Sunday, January 30, 2011

Circling Venice, Circling New York

Along with all its other advantages, New York City offers its residents an excellent course of preparation for living in any other place in the world with a reputation for inefficiency and nightmarish bureaucracy.

My Italian relatives and friends almost can't wait to hear of the frustration stirred up in me by the Italian system. It seems like a point of pride for them: an essential element of the Italian experience--like visiting the Doge's Palace or Roman Coliseum--that they'd really hate for me to miss. They're eager to commiserate, to offer their support. I'm afraid I've disappointed them because, in fact, my experience with the Italian system hasn't been too bad.

On the contrary, I was amazed by how easily I was able to obtain my codice fiscale (tax ID), enroll Sandro and myself in the National health service and get him the one vaccine he lacked, file for a residency permit, enroll in a state language course for stranieri. At no point did I encounter long lines. Never did I feel shunted aside by some bureaucrat so flush with job security that work was the last thing he or she did while at the office.

Perhaps I've been taken in by the famous charm of the Italians that writers like Beppe Severgnini warn all of us newcomers against. But charm is nothing to sneeze at in a state employee, especially when they're actually helping you. In either of the two US post offices near our apartment in Brooklyn you could almost swear that you'd been dropped into one of those old prison movies--and you were the one wearing stripes. Gray, dirty, gloomy, these are places where you do your time and the exchanges from one side of the bullet-proof glass to the other often teeter on the edge of contempt, ready to tilt into open hostility.

Of course it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. My pursuit of a Carta di Soggiorno for my wife Jen (allowing her to stay in the country for an extended period of years) has evolved into the circular route that, according to my architect cousin, is typical of Italian public life. You begin at Office A and are immediately directed to Office B. But your matter falls outside the jurisdiction of Office B, which must direct you to Office C. At Office C you find out that had you arrived 2 months earlier they would have been able to help you, but now you must go to Office D, to which responsibility for such things has been transferred. At Office D no one knows what in the world you're talking about and after a protracted discussion among the staff it's determined that Office A is where you should be...

Maybe someone from some place other than New York City could join with my cousin and that old American spaghetti sauce commercial and exclaim, "Now that's Italian!" But I've been through similar scenarios when I attempted to obtain (unsuccessfully) a copy of my mother's Brooklyn birth certificate. When I needed to obtain a copy of our marriage certificate and have it apostilled. When I sold our 1997 Toyota Camry and needed to cancel the insurance on it.

Or perhaps--though I certainly hope not--everyone everywhere has some experience of this same dizzying route. For my recent attempt to change my American health insurance coverage followed this path as well--and the company was located in North Carolina.

Maybe this route is universal wherever one must deal with large business entities, whether public or private, and varies only by degrees or intensity from place to place, country to country.

Or maybe the only difference from place to place is people's response to this inescapable contemporary experience. Italians, with perhaps a fatalism quite foreign to most Americans, accept it as a defining part of their national experience, while Americans insist with indignity that it is a glaring anomaly, a rupture in what should be, or could be, a perfectly efficient system.  

Maybe, that is, Italians sacrifice almost all hope for improvement and gain a sense of fellowship. While Americans maintain their hope in something like perfectibility by isolating the experience--and inevitably those who undergo it--as atypical.

Each country's attitude has its advantages. Each could gain by adopting a bit of the other's.

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