We are in Italy. I was offered an opportunity to teach in Venice during the Spring term, and my family and I jumped at it. What a chance to try something new. We’d be living in, rather than just visiting, a foreign country. Italy is not so different that we would be uncomfortable. There would be lots of culture, something especially that would benefit the kids. There was even a very good English-language school. It’s located in Padua, or Padova in Italian, a short thirty-minute train ride from Venice. Since the school is in Padua, we decided to live there. Spare the kids the long bus ride. I don’t mind the commute.
It was only later, as our departure approached and we were in the thick of all the complexities of moving to another country, even for half a year, that I realized something. My daughter just turned five in December. I was five when my family immigrated to the United States. Is this just a coincidence? Or am I recreating an experience with my family that left a deep and permanent mark on who I am? Is this a kind of return of trauma?
I certainly didn’t think of my family as immigrants when I was involved in making the plans to move here temporarily. We are much better off than my family ever was when we first arrived in the United States. And yet the Italian bureaucracy being what it is has made us go through a rigorous post-arrival process that makes us feel very much like immigrants. One of the initial steps we had to take involves going to an office here in Padua to get a “communication of hospitality,” which it actually something we learned only later that our landlord has to fill out and sign. We were told we would have to get this communication, and just importantly make an important with the immigration office of the prefecture. There are several places we can go to do this; they are spread out across the city; and they are open odd hours.
We were told we had to get this first step done within four days of our arrival. So Monday was the last day we could do this. The only places open on Monday were far away, in more suburban parts of the city, and available from 5 to 7 pm. We looked up directions on how to get to one of these offices. We found out how to buy bus tickets—from the tobacconist, who was very nice and spoke English better than we did Italian. We go there as early as we could to get it done. There were two other people waiting outside, in the courtyard to an official building with shuttered windows. A few other people arrived after us. We were all Asian and African, or so it seemed to me. We spoke different languages and had no way to communicate with each other. The two who were there before us spoke Italian fluently.
It was light out when we got there but it soon turned dark. The temperature was already cold, and got colder. My head was spinning a little because I was still jet-legged. We waited. Five o’clock came, and then went. We waited some more. We knocked at the door. There was a ringer, so we tried that. Someone called the number on the sign outside. There was no answer. Twenty after. It’s only a few days after the New Year, so perhaps the office was closed for the holidays. If that’s the case, they failed to leave any notice, including even a sign on the door.
We waited, and then slowly we wandered off, to go our separate ways.
We were all obviously immigrants. And like immigrants everywhere our time was not valuable. It could be wasted without consequences. If there were any doubts that my family and I are immigrants, this experience dispelled them.
Later, as we tried to puzzle out how to do step one of our post-arrival regiment, we found an official web page that mentioned these offices were closed for the time being. It wasn’t clear when they would be open again, if at all. The procedure for processing immigrants, it seems, is being reviewed, and a new procedure may be introduced.
A couple of codas to what I’ve written here:
- We are having a great time in Italy so far. The people have on the whole been very nice, and tolerant of our difficulties communicating with them. There’s a lot to see. And everyday is a new adventure. The experience so far has been a little like a video game. Each day has at least one unique challenge, which gets more and more specialized. Our skill at meeting that challenge keeps getting better. On those days when we have to complete a step of our post-arrival process, we are engaged in a big-boss fight.
- It’s not clear to me if our difficulties with the bureaucracy here is something uniquely frustrating designed to discourage immigration to this country, or representative of the level of frustration that all Italians face when they must do anything official. My hypothesis is that the answer is some combination of both. Everything is complicated, not to mention costly. As my landlord said, “Paper and taxes for nothing.” And people here seemed resigned to it. The bureaucracy is just a part of their quotidian reality. At the same time, there are a significant number of immigrants in Padua, and probably the rest of Italy. There seems to be quite a bit of friction around their presence, and the seeming arbitrary complexity of the immigration process is an effective way to discourage their numbers.