Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sad saga of our permesso di soggiorno; I explain again how NOT to get an Italian document

Friday, March 9, 2012
Although I am writing this today, what I describe is actually a series of events Lucy and I, along with daughters Suzye and Lindsey, went through from September through November of 2001 in Padova.  I had accepted a position at the English International School of Padua, teaching fifth grade from September through mid-June. I hadn’t found time to put this story in writing until now.

Travel books and websites advise that anyone staying in Italy for more than 90 days must first have a visa and then apply for a permesso di soggiorno, permission to stay in Italy, within eight days from arrival. However, the advisers go on to explain that this law is not enforced and that travelers need not go to the trouble, and they rarely do. It is mostly needed for those who wish to legally work or attend school in Italy. Although I am teaching here, the school did not have time to get me a proper work permit, so I am officially a tourist who is being paid in cash sotto il tavolo.

We see no need for a permesso di soggiorno, since our housing has already been arranged for us by the school. As long as we don’t break any laws, we will never be asked to show any documents other than our passports. However, we change our minds when I hear that the Commune of Padova offers free Italian classes. Some of the British teachers at my school are already enrolled, and this could save us un sacco di soldi, as the lessons Lucy has signed us up for at Inlingua are going to cost us close to $2,000 a month if we all four take them. I take a 20-minute walk to the government office to sign us up, but I am asked for our permesso di soggiorno, a requirement for the classes.

The permesso di soggiorno must be obtained at the questura, which is the provincial administrative headquarters of the state police. One might think that because foreigners have to register at the questura, the agency would hire some officers who also speak English, Arab and some of the other common languages of the Mediterranean region, but that is not the case. The officers we meet are mostly middle-aged men who speak Italian exclusively. Maybe they figure that in the eight days we foreigners are here legally, we should have learned to speak Italian.

Immigrants in line at the questura. Photo courtesy of
Il CapoLuogo d'Abruzzo, Jan. 2, 2012.
Since I am working during the day, Lucy goes to the questura alone the next morning. She encounters large clusters of Africans and Eastern Europeans milling about in the alley alongside the questura entrance. We have only been in Italy for a couple of weeks, and her knowledge of Italian is minimal, but she finds a helpful student from Croatia who explains that she must sign up on a list posted on a plain sheet of paper taped to the fence beside the entrance gate. She signs, but of course she is low on the list, since everybody waiting has already signed up. Some must have come long before the office opened to get their names high on the list. Almost four hours later, she finally makes it inside the gate, but it is almost closing time; the office is only open three mornings a week. She is given a form and told to fill it out and bring it back in two days, along with four head shots of everyone in our family living here.

As she tells me of her efforts, we are frustrated with the waste of time just to get a form, and I wish I could have been there to help. I wonder when the sign-up list is posted, so the next evening I stay up until midnight and ride my bike to the questura. Sure enough, there is a list posted, and it already has two names on it. I put Lucy down as number three and ride home in the dark and chill, happy that I have been able to contribute to our efforts. We have all had our photos taken, so perhaps things will go more smoothly tomorrow.

Lucy arrives a few minutes before 8 a.m. the following morning, only to behold that the old list is gone and a new one has been posted. Since the list is posted in plain paper, someone in the early morning tore down the list and made his own. Either that, or the list on which I signed was not the official list, and the questura officers replaced it when they came to work in the morning. Lucy can sign up at the bottom of the new list, but she doesn’t have another four hours to waste, so she goes home.

Next week, she tries again, going well before opening hours to put her name on the list and wait around. She makes it inside after a two-hour wait, and an official looks over our forms. He shuffles them around for a minute and tells her she needs something called a marca di bollo. “A what?” she asks. “Che cosa?” He explains again, more slowly, that she must go to a tabaccaio and get a marca di bollo. Lucy walks away, confused, and finds someone in the crowd who speaks English. A helpful straniero explains that a marca di bollo is a government tax stamp that must be affixed; it is the way the document tax fee is paid, and she has to go to a tobacco shop to buy it. So Lucy leaves the questura and pays what amounts to around $10 for each of us, but now she will have to go back to the questura another day.

