Italian problems: Driving seven hours (in a heatwave) to sign a form
What do you do when you find yourself in the kind of infuriating situation that could only ever happen in Italy?
It's not news to anyone that Italian bureaucracy is tediously slow, and frequently malfunctions. But this week, a set of particularly Italian circumstances converged to leave me wondering, just briefly, why I ever thought moving to Italy was a good idea in the first place.
"No, we can't send the form by courier. You have to come in person," on the phone, the Italian bank employee had sounded extremely bored.
I took a deep breath. "But we're seven hours away and I'm working. Can we make an appointment to come next week?"
"No, we'll be on holiday. Until September."
"What, everyone? The whole bank?"
"It's August," he said, as if this was self-explanatory.
It was actually July 23rd but like pretty much everyone else in Italy, this particular bank employee seemed to have already mentally checked out for the summer holidays. The extreme heat probably wasn't helping.
"If you can't come this week then we'll just start the application process in September," he added.
I seethed inwardly, having already explained several times that we were in a rush to arrange the mortgage, as my husband's work had just transferred him to the other side of Italy – from Arezzo, Tuscany back to his home city of Bari - at very short notice.
He works for the Italian fire brigade, which - believe it or not - frequently transfers employees across the country with only one or two weeks' warning
We needed to arrange everything as quickly as possible, and there was nothing else for it.
We considered switching banks, but we'd already spent more than a week having meetings and getting our documents in order, and we needed to get the process rolling before our notary, too, goes on holiday for a few weeks.
So my husband was soon checking the traffic conditions for the long drive to visit this particular regional bank in Puglia. The motorways were pretty busy with it being peak summer travel season. He went to check the train schedules until I reminded him that today, of all days, there was a national rail strike.
He briefly considered chancing it on the train, which is a ten-hour journey at the best of times, until he remembered it was also 38 degrees outside.
We had found ourselves stuck with a perfect storm of bureaucracy, strikes, traffic, long summer holidays and insufferable heat, with some bad customer service thrown in.
I wondered: could this situation be any more Italian?
I made an ill-tempered comment about how "nothing works in this country"; and got a very characteristic response from my southern Italian husband. A smile, and a shrug.
"No problem," he told me repeatedly as he got into the car this morning, ready to set off on his seven-hour solo journey under the blazing sun.
"Things do function here, in their own way," he told me, not for the first time ever.
Italians may get worked up over certain important things (you know, like food) but when it comes to bureaucracy, the consensus seems to be "what's the point in worrying?".
After all, getting mad about bureaucracy not working here would be about as useful as shaking your fist at the sky when it rains.
And maybe I'm finally coming around to this way of thinking, or maybe I'm just too hot to care. But I know he's right. This situation is annoying, it's stressful, it's ridiculous, it's sweaty, and it's oh so very Italian – but it's not the end of the world.
And it's a reminder that the only way I'll be able to cope with living permanently in Italy is to totally revise any expectations of how things "should" work, and adjust my mindset accordingly. And maybe go and open a bottle of wine.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber
II is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of
the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
This week, the House of
Representatives will have a chance to end a pernicious legacy of slavery.
Lawmakers will vote on the Raise the Wage Act, which would boost the minimum
wage across the country to $15 an hour by 2024. This would be a crucial step
toward the first federal minimum wage increase in more than a decade.
just-released Congressional Budget Office report finds that a $15
minimum wage would have tremendous benefits for low-wage workers of all races and
ethnicities. Yet the stakes are particularly high for black workers. The share
who would benefit from the Raise the Wage Act is far larger than the share of
white workers who would benefit—38 percent compared with 23 percent.
provision in the legislation—eliminating the subminimum tipped wage—that
corrects a wrong that goes much further back than the previous federal minimum
wage increase. For workers regularly making more than $30 a month in tips,
employers can currently pay as little as $2.13 an hour. That subminimum wage
has been frozen at this level for decades. Should the Raise the Wage Act pass
the House, it will mark the first time that either chamber of Congress has
moved to eliminate the subminimum wage, which not only deepens economic
inequalities but also happens to be a relic of slavery.
