Retired in Rome Journal: Buying an Italian cell phone not as easy as dailing uno, due, tre


It sits next to this laptop, a four-inch piece of black plastic, a bundle of wires, technology and agitation. It weighs no more than a golf ball. Yet how can a cell phone be so difficult?

In Italy it is.

Cell phones are as much a part of Italians’ lives as pasta. They’re connected to their ears like a growth. Land lines went out in Italy about the time of chariot races and cells, or cellulari as they’re called here, have become their lifeline. Italians have the fourth highest usage per capita in Europe (If you care, Lithuania is first), with 1,346 cell phones for every 1,000 people. Yes, that’s right. Italians even have backups.

Then again, so do I now. That’s some insight into how I spent two days getting connected with the rest of the cellular world.

Italy has numerous cell phone companies, all with massive ad campaigns ranging from hot women talking on the phone on TV to company names emblazoned on the front of pro soccer teams’ jerseys. There’s TIM, WIND. The Blooms, my local expat friends, recommended Vodofone, which has a huge office on Via del Corso and young clerks who are as savvy with the English language as they are with cell phones. Also, they can even convert your U.S. cell to Italian. As I said, Italians know cell.

No cell phone store in the world has a better walk to reach it. I strolled past my new friends at the Campo dei Fiori fruit stands, went to the Pantheon where I again marveled at Hadrian’s massive temple to the Greek gods then stopped off at Tazza d’Ora (Cup of Gold) which lived up to The New York Times’ claim as the best cappuccino in the world. I walked through the Piazza Colonna and its 100-foot-high spiraling column with intricate carved details of Marco Aurelius’ military victories. It was built in 193 AD.

I peered at the carvings of the soldiers. I wanted to see if they were holding cell phones.

Via del Corso is Rome’s main shopping artery. Every name Italian brand is on this street which is constantly being prowled by panting female tourists attacking stores like starving lionesses. Here’s a tip, ladies: You won’t find any bargains here. In fact, you’ll find few anywhere in Rome. Italian clothes stores price their clothes for female tourists who will pay anything to show off their “new Italian shoes” in their office in Santa Monica. Men stores, however, price for the Italian man with limited funds. I’ve found incredible Italian shoes for half the price I’d pay at the Macy’s in Cherry Creek Mall. (Psst! Ladies, go to Re di Roma, south of Termini. That neighborhood has no tourists and reasonable prices.)

Vodofone is set up similar to Verizon in Cherry Creek. It’s a big space with everyone wearing identical uniforms and two people greeting you at the door asking to help. I got assigned a pretty blonde who spoke no English but made buying a phone as easy as buying the pizza bianca I had earlier that day. She took my Verizon iPhone4S and sold me 200 minutes and 200 texts plus data for 30 euros ($40) a month. She handed me one sheet of paper with my new Italian number on it. She handed me my old phone and said it will be activated within two hours. And that was it.

We did the whole thing in Italian which was a major step in my advancement toward fluency but gave me reservations that I heard her right. I found another woman who spoke English and went over what the woman told me: 200 minutes, 200 texts, data for 30 euros a month. And it will be activated in two hours?

“Si,” she said.

I strutted out thinking I could not only address the Italian Parliament but I could address it on my new cell phone by the afternoon. But as I wrote emails later that day, my old cell phone kept haunting me with the message, “NO SERVICE.” Two hours passed. Then three. Then four. It never changed. I couldn’t even call the States on Verizon’s larcenist 99-cents-a-minute-go-broke-in-retirement plan.

Then yesterday I marched back to Vodofone. I thought I noticed one of the soldiers on the Colonna was depicted throwing a fit at what looked like a second century cell phone clerk. I was sent to see Pamela, a diminutive doe-eyed woman in her mid-20s. This time I took no chances.

“Parla inglese?”

“Ee leetle,” she said.

Of course, keeping with Europeans’ modesty about languages, she was completely fluent. She examined my phone and told me that they can’t change my U.S. cell phone to Italian because it is locked. I must go to an Apple store and have them do it.

“Dove e’?” (Where is it?)

I showed her a map of Rome and she giggled. She laid it out on the counter and pointed off the map — WAY off the map — to the north. I believe she was pointing somewhere in Tuscany. Desperate, I was ready to hop a bus. Fortunately, a male clerk overheard what we were doing and he said don’t bother. Apple here can’t unlock U.S. cell phones, either.

Instead, I shelled out $50 for the tiny Italian cell that is mocking me as I type this. It looks like one of those burners you buy in foreign countries and throw away along with your water bottle as you go through airport security. But it’s still 200 minutes and 200 texts a month for only 30 euro ($40), much less than in the U.S. It’s also only 15 cents a minute to call the U.S., about seven times cheaper than Verizon.

So now I have two cell phones: a new one to call and text and my old one for the calendar, contacts and pictures. I then spent two hours on the phone with Verizon figuring out how to move pictures from my old cell phone to my new laptop. We accomplished it through means totally beyond my comprehension.

Marcus Aurelius, you have no idea how easy a life you had.