Qua’ siamo in Italia again. Or an optical odyssey.

In Italy you need to have an eye test when renewing your driving licence.

That’s good, isn’t it? And really, for a country where you take your life into your hands every time you get into a car, or step onto a road, quite surprising.

Until you hear how it works.

Obviously you have to go to the hospital, to the relevant “eye test for renewing driving licence” office, and there you have to book your appointment. There is a small fee to pa, known as  “the ticket” and obviously, you can’t pay that at the hospital. That would be too easy. You have to find a tobacconist who is able to accept your payment. Not all of them do. This is quite usual in Italy, paying for things in places you would never imagine. It stems from post-war governments trying to give as many people the chance to work as possible, rather like in Spain, where for many years all tobacconists were run by war widows. A noble experiment, but one which in the 21st century serves only to frustrate the hapless civilian who just wants to get things done NOW. You know, in the one place. Or heaven forbid, online…..

So here’s what happens once you’ve paid your “ticket”.

My friend went to her eye appointment and found herself in the hospital optician’s room along with other drivers needing licence renewals.

None of your hi tech optician’s equipment of the sort seen in Specsavers, oh no. Just a poster on a wall with ever decreasing in size black letters. Which everyone in the room sat and studied while the first to arrive stood behind a gaffer taped line on the floor and was told to cover up one eye. Which was a bit awkward, what with him being on his mobile throughout. He sort of wafted the mobile in the vague direction of the eye he was supposed to have covered up. The doctor didn’t seem unduly bothered.

My friend was absolved even of doing the test, as when she produced her glasses, the optician said there would be no need to test her eyes, as she had clearly already had them tested elsewhere. She waited for the doctor to produce the tablet interface for the requisite “digital signature” (the type the postman makes you use these days when he brings you a parcel) The doctor produced a piece of paper and drew 2 lines on it.

“Sign between the 2 lines”

” Erm, That’s not a digital signature?”

“It will be!”

And our doctor scanned the signature onto his computer to, indeed, render it digital. He used a scanner/printer of the type many of us have at home. Using his initiative you see.

To give her her own copy of the relevant document entailed my friend signing a form, which was scanned, and saved onto the computer, and then printed from a second printer also attached to his computer via usb. Seeing my friend looking bemused at the quantity of hardware needed for a simple document, the doctor asked her if she wanted to know why he was unable to print the document from the same machine that he had scanned the original with. But of course! The scanner/printer had no ink! And the poor doctor was unable to get any for it until the relevant and appropriate “public competition” had been held. In short, the Regional Health Department would have to publish, in many and varied places, and for a clearly stipulated length of time, and in accordance with so many laws and by-laws and rules and regulations that they take up approximately 8 pages of A4 every time anything, anywhere in Italy is put out to tender, an advert to find an ink cartridge supplier for its printers. You can only imagine how many weeks are wasted every time this happens. When someone could have nipped to Tesco to buy one. A cheaper one. Or logged on to Amazon. For a cheaper one still. But that’s not how things work here.

I have done many European Union funded afternoon projects in schools (the organization and implementation of which deserves, and will get, it’s own blog post) and at each one, all the students are presented with lovely folders, and pens, and rubbers. All purchased, with European money (ie yours) from a government, or regional government approved supplier. You can see the loophole here can’t you? That one that’s big enough for an elephant to get through? The supplier, and the region, and the school, and the parents, and you and I, well, we all know that it’s not our money buying that pencil at 25 times as much as a pencil would cost on Amazon, so who cares? It’s all been done completely above board, the supplier won the contract fair and square, so no-one can complain.

The Italian Health Service, when it works, is magnificent. I have a GP who I can call, 24/7, on her mobile. My one and only prescription, for migraine tablets, costs me about a quarter of what it would cost me in the UK. I can go to the local pharmacy to have my blood pressure taken and book a mammogram.

But if I want a photocopy of the document I’ve just had to renew, or a new pencil for my students, then the wheels and cogs are not just moving slowly, they are moving prehistorically. And sideways.

