Five Essential Rules of Italian (Roman) Bureaucracy

11 Oct

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These days it takes something quite unusual to get me back on the blog, but this is a post whose time has come.

Over the course of roughly 15 years of life in Rome, I’ve learned and internalized a few precepts for dealing with the notoriously difficult and entrenched bureaucracy.

When I speak of bureaucracy, what I am referring to includes, but is by no means limited to, the following:

  • Getting a driver’s license
  • Getting public health insurance/choosing a family doctor
  • Dealing with city hall for certificates (birth, marriage, residency, civil status)
  • Dealing with the questura, central immigration, and post office for stay permit issues
  • Contesting/rectifying any errors on aforementioned official documents
  • Mailing a letter or actual package at the post office, and God forbid you are crazy enough to open any sort of financial account there
  • Applying for university/enrolling in university
  • Dealing with an Italian consulate or embassy abroad
  • Banking in Italy
  • Returning items to a store in Rome/trying to get your money back for something
  • Taxes and any other dealings with a behemoth known as INPS
  • Paying bills in any shape or form, and generally dealing with any utility company, especially publicly-owned ones such as ACEA, ENI, ATAC, AMA
  • Trying to pay for a low-cost item with a 50-euro bill

Like I said, this is a limited list, but I’ve done all of the above, some multiple times (because I am a masochist, clearly), and so far, I’ve lived to tell the tale. I have the tear stains and gray hairs to prove it.

So patience, young grasshopper, while I now impart my hard-earned knowledge.

1. In Rome, you are not entitled to anything. So please throw away immediately any mentality that allows you to think you can “make it their problem.”

This first dictum is absolutely essential. If you approach anything in Rome with the sort of approach I used to have when I lived in the United States, you will simply and utterly fail.

After telling a horrific bureaucratic tale to an Australian who had never lived in Rome, I was asked: “What happens though, if you just make it their problem?

My two very seasoned American-in-Italy expat friends and I (about 50 years of expat experience in Italy combined between the three of us) laughed with wide-eyed amusement. You know the laugh. That “awwww, how cute” one.

It took at least four times repeating “you can’t make it their problem” to get the message through, adding several more concrete and non-theoretical examples, but the concept was so foreign I still don’t think we made any real impact. I got the impression our dining guest was convinced that had only he been in our shoes, he would have been able to “make it their problem” – read: make them fix the problem for him.

This brings us to dictum 1a:

1a. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR SOLVING YOUR OWN PROBLEMS.

I put that in ALL CAPS because I cannot stress this principle enough. You are absolutely responsible for finding a way. If someone helps you, be grateful, but consider it an exception to the rule. You must use your own brain, your own resources, your own energy and your own elbow grease to get your problem fixed. That probably means bringing in other people you know, who have experience, for moral support and technical advice. But ultimately this is your problem to solve, not the manager’s—even if the manager created the problem for you. (I fully grasp the absurdity of this concept. You, too, should begin embracing it as soon as you are physically and mentally strong enough to do so.)

Let’s do a little trial exercise to get you warmed up, so you can strengthen those underworked, flabby bureaucratic muscles, and thus begin safely working off that extra layer of entitlement that you carry with you from years of doing business in more civilized places.

Ready? Repeat after me:

I, the client, am not always right.
In fact, I am almost always wrong. At least on the first trip.
This is why my secret weapons are persistence, determination, and patience—and not indignantly demanding to speak to a superior.

(You should probably repeat that one a few more times. Really get your heart rate up a bit.)

Humility will help you with this one. No one is getting paid to be nice to you. So just get the F over it. It never gets nicer or easier.

2. Keep your expectations super low, so that you can be pleasantly surprised when things go right, rather than abysmally depressed when things go wrong.01720_expectationsI realize that this might come as an affront to those of us raised in cultures where we’re encouraged to “raise the bar,” etcetera, etcetera. You must shake off your high standards. They have no place here.

When embarking on any bureaucratic task, get all your ducks in a row (see 3), and then, resign yourself to the fact that you probably won’t accomplish what you’re setting out to do. This way, if and when you succeed, you’ll feel like a million effing dollars and then some. Plus, it gives you a great reason to pop a bottle of bubbly.

See? Now when did a trip to the post office ever merit champagne in your past? Move to Italy. You’ll understand.

