Posted by: 4initalia | March 3, 2009

Permesso, Signore

We have a visa that lets us stay in Italy for one year. But now that we’re here, and under the protection of Italian privacy laws, we are required to register our address with every government office in Italy. The most important registration is with the State. We need a Permesso Di Soggiorno, permission to stay, which may entitle us to free medical care, but definitely entitles us to taxation. This seems like a wash, but without it, we can be deported. To get the Permesso, you go to four hundred obscure government offices, take numbers that are never called, and wait in line until you realize that what you really need is a form from the post office.

Since the post office is open only fourteen minutes a week, it takes another month before you can actually obtain a copy of the form. Then you need a marca da bollo (a cool sticker that shows you paid taxes to process the form) from a tabacchieria, and a copy of every page of your passport, including the blank ones. Especially the blank ones.

You take the completed Permesso form to the post office. A postal employee scrutinizes your documents, then sneeringly insists that you need certified copies of the blank pages of your passport. When you finally provide a suffiently large stack of blank paper, a postal official asks for 70 euros. Then he stomps his rubber stamp over everything on top of the counter, including your application, his credit card machine, and all of the fingers of your left hand. In the grande finale, he gives you a pile of receipts to certify that you have just completed a huge transacation for no apparent reason. The end goal of this application process is that you get a meeting with…dun dun DUUUNNNN…the Questura.

The Questura is a cross between police headquarters, Immigration, and Darth Vader. You are supposed to meet with the Questura within eight days of your arrival in Italy. The fact that it takes a month just to find an open post office and another month to get an appointment doesn’t weigh heavily on the conscience of the Questura. But you start out knowing that you’re already so far past the eight-day deadline that you’re probably going to be deported no matter what you do.

All fear the Questura. Expats who live here simply advise: “Humble yourself.”

About a month after we submitted the form to the Post Office, we received a letter from the Questura which set the time for our appointment. Mine was for 9:48 a.m. on March 2nd, Andy’s for 10:48. I assumed that I would spend an hour being beaten about the head and neck by Fascists, who would demand my documents and ask me to sing songs with a Mussolini-related theme. (Would train songs work?) So I dreaded the meeting, and wondered how I would pack for deportation. Do they give you toothpaste? Would FedEx forward my bank card to a rendition facility?

This morning, the day of our dreaded appointment, Andy woke me by fluttering the letter from the Questura in my face. “This letter says we need to bring four photographs.” Andy delights in delivering these news bulletins to me when it is far too late for me to do anything about them. For example, “Andrea, the train derailed about 40 miles back. It has now left the tracks and we are plunging into the ravine.” Why, thank you for the update. I’ll get out my grappling hook and crash helmet.

For this particular crisis, it was 7:18 a.m., and we needed to be at the Questura, with four photographs, in less than…oh, you do the math, I need to get dressed. In the United States, I know where to get passport photos: you hop into the car, walk into a drug store and in half an hour you have them. But here, the drug stores don’t do passport photos, you can’t even buy saline. For saline, I had to to go the optician’s. I’m four photos away from an Alitalia flight to nowhere, and don’t have a clue where to get them. A knot of horror bunches every nerve at the back of my neck: we’re going to be deported, and I’ll be at a rendition facility by sundown.

So of course I called Melanie Payge, who knows everything. She said: “The photo machines are at train stations, bus stations. Bring change. You’ll be fine.”

We got to the train station, found the machine, “Fun Fotos.” Apparently, the Fun Foto booth also doubles as a urinal. Eight euros later, smelling slightly like ammonia, we had our photos. I thought you weren’t supposed to smile, and the smell was starting to curdle my moisterizer. So my pictures were of a crazed wretch; I would have been better off with Nick Nolte’s Hollywood Boulevard mugshot. If I were the Questura, I would deport me just for looking so bad.

