Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bella Bureaucracy


Bella Bureaucracy
            I just love idioms.  We certainly use them a lot but how they originate and what they mean exactly is sometimes lost, if not elusive.  Can you, for instance, believe something is from an authoritative source if it "came straight from a horse's mouth"?  Can we really "add insult to injury", making a bad situation even worse as the Roman writer Phaedrus first coined?
            There is another popular idiom many of us may be familiar with, "Close, but no cigar."  It captures the notion of falling just shy of a successful outcome and getting nothing, or very little, in return for our efforts.  It seems to have originated in the US and dates from the early 1900s when fairground stalls awarded cigars as prizes.  Essentially, you could knock over one too few milk bottles, your rifle shot misses that last speck of black in the bull's-eye or your hoop toss doesn't settle just right and come away empty handed, without a cigar, shy of the prize.  This turn of phrase pretty well characterized our experience following my recent attempt to obtain Italian citizenship, so evident by its prize.  The prize here, not a cigar but in its stead, an Italian passport!  This after a year of gathering the necessary documents, per stringent requirements, and a six month wait for an appointment.  I must admit I was close, close to my prize, but still I came away shy of citizenship, at least for now, as the well-oiled cogs of bureaucratic machinery continue to turn.  I’d come face-to-face, not for the first time, with bureaucracy, better yet, a Department of Paperwork par excellence, pardon my French.  Here again was bureaucracy at its finest.
            What exactly is a bureaucracy?  Is it catchy like the flu?  It certainly seems to be since there is just too much of it around, even now-a-days when modern managerial theory tries its darndest to inoculate us against it.  A quick look-up defines it as "administration marked by hierarchical authority" with as its hallmark "thoughtless allegiance to fixed procedures".  Not too flattering.  Over all of human existence, you can understand why it carries a negative connotation, a reputation justly earning, no doubt, in reward for its complexity, inefficiency and inherent rigidity.  Upset the process and it's as if you threw sand into well-oiled machinery, threatening to bring its complexity, inefficiency and rigidity to an abrupt halt.  I wonder how "to think outside the box" translates in Italian, not the words exactly, more so their inner idiom-like meaning?  To gain Italian citizenship, we were headed into a storm, literally and I fearfully sensed, figuratively.
            Indeed, a storm was brewing.  It was forming off the Carolinas and heading our way.  They call them Nor’easters where we’re from because that's the direction they move as they roll up the Atlantic coast.  As fate would have it, of all days, we were scheduled for my Italian citizenship application interview on the exact day the storm was to hit.  I’d waited a long time for this opportunity.  No storm was going to keep us from our appointment.  Instead with the weather being of inside-out umbrella ferocity, I worried that the interviewer, the person who would review my application package, grown about two inches thick by then, would decide not to come in.  With the weather to contend with, we pre-staged closer to our objective, the day before.
            It was difficult to sleep that night.  I was as hyped as the weathermen were.  Worries like would the alarm go off at 4:30 am, were my documents all in order, and of course, how bad would the storm really be, all added to my anxiety and kept my mind busy on and off most of the night.  A cold, spitting, misty, windy morning greeted us as we departed in the pre-dawn darkness.  Because of the precipitation, our car had a skim-coat of ice on its surface.  Black ice pocked some roads.  Other than that, the threat of snow hadn’t materialized.  Snowplows, though out in force, had little to do other than scatter salt on road surfaces.  I did my best to give them  wide berths (seems I can’t write this without using idioms!) every time we passed one on our way to the bus terminal.  With the forecast as bad as it was, we’d agreed to leave the driving to someone else and opted instead to take a bus.  Buses were spaced every ten minutes to handle everyday rush-hour demand.  Early as we were, we caught the first bus out at 5:50 am.  Not knowing what to expect, I'd opted for better early then late.  Needless to say, we arrived with plenty of time to spare.
            This was not our first visit.  Once, years before, we’d visited in hope of obtaining a Codice Fiscale.  We needed this card and its all-important fiscal code number in order to purchase Casa della Feritoia, today our get-away in Calitri.  That first visit was like a scene lifted from that Jack Lemon comedy, filmed on Ischia by the way, one I particularly enjoy entitled, “Avanti”.  In one particularly funny scene, the Italian coroner had a veritable portable office of hand stamps, pens, fiscal stamps, a ruler, a sponge (including a small bottle of water to moisten the sponge) and ink pads all coaxed inside his jacket.  In dramatic fashion he removes each item and conducts a sort of showy ceremony, his arms flailing away as he loudly goes about stamping pages, moistening gummy stamp mucilage and then fixing them to documents, which themselves needed the pummel of further stamping in a manner only officialdom could invoke.  All this time, Mr Armbruster (Jack Lemon), as is my tendency, is trying to speed up the process.  Unable to eliminate the red tape, his interruptions only succeeded in dragging the affair out longer.  Would our visit, that stormy day, be any different than Hollywood's version?
