Italian life

Tales of Italy’s madness

by Rebecca Bricker on June 14, 2015

This past Friday was a red-letter day on my calendar: the day I had been summoned to present myself and my documents to the Italian immigration office in Florence. It was time to renew my permesso — a little plastic card I carry that gives me permission to live in Italy for an extended stay.

I wasn’t losing sleep over this. I had already presented my documents a few weeks earlier at the post office, the first stop on my quest to lay hands on the immigration system’s holy grail. But anything can happen in Italy, known for its bureaucratic insanity.

I was 20 minutes late getting to the immigration office, housed in an immense brick building called the questura, Florence’s main police station.

Getting to the questura that morning had been a challenge. The bus I intended to take sped by the stop. Sometimes bus drivers in Florence absentmindedly don’t stop or forget to open bus doors because they’re talking on their cell phones with their girlfriends or mistresses. (No hands-free chatting here. They hold the phone with one hand and when the hand-waving starts, it becomes hands-free driving.) I remember being on one bus last summer when the driver, on his phone, went over the wrong bridge. When I politely pointed that out to him, he apologized profusely and took us all on a wild ride through a labyrinth of back streets, trying to get us back on route.

When the No. 36 blew by the stop on Friday morning, I went to a nearby taxi stand. There were no taxis. Sometimes when you go to a taxi stand in Florence, there are taxis, but no drivers — because they’re at the neighborhood bar having coffee.

I called four times for a cab. The phone line was busy. It finally rang through and I waited on hold. Sometimes when that happens, you get a message saying there are no taxis — call back tomorrow.

But within due minuti, a dispatched cab pulled into the taxi stand.

“Rebecca?” the driver asked.

Occasionally, miracles do happen.

At the questura, the guy at the window didn’t scold me for being late. Actually, 20 minutes late in Italy is on time. (I had laughed when my papers from the post office showed my questura appointment time as 9:57 a.m.) He sent me to Window 11. There was no wait. Major miracles happen sometimes.

My documents apparently were in order. The problem was my fingerprints. I had given Immigration a complete set last summer when I applied for my original permesso. It had been a simple procedure of pressing each finger on an electronic pad at a machine at the window.

But for some reason, my prints on Friday weren’t matching up with what they had on file. The writer-in-me was already cooking up a scenario for a new book.

The woman at Window 11 was exasperated with me — as if somehow this fingerprint problem was my fault. She’d hold up her own fingers randomly, asking me to touch the scanner, and say, “Left thumb. Right little finger.” Of course, this was in the lovely sing-song of English spoken with an Italian accent: “Left-a thumb-a. Right-a leetle feenger.” When she told me to press my middle finger on the pad for the third time, I mentally flipped it at her, but obligingly did as I was asked.

Finally, she gave up and consulted a colleague who told me, “We need to make new fingerprints. You can wait a half hour or come back in August.”

“August,” I asked incredulously. “Today is June 12.”

“Sorry, signora. We have no appointments until August.”

Italians go to the seaside or mountains for most of August.

“I’ll wait,” I said.

I considered the health risks of sitting on a questura bench. The stench of the immigration hall is stomach-churning. The floor looks like it hasn’t been mopped in a year.

I had brought a fat packet of Wet Ones (purchased at Target on my last visit home) and wiped down one end of a bench. It took a little elbow grease to remove the dried pigeon poop. The immigration hall is a pigeon aviary.

In about 20 minutes, an American friend living in Florence, who had been running an errand in the neighborhood, stopped by to check on me.

Her eyes widened when she saw me. “I can’t believe you’re sitting on that bench.”

“I used Wet Ones,” I said. “I have more if you want to sit.”

She shook her head. “I don’t even want to breathe in here. This place stinks of urine.”

“Yes, it’s a level of hell.” I was channeling Dante, who had spent a lot of time in Florence before they exiled him. (Or maybe he ran for his life after a visit to the questura.) I was perhaps the only one at the questura that morning who was trying to perceive it as a literary experience.

My friend left. We tentatively planned to meet for lunch. But I feared I might be in Questura Hell till dinnertime.

I went back to the window, politely saying it had been a half hour. The woman shrugged. “Fifteen more minutes.”

I waited another 15, then went back to the window.

“No more appointments today.” She shrugged again. “You must come back in September.”

“What happened to August?”

“September, signora. Maybe October.”

With every passing minute, the calendar pages were flipping.

At this point, I started to laughing, convinced there was a hidden camera recording this for some Italian comedy TV show. Her colleague stood next to her. They weren’t laughing. (What good actresses, I thought.)

In moments like this in Italy, I resort to charm and personality. And if absolutely necessary, I play the FAMILY card.

“What will happen when I go visit my family — la mia famiglia — in September? How will I be able to return without a valid permesso?” I put added emphasis on la mia famiglia. I could feel the fake tears coming. I’ve acquired the skill of morphing into an Italian.

That sent them into a spin. They consulted with another woman at the next window. Then they all disappeared, presumably for a cigarette break.

After about 10 minutes, they came back with a soluzione. Italian solutions are always interesting, if not mind-boggling.

They handed me a sheet of paper with my permesso photo attached — sort of a Monopoly Get-Out-Of-Jail card, except I had to go to jail (or down the hall from it) to get my fingerprints made. They told me to show up at the back door of the questura the next morning (yesterday) at 9:30.

“On Saturday?”

“Si,” they said in unison.

