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Back Door Bureaucracy

Valerie Schneider

I grew up in small-town Ohio. It was the kind of place where people didn’t lock their doors. Even if they did, you usually knew where the key was hidden, so there wasn’t much point in locking it in the first place. It was the kind of place where the back yards were all open to one another without fences, so you cut across lawns to visit neighbors and always used the back doors. Front doors were for formal guests only.

Such was the case at my grandparents’ house. Everyone went around back and entered without knocking; they just called out a hearty hello while crossing the threshold from the screen porch into the kitchen. We had one neighbor down the street who never answered her front door bell. Everyone knew to use the back door. Therefore, she reasoned, anyone standing on her pretty, wide front porch –and daring to ring the loud bell, to boot- had to be a peddler or someone with religious materials to hand out. Certainly no one worth her time.

When we visited friends in Oklahoma, they gave us directions to their house, instructing us to “come around back ... you’re back-door friends!” And it was meant as a compliment. They were telling us that we were like family to them.

Here in Italy, there are precious few back doors, and those that exist are pretty hard to reach. Most people live in apartments guarded by security gates or huge, heavy wooden portone. Entry is granted only after pressing the buzzer and explaining who you are and why you’ve come. Then the big door clicks open and you can enter the building, but you must still ring the bell at the door and ask permesso before setting foot into the house itself. If your friends live in the countryside, they are likely surrounded by high, metal security gates, again with a buzzer at the end of the drive. Italians, it seems, don’t like drop-in visitors.

But a lack of physical back doors doesn’t mean they don’t exist in the bureaucratic and business realm. Like real doors in Italy, there are barriers; but pushing the right button or knowing the right person swings them open. Often, just like the back doors of my youth, these are used by those in the know, those who are familiare.

Laws in Italy are ... let’s say “cumbersome”. They are passed and are then overridden by other laws. They can be changed on a whim and keeping track of what is the current code can be difficult. We are frequently told, “Today the law is this; tomorrow ... who knows?” Because it is seemingly always in flux, it is also open to a good deal of personal interpretation. There is always a way around to the proverbial back doors, and most people of our acquaintance take great delight in finding them.

We discovered this recently when we received a tax bill in the mail at our old apartment. The very formal but very generic letter was addressed to Bryan using his full, official name and told us to present ourselves along with the document in hand to the city offices to pay the proper amount of taxation. We were confused about what we could be taxed for since we don’t own property and had already paid our vehicle taxes, which aren’t collected by the city government anyway. Maybe the dreaded TV tax that everyone gripes about? Couldn’t be that, as we didn’t have a functioning television set.

We took the letter and visited our former landlady at her office. She gave a quick glance to the form, threw it on her desk muttering something about garbage, and told us she’d take care of it. A week later, when I ran into her on the street she gleefully gloated that she had gotten us out of paying the annual garbage tax by telling the city that we had moved (which was the truth), but that she didn’t know where we’d gone, probably back to America for all she knew. “So have you moved back to America, Valeria?” she laughingly asked. Now mind you, I had no problem paying the tax; I had merely wanted to know what it was for as it had been in conjunction with our old abode. The garbage is picked up nightly right outside our doorsteps, so to me it’s a worthwhile tax. To my former landlady, however, it was a great joke and victory and she didn’t understand why we’d have paid it anyway. I was slightly appalled. In order to fully understand our bewilderment over this situation, you should probably know that she works for the city government.

We unwittingly stumbled across another bureaucratic back door when I did some freelance work for an Italian company, writing their English-language website. The owner said to submit the bill in Euros, which I did. That’s when he informed me that I would need to obtain a tax ID number, known as a Partita IVA. I’d recently heard from a few other expats about the IVA, so I visited a commercialista (business accountant) to see what needed to be done. He listened patiently to the explanation of my work and why I was told that I would need the Partita IVA. Then he leaned back in his chair, spread his arms open, and asked calmly, “but why isn’t this man just paying you in nero?” To be paid “in the black” is our equivalent of “under the table,” and to the commercialista the amount in question wasn’t enough to be bothered with for an official, taxable payment.

