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Postcards from Italy: I Cugini

In Italy, everyone needs cugini—cousins. And not just because they’re sweet, cook well and often, or invite you over at the drop of a dime. That’s all great, no question, but there’s an even better reason: the bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is Italy’s middle name. They seem to love it here, but Americans navigating the Italian bureaucratic waters become confused and frightened. Not only do we speak a language that won’t map well onto one that has 14 different tenses per verb, but we live in a culture that uses rules to establish proper behavior. We can’t figure out what the rules here are. They seem to change for no reason, or the penalties for flouting them change. Or something. No one follows rules. Not all of them. Not all the time. How are we, trained as we are in the English system of crowd control, supposed to know when to follow them and when not to follow them?

The only way to do anything official here is to have cugini. Un cugino can translate for you, but more importantly they’ll know somebody on the other side of the counter. Don’t bother going to any official office unless your cugini knows somebody there.

Fortunately i cugini have been dealing with this type of thing since birth and so they’ve amassed a small nation of friends. You know how many “friends” you have on Facebook? Well, i cugini really do have that many. And they’re not fake friends like on Facebook either. They’re real and they have to be kept in touch with regularly. The social calendar of a Hollywood mogul pales in comparison to that of un cugino. Christmas time takes weeks to get through. Everyone must visit everyone at least once. Going to a friend’s child’s christenings or a neighbor’s birthday party is never questioned. You simply go. It’s all very important because someday you are going to want to buy property or install a phone or get a discount card at the super market and you can’t do that if you don’t know somebody in the right office.

Without a friend, i cugini cannot consummate a single deal. One time I needed to replace my Ethernet cord. I cugini took us to Ikea where they sell such things in Italy. We tramped through the entire store until we found the appropriate friend down in the basement stacking furniture. He was moving crates with a forklift when il cugino waved him over. He stopped the lift with the pallet in midair, removed his headphones, and climbed down from the truck. The two friends exchanged hugs and kisses. We went out for a cup of caffe, yakked for an hour, and then finally returned to Ikea for the cable and its two euro discount courtesy the friend of i cugini.

That is how things are done in Italy. You can’t rush people here.

Lest you think all this cheek pressing and caffe drinking is an excuse to be inefficient, let me point out that this is far from a backward country.  My Internet service here is ten times faster than it was at home and five times more reliable. I don’t know how they have such good service when it takes so long just to buy an Ethernet cord, but I’m not asking questions, and let me tell you: I never leave home without my cugini.

Sue Lange

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