Italia II: The Disdetta
Those who have been paying assiduous attention to VitaVagabonda will recall the Rants of 2007 (Trasloco and Promesse di Marinaio), in which bitter complaints were lodged against the entire heinous, sanity-extruding process of moving house in Italy, with special opprobrium reserved for the Italian phone company, Telecom, and its staff of mental defectives, penis-heads, and chronic underachievers.
(In Italy, they don’t even have the excuse that their call centers have been farmed out to 14-year-old foundlings in Bangladesh; Telecom’s representatives are rigorosamente Italian and have all been pledged to the Fraternity of the Sisyphean Triumvirate—Incompetence, Indolence, and Indifference!)
Since it was so much fun last time, you might well wonder why we’re moving again. Well, because it’s called Vita VAGABONDA, that’s why.
Today’s subject, Possums, is the disdetta—the cancellation of services. Of course, as everyone knows, when you move you have to turn off the phone and the electricity and cable, and that’s no less true in Italy than it is in civilized countries.
What makes Italy different is that every service provider has a different way to go about it, and to learn the very special procedure that the gas company, the electric company, the cable television provider, and your phone/internet provider has prepared for you, you must call each of them individually to find out.
No, this information is not written on their internet sites. Their internet sites, instead, are almost entirely given over to a) advertising the additional services that they would very much like you to acquire and/or b) bragging about how environmentally conscious/helpful/experienced/efficient they are.
Each of these calls requires an average of 20-30 minutes, most of which is taken up in listening to the incessant repetition of neuron-sapping music, interrupted every minute or so by a recorded voice warning you that the implications of hanging up would indeed be dire. Still, there are only so many times you can listen to the chorus of “Waka Waka” before you can no longer resist the urge to search the internet, as long as you’re just sitting around waiting, for a site that tells you how to construct car bombs.
(The Italian post office, PosteItaliane, on the other hand, plays you “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which we heard on a permanent loop for 56 minutes during a recent call. It’s better than “Waka Waka,” but only just.)
In any case, here is a transcript of an actual call to ENEL, the company that so kindly provides us not only with electricity but with the most incomprehensible bill ever conceived by the depravity of the human mind:
— Hello? I’m calling because we’re about to move and need to turn off our electricity.
— What is your customer number?
— [Customer number provided.]
— Can you confirm your name and address?
— [Name and address confirmed.]
— One moment, please.
— [Four minutes of silence.]
— Are you still there?
— [Four more minutes of silence.]
— Are you still there?
— Um, by the way, we’re moving on the 25th, but if it’s easier, we could just close out our service at the end of the month.
— No, no. If you cancel service now, your electricity will be shut off when you hang up from this call.
— Oh, I didn’t understand that. So we can’t schedule service to be shut off as of the date of our move?
— No, you have to call on the day when you want service to end.
— Ah, OK. In the meantime, I didn’t want to forget to give you the forwarding address for the final bill.
— You want your final bill to go to a different address?
— Well … yes. As I said, we’re moving.
— You should have told me that earlier.
— Isn’t it sort of normal, though? I mean, if people move, they don’t keep receiving mail at the old address….
— I’ll note it in your file, but there’s no guarantee they’ll send the final bill there.
— But how …
— When you call back to cancel your service, you should remind them.
ENEL (electricity): We have to call on moving day, hoping they manage to get the final bill to us (which one might suppose would serve their own interests, but whatever). There was, by the way, the option of blocking the meter as of the day of our move, but that would cost us the equivalent of about $50 (and would then cost the next person another $50 to unblock). Much better if we get our landlord to transfer the account directly into his name, a process that’s called the voltura. I won’t even go into what’s required to conjure the arcane magic of the voltura.
HERA (gas and water): Ditto—we must call on moving day to cancel. Since, however, the water is still in the name of our landlord’s mother, who died shortly after we moved in, and since HERA demanded a copy of her death certificate in order to transfer the water bill into our names, a document we obviously weren’t in a position to provide, the water bill remained in her name and thus it will remain. Why they transferred the gas to us but not the water, I shall never understand.
