Welcome to Italy. Tutto Non è Chiaro.
In the small circle of pain within the skull
You still shall tramp and tread one endless round
Of thought, to justify your action to yourselves,
Weaving a fiction which unravels as you weave,
Pacing forever in the hell of make-believe
Which never is belief: this is your fate on earth
And we must think no further of you.
T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Italian practice of line-standing is comparable in significant ways to the process of giving live birth. Those who have given birth may recall afterwards a vague unpleasantness, but they cannot remember the excruciating process in its every gruesome and humiliating detail—if they could, they would do anything, including taking holy orders, to avoid going through it again. In other words, a kind of merciful amnesia takes one over, blocking the most painful memories until it is far, far too late. This is not me talking: I am reporting the experiences of at least half a dozen multiparous friends.
Late on last Tuesday morning, I completed my third day of line-standing at the Università per Stranieri. I am officially and completely registered for classes, and my administrative business with the Università is complete. (Well, almost. There are still a few lines to stand in.) But I do have my permesso di soggiorno (which doesn’t last as long as the course lasts, and that is certainly going to occasion a lively conversation with someone at some point) and I was finally allowed to know what my classes were and where they would meet.
Because of line-standing, which I began last Friday morning, I missed the first day of classes entirely and half of the second. You might think it would be useful for the university to advise incoming students to get started on the various registration-related tasks three or four days before classes actually begin—that is, if we had any interest in being in our seats when things officially kicked off—but then it would also be useful if the streets in Italy bore their own names, if the maps they hand out at the Ufficio Relazione con lo Studente actually depicted all of the buildings where classes are held or, while we’re on the subject of things people ought to mention, if someone warned you that your first love would end up squishing your heart like a bug or that your back would start being real murder before you were out of your thirties.
But no. Apparently, some things must simply be learned through personal experience.
On Tuesday morning I got to the University’s office of the Questura, where the precious permessi di soggiorno (stay permits) are handed out, early enough to be third on line among a growing and restive group of others, all of us clutching business-card-sized rectangles of white paper that read “Prenotazione Ufficio Polizia.” Like everyone else, I had received my prenotazione (reservation) on Monday afternoon, when the Questura suddenly announced that it would give out no more numbers that day, and that anyone who didn’t already have one needed to come back on the following morning. Note that they didn’t give us numbers for the next day, only prenotazioni—an omission that might have led to a sleepless night had the implications been clear at the time.
As I waited on Tuesday morning, the guard in the glassed-in, octagonal kiosk adjacent to the doors to the office of the Questura left his booth occasionally in order to walk to the locked doors of the Questura, peer officiously through the windows into the completely empty office beyond, hitch up his belt, and return to his seat. By the third circuit, I buried my face in my book (bringing a book is a useful survival technique; I’m told that, for Italian women of a certain age, knitting is also popular). When I looked up again, I saw that a second line had formed outside the kiosk itself and that the guard was now exchanging prenotazioni for the precious numbers. It hardly needs to be said that there had been no announcement. By the time I wrestled my way to the front of that line, I was no longer third, but tenth.
The difference was significant. Eighty-eight minutes passed while they served the nine people ahead of me. That works out to 9.7 minutes per person, which doesn’t seem especially bad, but there are two employees behind the sportello in the Questura, which doubles the per-person ratio to 19.4 minutes. Assuming an average seven-hour workday, the Questura can apparently only process 43 people per day (or a staggering three people per hour per employee). These are the kinds of calculations that one gets up to while standing in line and, I can tell you, it’s better not to start on them in the first place, for that way madness lies.
Here is a brief summary of my line-standing experiences:
- I arrive in the lobby of Palazzo Gallenga, the main building of the Università per Stranieri, where hundreds of people are milling about. In fact, the Palazzo resembles more than anything an immense, pink-stone hive. The bees fly in and out in every direction, and at the center is a hub of activity that seems essentially Brownian—trembling with energy but without discernible purpose. No signage explains where to go or what to do. Instead, there is a huge bulletin board whose every surface is covered with single-sheets of white paper, each professing to be an “officially sanctioned announcement” of the Università per Stranieri. I read a bunch of them and realize they contain nothing I need to know.
