(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Month: September, 2012

A quick update

Just for fun, here’s something I saw in a shop window this morning.  It’s a Lego Palazzo Madama!  (That’s the Queen Mother’s Palace, which is a major city landmark.)

I’ve been meaning to do an update for a while now, but I think it’s symptomatic that I’m having trouble posting one.  I wanted to write about school, but I felt it was only fair for Sarie to read what I had to say first, and she’s busy.

So I’ll just say for now that school is generally going fine, and I’m particularly proud of her attitude in the Theory of Knowledge, or TOK, class.  The teacher likes argumentation, and she supplies it.  I’ve always known that she had a bit of her logical lawyer dad in her, but until now she mostly used it on us.  Now I think she’s finally harnessing that force for good.  Enough said!

She has also been going to Milan for lessons with a talented violin teacher who was associated with her old conservatory in New York.  She has been to both Florence and Milan by herself (on the train) since school started.  Today when she got on the train, there was an announcement in English: “Those seated in first class will be welcomed with an explosive welcome drink.”

Sarie’s biology teacher speaks this sort of English, which makes for some interesting science.

She got together with some college-level conservatory students, formed a Baroque group, and they got a gig playing at a castle this Sunday in Cuneo, about an hour south of here.  So we get to go listen to Monteverdi in a castle, and then take a tour!

And next week Sarie and I travel to Rovigo, near Venice, so she can participate in the Premio Nazionale delle Arti.  This is a national level competition sponsored by Italy’s conservatories.  Students up to age 25 are eligible, so we have no idea what to expect, but we’re just going to see.  We want to meet the best string players in Italy!  Sarie will be playing the first two movements of the Mendelssohn concerto.  Considering that she doesn’t even have a teacher at the conservatory right now, I think it’s particularly plucky of her.

Bob still likes his job, travels a lot, and is trying to get in some hill climbs on his bike before it gets too cold.  He rides with a friend from work.  One of his next big challenges is getting an Italian driver’s license.

And me?  I’m playing secretary, reading, and cooking.  The seasons have definitely shifted towards fall here, and though Italy doesn’t have the colorful leaf displays of the Eastern US, I’m noticing such differences as a greater number of cloudy days, more use for scarves and sweaters, and needing to turn the lights on earlier.  I even had to use the dryer one day this week!

At the market, the fruit frenzy of late summer is giving way to fall vegetables: Belgian endives, broccoli rabe, and oven-roasted beets (never raw ones).  Yesterday I made a soup that required hot peppers, but since Italian markets don’t have jalapenos, poblanos or serranos, I took the only hot peppers they did have.  They were thin-walled, but cute, and the vendor pointed out that they made a nice decoration:

And finally, it seems to me that I’m understanding more Italian now.  True, on any given day I might get totally tongue-tied, but it does seem like I’m understanding a greater percentage of what is being said.  And to be able to understand what’s being said around me, I must say, would be very, very handy!

I hope your fall days are going well, and leave a note if you feel inspired!



Yesterday I went to a patronato. Last week I didn’t even know they existed. Oh, there were so many things I didn’t know last week! For instance that Italian tax returns are filed in September, or that my immigration permit expires at the end of this month, or… Anyway, I think a patronato is a sort of bureaucrat that exists to help people fill out forms to give to other bureaucrats, sort of like a social worker. Because if you can’t even figure out when the deadlines are, it follows that filling the forms out may be a problem, too.

This week I went from office to office looking for a patronato who worked on immigration issues.  I also made calls, but in Italy calls don’t get you far, partly because people so seldom answer the phone. Or maybe the number is out of service, or wrong, or at the very least they speak Italian so quickly that I misunderstand. So I had to go in person, which meant taking a bus or walking, pulling a numbered ticket out of one of those round red ticket dispensers, and waiting.  While waiting in offices this week, I finished a whole book on theology and social issues.

Finally someone told me about a large patronato office across the river, about thirty minutes by bus from where we live. I was told they did permesso renewals and that someone would speak English. So I went.

