The Beauty of Italian Bureaucracy


“Good morning, I need to apply for a Permesso di Soggiorno,” I smile at the police officer behind the reception desk in Siena’s Questura. He looks at me blankly.

“Not here, signorina. You can’t do that here.”  He shrugs and turns back to the crossword puzzle he thinks he’s hiding below the top of the desk.

“Well it says here I’m supposed to go to the Questura. This is the Questura, right?” I ask, getting a little worried. I mean, the guy looks like a police officer…but then again, maybe I took a wrong turn and ended up in the city jail. Who knows?!

“Yes. This is the Questura.” He points to his uniform and gives me a look that says can’t you recognize I’m a police officer? I’m wearing a gun and handcuffs!

“Ok….So where do I go to apply for this permit?” I’m trying to be polite, but this guy isn’t being helpful, and I just walked a couple of kilometres to get here. In the unrelenting mid-morning Tuscan heat.

“The other Questura, for immigration only. In Via delle Sperandie. Do you know it?” I nod my head, mutter a thank you and leave. I sure did know the street he was talking about. It’s on the way out of town. Across town.

After getting slightly lost, (the last time I had been in Via delle Sperandie I was with friends, a year ago, not looking for the police station!) I walk in the door of an official-looking building and make my request. They, of course, send me next door. Next door, I stand shoulder to shoulder with 25 people, all waiting to do the same thing I am. Babies are crying, a myriad of languages are being spoken. This is the immigration office, after all.

If you think things went smoothly after that, you’re dead wrong. The officer was friendly enough as he told me that I would need to get 5 passport photos taken, get some sort of stamp that would cost me 15 euros, and questioned me about the origins of my last name, since it’s Italian. So off I trot, uptown, to get my pictures taken. They come in blocks of 4 or 6. The officer had told me I needed 5. The guy at the photo store tells me I need 4. For economy’s sake, I opt for 4 and cross my fingers he’s right.

Then, I go next door to the Tabacchi (tobacco store, like a corner store) for this stamp. Why do I need this stamp that costs 15 euros? It’s the processing fee for your application. Why can’t I just pay them down at the Questura when they take it from me? God only knows, signorina. I buy the stamp and head back to the Questura rolling my eyes.

Here’s where the story gets a touch embarassing. Instead of making it back to the Questura, I got lost. I know, I know, I know I had just been there. I know, I know! But Siena is a bona-fide labyrinth! And lots of the streets look the same! So obviously, I didn’t make it back there before they close for the day at 12:30 pm. Long hours they work, those Italian police officers: 8:30 am – 12:30 pm!

The next day, I’m back at the Questura, file in hand, waiting with 50 other people this time to hand things in. Finally, my turn comes, everything is in order, and I take off my rings in preparation for the fingerprinting I’ve seen them do with the others before me.

“No, signorina. You need to go to the other Questura to have your fingerprints done.” The officer must be joking, I think. He must know about all the running around I’ve done and now he’s just pulling my leg. So I stand there smiling, like a simpleton.

“No, signorina. I’m telling you la verità. Here we do fingerprints for passports. There they do fingerprints for the Permesso di Soggiorno.” I turn and leave with a sigh. “Just make sure to call us to check and see if your Permesso is ready!” he calls after me as I head out the door.

“Wait, don’t you call me when it’s ready? You took down my cell phone number.” This would be the logical thing to do, right?

“Nope, you have to call back and check in with us. Start calling in 15 days. It shouldn’t take more than a month!”

I am exasperated. I return to my friend with the crossword puzzle in the main Questura.

“Just wait right here while I call the guy who does the fingerprints.” I sit, I wait. I watch two people come in to report things stolen. Finally, my turn comes to climb four sets of stairs and try to find the fingerprint guy on the top floor.

“In here, signorina! For the fingerprints? In here! So what are you doing in Siena? How come you speak Italian so well? Ahh, I see you’re Canadian. Listen, I want to send my daughter somewhere to learn English. Would you recommend Canada? Ok, for the file here, how tall are you?”

After responding to all his other questions with ease, I have to stop and think about the number printed on my drivers’ license. “175 centimetres,” I respond, making sure I translated the number correctly into Italian.

“What!?” Sounding outraged, the fingerprint guy leaps out of his chair and finds himself at eye level with me. “Oh, I guess you’re probably right. It’s just, 175 centimetres is so tall for a woman!” Tell me something I haven’t heard from a million other Italian men.

“Ok, you’re done! Have a great day!” He dismisses me with a smile, and I do the four flights of stairs, thinking about how much of my time this stupid permit has taken up, and how far I’ve had to walk for it all.

Once in the remote little street that houses the main Questura, I try to look on the bright side of things. Is there a bright side of things? I ask myself. I know there’s a hot side of things, since this is Siena, in the summer, and I’ve been walking around outside for two days straight thanks to this Italian bureaucratic mess! This permit has dragged me to just about every corner and through just about every back alley that Siena has to offer. But I conclude that  applying for the Permesso di Soggiorno may be, in fact, the best way to tour the city!

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6 thoughts on “The Beauty of Italian Bureaucracy

  1. I too, have had the pleasure of applying for a Permesso di Soggiorno , or 2. There is nowhere to go to get advice on how to do this. A dozen people each told me a different approach. It took me 2 weeks to find a post office that would accept my forms before I even got to the Questura stage. I have had 2 permessos now, each one for 2 years. My husband applied in exactly the same way as I did and his expired 2 days after he got it. If you didn’t laugh you would cry.

  2. God how I remember each time I’ve had to go through this painful process. I love Italy, I really do…but my goodness do they make it difficult to do anything involving forms, processes or administration. Thank god they’re so good at pizza, pasta and gelato…!

  3. Pingback: How I Became A Nomad | Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"

  4. Pingback: How to Survive Italian Bureaucracy - From Italy, With Love

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