Why Italian bureaucrats make me seethe

Post-traumatic stress disorder: that well known syndrome often experienced after visiting an Italian post office.

I’m not kidding, on the occasions when I pop down to the local post office, and take my number from the ticket-dispenser, I frequently succumb to severe anxiety, usually in the form of pure and simple rage.

I’ve got no quibble with the system: queueing up to buy postage for a parcel, for example, seems quite logical.

It’s just that the people who work in our local post office are so unfathomably and unforgivably rude. They chat and joke to themselves in the back room while the public waits patiently. They walk around aimlessly carrying bits of paper between thumb and forefinger, they rummage in boxes, dust off shelves and lurk just out of sight – they will do just about anything to avoid sitting down behind the desk and selling you a god-damn stamp.

Last time I went, I came out seething like a very angry Hulk in a bath of scalding water. I had the great fortune to have no one in front of me – my number was already up as soon as I walked in. Great, but there was no one at the desk to weigh my parcel. I waited for 10 minutes, watching three female post office staff chatting and joking at another counter. Occasionally they looked over at me, saw I was waiting, and then carried on cackling.

Eventually one reluctantly brakes away and comes to serve me. She tucks into a packet of Pringles as she takes my parcel. “Urgh-mwhahhh-ahh!” she mutters, spraying both me and the parcel with crumbs of oven-baked dehydrated potato gunge: you see, unfathomable and unforgivable. She holds up two fingers and a thumb. “Ah, three euros is it?” I say. I give her five, she tosses two back, and I leave as quickly as I can. Of course I don’t complain – but maintain my British upper lip and seethe quietly to myself.

It’s not the first time I’ve encountered unfettered rudeness in that particular post office. But then again, it’s not the only public institution in town that offers unfettered rudeness as an inclusive part of the service. I’ve had a few encounters at the train station too – although they have been more amusing than rage-inducing.

I recently rocked up at the station as you do, all ready, bag in hand and eager to get on the train. The small screen (it’s a distant relation of the Commodore 64, possibly a predecessor) tells me there’s a delay. I skip over to the ticket counter to ask when the next train for Rome is due.

And when I ask the ticket counter man – a perfectly respectable-looking gentleman, probably in his late 50s – do you know what he says? “C’è lo sciopero” (which means ‘there’s a strike’). But it’s not really so much what he says that takes me by surprise – it’s the way he says it.

Now, you know when you were a kid and you wanted to show off, for example that you had got to the top of the climbing frame before your classmates? Or that you had a bike and they didn’t. Or maybe you had bought the last two ounces of fizzy cola bottles in the sweet shop, denying the other kids their favourite tooth-rot? The noise you might have made, if you had been an obnoxious kid, might have been that ‘ner-ner ne ner-neeeer’ sung in an annoying sing-song voice. A triumphant little ‘I’ve got something you haven’t got!’ theme tune.

That is how the guy at the ticket counter imparted the information regarding the train strike – by singing ‘C’è lo sciperoooo!’ at me in a taunting playground manner, as if I were completely idiotic for not having been aware of the strike. I loved it, and now every time there’s a train strike, I have to sing ‘C’è lo scioperooooo! Ner-ner ne ner-neeeer’ to myself.

More recently there was another train strike. This time I didn’t dare ask why the train wasn’t on time – I already knew the answer. I simply asked the man behind the counter (a different gentleman, but still someone who looked pretty respectable, late fifties, I would guess he may have worked for the Italian railways for quite a few years in fact) when the next train might be…

Oh silly me, I thought that he, working there in the station, selling tickets and with a little 1980s-style computer at his disposal, might have some inside knowledge of the train timetable. “Me, me I don’t know anything about trains!” he replied, shrugging his shoulders and looking mystified and irritated, as if I had just asked him what time the next space shuttle is taking off from Cape Canaveral.

Such is the state of customer service in public institutions in Italy.

I have one last example of heinous public customer service. It occurred earlier this week, when I went to the local registry office (called the ‘anagrafe’, where a lot of bureaucracy gets done) to try to register as a resident.

Since I have a British passport and am therefore a European citizen, it shouldn’t be too hard to register, I thought.

First of all a pleasant lady at a desk by the entrance tells me that Britain isn’t part of the European community, which poses a dilemma for her, as she thinks I can’t fill out the form she was about to give me. I assure her that Britain is definitely in Europe and has been part of the European Union since 1973. She looks doubtful, but in grand old Italian style, shrugs her shoulders as if these minor details don’t really matter anyway, gives me one of those ‘on your head be it!’ kind of looks, and allows me to fill in the form.

She sends me to counter 8, where a spotty, bored youth stops fiddling with his mobile phone and takes my form so he can register me for ‘urban waste collection’. With a tone of confusion, he reads out my boyfriend’s name, which I have given as the owner of the house I live in. ‘Who is he?’ asks the spotty youth. It’s my turn to look confused – do I explain that he’s my boyfriend, we live together, he’s a graphic designer, lives opposite Bar Sport, quite tall.. ah, no he just wants to know if he is the owner of the house…

It all reminds me of this classic Lillo and Greg sketch where an officious Italian bureaucrat asks for James Bond’s details, destroying the undercover agent’s will to live in the process. It goes something like this:
JB: The name’s Bond, James Bond
OIB: Surname?
JB: … Bond!
OIB: So full name is Bond James Bon Bon…
it’s funny, watch it!

Before I left the anagrafe, two more officials tell me that Britain isn’t in the European community, that my printed bank statements and UK tax returns are not valid and that I would not be granted resident status here, unless I fulfilled other far-flung criteria that haven’t been mentioned on any of the websites where I’ve read up about getting residency… are they just making up reasons why I can’t be an official resident?

It’s enough to make you cry with rage, and I haven’t even got started on the spectacled man behind counter two, who preferred barking in some kind of dialect rather than asking normal questions in correct Italian.

When I voice my frustration and amusement at these incidents with friends, a recurring explanation that people come up with is that (at least in the past) a lot of public sector jobs have been filled by unfair means – in other words, nepotism, small-scale political favours and what are generally, in Italian, called ‘impicci’ (a word that means shady dealings). The result is that people who aren’t qualified or aren’t suitable end up in jobs they aren’t interested in doing. And, boy, does it show!

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