Yesterday was my third trip there.  The first time I went just to find out whether they would do the sort of work I needed, because of course, no one would answer the phone.  The second time was because the office I needed wasn’t open the first time I went. The third time was because they weren’t open the second time, either.  At the doorman’s desk, I was told to arrive early on Thursday afternoon.  I was 50 minutes early–the very first person there.

When I walked up the stairs and into the narrow hallway, I was faced with a row of numbered doors, and walls painted bright orange.  The walls were so thin that they must have originally been intended as temporary.  I stuck to the wall by door number 2 like glue, reading the instructions posted on it.  I was first and I wanted everyone to know it.  In Italy, waiting is a competitive sport.

Within five minutes, a burly Arabic-speaking man showed up. He had a pockmarked face, wore a black jacket, and carried a black briefcase. Eventually we looked at each other and had one of those limited conversations that people have when they’re speaking in a language that neither knows very well.  No matter, the purpose was to establish the line.

He told me that we were supposed to wait in the next room, and indeed there was a waiting area nearby, but it didn’t have a clear view of the door.  This made me a little nervous, but I followed him.  We sat there for a few minutes before another younger and more spirited man showed up.  He was darker than the first man, and wore a black T-shirt with silver writing. They spoke to one another in Italian. We dubbed him third.

We all sat in the waiting area for a minute, but then another man showed up, perhaps a Nigerian or Ghanian, wearing a blazer.  He stayed in the hallway, pacing back and forth. Soon we were all standing in the hallway.

Next an Asian student with earbuds came in. We all exchanged the same looks, the same appraisal, and soon he was standing next to the wall too.

And finally, a very thin, tall, pale young woman walked up very slowly and read the notice  on the door about amnesty for illegal immigrants.  She asked the other men about where you pay the €1000 fine.  I’m guessing she was Romanian.  But again, my guesses are mostly based on probability.  For the same reason, people mistake me for British.

At 2:15, a small, dark-eyed man with a grey beard and a khaki vest came out of the office and recognized brief-case man right away.  He gave him a Post-It Note with “01” written on it, and a stamped date.  If I’d been there the day before and couldn’t finish, I’d have wanted to be first, too.  The man gave me “02.” He told me that a woman would come get me in the waiting room.

The hard part done, I actually sat down and finished my book.  All the while, bureaucrats, mostly women in tight jeans and high heels, opened doors in the orange waiting area and then slammed them, shaking the thin walls. There was no natural light. I was most interested in the door that said, “Ufficio mobbing.” Weren’t they all mobbed?  Later I looked it up and found out it was for victims of workplace harassment.

The small man in the vest ran about copying things for Mr. Briefcase, speaking Arabic, no less. Meanwhile the room filled up: an Italian couple who were talking about how to take care of some family member, another African man with blue-black skin, and another South Asian man with very straight, long hair that stuck out in all directions, like a 70s rock star.  In fact, he looked like Steve Miller.  Another black T-shirt, naturally, and he spoke the same language as the other black T-shirt man.  Down the hall, drilling started.  It shook the walls, too.

At 2:45, I saw a woman come out of the immigration office and slam the door. Mr. Black T-shirt (the first one) asked her something, which I couldn’t hear for the drill.  “…cinque,” she responded, and her heels clicked as she walked away rapidly.  He shouted something after her, but she ignored him.  “E’ numero cinque o alle cinque?” I asked.  “Alle cinque,” he replied.  He banged on the door angrily. “Chiuso!” They’d all gone off and said they’d be back at five.

Not speaking Italian well enough to ask any more questions, I planted myself by the doorknob again.  But Mr. Black T-shirt wasn’t taking it so easily.  He was young, and he spoke better Italian than I did.  He accosted bureaucrats left and right. “They gave me a number and then they just left!  They said they’d be back at five! Can you get someone else to come take care of me?”  Of course, they all shrugged.  Niente da fare.  “Nothing I can do about it.”  And they walked off.

And then, mysteriously, another small, grey-bearded man came out of the office next door.  He looked very rumpled in an old plaid shirt, a silver bracelet, and long hair. His appearance was something between a hippie and an elf.  He asked who was next.  Mr. Black T-shirt pointed to me.  The next thing I knew, I was in.  White walls and daylight were a relief.

