I would call it "farce," but it probably needs more cowbell.
A few years ago, while visiting my kids in Houston, I walked into a CVS drugstore on Christmas. I’d actually forgotten it was Christmas (I have an unbecoming and Grinchish aversion to the holidays), but when I beheld the woebegone faces behind the counter, I suddenly remembered.
What were they doing here on Christmas?
Feeling supremely guilty, I grabbed what I came for, sidled up to the counter, and began profusely apologizing for buying things, for existing, for being part of a capitalist juggernaut that devours human souls. “Yeah, it really sucks,” the guy ringing up my purchases told me. “This is probably my dad’s last Christmas, too.”
Know what’s open on Christmas in Italy? Not a damn thing. And that’s just as it should be. No one in the Western Hemisphere should be working on Christmas. A plague on the executives at CVS.
All this to say that I applaud the work/life balance for which Italy is renowned. I speak this praise with love. With just as much love, I confess that Italy has a singular inability to get its shit together when it comes to: simple bureaucracy, adhering to even a modest timetable, anything relating to the postal system, customer service, or 800 numbers.
In Italy, 800 numbers, called numero verde, cost up to fifty cents a minute. That adds up when somebody puts you on hold for half an hour.
So, for those of you who are used to a very American, open-at-all-hours, if-you-want-it-you-can-get-it customer service model, moving to Europe is going to come as a rude shock. Nothing’s open. Ever. Even the simplest errand can, and will, become an exercise in despair and futility, the kind of thing that makes you wish you were dead because anything, even death, is better than this.
Which leads me to my story.
For various reasons I shan’t bore you with, most of them having to do with Italy’s laws regarding such matters, John and I aren’t allowed to own a car. Consequently, we rent (brutally expensive, even before the pandemic-related car shortage; now, just cost prohibitive) or we borrow cars. A darling friend has been kind enough to let us use his car, which has been wonderful, even though the car has about as many miles on it as I do, and that’s really saying something.
Two weeks ago, desperate to go somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t these four screaming walls, we drove to a nearby village called Deruta. I highly recommend it. It’s one of those stunning Umbrian town you won’t find in a Zagat’s Guide, and it’s where the most beautiful glazed majolica pottery is made.
We left Deruta right after sunset. On the highway going home, our right front tire blew. ”Oh, great,” John said. “If there’s no spare in the trunk, we’re screwed.”
As it turned out, there was a spare—and a jack, if you can believe it. In the dark and the cold with huge trucks roaring by (and John not fully recovered from the flu), we went to work on that tire. The jack had clearly been soldered together in Satan’s workshop. I had to actually stand on the thing, full weight, the flashlight feature on my phone serving as our only light.
“The spare’s mostly flat,” John said. “I don’t know if we’re going to make it home.”
“We’ll find an air pump at one of the gas stations along the highway,” I told him in what was surely the most naïve and wildly delusional thing I’ve ever said. “No worries.”
As we angled the car back onto the highway, every minute expecting the spare tire to blow, we kept peering ahead in the gloom, hoping to see the lights of a gas station. Everything was closed. After ten kilometers or so, we found a gas station and an air pump, but no nozzle or hose.
We tried another station. A third. A fourth. Each time, the air pump was missing its nozzle and hose—or was just a rusting, inoperable pile of junk. We eventually had to give up, go home, and hope our tire lasted till morning, which by some miracle, it did. Later, a friend told us that gas stations have to lock up air hoses at night because of theft.
A week later, we borrowed the car to run an important and time-sensitive errand at Fedex. John was immediately pessimistic, but I kept encouraging him, saying it was only one errand, surely we could do it.
But when I Googled “Nearest Fedex locations,” it already didn’t look promising. The nearest one was not only in Foligno, which is 45 kilometers away, the latest pickup of the day was right before pranzo, the three-hour midafternoon lunch break. That meant we had to get there early.
None-too-chuffed about it, John and I got in the car the next morning and I tried pulling up the location again on my phone. Nothing.
“What do you mean, it’s not there?” he asked me as we drove toward Foligno. “It’s not as though Fedex disappeared.”