Well, the business owner is very precise, wants things to be totally above-board, blah blah blah, I explained. He rolled his eyes and called a colleague to inquire about the necessity for an IVA in such a situation. The colleague obviously posed the same question about nero transactions because Signore Commercialista parroted my response to him verbatim. More eye rolling and gesticulating. In the end, he drew an elaborate outline on a blank page demonstrating all the reasons why I should not take a Partita IVA at this point in time, then generated a form for me to present to the business owner in question, telling him that I am currently exempt from IVA taxation.

This seemed a little unseemly to me. I understood the whole host of reasons for not wanting the IVA number, but was unconvinced that I was totally free from the responsibility of it. I explained this whole affair to a friend who counseled me to talk to Franco, his father-in-law. “He works for the Agenzia delle Entrate. He will be able to tell you what you need to do.” The Agenzia is the tax department, basically the equivalent of the IRS. Seemed like a good, solid connection.

Off we went to see Franco, whom we had previously met on a couple of occasions. He welcomed us warmly, ran off and fetched us caffe, and asked us to explain the situation, having been forewarned by his son-in-law that we’d be stopping by. I recounted the tale in full. He nodded silently and listened attentively. “Yes, I understand perfectly. Ma ...” with his wide eyebrows raised up to his hairline, he asked, “why is this man not paying you in nero?” He enumerated all the same points Signore Commercialista had diagrammed for us.

But, he offered, we can check with his colleague downstairs. He deals with such things daily and will know for certain. We descended and Franco whispered furtively to the man, whose name we never caught. Downstairs Colleague glanced in our direction throughout the conversation, shaking his head resolutely. He walked over to us and asked who the heck I was working for, is the man matto, crazy? Why am I not receiving the now-infamous black payments, for goodness sake? “No, you do not need an IVA at this point in time,” he stated authoritatively and marched back to his desk. It became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to get a tax ID number if I begged for one. “We want to make it as easy as possible for you, and believe me, opening the IVA can of worms is not what you want to do.” Franco did concede that I should talk to him about it again next year and we’ll re-evaluate the situation. I do find it very sweet that they were concerned about our welfare and considered us familiare enough to open up the back door and shove us through it, yet I still can’t help thinking, but this is the tax agency telling me to not pay taxes!

We’ve encountered lesser incidents, as well. Friends encourage us to take advantage of our foreign-ness to ride for free on buses and trains by not stamping tickets (“you can keep riding for free on the same ticket until you’re caught, and then you can just pretend to be ignorant tourists,” they tell us); or to “fool” the Carabinieri who pull us over on periodic roadside checks by speaking only English from the get-go, so as to avoid the “hassle” and time of producing our documents. Why wouldn’t we want to do that? Everyone likes pulling one over on the Carabinieri, they tell us. As for the train tickets, they insist that they’d all love to be able to get away with such a thing if they could and they’d surely use their foreign heritage to do such a thing the first chance they get, if and when they ever travel abroad, they ensure us. Our sense of fairness, when we tell them we won’t entertain such notions, amuses and confounds our friends.

There is apparently no limit to the number of back alleys and back doors that can be found. A local amica visited a dentist and was told she needed costly root canal and crown work. However, the dentist blatantly informed her, she’d receive a hefty discount if she would agree to pay cash and accept a receipt stating that the work cost even less than the paid amount. Because she found him rather creepy, she reported his scheme to the Guardia di Finanza, but she had the distinct impression that they already knew of his operations. The previously-mentioned and ridiculed television tax is avoided by everyone we know simply by not opening the door when the tax man comes a’calling.

And other businesses ask up front if payment will be made in cash, knocking off a decent percentage if it is, because they not only avoid the credit card company charges, but because many of them put the cash in the tasca instead of the till. I’ve heard of houses being left slightly unfinished to reduce the taxation rate, and rooms or portions of homes being “officially” segmented off while still being unofficially fully utilized, thus reducing the taxable square footage.

We must put things in order to renew our paperwork soon. We’ve recently become friends with a guy who works in the Questura. Perhaps a new back yard neighbor? It’s very tempting to ask him how we might avoid the long line of teeming masses at the Immigration Office.

Such is the reality of bureaucracy and business in Italy. Back doors may be more difficult to reach than those in my small Ohio hometown, but they’re certainly in existence, and they are every bit as well used as my grandparents’ was. Perhaps even more so.


Have something to say on this? Share your thoughts or see what others have to say in our forum thread on this article.


Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2008

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