Promesse di Marinaio

Disclaimer: I recently finished reading Tim Parks’ Italian Neighbors or, A Lapsed Anglo-Saxon in Verona, one of his several entertaining memoirs about living as an expat in Italy. What I like about Parks’ observations regarding Italy—and what distinguishes them from Beppe Severgnini’s amusing but ultimately saccharine and superficial commentaries—is that Parks judiciously permits a tone of irony, even the occasional soupçon of bitterness to slip in. In other words, he doesn’t fall all over himself with apology and guilt for being a stupid foreigner who couldn’t possibly comprehend the ins-and-outs of his adopted culture and who, therefore, would never dream of permitting himself to criticize it. He notices when Italians are, quite frankly, out of their freaking minds. He criticizes, albeit good-naturedly. Albeit a hell of a lot more good-naturedly than I do/have done/intend to go on doing.

But Italian Neighbors is relevant here because of what one of the cover blurbs says (more-or-less; I’ve returned the book to the library and can’t refer to it directly): that travelers’ memoirs of Italy tend to fall into two basic categories: (1) breathless and romanticized accounts of an Italy in which the country and its inhabitants are reduced to folkloristic cartoons or (2) tales of bitter disillusionment and shattered expectations. The publisher’s point was that Parks’ book was neither of the two.

My point is: It is undeniable that I am constitutionally more inclined toward the “bitter and disillusioned” end of the cheerfulness tachymeter— Dolce Metà reminds me constantly, and quite rightly, of the inconsistency in my view of the world: I believe in bad luck but I don’t believe in good luck.

But that doesn’t mean that my interpretation of events is perforce tainted, nor does it mean that Italy has shattered my expectations. At least not entirely. I reserve for myself the supreme pleasure of bitching and moaning—an individual or team sport that can be played in all weathers and requires no special equipment or training.

Ma sono mica scemo. As Super Chicken used to say to his sidekick in super-herodom: “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred.”

I knew. I knew. Up, up, and away. Ba-gaawwkk!


There’s a lot of talk among Italian politicians, economists, and policy makers about the modernization of Italy and its emergence as an economic force not only in the European Union and in the wider West, but as a trading partner with Asia. (Two thousand and six was the Year of Italy in China, by the way, which meant that rafts of Italian politicos and business types with smarmy-looking suits flew over to hobnob with the Chinese who, I’m guessing, were pretty much loving the fact that Western Europe had become their bitch.)

In many of the commercial translations I do, in addition, I’ve noticed a decided tendency—not to say obsession—on the part of Italian businesses to brag disproportionately about their customer service. Apparently, it’s become the new way to distinguish your enterprise from all the others in the marketplace.

Now let’s be clear about terminology. They’re not talking about increased or better or newandimproved customer service. They just mean customer service. The fact that they have it, I mean. That they bother to think of uttering the words. This, standing alone, ought to render the idea of what I’m trying to get at. Customer service—and, by extension, the freighted concept of consumer rights—barely (barely) exists in Italy.

All right, perhaps some of the companies I translate for really do offer impeccable customer service. I wouldn’t know: They sell things like milking machines and wood flooring that goes for about eight squillion Euro a square meter and bathroom faucets made of gold, so it’s not like I’m their number-one customer. At the same time, I can tell you with enormous confidence that a number of Italian companies who do NOT provide impeccable customer service insist, contrary to all reason, that they do.

To put it another way, telling prospective customers that you provide top-notch customer service is a very smart move, publicity-wise. Once you have a customer’s money in hand, however, actually providing that service is of not the slightest importance.

Perhaps this only proves that Humpty Dumpty was right when he told Alice that he could make a word mean whatever he chose it to mean, “neither more no less.” Poor Alice—here, standing in for the strafottuto consumer—tries reason: “The question is whether you can make words means so many different things.”

“The question,” Humpty scoffs, “is which is to be master, that’s all.”

Or perhaps it just proves that Kafka now lives in Italy, having fled the snow-barren wastes of former Communist Bloc countries, along with their great and insensate state monopolies, for the sunnier climes of Southern Europe, where corporations have taken up the slack as the institutions that control both access to services and the quality of our daily lives.

Therefore, for those Italian politicians, economists, and policy makers who want to boast about the market strength of “made in Italy” products and Italy’s international significance as a producer of goods and services, I have only these anecdotes to relate and only this advice to offer: Before you take your show on the road, you need to address the question of why fuck-all works at home.

A Room with an Internet Connection: 104 Days of Sodom

Nevermore take for granted that you can be “online in fifteen minutes,” as Earthlink, AOL, and other ISPs promise (accurately) in America. It’s a privilege for which many have fought and died (if I had my way, the dead would include virtually the entire staff of Telecom Italia, about which more later).

Here in Bologna, internet offers are thick as thieves. This presents no difficulty because the offerers are, themselves, thieves.

First, there was InfoStrada: Sign up online and have service as quick as they can ship you the *FREE* modem. Sounded almost American; we did it. Two weeks later, no modem and, after several more days, they deigned to respond to three or four email messages with the news that there were “problems” in our zone and they were currently estimating being able to provide service within 60 days. Okay, never mind.

Then along came FastWeb. Someone had pasted a flyer to the front door of our building which read: “Your building is equipped for FastWeb. Call our toll-free number and receive a special offer.” The answer to our prayers, I thought. And yet, it was soooo not.

