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Only In Italia

April 18, 2021

Having lived in Italy for nearly ten years, I must be pretty happy with my lot. I enjoy a good standard of living and a pleasant climate, and I meet a lot of nice and interesting people. The only downside is the question of how a nation with such copious layers of bureaucracy can be so utterly inefficient. But a moment’s thought later, the answer is obvious. Simply reverse those two statements and insert a ‘because’ between them, and there’s your answer. In a country where you need a health card, a tax code, an ID card and proof of residence if you so much as want to fart, Italians are incredulous when I tell them that UK citizens don’t have identity cards. They wouldn’t accept them. But how can you prove that you exist? is the usual response. I generally turn the question round and ask them if they think I exist. The answer is almost always ‘yes’. Having persuaded them that my bizarre claim isn’t some kind of ironic English joke, I then induce a state of total shock by saying that when I lived in England, I usually went out without carrying any form of identification at all (being white anyway, I probably wouldn’t be stopped by the police and asked to show my credentials) – the only exception being if I was going abroad, in which case a passport was always useful.

It’s difficult to hate something in its absence, but my biggest bugbear here is Italian customer service. Good customer service in these parts isn’t about satisfying, or even serving a customer, it’s rated by how successfully the reams of paperwork have been completed. This issue is the direct descendent of the bureaucracy nonsense I’ve just described. This is how it works in practice.

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to apply for a Covid vaccination, being in one of the priority groups. I completed a form on a website and a few weeks later received an appointment for Friday 9 April at Juventus Stadium (as it’s euphemistically called) to receive my dose. (I refuse to use any monosyllabic word beginning with ‘j’.) The time of the injection was to be 12.18pm. I was immediately suspicious. 12.18pm doesn’t exist here. The nearest equivalent on the Italian clockface is ‘When do you fancy?’ or, more precisely, ‘some time next week’. But no, it was true, because the day before the appointment I received a reminder to come at exactly this hour. So, armed with all the proof of my existence I could muster, a printout of the reminder email and my ancient Italian mobile with the same in text message form, I took a very expensive taxi ride to the ‘stadium’, arriving at 11.48am. Of course, things were running late. Apparently there were ‘problems’. But finally I was ushered in through the gate and ticked off the checklist, to be shown to a waiting room, which was some kind of elaborate tent in the Juventus car-park. Waiting room is the right name, as I languished there for nearly two hours, before being summoned, not by name, but by the now long-departed hour of 12.18. Luckily I was the only person called 12.18.

So far, so smooth. But here things started to go wrong. I wasn’t on the list. Digging out of my bag all the documents I had carefully chosen as evidence, and waving my invitation in the form of two different media, I stood my ground. Bad news. According to this (second) list I didn’t exist after all, at least not in terms of getting vaccinated. My usual approach in this kind of situation is to ask a couple of questions very calmly and reasonably. And then get angry. Neither part of this strategy worked. Apology? Are you crazy? Explanation? You’re joking. Just the classic Italian body language of excuses – the shrugged shoulders, the little puffs of air, the rapid hand movements, all of which translate into ‘not my fault, guv. What’s more, no idea whose fault it is’. At these times I wistfully imagine I’m in New York, or even in parts of London, and some concerned individual soothingly saying ‘I’m really sorry, Sir, this is unacceptable. Give me a moment and I’ll make a call and fix a new appointment for you. Please take a seat.’ Not here. Here it’s ‘they sent out a cancellation yesterday, two hours after your confirmation, but they didn’t tell us what to say to people who turned up’. Naturally it’s the poor staff who are the victims here, not the customers. To be fair, there was some guff about me no longer being a priority since some governmental change of mind yesterday, but that’s it. Of course, there was no cancellation on my phone or in my inbox. What do I need to do now? Search me, mate.

So there we are. Some 20 euros taxi fare lighter and half a day’s work lost, I am still unvaccinated and possibly constitute a grave peril to the ageing Italian population. But I’m going to console myself with a posthumous challenge to Rene Descartes about whether, in the absence of an Italian ID card, he truly existed. And whether he ever got vaccinated.

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