Except it had. Italian Fedex was apparently operating on a phantom grid. I opened my mouth to tell him that when BAM, the front grille of the car broke off, flew into the windshield, and then bounced around on the highway behind us like a maniacal tumbleweed. Fortunately, no one was tailgating, for once. But the noise took at least a decade off my life, and now we were on the hook for a new grille as well as the two new tires we just bought.
Did I mention that it was also torrentially raining?
When we got to Foligno, the store was closed.
Mind you, we’re not talking about an actual Fedex store. Those are American things. This was a cartoleria, or paper goods store, with a Fedex setup inside it.
No sign, though. Why put up a sign?
“Oh, that place was closed when I parked here twenty minutes ago,” a guy told us. “They never keep their posted hours.”
As you will learn if you relocate here, hardly anybody keeps their posted hours in Italy. Being a family-owned establishment means you keep whatever hours you want. No corporate overlords to answer to. It’s a good thing … except when it’s not.
On the way home, John actually shouted every expletive he knew in two languages. “Oh, sure, Italy’s beautiful,” he yelled, “but eventually, it’ll f***ng kill you.”
The next day, we headed out again, this time to a DHL location a friend told us about that was closer to where we lived. They didn’t offer overnight delivery, but you know, when in Rome and all. We stopped to grab a coffee, and in that ten minute interval, the car battery died. Worse, the position of the car was blocking other drivers so they couldn’t get out.
Five kind souls, none in the first flush of his or her youth, helped to push our car over an obstinate tree root and back onto the road. John knew how to start a car once it was running, but I sure didn’t. He took off down the hill while I sprinted after him, experiencing one of those existential crises I’ve been having a lot of lately. Something along the lines of, is this really my life?
Five minutes later, John came trundling back up the hill. I threw myself into the car, and we headed toward the DHL office, bravely determined to do this one thing.
We had only one teensy additional obstacle to overcome. My debit card number had been stolen a few days ago. On my birthday, actually. Some wanker had tried to purchase over a hundred dollars worth of games on Google Play. My bank flagged it, but now my card was out of commission until the new one arrived.
When I asked the fraud alert guy what we were supposed to do for money, he said, “Oh, I can send you a temporary debit card for your virtual wallet. Any modern ATM will had a card reader, and you can pull out money that way.”
I knew when I agree to it that I was making a mistake. Italy likes to think it’s a modern, first-world country, but it’s not. Half the ATMs in Umbria are still running Windows 98. Worse, we had the hubris to think we were going to stop by a car parts store on the way to pick up a new grille for the car. HAHAHAHAHA! What fools!
All we had to do was find an ATM with a card reader without letting the car stall out and die.
We went to one bank. Two banks. Three banks. Four. We went to a bank that advertised it had a card reader only to discover that the card reader was dead. Dead! I started laughing, which I don’t think John appreciated.
We went home without having done a single thing we’d set out to do, and trust me when I tell you, in Italy, that’s not a one-off. That old bromide, “Man plans and God laughs,” was surely inspired by this country that I adore, even though it sometimes makes me want to drink poison or throw myself off a cliff.
That package I needed to overnight? We decided to pay extra to have DHL pick it up at our house, except that our printer refused to spit out anything except error messages. John was at the tabacchi getting the waybill printed right when DHL showed up. In my woefully inadequate Italian, I begged the nice man to come back in ten minutes, which he did. So, I guess that’s one thing we managed to do this week.
And this is life in Italy. You must, must, must prepare yourself for it. You can have beauty or convenience, but you can’t have both. My hometown of Houston stinks so badly, it could knock a buzzard off a gut-wagon, but if you want tampons at 2AM, they’ve got you.
That’s never going to happen here. You can whinge about it to your non-Italian friends, but never whinge about it to Italians, who will rightly hate you.
These are the Terms & Conditions of your stay. Non-acceptance will only make you bitter and miserable. It’s an all or not-at-all situation, and I, for one, accept the all.
Italy, I love you. Thank you for showering me with all your maddening contradictions. And may you never open a single store on Christmas.