SKY (cable TV): We must send a fax, followed by a certified letter, followed by the delivery of the decoder box and remote to an as-yet-undisclosed location, at which point we will be relieved of our contractual obligations. If they feel like it.
TELECOM (telephone/internet): And here was the surprise of the century. Telecom was the only utility willing to take our word for it—they noted the date of cancellation and said they’d send the final bill to a forwarding address. Maybe they decided they’d screwed with us enough up front. On the other hand, we’ve paid the equivalent of about $3.75 per month for more than three years for a service called “4Star” that we never ordered and have never used and yet have never, despite six different attempts, succeeded in getting Telecom to remove from our bill. So, for the $135 we’ve spent needlessly, I’d say we deserved a gentle good-bye from the phone company that Lilly Tomlin must surely have had in mind when she invented Ernestine. [“The next time you complain about your phone service, why don’t you try using two Dixie cups with a string? We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.”]
Keep in mind, through all this, that utility bills in Italy come only every two months and that there are rate changes for gas, water, and electricity during virtually every billing cycle that make it impossible to understand what you’ve been charged for or whether the bill is accurate. In addition, at the cessation of a utility contract there is frequently what’s called a conguaglio, Italian for “we’ve just realized we’ve under-billed you for the last eleventeen months and would now like you to pay us the difference, which amounts to approximately half your annual salary.”
One of the outcomes of all of this is that renters continue to have a relationship with their ex-landlords long, long after they’ve moved, because bills continue to arrive that Alexander Grothendieck would have a hard time deciphering. When we left Bologna in Fall of 2007, for example, our landlord didn’t return our deposit for six months, after he had managed to assuage his fears that a new bill or an unanticipated conguaglio would not suddenly appear.
A Pause to Reflect
Once one has finished the last of the phone calls and the tremors have abated, there always comes a calm moment in which one can pose the question that ought to be embroidered onto Italy’s flag: “Why does no one change this dreadful system?”
The answer, by my lights, is three-fold. First, because Italians would do anything rather than rise up, call their lawyers, refuse to pay their bills, and just plain go on strike. Second, because Italian consumer-protection organizations are toothless and ineffective (indeed, the concept of consumer protection in Italy is so deeply primitive that it’s considered a big triumph if you don’t find pig shit in your sausage).
And finally because utilities are monopolies and Italian consumers have, literally, no choice but to buy services from them, accepting dreadful treatment, outrageous rates, and generally poor service in the bargain. No private entity exercises any tangible power as a watchdog (on the analogy, e.g., of CALPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group, whose motto is “Standing up to Powerful Interests”), though many federations and associations and groups (and federated groups of associations) exist.
At a governmental level, the office of the Ministero dello Sviluppo Economico (the Minister for Economic Development) should theoretically be occupying itself with consumer issues; as a practical matter, however, not so much. (The ministry, meanwhile, has been without a leader since its former head, Claudio Scajola, resigned in May 2010 in the wake of an only-in-Italy scandal: Scajola claimed that his fabulous, million-dollar apartment in Rome, complete with view of the Colosseum, had been paid for by a developer, allegedly in exchange for favors in the assignment of building contracts, entirely without his knowledge. In yesterday’s SKY TV news poll, 75% of respondents opined that naming a new Minister for Economic Development should be a top government priority, though I’d be willing to bet that not one in 100 has the slightest idea what the Ministry actually does.)
If you sense an especially bitter tone in this post, it’s only because it’s there.
Bring on the brickbats and the flame-throwers, but I’m going to say it: Some things really are better in America. If Italy imported a little more consumer awareness and customer service, and a little less mindless pop music, third-rate television, fast food, and Reagan-style economics from the States, the Bel Paese might actually start deserving its adjective.