From bureaucracy to bidets: The most perplexing things about life in Italy

After moving to Italy from the US, everyday life may bring plenty of small surprises. American Mark Hinshaw in the Le Marche region reflects on the most puzzling aspects and tells us how he and his wife are adjusting.

From bureaucracy to bidets: The most perplexing things about life in Italy
Brace yourself. But the paperwork isn't the only thing you'll have to get used to after moving to Italy. Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

After moving to Italy, we encountered a seemingly endless series of challenges that had to be overcome.

First, there was the language. We made a decent effort to learn the language with its complex variations and conjugations of verb tenses, the proper use of masculine/feminine nouns and pronouns, and plural forms of words. My wife, having younger and more copious brain cells, picked it up much faster; she is now fluent and can even participate in arguments over the phone. I look on in awe, trying to follow the rapid-fire repartee.

READ ALSO: 12 signs you’ve cracked the Italian language

Which brings up the next challenge, Italians speak fast. Very fast. I am often two sentences behind before I fully understand what is being said to me. There is an awkward pause of several seconds while my brain catches up in order to allow me to reply.

We frequently have to ask neighbors and friends to slow down – “Lentamente, per favore” – when they shift into fifth gear and launch into a long exposition. 

Then there is the challenge of the dialect. Oh my. The Duolingo program does not reveal that there are dozens of regional dialects. We discovered that many people in this village speak in the dialect.

As hard as we would listen, we could make out no understandable Italian. Most can certainly speak Italian, but they are used to employing their dialect in everyday situations. We sometimes say that Italian is the common “middle” language we share with locals. 

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy’s many local dialects

Then there is the infamous bureaucracy – the burocrazia. There are four levels of government to deal with: national, regional (comparable to states), provincial (comparable to counties) and cities. Each has their own array of functions, officials, procedures, required documents, internet sites, records, and permits. And different ways of getting appointments and receiving notices of impending due dates.

Some use email, some texts, some regular mail. Some, nothing at all. They are also notorious for not returning emails. We are speculating that no one wants to have a paper trail, lest they mistakenly say something incorrect.

But the bureaucracy is not just in government. Its similarly complex and baffling with utility services, repair services, banks, clinics, pharmacies, and even in the purchase of appliances. We have slowly learned to keep every single scrap of paper we receive in labeled folders, as one never knows when someone will not provide a service unless you can produce a particular document first. 

And don’t even get me started on obtaining a driver’s license. American tales about experiences in a DMV pale by comparison. 

I could continue for many paragraphs with challenges, both old ones we have met and surmounted and ones that are ongoing. Living here takes considerable resolve and tons of patience. Nothing — and I mean nothing — moves quickly. If someone moves here expecting American-style customer service and efficiency, they will have a miserable life ahead.

On the other hand, Italian officials, whether in government or the private sector, are fiercely proud of their jobs and the authority that their job title represents. If they are treated with respect and deference, we have found most will be accommodating and helpful. It’s only when they encounter people displaying a sense of entitlement or arrogance that things can quickly go sideways (I’m looking at you, entitled Americans and Brits). Officials can make your life easier or they can easily make it a living hell. 

READ ALSO: The five most essential pieces of paperwork you’ll need when moving to Italy

But perhaps one of the greatest challenges I’ve personally encountered is not a linguistic or a social one, but rather a physical one. I am referring here to the bidet.

Now I consider myself reasonably well-traveled and worldly. But using a bidet has for some reason always eluded me. During many visits to Europe over the decades, the bathrooms in hotels and rental places always had one. But I would give them the side-eye. The shiny porcelain plumbing fixture would remain unused by me. 

I was, frankly, flummoxed. Weren’t they intended for the other gender? How would I approach one if I wanted to? And what is the…umm…proper protocol? I suppose I was embarrassed to be seen fumbling by using it incorrectly. I still recall my mother suddenly bursting into the bathroom during an inopportune moment as a teenager.  