            The interview started right on schedule.  I’d clearly wasted a worry.  I was impressed, Mr. Interviewer had arrived in spite of the weather.  With the least of formality, approaching a pious air, he began paging through my assembled data pile, crosschecking here and there, silent but for an infrequent question or two.  One early concern centered on the possibility that the Italian translations of the American documents I’d submitted needed to have been signed by the translator.  This although the lengthy application instructions said nothing to this effect.  This surprising remark was a lot like something we’d experienced once upon a time while building an apartment.  When completed and time for the town’s inspection, it was only then, in the course of the inspector’s visit, that we found out there were building requirements heretofore unknown to our builder, special for our town.  You would think that when the builder had obtained the necessary town permits, he’d have been provided a handout covering any special guidelines and building codes.  Nada!  Back to the interview … to accommodate this apparent impediment, I offered to have signed translation pages immediately emailed or faxed to his office.  Surprisingly, this was unnecessary.  Apparently, though it had been raised, it wasn’t an issue, that is, unless as he stated, he called us later.  To this point, he hasn’t, which I take as a good sign.
            Additionally, part of the application package required a list of all the states and towns I’d lived in since I was a teenager, 18 to be exact.  We were informed all these would now need to be confirmed.  In my case, because my list was so extensive, this would take time.  Having been in military service, we had moved frequently.  By this point in my life, my list had grown to nine cities covering seven states.  His estimate of six months though was shocking.  Maria Elena’s and my eyes momentarily connected in a questioning glance as we both privately wondered why so long.  Why this data was even needed was not explained, and in the strict tone of this meeting, we dared not ask.  It only gave more credence to one of Mare's recurring saying about Italy, "everything is vague".  Notwithstanding, here was yet another example.  Exact addresses, like street names and building numbers were not required, which seemed odd.  Maybe it was for some sort of background check.  After all, Italy wouldn’t allow just anyone to be given citizenship.  This made sense to me because I’d also been required to provide proof that I had sufficient assets to insure that Paolo would not be a burden on the State.  To top it all off, when later I’d make application for Maria Elena’s citizenship, through marriage, one of her lengthy requirements is for an FBI background check, fingerprints, and police department reports from every one of the towns she’s lived in since she was fourteen!  This was never asked of me.  To make it more difficult, upon submission each and every one of these reports also needed to be no more than six months old.  That would be some task.  And here all I thought it would take was a properly certified birth and marriage certificate.  We therefore remain close, but no cigar, just imagining the number of bureaucratic baby steps that lay ahead.
            There wasn’t much more to it than that.  My package seemed complete and all in order, although this was never stated.  Some feedback along these lines would have been nice since so much time and expense had gone into my beautiful paper stack.  But nada.  All told, it was a sort of sterile meeting, replete with stoic regiment.  Being as outgoing as I am, or think I am, I felt that as a minimum, a few smiles or "well done" commendations would have been in order.  In his defense, I realize of course that for our interviewer this was his job, something he'd repeated day after day.  For me, however, it was totally new and exciting.  Though non-adversarial, I never did get the feeling that my interviewer’s goal was to help me get through this, that like me, he wanted to see me gain Italian citizenship.  There was also a mystery to it, on the order of the man behind the curtain in OZ.  Unless you knew what to ask, as in the case of my special building code example, nothing more was forthcoming, not even a “what-to-expect-next” kind of handout.  That would have been nice as I now sit in wait, wondering what is going on in the bowels of the system.  So now on hold, we standby with fingers crossed in the glimmer of candles to the Madonna for bureaucracy to do its thing and take its inescapable course, however protracted.
            We again experienced bella burocrazia at its finest when our house guardian angel in Calitri informed us that our bank account in the local post office was about to be frozen!  Ouch.  I knew that about then the Disney movie, “Frozen”, was popular but I hadn’t realized just how broad reaching its influence had become!  We needed that account to automatically pay recurring electric and water bills.  With it frozen, Emma would have to pay our bills manually and then I’d have to reimburse her remotely via PayPal.  It would amount to the inconvenience of extra legwork and of course extra costs to pay the recurring PayPal fees.
            Maybe I'm just outrunning my imagination here but I actually suspect that whenever I enter the ufficio postale locale (local post office), they grimace, each with a "here he is again" thought, dreading that the lottery of their take your turn, who-is-next system, will see me before their particular cage.  It's not that I want to change the system.  Even if I did, there isn't a chance in hell that would ever happen.  After all, I'm just a time-to-time visitor, a little beyond stranger,  yet I wouldn't call the occasional novelty of a rule-based, one size fits all approach fun.
