Trasloco: An Idiomatic Italian Expression …

… that means, roughly translated, “Let’s see how many things can go wrong before a fissure opens up in your head and your brains start squirting out like over-heated beer.”


There’s a great line in Lanford Wilson’s play, Fifth of July: “Men and women aren’t strong enough to have children. Trees should have children.”

I long ago admitted that I wasn’t strong enough to have children; I’m not even strong enough to have other people’s children in the same room with me, so you can imagine. But I’m starting to suspect that I may not be strong enough to live in Italy, either.

As I write this, we’re officially at the end of Phase I of our move from Bologna to Ferrara—a physical distance of some 45 km; a distance in personal wear and tear of at least 16 months off my life.

Back before we went flitting off to Morocco last August, we were already in deep discussion over the fact that living in Bologna was (a) freakishly expensive and (b) no damn fun (even though, as a translator, I spend 11-hour days staring at the computer screen and thus do not officially have fun, but let’s not quibble).

A + B eventually equaled C, hence the decision to move to a place that would be both closer to M’s work and closer to what we actually earn, since, with the utility bills, it was costing us nearly €1000 a month (that’s $1,400 in real money) to live in a city where we couldn’t afford to eat at a restaurant and where taking the bus a couple of kilometers into the centre had become such an ordeal of smelly gypsies, snotty adolescents with backpacks the size of air conditioners, drug-addled punks with spooky dogs, old ladies with pointy elbows and battle-ready umbrellas or both, German tourists with duffle bags, snarky businessmen with a half-dozen extremely important phone calls that had to be made immediately and while shouting, otherwise-unemployed housewives bearing an average of 18 enormous bags from the exhausting morning they’d just spent shopping, and immigrants with “don’t fuck with me” glares listening to neuron-obliterating music on their mp3-equipped cell phones that we essentially stopped doing it months ago. If I have to be a prisoner inside my own apartment, I’d prefer to pay less for the privilege.

Thus, the trasloco. I’m sure I’ve remarked in the past about how nothing is easy in Italy. Oh, sure I have, you just don’t remember.

Well, it turns out that practically anything is easier in Italy than moving, which partly explains why Italians are so reluctant to move and why the standard rental contract is called “4+4,” which provides a four-year lease with a first option for another four.

First comes the disdetta, the cancellation of the rental contract, which requires six-months’ notice. Our landlord allowed as how he wouldn’t mind if we wanted to leave sooner but, of course, he’d have to charge us if he didn’t find someone to take our place before the contract officially ended. Well, if you were going to pay me rent for an empty apartment, I suppose I wouldn’t mind either. But given the housing market in Bologna, we thought the likelihood of his not finding a new tenant was small, and so we proposed October 31 as a move-out date instead of the official disdetta date of December 31.

Starting in mid-September, the landlord began sending people here virtually daily (about 40 all told, over the course of four or five weeks) to view the apartment. Most of the time, he didn’t bother to let me know they were coming until an hour or so beforehand. All of our eager visitors assumed the place was available immediately and were surprised/disappointed/ticked off to learn otherwise. When I suggested to the landlord that he might want to make sure people understood when the apartment would actually be free, he told me, “Well, if they can’t read what’s in the announcement, that’s not my problem.” Now, since not one single one of the people who viewed the apartment was actually on time for the appointment (the winner was a whopping 40 minutes late), I might have been persuaded to believe they had also read the ad wrong. But then we found the ad in the newspaper, and verified that the landlord had written “available immediately.” So not only was most of that inconvenience for nothing (such as having to make sure to flush the toilet and not leave your underwear on the bed or dirty dishes in the sink), our landlord was also a liar.

Then came the house-hunting. The done thing in Ferrara, we learned, is to use an agency, of which there are dozens, rather than to place an ad and screen potential tenants yourself. This must be because people in Ferrara are very, very busy. You might assume that what you do is register with an agency, tell them what you want, and then they show you a list of available properties. No. That’s not how they do it in Italy. In Italy, you call them and they are (a) rude, (b) pushy, and (c) deaf. You say you want a terrace and they send you to places without one. You say you want air-conditioning, and they say they don’t know what’s actually in the apartment; you have to go and look.

When you finally make an appointment, they do not tell you where the apartment is. They give you the approximate neighborhood or an intersection and you go there and wait. They are always late, but then they call you (or you call them in frustration), and one way or another you find each other, and then you follow the agent in his or her car to the property.

On one occasion, we went to see a place advertised as “furnished” in which there was not one single stick of furniture. The owner was putting in “everything new” but it had yet to arrive. After our (brief) visit, the agent (fake-blonde, fake-tanned, and very, very anxious) wanted to know what we thought. What we thought was that we needed to know what kind of furniture we were going to be living with before we could make a decision (given that, among other things—and I know this contradicts all you’ve heard about Italian flair—Italians often have the worst taste in furniture this side of Beijing). She just smiled a grim little smile and handed us her card. The agencies, by the way, charge one-month’s rent for all of this “service.”

But going it without an agency brings risks of its own. Two very promising apartments fell off the list because: Apartment #1: The place was decent-sized, located in a peaceful neighborhood, and convenient to M’s work, but it was stuffed wall-to-wall with gigantic pieces of stifling, gloomy furniture in the style that I’ve come to identify as “Early Nonna.” You could barely turn around without banging into something approximately the size, weight, and color of a Kodiak bear. Nope, they weren’t willing to move any of it out. OK, then, never mind. Apartment #2: A really spacious, really beautiful place in the suburbs of Ferrara. It would be ready in the first week of October. No, it’d be ready at mid-month. No, it’d be ready for Nov. 1. No, maybe the owner was actually going to sell it rather than rent it after all and, anyway, the couple who lived there hadn’t decided whether they wanted to move or not. OK, then, never mind.

