Tag Archives: bureaucracy

Five Essential Rules of Italian (Roman) Bureaucracy

11 Oct


These days it takes something quite unusual to get me back on the blog, but this is a post whose time has come.

Over the course of roughly 15 years of life in Rome, I’ve learned and internalized a few precepts for dealing with the notoriously difficult and entrenched bureaucracy.

When I speak of bureaucracy, what I am referring to includes, but is by no means limited to, the following:

  • Getting a driver’s license
  • Getting public health insurance/choosing a family doctor
  • Dealing with city hall for certificates (birth, marriage, residency, civil status)
  • Dealing with the questura, central immigration, and post office for stay permit issues
  • Contesting/rectifying any errors on aforementioned official documents
  • Mailing a letter or actual package at the post office, and God forbid you are crazy enough to open any sort of financial account there
  • Applying for university/enrolling in university
  • Dealing with an Italian consulate or embassy abroad
  • Banking in Italy
  • Returning items to a store in Rome/trying to get your money back for something
  • Taxes and any other dealings with a behemoth known as INPS
  • Paying bills in any shape or form, and generally dealing with any utility company, especially publicly-owned ones such as ACEA, ENI, ATAC, AMA
  • Trying to pay for a low-cost item with a 50-euro bill

Like I said, this is a limited list, but I’ve done all of the above, some multiple times (because I am a masochist, clearly), and so far, I’ve lived to tell the tale. I have the tear stains and gray hairs to prove it.

So patience, young grasshopper, while I now impart my hard-earned knowledge.

1. In Rome, you are not entitled to anything. So please throw away immediately any mentality that allows you to think you can “make it their problem.”

This first dictum is absolutely essential. If you approach anything in Rome with the sort of approach I used to have when I lived in the United States, you will simply and utterly fail.

After telling a horrific bureaucratic tale to an Australian who had never lived in Rome, I was asked: “What happens though, if you just make it their problem?

My two very seasoned American-in-Italy expat friends and I (about 50 years of expat experience in Italy combined between the three of us) laughed with wide-eyed amusement. You know the laugh. That “awwww, how cute” one.

It took at least four times repeating “you can’t make it their problem” to get the message through, adding several more concrete and non-theoretical examples, but the concept was so foreign I still don’t think we made any real impact. I got the impression our dining guest was convinced that had only he been in our shoes, he would have been able to “make it their problem” – read: make them fix the problem for him.

This brings us to dictum 1a:


I put that in ALL CAPS because I cannot stress this principle enough. You are absolutely responsible for finding a way. If someone helps you, be grateful, but consider it an exception to the rule. You must use your own brain, your own resources, your own energy and your own elbow grease to get your problem fixed. That probably means bringing in other people you know, who have experience, for moral support and technical advice. But ultimately this is your problem to solve, not the manager’s—even if the manager created the problem for you. (I fully grasp the absurdity of this concept. You, too, should begin embracing it as soon as you are physically and mentally strong enough to do so.)

Let’s do a little trial exercise to get you warmed up, so you can strengthen those underworked, flabby bureaucratic muscles, and thus begin safely working off that extra layer of entitlement that you carry with you from years of doing business in more civilized places.

Ready? Repeat after me:

I, the client, am not always right.
In fact, I am almost always wrong. At least on the first trip.
This is why my secret weapons are persistence, determination, and patience—and not indignantly demanding to speak to a superior.

(You should probably repeat that one a few more times. Really get your heart rate up a bit.)

Humility will help you with this one. No one is getting paid to be nice to you. So just get the F over it. It never gets nicer or easier.

2. Keep your expectations super low, so that you can be pleasantly surprised when things go right, rather than abysmally depressed when things go wrong.01720_expectationsI realize that this might come as an affront to those of us raised in cultures where we’re encouraged to “raise the bar,” etcetera, etcetera. You must shake off your high standards. They have no place here.

When embarking on any bureaucratic task, get all your ducks in a row (see 3), and then, resign yourself to the fact that you probably won’t accomplish what you’re setting out to do. This way, if and when you succeed, you’ll feel like a million effing dollars and then some. Plus, it gives you a great reason to pop a bottle of bubbly.

See? Now when did a trip to the post office ever merit champagne in your past? Move to Italy. You’ll understand.

