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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.”

binders

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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Italian Bidets and Detergente Intimo For All Ages

3 Aug

Please note, if you are looking to purchase a bidet or want a real, official how-to guide, look no further: Kyle at Bidet.org has you totally covered! Click here: How to Use a Bidet

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Wow folks, it’s a double header today! You see, when my kids leave town with their dad and grandma for their beach vacation and I am left with dirty laundry and a house all to myself, I just sit at my computer and write to my heart’s content. My jeans might have holes in them because I hate shopping, but I’ll be damned if I’m never short on words.

So here is something I just HAVE to get off my chest. I saw an ad online yesterday several times (Youtube) and every time I was like, “No, seriously. Really?”

First things first. If you’re Italian, you can skip this part. If you live in Italy, you can skip this part. But if you don’t know what INTIMATE SOAP is, then, yes, this primer is for you.

First time I came to Italy 12 years ago, I was about as “deer in the headlights” as they come. MAN WAS I NAIVE.

So I had no frickin’ clue what the bidet was for. And Lord knows I am not getting into the particulars of that here. I might have some free time on my hands, but not that much free time. Other people have covered that ground already, anyways:

How to Use a Bidet: 7 Steps (with illustrations) Why is the woman on the bidet backwards here?? And I’ve never seen a bidet with “jets” in Italy. It either fills up the basin like a sink, and you splash, or it comes directly out of the faucet and you can adjust the direction.

How to Use a Bidet “Step 1: Use the Toilet. This step is self-explanatory.” Wow. Thanks. I might have forgotten that one.

An Idiot’s Incomplete Guide to the Bidet “Editor’s note: Warning: Inevitable, perhaps obligatory, bathroom humor ahead.”

A video of an Italian demonstrating use  (fully clothed, mind you!) presumably to Spanish tourists.

OH DEAR GOD. If you speak Italian, this is like a train wreck. I have no idea why this dude was verbally explaining the process of taking a shit and what to do subsequently (probably to foreign students studying Italian in Italy), but it is absolutely comic gold and bizarrely compelling. This also makes me happy to be divorced without any men using bathrooms in my house. But seriously, I would so go on a first date with this guy it’s not even funny. If you can give a talk like this, yes, you are the man for me. Love you already.

But, no, no. I don’t need to write a “How To” guide, you see. My precious free time will be spent instead talking about a much more technical and puzzling issue to me: the SPECIAL SOAP you use for the bidet. Yes, that’s right. The intimate soap.

Frankly I think it’s all a bit of a marketing ploy, but I’m not a licensed gynecologist so I have no idea if the actual pH of my soap makes a difference. The dude in the train wreck video simply said the all-purpose Italian phrase they use for any maxim they espouse without exactly knowing why they do it: “Perchè fa male.” (“Because [using the hand soap for the bidet] is bad for you.”)  I’m sure laboratory tests have shown it to be so. Suffice it to say, that in addition to the bidet itself, there is a special soap that you buy for the bidet that is called detergente intimo, so now not only do you have to have hand soap for the bathroom and dish soap for the kitchen but don’t forget the bidet soap too.

Now. That would all be fine and good, if it were to end there. But you see, folks, what I discovered yesterday is that now the marketing geniuses have come up with a special bidet soap for GIRLS AGES 3 to 12.

That’s right. I, proud mother of twin almost-four-year-olds, am apparently the perfect target for Tantum Rosa Detergente Intimo 3-12 anni.

Besides the pink and blue fishies, I really have no clue why I should buy special soap just for my girls. Especially knowing that they’ll just dump it all into the bidet and act like it’s a bathtub for their Barbie dolls. Although I will admit that I’ve taught Paola the joys of using the bidet for the time-honored summer ritual “foot bath” and so sometimes she says “Mamma, mamma, foot bath!” and that’s good times. But let me just translate what the box says:

Rich in natural hydrating, moisturizing and soothing substances – Helps to prevent redness and small intimate discomforts

You know what though? I admit it. I will admit that I buy special bidet soap. I do. Just like I cover my neck if I’m not wearing a scarf when a cold gust blows by, or just like I don’t drink cappuccino after dinner, or just like I don’t cross arms when I toast glasses in a group. I’ve “gone native” a bit.