Lost in Translation 1 or “we wuz robbed”.

Handsome Swain went to collect the official photos from MiniNotTreading’s First Holy Communion yesterday. (That the photographer has been calling us for 3 months to go and get them is another story….)

I grab the bag from him and eagerly riffle through the pics, which are lovely. 15 full-sized ones, and then a “sample” (measuring about 3 x 4 inches, so a nice little extra) of each. And a free album to put them in.

He took 75 euro off me for those!!!”  expletes HS grumpily.

I say nothing, but reflect on the strange, and peculiarly Italian use and sense of the verb “take” here.

Because HS wasn’t saying “they cost 75 euro”. Oh no. He was inferring he’d been robbed. That the 75 euro had been extorted from him. Very much against his will. The 75 euro were taken, not given in a fair exchange for the product/service received.

I pointed out to him that we knew, when we ordered the photos, way back in May, that they were 5 euro each. And we ordered 15. With no prompting or bullying from the photographer. HS concurred and said he hadn’t meant it that way (he bloomin’ well had)  and it was just a modo di dire. (way of saying stuff)

But in Italy that doesn’t seem to matter, the fact that you know the price first. It is part of HS’s mentality, part of his upbringing, that whatever you pay is always too much.

I do private English lessons, and my tariff hasn’t gone up since they introduced the euro. Italy is in a financial crisis, a Great Depression, and I know that it’s better to ask for 15 euro and actually get  the clients, than ask for 20 and have people shake their heads sadly and tell me I’m too expensive. (“you know what she wanted to take from me?”) Despite this fact, and despite the fact that the local school of English charges more for a group lesson than I do for a one-to-one, people will always, but always, ask for a discount. They will ask for a discount on the basis that maybe I teach a different member of the family on a different day, or at a different time…the famous sconto di famiglia. And even when I point out that they may think they are deserving of a discount for their bulk purchases as it were, I am still working the same number of hours, they just don’t get it. They think I’m being pedantically British. I have learned that the best way round this is to mutter “Well, my normal price is 20, but seeing as it’s you, I can do you 15”. I have mortally offended one woman this year who asked me “is the price still 10?” because she paid 10 last year to a person who wasn’t a native speaker, wasn’t a graduate, and wasn’t me!!! I have sometimes said, and only half joking, that if I offered private lessons free of charge, some people’s immediate reaction would be “ooooh that’s a bit steep, can’t you do me a discount?”

Sometimes…..all I need is the air that I breathe……or maybe not…..

I don’t think I have read a single ex-pat blog that didn’t speak about the infamous “colpo d’aria“. The peculiarly Italian problem of the “hit of air”. The air that sneaks up on you unawares and lands you in bed with a “febbre” (fever, for which read any tenth of a degree over 36.5. 36.6? You have a fever my friend and need antibiotics forthwith. Trust me, I live in Italy.

Never ones for minimising a situation, a headache, a cold, a bad throat, all those minor, niggly symptoms (that let’s face it, beyond the borders of Italy can get you in any season, not just winter)  will have an Italian off work/school for a week, with antibiotics and anxious parents (even when the patient is in their 40s) wringing their hands with that kind of pseudo-relish at having a gory tale to tell, and letting the whole neighbourhood know that young (or old) Giuseppe is in bed with a febbre or influenza.

I had only been in Italy a few months when I got one of my migraines. Nothing dramatic, just a blinding headache that put me in bed for 24 hours. My friend let the English school know I wouldn’t be in when she went in for her lessons.

“Does she have a febbre?” asks the secretary.

“I don’t imagine so,” says my friend, “she’s got a headache”.

Hah. She comes home brandishing a thermometer. “Nieta says we have to see if you’ve got a febbre and she can’t believe we haven’t got one of these in the flat”.

After ringing Nieta to see where we put it, and what it was supposed to do, and what it was going to say if I did/didn’t have a temperature, we established that I was not, as the whole town was suspecting, feverish. Just headachey.

A few years later, and a different school, I had another migraine and asked Concetta to ring the businessman and cancel my evening class with him.

