It all started with our annual refuse collection bill which had arrived the day before. It contained a catalogue of errors, so I went up to the billing section in town hall to try and sort it out. It transpired that the bill for every household in the Comune was wrong, not just ours and now half the village seemed to be either phoning up or dropping by to query their bill. So the poor woman in the billing section, hardly surprisingly, was more than a tad frazzled. “Yes, yes, I know it’s wrong”, she sighed for the umpteenth time. “Ignore it. There was a mess-up with the printing. You’ll get a corrected bill next week”, she rattled off time and again with lots of melodramatic eye-rolling and exasperated gesticulation.
Well that cleared that up, but I also wanted to query the amount as it seemed rather high. “É residente, però?” asked the woman amid the chaos going on around her – You are resident, though, aren’t you? Seemingly, being resident would entitle us to a lower refuse collection fee. “Non ancora”, I responded slightly sheepishly – not yet. “Come ‘non ancora’?” – What do you mean, not yet?: she could see from the previous bills that we had been here for over a year. So I was obliged to relate the sorry tale of our multiple yet ultimately abortive attempts to secure residency, and the vicious circle we were apparently caught in whereby the Comune insisted we needed health insurance before residency could be granted, and the health authority insisted we needed residency before we could register with the state insurance scheme. “Well, that can’t be right”, she declared and immediately picked up the phone to the health authority, happy to have a break from refuse bill queries, I think. Like us, though, she was sent to pillar and post and down a couple of blind alleys too, but she was like a dog with a bone. Several phone calls later her persistence was rewarded with a set of instructions for us to follow, and, more importantly, the name of the specific functionary we needed: Dottoressa Elena Compagnucci. Result!
With a quick “Grazie mille!”, I set off to the clinic again, picking Mr Blue-Shirt up en route, and barely forty minutes later we tipped up outside Dr Compagnucci’s office, which we had eventually found by a process of trial and error at the far end of a dingy and distinctly unpromising-looking corridor on the lower ground floor. Almost hidden behind tottering towers of bulging files stacked up on her desk, the tiny fierce-looking woman could not have been more charming or helpful once we had explained our situation. She patiently talked us through every last step of the entire process: where we needed to go and who we needed to speak to and in what order. At which point it became clear that a vital detail had been missing from all the previous explanations we had been given. On reflection, this possibility should have occurred to us sooner as the same thing had happened with practically every bureaucratic task we had tackled. But since you don’t know what you don’t know, it is always impossible to identify where, never mind what the gap is.
The Missing Vital Detail this time was that the processes both for taking out health insurance and for securing residency were actually in two parts. Up to this point, however, people in each authority had only ever talked in terms of simply ‘getting insurance’ or ‘getting residency’, all the while omitting to mention that it was the interweaving of the two processes that avoided the vicious circle we thought we had been getting trapped in. It turned out that the first part of the insurance process triggered the start of the residency process, which would enable us to complete the insurance process, by which time the residency process would be complete. The sainted Dr C. showed us examples of the documents we would receive, printed out a checklist of the documents we would need to present, and even filled in the payment forms that set everything in motion. Clutching this new set of paperwork, we expressed our heartfelt thanks for her help and left her office in a state of near elation. The door had barely closed behind us before I broke into a full-blown jig in the middle of the dreary grey corridor, while Mr Blue-Shirt contented himself with a couple of restrained air-punches. There was no time to lose, though, as we wanted to get back up to the village before everything closed for lunch. First stop, the post office to pay our premiums for the year using the forms Dr C. had completed for us. Next stop, across the cobbled square to the Comune with the top copy of the payment forms, which, critically, had been duly signed, stamped and dated by the post office clerk. It was these that would allow us to begin the first part of the residency process, namely get our application entered on the civic register.
Judging by the mixture of apprehension and concentration etched on their faces as they worked through the process, we concluded that we must have been the first foreigners the two women in the registry had entered onto the system. Over the preceding weeks we had made that many visits to their cosy office, with its beamed ceiling, terracotta floor tiles and tall shuttered windows that looked across to the Sibillini Mountains, that we had become almost chummy and had a bit of a chat while they were photocopying our documents (again), or writing down our multi-digit codici fiscali (again). Not this time, though. Tense silence reigned, and all we could do was watch through the standard issue glass screen above the worn Formica counter top. Then, just as the office was due to close for lunch one of the women handed us our signed and stamped official confirmation that we fulfilled the requirements to qualify for residency, which would be formally granted within a week. I don’t know who was more relieved: them for having completed the process correctly, or us for finally being able to see the finish line.
This confirmation letter was the key to completing the insurance process and actually registering with the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale – the national health service, so later that afternoon we made what we fervently hoped would be our final visit to the clinic. I swallowed hard as our number was called, approached the blank-faced clerk behind his glass screen and fed our paperwork through the slot, even at this stage half-fearing something would be wrong or missing. In the end, though, the only complicating factor was his speaking to us in broken Italian (‘post-box – house – have?’) in the mistaken belief that this would make things easier for us. Less than twenty minutes later, though, we left the desk with our health service registration documents in our hands and our names entered on the list of one of the GPs at the village surgery. We practically turned cartwheels across the car park.
The only thing left to do now – apart from put a bottle of fizz in the fridge – was to pick up our official residency certificates a week later. Oh, and to go and thank the clerk in the billing section for sending us the wrong refuse collection bill.