December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The joys of southern bureaucracy

By |2023-06-08T05:37:51+02:00May 21st, 2023|Apulian Days|
Bureaucracy: a nonsense beloved all over the globe.

was born in 1950, a full-blown boomer, on the edge of a village in southern Italy. Mothers did not go to hospital to deliver at the time, so I was born at home, in a late nineteenth century house. The local midwife helped my mother. Doctors were summoned only in case of emergency. Too often that was too late for the baby or the mother, or both. A couple of years later, my family moved into a newly built block of council flats at the other end of the village outskirts. My brother was born there one year later. We had a spacious apartment, which contained an unprecedented novelty — a bathroom, with toilet, bathtub and a sink (in the other house, we only had a toilet in a small cabin, outside in the garden). There was also a small patch at the back, where my mother grew strawberries. The flats were part of a national plan funded by INA (National Insurance Institute) and were rented to lower-middle class families. They were known as “INA Casa” buildings or “Case Fanfani,” after Amintore Fanfani, the Italian DC (Christian Democratic Party) politician who devised the nationwide housebuilding project after the devastation of World War II. Each block was equipped with its own condominium networks for the distribution of water and the collection of sewage, and both were connected to the municipal networks. Each family paid for the services according to their consumption. In the early sixties, the INA Institute started to sell the flats to the tenants in order to raise money to build new ones. My parents bought our flat in 1966. Over the years, several owners chose to have their own direct connection to the waterworks. The sewage system remained in common.

When my parents died, alas both too soon, I inherited the apartment where I had lived until my early youth. It was not used for several years afterwards. A couple of years ago, my daughter Alessandra and her companion started to spend their weekends (and part of their summer holidays) there. The village is conveniently situated at a couple of miles from the seaside and Alessandra is very fond of her grandmother’s place. I decided to refurbish the flat and to install a direct connection to the waterworks. Nothing could be easier, you might say. But, of course, you do not know the joys of southern Italy bureaucracy.

A message kept repeating that the data was incorrect. But it was MY data, and it was definitely correct.

I visited the Apulian Aqueduct (a public body) website. I got the relevant information, but a registration was imperative in order to apply for a connection. That’s how the nightmare started and it is not something that can be boiled down in a few words.

The site refused my registration. Every time I tried (checking twice before entering the requested information, like Santa with his list on Christmas night), a message kept repeating that the data was incorrect. But it was MY data, and it was definitely correct. I should know, shouldn’t I? I dialed the toll-free number. A mellow voice from an automatic answerer informed me that all telephone operators were busy and asked me to hold the line. A few minutes later, the same voice warned me that I was the one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth customer on hold.  I hung up and tried again during the following days until I was blessed with a live voice that guided me through the process of downloading a bunch of forms. The human at the other end instructed me to fill in all the forms, to scan them, and send them to the email address he provided me. Wouldn’t it be easier to fill in the forms online? No, the system did not support that procedure.

I discovered that one of the forms had to be signed by all the other flat owners of the block authorizing me to disconnect my flat from the condominium network. Now, the original owners were long deceased. Most of their children who, like me, had inherited the flats, lived elsewhere and came for brief holidays only in the summer. In due course, I managed to trace them all and have the forms signed and sent back to me. I scanned all the filled-in forms and tried to email them in a compressed folder. No way. I tried to attach every single document to an email. No matter how I tried, the system did not accept my email. I kept receiving an automatic message notifying me that I needed to register first. But the algorithm was still adamant: my data was incorrect. I am not I, Sir Philip Sidney sang in “Astrophil and Stella,” pity the tale of me!

With my bunch of papers, I traveled to the nearest branch of the Aqueduct and explained my predicament to an efficient and kind clerk. No worries, the matter could be dealt with there, directly at the front office. He personally scanned all the papers (again) and fed the system with the freshly produced PDF versions. All done. It was the end of November 2021.

“It usually takes about three weeks to have the connection to the main pipeline, but you have to consider the Christmas holidays …”

Oh, well, I could certainly survive until January. After all, I was still using the condominium network.

The technical staff came to see the place.

“All is well, we will install the meter here. We will excavate the street from here to get to the house. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until after the Christmas holidays …”

Yuletide elapsed, and so did January and February. In March, I dialed again the toll-free number. My dossier was in progress, whatever that might mean. They would let me know. It might take some time…

And it took some time. In June, a letter notified me that one vital document was missing: a permit issued by the town council, authorizing the excavation in the street to get to my house from the main pipeline. I was sure I had included it with the papers I had delivered by hand. However, I had a copy and rushed to the Aqueduct offices waving it. A different clerk sadly announced that my application had been “written off” because, you know, we haven’t heard from you in seven months… I started to get nervous and, in a crescendo, I unburdened myself.

“I was notified yesterday, seven months after I personally delivered my application here, that a document was missing and today I have dashed here to bring it, and I have to hear that my dossier has been written off? Do I have to go through the whole ordeal again? This is madness!”

“No worries, sir, ‘si può sistemare’ (it can be settled),” the clerk rushed in, sensing menacing emanations exuding from my person, “we can easily retrieve your application. After all, we already have all your other documents … “

He soon scanned the precious missing paper and attached it to the recovered dossier. Well, in two or three weeks …

Yuletide elapsed, and so did January and February. In March, I dialed again the toll-free number. My dossier was in progress, whatever that might mean.

Summer expired and, in late September, another technical staff came.

“But these are former council flats!” They observed in a horrified tone.

“So they were last year when your colleagues came! So they have been over the last seventy years! I’m afraid they won’t change that easily.”

“Well, in this case, we need a list of the residual (sic!) flat owners that will continue using the condominium water network after you disconnect your consumption.”

“Don’t go away, here’s the list. Only three ‘residual’ owners will continue to use the condominium network. Will I see daylight at the end of the tunnel now?”

“Well, yes. That’s fine. Everything is all right now.”

Three more months passed in woeful expectation. In January 2023, I went again on a pilgrimage to the Aqueduct office and another (and extremely polite) clerk expressed his consternation for the delay. He would send an email to the responsible office asking for immediate action.

A few days later, in the glory of a cold but sunny February morning, a team of three workers, equipped with a small hydraulic excavator, appeared and they set to work. I made a capacious pot of hot coffee and brought it out with a tray of biscuits to celebrate with them. Three hours later I was c o n n e c t e d !

I laconically whatsapped my daughter, “habemus aquam!

About the Author:

Aldo Magagnino was born in Alezio (Apulia). After a career as a teacher of English he now works fulltime as a literary translator. He now lives in the Apulian town of Presicce, a few miles from Santa Maria di Leuca, land's end of the Italian boot, with his wife, two dogs and a variable number of cats.