Italy is infamous for a bureaucracy that is complex, bewildering, and maddening – with its constantly changing regulations, perplexing procedures, forms that must be filled out for everything imaginable, as well as waiting lines that gather cobwebs. It’s not uncommon for post offices to have queues that meander down the street.
To secure a permesso di soggiorno, which grants legal residency to foreigners to live in Italy, my wife and I waited for three hours in a tiny room with a hundred other applicants — all of us standing. Government is the source of many tales of woe among not only expats but Italians.
So it is not without hesitation that I share with you a startling bit of good news. We happened to find an Italian city that actually works and works astonishingly well. And I have seen it all. Most of my professional life in the United States revolved around working in local governments or serving them as a contract advisor. For decades I was drenched in the workings of public policies, programs, and projects in many different parts of the country.
Now that we live in the village of Santa Vittoria in Matenano, perched atop a small mountain in east-central Italy, I am witnessing a level of quality in public administration I have rarely seen anywhere. The wall enclosing our village dates to the year 980, when monks from the west side of the country fled the invasion of Saracens, who were at the time busily pillaging much of the peninsula, leaving a swath of corpses and burned-out towns behind them. Being somewhat more remote, this part of Italy seemed to be a safe refuge. But, just in case, the industrious if fearful monks set to work building a high walled fortress. Accordingly, the town has had over 1,000 years to get things right. I suppose it’s an extended example of “practice makes perfect.”
A millennium of municipal governance has paid off. In all the years of observing city governments I have not seen such efficiency and dedication anywhere else. Our mayor deserves credit for much of this. But it’s not just one person who makes things work. In such a small town, the number of city employees can be counted on two hands, including the entire police force of one. The mayor, Sig. Fabrizio Vergari, governs in a way that could be described as laid-back, as he is most readily found at the local cafe, schmoozing with residents. Behind the scenes, he is busy at it.
Mayor Vergari was gracious enough to help us during our first week here, in an attempt to figure out the dense paperwork and procedures we had to navigate as immigrants. We sat across from him in his office, swapping Google translations on our cell phones, while he made phone calls, pulled up obscure regulations on his computer, and consulted multiple, thick binders. Atter two hours, he threw up his hands in frustration. Then, he gave us the name of a person to go see, who thankfully knew the process. Still, we are grateful for his earnest effort. After all, how often do you get a morning of undivided attention from the mayor of any town?
Moreover, this particular mayor is amazing. In the five years we have lived here, the quality of public services has been outstanding. The place is spotless, in part due to the diligence of city maintenance workers who sweep the cobblestone streets (sometimes with an actual broom), mow weeds along the roadsides, and clear snow away within a day of its falling.
Even during the pandemic, the mayor wasted no time. He replaced all the streetlights with energy efficient LEDs and brought in a company to install fiber-optic service to every home and business. Six months later, the speed and capacity of Internet service increased tenfold. The City also retrofitted an old palazzo with elevators, ramps, and furnishings to accommodate an expansive lending library, a senior center, and recital rooms for visiting musicians.
An empty former office building was renovated to provide a modern primary school, while the old school was converted into spaces for local nonprofit civic organizations. One building on the old school grounds was converted into a preschool.
The mayor also found funds to reconstruct the main road into town, adding sidewalks made of small granite blocks, modern lighting, trees, and benches. It’s now an elegant boulevard leading into the village. It also provides a safe walking route for elderly residents and children.
All of these municipal services are in addition to what we found when we first arrived. A free public walk-in clinic was provided in city hall for anyone, whether citizens, legal residents, or visitors. There was also a no-charge ambulance service staffed by professional EMTs and volunteer drivers. A small, wheelchair-accessible shuttle bus takes seniors to appointments elsewhere in the province. And the village’s small opera house was fully restored after a fire several years earlier. It has hosted performances by classical musicians from elsewhere in Europe and the world.
Moreover, apart from local government, villagers fiercely support local, family-owned businesses. Despite a population of only 1,400, our tiny town has businesses that support every daily need from clothing to hair cutting, three food markets, a bakery and a butcher, a hardware store and a pharmacy, as well as several restaurants and cafes. The long period of the COVID pandemic resulted in only one business closing.
Finally, it seems that the European Union is rewarding those member states that clean up their governmental systems and make them operate more effectively. For decades, Italy had a reputation for local corruption, nepotism, messy record-keeping, and mismanagement. In the five years we have lived here, we have seen significant changes. New banking regulations and enforcement have all but eliminated money laundering. Roads — at least in this region — have been better maintained with filled-in potholes and total repaving. We have also noticed a trend toward hiring younger, more computer-savvy officials.
