Sunday, May 20, 2012

Expat Life

Something happens even to the most Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, rules-n-regulations Canadian brain when you live in Italy for a while. And if it doesn't you don't survive here. You run in a panic back to the lands where things at least make a modicum of sense. You can always tell the people who were cut out to live here and the ones who will run screaming back to the 1st World after six months of life in La Dolce Madhouse.

It can take a while to understand the way Italians think, and when you finally start to get it, it all becomes hilarious.

This is what it's like:
On the train to Fiumicino Airport there are never any ticket-checkers. Is ticket-checker even the right term? I have occasionally found myself debating with friends over the correct way to identify the person who checks your ticket on the train. I used to call them conductors, but Dr. J said, "If that's the conductor, then who's driving the train?" So I decided to call them ticket-checkers.

It might be that there's some residue of morality left in my brain after so many years in America, but I actually buy the ticket for the Roma Termini/Fiumicino line at least one out of every five trips to the airport. Out of at least a hundred trips to the airport, I've only seen a ticket-checker once, and that was because a man got robbed and the ticket-checker was needed to record everything for the police. So, technically, not even on that occasion was the ticket-checker checking tickets.

The price went up since the last time I bought a ticket. Now it costs €12. I asked the ticket-seller why the price was so high because I remembered it being just €7, the last time I bought one. The man rolled his eyes and fired back at me that tickets haven't cost €7 for "yeaaaaaaaars," upon which I surrendered my fare to the ticker-seller feeling that he had more than justified the price increase.

As usual the ticket-checker was nowhere to be seen and, as usual, I felt like a schmuck for buying a ticket. I looked around and began to scrutinize the people seated near me. I thought to myself, "I bet he didn't get the ticket... she didn't get one either... I'm the only idiot who paid the fare! Well, at least I am honest, and I'm helping the train company, which is going bankrupt anyway."

When I'm riding the train ticketless, I go through a similar thought process: "Oh no! I am the only one on the train without a ticket! Why am I such a cheapskate? It'll be soooo embarrassing if the ticket-checker comes. He'll give me a fine and everyone will stare. Look at him, I'll bet he has a ticket. She definitely has one. I had better go and look for other people who might be ticketless so we can share the blame for the train company's continued failure."

If, in the future, I ever do get checked by a ticket-checker while I am in possession of a ticket, I am going to come right out and tell him, "Yes I bought a ticket, but your company is full of lazies just the same and I can't wait until it goes out of business so the French can buy it and manage it properly!"

My own version of this happened when some friends visited. I picked them up at the airport, two friends and their wives, and I helped them buy the Fiumicino tickets, since they insisted that I had to be mad to suggest they just get on the train...So we went to the kiosk and they paid up after I told them what to ask for and we got on the train.

At Trastevere, I suggested that a cab to the hotel would be easiest but the tram would take us right there and would cost nothing. We got on the tram and again, they asked me about tickets. I pulled out my wallet where I keep my stash of "emergency tickets" and handed them around.

"Where do we get them stamped?"

"Stamped?!" I said in alarm. "You don't. I've lived here three years and have never seen the ticket guys on the trams."

But they are Anglo North Americans and are used to rules actually having meaning. So I said, "OK, just stand next to the stamping machine and I'll keep my eyes open. If the ticket guy comes on, just stamp the tickets like you just got on." This satisfied them and we had a more or less painless ride to Argentina. When we got off the tram (no ticket guy...duhhhh) they asked what to do with the tickets.

"Give 'em back," and I stuffed them back in my wallet.

You keep up the Rules Matter idea for a while living here, but eventually, everyone gets worn down. The country is actually set up that way so that the only way it works is if everyone cheats.

Here's an example: the train/bus/Metro/tram pass that I buy every month (yes, I do) costs me 63 E. And to me, that seems like a hell of a good deal. In fact, it's probably the best transit deal I've ever had, and I've lived in the two most expensive cities in Canada for many years each. I've also lived from coast to coast to coast, and visited and travelled around nearly all the major cities of my country, plus New York, Boston, Washington, Seattle, Chicago, London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, and in all those places, the transit system hasn't been as good or as cheap. In Toronto, if you live in a place you can afford to pay the rent (ie: waaaaaaaaay far away from where you work, in a horrifying suburb) you pay twice, once for a commuter pass to get into the city, and again for a city pass to get the subway, trolleys and buses. Here, it's all one thing, and the one thing is less than the Toronto pass, by a fair bit...even with the exchange. So I pay up, and don't mind it.

But when I was sick, I didn't buy a monthly pass for a year, and there were certainly times when I went in to the City for doc's appts, and forgot to buy a ticket (which is only 3.60 E one way). I got nailed twice. Once the guy just said, looking at my bald head, "Oh, you're going to Gemelli? Just buy a ticket when we get to St. Peter's." Another time, I was coming home from a day out, I think we did some museums or something. We had just barely made the train and I didn't have time to buy a ticket, so I did the thing you're supposed to do, and went to find the ticket guy to ask to buy one, (technically against the rules, but any ticket guy who refuses to sell you a ticket... possibly with a .50E fee... is a jerk). When I found him, he was chatting up a bunch of over-dressed women and when I ahemed, he turned around, and in a jovial tone said, "What's wrong with your hair?" I smiled and whipped off my hat and said, "Chemotherapy." He said, "Oh, go sit down."

The joke is that if you don't buy a monthly pass, and you commute in regularly, as long as you are coming and going during regular commuting hours, you will probably only get nailed once a month or so. And the fine is 50E. The pass costs 63E... so, you know...

Finally you learn that there just is no sense in throwing away good money. And that's the moment that you realise you've started to think like an Italian.

Or you go nuts.

Or you run back home.



BillyHW said...

MargoB said...

Oh, for funny!

Best line: "'Give 'em back,' I said, and stuffed them back in my wallet."

Spoken like a true La Dolce Madhouse convert!

Anonymous said...


mjl said...

I relate to this 100%. I didn't stay long enough to get used to the rules