Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Good Samaritan

There are any number of books, blogs and articles that make Italian bureaucracy sound akin to one of the Circles of Hell that Dante never quite got around to writing up. If you're like us, you may well think that these experiences are overwritten, playing on the worst of Italian stereotypes for comic effect. Or maybe you'll think the party involved just didn't have a good enough grasp of Italian, or simply hadn't done their research properly. Then, one day, you'll run into a bureaucratic brick wall that seemingly has no way over, under or round it. And then, like us, you'll regret ever having been such a smartarse.

We arrive at the confusingly-titled ex-Ospedale Giustinian (confusingly titled because it actually still is an ospedale) to register with the Italian Health Service. We have our passports, our codice fiscale, our rental contract, and bank account statements. Most importantly, we have our S1 forms, which state that, in the event of needing health care in Italy, the cost will be picked up by the UK NHS for a period of two years, or until we enter the Italian Social Security System.

We ask at the main desk where we need to go, the receptionist gives us directions, and the sign on the door does indeed seem to indicate that, amongst other things, this is where foreigners should go to register. There's a bit of a queue, so we take a ticket and sit down to wait.

It takes just ten minutes until our number is called, and in we go. We've scarcely begun to explain ourselves when the woman behind the sportello shakes her head, grabs a piece of paper with a phone number and address in Mestre, and tells us to go away and try there. We explain that we've come with our form S1 which needs to be registered here, and that it certifies our health care will be covered by the UK. She scarcely raises her head to look at it, shrugs, and says she's never heard of it.

We find ourselves back on the wrong side of the door after, perhaps, thirty seconds. This is absolutely soul-destroying. This isn't a question of language any more, this is just sheer bloody-mindedness coupled with an unhealthy dose of not giving a toss. Neither of us has any faith that the office in Mestre will do anything other than just send us straight back here. We really don't know what the hell to do.

And then something rather wonderful happens The man who'd been sitting next to us asks, in English, how we got on. We explain, and he looks genuinely concerned . His number is called so he asks us to wait while he has his appointment. Two minutes later he emerges, shaking his head sadly. The signora, he apologises, seems to have no interest in helping people at all. So he takes his telefonino out, dials the Mestre office, and explains the situation. He checks that they recognise the S1. He passes on all our details. He confirms that, yes, this is the place to go. He tells us what we need to take with us. He makes us an appointment for 8.30 on Monday morning, and gives us a contact name there.

Quite frankly, we could hug him. We really don't know what to say, he just smiles and says he's glad to help. As we leave, he stops at the main desk and politely, but firmly, remonstrates with the receptionist.

The world may be run by tedious pen-pushers but, just when you need one, there are still a few Lovely Blokes out there willing to lend a hand. Whoever you are, good sir, we thank you!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Back to School

Day One of Italian lessons and Caroline has spent the entire night, and much of the previous day, convincing herself that she speaks no Italian at all. I need to judge the atmosphere with absolute precision here. Do I go straight into full-on Supportive Hubby mode, bouncing along with with smiles, hugs, and "it'll be alright"s; or is this a situation best played as if nothing untoward was happening at all. I decide this is not the morning to be Mr Life and Soul, and choose the latter. It turns out to be the right choice, and I award myself a bonus Hubby Point.

As it turns out, enrolling really isn't that bad. We've already completed the online application and test; but there's a short written test and a brief interview to go through first, in order that they can be reasonably sure of our level. As it turns out, we're Level 4 of 5 (or Upper Intermediate, if you like). I feel quite chuffed.

Our Italian isn't bad. Trouble is, it's not really that great either. The Great Printer Humiliation excepted, we can pretty much do everything we need to do; but we can't do it with much ease or spontaneity. If The Project is to succeed, we need to get better. So we're signed up for a three-month intensive course with the Istituto Venezia, based in Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro; a pleasant twenty minute stroll for us. Four hours a day, five days a week, everything in Italian - nearly five years worth of evening classes condensed into twelve weeks. This, surely, will set us right.

We're a cosmopolitan bunch in our class. Not everybody is there for the long haul, but, at the moment, we're made up of : three Swiss, two Russians, a Catalan, a Venezuelan, a Colombian, a Japanese woman, a Dutchwoman, an Englishwoman, and a Scot. I'm the only Welshman. Actually, I'm the only man. They all seem like nice people : this is going to be hard work , but it's going to be fun as well. There's a welcome party organised for us at the end of the first day's lessons, with Prosecco and tasty bar snacks. I talk to the Dutch lady for a while. It turns out her husband works for a company called Unisys. I nearly choke on my Prosecco at this point - Unisys make a product called URBIS, the support of which utterly blighted my last three years with the bank! I'm sure he's a lovely chap and had nothing to do with it, so I tell her nothing of the nights of utter horror it caused me. Small world, though, eh?

