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BOLOGNA - In 2011 when Italy took the spotlight of Europe’s attention and Mario Monti replaced Silvio Berlusconi, I was in Rome and saw the whole situation with my own eyes. It seemed that while the international newspapers were rushing to inform the world about the old country’s economic transformations, the people of Italy leisurely strode along the streets glancing at the luscious leather bags and Sicilian cannolies. What was their secret? How could it be that the usual daily look-at-the-sun mojo was enough to cover their financial concerns?
Back then I had many conversations with my English students, who were working at government offices or at independent financial institutions and banks. Some explained it with the typical Italian characteristic of remaining blind, as long as it didn’t concern the individual. The others prided themselves in their simple approach to positivism, saying “it’s important to always be happy.” And then there were those who had become active Monti followers and condemned all lazy Italians who didn’t want to work and didn’t understand the need to declare all of their taxes. In their eyes Italy’s problem was clearly defined as “it is too difficult for this country to modernize and people and businesses cannot understand the need for it.”
As I’ve always looked very Nordic, very rarely would a Roman try and not give me a receipt in a shop or a bar; and most of my financial transactions went through a British company, so I could only believe their word. This year, however, after moving to Bologna I had an incident with my bank account that gave me a clear insight into Italian Fiscal Policies 101.
It was right after I got separated from my husband when he asked me to use my bank card to buy an airline ticket to the States for his sister’s wedding. Another interesting thing about Italian banks – your regular account debit card does not provide the service for Internet shopping. As I had something that was called a Genius Card, which had supposedly no account attached to it, but could be used for any purchases online I agreed to help him out. About two weeks later I received a text message from the bank saying that I’d just made a purchase on some Web site registered in Milan, and getting wary of a duplicate I immediately called the emergency number and blocked my card, thus initiating my autumn fiscal adventure.
First, I went to the branch in Bologna and explained my problem, politely asking for a new card. The manager, a short and black-haired southerner with high energy and somewhat comprehendible English, briskly jumped in to help me and I was seated in his cubicle for a sporadic application filling. I think I filled out a bunch of different forms before he actually understood what my problem was and, above all, what I had come to accomplish. Nevertheless, he kept his polite etiquette and promised to call me “when my card was ready.”
When no card “was ready” and nobody had called me in a week, I went back to remind him of my existence. Gimlet-eyed he glared at me not believing that nobody had contacted me and started searching for my details. It’s useful to picture one of Roberto Benigni’s funniest comedies to visualize the Bologna branch on that day – people rushing around, papers falling on the floor, the manager wrapped up to his neck in the phone cord from constant twisting and turning around, and yet no debit card in sight. The conclusion came after a long conversation with someone in the Piedmont office and, as he explained to me, my old bank card needed to be “properly closed” first. I left only after he’d confiscated my old card and taken down my present address for the scheduled delivery of a fresh, new card.
After two more weeks, I had ten days before departing from Italy for good and still no card in my pocket, so I went back again. This time the hyper-manager was absent and I spoke to a regular teller, who telephoned Piedmont right after I’d explained my problem with my limited Italian vocabulary of seventeen words. Although I don’t speak well, my comprehension is near perfect and I got the clear “no card in mail” from his responses alone. “Your card can be blocked and renewed only where it originated,” was his only explanation.
With the teller’s advice and also led by my own fear, I spent fifty euros and boarded the first morning train on the following day up to Vercelli, a small town in Piedmont, where my account (or that account-less Genius Card) was originally opened. It was still early when I arrived, and thankfully the bank was half empty, to attend to my grand problem.
In over a year away from Piedmont I’d forgotten that they don’t speak the same language there; they pride themselves in their dialects and speak a “different Italian.” I attempted to find one person with decent English, and when that didn’t work tried to explain my problem and finally got one man saying “follow me” and led me into the wider cubicle of his boss(?!).
They started hysterically exchanging words and hand gestures at me and at my file, which, thank God, they found with no problems. There were more people invited in (I was still seated, mute and clueless right next to them) and louder words exchanged. After fifteen minutes of acclimatization I started picking up the meaning of their fiscal agitation: my card was in the mail so there could be no new card issued. And even more so, how could the manager have taken my old card? Who did such a thing?
“I just want my money, as I am leaving Italy next week,” I said seriously, hoping for their sympathy and already silently beginning a prayer in my head. There were more forms that they wanted me to fill out, then didn’t want that either as they all turned out to be contradicting each other. For a while they left me to run around looking for some rule book or something like that. Somebody suggested calling the Bologna branch; another person remembered actually talking to someone there. By this time there was only one bank clerk not involved in my case and servicing another customer and all I could wish for was a shot of something strong, and a dictionary. My hopes were experiencing a meltdown.
About forty five minutes later the man who initially agreed to help me smiled and handed me a bank slip saying “follow me” once again. He explained to me that they cannot but want to help me, so I will get all my money in cash and my bank card will still arrive to the Bologna address by mail. I was instructed to either use it or cut it up, but they couldn’t cancel it. It would be closed automatically if nobody used the card for at least six months. Relief would be an understatement for how I felt leaving the bank and promising myself to never block an account in Italy ever again.
In over a month that infamous new Genius Card hasn’t arrived in the mail box and my account remains open, for whoever gets that card can use it in any way he or she wishes as there is absolutely nothing I can do to close my account without it.
Fiscal problem or not, it is clear that this country needs a drastic modernization in their financial transactions and customer service, for even the most experienced people are struggling to follow all the policies.