Public services make Italy resemble a Third World country

Me Wednesday at the Caffe In where I wrote while dressed more appropriately for a football game in Buffalo.
Me Wednesday at the Caffe In where I wrote while dressed more appropriately for a football game in Buffalo.

DEC. 31

I am writing this with chattering fingers that are producing more typos than pearls of wisdom. Suddenly, all of Italy’s charms in monuments, food and women are engulfed by the country’s maddening public services that resemble 1966 rural Poland. I’m in a small Chinese-run neighborhood cafe where I just wrote a 2,900-word magazine story over a mishmash of screaming Italian and Chinese. The annoying “PING! PING! RATTLE! RATTLE!” of three slot machines are chiming behind me as well as a screaming child running around the floor and music videos on the TV above. I am here because the Caffe In has two things my apartment does not: Internet and heat. I write “heat” and not “warmth” because every time someone walks through the cafe’s automatic door it stays open for seemingly like generations, letting the cold winter air from a 36-degree day pour in like a splash coming off the North Sea.

I am here because in Italy’s never-ending quest to become the most backward industrialized country in the world, my Internet shut off Monday night. I had finished a phone interview, and my laptop screen just zapped. No warning. No explanation. Nothing. Just SNAP! Gone. On my screen appeared vague instructions in Italian to type my name in a little box, an act that produced nothing but my expanding vocabulary in Italian profanity. I called Roberto, my advisor in the WIND Internet office, as he readied to lock his office door. He looked up my account. It said I hadn’t paid my bill.

Huh? My records showed I paid my bill in November. So the next day I crossed the Tiber River to the WIND office near the Vatican and Roberto looked at my account again. Yes, I paid my November bill. I didn’t pay my August bill. I never GOT a bill. Even if I did, why didn’t they warn me? Send me an email? Send me a text on my cell phone it also provides? Roberto laughed with open arms in that Italian way that pretty much says, “My friend! This is Italy!”

“They used to send a telegram,” he said.

A telegram? I thought Internet replaced the telegram. I thought stone tablets replaced the telegram. So I paid my bill and sent WIND a fax showing my receipt. I now must wait 24-48 hours to get my service back. This being New Year’s, figure 72 hours. This being Italy, figure … um, well, when I first signed up for Internet in March, it took a month. By the time it returns to my apartment this time, I might be fluent in Mandarin.

(A disclaimer. After I wrote the above, my kind landlady, Michela, found a new key phone number I didn’t know I had and inserted it in the little instruction box. Miraculously, this morning my Internet is up. I am writing this in the comforts of my freezing home.)

This is on top of the post office holding Christmas presents as if they’re political hostages and an apartment that has gone from charming penthouse flat overlooking a meandering river to a meat locker in Greenland. My sister sent me a present that, according to her tracking number, arrived in Rome Dec. 20. It was never delivered. If it was, I wasn’t home. PosteItaliane, whose branches have more chaos than a sorority fire, has an interesting response when you’re not home and they’re delivering something too big for the pocket-sized mail boxes.


I must take the tracking number to a major post office and hope some underpaid, perpetually pissed-off drone somehow finds the gift in a warehouse surely filled with other undelivered presents. Yes, there is a reason you never see Santa Claus in Italy.

My office until my Internet gets fixed.
My office until my Internet gets fixed.

Warm-weather countries like Italy can not figure out how to handle cold. And right now Rome is real cold. It has been under 40 during the day all week. Last night it hit 30 degrees. That’s no problem. I grew up in Oregon. I lived my previous 23 years in Colorado. I can handle extreme cold — outside. But my building turns off the heat from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and from 10 p.m.-6 a.m. to cut costs. I agree. I’m about the only person in the building in the afternoon. The rest shouldn’t pay to make me comfortable. But when the heat is on, the three radiators don’t heat enough to warm a marshmallow, a complaint heard all over the city. To feel anything, I must practically hop on one of them naked. If I’m going to take off my clothes to get warm, what I want to keep me warm is not a radiator.

(Michela told me there are two problems: One, Rome is unusually cold this week; two, my penthouse apartment with big picture windows looking out onto a wide terrace is going to be colder. I understand. I also understand that Italians are more environmentally conscious than the energy-guzzling Americans. But come on. My local butcher is hanging skinned cattle in my living room. I’m sleeping with more clothing than a hockey goalie.)

So my to-do list yesterday read:

WIND office.
Convince North Korea to nuke the entire Republic of Italy back to the Stone Age.
Buy milk.

It’s all a trade off. I’m approaching a year in Rome and when that anniversary arrives Jan. 11, I will post a blog listing all the reasons I love this city. But after a year here, I have slowly learned that expats’ constant mantra about Italy’s horrific public services are not a cliche. They are real.

I’d complain more but I have to call Pyongyang.

Buon Capodanno (Happy New Year).