I would like to preface my story by saying that I really love my adopted country. The people are warm and full of life. Nothing in the following story is meant to give offense. The Italian bureaucracy has a long established, world-wide reputation, and I was not its first nor will I be its last victim.
The following story is true. While I’m sure that these things happen to other people as well as to me, I believe that they happen more often to me. Perhaps that’s a function of trying to learn and do as many things as possible before I die. I have always been in a hurry to experience life. I remember when I was a child, my mother telling me to slow down because there would be nothing left for me to do when I grew up. (She was wrong). This illustrates my first encounter with the ITALIAN BUREAUCRACY (Burocrazia Intensa). This is the saga of Gershwin’s first trip to Italy:
I arrived in Vicenza, Italy in June of 1998 as a Lieutenant in the US Navy (my 6th life,) to work with the NATO folks at Dal Molin Air Base. After making living arrangements for the second time in two weeks (the military bureaucracy runs a close second to the Burocrazia Intensa), I made plans for Gershwin (my cat) to come to her new home. She was to leave Boston on an Al Italia direct flight to Rome where I would pick her up. It seemed simple and straightforward enough. In hindsight, I should have had her flown up to Venice, which is less than an hour’s drive from Vicenza. But the flight to Venice would mean that she would be in transit for almost another 24 hours. Not wanting to put her through that, I decided to rent a car and pick Gershwin up at Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome, a mere 6 hours south of Vicenza.
Now, driving in Italy is a sport. But as a newcomer, I was just learning the rules, and since everything on the highway happens at around 95 mph, the sport can be very exciting! Traffic signs, such as red lights and stop signs are treated as mere suggestions. Double lines in the road, meant to keep opposite lanes of vehicles from crashing into each other, are totally ignored. And signals are never used, as that would be considered giving other drivers an unfair advantage. Having said all that, highway driving isn’t so bad. Although they drive very fast, it seems there are some rules that everyone follows, such as passing only on the left. And the highways are very well marked. One thing I particularly liked was that in addition to the regular overhead signs, the name of the exit is painted on the road itself. The letters are probably 10’ high, and a 20’ long arrow pointing the way accompanies the letters. Nice touch. I never once got lost.
About 75 km from the airport, I stopped at a Traveler’s Assistance and Information stand. The lovely lady and her ten-year-old daughter (who offered me a piece of gum) helped me book a hotel for the evening. Rome prices, if rooms were available at all, were way beyond my budget. I really just wanted to sleep and get to the airport on time in the morning. So she called around and found a little hotel in Lido Ostia, a beach town just 20 minutes from the airport. Nice beach, some honky- tonk features, an active prostitute area, but also some lovely shops and cute hotels. Mine was called the Sirenetta (you remember Homer’s Sirens), literally translated it’s the Mermaid Hotel. For a paltry $60 I got a nice clean, comfortable little room right on the beach. I was a little apprehensive about leaving the car on the street, but it was a rental, so what the heck!
I took a walk along the beach. It was just about sunset, and quite lovely. Then dinner at the hotel. Pretty good, but pricier than the room. I got a good night’s sleep (thank the Lord, considering the ordeal to come), enjoyed a continental breakfast in the morning, got directions to the airport and left about 45 minutes early so I wouldn’t be late if I got lost.
Before I left the hotel, I called Al Italia to get directions on where to pick up Gershwin. I gave them the flight number and was told that they could not confirm that she was on the flight, but that it would arrive at 0915 and I should go to the International terminal.
So, off I went at 0800 anxious to see my cat. As you approach the airport, there, overlooking the highway is a 3 or 4 story tall statue of Leonardo, himself! Wow! The Italians really do things in a big way. It occurred to me that they might like Texas pretty well. Anyway, following the signs, and driving very slowly to the consternation of all behind me, I located the international terminal. I had to circle a few times before I was able to pull into a parking spot. Of course, it was meant just for dropping off or picking up passengers, and since I was in the terminal for about 45 minutes, I got a parking ticket. I think it said to call the Corpo Della Polizia Municipale. I think I won’t. I went immediately to the Information counter and a pretty, young girl told me to go next door to the man who spoke English. Actually, she spoke English a lot better than he did. Nevertheless, he told me to go to the Custom’s area and wait for the flight. I still wasn’t clear on how they would know where to bring Gershwin out, so I asked a Custom’s Officer. Thank God most people speak at least a little English. The officer told me to go to the baggage area. There was a line of people checking and picking up bags. I waited for a bit and some Italian guy pushed ahead of me. This was not the first time that I had been the victim of this kind of rudeness. While I think, in general, that Italians are quite polite, it seems they don’t know how to form lines. I was pretty angry, and told the guy (in English) to wait his turn. Whether or not he understood English, he certainly understood me. There was an English-speaking couple ahead of me who had endured the same rudeness, so we muscled our way in front of Mr. Jerk. Since I only had a question to ask, the couple let me go first. Of course, this was not where Gershwin would come into. The baggage man said to go upstairs to Al Italia. I went upstairs and found an Al Italia ticketing counter. The girl there sent me to another counter on the other end of the terminal. After waiting in another line, I told my story once again to an Al Italia agent. She said arrivals were downstairs. After I had explained to her that I’d already been to just about every conceivable counter downstairs, she got on the phone and called someone who told her that I must go to the Cargo terminal across the airport. I was under the impression that the flight was a regular passenger flight, so I asked her if she was really sure of the information, and she explained that the flight was not a passenger flight, but only cargo, so that’s where it would be.