3. Start “the file.”

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Aw yeah, expats know what I’m talking about here. I learned about “the file” about a year or two into my life in Rome. Let me set the scene for you. It was the umpteenth time I was getting shot down trying to sign up for my family physician and health card: this time, they discovered that my birthplace as printed on my Italian ID card was the right city, but the wrong country. You see, I was born in Portsmouth, Virginia (USA), but the clerk who had produced my ID card years prior unbeknownst to me had mistakenly input Portsmouth, (GB) … and no, the health office people were certainly not going to fix that for me. Down for the count, once again.

Meanwhile, I stepped aside and watched a man from Vietnam attempt something at the window. The clerk tried to shut him down by saying he was missing a particular document. BOOM! He pulls it out of a three-ring binder he was carrying. Then the clerk, with a look of triumph, tells him he is missing the appropriate number of photocopies (and HELL NO they don’t make photocopies FOR YOU! Please see 1 and 1a). BOOM! He pulls out a sheaf of photocopies from his binder.

In short, I learned a valuable lesson that day. Keep every paper. Bring every damn paper with you to every appointment. Keep multiple photocopies of everything on hand at all times and ready to hand over (at least three), especially passport and stay permit. Keep a sheet of ID card photos on hand as well. Why not throw in a tax stamp for €16 while you’re at it, too—couldn’t hurt. Tax returns? Check. Marriage certificate, birth certificate, divorce decree? Who the hell knows! Check! File all this mumbo-jumbo in those plastic A4 sheet protectors, stick it all in a three-ring binder, and before you depart for any bureaucratic mission, you take that damn binder with you. Watch in awe and wonder as it grows through the years. But by all means, don’t like go and forget it in a public restroom or let someone steal that sucker or something equally tragic. Then you’re screwed.

4. Don’t expect there to be one answer to your question, or even a right answer at all, or a conclusive answer, and certainly don’t think that NO is a final answer, although usually it is, except when it isn’t.

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It’s completely normal and acceptable that two employees in the same office, perhaps two who even sit next at windows right next to each other, give different answers to the same question, on the same day, different days, or the same time. No one is guaranteed to know the true answer, or the right answer, generally speaking. Please see rule 1a. Knowing the answer to the question in advance is your job.

Once when I was trying to accomplish something in the ID card office, I looked over to the desk marked “information”. The man employed to provide information was sleeping. Like deep, REM-phase sleep. He slept for the entire hour-plus that I was in the office. So, I suppose we could append to this adage: don’t expect employees to actually be awake on the job. But that is maybe best reserved for our masterclass in bureaucracy. I certainly wouldn’t want to scare off beginners.

5. If you can liken all of your bureaucratic travails to the spiritual metaphor of a video game, you can even have fun while you’re at it. 

kung-fu-master-lvl-1Basically this metaphor always works for me. Just imagine that whatever you’re trying to accomplish is like being in one of those old-school Nintendo video games where each level had some sort of fire-breathing dragon or its equivalent that had to be defeated before you could pass to the next level. That’s basically a microcosm of the entire Roman bureaucratic machine.

In your video game, you will encounter many evil enemies and obstacles blocking your path to the next level, thus preventing your advancement towards fighting and defeating the Big Boss. Let me list some of them for you:

  • Strike (transport or labor union, or both)
  • Office moved but no one told anyone—you get there and there’s a handwritten sign on the door
  • Employee at window 1A isn’t responsible for that—you have to ask the person on the 3rd floor
  • Person on the 3rd floor isn’t responsible for that—you have to ask the person at window 1A
  • The person at window 1A is now on coffee break
  • The deadline for that was last week
  • No there aren’t any exceptions
  • You didn’t keep your receipt
  • You don’t have the right photocopy
  • There’s a mistake on your document (missing letter, wrong number) and it’s not their fault and they can’t fix it. Go Directly to Jail. Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.

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Here’s the thing, folks: Rome bureaucratic missions will either break you, or build you into a problem-solving superhero who laughs in the face of insult. (And then whips out a photocopy and a tax stamp.)

I raise my glass that your path leads towards Kryptonite-free triumph, paved with smiling impiegati and lots of freshly-inked stamps. Go boldly forth, and achieve greatness!

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