LEARNING TO LIVE WITH THE BUREAUACRACY
We are now almost two and a half years into the process of acclimating ourselves into this fascinating place. We are still in a phase of transition that is beginning to feel comfortable with the familiar but also realizing we have along way to go before we are true Ascolani. There is still the language issue and more on that in a moment. But I’m encouraged, I feel I’m better anticipating habitual reactions of Italians and a little less likely to be going against the grain.
Our Ascolani friends proudly observe the L’ Marche’ Region is situated in the middle of Italy. We now understand a declaration the Ascolani make. They have some of the favorable traits of their more business-like, northern countrymen while also maintaining the deeper family centered values of the south. Although the modern world is certainly in evidence here, it is moderated by a value system that emphasizes family and deeper interpersonal relationships are a priority around which the pace of life is coordinated.
Here in Italy, one comes to respect that the long progress of time moves slowly. It requires a higher degree of patience by those of us who came from a more frantic pace of life. But we are immigrants so we have the impertinence to dare to ask if processes in Italy could benefit by operating with a little bit more efficiency. As desirable as that goal may appear to be for us, change does not come quickly in Italy. Italians have culturally had a lot of experience with solutions that turned out to be worse than the original problem. They are by nature skeptical of authority on any level and display an intense avoidance of regimentation in any form.
I have also come to understand the expression of frustration with Italians who appear to have become indifferent to inefficient processes and mind numbing bureaucratic impediments. Italy is mired in duplicated, overlapping and competing bureaucracies that appear true to stereotype in being more concerned about preservation of prerogatives than necessarily consolidating to find more productive approaches. Certainly, Italy is not unique in this problem. It seems the nature of many governments and most bureaucracies validates Parkinson’s Laws on the primacy of self-perpetuation over meaningful contribution. But Italy can seem on bureaucratic steroids.
An Italian friend made a helpful observation on this subject. He remarked that in the immediate Post World War II environment, establishing large government-centered bureaucracies created jobs. It was those jobs that helped establish stability. But as job creation in the private sector expanded, government bureaucracies were not significantly reduced. However valid the original intent of a bureaucratic function, it frequently tends to self perpetuate beyond its original need. And if there were meaningful governmental streamlining, jobs would be lost in this time of already high unemployment. It is the classic dilemma of a positive objective being deferred because of offsetting negative consequences.
Now, to illustrate a point, I’m going to return to the Italian Language Competency Test requirement we had mentioned in earlier post. As we had reported, in the process of applying for and being granted our Elective Residence Permission to Remain in Italy, the Permesso di Soggiorno, we signed a formal agreement to accomplish a process to more fully integrate ourselves into Italian life. That included attendance at a two day, ten-hour instruction on Italian civic life including the provisions of the Italian Constitution, civil governmental structures, the operation of the National Health Plan and compulsory education for children. In addition, we agreed that after two years to be able to demonstrate a competency in the Italian language equivalent to the European Union level of A-2, that is ‘Basic Advanced.’ The Integration Agreement required accomplishment of measured tasks to which numeric values were assigned. This agreement was presented to us through the office that issued the Permesso di Soggiorno. The Permesso renewal was two years off which also coincided with the completion date objective of the Integration Agreement. It seemed logical at the time we had to accomplish the language test prior to, and as a requirement for the Permesso di Soggiorno renewal.
As the renewal date for the Permesso approached and we submitted our paperwork, we also enquired as to how and where we were to present ourselves for the language test. We even checked with a local language school that also failed to clarify what we were supposed to do to meet the language competency requirement. The condensed version of this tale is, after further inquiry concerning the language test at the office issuing the Permesso di Soggiorno, they responded that as far as they were concerned as retirees not employed and not enrolled in a University, it made no sense for us to have to take a language test. That was a welcome bit of logic we found very acceptable. The Permesso di Soggiorno was issued soon thereafter with no further reference to a language test. Arlene and I both let out a sigh of enormous relief. But since this is Italy, I had an uncomfortable feeling this was not the end of the matter; we had better wait and see.
Sure enough, more than six weeks later, we received letters from the Ascoli Piceno Provincial Office for Immigration, an entirely different office from the Italian State Ministry of the Interior, State Police, who administer the Permesso di Soggiorno, giving us fifteen days to present documentation that we had met all the requirements for integration, including competency in the Italian language. It further referred us to Appendices B and C of the original agreement to provide the details of what we were to submit. However, we were never given Appendices B and C.
After much research, we finally found a website associated with the Ascoli Piceno Provincial Immigration Authority that listed scheduled dates for language tests. It turns out there was a test scheduled for December 2015. So we determined to make a request to take that test in hope that would suffice even though we had already exceeded the mandatory two years. By this time we were becoming apprehensive about the possible consequences of not having fulfilled the requirements of the Integration Agreement within the stipulated two years.
Aided and abetted by our ever resourceful and kind friend Serafino, we went to the Ascoli Piceno Provincial Immigration Office. The matter was discussed at length. The abbreviated version is as we had attended the required course and apparently, in spite of not having Appendices B and C, had acquired sufficient numerical points to result in qualifying for an automatic one year extension on the language test requirement. This welcome deferral was greeted by us with a sigh of relief.
This is only one example of the kinds of duplicated bureaucratic ‘ambiguity’ Italians deal with every day in attempting any number of administrative tasks. It is not uncommon in dealing with a matter for a ‘Yes’ given in one office having jurisdiction to be followed by a ‘No’ at another office in the bureaucracy also asserting its jurisdictional authority.
If still in the U.S., by this point, my blood pressure would have started to climb. But life here is teaching me that simply attempting to relax, muster patience and trying to convey we want to be compliant can be greeted, eventually, with a creative work-around that gets the matter back on track. Is it efficient? – Hell no! Is it getting done what needs to get done? – Apparently so. However frustrating, the personnel behind the counters have been, with perhaps a few exceptions, very pleasant. The way anything seems to get done is some of the people in the bureaucratic labyrinth have learned to be creative, when motivated, to accomplish the underlying objective in spite of the system. There are voices in Italy expressing frustration that the ossified bureaucracy may be an impediment to a more rapid economic recovery. Identifying a problem is only a beginning. The larger issue is what to do about it.
To be fair, I also have realized we may be dealing with another dimension of our desire to ‘experience Italy off the beaten track.’ We came here to experience a more authentic Italy not overly influenced by tourism. As a result, being Americans here in retirement is still a little unusual. There is simply not a lot of prior experience in the local offices of the bureaucracy for dealing with the likes of us. So what we are experiencing is far less an indication of Italian unwillingness but more the reality that we are forming an early stage of a bureaucratic learning curve. Just as the Italians are being gracious in being tolerant of our marginal ability to communicate and understand how things are to be done, we are learning to be more patient and understanding in working with the Italian bureaucracy.
Now that we are feeling more like ‘residents’, walking leisurely down these old streets admiring centuries old buildings still in productive use in a modern world, I have come to appreciate being an American obsessive about time and efficiency may not be all that important. The Italians routinely say, “Piano, Piano!” – ‘Just stay calm!’ Things do, in time and for the most part, seem to work out that way.
And so – by our learning to allow it to happen, life continues to be very good!