With the death of her husband, my lovely mother-in-law Sara plunges into the Byzantine world of Italian post-mortem bureaucracy. Yet recall that this is the land of Machiavelli, of official lexicons that border on the Baroque. Example: when I was studying for the Italian driver’s license, the literature had three (3) terms for “rear-view mirror,” one of which was, literally, “the automotive device which permits the driver to look in reverse.” Back to documents. Italy has one called “esistenza in vita” (existence in a life-state), which says that you are alive. Don’t laugh: there just may be situations in which standing there in all your personal glory in front of an official and having a valid ID just aren’t enough.
And there’s attitude. Once I did a translation for the physics department of the Universita’ di Napoli. To get paid I had to produce a notarized document that I was not a member of the Mafia. Because, of course, a Mafioso, doing Mafia things would naturally recoil from signing such a document; his right hand would wither. So I go to the appropriate office and present my carta d’identita’ (identity card). The clerk glares at my last name. Mind you, there are Italian last names as long as mine (12 letters) but mine is German. She begins the “S” half-way on the line for “cognome” (family name). “Excuse me, signora,” I venture, “there may not be enough space.” Nothing, she grimly scratches out the letters, gets to my “w” (an interloper letter, shunned in the true Italian alphabet ). “I have no more space!” she announces, “and still the name goes on.” The cement shoe business is clearly preferable to brandishing my name. Somehow she curls the name around. I have spoiled her lovely document. She looks from my carta d’identita’ to her form and taps the line for “nome” (personal name). Most Italians have no middle name except in the case of a consistently-used double name like Giovanni Paolo, Anna Maria, Marco Antonio, and so forth. A sometimes used middle name, American-style like mine, Jean, just doesn’t fit the system. Either I’m Pamela Jean always and forever OR, if I want to be sometimes plain Pamela, all my ID must say Pamela, Jean (note the comma?). I have no comma. I’ll spare you the rest of the encounter.
And there is the aversion to information-giving. Ancona, my husband’s city on the Adriatic, is more organized than Naples, where we lived, but when we wanted to get married in Ancona and Maurizio called the city office to see what documents were required, he was asked to come in for that information. Ancona is 5 hours from Naples, he noted. “It would be better to come in. The problem,” said the official, “is that people are annoyed when they receive incorrect information by phone.”
And there are the agencies. Sara must “denounce” (i.e. report) that her husband has died, ending a good part of his pension. She does this at an agency called by its initials, IMPDP, or as spoken, “Impdup.” Now “impdup” to me sounds like some arboeal Indonesian mammal with a pesky temper. It certainly isn’t like any Italian word. Yet, in the face of all she has endured, poor Sara must go around saying “Impdup,” asking for Impdup offices and Impdup forms and Impdup stamps. She’ll do it and she’ll make the exquisite pastas and divine stuffed rice balls she prepares for our summer visits, but still . . . To shoulder through the land of “documenti” clearly builds character and perhaps, who knows, that character may have helped create the Renaissance.