stranitalia
 
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About this column
Italy is a beautiful country, generously endowed with natural beauty, chock full of charming people, abundantly supplied with wonderful things to eat and blessed with an apparantly unending number of marvelous places,on and off the beaten track, to discover and rediscover. But as many foreigners, even those who have visited frequently, do not realize, living here is not easy.

One reason for this is this country's excessive and near smothering bureaucracy. Another is the widespread, although somewhat improving, inefficiency of public offices, everything from hospitals to the motor vehicle bureau. A third is the unresponsiveness of government, since over the years it has become clear, in fact, that Italy's politicians really care only about their own survival and about maintaining the often unbelievable privileges to which most members of the classe politica - elected or appointed - are entitled. Add to all this the fact that from a cultural point of view the overwhelming majority of Italians appear unconcerned with, or even resistent to, measures designed to ensure practicality and efficiency and what you end up with is a very strange country. It was for this reason that I invented the name "Stranitalia" for the column I did in the last years while I was working for the Italian daily, Il Sole 24 Ore.

The defects mentioned above create major problems for Italian industry and other commercial enterprises which, increasingly, have found themselves in a situation of declining economic competitivity. But they also represent an enormous burden for the normal Italian citizen in the discharge and execution of his or her day-to-day obligations. Indeed, when I first arrived in Italy from the United States, the challenges posed by ordinary life were such that I fantasized that behind all this confusion was a committee of evil ancients whose sole reason for existence was to invent obstacles to the smooth running of daily life. "What can we do to make our countrymen suffer even more", I imagined them asking one another, cackling, as they sat in an unheated room rubbing their bony hands together in glee.

Things of course have improved from when I first started to spend time in Italy. Shopping is easier because you have supermarkets and because even smaller stores now can sell a variety of products without having to apply for, and pay for, a separate license for every category of goods. Many bigger stores - supermarkets, hypermarkets, outlets and department stores - are open on Sundays and this is also true for many of the shops in the downtown areas of major cities, although it is rare to find a small, family-owned store which prefers extra business to a day off.. Banks have longer office hours (although finding one open on a Saturday morning is still a near impossibility) and most now have online services. The post office will allow you to pay your bills with a bank card (but not a credit card). Many government offices are now open at least a couple of afternoons a week. And when you go to the post office you have to take a number and wait to be served, which means you no longer have to do battle with people for whom waiting on line is an anathema. .

But, and it's a big but, daily life in Italy is still very complicated and it is hard to resist the temptation to conclude that there is simply something in the Italian character, or in the Italian culture, which prefers complexity over simplicity, confusion over clarity and which forgets that the shortest distance between two points generally is a straight line.

In many countries, ordinary people may have a hard time understanding legal language but in Italy, which is said to have more laws on the books (many of which are never or rarely applied) than any other Western European country, the laws often seem made to engender incomprehension leaving most people tempted to ignore or contravene them. Indeed, the Italians have a saying, "pass a law, invent a way around it" leaving most people faced with a choice between extreme the frustration and rage caused by compliance and transgression, more than often the preferred option.

To an outsider, this seems very very strange which, once again, is why I have called this site, Stranitalia. Naturally, not everyone will agree with me but life is a learning experience for us all so any and all are welcome.

 

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