Lots of people ask me what it’s like to live in Damanhur, in Italy, far away from my birthplace and hometown, blood family and earthly origins. (Cleveland, Ohio; Houston, Texas; Taiwan and San Francisco, California, USA.)
It’s quite an experience. And it takes a lot of determination and even hard-headed stubbornness at times to move through the apparent obstacles and moments of confusion, disorientation and frustration to just keep going with it and find the joy and enchantment again.
Operating in Italian for most every interaction throughout the day and into the night for late community meetings and Mediterranean dinners, there is a certain kind of passionate charge to it, an emotional depth and poetry that really can’t be reproduced saying the same thing in English. I do often feel fatigued at the “end” of the day. Routing the neural pathways of every communication through foreign language circuitry takes effort, especially since I am not using my first or second acquired language but fifth… behind English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and French.
The Italian bureaucracy is part of the trial as well. It’s stereotyped and exaggerated, though sometimes it really is as convoluted as it is portrayed in urban myths and media.
Lately, I’ve been moving through the steps of renewing my Permesso di Soggiorno (residency permit – kind of a greencard equivalent) and these kinds of processes highlight the nature of this phenomenon.
To do this renewal, I picked up a packet of forms from the Ivrea post office and very determinedly tracked down all the information and codes, documents and papers I needed to complete it. Including the 16 Euro marca da bollo which can’t be purchased at the post office, and must be acquired for some reason at a tobacco shop…
The day I went to submit my completed packed, I got a ride from my nucleo community in Lugnacco to Damjl, the main Damanhur campus in Baldissero Canavese. Twenty minutes later, I got on a bus to Ivrea, which after a half hour dropped me off on the other side of the river. I happily discovered, via iPhone maps, a foot bridge and pedestrian path that brought me to the post office, the one by the ancient clock tower… Entered the post office, which has these sliding door chambers in the entryway, closing the door behind before opening the one in front, as if stepping off Orion’s landing platform and onto Mars. I take a number. P19. I wait my turn. It takes a while. I eagerly hand over my packet of papers in expectation of document checks and rubber stamping. The post office worker asks me how much I need to pay.
Me: How much? Ummm… aren’t you supposed to tell me?
Postal Worker: Well, it’s different for different kinds of permits, and this one woman overpaid by 60 Euro and it cost her 40 Euro to file a claim for a refund… so you better go and ask.
Postal Worker: The Questura down the street.
It’s sunny in Ivrea and at the brink of springtime, and for this I am grateful, as the day I went to pick up the packet last month was a grey, chilly, rainy Piedmont winter day.
I walk ten minutes to the Questura, that is, police headquarters. I walk in the door and ring a doorbell for the immigration office. No answer. I wonder if I am in the right place to retrieve the information I need, as I scan the front room, crowded with folks waiting to retrieve their gun permits. The atmosphere is impatient and surly. I ring the bell again, and I say I need to ask something, and a disgruntled voice tells me that he already buzzed open the door three times and if I don’t go inside, I will never get my answer. Okay, thanks.
I walk inside and see an Indian couple in the office where I want to go. I sit down in the hallway, across from a copy machine and a paper recycling bin. The immigration officer speaks with the couple about passports and permits and entry dates and such. I wait. Every once in a while, I hear footsteps approaching the door and my heart leaps with expectant joy of it being my turn, though instead of an informed Indian couple, it’s a stout secretary going toward the copy machine. The monotony of the wait is interrupted by the occasional police commissioner transiting from one office to another. I feel certain that none of these people have ever had a pranatherapy session or researched their past lives. Finally the couple exits and I go inside, sitting down in front of the officer and handing him my application packet.
Me: So, I have this kind of work contract… how much do I need to pay to submit my renewal? I went to the post office and they said I should come and ask you.
Immigration Police: The post office sent you here? Why? They are the ones that should know. They have all the charts with this kind of information.
I smile with my mouth closed to conceal the teeth grinding, and I shrug.
Immigration Police: Anyhow… it’s 127.50 Euro. Buongiorno.
Back to the post office. Mars entry chamber. I take a number, again. P57. Waiting… How long do I need to wait? Well if the numbers proceeded from P52 to P53, I might have a sense of it, though A13 is called then A14, then E98 then P53… Then, it’s my turn. Some shuffling and payments and rubber stamps later, I’m done! Liberated! … Oh wait.
Me: What is this?
Postal Worker: You need to go to the Turin immigration office and present this receipt and paper, 4 photographs and the originals of your passport and documents on this day at this time.
Me: Oh, I see. Grazie.
Turin immigration office day was two days ago, and I must say that there, the experience is much more humanized than the first time I applied for my permesso. The incarceration grey walls have been painted a bright, multicolor mix. Instead of showing up at dawn to get a number and wait six hours until it is called, I showed up around my scheduled time, and there was a chart of numbers next to every appointment time, in intervals of 6 minutes, so that the whole process took less than an hour. And the staff was under 40 years old and seemed to want to acknowledge the humanity behind the photocopies and fingerprinting, almost smiling, instead of displaying the desperate caged animal grimace I’ve seen behind the glass window of such offices.
So, Italian bureaucracy. It’s absurd, though things seem to be evolving.
I’m actually looking forward to returning to Turin and picking up my permesso next month. It’s a kind of ritual that connects me to people from all over the world, doing the same thing, choosing to live in Italy.