I’d gone to this patronato because I’d been assured it was so big that people spoke English. This man didn’t.  But he spoke Italian slowly enough for me to understand him, and didn’t seem to remind repeating himself.

“You want a permesso renewal for three people?   That takes at least an hour-and-a-half. We’re going to have to make an appointment.”  They make appointments?  Tap, tap, tap on the keyboard. “Come back Monday at four.  I need your documents–permesso, passport, whatever you have.”  Then he started entering our names into the computer.

“AN-DER-SON,” he said as he pecked out the keys slowly with two blunt fingers, taking his time.  I laughed as I corrected him. “They do the same thing in the United States. But my first name is easier,” I said as if by way of consolation, pronouncing it the Italian way.

“How do you say it in English–‘Laurie’?” he guessed, doing a surprisingly good imitation of an American accent. “Laurie Anderson?”

La cantatrice?” I responded, surprised.

L’amica di Lou Reed.”

I grinned.  I’d been waiting for twenty-five years for someone to mistake me for Laurie Anderson.  She’d been one of my favorite musicians in college.

By the time I left, I felt lighter.  The bureaucrat in the plaid shirt had assured me that he could change Bob over from self-employed to employee, that all those blanks in Module 2 that neither I nor anyone at Bob’s firm knew how to fill in didn’t matter, and that we weren’t about to be sent directly to jail without passing “go” if we didn’t get this stack of forms stamped by the 28th. Even though I planned to anyway, having been given four different deadlines by now.

On the way out I saluted Mr. Black T-shirt, who was still standing doggedly in the orange hallway.

As I walked back into the clear daylight toward the bus stop, I decided that the man who had made my appointment sounded just like the old florist in Pane e Tulipani, the one who calls out, “Le cose belle sono lente!” when Rosalba thinks she needs to get her work finished. And he seemed to hold the same philosophy.

I’m still not convinced that just because beautiful things are slow, that slow things are beautiful.  But I did go home so invigorated that I tackled the trash tax. I read through paragraphs of instructions and several web pages, asked my landlord and a friend, and finally succeeded in filling out a domiciliazione utenze without having to go to another office.

What is a domiciliazione utenze?  And why do you need a form for one on your bank’s website along with three types of bonifico, three types of bolletino, tasse universitarie, cell phone refills, Modello F24, bollo auto, canone TV, MAV, RAV, RIBA and multe?  I have no idea, and looking at the menu reminds me of the way I used to feel in kindergarten when I looked at textbooks for fourth graders. But I pushed the button and it sent.  And I didn’t even have to take a ticket.

In which we admit that our situation has changed

“But in your case, Article 18, letter Z on the regulations on fishing for indigenous shrimp doesn’t apply, but rather Article 105b, CPV.6, letter C of the ordinance…”

I don’t know where this cartoon came from, but it seemed to fit the spirit of this post. Amazingly, the law exists!


Before we left, I mentioned that we had some decisions coming up.  As you might guess, they had to do with bureaucracy.  In order to be considered for universities in Europe, Sarie will be going to school.

When we first looked into the European diploma hurdle, it looked surmountable.  European high schools have five years as compared to the US’s four, but the Italian Ministry of Education’s (MIUR’s) website says you can enter an Italian university with one year of college and 4 APs.  Some Italians had told me that online college was okay.

Other European countries’ requirements don’t have the year of college requirement, only a diploma and some decent AP scores.  Admittedly, Germany doesn’t accept the GED, but there might be other options, like an online diploma certification program.  We figured that once we settled in, we’d figure out the details.

But by the end of last year, we still had no solid information. Finally, we were able to set up a series of meetings with educational bodies in Italy.  One was with the conservatory Sarie attends. Everyone thought that the conservatory had discretion in admitting and graduating students to/from their university-level program. The conservatory’s director had said, “Bring us what you have. We’ll see what we can do.”  The Italian Consulate in New York thought the GED was fine.  The only problem was that we couldn’t get anyone to tell us exactly what it was we needed to do to get Sarie’s education certified. Instead, they’d pass the buck.