As we waited for the bus with morning commuters, an elderly man was scanning the crowd around him like a boxer sizing up his opposition. His frowning face was crushed into itself like a crumpled piece of paper. When he looked at me, the fist of his face clenched tighter. “Alright, I know I look bad!! I’m only here for a year! ” I wanted to shout, but our bus was leaving.

We reached the office of the Questura. I expected the jagged spires of the Palace of the Wicked Witch of the West, but it was in a nondescript brick building. Still, you could see where the flying monkeys get in and out of the upper windows. Huge block letters proclaimed our doom: “QUESTURA.” Surrender, Dorothy.

We walked into a large room, took a number, and got in line. Okay, no, because there are no numbers, no lines. The crack team of efficiency engineers at the Questura designed a perfect service delivery system. On the wall at the back of the room there is an electronic number board. But it was turned off. On the left, near the electronic board, there were people sitting in plastic chairs. On the right there was a wall with a single open doorway. Through the doorway you could see a counter: the lair of the Questura.

There was no numbering system, and no line. There were around forty people of many nationalities waiting, in various states of terror and hopelessness. Most of them were standing by the doorway, and it was swollen with people, like an anthill just after a kid has dropped a lollypop on top. The room was silent, but it hummed with anxiety in many different languages. We took a place at the back of the mob, but a kind man with soft sienna eyes motioned to Andy that we should move to the front.

We stood at the open door, but had no idea what to do.

It was 9:45 and my appointment was in three minutes, but there was no indication that anyone knew I was there, or cared. Through the doorway you could see that the customer service counter was shielded to the ceiling by bullet-proof glass; a sure sign that the customer is always wrong. There were four sportellos, windows, but only three officials to serve a crowd that swelled as we stood there.

Behind the officials there were open stacks of files, on shelves. I wondered if those were the files of the people about to be deported, and if my file was in that stack. But there was no one to ask, and no signs telling you what you were supposed to do. I watched and listened, hoping for a clue.

The official in Sportello Uno, a man with a marvellous mediterran face in shades of olive and deep brown, spoke English. At his window was a sturdy black woman who spoke English and Italian. Sportello Uno asked for a series of documents, and she fed him a steady supply; that seemed to satisfy him. But eventually he hit on a document that she didn’t have. “A casa” she said, and she was punted from the window. “Come back tomorrow.”

In Sportello Two, directly in front of me, was an attractive official with dark eyes and a stern face. His victim seemed to have completed the process; he was asked to provide a photo and a fingerprint. To the right, in Sportello Three, was a snub-haired balding blonde with a distinct Nazi flair. His default face was set on grimace, and he got nastier with each change of expression. I wondered if we could substitute his photo in my application. But he was working some poor soul over, and yelled over every document; I sensed he wasn’t open to questions of a personal nature.

While we were standing in front of the doorway, trying to figure out how to proceed, the person who had finished with Sportello Two indicated that I was supposed to step toward the windows. When I hesitated, I got an extra flurry of a wave. The Fates were against me: at that moment, the only available official was Sportello Numbero Three, at the Gates of Hell.

Fearing deportation for being late for my appointment, or for having a bad photo, or just for breathing, I stepped toward Signore Nazone, and held out my Questura letter like I was offering raw meat to a rabid tiger. He grabbed the letter and exploded with fury, then shouted “Outside! Wait!!” He put the letter in a stack on the counter in Sportello Number Four. Sportello Number Four was the filing system for the entire operation: a pile of papers held down by a half of a painted coconut.

I stepped back in terror. Well, this was going well so far. “I’ve been working on the raaaaillroad…” Signore Nazone bellowed something, apparently a name. He had a microphone directly in front of his face, but he didn’t use it. His voice was loud but impossibly muffled, like a pillowcase of rocks being thrashed against bricks.