But I have no real idea if there’s even a point to it. It’s sort of like the bottled water thing here in Italy. Rome has like, the best tap water ever, (ok, high calcium content, I know), and yet there are about a bazillion different brands of bottled water at the stores, all with their own marketing pitch.

That’s all. I just wanted to make you aware of this phenomenon. You can go about your other business now. (Why don’t boys get their own bidet soap? Wait. Don’t answer that.)

How to Take a Taxi in Rome Without Getting Ripped Off, 2nd ed.

13 Feb

Well folks, nearly 4 years and 78 comments later, I can unfortunately confirm that one of my most popular posts continues to reflect one of the biggest challenges to visitors here in Rome: How to Take a Taxi in Rome and Not Get Ripped Off.

Most of the information in that article is still accurate and relevant, but here’s version 2.0.

1. How to Get a Taxi in Rome

I think most locals would agree with me that hailing a cab isn’t as frequent a way to get a taxi in Rome as it might be in other cities. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever hailed a cab here, and many a time I’ve watched as tourists get frustrated by what they consider as rude Roman cab drivers who don’t stop when they are signaled from the curb. Many taxi drivers in Rome operate with a radio service and therefore are already on their way to pick someone up or already have someone in the car. Here are some ways you can get in the door:

Text Message
If you have a cell phone, this is the easiest way I’ve found so far to get a licensed radio taxi. This number is for the 3570 company; if you know of others that are reliable, please share in the comments section.

Send a text message to the following number: 366 673 0000 (I’ve never tried this from an international phone so I’m not sure if it works, but if you want to give it a go, then you’ll need to first put the international prefix +39)

In the body of the text message, type the following: Roma, [insert address here, for example Via del Tritone 113]

That’s all. Then the service will text you back when they begin the search for the taxi, and another text when the taxi has been found, listing the taxi name, number, and wait time.

Phone Call
This was pretty intimidating to me in the beginning, since I didn’t speak or understand Italian well. Each radio taxi company has a number you can call to request a taxi.

City of Rome “ChiamaTaxi” (Taxi Call Service) Dial 06 06 09
Call and clearly state the street name and building number where you need the cab, and the computer system automatically sends the call to the taxi stand nearest you. The cab driver will then confirm and the caller will receive notice of how long the wait will be.

Other reliable Rome cab company phone numbers (dial 06 before each): Coop. Autoradiotaxi Romana 3570; Radio Taxi 6645; soc. La Capitale 4994; soc. Tevere 4157; soc. Cosmo 88177; coop. Samarcanda 5551

Taxi Stand
You can identify these by the orange “TAXI” sign. Passengers wait in a line (theoretically—remember, this is Rome) and the first cab in the line takes the first passenger in line. Sometimes if the line is all a jumble, you might have to ask the drivers “Chi è il primo?” (Who’s the first in line?) to know which cab to get into.

Printable list of Rome taxi stands and addresses

2. How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off

Reiterating in brief the points from my previous article:

– Only take city-authorized cabs. They have the “SPQR” city coat of arms on them and a taxi sign on top. I recommend radio taxis (those that have clearly marked phone numbers on the outside doors) because they work with a radio cooperative, not independently, and therefore are less likely to risk ripping you off since their dispatcher knows their fares and you should have recourse for any problems.

– Note the name and license number of the cab driver or cooperative on the inside back door (a small placard will indicate this).

– Know in general where you are and where you’re planning to go, at least having looked at a map of the area or some landmarks for your destination.

– Don’t be shy about arguing if you know you’re being ripped off. Threaten to call the carabinieri (the number is 112). They’ll generally back off if they are being dishonest.