“NotTreading won’t be able to do the lesson this evening, she has influenza”

“Concetta, I do not have influenza, now he’ll think I was telling fibs when he comes in the day after tomorrow and finds me fighting fit! Why didn’t you just tell him I have a headache?”

Too easy.

I have to tell Handsome Swain off for using the excuse with his mother on a Sunday;

“We can’t come, la bambina has a touch of influenza”.

Now anyone who has ever really, truly had influenza knows that you don’t get a “touch” of it. You get a full-blown headlong crash-into-a-brick-wall occurrence and you are bedridden for days. Unless you are Italian, in which case you can get it about 4 times a month, all year round.

One summer I was working in a residential summer school, and the director came banging on my bedroom door about 2am:

“Get up, quick! There’s a medical emergency! We have to call an ambulance! One of the kids has a fever!”

I scrambled up and grabbed my clothes, thinking some kind of malarial nasty, or meningitis. Then I checked…..

“Erm, Mark, what nationality is the kid?”

“It’s one of the Italians”

“Go back to bed, he’s got a cold. Get the group leader to stick one of the suitcase full of suppositories she’ll undoubtedly have about her person up part of his person and we can all get some rest. Once his parents have telephoned every hour, on the hour of course.” Which they were doing anyway. But that’s another post.

Handsome Swain’s mammy is an old lady. Granted. But does she really need to be taken to A and E every time she gets a cold? Of course she does! It’s nearer than the doctor’s. And then we wonder why there are news articles about patients lying in A and E on trollies for days on end. Simples: because 75% didn’t need to be there in the first place. And the other 25% are not seen to when they should be because of this constant going-to-the-hospital mentality.

Everyone has the flu jab. Except us. And everyone gets flu. Lots. From the end of summer onwards, the news always has a little slot with some expert telling us when the “real flu” will arrive, and how bad it will be, and how many of us will end up in bed. This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the ones already in bed with it when the telly doc is telling us it hasn’t arrived yet have “pre-influenza symptoms”. Like their bodies are preparing them for the worst.

But back to air. In the summer they can’t get enough of it. Unless it is coming through a window, in which case, it’s also lethal in summer. At MiniNotTreading’s nursery show, June, 37 degrees outside, all the windows had to be closed because the mothers sitting too near would get hit by it and then get a cervicale. You wondered when I was going to talk about cervicale, didn’t you? I have been told other people’s headaches are worse than my migraines, because theirs are “cervicale”. Fair enough, it’s not a competition. Actually, at times, when I describe my headaches to Handsome, they do seem to fit in with the Italian definition of this Really Bad Thing. That sort of headache which reaches down into your neck and shoulders. –I think we’d call it a tension headache–  I do rather get off though on saying, in a voice laden with doom and gloom “I think I’ve got a cervicale”.

You don’t go out when it’s not summer though. Mini was born in October, and the following April, a pharmacist friend came round, gingerly sniffed the air (brave brave lady) and said “I think in a week or two, you can start to take her out a bit, in the mornings” (did I mention air goes bad in the afternoon? Even the paediatrician told me that) Mini was first taken out when she was 10 days old and we waited that long simply because I had stitches that made walking any distance ouchy. I didn’t dare tell the pharmacist though, in case she rang the social.

I have quickly learned that a cold, or a headache, will simply not cut it. If you tell them that’s what you have, then they will simply tell you that they have flu and cervicale. So if you get in first, you’re sorted. Sympathy all round.

Finally, you remember the lethal qualities of sweat? I will leave it to you to imagine the full horror of a child coming out of the gym, or the soft play, sweating to dangerous levels, and finding it’s November when they get outside giving a double-whammy of sweat and air.

What’s for dinner? Let’s have THINGIES!!!!