Finally a big thank you to the Italian Institute back in Edinburgh ,who granted us a bursary which knocks off a full 50% of the cost of the course. And grazie Carlo, grazie Caterina for all those evening classes - finally, it seems, they're paying off!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Holy Week

It's nearly twenty years now since my first experience of living in Italy. In 1994, I spent six months working in Frascati and living in Monteporzio Catone, a small town in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. One evening, I became aware that a lot of noise was coming from the square behind my flat; so I stuck my head out the window to see what was going on. It turned out to be what I can only describe as a fully-fledged Passion Play; complete with a convincingly bloodied Christ dragging his cross through the streets of the town, followed by what looked like a sizeable proportion of the population. With eerie, and suitably apocalyptic, timing, the skies darkened, a colossal storm broke, and within minutes the streets were awash and lights flickered on and off throughout the town.

With every passing year, Easter, in the UK at least, seems to be becoming little more than just another Bank Holiday. It feels different over here. There's the sense that it still genuinely matters to an awful lot of people.

So, with that in mind, we decided to attend Mass at St Mark's on Thursday night. I have to say that I really wasn't convinced this was a good idea. Neither Caroline nor myself are Catholic, so was this not – at best – a little tacky or disrespectful?

I was half-expecting to be turned away at the side-entrance to the Basilica (I have no idea why I thought this, perhaps I thought we'd have to complete some sort of theological questionnaire to be be allowed in) but St Mark's are obviously geared up for this. The most significant parts of Mass are prefaced by translations in four languages, and it is stressed that only Roman Catholics should receive Communion. And, crowded though the Basilica was, it was evident that more people could have fitted in – it wasn't as if we were denying one of the locals a place.

We managed to follow things reasonably well (it's not actually all that different from the Anglican service), considering that we were constantly having to mentally leap between Latin, Italian and English; although the sung version of the Lord's Prayer, in Latin, is going to take a bit of work. The evening Mass on Holy Thursday is more correctly known as the Mass of the Lord's Supper, a significant element of which is the Washing of Feet. In this instance, the Patriarch washed the feet of a number of children who were about to receive their first Communion (I was amused to see that a number of the kids were 'dressing down' for the occasion – jeans and trainers were a common theme). Following Communion, the service concludes with the consecrated Host being taken to a side chapel in readiness for Good Friday Mass.

It's a powerful, solemn experience. The golden glow of the interior of the Basilica, the clouds of incense, the music from the (invisible) choir, the slow procession of the priests, and, everywhere you look, those extraordinary mosaic images from the Bible. It's religion with a capital 'R'.

The following night we returned for the Veneration of Relics. This doesn't seem to have any particular liturgical significance as a service, and didn't attract the same number of people; it was a memorable evening, nevertheless.

The relics are brought out in solemn procession, and placed along the iconostasis: a fragment of the Cross, a scrap of Christ's robe, a piece of the column from the Flagellation, two spines from the Crown of Thorns, one of the nails, and part of the reed from which Christ, on the Cross, was offered vinegar. Finally, a small crystal vial set in an ornate golden reliquary is placed on the altar. It is said to contain blood from the spear wound. Readings are interspersed with music (antiphonal pieces from Palestrina, Monteverdi, Mozart et al; all beautifully sung); following which the relics are carried through the aisles of the Basilica.

Again, as an experience, it's an undeniably powerful one. As a piece of pure theatre it was extraordinary, reminding me of nothing so much as the knights venerating the Grail in Wagner's Parsifal. But, I ask myself, how much of the emotional impact was due to its theatricality and music? Did I stand there genuinely believing that I was only feet away from the actual Blood of Christ? And for me, at least, that was just too much of a leap of faith.

Fifty years ago, my compatriot Jan Morris went to the same service and wrote “Incense swirls around them; the church is full of slow, shining movement; and in the Piazza outside, when you open the door, the holiday Venetians stroll from cafe to cafe in oblivion, like the men who sell Coca-Cola beneath the sneer of the Sphinx.” We emerged into a clear Venetian night, a perfect moon shining above Piazza San Marco, and were assailed within seconds by a street hawker trying to sell us some tat. Some things don't change that much after all.