3. Start “the file.”


Aw yeah, expats know what I’m talking about here. I learned about “the file” about a year or two into my life in Rome. Let me set the scene for you. It was the umpteenth time I was getting shot down trying to sign up for my family physician and health card: this time, they discovered that my birthplace as printed on my Italian ID card was the right city, but the wrong country. You see, I was born in Portsmouth, Virginia (USA), but the clerk who had produced my ID card years prior unbeknownst to me had mistakenly input Portsmouth, (GB) … and no, the health office people were certainly not going to fix that for me. Down for the count, once again.

Meanwhile, I stepped aside and watched a man from Vietnam attempt something at the window. The clerk tried to shut him down by saying he was missing a particular document. BOOM! He pulls it out of a three-ring binder he was carrying. Then the clerk, with a look of triumph, tells him he is missing the appropriate number of photocopies (and HELL NO they don’t make photocopies FOR YOU! Please see 1 and 1a). BOOM! He pulls out a sheaf of photocopies from his binder.

In short, I learned a valuable lesson that day. Keep every paper. Bring every damn paper with you to every appointment. Keep multiple photocopies of everything on hand at all times and ready to hand over (at least three), especially passport and stay permit. Keep a sheet of ID card photos on hand as well. Why not throw in a tax stamp for €16 while you’re at it, too—couldn’t hurt. Tax returns? Check. Marriage certificate, birth certificate, divorce decree? Who the hell knows! Check! File all this mumbo-jumbo in those plastic A4 sheet protectors, stick it all in a three-ring binder, and before you depart for any bureaucratic mission, you take that damn binder with you. Watch in awe and wonder as it grows through the years. But by all means, don’t like go and forget it in a public restroom or let someone steal that sucker or something equally tragic. Then you’re screwed.

4. Don’t expect there to be one answer to your question, or even a right answer at all, or a conclusive answer, and certainly don’t think that NO is a final answer, although usually it is, except when it isn’t.


It’s completely normal and acceptable that two employees in the same office, perhaps two who even sit next at windows right next to each other, give different answers to the same question, on the same day, different days, or the same time. No one is guaranteed to know the true answer, or the right answer, generally speaking. Please see rule 1a. Knowing the answer to the question in advance is your job.

Once when I was trying to accomplish something in the ID card office, I looked over to the desk marked “information”. The man employed to provide information was sleeping. Like deep, REM-phase sleep. He slept for the entire hour-plus that I was in the office. So, I suppose we could append to this adage: don’t expect employees to actually be awake on the job. But that is maybe best reserved for our masterclass in bureaucracy. I certainly wouldn’t want to scare off beginners.

5. If you can liken all of your bureaucratic travails to the spiritual metaphor of a video game, you can even have fun while you’re at it. 

kung-fu-master-lvl-1Basically this metaphor always works for me. Just imagine that whatever you’re trying to accomplish is like being in one of those old-school Nintendo video games where each level had some sort of fire-breathing dragon or its equivalent that had to be defeated before you could pass to the next level. That’s basically a microcosm of the entire Roman bureaucratic machine.

In your video game, you will encounter many evil enemies and obstacles blocking your path to the next level, thus preventing your advancement towards fighting and defeating the Big Boss. Let me list some of them for you:

  • Strike (transport or labor union, or both)
  • Office moved but no one told anyone—you get there and there’s a handwritten sign on the door
  • Employee at window 1A isn’t responsible for that—you have to ask the person on the 3rd floor
  • Person on the 3rd floor isn’t responsible for that—you have to ask the person at window 1A
  • The person at window 1A is now on coffee break
  • The deadline for that was last week
  • No there aren’t any exceptions
  • You didn’t keep your receipt
  • You don’t have the right photocopy
  • There’s a mistake on your document (missing letter, wrong number) and it’s not their fault and they can’t fix it. Go Directly to Jail. Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.


Here’s the thing, folks: Rome bureaucratic missions will either break you, or build you into a problem-solving superhero who laughs in the face of insult. (And then whips out a photocopy and a tax stamp.)

I raise my glass that your path leads towards Kryptonite-free triumph, paved with smiling impiegati and lots of freshly-inked stamps. Go boldly forth, and achieve greatness!

Italian Bureaucracy is So Bad It’s Comical

3 Aug

This should be the title of an off-Broadway play.