The doorway was cut into an otherwise unbroken plaster wall. The doorway was only three feet wide, and the waiting people were fanned out beyond the doorway, behind the plaster wall, twelve or fifteen feet away from the officials further muted by a plexiglass barrier. When Mr. Nazone yelled “RMPRHS RNRFF MNRFFF!!” he didn’t get a lot of takers. So more people crowded into the small space in front of the counters trying to hear the announcement of the names. Mind you, they were too petrified to actually approach the windows, but unless you were directly in front of the doorway, you couldn’t hear anything but your own crazed heartbeat. “MPHFHPH MPPFFHH!!” he shouted, and a lone victim with bionic hearing slowly advanced toward Sportello Numero Tre.

Mr. Nazone barked at every document, and then yelled some more. The supplicant was ordered to stand against the doorway. The doorway had a yardstick on it. Maybe he was trying to decide if the man was as tall as his passport claimed, or maybe he was measuring aorta height for the firing squad. I couldn’t tell.

More people crowded in, completely randomly. Some approached the counters and were served by the first two officials, some dropped their letters onto the counter at the Filing Department at Sportello Numero Four, but after a few minutes Mr. Nazone waved them off, and then shouted: “Get outside! Wait outside! I said it fifty times!!”

Humble myself? I was about to wet myself. I had an appointment, but no idea when I would be called; for all I knew, they were calling people who had been standing there for three days. I was hoping that I wouldn’t be called by Mr. Personality, because I would have cracked way before the waterboarding started. He had my letter, and I had weak knees. But I also had a smirk on my face that would have gotten me thrown out of eighth grade assembly. Here, it would get me hard time in a Turkish prison.

I have a horrible time with authority. I quit the Camp Fire Girls because I can’t do anything in unison, like recite the CFG creed and wear a uniform. But overbearing authority makes me laugh. In a room full of petrified people and a guy who thinks he’s Joseph Stalin, I giggle: I’m not going to surive a review of my papers. If Numero Uno called me, at least I could speak English; he could assure me that the torture methods they were going to use at the deportation facility had been personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld. If it were Numero Due, his eyes were a distraction from my fate. But if Numero Tre called me, I was doomed.

Sportello Numero Due, the only official directly in front of the doorway, so of course the only one who actually used a microphone, enunciated clearly into the mike. And thankfully, he called my name. I stepped forward. He was so attractive that I didn’t want to spoil it for all of us by showing him my photo. He wanted my passport. No problemo. He wanted my phone number – now we’re getting somewhere, but because I was too afraid to speak, I showed him that it’s written on the back of my phone. And then he asked about our kids.

So that’s it, they are going to take the children. Maybe Donald Rumsfeld can make them do their homework. Lacking photo evidence, Sportello Due didn’t believe we actually had children. “Where are the children?” he asked. At school, I answered. This seemed to please him. The muscles of his face, which seemed as tight as a ball of elastics, loosened slightly. Oh, he is human!

“You need to bring photos of the children.” Of course I knew that, because it was written in the application. Or in the letter from the Questura. Okay, no, it wasn’t. Andy approached the counter, showed Numero Due his letter. “Do I need photos of the children, too?” “Yes. Bring them to me, on Wednesday. At 8:30.” He took out a form, wrote the date and time of our next appointment, and added: “Bring photo of son.” I helpfully pointed out that we also have a daughter, and he actually smiled. A smile from the Questura is a rare and wonderful thing.

I looked back behind us, at the crowd in the doorway. There was a mass of humanity, fanned out, hoping to catch a clue as to what to do, all terrified. These are the crowds that climb onto trains because someone tells them to do so. And these were the people who told Andy and me to go to the front, to drop off the letter. Maybe they had been standing there since the plexiglass partition was built over the counter. And yet I got a smile from the Questura. And an invitation to do it all again on Wednesday.

We’re outta here, Toto.


  1. What you have written about Modena and Italy is so accurate and funny and delightful. I am an expat who has lived here for over thirty years and every single one of your entries rings true to me. I will mentally conjure up the images you use to describe post office clerks and those who work for Vodaphone time I get grief from them. The slug lip is a great one!

    • Thanks so much, Jacqueline! I adored every minute in Modena – and I can’t wait to go back! Where do you live?

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