These are people who don’t just like their food fresh. They like it pulsating. They like the challenge of preventing their tea from making a last-minute bid for freedom. They like to think a good vet could revive it. There is, to the Brit abroad, something fundamentally Not Right about waiting for your dinner to die (or worse, having to help it on its way) but here, it’s a way of life.
I have been on a beach and watched while Handsome Swain scrambled about on rocks scraping thingies into a water bottle, and I’ve sat with the same water bottle held at arm’s length on the way home trying to stop the thingies from crawling up the sides and getting out. (Those particular thingies had an odd taste, a sort of cross between land and sea, meat and fish. Think salty soil)
I’ve set the table for English visitors and shared their horror as the sea urchins loving bought and cleaned by HS waggle their waggly bits as if in greeting. (They taste like bits of bath sponge soaked in salt)

Salty orange bits of bath sponge

Salty orange bits of bath sponge

And I learned long ago that you buy mussels and other molluscs fresh and eat them on the day. Because if you don’t, they eat your teatowels….. Our first Italian boyfriends took us to buy mussels one Saturday night and the mussel-man told us they would be fine the following day as long as we put them in a bowl of salted water, not in the fridge and covered them with a cloth. The cloth was a red teatowel, and the bowl was placed on the kitchen worksurface. All through the night I could hear splish-splosh-splash from the kitchen, and through my stupor imagined there was a dripping tap somewhere. Then we found the floor wet through, the mussels in half the water they had started off in, and half the red teatowel gone. (I don’t know if they tasted of teatowel.  We ate pizza.)

Still under the impression that tomorrow was theirs....

Still under the impression that tomorrow was theirs….

Razor clams and crayfish are the worst I think…..Something about the wormlike nature of the razor clam, or the way it shrinks in horror when lemon is squeezed along its wormy body. Or perhaps it’s the fact that the crayfish has proper eyes, living eyes, that look at you from out of its plastic bag.

razor clams who think that if they shrink as small as they can, we won't notice them...

razor clams who think that if they shrink as small as they can, we won’t notice them…

Whatever, love Italian food as I do, I prefer my fish to be fish shaped, and to have been dead for at least a few hours, and by someone else’s hand, before I pick up my cutlery.

Qua’ si fa cosi’- The Child’s Birthday Party

My American friend and I, and our two young children, were invited to a 2 yr old’s birthday party. Now, generally speaking, a child’s birthday party in Italy is rarely, if ever, organized with the child in mind, but is planned with lavish and military precision for the benefit of older extended family- some of whom will finish work at 9pm, or will have had a 4 hour sleep after lunch, or been made to travel from far flung towns… It’s thus by no means unusual for a child’s birthday party to begin at 10pm…

We were therefore very pleasantly surprised to be summoned to our friend’s country house (totally not as posh as it sounds- these places are small cowboy built bungalows with few amenities and are used just for the day and only ever in summertime) at midday.

We were discombobulated on our arrival to catch not one teasing glimpse (or indeed sniff) of huge steaming foil-wrapped  packages of lasagne the size of football pitches. Instead there was just a couple of discount store carrier bags full of those cotton woolly sweet burger van bread rolls  and  2 packets of boiled ham. Hmm. We were swiftly handed bendy plastic knives and instructed to set to with the buttering (except the butter was, in fact, mayonnaise). Our friend did unwrap a focaccia which was placed proudly in the centre of the table….but oh dear, it was a home-made one…..Now, focaccia is a truly wonderful thing and one of my favourite Italian food items, but why make a wheel at home out of old bits of rubber and sticky backed plastic when there’s a Dunlop on the corner? Home made focaccia is bloody horrible. And all these illegal no planning permission country houses are probably built out of it. Whenever there is a “do” the inevitable clamour will arise “Well, I can bring a few home-made focaccias” – and everyone mentally books their dental appointment for the day after. Earlier this year at our church function there was a table visibly buckling under the weight of 24 focaccias (and 3 packets of cheesy wotsits that I had found in the back of the cupboard on my way out of the door)