- I quickly discern that there are four lines running on different vectors through the lobby—perhaps five, but certainly four. I ask three different students what line they are in; they all say they were told to stand there, but they don’t really know what for. Their passivity irks me. Meanwhile, the line to get into the Ufficio Relazione con lo Studente is the shortest, so I pick that one.
- The Ufficio Relazione con lo Studente sends me deep into the basement where the Segretaria is said to reside. There, an immense line snakes through the waiting room like a loop of intestine and trails off down a long hallway that also serves as a repository for unwanted computer equipment and unused classroom furniture. A dusty skull or a few long bones kicked into the corners would not be out of place. Every so often a very unpleasant man comes out and yells at everyone to back up so that the inner sanctum—the room where the service windows actually are—is not clotted with students. Many people seem to be squeezing in and out the door, bypassing the line proper, which is barely moving. While I wait, I have plenty of time to observe a yellowed, weather-curled piece of paper that tells “Non-EU Students” what to do to get a permesso di soggiorno. Required materials are named but not described, nor is any clue given about where or how to get them. What that means, when I finally arrive at the window, is that I have a whole new set of questions. What I finally walk away with is torn scrap of paper on which an unexpectedly cheerful young woman has handwritten these essential data: the time and place where I will take my placement test on Monday and the name of the street where there is (reportedly) a shop where my passport can be copied and my photos taken. As for the bollati (tax stamps) mentioned on the sheet of paper tacked to the wall? Tabacchaio, she says. Obviously.
- The elderly couple at the tabacchaio just outside Gallenga are remarkably kind, and the man knows exactly what kinds of stamps I need. He explains that every official document in Italy needs one kind of stamp or another to show that a fee has been paid. The photo-taking and copy-making also go smoothly. All of this costs me €19.77.
- I go back to Gallenga and stand in the wrong line until it closes for the day at 1:20. I decide to give up and make a fresh start after the weekend. Surely on Monday, when classes are due to start, things will be clearer.
- I arrive early at Palazzo Gallenga and make my way up four cruelly steep flights of stairs to Aula XI/XII, where they are giving the placement tests. The explanation of the test eats up forty minutes, but just before the professoressa hands out the packets themselves, she tells us that we have precisely thirty minutes to complete the test, and not a minute more. Indeed, they all but yank them from our hands when the time is up. We are to return in two hours for the results.
- I cool my heels for two hours and come back for the piece of paper that attests to my level. This paper, I am sad to learn, has to be taken back to the Segretaria, who will give me my class schedule. Insufficiently Italianized/anesthetized, I cannot help but think that the test results could have been typed into a computer accessible to the Segretaria’s staff or, in less than ten minutes, read to them over the phone. Alternatively, I think, the people handing out the test results could have schedules for each of the five levels and could give them to us with our results. But that isn’t how it’s done. I head back down toward the dungeon.
- En route, I notice that there’s only one person inside the Ufficio delle Borse di Studio, which evidently has a single employee. I slip inside after only about ten minutes. The man behind an ornate desk in a huge and otherwise empty room gives me the two vouchers that will allow me to collect my scholarship award—well, most of it. I can take the green voucher to the cashier right away if I want, though he advises against it because the line is endless. The white voucher has to be brought back to him, signed by all of my teachers, after August 22nd, at which point he’ll give me a different piece of paper that allows me to collect the remaining €50.
- On my way out, I glance at the line for the cashier, which hosts an especially desperate crew, and feel glad that I don’t have to be in it today. I make my way down to the Segretaria.
