Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Questura Hell

Questura, Marghera, 7AM

Every straniero -- foreigner -- has a Questura story or three. It is the straniero's nightmare: the annual or bi-annual pilgrimage to the Questura to obtain or renew your permesso di soggiorno, the document which allows you to legally remain in Italy. To get a permesso di soggiorno you must eventually deal with the Questura -- the Polizia di Stato -- at their Marghera compound. (There are other Questura locations in and around Venice, but this particular function is consigned to this particular circle of Hell.)

For foreigners seeking residence in Italy, the permesso di soggiorno is the Holy Grail. The only thing better is a permesso with indeterminato status or an eventual carta di soggiorno after many, many years of running the Questura gauntlet. Indeterminato, or the carta, simply put, means that you never have to go to the Questura again. It is like dying and going to heaven.

The attitude of the Italian government, and of most Italians, is that immigrants are a pain in the ass. Some they hate; others they only disdain; still others they tolerate because they come from richer countries. Bottom line: they are not Italian. The process of securing a permesso di soggiorno is not designed to encourage people. It is intensely bureaucratic, impenetrable at times. Nothing about it is designed to function humanely or efficiently. From the Italian side, it is a necessary evil; from the other side, it is simply evil.

That said, most of the police and clerks I dealt with were, once you were face to face with them, civil and reasonably helpful within the constraints of a Kafkaesque system. They can tell you to go to Hell with a simpatico smile.

The Questura in Marghera is across the Ponte della Liberta which connects Venice to the mainland. Once over the bridge there are shipyards whose cranes are skyscrapers on the one side and railroad yards on the other. Behind the shipyards is a Ballard landscape of derelict petrochemical plants. Beyond the railroad yards is downtown Mestre, where there are actual factories and newspapers and businesses and not one mask shop. This mid-century industrial blight is Venice's New Jersey. From the Zattere, at sunset, you get splendid views of Marghera/Mestre's monstrous beauty in a halo of bright pink and orange.

To get to the Questura before the line is maxed out, I have to get up at 5am and be on the 6:03AM No. 1 vaporetto. Venice is preternaturally silent, shimmering, gorgeous, at that hour. It makes you remember why you are here in the first place.

Grand Canal, Salute, 6AM

At Piazzale Roma I get on the 6/ bus. I ask the driver to call the stop for the Questura because, although I have been here twice before, neither time was for me and I know I won't recognize the stop. It is immediately obvious that others on the bus are going to the Questura: a middle-aged Russian in a leather jacket and cap, a Sri Lankan girl in a purple wrap, and a Chinese couple. By the time the driver signals the stop the Russian is already herding us off. "Questura," he says. "Si si si si si."

I walk a couple blocks through a quiet residential neighborhood to reach the rather Orwellian structure, modern but dilapidated, behind gates. There is already a line waiting for the gate to open to get in line. It is 7AM.

The outside waiting area, where I wait until 8-30 when the window opens, is a wide sidewalk under a canopy a couple hundred feet long. Winter or summer, driving rain or brutal heat, this is where you wait if you are lucky. Otherwise you wait without benefit of canopy, exposed to whatever the weather has to offer.

The line is six or eight people wide. Eventually it must all funnel down through a narrow gap at the window, admitting people one by one. Each person must show the appropriate document and, hopefully, get a number. When I went with Richard -- a frail, 80-year-old man -- on a freezing rainy December day, we waited, barely under the canopy, for over two hours, only two be turned away by the martinet at the window. But that's another story.

There is intense jockeying for position in the line. People employ every sort of ruse to get a nose ahead of someone else. The Russians are brazen and aggressive in their contempt for the queue. The Africans slip through any cranny to edge inches forward, secure a foot hold, and move one up in the line. Most barely speak Italian, and converse in their mother tongue with whoever they came with. Since I am alone, I observe. I think about how nice it is that I'm not on a loading platform to Auschwitz and other thoughts to lift my soul; I could scarcely be more uncomfortable. However, leaving the line poses the problem of getting your place back; the resistance can be vicious.

The line packs tighter and tighter; I find my feet are going to sleep. As it grows closer to 8-30, people squeeze in tighter, like an involuntary muscle clench. This becomes excruciating after about twenty minutes. The Indian girl behind me is giving me the full body press, but I hold my ground, refusing to be pressed into the back of the man in front of me (as pleasant as that might have been).

Your documents must be ready well in advance because by the time the window opens, everyone is packed so tight you can't move your arms. You are pushed forward by a herky-jerky sort of peristalsis. Arguments break out about who was in front of whom, and basically no one cares who was there earliest; they fight to hold any present advantage. The object is to get to the window any means possible. It's the only way out of the line.

The spiffily uniformed Police watch with a certain bemused detachment, the way -- I imagine -- Centurians watching battling slaves in the arenas of ancient Rome.

Once I present my document at the window, I get a number and go inside to wait another two or three hours. My number is 16. A guard explains that means 116, and they are up to about 67.

There are a few chairs inside, very few, and most people mill about, pumping change into the espresso machine, munching candy bars, or smoking outside on the steps. It is ironic that now the canopied cattle pen is eerily empty and the same crush mills aimlessly inside waiting for their number to flash.

[The one civilized note is that families with children are admitted first, starting at around 8AM. That courtesy should be extended to frail old people as well.]

Although it can take hours for your number to flash, it's best to be there when it does because next to it is the Sportello number, the desk you need to report to; although the number remains lit, the sportello number does not. Go figure.

Once my number flashes, I report to desk No. 4 behind the red door. A pleasant young man takes my documents. He smiles, speaking English that is worse than my Italian so I try to keep the discussion in Italian.

It was hard to be certain that I brought everything I need because most of my information is anecdotal. I didn't find a list of documents I needed for this particular appointment on the web site where I found I had an appointment. Although I should have been notified by letter or SMS, I wasn't, and were it not for the kind intervention of a friend with detailed instructions for navigating the web site, I would have missed the appointment completely. I go thinking I have everything I need.

But it doesn't take him long to find the chink in my armor. I am missing something. I didn't forget it; I had no idea I needed to bring it. My other friends have a different type of visa and wouldn't have needed this document. I certainly had no idea. I will have to come back, but only to drop off the document, I am assured. Everything else will be completed today.

"Everything else" is exhaustive scanning of my fingertips and palms, matching them up with pictures of me, and logging me into the system. A uniformed police officer first scans them at a desk adjacent to the desk where I have my interview. Set one. Then I am invited to go to another room where a plain clothes tech rescans me. Set two. He gives me a document to give back to the first officer.

As my fingers are being scanned I realize I forgot to ask if I have to get a number to drop off the document, or can I simply drop it off. The tug-of-war between dread and optimism begins.

I ask the first officer if I have to wait in line for a number and then wait my turn to drop off the missing document, or can I just show up at 8 and drop it off?


Can I fax it?


That's not how it's done.

So much for rationality.

I plan to leave at 5-30 next time and hopefully be a little further ahead in the line to get in line so that my number will come up in under two hours. I will go through all that to hand a man a piece of paper.

Total time elapsed from portal to portal: eight hours.

(NB: In most cases, the permesso is already expired by the time you get it, and you get to repeat the entire process immediately.)


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