. Just a FORMALITY?!?! After all of this waiting and inking and copying and waiting and paying and more copying? What a royal joke (and there was nothing monarchical about it). In fact it’s the complete antithesis of a monarchy, and it’s almost intentionally that way. Why? It’s because back when Italy became a Republic, on June 2, 1946, and the new government was forged, it was designed to distribute power as much as possible away from the top government leaders, and thus, an absurdly bureaucratic nation was born, and with the legacy of the monarchy, it can’t be easily changed. So, as a result, we all know and hear about the incredible inefficiencies which are living and real and for which Italians are famous.
Thanks for visitng!