Public Offices

March 3, 2014 / Local Interest
Rome, Italy

It seems that the Ancient Romans were largely responsible for the development of political bureaucracy. Commendable innovation to be sure, and necessity being the mother of invention, quite understandable given the size of the Empire.

Trouble arises when you go to public offices nowadays to expedite some bureaucratic need. You realize that while the Ancient Romans might have invented bureaucracy two thousand years ago, their descendants haven’t really been all that busy improving it much since then.


Cavernous, labyrinthine spaces for the offices… strange undecipherable signs indicating the official-unofficial office hours… personnel who will direct you to someone they heard of on the fourth floor who might have a friend within the department you should contact for information about which office to go to… the still ubiquitous use of enormous faldoni (folders basically, but the Titanic equivalent of same. Each holds about 25 lbs. of paper files if stuffed by expert hands) and the attendant archive and (ahem) filing challenges… all these are hallmarks of the Roman bureaucratic experience.


That said, there have been some improvements, technological even! Notice the new button box numbering system. (The guards standing around have become the defacto button box experts. Do not ask the guys at the information booth.. who we’re pretty sure are impostors, even if quite friendly.) Anyhow, you push the correct button and out flies a numbered ticket that denotes your position in “line”. You then go to the booth/window that the big board indicates when your number comes up.


Certainly Italians’ love of lotto and playing the numbers have something to do with its success. And with a wry smile Sig.ra Franca at booth n.11 says that since the introduction of the amazing new technology, murder rates in the waiting area seem to have gone down. (We are glad to report that hollering is still at time-honored levels).

And sure, the inefficiency and, well, bureaucracy of it all seems quite distressing if you take the modern approach (i.e. “This is a public office at which I need to get X, Y, and Z done, and it’s all just a useless gov’t hassle that I’m forced to endure.”) Fact of the matter is, you need to remember that this is an Ancient Roman invention, and so you must look at it with those eyes, not our contemporary, multi-tasked hyper-efficiency-is-everything lenses.

Think of yourself as an Ancient Roman going to the Forum… you meet nice fellow citizens who are also here by necessity conducting their daily business. You catch up on the previous day’s politics with info-booth Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum while waiting for your number to come up. On your way out you have a “Thank you” espresso with the guard who pointed you in the right direction. Sig.ra Franca shows you photos and shares stories of her grandchildren while she bangs on the malfunctioning 1980s printer in her booth. Etc. etc. etc.


And if nothing else, precisely because it does take two hours to get the most insignificant paperwork done, the catharsis and sense of elation you feel once you’ve finished your bureaucratic task and have walked out of the building definitely almost makes it all worthwhile!


by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

35 Responses to “Public Offices”

  1. Oh my God, this would be even funnier if it weren’t true. I’ll never forget the days I spent sitting in public waiting rooms for so many things- from my codice fiscale to getting a bank account to getting an x-ray. That’s one of things I don’t miss about Italy.

  2. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    GB. A masterly piece of suppressed frustration tempered with (a very generous) amusement. Kafka would feel right at home here. I think it was in Dark Heart of Italy (Tobias Jones) where I read that every Italian devotes two weeks of his/her life each year to standing in line. Still, a good place to plot a murder…

  3. this is close to my heart unfortunately. i never imagined all the paperwork and documents i would have to apply for, sign, and wait for….jsut opening a bank account required 19 pages – each with required signatures-here in new york it was jsut a half page with one signature. i imagine the more things which are part of your file, the greater the chance of losing them. i am in the process right now of applying for elective residence. wish me luck! i have a house in sardinia so i hope it wont be a problem, HA!

  4. Travelwaves

    Now I understand why it took many many years for my husband’s father to return to the US from Italy. He had become a uS citizen, went back to bring his family over, got drafted by the Italians for World War II, got gassed, made a prisoner of war, then had to make years of trips to try to get a Visa to return to US. But the Roamsn spread their culture for now getting a Visa for visiting Brasil is the same process of take a number and wait.

  5. This really made me laugh! We had to change addresses each time we moved to another city (we did this 4 times in 2 years) and Perugia, where we applied first for our permesso di soggiorno, was a nightmare. The most efficient and smooth, Verona, hands down. Thanks for this very entertaining note! I do have to take exception to the idea of Italians “standing in line” – I was never sure they completely understood the concept of waiting their turn!! ;)

  6. This is all so true and so amusing. Is actually one of the things we do miss about Ital y. Well not really the standing in lines, but Imust say in Naples things work a bit swifter. You just have to go “around the world” to get it done. But still, took less time to go thru red tape there than it did anything in the US.
    I do miss Italy so much!

