Posted by: 4initalia | March 19, 2009


I am easy to spot in Modena. I’m the only person, who is not actually bolted into an iron lung, who is not smoking. And I have a transcendent smile after the most innocuous transaction. Everything is different here, and I have to figure out how to do the most basic things. For example, keeping the cellphone stocked with voices.

At home, you sign up for a calling plan that promises unlimited calls to every nook and cranny of the atmostphere, for less than four cents a day. And if you “bundle” phone services, and add cable tv and high speed internet, you save so much money that you can quit your job and eat gold nuggets for breakfast. Of course, it’s all a hideous lie. I bundled and saved, and my phone bills were so high I assumed the phone company had confused me with NASA. But at least I understood the basic theory behind phone operation.

In Italy, it is theoretically possible to get a land line, but to do so involves so much paperwork you’d have an easier time getting permission to reopen Chernobyl. Here everyone has a cell phone, and just as you walk down the street in a constant haze of secondhand smoke, you’re in a constant buzz of secondhand phone chatter.

But cellphonese sounds better in Italian. “Dove sei?” (Where are you?) “Nella Esselunga” (In the supermarket) sounds a lot cooler than saying the same thing in English, especially when the people saying it are gorgeous Italians wearing fabulous shoes. And even when a bicylist is veering toward me, one hand gesticulating into a cell phone and the other wildly waving a cigarette, I am cheered I will be ground into the sidewalk in such a charming manner.

I bought our cellphones in a burst of bravado a few weeks after we arrived. When you buy a phone here, you buy a microchip that is fueled by euros and keeps track of how much money is still left on your phone. There are different companies, like Vodafone and Wind, and you have to choose one. So this tech-savvy shopper went online, carefully researched the phone companies to determine the best price and most efficient service. Okay, no: when we first arrived, and I was in a jet-lagged stupor, my friend Melanie Payge, who knows everything, told me to buy a Vodaphone with a Sim card. Weirdly, my reptilian brain held on to that information, so in the mall, I found a store that sold Vodaphones and Sim cards.

The phone store was full of options. When I found a phone that seemed capable of incoming and outgoing calls, my techno-needs were met. But Alex had his heart set on an iPhone that doubled as an aircraft carrier. For Alex’s sake, I upgraded to the camera phone model. But anything that this phone could do, including taking photos, it would do in Italian, and I would do in English. If there was any issue with the phone, I assistance…does anyone else see a problem here?

The phone store clerk was young and thickish and mean. She worked in the mall only because there were no jobs available for people who like to club baby chickens. As I pointed to the Amishly uncool phone I wanted, the clerk’s eyes diallated in contempt: that woman was destined for a career at the post office. I told her I wanted Vodafone and a Sim card, and her lower lip curled down into a slimy slug of a frown.

“How many euros on the card???!”

“Twenty five.” I said, but her tongue uncoiled and lashed, aiming toward the side of my head: “NO! Only twenty, or fifty!! NOT twenty five!!”

“Twenty, then.” I said, wishing I had a salt shaker to discourage further displays of the inside of her lip.

She put the phones on the counter, and I gave her my debit card; those were the heady days just before my card stopped working. She asked for identification, so I showed her my Colorado license. Check.

“Codice fiscale?” That’s my tax code number, which the Italian goverment considers so private that I need to show it to use a public bathroom. Check.

“Passport?” Check mate.

Why of course I had my passport, I also carried the hospital bracelet from the day that I was born, just in case I needed it to buy electronics.

“I must see your passport.” Her lower lip was doing a little happy slug dance, and I wondered if DDT was still available in stores.

“I don’t have it with me,” I said, and she swept the phones off the counter. They were the size of thimbles so it wasn’t all that much of a dramatic gesture, but still my failure to complete yet another simple task settled like coffee grounds into the chambers of my heart. Why does every transaction in Italy take fourteen trips and twentyseven pieces of identification?

I slogged back home for my passport, collected some DNA samples just in case, and trudged back to the mall. WHen I was finally allowed to buy the phones, I fired them up with twenty euro of conversation each. To this day I have no idea how much it costs to make a call, either locally or otherwise, so I use the phone only to chat with my bank about how they can’t send me either my debit card or an email. The first twenty euro lasted about a month, and 70 calls to my bank. When the euros ran out, the phone stopped working and I had to recharge the Sim card.

I had no idea how to recharge the Sim card, so I took the bus back to the mall and got the wench who sold me the phones to do it. But I was looking for love in all the wrong places, I was like an orphaned duckling who had imprinted on a piranha. I brought cash, a passport, my codice fiscale, and a salt packet. She recharged the phone, but she was contemptuous of my pathetic dependence and my mixed metaphors; I needed to charge my own phone.