As the ineffectual knives flicked mayonnaise and bits of cotton wool bread all over the assorted children, a car arrived containing the extended family… Well, what can I say? My American friend and I had laboured under the illusion that because our friend was nice to us, and didn’t have a problem with us being foreign, that her family would be the same. Hah! The  mother (who I recognised as one of the old biddies who rams their supermarket trollies up your backside and gets in front of you in the queue by pretending that a) you are wearing your invisibility cloak and b )there isn’t a queue) just stared and stared at us the whole day long and never spoke. The mother in law had obviously done really well in her mother in law school exams (and our only consolation was that she stared at her daughter-in-law’s family with the same level of utter disgust and hatred with which she stared at us)  and the  father had a wooden leg and smoked cigars all day and never spoke to anyone either.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any more qua’ si fa cosi’ there was an almighty crashing and bashing up the driveway and the Large Family arrived. My word, some homemade focaccia had gone down well in *that* household…Our friend’s sister, her teenage niece and a nephew (whose size and demeanour put him at about 9 but who turned out to be not yet 5 and still in nursery school despite being the size of a caravan). Giant teen thought me and my friend were mother and daughter, which went down well on my side given the 7 years between us ,and even when it had (slowly and clearly and with words of 1 syllable and a bit of sign language thrown in for clarity) been explained to her that we were not, she couldn’t quite get why we didn’t live together with us “being from the same place”. She was very interested in hearing about America though as she wanted to know which season “Beautiful” (a very popular and totally crap American soap that has been on Italian TV every afternoon for the past 485 years) was on in the States, but my dear friend, not having lived in the US for 12 years, and being in possession of more than one brain cell was sadly unable to enlighten her.

Of course there being Italian parents present meant there was a lot of worrying and hysteria about colds, temperatures, nappy contents, feeding times, nap times, dust and er, names for vaginas. One child fell asleep and there was a  United Nations style debate and secret vote as to whether her shoes should be taken off as “she’d been sweating and her feet might catch cold”

AT 5 pm everyone (except us) leaped up like some biological Italian inner alarm clock had just rung and yelled “it’s 5 o clock , get the yoghurts!!!!” and every child on the premises (except ours) had synchronised dairy stuffed in its face. This rather reminded us of another one of those what-the moments when, following the clocks going forward that Spring, every mother in the park took part in a lengthy and tormented soul search to decide if the daily portion of fruit should be given at the old 11 o’clock or the new.

We managed to escape early (before the next synchronised nappy content inspection became due) as I had a cleverly arranged doctor’s appointment to attend.

We drove off, for our darkened rooms and straightjackets,  leaving behind a flurry of sweeping brushes and protestations about children’s noses, which, as it was getting near on 6pm were about to start running copiously in approximation of some saint who cries real tears twice a year.

Things in Italy Which May Lead Me to Kill…….The Public Office……

You know the joke about Italian bureaucracy?

Now it would  take up an entire book to recall with utmost clarity and calm every single time I’ve stood in a public office mentally taking notes and thinking,  well, there’s another chapter for my book…. so…..I will give them to you in bite-sized chunks…

We’ll start with the Big One. The sine qua non one. The *Permesso di Soggiorno one…….

Let us return to the halcyon and innocent days of late September 1994…. fresh-faced and optimistic and oh-so-naïve….we were traipsed by our boss on 4 successive mornings to the *Questura in Bari to do our “Permesso di Soggiorno” (leave to remain document) and on 4 successive mornings we stood in a huge yard in the middle of a multicultural crowd not quite knowing why we were there, how long we would have to stay there, and if there were any chance at all of getting anywhere near the door to the building in which  we were supposed to be filling in the  forms…(whatever the forms were for)

On the 5th morning, Boss woman said “We are not having this! We are British!” (she actually used to say this, the royal “we” thing- all the time. But more about her another time) “We cannot be expected to stand out here with these….these……(waving her hand dismissively) *extracommunitari  “I will go and speak to someone.”  She hoiked her blouse down, thrust her bosom out, and stomped off through the crowd, to return minutes later to tell us she had “spoken to a *friend” and we could go straight to the office. Which we did, and filled in 397 forms asking for permission to stay in Italy. (we were to discover that our boss “spoke” to a lot of “friends” usually friends in uniform, or friends who had come banging on the door for money she owed them)

Never has the term “it’s not what you know, it’s who” been more relevant than in Italy. It’s called being “*raccomandato” in Italian and it’s how people get jobs, (especially civil service ones) hospital appointments and to the front of the queue at the Questura.