- The wait is long, and screaming man is back. Several times, we trudge backward in line under his baleful glare. When I finally get to the window, the clerk looks my paperwork over and notices that I’ve been registered for a “Corso Intensivo,” which requires me to pay a supplemental fee of €38,50. “I’m sure this is covered by my scholarship,” I say, showing her the letter that says clearly that the scholarship covers any “corso normale o intensivo.” “Well, you can go ask,” she says, “or you can just bring me the receipt from the cashier.” Our conversation is more-or-less shouted because the clerks are separated from the students by a double pane of glass of a thickness usually reserved for visiting rooms in maximum-security prisons. “Sorry for making you repeat everything,” I say, “but out here you can barely hear.” “I know,” she says, “we’ve asked them over and over to take the glass down, but they won’t. So we go home at the end of the day with a sore throat, and out there nobody understands a thing we’ve said.” She smiles, “Don’t wait in line again. Just come right back to me with the receipt.”
- My earlier gloating is about to be punished: I have to face the cashier’s line after all. There’s about an hour and a half before the cashier’s office closes, and the line resembles a George Segal sculpture more than it does a line. A bit desperate myself, I go back to the Ufficio delle Borse di Studio in time to corral the poor fellow who works there just as he’s trying to lock the door behind him and leave for a coffee break. We discuss, we reason, we argue. He says he didn’t notice earlier that I was registered for a Corso Intensivo, or he would have told me about the charge. I realize, with a laden heart, two things: (1) I am going to be shelling out another €38,50 and (2) there is practically no chance on earth that I’ll get through the cashier’s line before it closes. Still, coming back on another day seems infinitely worse, for some reason, than waiting, and I plant myself glumly in last place. And then, after about a half hour, a miracle occurs. The door to the cashier’s office opens and two employees come out to explain that everyone who is in line in order to receive scholarship payments has to move to the right. Everyone who is there to pay fees has to move to the left. The line parts like the Red Sea, and suddenly I am in second place in the very short left-hand line rather than twenty-eighth or something equally unlikely in the enormous right-hand line. I’m through the door in minutes, explaining to the cashier that I’m there to pay the supplemento for a Corso Intensivo. His colleague overhears our conversation and suspiciously waves one of the green scholarship vouchers in the air. “You’ve got one of these?” he demands. And at that point, God help me, I lie. “No,” I say. “What are those for?”
- My receipt for €38,50 in hand, I start once again for the bowels of Palazzo Gallenga. The snaking line of lost souls is unchanged, and so I do what I’ve seen so many others do: Armed with “my” clerk’s permission, I squeeze past the front of the line and head straight for her window. This, in part, is why the lines move so slowly: Virtually no one shows up at the window fully fitted out with everything he needs to conclude his business—first because you generally have to wait in line in order to be told what that is, and second because the requirements change according to the whim of the employee you happen to speak to. As a result, the clerks must almost always send you off to complete some second-tier ministerial errand, and assuming they’ve taken any kind of pity on you, they tell you to skip the line when you come back. Thus, the numbers on the digital display can very easily stand in what appears to be total arrest for three quarters of an hour even as ten or fifteen people file in and out. Watching such a procession, a person might reach the mistaken conclusion that no one is being helped. On the contrary, everyone is. Everyone except you. There would surely have been some kind of integrity in the gesture if I had, in solidarity with the other suffering line-standers, refused to use my “Cut In Line” card, but I didn’t have it in me. If you’re still following the very vague outline of the childbirth analogy I began with, I suppose this is comparable to the point at which you say to hell with Lamaze and demand the epidural.
And that, of course, brings us to Tuesday morning and to the final line, the one at the Questura. As you walk away at last with the correct documents in hand, you’re seized by an unaccountable sense of deliverance. Outside, the colors of day seem more vivid; the heat seems to have abated, and you feel like indulging yourself in some minor ritual of celebration: a cocktail, a nap, an expensive supper. You need time to enjoy time properly. It’s nearly joy, what you feel, mingled with an exaggerated sense of triumph. You haven’t let the bastards grind you down—and look, look how beautiful the documents are, with their stamps in bright primary colors and the signatures in different inks, and no ugly empty spaces and everything neatly in its place, just as it was always meant to be. In fact, the process of getting your documents wasn’t really all that bad, now that you think about it, not even all that standing in line. No, you could do that again if you had to, sure you could. It would be no problem at all.