Crappy Birthday to You—Un’Americanata
As if it weren’t already depressing enough to turn 47….
“At a certain point you start to notice things about Italy that you don’t like. This often happens following a frustrating encounter with the local bureaucracy, an argument with a bank teller who doesn’t offer the same customer service you’re used to, or a bus strike. You can’t believe that people could live with such problems on a regular basis. You begin to resent the lack of organization and miss things from home. The incessant ringing of cellular phones starts to get on your nerves. You wonder why you’re making your life more difficult by living in a foreign country–and of all places, in Italy…. This is the hardest period to get through. It can last a week, a month, or more than a year. If there are enough things about the country that you truly like, patience will help you make it to the next phase. If there aren’t enough, you may end up moving back home.” (38)
Now they friggin’ tell me …. The above is taken from Living, Studying, and Working in Italy: Everything You Need to Know to Live la Dolce Vita by Travis Neighbor Ward and Monica Larner. I could just leave it at that, but in fact I’m in a shitty mood and I feel like picking on someone, so I’ll add that I hope Mr. Ward and Ms. Larner are having a lovely, ex-pate time somewhere and have found some other way to make a living than writing supremely useless (when not downright misleading) guidebooks that leave the impression that things which are complicated are not, and that things which are easy are going to be more difficult than they turn out to be. But even the Ward-Larners couldn’t be wrong about everything, and they knew this day would come: The I-hate-everything-why-is-everything-so-fucked-up here?” day.
Even as I write that, of course, bundled up in my bed in my freezing apartment with a nearly worthless portable heater wheezing away beside me, I can hear the sound of mental sputtering: but, but, but, but, but, but.
In other words. I don’t really, and it isn’t really. Not everything. Not even most things. Some things, though. And boy howdy.
I don’t even have the pleasure of throwing in the petulant exit line, “And I want to go home!” First of all because I don’t, and second of all because I have no clear idea where that is anymore. That’s the trouble with kicking over the traces a little too effectively. You can find yourself in endless asteroidal drift.
And yet. It’s been a periodaccio. A number of giornatacci in a row, even a settimanaccia or four. A couple of grand screaming fits (thus far entirely internal) on the order of “YouPeopleAreOutOfYourBloodyMinds-accia.”
What it is, this story, is all about Three Ragazzi and a Direttrice….
Ragazzo 1: After two weeks of mielose “I wanna hold your hand” phone calls and jocularly suggestive instant messages, he tells me (in an email) that he has a “confession” to make. In a country as Catholic as this one, that is a terrifyingly vague opening. Indeed, it emerges that he is “fidanzato.”
To a girl.
But he really likes me and wants us to go out, even though he’s not really sure he could ever “be with” a guy. Even if he were free. Which he isn’t.
Now, you’ve read about this in People magazine, but here it is in (sur)real life. The problem isn’t his speculative bisexuality or his all-too-concrete engagement. The problem is the complex yes/no/yes/no/yes/no message inherent in all this, which my circuitry is ultimately not able to process. Here, I guess, they just have bigger brains.
Ragazzo 2: This one’s really queer (an improvement!) and he asks a lot of questions. All of my answers, unfortunately, are wrong: Whatever I say about Italy or my experiences here, I’m overgeneralizing (maybe, but it’s just that …. ); I’m just like all the other Americans who come to Italy and insist that it be like home (no, really, I ….); it isn’t fair (for example) for me to say that people are more diffident and less welcoming in the north than in the south (okay, but it’s only an….); and, what’s more, if I’m having such a bad time, why I don’t I go back to where I came from (honestly, I wasn’t having such a bad time up until now)….
In short, he’s a nationalist. Italy: Love It Or Leave It. Okay, I was bound to come across one sooner or later, and it’s even kind of interesting, as these things go. He reminds me of someone I met through friends in Puglia last year. We ran into each other again when I was back in Neviano recently, and both times he started the conversation with the exact same phrase — “What you’re seeing here is a country that is dying!” — continuing from there to a recitation of low birth-rate statistics and internal-migration statistics and unemployment statistics that I was given to understand were somehow my fault. (He, meanwhile, is certainly doing his part: He’s managed to father three kids. On this last trip, I got to meet his exhausted wife as well.)
So okay, fine, everyone’s got an opinion, and since me and Nationalism Boy aren’t really hitting it off, best thing to do is chalk it up and shuffle along. But no, because ….
He really likes me and he wants us to go out, despite the fact that every conversation ends with one of us sulking. Plus, he’s developed this annoying habit of calling me six, eight times in a row until I finally break down in frustration and answer the phone. Così non possiamo continuare, right? Right? But in a country where yes means maybe and no means maybe and even maybe means maybe, he’s simply got more resistance than I do. The only solution may be to change my phone number.
Ragazzo 3: I don’t know what this one’s sexual orientation is, and I don’t care. For me, he’s simply the bastard controllore on the train from Pisa to Livorno who made me pay an extra €11,20 for my ticket because … okay, it’s complicated. Basically, the train I had a ticket for was 45 minutes late. While I was waiting at the Pisa station to go to Livorno, a different train came along that also made the stop at Livorno Centrale, and so I hopped on. The problem was, the second train was an InterCity, and I had a ticket for a Regionale. Understand? So I had to pay the difference in fare plus an €8 fine for buying a ticket on the train. I explained the situation, hoping for a little compassion (we’re talking about a 15-minute train ride from one station to the very next station). All he said, in addition to repeating “€11,20,” was “We can’t predict late trains.” In other words, if I didn’t want to pay, I should have waited the 45 minutes. I had the tiny satisfaction of getting to say the phrase I’d been storing up for just such an occasion (Questo è un furto legale!” — roughly the equivalent of “This is highway robbery!), but I clearly wasn’t the first person who’d ever said it to him.
Instead, by the time he’s finished making change (I give him a € 100 bill, just to be an asshole) and writing out the painstakingly elaborate receipt that TrenItalia apparently requires, during all of which I never once stopped talking, not even caring if I was hurting his ears with bad Italian, he really hates me and wishes I were dead, and since the feeling is heartily mutual, in some ways this is the most healthy and reciprocal relationship I’ve had with a man since I’ve been in Italy.
This is too complicated to go into in much depth, but the gist is: I had a great job lined up in Pisa, doing real teaching (not a hundred rounds of the verb “to be” and the difference between possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives), and the school had even promised to initiate the bureaucratic process that would eventually have provided me with a legal work permit and the chance to emerge from the “nero.” And then, on the very day of my birthday, the Direttrice called to say it was all over between us: In the solid month since I had signed my contract, they had done exactly nothing about my legal status and, as a result, couldn’t let me start teaching. Somehow, this became my problem. If I wanted, I could come back (I was in Rome at the time) immediately and go to the Questura to see if I could work something out (for the uninitiated, this is similar to sending a Christian to see if he can work something out with the lions), but otherwise, they’d have no choice but to look for another teacher. The next morning, I allowed myself the pleasure of sending her a bitchy email, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory, which is to say no victory at all. The moral of this story is: Being an illegal immigrant is not for the faint of heart. Think about me the next time you hear someone waxing snotty about “foreigners.”
So yeah. Me and Italy are having a moment. We’re on hard times. I’m hoping it’ll pass, just like they say it will in Living, Studying, and Working in Italy. On the other hand, so far they haven’t been right about much.