So you are alive, but do you also exist? (2014)

I haste to declare that I jot down these notes in drunken stupor, so I beg the reader’s forgiveness for any odd sounding or potentially offensive verb. However, do believe the content of my words, it is genuine and verifiable. Besides, don’t blame me, but a country where a bottle of reasonably good, unsophisticated, additive-free wine costs the equivalent of £ 2.50 or 4 US $.
So, while outside rain is falling steadily on the wooded landscape, and the city lays in the valley below shrouded in a vague mist, I muse myself with a pouring of words, on white paper I’d like to say, but it’s a mere screen in front of me I am afraid.

In the last weeks I was trying to understand what all this fuss is about the property tax that goes under a plethora of names and may make the Italian government fall this week.
Now, let me explain first that the government in Italy has a peculiar habit of falling at least once a year on average. It’s a long story, I’ll tell you another time if you insist, suffice to say that if you manage to be in office in the Italian Government, no matter how insignificant your charge is, for at least 9 months, you are sorted for life, you won’t have to work ever again and will live a life of luxury footballer-style, hence the fast turnover of Governments, the high number of people employed by Government and their wages, the highest in the Western World. But that’s for another day.

Anyway, no longer than a year ago the (in)famous Mr Berlusconi was tried for sexual offences, embezzlement, sexual exploitation of minors, multiple multi-million frauds and a series of other similar offences. But he was prime minister, hence immune from prosecution (oh yes, some 43% of Italian MPs have criminal charges, are convicted of various crimes or are indicted for others, but being in Government grants them immunity). Mr B. was sentenced (symbolically) to 8 years in prison, which he would have served if not in office. Sort of, maybe, perhaps if…
At that time elections were approaching (as they seasonally do in Italy, Spring elections, Winter elections, like fashion collections…) and Mr Berlusconi had yet another stroke of genius, due to his intimate knowledge of the Italian psyche which he faithfully represents (I loathe to say), and one day in Parliament he said something to the tune of “I hereby abolish the property tax!” – now, I need to explain that in Italy there are a multitude of taxes, no one knows exactly which, how many, what for, and the property tax is something similar to the Council Tax in the UK, but it used to be paid to the Government instead of the Councils, which themselves apply a variety of other taxes.
As soon as Mr Berlusconi declared he was abolishing the tax he went from the front door of jail to the front door of Parliament. Yes, people voted for him and elected him yet again.
It has to be remembered that Mussolini in his days won the majority of votes, especially in the then poorest South, by giving a bag of pasta per each vote (shouldn’t the vote be secret, I hear you ask, well, don’t ask silly questions, we are in Italy!).

Anyway, Berlusconi isn’t in charge any more (officially), but the property tax issue is still lingering, and it may just make the current government fall, for the first time this year. So I was trying to get my head around the issue. At least to understand, what’s the big issue?
Well, I tell you, after much reading, most of which was very confusing, I finally managed to ‘get the picture’.
Berlusconi abolished the property tax, part of which the Government would distribute to Regions, Provinces and City Councils (all of which have different and separate, often incompatible rules, bureaucracies, taxes, regulations, exceptional laws etc etc). As a consequence most of these, already on the brink of bankruptcy (if you consider at least 50% of their budget is wasted in bribes, delays, wrong allocations and bureaucratic procedures…) found it impossible to operate and obtained the Government’s permission to issue new “emergency” taxes. These, added to the previous local taxes, amounted to more than the property tax Berlusconi had abolished. What a surprise.

Anyway, for the last 8 months the Government has been locked in a battle between parties to re-draw the property tax law and find a solution. The law has been changed 40 (forty) times over the last 8 (eight) months but every time opposed by one or the other party, thus no agreement has been reached and this may lead to the fall of the government.
The payment of the tax is due by the 31st of January, but no one knows how much should be paid. The accountants don’t know either (a chapter further down on this most important caste of Italian society) so people will not be able to pay the tax, and each one of them will later be charged a fine for paying it late. It’s not their fault, I hear you say, well, I repeat, don’t ask silly questions, we are in Italy!

As I said, I was trying to understand what these dramatic differences in proposals effectively were, what was the difference between the positions of the dozens of political parties. Finally I managed to gather enough comparative information, only to discover that the actual difference in people’s pockets would be in the order of a maximum £ 15 (fifteen pounds) per year on an average first home two-bedroom property. Now, let’s make a real life comparison, the average Italian home owner of a such a property would end up paying a yearly property tax almost equal to what an equivalent home in London pays in Council tax every month.
To put things in context. Currently (January 2014) the crisis in Italy is visible, but the standard of living of the lower layers of society is still higher than their counterpart in the UK, at least in terms of quality of food, clothes and housing, and the purchasing power of wages is comparable, with the lower end of the social spectrum being better off and with a wider middle class (albeit much worse off than they were only 10 years ago) in Italy than the UK.