– Know the city-regulated set fares and tarriffs and don’t take a cab without a meter:

Airport fixed rates: 40 euro from Fiumicino to within the Aurelian Walls and vice versa; 30 euro from Ciampino to within the Aurelian Walls and vice versa

Otherwise, there is always an initial fare on the meter, as follows:

€2,80 from 7 am to 10 pm on weekdays
€4,00 from 7 am to 10 pm on Sundays and holidays
€5,80 from 10 pm to 7 am all days of the week

The first bag is free; excess baggage is charged at a rate of €1,00 per bag

If you’re going 12 mph (20 kph) or over, the taxi meter will go up 92 cents for every kilometer (just over a half mile) within the GRA ring road, or €1,52 if you’re outside the GRA ring road.

Wait time charges before cab arrives:

When you call for a cab, they will tell you how long the wait should be. The taxi meter starts from the time the taxi takes your call, which means the initial fare on the meter will be higher if you’ve called a taxi than if you get in from a cab stand. Here are the official city rules, within the city’s ring road, if the cab is supposed to arrive within:
5 minutes = €2
10 minutes = €4
more than 10 minutes = €6

No one is jumping up and down for joy about Rome’s cab service. A survey by the Italian Automobile Club revealed that Rome, along with Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Madrid, Prague, and Vienna, has an “unsatisfactory” rating for taxi service, based on factors like cost, respect for speed limits, unnecessary detours, red-light running, and aggressive driving. In fact, in the final rating report, Rome scored second-to-last, above only Ljubljana, Slovakia.

More depressing news is that, although there is an official form (here in English) for complaints, from my own personal experience, as with many bureaucratic things in Rome, it’s next to worthless. I filled out a complaint after having a really bad experience with a dishonest cab driver in Rome in December 2007, when I was nine months pregnant with my son and I had to ask the driver to stop where we were to let us out because he was cheating us and wouldn’t admit it. Nearly TWO AND A HALF YEARS later I received word that my complaint had been registered and the driver would be “reprimanded,” whatever that involves.

As if that weren’t bad enough, as I was writing this, I got tipped off by a Twitter user to this article that reports of a recent investigation revealing that some Roman cab drivers have rigged fare meters to help them earn up to triple what a normally sanctioned day of fares would earn. Apparently there are unscrupulous mechanics who, for €500, will “fix” the meter so that the meter goes much faster than normal, registering €1 for every 300 meters instead of the city-sanctioned 98 cents per 1 kilometer.

But truly, the easiest and cheapest way for cabbies to rip off passengers is simply to use “Tariffa 2” within the ring road city limits, as opposed to the cheaper and correct Tariffa 1. Or to turn on both and add them together!

This article on Slow Travel is still relevant and helpful, with photos illustrating the points I’ve mentioned.

Happy travels! And remember, not all cab rides are bad! I have some of my best conversations with cab drivers.

Free Wi-Fi Hotspots in Rome

9 Feb

Visitors to Rome often wonder where they can go to access free wi-fi. Rome isn’t necessarily set up like places that have a Starbucks culture of the “third place” concept, which can create difficulties for students who need to find places other than home or school to study and work, and for tourists who don’t have a place to access internet in their lodging.

One option that’s available requires an Italian cell phone number and an address, and it doesn’t even have to be a local Rome address. It’s the province of Rome’s free wifi network with over 300 access points throughout the city, and over 800 throughout the entire province of Rome!

Here’s a map to the wifi hotspots in this program.

It’s free and you can register online or at any of the points displaying the sign pictured at the top of this post. The registration form is in Italian. To register go to this page. Then after you fill out the form, you have five minutes in which to use the Italian cell phone number you registered with to call a local Rome number which verifies your cell phone number. After a couple rings and without having to talk to anyone, the system verifies your registration, and then all you have to do is use your cell phone number and password you chose when you registered, and you can access wifi at any of the points with your laptop, smart phone, tablet, etc.

If you are just visiting Rome for a short period and don’t have an Italian cell phone, I have a couple of personal recommendations of cafès in the center where you can sip your cappuccino and surf the web simultaneously: Chiostro del Bramante, Via Arco della Pace 5, and Circus, Via della Vetrina 5.

If anyone knows of any others that they’ve found in their travels through Rome, please share in the comments section!