            We may ourselves have contributed to this latest freeze fiasco, playing an early card.  We had a go-around with the Post Office on our last visit.  It had been a minor shiver of a tremor, resulted in, I fear, a minute shift in bureaucratic tectonic plates sufficient to highlight a piece of paper filed deep within some dusty filing cabinet.  Enough that it was checked.  Here is what happened …
            Back then, with my back out of whack (yet another idiom?), Mare had stepped-up and was out and about town doing what I normally did.  Her visit to the Post Office and in particular its banking section, as I recall, had been an interesting topic of discussion on her return.  Little did we realize, as I now suspect, that it would rise to the level of a Pandora's Box.  Luckily she had an Italian friend with her to bridge the anticipated language barrier.  It hadn’t helped much, however, and I fear only managed to stir up a hornet’s nest.  Thing was, though we had talked about it, we did not realize we may have disturbed the postal banking system's order of balance.
            Mare had gone there to withdraw some cash from our account.  She had never done this seemingly simple act before.  I had prepped her since I'd done it may times, thus my imagined reputation.  While it is pretty easy to deposit money into your account, a withdrawal is another animal all together.  In their eyes, seemingly always considered petitioner, never patron, it's as though you need to make a case to get your money, verbally prostrating yourself in way of an appeal.  There is even a limit, which seems to vary depending on your particular window, on how much you can withdraw in a day.  For credentials you need to present everything just shy of a blood sample ... passport or photo ID, government Codice Fiscale card, account number, etc.  Forget any of these and you may as well turn around.  It seems that simply looking up your account by your last name is heresy in this torturous process.  No computer could possibly be expected to accommodate such an invasive click.  You start anew each time as if you are a stranger, when in fact they know exactly who you are!  Small town though it may be, fixed procedures are not to be denied their due, no matter how familiar you may be.  Remember, a baby step at a time.
            When Maria Elena's number was eventually called she produced the requisite documents.  Right off, she was asked if she had a Bancomat Card, which is much like our familiar ATM or Debit Card.  The bank clerk explained that there was one just outside the door for cash withdrawals.  Mare knew this.  Years earlier, when we'd first opened our account, we had turned down this offer because there was a monthly charge, use it or not, whether in Italy or not.  I just seemed cost-ineffective.  Without Bancomat membership she would need to cash a check, another thing she'd thoughtfully brought along.  Thankfully, our Italian friend, Gerri, was with Mare to help with the language.  She relayed our lack of Bancomat participation through the thick plexiglas divider. When Mare submitted her documents there were some questions following their examination, some hemming and hawing, and then the clerk went off for about ten minutes to a vault-like cabinet only to return with the original account application we had signed years before when we initially opened our joint account.  She checked the names on the account and that's where the trouble, or I might say tremor, started for real.  A long back and forth dialog then ensued concerning why Mare's name on the account, her maiden name per Italian requirements, did not match the name in her passport.  Gerri, who had lived for years in the US and who enjoyed both American and Italian citizenship, explained that whereas in Italy, when a woman marries, she retains her maiden name, in the US, a woman generally takes her husband's name.  Thus the difference.  This information seemed as foreign to the clerk as the idea there could be anything other than 220 volt house current and made no difference in clarifying the situation.  After about fifteen minutes of this back and forth haggling, the waiting line by then having grown exponentially, the clerk relented and cashed her check with the admonishment that the next time Mare came to Italy, she open a new account.  We wondered how that would do anything to resolve her name imbroglio.  Seemingly, by the time the buzzer went off and the game had concluded, Gerri had scored the most points.  With this added touch, Mare had experienced what it was like to ask for your own money at the Post Office!
            It was about a month later, having returned to the States, when we received an email informing us that our account in the Post Office was about to be frozen!  Here is the pre-amble to the announcement from our house manager:
You received a mail from the post office 2 weeks ago. They were asking you to come to Calitri at the office and check your details in person with them or they will block the account. Initially i was hoping to solve the problem using emails or fax.  I have been several time at the post office since Saturday morning talking to the director to find out which is exactly the problem and find  a solution for it.  The director was just able to tell me that the problem on your account is that Mary Ellen passport's copy they have is expired. 
For some reason, they had dug into their copious records off in that cabinet and noticed that on their photocopy of Mare’s passport, provided back in 2007, the passport’s expiration date had passed.  This was indeed true.  Mare now had a new passport, exactly the one she had presented on her recent eye-opening visit, with a new expiration date off into the 2020s!  Again continuing with the email …  
They will not accept a fax or a certified email, companies in italy must have that and in fact i have and would help to send document if you are not in the place where the document is needed!
So, i have asked to the director to explain me, so i can be able to tell to owners' account, what means that the account will be blocked?  He said he does not know!  I have asked him a superior's contact to ask and he said nobody will answer me!   He is going to try again this morning if somebody will answer him about the account blocked and i hope to be able to tell you more about that.