  7. I agree, this makes me laugh. A person hasn’t lived until they experience the Italian bureaucracy. Last year, I received my Italian citizenship from the consul office in Los Angeles. The previous year, on the recommendation of the consul office, I tried to complete this task in Italy. I spent a week going back and forth to the Questura. I failed. I thought I was close, but in the end an official said “no”.
    Now, it’s all laughable.

  8. This truly brought back some memories. Rosemary don’t you remember that Perugia changed over to the number system shortly after we arrived in 2005. The problem was knowing which “letter & number” combination matched the services we needed.

  9. Stanley Crabb

    Reading all of these ll notes brings back a flood of memories of similar frustrations over our 27 nonetheless happy years living there. One of the worst things is if they make the slightest mistake on a public document. My home town is Louisville, Kentucky (USA). When I bought a car, unfortunately the clerk had transcribed an “n” for the “u”. To change that required me to request the change at ACI Roma, and begin the whole process again. Eventually I was required to return to Torino (we were living in Roma at the time) and request that the auto dealer make the change. After about a year we had the correct document. Did any of you ever see the film “MADE IN ITALY?” It came our in the 70s, but you won’t find it now. It was “removed” from circulation as too “offensive”, yet all of it true, like the stories printed here. But, still we love Italy. What a place!!

  10. It sounds like many of you are removed from the present conditions new immigrants are subject to when applying for similar things in the NYC area. In some places, English is hardly understandable.One must stay calm with angry individuals that take out their frustrations on naive new commers,especilly the non English peaking ones and give them a very hard time by misguiding them to stand for hours in the wrong lines. The incompetence,the lazyness,the shouting, the attitudes,filthy offices,soiled chairs,day long lines that never end (sometimes the lines circle a city block, and for hours one must indure scorching summer temperatures without water. At the end of the day, totally starving (no matter where you look, all you can grab to eat is dog food)…..Please….Italy, does have issues in this regard, and at different times in history has been better managed. The Romans would never tollerate this. But do take a closer look at what is going on in your own back yard these days.

  11. Connie,
    Thanks for calling attention to that. As citizens of America, we have never had to experience what current immigrants face. I know that my experience in Italy gave me a much better appreciation for what it feels like to go to a different country, not being fluent in the language and trying to navigate your way through the immigration system. Your comments are justified and humbling.

  12. This article is hilarious, and so well written! I have been to the police station at least 15 times in the past year, trying to complete my application for my permesso di soggiorno. My husband and children all have British passports but I have an Australian one! I do not even want to work, but the process has been astoundingly complicated.
    Your final comment “the catharsis and sense of elation you feel once you’ve finished your bureaucratic task and have walked out of the building definitely almost makes it all worthwhile!” is so true – we are going to have an enormous Permesso di Soggiorno Party when it finally comes through!

  13. oh my god! its what drove me out of italy my 3rd time living there.
    the only thing that’s better now , other than GB’s numbering system, is atm machines, so you dont have to fight the lines at the bank, and credit cards accepted at the gas stations. now that’s bringing things up to the 19th century!!!

  14. Vince (Enzo) Amato

    Italy could automate and eliminate 50% of the beauracrats but then they would have a worst unemployment problem….

  15. Here I am on my computer writing a letter when Italian Notebook came in. Finished the letter, got coffee and started reading the post but overlooked who wrote the article. Half way through I started laughing saying, This has to be written by GB, who else??? I scrolled back to top and yup, GB.
    Great article, great sense of humor and most of all after reading this I realized how much I miss reading your posts. I know you’re busy, I know you have more people who publish but how I love your view on life and your writing style.
    Keep posting.

  16. We were advised at the San Francisco consulate not to ask for Permeso di Soggiorno. Just go past the Italian border every three months, or claim to have done so. In Rome the Codice Fiscale wasn’t too bad. Arthur

  17. Rosemary

    This really made me laugh this morning reading about the “ancient roman bureaucracy” – Bob and I experienced this a time or two (or 4) when we lived in Italy. I do relate to the feeling of elation when all is done and the clerk has enthusiastically stamped (several times!!) your documenti and you have your paperwork approved!