I found my ticketed car and went in search of the Cargo terminal. After a few turns around the airport, once again trying the “patience” of the Italian drivers, and always fearing that one of the turns would dump me onto the autostrada, I found the Al Italia Cargo Terminal. It was now 0920, so I was still pretty much on time. As it turns out, the flight was to land a 0950 not 0915! Still, I thought that wasn’t too bad. Yet another queue and yet another person to tell my story to. Mr. Nice Guy at the Cargo Counter told me that it would take a half an hour after landing to unload the plane. I went to get some machine-made cappuccino, took out my Tom Clancy novel, and settled down to wait. At 10:30 I approached the counter once again and was told the flight was just landing, so it would be another half-hour or 45 minutes. At 1130 I waited again in line and was finally told that Gershwin had arrived!! Mr. Nice Guy made out many papers all of which needed my signature and asked for 400 Lire (about 25 cents). I thought that was pretty funny. He gave me the papers and told me to go to Customs on the other side of the building. After reading many door signs, I found a Customs agent and gave him the papers. He took me to the warehouse and we waited for Gershwin to be delivered via forklift. Finally! I thought, Gershwin is here! But I cannot take her yet, first we must see the Veterinarian. So we went to Mrs. Veterinarian’s office and I thought this was the last stop. But we had not even begun.
Did I forget to mention that it was around 100 degrees F? And that the air-conditioning in the car I rented didn’t work! But I had finally laid eyes on Gershwin, so things couldn’t be all that bad.
Mrs. Veterinarian told me in not so good English that I must leave Gershwin with her and go to the Veterinary Office located near the First Aid office on the other side of the airport. Trying to decipher why I had to go to yet another Veterinarian was impossible. I don’t think it would have been any easier if I had understood the language. “How do I get there”, I asked. “You must follow the signs with the red cross” I was told. So, off I went to find the other Veterinarian, once again adding to the long list of Italian drivers who wanted to do me harm. I found the Red Cross signs and parked near that building. I asked where the Veterinarian was and two tries later was brought to a small building a little way off. I presented my papers to the person at the counter, who called a wonderful lady, named Maria, to help. Maria spoke excellent English. Pasquale, who also spoke English pretty well, made out a whole bunch more papers. He made out, by hand, 4 copies of the same form! Forget computers! Carbon paper had not even arrived here! And this was Rome!!! I had to sign each copy and then I was told I must go to the Post Office and pay 58,000L (about $40). “Where is the Post Office”, I asked. “At the international terminal”, said Maria. At this point I must have looked like I was going to cry because Maria, the lovely thing, took pity on me and said she would accompany me if I wished. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you Maria! It turned out that we could walk to the terminal. So she put a pass on my car so I would not get another ticket, and we walked to the Post Office where I paid my L58, 000. Then, back to the Veterinary Office and more paper work.
Maria had been to the States a half dozen times, and told me she was happy to get out of the office and practice her English. In my opinion, she didn’t need much practice. We made out a bunch more papers, all of which were now stamped by yet another employee. Maria as well as Pasquale (who also wanted to get out of the office) told me they would accompany me on the rest of the journey. We went back to the Mrs. Veterinarian who told us we must go back to Al Italia Cargo. At this point Pasquale started to shout at Mrs. Veterinarian. The gist of what he was saying is that Al Italia sucks! Big Time! Now they all got into a shouting match. This was reminiscent of my childhood days when my Italian friends would all get together. So much shouting!! Back to Mr. Nice Guy. Now he makes out a whole bunch of papers, which I sign. I don’t care now what I sign. It is 1:30 in the afternoon and I have been schlepping around the airport for 4 ½ hours. Mr. Nice Guy hands the papers to the person next to him who says I must give him L12, 000 (another $8). I am rapidly running out of Lire and need some for the toll on the highway, but Maria says they will take VISA. So, back to Mrs. Veterinarian who now sends us back to Customs. May I mention at this time, that none of these Veterinarians took one look at Gershwin, who was melting in her cage!! It was all paper work and Lire and providing Italians with jobs.
At the Customs office, Pasquale got into another shouting match with 3 employees and another customer. Maria and I let the boys fight. I said to Maria “All this for just a little cat”. She said “Imagine if it were a lion”!! We laughed and I said “I guess the international circus hasn’t a chance in Italy”. At this point we were hysterical! But now it was time to go back to Mrs. Veterinarian and pick up Gershwin. We brought her to the Customs Police, who took a look at the papers (never at the cat), stamped them and we’re DONE!! It was then 3:00 in the afternoon. Gershwin had been en route for 25 hours. She was clearly distressed. Panting to try to keep cool. But she has arrived! I drove Maria and Pasquale back to their work place, thanking them profusely every minute of the way. What would I have done without them? I told Maria that I would have been sitting on the floor at Al Italia Cargo crying my eyes out. Who could possibly have guessed the run around to get one little cat into the country? All-in-all, about 10 visits to offices, 3 pounds of paperwork, and 6 hours. Incredible in any language!
I got back on the road and stopped at the first Area Servizio (of which there are many) to buy some water, which I poured over Gershwin and then placed the bottle in my lap for her to lay against. This helps, but only lasted for about an hour until the water got warm. So I stopped every hour or to repeat the ritual. Even though she usually hates to get wet, Gershwin really didn’t protest much. Poor thing! All I could think of is many years ago, a friend’s dog was left in the car on a hot summer day and the owner came back to find him dead. I really was worried about Gershwin. But we made it back safe and sound.
Gershwin seemed to like her new abode. She found the top of the cabinets where there were windows to look out of and get some air. I put a cup of water up there for her, and she seemed content to lie quietly. I was then awaiting the arrival of my “Unaccompanied Household Goods” which were to be delivered that day. But remember, this is the Military Bureaucracy, second only to the Burocrazia Intensa! No doubt this delivery will generate yet another story.