The meeting with the conservatory director, which started over an hour late and was in Italian, followed a protocol that, to an American, would seem like a ceremony.  It adhered to a formula: a long and polite preamble, the petition, and the response.  When we finally got to the response after another hour of talking, I got three points only:  The conservatory could do nothing without a certain stamped piece of paper, it had to come from the Ministry of Education, and the director didn’t recommend going there.

Why?  That was the one part which, having looked for information all year, I understood: If you went to MIUR, you’d get four different contradictory answers. Besides which, I’d already had a friend make a clandestine call to someone she knew there, who had told her that Italian high school was the only option. So, at the end of the meeting, the director made us an appointment with some officials at a local high school.  I was told we were very lucky to get this appointment.  We thanked the director profusely.

At the high school, we were told cheerfully that the Ministry didn’t care what sort of diploma you had. But then they saw a clause:  Oh, that’s just for Italian citizens who live in other countries.  After that, there was much tapping of keyboards and back and forth in Italian.  I could follow it well enough to know that they were simply exploring, in quick succession, all the options I’d explored myself during the year, including the MIUR website. Finally they looked up. “Do you think you could become an Italian citizen?” they asked Sarie.  “It’s really the best way.”

For non-Italians, citizenship takes ten years.

That’s when I had one of those, “Wow, it’s really fundamentally different here,” moments. The rules mean nothing if you can’t find anyone who will admit that they are valid, and who knows how to implement them. This is hard for Americans to understand. Many Americans don’t like dealing with the IRS, the DoE, the DMV or the USPS–not to mention FAFSA. But these bodies have websites with published, comprehensible procedures, and if you follow them, it may be time-consuming and expensive, but generally it works–eventually. In Italy, at least in my experience so far, it’s completely different. You ask a question, and you get a shrug. You get four different answers. Eventually you realize, “I’m at the mercy of the person behind that desk.” Only in this case, we couldn’t even get anyone to tell us what desk we were looking for.

Now truth be told, Sarie didn’t have her heart set on going to conservatory in Italy anyway.  But I wasn’t finding out anything more about schools in other countries–Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, France–than I was in Italy.  I knew we’d have some version of this problem wherever we went, except in Great Britain and the US, whose conservatories are very expensive.  And we were running out of time.

As it happens, the same week as these meetings, we’d gone to a private British school for Sarie to meet with a new math tutor.  And as a courtesy to the tutor, I talked to the school’s director.  Before that, I had never seen a viable option for attending high school in Italy, because the English-speaking school I knew about was far away and very expensive.  And our Italian friends agreed that starting high school over in Italian wasn’t the best idea.

But here I saw something doable:  The school was small, two years old, in the center of town, and in some subjects (those for native English speakers learning Italian) Sarie would be in a class of two.  She would get subjects she needed, like chemistry, higher math, and Italian, which I found difficult to provide at this level. (I couldn’t find a supplier for chemistry equipment in Italy.) And it was an IB, or International Baccalaureate program.  The diploma would be accepted in every country.

I’d always said that if it turned out to be better for Sarie to go to school, that’s what we’d do.  And when I looked back on the past year, I had to admit that what we’d done didn’t feel much like homeschooling as we’d known it.  Sarie was always busy studying or practicing.  We hardly had time for any discussion, rabbit trails, or practical skills.  And in a new city, we hadn’t even gone to one museum together.  Trying to meet so many requirements simultaneously had squeezed all the fun and intimacy out of our homeschooling.

Regardless, I mourned at first.  I loved homeschooling, and so did Sarie.  And I didn’t mind working hard and researching the law to continue homeschooling.  But given her choice of field, and our circumstances, she now needed a more structured, more certified approach.

When we got back from our trip to the US, we did get one last piece of validation for our homeschooling years: An excellent score on Sarie’s first AP test.  We don’t need it now, but it was nice to know she could pull it off.

So, Monday after next, Bob will go back in the US again on business, while Sarie will go off to her first day of school with a class of 20 Italians who want to improve their English, and one South African.  Not exactly what I’d imagined, or would have asked for, but I trust that it will be good enough.