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Living Slow in Italy - My Christmas List

Valerie Schneider

We have passed the six-month mark of our residency in Italy and have settled in, finding ourselves content and happy here. We are continually enchanted by the pace of life and the beauty that surrounds us, and are delighted by the foods and wines we get to partake of daily. The joy of discovery marks each day even in mundane activities as we learn to adapt to a different culture. All these pleasures are tempered by a few frustrations, however.

We are still trying to learn the language, a process that is too slow for my impatient nature. Some days we feel like we are treading water in the deep end of the pool to keep from sinking, endeavoring to understand and be understood. We struggle with tenses and wonder why one language requires three or more past tenses anyway. I speak slowly, trying to think through the proper verb conjugation, often resorting back to the present tense even when talking about the past whenever I get flustered or nervous, and I can see the tortured looks of incomprehension as the listener strives to grasp what the heck I'm saying. The locals have proved themselves incredibly patient with this linguistic slaughtering on my part, smiling and nodding and assisting me frequently, even pretending that I am quite conversant, going so far as to offer complimenti on speaking Italian molto bene, while completely ignoring the fact that I am desperating grasping my dictionary and am unable to twirl the r's or get my tongue around the double dipthongs.

Language and miscommunication provide us with daily humiliations and humor. But the real frustration to our adjustment process isn't linguistic, it's bureaucratic. Six months of waiting still hasn't produced our permesso di soggiorno. (By contrast fellow Slow Travelers Jane and Ken received theirs in about two months! To make us more jealous they even had an appointment in Firenze to pick it up. An appointment ... we could dream!)

The visas decorating our passports allowed us to enter the country for a year. Normal tourists can stay up to 90 days and then must take their baggage and leave. To be here officially for a lengthier period we need the permits. We dutifully went to the questura on our first day in the country, accompanied by friends Giorgio and Francesca, and went through the whole rigmarole of being finger-printed, weighed, measured (height) and questioned. We were given our ricevuto, a kind of receipt adorned with a tiny photo face-shot saying we'd applied for said permit. And then we began to wait. And wait. And wait.

We returned a couple times to inquire about the status. In August we were told that we'd "only applied in May" ... how could we possibly expect they'd be ready yet? Maybe September, he said. In September we repeated the drill armed with our friend Francesca, a gal who knows her way around bureaucracy. She demonstrated the perfect balance of Roman confidence coupled with complicity in the face of authority. She sweetly explained about our friends' quick paperwork and their coveted appointment in Firenze. Much gesturing and eye-rolling ensued. "Firenze! Mah! Firenze is piccolo piccolo! We are Rome! The province of Rome is grandissima!" He was red in the face and booming forth into a crackly microphone through the plexiglass window, entertaining (or perhaps frightening) a full room of foreign spectators behind me who were waiting their turns. "We have more than five milioni abitanti and a good part of the world trying to live here ..." he continued on a diatribe. "We are La Provincia di Roma! We are the center of the universe!" Bah ... he barked. Just wait. He turned his attention to the next person in line, signaling the end of our quest. Even Francesca seemed meek in the aftermath of his temper.

We continue to wait. It turns out to be all about location. We apparently applied in the wrong place ... Rome may be the center of the universe but they are a bureaucratic black hole. Another phone call at the end of November yielded a more patient clerk but she made it clear that the documents weren't ready and we should try again in December. Gee, maybe in time for Christmas?

So please, Santa, can you dig around in your bag and see if you have a bottle of WD-40? The wheels of bureaucracy in Italy are badly in need of a little grease. I don't need glitzy gifts, Santa. All I really want for Christmas is my permesso di soggiorno. I'd like to receive it before the time comes to renew it for another year. Oh, and maybe a box of Perugina Baci, because nothing soothes frustration quite like chocolate.

A Postscript

It's a Christmas miracle! Just after the December article was posted we received a call from friend Giorgio informing us that our names were on the coveted list ... our permessos were ready at long last. Elated, Bryan called to confirm and inquire about office hours during the holidays. He was a bit taken aback when she told him they were not ready. But we had been told they're ready! We're on the list! No, she said cooly.

Turns out she hadn't bothered actually looking at the list, but all is well that ends well, because we drove to Anzio to pick up the documents to find a major surprise: instead of the anticipated one-year validity (and the need to begin renewal paperwork immediately) we saw in bold black print the expiration date of November 2008. Can this be correct? Are our eyes deceiving us? "We better make sure before we leave," Bryan stammered. We asked the man behind the glass. He (gasp!) smiled and said, "si si, it is valid until 2008." Then, amazingly, he grinned and winked at us! We still aren't sure what that meant or how we garnered a bit of favor, but we're not complaining. In fact, we celebrated Christmas giving thanks for a little miracle occurring in a bureaucratic office. In Italy, of all places.

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2006

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