The sun was illuminating the beguilingly medieval streets of Ferrara like a Batman-shaped spotlight when I got the call. (Fun fact: yesterday we celebrated 80 years since the first Batman comic flew off the printers). My family was ahead of me, merrily photographing every crumbling brick and waving ivy sprig as if these were celebrities and they were the paparazzi. My stomach dropped onto the scuffed toes of my black Zara boots when I asked if I should be worried and the person on the other end of the phone said, “Yeah, you really should…”
This was coming from one of my two nearly-future bosses at one of the English schools in my town — let’s call him Joe. Joe had been on sabbatical for awhile and recently returned to help merge his school with that of my other nearly-future boss, who we’ll call Paul. Up until then, I’d been working almost exclusively with Paul, The Laidback One, according to everyone who worked for them.
So, it was Paul who had made the requisitely specific offer in March of thirty hours a week, full-time and lasting at least a year. By the time my stomach took a dive, it was late May and summer was creeping up on us like the Big, Bad Wolf in Red Riding Hood, which meant school was almost out. So, I’d been aware it was going to be tricky showing these hours to the irritatingly meticulous yet amazingly disorderly Italian government…
But not impossible, according to the woman I’d been working with for months at the local labor union. She had shoulder-length, mousy brown hair and two kids. And a magnificently direct manner of speaking that got shit done and and made everyone waiting in the hallway give her the same look of wary respect.
As anyone who’s ever tried to get anything done in Italy knows — from opening a bank account to doing just about anything during ferie, or holiday season — there is and must be a way around everything. And I thought the English school and I were making progress on that front. In fact, it was crucial that we did so.
To better understand the pressure in which I was under, let me introduce a metaphor. Imagine on one side of a big, white room with paint crumbling like some folks’ faith in the government, there is an enormous bowl of potato chips. On the other side of the room, there is a line of people, the two separated by one of those TSA moveable elastic barrier things. They’ve been waiting for a long time because, well, that’s how it goes. And these folks are quite hungry; their stomachs are growling like an army of irritated Chihuahuas.
Of course, when the TSA barrier goes down (aka when the law finally comes out — I’ll explain momentarily), the whole mass will rush for the chips like a flock of geese at a bread truck. Chaos. Pandemonium. Greasy, salty chip fingers.
Obviously, the ones who arrive first get the prize. This may be out of sheer luck — maybe they knew someone who knew someone who got them closer to the front. Maybe the ones at the back — experiencing the opposite of sheer luck — had to wait too long on someone who had to wait on someone who was on vacation for their paperwork. The paperwork which, of course, allowed them to legally eat the potato chips.
Okay, enough with the chips scenario. The bowl of chips stands for the afore-mentioned provision in the Italian constitution called the decreto flussi. This decreto flussi is the annual article which provides (among many other things) a way for people like me to convert visas of study and internship into work visas. When it came out this year, there were 2,500 spots for everyone in Italy hoping to do what I was doing, hence the mad rush.
Typically, the vast majority of spots are snatched up in the first week. Because of course, having the coveted work visa would allow me/us to legally work forty hours a week, instead of twenty as a student. In other words, as much stability as one can have on the ever-shifting, caffe-soaked sands of Italian law. All this to say that’s why I imagined any problems that arose would be from The Man — scusi, Il Uomo.
And so, we return to Ferrara where my painstakingly laid plans unravelled before me like the sweater from that old Weezer song. I suddenly and vividly understood the phrase, “too good to be true.” Red tape thicker than a proper carbonara sauce and more misunderstandings than there are types of pasta in Italy caused my nearly future employers to yank their offer at the exact moment when — due to more of the same — this straniera had absolutely no other options.
“But you’re not even a straniera,” some people in Italy say when I share my experience as una straniera — a foreigner. This isn’t fair at all because what they mean is that I’m white. But I want to be clear that yes, obviously, I am a straniera. My fate falls under the same laws as any other person from somewhere else.
