Staying in Italy for any significant amount of time requires permission in the form of Il Permesso di Soggiorno, or Permit to Stay, and obtaining said permission is serious business.
After filing reams of paper and paying fees and waiting, we finally have our official appointment at La Questura, the police headquarters and immigration office. Our boys are out of school and accompany us to prove they exist; we are dressed as if for a job interview, and are on our best behavior.
The building where we hope to get i nostri permessi is not in the brand-new, sparkling building adjacent to the road. It’s at the end of the alley in a small, dowdy, inconspicuous building inside a razor wire-topped fence. There is no sign. The entrance is indicated by the cluster of people smoking outside a door at the far end of the building.
There are quite a few people inside, but it’s not overly crowded. Most people waiting are of North African or South Asian origin. The large room echoes, finished as it is with hard white walls, hard linoleum floor, banks of hard plastic chairs, and hard fluorescent lighting.
We are met by our interpreter, Elena, and her assistant, Anita. No signs tell you where you are or what you are supposed to do. Our interpreters guide us, and I wonder how you would know what the process is if you walked in with no interpreter, assistance, or command of Italian.
We wait. I listen to them calling names. I can barely understand, and it’s not just because they are Italians trying to pronounce foreign names. The audio system crackles and echoes, sound reverberates off the walls.
And then I notice an officer speaking vehemently to an African man standing before him. The officer rises, towering over the applicant. His right hand revs up into violent motions, gesturing at the sheaf of papers he holds in his left. He’s yelling. The man before him stands quietly. No one acknowledges this is happening.
Then, to my shock, the officer makes a great show of tearing the papers he holds into pieces and throwing them into a wastepaper basket. And then he forcefully points “Go!”
The man, who is neatly but inexpensively dressed and has no interpreter at hand, stands for a moment and then he leaves. Who will speak up? Everyone there just wants to get their permesso or immigration status of some kind. Myself included.
I’m struck in the solar plexus by the difference in our experiences. Starkly put, I am a white American. I have resources, including an interpreter who has eased my way through this bureaucracy. My stack of papers, representing considerable time, effort, and money to collect and put into order, will not be ripped into shreds.
Shortly thereafter, I am summoned…by none other than the agent in question. I gulp. My husband and Anita are called to a back room. The process is long and complicated, involving lots of typing, lots of questions, cutting and pasting of photos (with a great deal of gesticulation), lots of waiting. Two sets of fingerprints are required: one at the counter, another in the “inner sanctum”. Our interpreters navigate our way through this, and keep the agent mollified in the process.
We make our final appearance before the agent and I catch the gist of something he says to Elena about us being educated and not like – and with this, he gestures to all the people waiting behind us – and puts an expression of stupidity upon his face. She is tactfully non-committal. I bite my tongue. And then, we are done.
I feel simultaneously utterly grateful for our circumstances, and a bit sick at the contrast in experiences we witnessed. My family is here for an adventure. Many others are here to start a new life in a foreign country because their lives are in danger, or because they can’t make a living to support their family at home.
This was 2013, nearly two years before the enormous influx of refugees began arriving in Europe. Even then, Italians were encountering boats of migrants in the waters off Italy’s coast and trying to bring them safely to shore. The Italians I met were welcoming to foreigners – stranieri.
This was also before my own country hardened its treatment of immigrants, further exposing the disparate views Americans hold on immigration and people who arrive seeking refuge or work here.
Anne Wilson has lived in Grand County, Utah for most of her life. Firmly bound to its red rocks and vast skies, she also has a strong wanderlust.