It was last Thursday, mid morning. I was patiently forming a queue of 1 in my bank’s local branch when the entrance capsule opened to receive the branch manager. He walked over to me, shook my hand and with a big smile said, “nice to see you, how are you today?” After my assurance that, indeed, all was well he then repeated the exercise with the chap already being attended to at the counter before trotting off to his office. The last time I witnessed anything so personal and sincere in a bank was the best part of, well, let’s say many years ago when I tagged along with my dad while he sought some advice about a planned purchase. I’m even sure I was allowed to take a toy to keep me out of trouble. Those forgotten days when a bank manager had the expertise and authority to advise without recourse to a mainframe and without the need to complete a targeted insurance sale. The moment served to bring into focus the experience I’ve had in becoming a functioning member of the Italian community.
To establish my new status and to cross over to another system I had to complete the following game levels; obtain codice fiscale (tax and insurance code), open bank account, gather ID card, win driving license.
Like all of you I’m sure, I’d been warned about the infamous red tape in Italy, so my expectations on completing these tasks in less than a few months were a shade low. However, and I fib not, the whole list from start to finish was accomplished in less than a day…without once lifting a telephone. In Calabria they have an office and, more importantly, a real person for everything you need.
Allora, first up and an early start, codice fiscale. This, I’ve since discovered, is the key to all doors in Italian dungeons and dragons and subsequently the most important. So, in hindsight, it was very lucky it was top of the list. I Left the house to go to the Reggio office at 8.15am and was back home by 9.45am, job done including travel time. Surely to catch me unawares!
Second step, bank account. Interview with the manager, complete forms, deposit funds and walk out complete with activated debit card…45 minutes, including hand shake and welcome to the bank. Too easy!
Step three coffee, before going to photo shop for mug-shots for ID card and driving license. Total time and cost, about 10 minutes and 5.7 euros. This, I have to say, is where the story becomes just a little more “Calabrian.”
To apply for an ID card one has to go to the local municipal office, which in my case is only a short stroll from the photo shop. In Pellaro you climb a few steps from the street into a small, square and very old-fashioned building which surrounds a tiny courtyard. There’s no reception counter to speak of, so you make your way round the quad till you find someone who looks vaguely as if they belong. I was shown into a council-plain room with yellow gloss walls, a few old and battered bookcases and a huge heavy-looking wooden desk. From a cracked leather chair the chief “funzionario” stood up, greeted me warmly and offered me a seat while he opened a drawer and pulled out the necessary forms, suspiciously as if he’d been expecting me. Name, address, phone number, place of birth and occupation. No need here, nor the bank by the way, to explain my movements over the last 10 years, my employer’s details nor income. No need to feel that there’s a check going on against the national police databank, just in case. ‘Till, that is, it comes to your personal appearance. This is where it gets serious.
“Hair colour?” .
“Hmmm, think we’ll put grey”
“Oh!” The realisation of age catching me up as I stroke what little hair cover I have left. “Okay then, I suppose.”
“Eh? Aah, of course! In meters please”
“I’m afraid I don’t know”
We got up and moved to the next room where there was a door frame with a few notches marking out centimetres from the 30cm level up to the top of the frame (what they have to measure at 30cm still has me puzzled from time to time). We established my height in European….1.77m, then returned to our seats at the desk.
“Ohkaaay, colour of eyes?” And, deciding not to take my word for it, he leans over and stares at me intently for a moment. “Green!” He declares.
“Are you sure? I would have said brown.”
“Mmmm. Wait a moment”. He gets up and calls to someone in the next office. “Can you come in here and check something for me”.
A female colleague arrives and looks straight into my eyes. “Brown.”
“Brown? No way! They’re definitely green”
“Rubbish! I say brown”
Not happy with a split vote, he lifts the phone and summons a further two employees (or employee and other customer, I’m not sure).
“Green for me” says one, “Sure they’re not a sort of grey-brown?” questions the other.
By the time we had a two vote majority establishing that I no longer had brown eyes but green, we’d had a full room of about nine people all gazing very deeply into my eyes. Most disconcerting, I assure you, but my identity would be waiting for me to collect two days later for 5 euros.
The process was now nearly complete but I had only a few minutes to leg it round to my appointment with the driving license office. An appointment, why? Because I had to have my new green eyes tested by a doctor. There were about seven or eight people waiting ahead of me when I skidded in, so I settled down to catch my breath. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes before I looked up to see that the queue had evaporated and I was hearing my name being called from another room.
“Sit there please”
I sat down in the only free chair in the office, against the back wall, and peered through the dim light across to another large desk which was covered in open files and papers. Behind the desk sat the doctor, I’d presumed, leafing through a bundle of forms. Without looking up he picked up a long stick from below the table and pointed in the vague direction of a chart on the wall behind him. (Please note here that I had spent the previous few nights religiously practicing the Italian alphabet which is a few letters short of the English version and that i & e sounds are easily confused)
Still without looking up or turning round, he points and commands,
“Ok”, next please”. He stamps a form and hands it to me. “Go to the other office and give them this”.
The next client and I passed each other as I left the room and went to hand over my form and fee at reception. How long did it take you to read the last paragraph? That’s how long my green eye test took. My license duly arrived 3 days later, though a little more expensive as the doctor’s fee had to be met, of course. He probably calculates his earnings by the minute than by the hour.
The truth? I never once needed the phone, no labyrinth of numbers to select, no repeating my name clearly and slowly three times to a voice recognition system that ends with going back to option 1, while I damage the wall with my forehead. Just a look at the world with new eyes.