So we were being pressured with being fast-frozen, quicker than an cod on a North Atlantic fishing boat, but what exactly that meant, they were not even sure!  But the best part was the final part of this heads-up email …
To reactivate to account you are required to be here in your person and give them your valid passport and answer to some question about your job/retirement status; political status, etc... 
It seemed that a photocopy, even if in peacock living color, would not thaw our deep freeze.  We would need to appear in the flesh!  It was soon confirmed that even a certified photocopy, if need be properly witnessed and notarized, or if still short of the mark, even if bearing an international convention Apostille seal with a cover letter signed by the Italian Ambassador to the US could not be expected to put the brakes to the arbitrary momentum of bureaucratic machinery once set in motion.  They didn’t themselves even know its full ramifications.  Like Zues, had they unleashed “The Kraken?  Further inquiry confirmed only our appearance, not any newfangled technology, could mend this international archival discrepancy!  That, piled atop the need to answer questions, some of a political nature!  My gosh, would I be exiled if I disclosed my true leanings?  Since Elba had already been used, maybe confinement on Sardinia would be offered.  What if I shied toward the Pdl party and Silvio Berlusconi?  Then again, could they stomach my political views on American politics?  And I still worry what the “etc” means … a blood sample to establish DNA?
            We were not about to immediately jump on a plane and fly over.  What was the hurry anyway?  My experience to this point was, that in Italy, nothing ever moved fast.  Why change now for something, at least in our estimation, so trivial?  Couldn’t the Post Office delay freezing our account until after we returned?  Or since Maria Elena was the problem, why not simply restrict her from cashing further checks?  After all, they never once attempted to notify us in advance with some sort of notice to prevent this from happening.  How about when we had opened our account?  Never having been told to watch out for this, who is diligent enough to anticipate some bureaucratic trigger like this and run in there whenever they get a new passport?  I can only imagine the number of passport carrying foreigners, like ourselves, with accounts there now in the crosshairs.  If they would be reasonable, amenable to delaying yet retaining every intent to freeze our account, but on a date following our return, it would give us a few days, in their presence, to resolve this issue.  If we were unsuccessful, which would be highly unlikely, they could then go forward and freeze us.  They would save face and we would save money.  I think it makes a compelling argument by I fear it will only lead to compelling theater.  Further inquiry confirmed that they were unwilling to wait for our planned return.  Rigidly inflexible, per their nature, they wouldn’t buy in.
            I’d had a career in the military.  In the service, rule followed dutifully after rule, and procedure, like the checklists on my knee, dictated even how to turn a cockpit knob - “left then right”.  Over a career, you may then understand how being me, I’d accumulated a lot of pent-up resentment.  I guess it was my version of Post Traumatic Syndrome.  I was now damaged enough to resent this kind of control, especially mindless, rigid, “we-don’t-even-know-what-freeze-means” bureaucracy.  It’s like a waitress at home asking me for a photo ID before I can buy a beer, when by my appearance I’m more toward octogenarian then a pimply-faced teen.  Whether you agree or not, I find this absurd and in protest I’ll change my order instead to a coke, to their financial detriment, though not likely.  Processes have their masters and seemingly must be served … but not willingly and not if I have any say.
            Ah, bureaucrats just doing their jobs.  What would we do without them?  What could we do without them?  If we listen to these perfunctory hierarchies, as they go about turning their cranks, they would tell us their sole purpose was to maintain order, maximize efficiency and eliminate favoritism - nothing about perpetuating and growing their own existence.  From a customer perspective I see it as creating chaos, inefficiency, and indifference to the customers they serve, who in some places on the globe are considered "always right".  We were not looking for favoritism, just customer service.  If anything, I'd prefer a smidgen of profiling.  This dirty word, so out of favor today, is simply the extrapolation of information about someone.  Some simple profiling like, “I know who this person is”, would go a long way.  After all, we were closer to local residents then illegal aliens!  Apparently, although we thought so, they didn’t!
            Getting back to idioms one last time, here is another, “on the horns of a dilemma”, first scribbled down around 1600.  The idea of being caught on either one animal horn or the other is not from the traditional running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.  No, it was already being expressed in Roman times to characterize a situation where you are unable to decide between two choices because either selection could bring bad results.  Am I on the horns?  Not even close.  Besides I have no decisions to make for they've been made for me.  All can and will eventually be favorably resolved.  I’m sure of it.  However, I fear I’ll definitely need Valium or at least a steady supply of grappa at some point.  I’ll need it to keep me calm because, God and the powers that be willing, once I'm granted citizenship with passport in hand and things have thawed at the Post Office, I’ll sponsor Maria Elena for hers.  Due to the hurdles and snares arrayed between her application and eventual success, I’m being told her waiting time will be two years!  My God, politics aside, maybe Berlusconi can help after all! 
From That Rogue Tourist