The next time, thinking that we have everything we need, Lucy and I return together along with Suzye and Lindsey. Could the fourth time be charmed? No, not a chance. Our forms and marca da bollo are fine, but we also need proof of assicurazione, health insurance. This is a difficult word to pronounce, but I think it won’t be difficult to provide, as my school has taken out a traveler’s insurance policy for our family that will provide health care coverage during the school year. I have the assicurazione documents at home, and Lucy can bring them back the next time the questura is open. Va bene, the man says, now that our family has come, we just need one person to bring back the insurance and he can process our documents.

So two days later, Lucy goes for the fifth time. Unfortunately, we didn’t understand that the  assicurazione, of course, must be translated into Italian, and she sadly gives me this news at dinner.

I find that we are not alone in our frustration. At school I meet Matthew Crestani, the father of Ryan, one of my 5th grade students. Matthew is from Texas and has been transferred by his company to oversee its Italian operations in Padova. His family came in the summer and he still has not been able to obtain his permesso, even though his company has hired an Italian who supposedly has expertise in such matters. We swap tales of our frustration and shake our heads.

I am not ready to give up, but I am not willing to spend money hiring a translator or other paid expert, so I use my limited Italian skills and a computer translation program to do my own translation. I have been meeting with an Italian teacher at my school for private lessons, and the entire next lesson is spent with her correcting my insurance papers translation.

Several weeks later, translation in hand, Lucy and I return. What other obstacle can they throw in our path now? We are confident we will get our permesso, though it is now late November, and by this time Lucy and the girls are taking lessons at the Bertram Russell language institute. But we have been working on this for nearly three months, and we are determined to see it through, even if we don't really need it any more.

I see the same man I saw the last time I came, and he looks over the translation very carefully. I am confident because I know it was expertly translated by a native italiana, a teacher no less. But no, there is something here, he says, that doesn’t seem right to him. Here is a line that says not every illness is covered, referring to some pre-existing conditions. I had wondered if that might be a problem when I translated it. Of course I could just have left that line out of the translation, but I wanted to do this the right way, so I kept it. I didn’t really expect anyone to actually read the whole thing, but as luck would have it, I have run into someone who reads the fine print.

I try to explain that the assicurazione will cover anything that happens to us in Italy, and that we have no current medical problems, but he points to the line again and refuses to continue. Is there anything I can do to get my permesso, I ask? I can take my insurance to the questura in Milano, where there is someone who reads English, and he can determine if my insurance is adequate. Otherwise, no, there is nothing more that can be done here.

I leave frustrated and a bit stunned. We have made six trips to the Questura, seven if you count my futile midnight list-signing. The only thing I gain is insight into Italian bureaucracy. Well, there is one other thing: After many weeks of practice, I can finally pronounce assicurazione like a native. We have already found language classes by this time anyway, so it is time to concede defeat. We will live out our remaining months here as tourists, but officially we are illegal aliens, without papers.

The acronym for “without papers” was once thought to be the origin of the unflattering word wop. A hundred years ago, Italians who went to America also had trouble obtaining their paperwork, but they could be hired as day laborers, paid in cash at the end of the day to avoid the need for contracts. This is also supposedly where the nickname dago comes from, as in going to work for the day. Both of these theories have since been debunked. Current wisdom is that wop derives from the slang word guappo, used mostly in the region of Campania to describe certain people as swaggerers or ruffians. Non-Italians heard Italian immigrants using it and thought it applied to all Italians. Dago, it is now believed, came from a corruption of the name Diego, once a generic derogatory term to describe anyone of Latin descent. Whatever—I still like the romanticism of the old explanations. And it adds to the irony of my situation—an American wop coming to Italy and working for cash like a dago.

Meanwhile, I find that the Crestanis have shed their without papers status and finally obtained their documents, not through the hired expert but in that most Italian of ways. It seems that son Ryan is quite a good soccer player, and he has been practicing with a team of local ragazzi, but with the first game coming up within a week, the coach realizes that Ryan can’t play without his permesso. Not a problem, the coach says, because he has a friend at the questura. Between the coach and the friend, the Crestani family has its paperwork in hand in plenty of time for Ryan’s game. Magari! If only I could play soccer!

Back now to 2012, I no longer need to worry about my permesso, because by now I have stumbled through the even more arduous procedure of obtaining Italian citizenship jure sanguinis, through my ancestors, or more literally, my blood. 
And thats a whole other long story . . .

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