When the phone ran out after another month and another 70 calls to my bank, I was determined to figure it out for myself.

There are recharge (ricarica) cards everywhere, at the grocery store, in phone stores, but I watched the phone store clerk install the microchip, and I didn’t understand how a plastic card fit into the microchip scenario. Technology is not my strong point, but I was desperate to avoid Phonezilla.

One day I noticed that tabaccherias also advertise phone recharge services. No wonder the clerks of tabaccherias are so so full of themselves – they do all the real work of Italy. Tabaccherias sell the tax stamps required to initiate an application for residence documents, sell postage stamps without the DNA sample required by the post office. They recharge cellphones. And they sell cigarettes, which is how all of these gorgeous people fit into all that fabulous clothing. All that’s left for tabaccherias to do is to sell coffee. If tabaccherias sold coffee, the rest of Italy could shut down completely. That must be why it’s fine with Italians when it so frequently does.

I entered the tabaccheria, asked for a ricarica, and the shop clerk asked for my phone number. I had written out the number and taped it to the back of the phone. I could be mute in this town, and I’d get along fine. I gave the clerk fifty euro, and watched carefully. Oooh, he calls the phone service and tells them to charge the phone. The plastic cards at the supermarket work the same way; there is a bar code on the back: you call the company, enter the numbers, and the phone is recharged.

I emerged with this new knowledge and a beautific grin. All of the brilliant smiles in Italian art were captured at the moment the model was able to complete a simple task. Successfully buying a potato, perhaps, or an eighty five cent stamp. I’ll bet that the Hallelujah Chorus was written after Handel successfully recharged his Italian cellphone. Completing a minor transaction here is cause for a monumental celebration.

A cappuccino is a great place to start.


  1. I LOVE reading your posts – thank you so much for writing them! Only you could make the frustrations and complications of living in Italy sound so funny. Whenever I read them, Tom knows because I start laughing out loud – then I read them to him.

    Love to you, Andy, and the kids – miss you all.

  2. Hi Andrea,
    love to read your story, too! But I have to tell you that it was a nightmare for me too to get my AT&T account here in the States, and this because as an Italian I don’t have a Social Security Card and no Credit History!!!!
    I have brought my own Iphone with italian VodaFone SIM with me and the only carrier who would give me a SIM here was AT&T.
    I think I have spent up to 10 hrs (I dropped in the shop 4 timed before I got the new mobile nr.) and had to pay 500 $ deposit for my Account, because I don’t have a credit score (I have never lived in the US before).
    We have paid deposit for almost every utility (energy, TV cable, Internet and phone connection) because of the credit score thing. In Italy they would check your salary bill or your bank account statement. Even for a store card (e.g.JC Penney) you need a credit score.
    I am so frustrated….
    The social security administration told me that I didn’t need a social security card for all these things, also for the driving licence exam.
    What did they request for my driving licence exam? Again: social security card!!! AIUTO! HELP!! As I couldn’t provide any, they requested a “letter of denial” from the social security administration…
    I agree when you say that Italian bureaucracy is everything but efficient (it took me 6 yrs that I had the registration of my marriage….it was like being not married for 6 yrs!!), but many things seem more difficult because there is a different or new logic behind the processes. Once you get the rules, it’s easier and you know what to expect.
    And a good cappuccino and the view on Ghirlandina di Modena or the Colosseo in Rome rewards your frustration.
    I think that italian people (I am Italian, too) somehow accept their chaotic day by day, because of the nice weather, the food, to savour all the beautiful surroundings and things we have.
    That is what I blame on Italy, if everything worked efficiently and if we had more civic sense, it would be one of the best places on earth to live!!!! Don’t you agree??
    Ciao, from the 5 Dolcis in the USA…

    • Linda, I totally agree with you – dealing with utilities in the States is crazy, too. But the American version is not even slightly funny. Before I left for Italy, I spent hours on the phone cancelling our cell phones, land lines, cable service. Over and over, I said “After December 31, we won’t be here, so make sure everything is cancelled.” Aaaand – they didn’t cancel my landline, so our tenant got a $300 bill. AAAiiii. I can understand your frustration – and I’d love help make it easier for you, so let me know if there’s anything I can do.

      Adjusting to a different culture is like being trapped in a game of Myst – every transaction is a mystery. In Italy I was constantly confused, but I found it very funny. And yes, a cup of cappucino and a view of something ancient and magnificent puts it all in perspective.

      Please let me know if I can help with any of this – and it may make you feel better to know that Americans are just as confused as you are!!

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