by Laura A

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.