Back to the accountants now, because they are a fundamental pillar of daily life in Italy, together with solicitors, surveyors, controllers and an array of public offices that have no correspondence in the UK, and whose scope and utility would be very hard to explain (since they have none if not the purpose of self justification).
Accountants are a sort of super human caste in Italy, the custodians of an arcane knowledge and the unique access to essential permissions indispensible to survival in the system.
The rules of the various bureaucracies (State, Regions, Provinces, Councils, various Police corps, Customs and Excise, Fire Brigade, Church, Ministry of Health and so on and so forth), are so complex and very often contradicting that even a private individual needs an accountant to deal with (and pay for) the endless legal and bureaucratic requirements of daily life in the country. Accountants are expensive, and generally unhelpful and arrogant, with an attitude that lays in between the pop star and the small time crook, but they are generally much better dressed than either.
The fundamental rule of Italian society is that everyone tells lies, everyone tries to take advantage of rules and of other people, consequently one doesn’t trust anyone and everything has to be written in triplicate with witnesses and underwritten by lawyers and accountants to avoid fraud and tax-dodging.

As we all know, the more paranoid the ruler becomes the more he chops off his most faithful helpers’ heads, convinced that they are plotting against him. For the same reason, the more insecure of its own legitimacy a society is the more it creates complex rules with several layers of certification, verification, authentication, all of which lead to byzantine complications leaving room for even more ‘back doors’ to be left open, more corruption, more confusion.
Italy has mastered that to a fine art. There are reasons too, from the end of the Roman Empire to its unification in the late 19th century, for some 1250 years Italy was a fragmented mess of tiny local powers squabbling and fighting with each other or under the colonial power of dozens of foreign nations, leading to a widespread unconscious belief that no matter who is in power, they are there to rip you off, so you stand up for yourself, your family and friends, and make alliance from time to time with someone according to temporary convenience. Hardly the suitable ground for a modern unified society.
It is said (beware of statistics) that the average Italian citizens waste up to 20% of their working time cueing at various offices to obtain pieces of evidently useless papers, each to be paid for too.
Some are truly unimaginable for anyone coming from a modern organised society, in fact I have a whole range of (true) unbelievable stories I can tell to amuse my Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon friends.

For instance, no document can be obtained other than by going in person to various specialised offices. In some case websites have been created, but inevitably they don’t work, if they do work they are impossible to understand, after endless circumnavigations between pages that look as if they belong to several different sites with no common logic and appear to have been designed by brain damaged monkeys, one has to give up and go to the relevant issuing office, except that it is difficult to discover where the office actually is, and least of all when it is likely to be open, since some have imaginative opening times such as every first Tuesday and Friday of the month from 7.47 to 11.18 am, and if you manage to discover that and go there at the appointed time you may discover that people have been cueing out in the street since 5 am to get in the cue and some of them have been trying for three months with no success.
If you do get in the cue and get to the glass protected window of the whatever officer you may discover that the said officer doesn’t even look at you because he/she is engaged in a telephone conversation with his/her cousin/mother/lover and after 23 minutes 47 seconds of conversation he/she puts down the phone and says to you “sorry, it’s closing time, you’ll have to come back another day”.
Let’s assume that “another day” you manage to get through the cue and to actually be seen by one of said officers, the person may look at you with a blank stare and say “why are you here, you don’t need that document, who said you did?” to which you try to explain what other office had said to you, after a series of unsuccessful attempts to get one document or the other, that you first needed to obtain that other document from that other office.. and the officer says to you “oh, they don’t know what they are talking about (which, by the way, is often the case for all of them) and so sends you away.
And you are back to square one.

Not just the number, but the kind of documents required for the simplest item of daily life is bewildering. For instance, it is illegal to walk out of your front door without an identification document, you can be arrested and detained up to 48 hours. But for most procedures you need a combination of different documents, each proving the other’s authenticity. So you end up with a truly magnificent output of the famous Italian creativity. Not only there is an ID card that says who you are, but there is a certificate that proves that you really are who the ID cards purports you to be. Then there is one that proves that not only you are the one who is described in the ID card, but you are also ALIVE (who knows, you could be a walking dead). And finally, a true pinnacle of subtle metaphysical thought, there is a document called “certificate of proof of existence in life” which proves that non only you are who you say you are, as stated in your ID, and you are also alive, but on top of it all you also EXIST!
Now, allow me to draw your attention to the subtlety of the concept. In a world where so many people exist but are not really alive, and carry out their daily business in a zombie-like fashion, while many others are alive but barely exist, so insignificant and disposable their life is for the powers above, the need to prove that you are you, that you are alive and that you also exist is understandable and somewhat commendable.
I am a man, I am who I say I am, I am alive and I also exist! Only an Italian can prove that with a series of documents printed on filigreed paper and embossed with official stamps, (each priced at between £ 15 and £ 20). Providing he/she has managed to navigate the dozen different offices able to provide such certification!
Otherwise no problem, it means he/she doesn’t exist after all!

Now, there is obviously an alternative to the ordeal of going through months of cues at different offices to obtain certifications that may or may not grant you authorisation to do whatever it is (if you can still remember) that you wanted to do. The alternative is to discreetly push an envelope stuffed with banknotes under the nose of whatever official you are dealing with. Providing you are aware of what the going rate for a document or another is, your envelope will disappear while you turn around to check the messages on your mobile, and the smiling cooperative officer will provide you with the required document, duly stamped, sealed, duplicated, photocopied and countersigned, with hand-written receipt and declaration of authenticity.
Lo and behold you have joined The Italian Nation. The law and the rules exist, but only for everyone else, you can happily go about complaining about nothing working because no one follows the rules, and then explain that you couldn’t possibly be the first sodding idiot who follows the rules and watches everyone else advance while you are stil waiting for permission to ask permission to be allowed to access the documents that will consent you to present request to be granted exception to do… I forgot what…
Italy is a unique and wonderful country!

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