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It's a Love - Hate Thing

Rebecca Winke

There are times I truly, absolutely, viscerally love living in rural Umbria.

Times when I am saturated with gratitude for the strange winds that blew me here. Times when I savor every charmed (and charming) moment, when every fabulous meal is a gift, when every bucolic vista is a discovery, when every lazy summer afternoon an epiphany. Times when I revel in my sons' endearing Italian accent, my husband's Euro-male je ne sai qua, my mother-in-law's hand rolled pasta. Times when exploring the small, family owned shops is an adventure, navigating a government office in another language is a small victory, and painstakingly nourishing a new friendship with a local is a pleasure.

Yes, my friends, there are times when I love this country with all my heart, body, and soul.

And then there are times when my godd**n freaking telephone line is out of service for a godd**n freaking month, including Christmas, and I wonder what the hell I am doing in this godd**n freaking country.

There are many reasons for loving Italy, and for loving living here. The food, for example. The history. The beauty. Fabulous telephone service (or any utility, for that matter) is not, however, one of these reasons.

All the negative, frustrating, enraging, not-the-stuff-you-read-about-in-the-Tuscan-villa-living-genre, dark-underbelly-of-the-Mediterranean-lifestyle aspects of residing in Italy seem to come together in the perfect storm vortex of evil of utility companies: aging infrastructure, lazy state employees, bureaucracy, an underlying "every man for himself" life philosophy , and an impossibly complicated legal system which does just about anything but protect the common consumer.

So, a tree fell on November 26th, and knocked down a telephone pole near our house, putting ourselves and all our neighbors at the total mercy of that perfidious organization known as Telecom Italia. Since we've been having chronic problems with our telephone line for about four years, we immediately began what we knew to be a totally futile exercise: calling the toll free customer service number from our cell phones.

The median hold time is about three hours, and nine times out of ten as soon as you finally get an operator you get cut off. But there is that one time that you actually talk to a (obviously bored, totally unhelpful, barely literate) human, and you get a chance to get your repair request logged into "the system". No one knows exactly what "the system" is, but it apparently involves long distance travel by donkey and communication via soup cans on a string.

Now, the law establishes how many days the phone company has to repair a problem, but in the 12 years I've lived here Telecom has never managed to make it in under six days. Of course, they pay a fine for every day they go over the legal time limit, but since Telecom itself establishes the damages they owe you (which only makes sense, because if I were to run down a little old lady and her Chihuahua tomorrow, I think I should be the one to decide how much I owe her), it is so ridiculously low that it pretty much makes no difference to them at all.

A week passes, but we're not worried yet. It's been raining, and god forbid the Telecom guys get the sniffles by going outside in inclement weather. At the beginning of the second week a repairman drives up, gets out of the car, takes a look around, and announces he can't do anything because he doesn't have a ladder. At which point I just stand there staring at him with my mouth open, because I think it may have been the first time I have actually witnessed a living, breathing human with no brain.

Another week passes, and we launch Plan B, which is what we've always done with pretty positive results. My husband stalks them. He figures if he drives around enough, he's bound to run into a truck sooner or later and if you actually flag them down and have them follow you to your house, you can sometimes resolve your problem. I think money may change hands as well, though I have no official confirmation of that.

But days pass, and still no truck sighting. Finally, I spot a truck, so in a wild Starsky and Hutch-esque maneuver pull around them and cut them off with my car. Unfortunately, they are the DSL squad, and since lord knows we don't get none of that high tech stuff out here in the boondocks, they aren't much help. They do seem to feel my pain (we are close to two weeks with no phone by this time, and trying to run a business with no internet, fax, or working credit card machine has complicated my life in ways that words cannot describe), and give me a top-secret-don't-tell-anyone where-you-got-this-or-we'll-lose-our-jobs local supervisor number.

Which we proceed to call for the next three weeks, and never once get an answer.

Back at the ranch, we are still phoning the toll free number once a day, as are all of our neighbors. Just because. Oh, and we've started sending registered letters, too. My husband has taken to calling these "evidence", as if there is a snowball's chance in hell we would ever be able to submit these documents as part of a successful suit against Telecom. But we all need to feel like we are doing something, and me yelling F**K over and over again doesn't seem to be making much of a difference. So we send some letters, too.

In the meantime, my telephone bill shows up. On it is a EURO 103 charge marked "anticipo telefonate". So, Telecom has essentially charged me more than 100 bucks in advance for presumed future telephone calls that will never make it on to my next statement, since I haven't had a working phone for most of the last billing cycle. I'm so punch drunk by this point that I actually start laughing. Because there's got to be a hidden camera somewhere and a new washer-dryer prize at the end of the show, right?

At about three weeks, a different truck shows up. The repairmen get out and ask what the trouble is. I say, "Well, a pole is down". And they kind of scratch their heads and look at each other, and then tell me that they are the switchbox squad. The line squad is something completely different, and may even involve another customer service number to call. I took it pretty well, because by this time I had arrived at the Fifth (or is it Sixth?) stage of grief: Calm Acceptance of Fate. Since we have problems with our phone so often, I can move through the stages in, oh, half an hour:

  • Stage One: Shocked Rage (holding dead receiver in hand, wandering around the house, screaming to no one in particular, "I CAN'T beLIEVE the PHONE is DEAD aGAIN!!!");
  • Stage Two: Withering Self Pity (Crying to my husband on the cell, "Why? Why me? I recycle. I donate to Unicef. I've already been to Mass twice this year. I'm no worse than the next guy);
  • Stage Three: Blame the Innocent (Cellphone call with husband ends with my raging
    at him. He's Italian, thus any problems with Telecom are his fault.);
  • Stage Four: Troubleshooting (Proceed with futile toll free calls and registered letters).

Time passes. Calls are made. We change our cell service so I can talk internationally with my family for Christmas (for 45 seconds). And then, miraculously, on New Year's Eve, not one but two trucks show up, and about half an hour later my phone rings. It takes me four rings to recognize that it is my telephone and not one of my sons' toys. And all of the sudden I am feeling all warm and fuzzy towards Telecom and beginning to understand that whole psychology behind why hostage victims begin to empathize with their captors.

Warm and fuzzy didn't last very long, as we lost our phone service again two days later. It's still down. In fact, I'm not sure how I'm going to get this essay online, short of printing it out and tossing it in a bottle into the sea in the general direction of New Mexico and hope that it ends up at the SlowTrav central offices somehow.

In the meantime, I'm trying hard to remember why it is I love it here. I've been really putting down the pasta. I've been commiserating with my Italian friends (all of whom seem to have a similar story involving either the telephone, gas, electricity, or water service. Man, these people are resilient.) over cappuccinos. I've been spending a lot of time watching Fox News (though, under Berlusconi, Italy ain't no Sweden).

And tomorrow we are buying a laptop with a wireless cell phone connection. Because I've discovered that being cut off from it all is only fun if you are the one with the scissors.


Rebecca's View is a series of articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Rebecca's View - Introduction" for more information.

Rebecca Winke lives in Assisi, Italy and operates Brigolante Guest Apartments. www.brigolante.com

© Rebecca Winke, 2006

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