You might not
think of tipping as a legacy of slavery, but it has a far more racialized
history than most Americans realize. Tipping originated in feudal Europe and
was imported back to the United States by American travelers eager to seem
sophisticated. The practice spread throughout the country after the Civil War
as U.S. employers, largely in the hospitality sector, looked for ways to avoid
paying formerly enslaved workers.
One of the most notorious examples comes from the Pullman Company, which
hired newly freed African American men as porters. Rather than paying them a
real wage, Pullman provided the black porters with just a meager pittance,
forcing them to rely on tips from their white clientele for most of their pay.
Tipping further entrenched
a unique and often racialized class structure in service jobs, in which workers
must please both customer and employer to earn anything at all. A
journalist quoted in Kerry Segrave’s 2009 book, Tipping: An
American Social History of Gratuities, wrote in 1902 that he was
embarrassed to offer a tip to a white man. “Negroes take tips, of course; one
expects that of them—it is a token of their inferiority,” he wrote. “Tips go
with servility, and no man who is a voter in this country is in the least
justified in being in service.”
The immorality of paying an
insufficient wage to workers, who then were forced to rely on tips, was
acknowledged at the time. In his popular 1916 anti-tipping study, The Itching
Palm, writer William Scott described tipping as an aristocratic custom that
went against American ideals. “The relation of a man giving a tip and a man
accepting it is as undemocratic as the relation of master and slave,” Scott
wrote. “A citizen in a republic ought to stand shoulder to shoulder with every
other citizen, with no thought of cringing, without an assumption of
superiority or an acknowledgment of inferiority.”
Several states sought to
end the practice in the early 1900s, often in recognition of its racist roots.
But the restaurant industry fought back and was powerful enough to roll back
local bans on tipping. And tipped workers—along with most others, as the act
applied to industries that together made up only one-fifth of the labor force—were excluded from the first, limited federal minimum wage law
passed in 1938.
It took until 1966 for
advocates to win a base wage for tipped workers, and that amounted to only 50
percent of the minimum wage already guaranteed to other workers. Congress
continued to raise the subminimum tipped wage until 1996, when Herman Cain, who
headed the National Restaurant Association at the time, offered legislators a
bargain: The industry would accept a small increase in the minimum wage as long
as the tipped wage was frozen at $2.13 an hour.
Congress agreed to the
deal, and the tipped minimum wage remains just $2.13 to this day. Employers are
supposed to pay the difference if tips don’t bring workers to the full regular
minimum wage. But too often that law is not enforced. When the Department of
Labor conducted an unusual compliance sweep of
9,000 full-service restaurants between 2010 and 2012, they found that 84
percent had violated the subminimum wage system.
A century later, the
industry lobby continues its fight to uphold this two-tiered pay system. Where
social movements have gotten cities to pass minimum wage hikes, the lobby
has pressured state legislatures to ban local wage increases altogether.
The industry also fought to overturnvoter-approved initiatives in Maine and
Washington, D.C., that would have ended the subminimum tipped wage, while they
lobbied legislators in Michigan to keep the issue from
reaching the ballot in the first place.
That’s why national action
to finally reverse this particular vestige of slavery is so vital. No one can
live on $2.13 an hour—a poverty wage.
We may live in a very
different society from 150 years ago, but the subminimum tipped wage still
exacerbates the inequalities passed down from that time.Workers in
the restaurant industry are far more likely to
be poor or near-poor than the general population.Sure, upscale
restaurants where wealthy patrons offer servers good tips on expensive menu
items can provide a good living, but those jobs are few and far
between—and dominated by white men.
Research also shows that tipping itself has a racial
component: Customers generally give white workers bigger tips than black
workers, regardless of service quality. Thanks in part to segregation within the industry and discrimination from
patrons, restaurant worker poverty rates are highestfor
women and people of color.
subminimum wage would right one of the historical wrongs keeping certain groups
of workers from receiving the full protections they are due, but ultimately,
low wages driven by racism hurt workers of all races. Three times as many white
workers as black workers stand to get a raise if the federal minimum wage hike
passes. Undoing systemic racism opens up opportunities for all people.
With a Republican Senate
and president, the Raise the Wage Act might not become national law in the
immediate future. But a vote by the House to end the subminimum tipped wage
would send an unmistakable signal to the several states considering similar legislation:
The days of these racist tiered wage systems are coming to an end.