Finally, there was the nightmare unleashed when we finally found a place. Imagine drama on the dimensions of Neapolitan opera: Mom (whose house it is) has Alzheimer’s and has to go into a nursing home. Brother 1, who was apparently a kleptomaniac and a hophead, is comatose in the hospital, slowly dying of cancer. Sister 1 lives in Ferrara, but has a family of her own (and, by the looks of things, a serious problem with depression). Sister 2 lives in Belgium and visits only long enough to pitch several crying jags, tell everyone they’ve ruined everything, and generally throw all plans to the wind. Brother 2 is trying to hold all this together. At first he tells us yes. Then he tells us no, they want to sell rather than rent. Then he tells us yes, they’ve decided they want to rent after all. They’re going to clean the place up and paint it, and it’ll be ready for the 2nd of November. Then the 3rd, but he won’t have time to paint. Oh, and we can move our things to Ferrara but they’ll have to go into the owner’s storage unit because Sister 1 can’t get the house ready in time. Then, if we can wait until the 4th, we can put our things in one of the rooms in the house, but we ourselves can’t move in until the 6th. In the end, it turns out to be the 8th.

Back in Bologna, our current landlord was turning into a prick. He’d found a tenant but didn’t know when the new guy intended to move in. No, our landlord didn’t want to “bother” him by asking. All he knew was that we’d agreed to move out and our problems with the new house weren’t his problems. Finally, persuaded by M, he agreed to ask the new tenant if he had the flexibility to wait a week, and the guy agreed immediately. For several days in the meantime, however, we were under serious stress—the kind that leads to Vicious Mood Swings and Senseless Crime—and were planning to stay in a motel until the Ferrara house was ready.

Meanwhile, proving that payback is a bitch: the new tenant here in Bologna turned out to be one of these guys who goes around renting apartments which they then sublease for high rents to students and illegal immigrants, usually disappearing in the end with everyone’s security deposit. So our Bologna landlord cancelled the deal and has no tenant, which he characterizes as “lucky for us.” In any event, as they are wont to say in India, “Whose sari now?”

Moving Day. Moving companies were asking from €600 to €1000 to transport our very meager collection of belongings from Bologna to Ferrara, and so we decided to go the “cheap” route and hire a couple of guys from the internet. Yes, yes, they tell us, they’re available. Yes, yes, they’ll come right over and give us an estimate. All is well. And then the phone calls: “Ah, did you say Saturday? Ah, no, Saturday we won’t have a truck. We could do it on Sunday.” Okay, then, Sunday. A day passes, and then another phone call: “No, the guy with the truck isn’t available Sunday, either.”

OK, so how hard can it be to rent a truck of our own. We turn to our “AmicoBlu,” the Maggiore car rental agency. On the internet, their trucks only cost €70 a day. Except: Because neither Maggiore nor any rental agency is open on Sunday in Bologna, we have to rent the truck on Saturday and return it on Monday, paying for two days in the process. And the taxes and mandatory insurance add about 30% to the price.

Our movers, meanwhile, who look just like Laurel and Hardy (or, actually, Hardy and Lurch) show up right on time. Only trouble is, one of them (Hardy) is “injured” from a previous move and essentially sits on his ass and smokes inside the truck the entire day. Lurch and the two of us do most of the work, which consequently takes six entire hours for what ought to have taken half that time. We’d agreed on a particular hourly rate, but then they upped it when it came time to pay. It might have been worth pitching a fit, but I was so astonished by their sheer gall that we just peeled off another couple of bills and handed them over. In the end, we saved practically nothing on the deal.

The cherry on the cake, as they say in Italian, has to do with internet service. Attentive readers will recall the 60-plus-day-long odyssey of getting internet hooked up here in Bologna a year ago, but our friends at Telecom disconnected our service in less than 24 hours, leaving us without a phone and me unable to work during the last several days in Bologna. By the way, they estimate that getting service established in Ferrara will take “a couple of weeks.”

It Happens At Last. At 9:30 am on November 8, we leave Bologna for the last time, M’s car stuffed full of a very random assortment of last-minute belongings, none of which I seem to care much about anymore, and we head for Ferrara. “Phase II: The Unpacking” begins immediately. I experience neither relief nor any particular nostalgia as we turn onto the autostrada and Bologna disappears into the haze behind us. We still don’t have a signed contract for the house in Ferrara.

So What Have We Learned Here?

1. Landlords are dickheads, no matter where you go.

2. Italians are lovely people, as long as you assiduously avoid any dealings with them that involve money.

3. Things really do work better if I do everything myself.

4. There’s no sense in worrying so much, because things never happen the way you think they’re going to. On the other hand, nothing ever happens the way you think it’s going to, which is exceptionally worrying.

5. Cell phone companies like Telecom are making millions of Euro off the inability of Italians to respect deadlines, to make or keep appointments, or to do exactly what they say they’re going to do exactly when they say they’re going to do it. Every time someone changes his mind, a cascade of phone calls and text messages ensues.

6. We should all buy stock in Telecom.

7. Italy’s not the Third World, but it’s not quite the First World, either, and it’s living in the One-and-a-Half-World that really pushes you over the edge.

8. In the end, it probably goes well beyond being Italian. As my friend, Giovanna said, when I asked her how Italians managed to live this way: “I’m not the best person to ask. I don’t feel like Italians are really my countrymen anymore. I don’t understand them, I feel like a stranger, and I’m constantly getting pissed off.” Which is essentially how I’ve felt about being American for about, oh, 27 years. So, yep. Maybe I’m Italian after all.


Posted on 8 November 2007, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order) and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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