The writer-in-me was doing cartwheels, imagining us in the Saturday-morning holding pen with all the usual hungover suspects who had been rounded up at Florence’s clubs the night before.

So yesterday morning, I headed out on this excellent adventure. Once again, there were no cabs at the taxi stand. But one arrived soon after I placed a call. We got hung up behind a horse-drawn carriage that would be transporting tourists that day. But I was only a few minutes late by the time we arrived at the address on my Get-Out-Of-Jail card.

The cab driver was looking questioningly at me in the rearview mirror as he pulled up at the police station’s back door.

He laughed when I informed him, “I’m not here to bail out my boyfriend. I need to get fingerprints made for my permesso.”

Florence is a small town. Tongues wag. It’s not always easy to maintain la bella figura — the Italian concept of cutting a “beautiful figure,” or making a good impression, in all aspects of life — especially when you’re going in the back door of the police station.

I presented my paper to the guard. “A few minutes,” he said.

A young Chinese guy waited with me. He had the same sheet of paper with his photo. He spoke little English, but he knew two words: “My god.” After a half hour, he rolled his eyes and said “wait.” I nodded. “Yes, wait, wait, wait.”

Finally, the guard instructed us to walk across the parking area beyond the gate to an open door. Would this be my last view of daylight, I wondered. The day before, I had posted a plea to my Facebook friends, asking if someone would come looking for me if I suddenly fell off the social-media radar. (Thank you, Karla S.R., for offering to lead the search party.) I noted the bars at the windows and was glad I had suggested she tuck a hacksaw in that big loaf of Italian bread I presumed she’d be bringing me, along with a jug of Chianti.

A young guy appeared at the open door and sent us into a dingy, dirty corridor. At the end of the corridor, there were a few benches next to a pile of bulging garbage bags. The benches were occupied with forlorn-looking foreigners. But I had no intention of sitting. Cases of Wet Ones couldn’t cleanse this area.

Again, we waited. I wandered to the corridor entrance and saw the young guy and a cohort smoking a cigarette. He saw me and motioned me to go back in the corridor, as if shooing away a pigeon.

But a few minutes later, cigarette snuffed, he stood at the corridor entrance and called “BRICKER.” He led me into an office crowded with desks, topped with computer monitors and printers. There was a coat rack in the corner with a police uniform in a dry-cleaning bag. Two little Bialetti espresso makers sat on a shelf next to a blackened hot plate that looked like it should have a fire extinguisher next to it. Above a door, leading to a back room, was a crucifix. Above the chair where I been asked to sit was a photocopied image of the late Heath Ledger in his demonic film role as Batman’s Joker, with a caption that read: “Why so serious?”

The young guy took a seat at a desk and motioned for me to approach. He looked up at me and smiled, making a circle with his forefinger around his face. In Italian, he told me I was pretty. He asked to see my passport and sent me over to see Luigi, the guy he had been smoking with.

Luigi’s desk was by the door with the crucifix. I sent up a little prayer to my travel angels.

Luigi looked about 30, maybe younger. He pulled a new pair of rubber gloves out of a box. He took my right hand in his. My wrist was tense. Just last week, I’d had an invasive pat down at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, with a female security agent slipping her dirty gloves inside the band of my underwear. I wasn’t surprised my wrist was tense.

Luigi smiled at me, gently holding my hand. “Relax,” he said.

Luigi lay each of my fingers on the computer scanner, carefully pressing and rolling them against the glass, as we both watched the prints appear on a monitor. The images looked like topographical maps of the high and low roads of my life’s travels.

He took two additional images of my thumbs and then put the palms of my hands on the glass. A psychic would have had fun with those images. The scanner couldn’t read the center of my palm — it registered as a void of aesthetic white space. I was happy that the heart of me wasn’t going to be part of a police database.

Luigi asked me to step over to a wall for what I thought was going to be my line-up photo. I smiled, waiting for my close-up. Luigi smiled. “No, signora.” He positioned me next to an IKEA measuring tape glued to the wall — he wanted to record my height. I thought, if he asks me to step on a scale, Luigi and I are going to have a big problem. But thankfully for Italian-U.S. relations that didn’t happen. 😉

Luigi and I returned to his desk. I stood as he scribbled on a form. He looked up at me and asked, “Do you have tattoos?”

“What? Tattoos?” I couldn’t believe he was asking me that.

He waited for an answer.

“No,” I said emphatically.


I held one of my ear lobes, where a lovely earring dangled. And then I put my hand in front of his face, moving it like a fish tail, pretending to slap him — with a smile, of course. I was easily old enough to be his mother (even his very young grandmother). I knew if his mother and grandmother were there, they’d back me up. Italian mammas are no nonsense.

He laughed and blushed, looking genuinely embarrassed. He quickly asked me to sign a couple of forms and then got out his rubber stamp. After a flurry of thumps on the forms, he smiled and said, “Finito.”

As I passed through the now-crowded waiting area by the front door, I went over to the young Chinese guy and wished him good luck.

When I was back on the street, I felt the relief of being out on bail. In a month or two or three, I’ll get a text message from the questura, telling me to come back for another fun-filled visit to pick up my new permesso card.

Assuming no more glitches, I’ll have another two years to immerse myself in Italy’s beauty and madness.

As the writer-in-me reminds me when I want to bang my head against an Etruscan wall: “Stop whining, you big baby,” she says. “This is great material.” :)