All this gets rewarded in the form of major disbursements from Brussels. This past year Italy was allocated €200 billion in funds, the largest amount for any single country in the union. Hence, there are numerous transportation projects, energy efficiency programs, and building renovation projects taking place in many cities and towns.
Now I know that this story is not necessarily reflected in every community in the country. I hear plenty of tales of frustration, mishaps, and angst from friends in other towns. Some seem to have a terrible time getting the simplest task accomplished. Experiences can vary hugely, sometimes even between towns that are only a few kilometers apart.
Despite the popular image of the Italian bureaucrat being difficult and officious, we have mostly encountered officials who have been friendly and helpful. It may make a difference that we have approached them with respect for their position and authority. Some Americans and Brits display an entitled attitude. Very unwise if you hope to get anything done. The only truly disagreeable government official we have encountered was a surly person in the U.S. embassy in Rome. After we waited two hours to inquire about an issue, her entirely unhelpful answer was: “It’s all found on our website.”
Those of us who grew up in North America experienced an economy and a culture where one could be assured of a similar availability of goods and services almost no matter where one lived. Not so in Italy. That’s why many expats make a serious mistake when they fixate on buying a house that fits the image portrayed in books, and films. The town is just as important, perhaps more so, than the abode.
At least in this village in Italy, many people, — the mayor, families, and merchants — care passionately about the town and keep it running well. We feel fortunate to have found such a place.
I shudder to think if a Seattle politician were to run on such a platform: making government work. Few of the backing constituencies would get behind such a program, except in their own case. There is no Municipal League or even the League of Women Voters to push effectively such a candidacy. Union regulations would resist. Other city councilmembers would worry about getting reelected. Not gonna happen.
Seattle? How about Langley? Langley is a little smaller, but with more surrounding population. What does a mayoral candidate talk about there? Water, I’m guessing.
Just from a casual gander through google street view, the place has kind of a fairy tale aspect. Pretty high standard of living, maybe higher up the scale compared to the average Italian, than Langley compared to the average American.
An interesting perspective. As an American who has lived in Salento for the past 9 years I would guess yours is also a rather unique perspective. 😉 I wouldn’t live anywhere else and I love the people and culture here, but getting things done is often mostly contingent on who is behind the desk, not necessarily tied to the attitude of the person who is looking for assistance. I have many Italian friends and we share similar perspectives. It doesn’t necessarily frustrate me as I have a bit of free time, but for those who work full time, the bureaucracy can be time consuming and illogical at times. For many other reasons, too, Italy is a difficult place for those who are young and those graduating from the university (not to mention those who are in the workforce). The opportunities, unfortunately, are few which is why many hope to move abroad. Many, including some good friends, moved, or had considered moving, to the UK for better opportunities. Unfortunately, that door closed when the UK left the EU. Anyway, that’s a bit tangential to your essay, except that it highlights some differences between those who are here in a retired, or semi-retired capacity and those who have no choice but to live and work here. (As an aside, I lived in Seattle for 15 years before moving to the EU 13 years ago.)
A friend produced a documentary about Cortona after Frances Mayes which I wrote about some years ago at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/11/what-the-genius-of-a-place-can-teach-us-about-development/248253/.
The finished film from 2018ish, here, tells the story of how global forces affected the town, and how the town moved towards recovery. It’s here and on Amazon: https://thegeniusofaplace.vhx.tv/
It’s an insightful comparison to those of us who have been expats (UK in my case) and look for opportunities to tutor those poor Americans left behind 😵💫
Was/is Italy really ever a nation? Not at least until 1870. Now it seems excused from its horrifying actions taken under the Fascists in the 20th Century. We also seem to ignore its recent alarming lurch to the political right. In our amnesia, we seem only celebrate Italy’s famous ability under Dictator Mussolini to get the trains to run on time. Today we are asked to applaud Italy for getting Hinshaw’s paperwork sorted? The NYT recently reported Italy’s drastic “fertility rate” decline as about 1.3 births per woman, along with the departure of its best and brightest younger generation – positing it to be a dying nation. Italy receives significant financial subsidies from the European Union just to stay afloat, presumably so Northern Europeans can vacation or retire there if in “reduced circumstances.” Italians also seem to offer a certain amount of hassling to keep desperate African migrants at bay from the rest of Europe. Italy is blessed to have paying customers like Mr. Hinshaw et ux to prop up the country’s chief current claim to fame as custodian of a stunning museum displaying the artifacts of western civilization’s once-upon-a-time foundational power and might.