Here’s the thing, people. Today I write you this tidbit not to complain and bitch. No, no. Perish the thought. Complaining and bitching about Italian bureaucracy is strictly for amateurs. I’m over that. No, folks, I consider myself a seasoned pro by now, so I have better things to do with my time than tell you about long lines and unfriendly clerks at the post office, and mail that never or almost never arrives. (Besides, I’ve done that many times before.)

Today I just want to have a few “ha-has” about how silly this whole thing is. I was tempted to say “how silly this whole tarantella is.” The tarantella is a folk dance from southern Italy, and Italians say that as a colloquialism to refer to the elaborate song and dance you have to do to get stuff done.

So here’s the deal. I have cell phone and Internet service in a bundle from Wind/Infostrada. When I signed up I gave them a credit card to charge each billing cycle. This month the card didn’t go through. So I call to ask why, and get a card ready to give to the person on the phone so I can get the bill paid.

You know, you figure if you’re dealing with a private and not public office, a modicum of efficiency might be had.

Well. You figure wrong, my friends.

Besides the fact that the lady was sooo annoyed because I couldn’t understand her that well so I had to keep asking her to repeat herself (at one point I heard her audibly make one of those big, put-out sighs, and I go “Listen! I’m not trying to make your job difficult. But clearly I’m American and therefore Italian is not my native language. So, you know, help me out here. I just need you to spell it, ok?”), it’s just not that easy to pay your bill.

Annoyed lady: “Well, signora, now that your card has been rejected once, we can’t accept credit card payments anymore.”


Me: “Um, ok. So how am I supposed to pay?”

Her: “Bollettino postale.”

Cue death music.

The bollettino postale (oh God, here I go, amateur hour) is the dreaded “pay the bill at the post office.” Jesus. And believe me, he’d be the only one who could help me do that in a reasonable amount of time without hassle.

Me: “But I didn’t get a bollettino on my bill. So how do I go about paying it?” (Usually the bollettino is a slip of paper you tear off your bill and take to the post office to pay with.)

Her: “Get a blank one at the post office. Fill it out with this information…” And she proceeds to rattle off indecipherable numbers and street names and I’m thinking, are you kidding me? Not to mention the fact that they don’t leave these forms out for the public, so you have to ask for them. One time I asked why they don’t leave forms out for the public. The clerk told me “Because people steal them.” I go, “Why on God’s green Earth would people STEAL postal forms?” Then it occurred to me. They “steal” them because they hoard them so they don’t have to ask for them because the postal people never leave them out for the public because they steal them. Catch, meet 22.

Droning on: “Then after you pay it, you need to fax the proof of payment to this number…one-five-wearethemostinefficientserviceintheworld-four-ten.”

Me: “Wait. What if I just want to put a new card on file? Couldn’t I just do that now with you, over the phone?”

Her: (sinister laughing) “No, for that you’d have to go to the Wind store in person.”

Me: “Whaaa?”

Her: “You have to go in person, and ask the clerk for the form. Then you fill it out, and fax it to this other number.”

Now I swear, at this point, I started laughing for reals. Which, of course, only served to piss her off further. Me: “Wait. You mean to tell me that not only do I have to go IN PERSON to a shop, but then I can’t even give the completed form BACK to the guy who gives it to me?”

Her: (completely offended) “Of COURSE not! That’s private information, signora!!”

Oh, right. Now I’M the asshole. No, seriously, people. THE MIND BOGGLES.

So obviously, after a week, I’ve gotten absolutely no where paying my bill because I avoid going to the post office like the plague. My only consolation is that it’s August, so probably no one will be at the post office except me and maybe some other poor schmuck whose card didn’t go through at Wind.

Pssst! Come in real close. I want to ask you something.

How much do you want to bet that if I call back and get a different operator, I might be able to pay over the phone with a credit card?

Lesson #1 in Italian bureaucracy, public or private: Never give up with the first employee. They all make up their own rules based on their own needs. Try a few until you are absolutely sure this is actually policy.

People, I need to hold a masterclass, I swear. I should give flipping GUIDED TOURS to new arrivals about how to navigate this stuff. So, if you were wondering about the screen shot from the arcade version of Double Dragon, here it is: I continue to contend that Italian bureaucracy is akin to a 1980s-era Nintendo video game, where you need to complete all the levels to then get to the “big boss” and if you kill him with fire power and have extra lives, you win. A.k.a. you get to pay your bill.

Game over!