Anyone who has spent more than a brief stay in Italy has likely had some sort of experience dealing with the Italian bureaucracy.
Whether it’s studying abroad, getting a visa or even getting a speeding ticket as a traveler, the system is draconian. Blogs detailing the horrors of the Italian bureaucracy abound from a more positive take on a nearly comical dialogue at The Not Just Another ‘Dolce Vita’ to Jennifer Walker’s blog on the subject titled, Seeking Italian Citizenship “why Italian bureaucracy is like being the hero in your very own role playing game.”
It’s an Italian tale as old as time, or at least as old as the state itself. It’s a tale that can be vexing for Italians and infuriating for those used to relative efficiency and clear cut rules.
I’ve dealt with the Italian bureaucracy for a student visa, a permit of stay, a driver’s license, state ID, residency and a marriage license. Not to mention the “small” but just as emotionally tumultuous dealings with the more common public offices, like the post office. It’s not uncommon to take a full day off of work just to finish the small errands at any of the public offices opened only from 9-5, or more commonly 9-12:30 (unless of course it’s a Tuesday or a Thursday in which case they only open the afternoons or the first Monday of every month when they are closed….you get the idea.)
With that in mind, there are some things you can do to handle the bureaucracy in day-to-day life.
1. Bring a book or a well-charged cell phone.
When dealing with any government office (Department of Motor Vehicles, Post Office…) give yourself at least three hours of time.
‘It will just take 15 minutes,’ you thought. ‘I just need one tiny stamp,’ you thought. ‘I can still make it to lunch.’ First rule of thumb is to remember that it will never “just take 15 minutes”. First you’ll have to choose the correct ticket stub out of the 3-8 vague options. If you mess up, you can kiss lunch goodbye. Then, you must sit and wait for at least 20 minutes, but up to an hour or more for more significant offices, like social security or immigration. The numbers will be called excruciatingly slow. Old people will try to cut the line and your ticket stubs letter will always be the one with only one worker who seems to love coffee breaks. It’s best to view the time as a chance to send emails, read a book or get to level 151 on your latest iPhone game.
2. Hold your cards close to your chest.
If you come unprepared, they won’t be happy. If you’ve come prepared, they won’t be happy, and will likely add more items you need. Don’t take away their power by arriving with a well-organized folder of each document, they’ll simply invent new documents that they want or need. Instead, play to their game. Ask them what you need with genuine interest and slight worry. Get them talking about how much better Puglia is than Milan and in between stories, ask an ever-so-small question that will get that document signed, then the next. By then, the other half of the “mandatory” documents won’t even be necessary and you’ll be on your way with some grandma’s dearest recipe.
3. Be prepared to come back later.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. No one wants to do the 30 seconds of work it takes to complete a task in that moment. Leave your paperwork and come back later. Sometimes it’s because you’ll need something else that you just don’t have on you. Other times it’s because after visiting office a you must go to office b for something, then bring that back to office a to finish. Of course the offices are nowhere near each other and open on incompatible days. You’ll have to come back later.
4. Dates and times are irrelevant in bureaucracy.
“One day” means three. A week means three weeks. An hour likely means three hours. Just as you can expect your Italian friends to show up within a half an hour of the time they told you, you can expect bureaucracy to not deliver in their first timeframe. If you’re waiting for a city pass for your car, make plans to use public transportation for at least a month, but know that it will be closer to two. If you should get a pin in the mail for your online social security profile, know that it will probably be lost along the way and you’ll have to begin again from step one. This step isn’t so bad, as long as you’ve accepted to simply ignore the given timeframes.
5. Remember that they are more powerful than you.
A bureaucratic job is one created out of thin air to give a citizen a paycheck. It bogs down the money, slows the economy and exasperates everyone, but hey! at least it’s one less person on unemployment! In any case, these people understandably hate their jobs. They listen to dumb people complain about things they themselves don’t understand day after day, and their only silver lining is the small power they have over said dumb people. They are behind the computer. They can complete the transaction or not and they want to be sure you know it. Remember their thirst for power and play up to it. Flattery works. Commiserating works. Heavy sighs and eye rolls do not.
There’s no one-size-fits-all for dealing with Italian bureaucracy. Those living here fight it from the beginning, well into late adulthood. My 93 year old Italian grandmother has even put a bureaucrat or two in their place over mistakes made to her pension plan. (She told them to look her in the eye when she talks to them, then proceeded to rip into them for seemingly taking advantage of old people because they think they’re too old to notice)! Mostly, you just need a bit of humor and an ocean of patience. With that, you too can deal with Italy’s bureaucracy.
Surviving the Italian Post Office
Why would someone want to retire in Italy? My short answer? Because I fell in love!