  18. Gary Hoffman

    Ancient Roman customs included crucifixions and lions in the arena…should we go back to that because it was ‘traditional’? After numerous brushes with bureaucracy over there, I am convinced that it is endemic, permeates the entire system like raw sewage spilling into the Tiber. I can’t believe that the Italian economy does as well as it does (not too great though is it?) with this massive inefficiency factor built in. The answer I’m afraid is to totally clean house, bring in Germans, Brits, Norwegians, Americans; almost anyone, and they will need to start from scratch. An enormous undertaking to be sure but there are a collected 2,000 years of accumulated detritus to excavate. A shame that when the Germans were there in the 40’s, they didn’t at least streamline the governing and administrative process. But it’s not too late!

  19. I am in Italy for 30 years – and I still cannot get over the these difficulties. It doesn’t help me much – although I really had to laugh – to think that some ancient Roman is responsible for that. Every time, after having passed hours in an office – only for to have to come back again, nothing resolved, I enter into thoughts of better going back to Germany where things work better (at least this was my experience when I came here and couldn’t believe how things worked – or better DIDN’T work here in Italy). But at the end I am still here, like the sun, the landscape and some other things better than in Germany..

  20. I like the humor this article, but the state of affairs it describes is not uniquely Italian. I’ve found it while living in France and Latin America, and just last week at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Northern Virginia, USA (take a number, wait till your number is called by a machine, go to window xx, find no one at that window, wait for a clerk to appear and ask you to fill out some forms and take your picture, find out you need additional material, go home and get it, come back, take another number, wait again… etc., etc.) I guess all of us need to thank ancient Rome for our bureaucracies.

  21. Bob Blesse

    Thanks, GB. Your lovely and beautifully written piece has only heightened the level of stress, mixed with hopefulness, that my wife and I are beginning to feel as we look forward to our arrival in Florence in early September for a longterm, if not permanent, residency in Italy. No matter how much we try to read about and prepare for the challenge of obtaining our permisso di soggiorno, bank account, etc., the thought of dealing with the Italian bureaucracy is frightening. I believe it must be approached with the same humor you reflect in your article. Wish us luck!

  22. Spano

    I love/Hate the system…..this is why I’ve all but given up on attaining my rightful Italian citizenship….

  23. Richard Noblett

    You neglected to mention the Italians’ obsession with the rubber stamps that they bang onto every document. I love to watch their feeling of importance as they search for and apply the correct stamp. Great article!

  24. Has no one ever had to deal with the bureaucracy of the Washington, D.C city government? Those from an Italian experience would feel right at home! Thanks for a very amusing article, GB.

  25. WOW! Thanks very much for this piece, which brought back old memories… I had totally forgotten the dreadful faldoni… and how many I have filled in with documents when, as a student, I spent my summers working as archivista-dattilografa (sigh!) in this sort of offices. Each and every paper had to be duly “protocollato, datato, timbrato, firmato” before being filed…I still wonder why! Thanks again! Emanuela

  26. This all reminds me of when I was living in Milano and wanted to subscribe to a magazine which was so convoluted that I had to enlist the aid of a cousin. When she visited me here in California by chance I was subscribing to a magazine, to her amazement she saw me just placing all the information plus a check into an envelope, stamping it and mailing it off… She couldn’t believe the ease of it all.

  27. Anne Robichaud

    So true…and one of the advantage of life in a small town like Assisi – can still be labyrinthine…but maybe slightly less of an entanglement…? ;

  28. We struggled with a Roman run-around for 4 days in August 1951 in order to get married there…papers, notificazione, tax stamps, the correct type of notebook paper, paid witnesses, a wee bit of honorarium, etc., etc. but we eventually sat on the thrones in the Palazzo degli Conservatory di Roma and the American Embassy recognized the legitimacy of my newly married name. Read all about it (like something out of Fellini!) in the first four chapters of my book.
    From your photos, it seems only the premises have been cleaned up and modernized!
    Arden Fowler, ardent lover of all things Italian!

  29. Toni McKeen

    I think, while the article was very amusing, we are forgetting about the runarounds we get in the US. Italy has no monopoly on stupid bureaucracy. I just sent for a document requesting the name of the mother of someone born in 1914. They wrote back telling me I needed proof of death of the mother!! Even if she had the child at age 14, she would have been born in 1900 and thus 114 years old!


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