First of all, no one ever responded to calls made to the toll-free number on the flyer, so one Saturday we went to the local FastWeb outlet, just down the street in Piazza dell’Unità. There, we got our first “Alice in Wonderland” language lesson: “abilitato,” as far as they were concerned, didn’t mean “is equipped,” it meant “could be equipped”; thus, no actual FastWeb cabling had been laid in our area, and it would be 30-45 days before they could provide it. Okay, thanks just the same.

Tiscali came along third in line. It wouldn’t take more than 20 days, they assured us. Well, if that’s the best you can do, that’ s the best you can do. The modem was delivered to the house practically before we’d hung up the phone, but after weeks there was no sign of the technician who needed to activate the service. Thirty days came and went. Repeated calls; no definitive response.

Here, however, I was introduced to the charming Italian custom called the “sollecito.” Roughly translated, it means “My sole purpose in life is to get your ass off the line.” Technically, though, it’s a request that the customer “service” representative makes to the technical side to find out what’s happening with your order.

Here’s the hilarious part: They have absolutely no way to track whether a response has been received to a sollecito or, indeed, to confirm that one has ever been sent. Thus, if you call back on Day 46 to ask what happened with the sollecito they supposedly sent on Day 37, they act like you’re some kind of idiot. At some point I asked what purpose was served by sending solleciti if they couldn’t track responses. “It’s what we can do,” the representative told me.

And finally, the monopoly-that-isn’t-officially-a-monopoly, the botfly risen from the putrid carcass of the old, state-owned SIP: Telecom Italia.

Say it with me: Telecom sucks.

Guido Rossi, President of the Gruppo Telecom Italia, deserves to be smeared with honey and pegged down over an anthill in a Costa Rican jungle. There, I said it and I’m not sorry.

The facts are these. We made our request for service on November 13th. On January 5th, it arrived. For anyone like me, who isn’t quick with math, that’s 54 days, on no small number of which I was as close to bursting into flames as I’ve come since I had to deal with the idiots who provide cable-TV service in San Francisco (another monopoly in our supposedly free market).

All I’ll say is that it’s a very lucky thing that I still haven’t quite worked out all the bugs in my Telephone Death Ray, capable of sending a lethal jolt of electricity through an ordinary phone line, or there’d be a lot of employees still giving off smoke in the Telecom call center.

No need to rehearse every ugly detail: Many phone calls. Many solleciti. Many excuses (the warehouse ran out; we’ve had unexpectedly high response to this new offer; it’s all the fault of the Chinese; and — my personal favorite — “we’re having problems in your area.” Ya think???).

But two high points: The day I said to a representative, “Does this seem to you like an acceptable level of customer service?” Her response: “Oh, signore, how it seems to me really doesn’t matter.”

And the other: There’s a clause in the Telecom contract that says, after 50 days, Telecom must issue a reimbursement of 5 Euros for every day thereafter on which your service has not been activated. (Mind you, no one EVER mentioned 50 days when we signed up: It was two weeks, three at most. But, when the contract arrived, there it was in print. Let none call it consumer fraud.)

We made our request on the 13th of Nov, but the order wasn’t “registered” for several more days, so the time ran from the later date. Thus, 50 days expired on January 4th. On January 5th, the modem arrived. Go ahead and says it’s a coincidence, I dare you.

And just a few more examples, since I’m on a roll.

On October 16th, we ordered a washing machine. It arrived 39 days later. The place where we bought it didn’t have any in stock, so they (apparently) contracted with a home-appliance store in Bologna to take care of the order. M. made many phone calls to these lovely folks. They couldn’t make the delivery until they were able to load enough things onto their truck to justify a trip to our neighborhood (less than three miles away). Why should we care whether they did or didn’t have a full truck load, I wondered? M. allowed as how I had a point. On the other hand, they had the washing machine and we didn’t, and they weren’t going to deliver it until they were good and ready. On the day finally set for the delivery, the truck was two hours late. Another phone call: “Ah, sì, ma c’è tanta strada.” (“Yes, but it’s a long way.”)

And, to finish up, something that didn’t happen to me but which has become my favorite “Made in Italy” story. This was an item on Striscia la Notizia, a prime-time TV show that’s sort of a Daily Show-cum-Letterman-cum-bimbos-with-super-size-breasties-who-dance-on-the-hosts’-desk-tarted-out-in-their-nine-year-old-sisters’-gym-shorts. In short, very, very classy.

Anyway, it seems that there was this nice woman who went into one of those mega-super markets where they also have a book-and-magazine rack, and she picked up a copy of the biography of Padre Pio to give to her mother as a present. The book was shrink-wrapped, as they often are in Italy, so she couldn’t open it. When she got home, she discovered that the inside of the book was, instead, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.

Striscia contacted some big macher in the offices of the book’s publisher, Mondadori, who confirmed that, indeed, there had been a mistake in the printing. The book block (Mohammed) had accidentally been bound into the cover of the Padre Pio bio.

The macher’s advice to the woman who bought the book: “Hold onto it, signora, because these things sometimes become collector’s items and it may be very valuable one day.” No “Oops, our bad.” No “We’d be glad to ship you a copy of the correct book for free.” If anything, he was nearly disdainful that the woman had been stupid enough to buy a book, an attitude that one might consider misplaced in someone who represents a publishing company.

But that’s the way the biscotti crumbles here. Italian businesses are operating more-or-less on the level of a seventeen-year-old boy at 2 a.m. on prom night. They’ll say anything.

And what they say, in the end, isn’t worth a sailor’s promise.


Posted on 9 January 2007, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order) and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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