But, I’m an extraordinarily fortunate foreigner: I am not fleeing a war in Syria or leaving my family behind in El Salvador to try to forge a better life, hoping they will be able to join me in time. I don’t have to fear I’ll be turned away at whichever border I’ve arrived at after risking my life to get there on boat or foot. Instead, I can return home; honestly, it seemed like I might have to do just that.
“You’ve got fifteen days,” is what my ally at the labor union said. “And then you’ve got to leave. I’m not even sure if you can renew your study visa at this point.” This was because my permesso di soggiorno, aka my residence permit, aka my ticket to ride/convert had expired about when I got the fateful phone call. My ally shook her head for the umpteenth time, adding, “In all my years working here, I have never seen an employer do this. I’ve never seen any employer act so badly.”
I was truly in a proper pickle. Or as the Italians would say, sono stata in un bel pasticcio, which literally meant I was in a nice pie. I remember feeling so confused I could cry, but I wasn’t even sure what to cry for first.
Because all of us stranieri — even those of us who voluntarily set off — left for a reason. I appreciate being an American and I know that America is still a wonderful place in many ways. However, it kind of always fit me like a thrift store shirt I picked out in the dark. So in Italy, I’d marched down every street I could find trying to stay away longer.
My money helped postal service and state police employees put their children through l’università. I waited in lines until my feet hurt only to find out I’d been in the wrong line the whole time, or the person behind the counter was having a horrid Tuesday and didn’t feel like helping me. Or by the time my number finally popped up on the analog clock that had been haunting us all, it was time for the entire country to go on their three hour pausa pranzo (lunch break).
By then, I’d had a full, slightly insane year, including wrapping my brain around sexy Italian words like tesoro (darling), charming Italian words like sbadigliare (to yawn) and awkward ones like schermo (screen). The time I spent becoming mostly fluent I spent because I love this maddeningly marvelous country. Even if it seems to want nothing more than to shut various, confusing, oddly-placed doors in my face repeatedly and then offer me a spritz as a consolation prize.
With seven days left out of the fifteen, I found out that I could indeed renew my student visa. So, I had a week (two days of which were a weekend) to decide if the utter defeat I felt meant I should go home and start over outside this crazy country or if my sweat, blood and tears would be wasted if I did so.
In the end, I spent my savings paying for another year of language school. Then I called up the government entity called the prefettura in Ravenna who had given me the stamp of approval. I told the confused man on the other end to cancel my request to convert my study visa so I could open up another one to renew it instead.
Then I borrowed and scraped together enough money to prove to the very same institution that I could support myself for another year here, snickering to myself because I wasn’t honestly sure if I could. A couple weeks later, I moved out of my apartment because I could no longer afford it and took up residence on a friend’s couch.
About a month after that, I hopped aboard an aircraft that was going to take me directly from Bologna, Italy to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And then eventually to Las Vegas, Nevada via one of the most baffling itineraries ever. And then to my beloved Utah desert, which I admit I dearly missed. I’d booked it many months before any of the dust began settling, long before I knew about the situation I’d just squeezed through.
In Philadelphia, I had a layover longer than seventeen boa constrictors napping nose to tail. Over a $15 salad comprised largely of iceberg lettuce, I smiled thinking back to a conversation I’d had with my Italian friend Pier a couple of days prior.
We’d been sitting in an outside bar called Corona which overlooks quaint Piazza del’Erbe, It sits right beneath what could technically be the elegantly curved bum of the town’s clock tower. I was sipping a suitably strong Campari spritz when Pier asked, “What do you mean you’re going back to the States for a month? You just fought ridiculously hard to stay here!”
I had started to laugh at the irony. “True,” I said, looking at the orange bobbing in my spritz as if it were a genie that would grant me the work visa that I was beginning to think was more elusive than the Giant Squid. After a moment, despite the fact that if I didn’t know, no one else possibly could, I asked, “Do you think I made the right decision?”
Pier raised his glass and said, “Well you’re still here aren’t you?”
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