Sunday, July 17, 2011

Un Permesso per Piacere!

Since we've decided to stay another year in Italia and my spousal Visa expired in May, I'm required to obtain a Permesso di Soggiorno (the Italian equivalent of a green card). As a non-citizen, this document allows me to reside and work here legally until my dual citizenship application is accepted ("estimated processing time: 2.5 years").

Having finally obtained my Permesso, I can say without reservation that the best gift we as parents could ever bestow upon our children is not a signed original of the Articles of Confederation happened upon at a roadside flea market, a mortgage-free country house or even a well-diversified stock portfolio, but a European Union passport. For it is indisputably the latter that will broaden their world-view by offering countless opportunities for travel, learning and global friendships. The benefits are legion really, and extend far beyond exponentially improving Giovanni and my chances of ending up with a decent view and palatable meals when we're consigned to a long-term care facility in our dotage.

Over the course of our kids' lives, an EU passport won't only grant them greater possibilities when it comes to living, working, studying, volunteering, loafing, overindulging, pursuing unlikely affairs and having their hearts broken abroad some day, but it will also confer the distinct advantage of significantly reducing the number of hours they spend standing in long queues and suffering the indignities of airless waiting rooms and the whims of petty bureaucrats. Ultimately -- after all the private lessons, carpool choreography, nutritionally balanced meals and investment in sport camps, safety devices and cognitive and artistic enrichment -- isn't that what every mother desires?

Unfortunately, I'm battle-hardened from my encounters with Italian apparatchiks and the wounds are still fresh so I know of what I speak. You'd think that being married to an Italian citizen, possessing Italian heritage and producing two Italian citizens to help reverse one of the world's lowest birth rates would count for something -- or at least make for a straightforward process. You'd be wrong. After withstanding five trips to the Questura (State Immigration Office) on the industrial outskirts of Rome to obtain my Permesso and resigning myself to countless lost hours and associated indignities, I take no small comfort in the fact that both my kids were instantly granted dual citizenship upon emerging from my womb (aka my "ICI" - Italian citizen incubator). Thus they will never have to endure the misery, emotional scarring and lost productivity of their forebears.

This ominous mid 1970s-era miltary bunker surrounded by barbed wire and porta potties and lacking in sidewalks inspires both fear and dread to all who dare approach (the Questura that is, not my womb) and reaching the imposing entry gate alone requires a good amount of nerve as you have to share the main road with oncoming traffic, successfully dodge all the trucks hurtling by and hold on to all 17 varieties of paperwork en route that might or might not be required that day.

As if this wasn't enough to make one reconsider submitting to the process for any presumed greater benefits, there's a lonely, sun-baked bus stop out front that affords an unobstructed view of the sprawling, corrugated metal-and-tarp shantytown across the street where desperate denizens (presumably those denied their Permesso) demarcate their hovels with makeshift laundry lines and broken appliances and start casing any cars as soon as they're parked. No wonder most everyone waiting for their number to appear on the illuminated board inside is agitated -- they know that by the time it's called, their vehicle may well be stripped of anything valuable and they'll have to sit even longer to take the bus home. Everyone else just has that distinct look of resignation endemic to the human spirit being systematically crushed.

However grim or exaggerated it may sound, this is Rome's current version of a welcome mat for those interested in staying in Italy longer than three months, regardless of purpose. And don't count on things getting easier or more hospitable for foreigners of any particular stripe while waves of fleeing Libyans continue to wash up daily on southern shores and prime minister Silvio Burlesque-oni spends what little remains of his mandate trying to change the law only so he can avoid prosecution.

And make no mistake, the government wants you to give up when you're informed by an epauletted official that five additional forms are required by the following week and then are told upon your return by a disheveled guy in an old T-shirt that three of the documents you spent a dozen additional hours to obtain are irrelevant and that four more have to be submitted within a 10-day window (with official stamp) or your application will be considered null and void and you'll be forced to start all over again. Don't give in to the temptation to lash out, cry, assume the fetal position and start rocking, resort to sarcasm or create anything ressembling a scene -- no matter how frustrated or despondent you become. Flying into a rage might be extremely satisfying in the moment but will mark you as among the weak and unworthy and, at minimum, result in several more unecessary trips. Persevere.

The requirements are unpredictable (expect them to change with each official you speak to) the volume and variety of paperwork staggering, the unabashed incompetence mind-numbing and the waits legendary, but none of these deliberate obstacles are insurmountable. Becoming legal here is more akin to an intensive course in anger management than an official governmental process any American would recognize, yet you can succeed if you summon all your powers of Zen detachment and patience in the unshaven face of adversity and stare steely eyed into the abyss of state-sanctioned whim and intentional inefficiency.

For those interested in living legally in Italy or applying for citizenship, I've compiled a few essential "Do's" and "Don'ts" below. If you don't feel up to the rigors required and choose to live fuori le regole (outside the rules), be aware that you may be forced to pay an exhorbitant fine and fly home unexpectantly after a routine traffic stop or while crossing the border for a weekend outing. (I can't afford to take such a risk while I'm still responsible for making sure that two of Italy's youngest citizens' teeth are brushed twice daily.) Now that I've got my Permesso (generated on a dot-matrix printer circa 1987), it's good for five years. I sincerely hope that my application for dual citizenship (now languishing for the past year on a desk somewhere at the San Francisco consulate) is accepted before I'm forced to embark on a renewal odyssey in 2016.

In somma...

Questura Do's:
  • Do suck up (but don't be too obvious about it or you risk becoming a target for greater abuse).
  • Do make the first surly functionary you encounter type up what you need for your next trip on official letterhead so that the next surly official who looks it over will be less inclined to invent an additional non-existent requirement (which happens frequently by the way when a put-upon employee has no idea what's required in your particular case and is simply attempting to save face).
  • Do bring water, plenty of snacks, more than 5 hours worth of reading material and toilet paper.
  • Above all, do maintain your smile and always be courteous.
Questura Don'ts:
  • Don't become sarcastic as a defense mechanism. Just keep all cutting asides to yourself. For example, don't ask out loud why they bothered installing 21 sportelli (numbered help desks) when no more than four are ever operational at any one time. Just start jotting these maddening observations down as the basis for a cathartic blog to help pass the time -- and in case you forgot your reading material in the car).
  • Don't try to be helpful by suggesting that the most commonly used forms be evenly distributed to all sportello operators to increase efficiency instead of doled out individually from an office on the third floor.
  • Don't be tempted to ask to speak to your assigned malcontented official's superior whenever you reach an impasse.
Following these guidelines might just save you a dozen or more hours and shave your total trips down to under five. But I'd go ahead and pray to your god of choice beforehand to cover your bases if you think it might help. It can't hurt.

Buona fortuna!

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