Of course, its not very likely that one’s time spent in a domestic or hotel bathroom would be intruded upon by a stranger who would give out with a mocking laugh. Still, it was the fear of the unknown that prevented me from making an attempt. So the thing just sat there in the bathroom for years, with me occasionally contemplating, then dismissing, its use.

One of our cats figured out how to use it before I did. She spent considerable time, with her head cocked, watching us both use the toilet. Then one day, she jumped up on the bidet and did her business. I imagine she concluded that the larger bowl was for the bigger animals and the smaller one for the smaller animals. Of course, her occasional use is not exactly a dainty or discreet one. It requires one of the big animals to clean up the aftermath.

A couple of months ago I had enough of being reticent. I read a few tutorials available online, with their sometimes hilariously descriptive details. I followed the instructions and took on the adversary. My first reaction, after the maiden voyage was: “Oh my God, what took me so long?” 

Now, it seems, I could not live without it.

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

Member comments

  1. This article is amazing as we moved here to Rieti in November 2021 and my wife and I were laughing through the entire article as we have experienced everything Mark mentions and have yet to slay the “bidet” dragon. Now one thing is for sure, everything is slow except for the drivers 🙂
    Thank you for the wonderfully hilarious article.

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EXPLAINED: How can you stop nuisance phone calls in Italy?

If it seems like you’ve been getting more unwanted calls on your Italian phone number recently, you’re probably not imagining things. But the good news is you’ll soon be able to do something about it.

EXPLAINED: How can you stop nuisance phone calls in Italy?

People in Italy are now getting an average of five nuisance calls (or telefonate moleste) per week from telemarketers, according to consumer rights association Codacons, which estimates that the frequency of such calls – mainly from banks, telecommunications and energy companies – is now about 20 percentage points higher than in pre-pandemic times.

This increase in cold calling in Italy comes ahead of the imminent introduction of a new ‘do not call’ list for mobile phone numbers, which spells trouble for telemarketers, reports newspaper Corriere della Sera.

READ ALSO: Beat the queues – 19 bits of Italian bureaucracy you can do online

In the European Union, data protection rules (under Regulation 2016/679) mean that you have the right not to be contacted, including by businesses. Based on this regulation, Italian courts can (and do) slap companies with large fines if they’re deemed to be using customers’ data unlawfully for telemarketing purposes. 

However, at the moment there’s not a great deal individuals can do about these annoying calls, beyond repeatedly opting out and making complaints.

But from this summer, rule changes in Italy will also mean both landline and mobile phone numbers, including any numbers that were not previously listed in the phone book, can be placed on an expanded version of the ‘do not call’ list known as the registro delle opposizioni or ‘register of objections’.

“From July 27th, the new public register will open to 78 million mobile telephone users,” Italian MP Simone Baldelli told Corriere della Sera.

Baldelli said the expanded register will become “a well-known and effective protection tool for phone users”.

EXPLAINED: How to change your registered address in Italy

It is already possible to use the registro delle opposizioni to remove Italian landline numbers from public telephone directories. Find out more about how to do that on the official website here.

As well as allowing people to register mobile phone numbers for the first time, the incoming rule changes in July will place stricter limits on the use of data by telemarketers.

“Enrollment in the new register will allow for the cancellation of any previous consents issued for telemarketing purposes, and will prohibit the transfer of personal data to third parties,” writes Corriere.

The new legislation is also set to include a ban on the use of automated or ‘robot’ marketing calls.

READ ALSO: Why the tabaccheria is essential to life in Italy – even if you don’t smoke

So how do you add your phone number to this new and improved register? 

From the information available so far, it appears that the process will be much the same as it is now for adding landlines to the existing register: you’ll be able to submit numbers to be added to the list either by phone, by completing a web form, or sending an email (either PEC or regular email).

But it’s not open just yet – it looks like you’ll have to wait until the end of July to add mobile numbers to the register.

We’ll report more details of the opt-out scheme on The Local once they’re published.

For now, readers of The Local have recommended the ‘Chi sta chiamando‘ (‘Who’s calling’) app, which you can find here for Apple or Android devices.