In this case, I do think our being British TEFL teachers and our boss thrusting her knockers at her “friend”  rather than Moroccan labourers and farm workers probably helped with our raccomandazione.

We were somewhat perplexed when one Friday evening a few weeks later a leather knee booted  policeman came striding officiously through the English school brandishing our permessos. Mine was for 5 years, one of my male colleagues was for 1 year, my British but born abroad friend’s was delayed for further enquiries, and our Irish colleague’s never did materialise until he schlepped back off to the Questura to be raccomandato’d all over again.

The laws changed a few years later, and now, as an EU citizen (although try and tell the more obtuse  office workers that Britain might not use the Euro but is still in the EU and watch their wee faces contort in confusion until they have to go and ask “the director” for advice. (Obviously, the director won’t be in his office, he will be down the road in a bar, or doing his shopping, or his second (and highly illegal) job- so you will, of necessity, have to come back another day, thrusting your own bosoms at the “friend” you have contacted in the meantime. )

And I don’t need a Permesso now.  I need a Carta Europea.

With me so far? Let me explain the difference as I have understood it. (Using the term loosely, of course. Italian officialdom is not there to be understood, it is there to be accepted with a Latin shrug of the shoulders, with a nonchalent *“vabbe’ qua’ e’ cosi”, and with the secure knowledge that whatever office you are in, someone, somewhere will be able to raccomandare you…..)

I no longer have to go and stand in yards with immigrants from further afield. I get to go to the local police station (and try to convince them that the UK is in Europe)

The Carta Europea cannot be rescinded (unless I commit high treason or something, and even then it would take the judiciary so long to decide my bureaucratic fate I’d probably be long dead anyway) and it cannot be refused. The Italian state cannot not give me one. They cannot tell me I am not worthy. The one I have will not run out.

Er, hold on a minute with that last one…..

I have mine in front of me now, and there is a big black stamp saying TEMPO INDETERMINATO on it. I seem to have indefinite leave to remain in Italy. I say seem to…..because if you glance upwards, it also says the document expires in 2009. Or rather expired in 2009. I only just noticed that. I wonder if I am an illegal immigrant now? <wibble> My bosoms are now very much menopausal and post childbirth and several years of breastfeeding and I’m not sure they are up to being thrust into bureaucratic faces in the hope of a leg up. As it were….

I think it’s best summed up thus: I legally have the right to this document. The legal right to the document doesn’t run out, but the document itself does. And I am running 4 years late to renew it.

Reader, I may be gone some time…..


Permesso di Soggiorno: Residence Permit (Not to be confused with Certificato di Residenza- that’s something different!) Equates to UK “leave to remain”.

Questura: Big police station type of place. (Not to be confused with all the other 749 types of police station places)

Extracommunitari: Non EU Citizen. (Not to be confused with UK citizen, but try telling the lobotomised personnel in the public offices that. The connotation however is more akin to “nasty dirty furriner who is here to steal our jobs, our mammies and sisters and pasta mountains” and is usually said with a lowered voice and slight shudder as though merely speaking the word somehow contaminates a person. Extracommunitari are always the people who run people over when drunk (see previous blogpost on pedestrian crossings) (unless of course the runners-over are Italians and the dead people are Extracommunitari, in which case it doesn’t make the news)

Friend: Obviously an English term, but again, here connotation is all. In Italy, and when voiced within a 3 kilometre radius of a public office it means “the person to whom I am going to offer money or sexual favours to get us to the front of this goddamn queue”.

Raccomandato: You can send letters like this. Think about what it means if you are a parcel. You get there quicker, and more securely, but it costs a wee bit more. That’s how it works for humans in queues as well.

Vabbe’ qua’ e’ cosi’: What can you do? Life’s shit and then you die. (loose translation)