Jun 2008

The Questura

basket with passport

Having been married to an Italian for two years now, the wheels of the government had ground slowly in my direction and with an anonymous slip of paper in the mail, I was summoned to headquarters. The long-awaited moment in which I could get my carta di soggiorno, a step up from my previous permit of stay, loomed with the biggest mystery still remaining: How long would this carta be valid? For the standard two years? Or, perhaps longer?

Any trip to the
Questura begins with an early morning wait in the miserable courtyard outside the offices. There, entire families huddle together, swaying from foot to foot. Single men chain-smoke and pace while gaily-painted women lean on the metal barricades or slyly push through the crowd. Everyone reeks of desperation and confusion. There are two indistinct lines, one for those with appointments, and without. Beyond the signs, I have never seen any difference in the lines to indicate that we had waited a year for our 8:10 time-slot, at an office which opens at 8:30.

The lights came on. The crowd stirred and the door opened. Dapper policemen dressed in crisp uniforms and carrying guns on white leather belts, stepped out into the courtyard, waved their arms and said, “Appointments!” The crowd surged forward, arms outstretched holding the precious bit of appointment paper with passports. Luciano gave me a nudge and I joined them, holding my passport high. An official snatched it out of my hand and disappeared as I stepped back into the crowd. Another policeman stepped out and announced “
Asilo politico, asilo politico!” A few hands shot up and they were taken inside immediately. I pondered for a moment how those words could be translated to “political kindergarten” but also wondered if I might be in need of political asylum on this my hopefully last trip to this loathsome place. The thought disappeared as a policeman came out and called my name. We fought our way though the crowd to the door where he handed me a number. “Wait inside”. It was only 9:10 am. This was moving at supersonic speed.

Just inside the door is a miniature waiting room, where we joined the mosh pit of further disorganization and our lightening progress ground to a halt. The number “9” was lit up in the banged-up monitor high up on the wall. I looked at the bit of paper. Number 17. We were jostled closer to the wall, people came and went, babies cried, the door opened and slammed shut, voices were raised, and officials pushed though the crowd shouting out foreign names.

“Shin Nyun Chang?!” An officer shouted out. No answer.

“Ali Mubahad?” A hopeful voice came over the sea of heads.

“Ah, no. Shin Nyun Chang” There was a collective chuckle at the attempt, and then everyone descended back into grumpiness.

An hour passed. I absentmindedly examined the shoes of little girl who was sitting in her mother’s lap to my right. There was a grimy pink outline of Hello Kitty on the soles. Number 9 still was lit up on the wall monitor. Before me there was a continuous ebb and flow of bodies. Tensions rose and fell.

A woman stood and screamed at the closed door.

“I have been waiting for four years for my papers! I have three children and I do not have time for this. I have an entire dresser filled with notices from the Questura which make no sense!”

As her voice got higher, police hustled her through the inner door, which slammed shut, cutting off her complaints mid-sentence. The crowd shifted, perhaps considering this new tactic.

Another man had just returned from the Venice airport where he had been denied passage to the Congo to go to his mother’s funeral. Even with a future appointment slip to prove renewal was in the process, he could not change planes in Paris with his expired permit. I know all these details because he explained them, at the top of his lungs, to me, to all of us and to the policemen who continued to push through the inner crowd to get to the outer.

“This is not my problem”, said one policeman. “Find a direct flight.”

“They do not exist!”

“Well, we cannot help you. Go home.”

“So I should make myself at home here?”

“Yeah, sure.”

With that the man started to take of his shoes, his shirt…and then his pants. Everyone groaned. Luciano covered my eyes. The woman next to me told her daughter to look away. The policeman shook his head in disgust, jerked the door open and disappeared with a thump.

This Congolese man stood there in his tighty whities in a room full of dispassionate immigrants who had seen it all. He only wanted to go to his mother’s funeral. He shook his bare arms at the closed door, but there was no reaction. Sadly, he pulled on his pants, tucked his coat under his arm and pushed his way through the crowd out to the bleak courtyard.

At 11:45 number 17 popped up on the monitor and Luciano and I pushed our way through the crowd.

Behind a fingerprint-smeared window, a weary, but friendly man shuffled quickly though my file. Photographs, declaration from the Municipio saying I had no criminal record, marriage certificate, tax forms, passport, identity card, fiscal code…all photocopied, covered in tax stamps, and bound in little individual plastic protective sleeves. I am very proud of my file.

“Ok. Everything is here. You just need to get the tax stamp and you are set.”

“What tax stamp?” Luciano politely asked. We had not heard of this and I would be forced to kill this nice man if I, at this point, had to trot down to the corner to buy yet one more ten euro tax stamp.

“Oh, hmmm. Ok, never mind.” With a wave of his hand he dismissed the need and thus his inevitable death. He stapled a few more forms together, slid it all into an even bigger file and handed me a small slip of paper.

“Bring this form back to pick of your
carta in one month.” He smiled as he turned and placed my file on shelf far above his head, filled with identical manila files…

Just like that, only 4 hours after arriving, we were spat out into the dreary courtyard, now almost deserted as the gates swung shut behind us.


One month and half later I stood alone in the courtyard with my passport and the precious bit of paper, wondering which door I should approach. There was a crowd inexplicably gathered in front of a closed, black, metal door with no handle. A child sat on the steps and played with plastic action figures. The window where I had picked up documents before was even more closed and the “appointment” door was teeming with new arrivals. Suddenly the handless door swung open, knocking the actions figures into an abyss as the child was jerked away. A man emerged carrying a plastic basket. The crowd heaved towards him waving passports and calling out questions. A woman to my left said to me, “There…you should give your stuff to that man.” I pushed forward and waved my passport at the office worker. He nodded and I dropped it into the basket. I got a last glimpse over his shoulder of my American-issued official State Department Document disappearing into the maw of the Questura. I settled down to wait.

The recent surge of immigrants has put a strain on everyone here in Italy: police, politicians, Italians and immigrants. Sadly, the officials at the Questura have not figured out crowd-control…something supermarkets seem to have understood long ago. Here information is disseminated, if at all, with shouts, and clipped confusing answers. The immigrants holding passports from Croatia, China, the Ukraine, Congo, Moldavia, Sri Lanka, and Senegal must be there because they want to live in Italy legally, yet they are treated like criminals who are just about to commit a crime. And indeed they might…such treatment can’t possibly inspire a law abiding attitude. It doesn’t in me.

The door swung open again, a pot-bellied office worker wearing rubber gloves stood over the crowd. The crowd surged forward, arms were waving, questions shouted. He called out a name. A woman in a veil began to fight her way to the door and into the office. As the worker stepped back to close the door, man stood in his way, foot blocking the door.

“Move your foot!” The worker yelled.

“I need an answer to my question. No one will help me!” cried the man.

“Move your foot or no one will ever help you!” screamed the worker.

“No, I need help now!”

Suddenly two policemen appeared on either side of the worker. The three of them reached out and grabbed the man by his shoulders and yanked him, cartoon-like, into the black hallway. The door slammed shut. The crowd gasped collectively, took one step back from the door and rethought tactics. I checked to see if his empty shoes had been left smoking on the top step. No.

An hour passed. It had started to rain, with big fat drops splatting on the recently installed plastic roof which almost covered the courtyard. The crowd shuffled closer together to stay dry. Cigarette smoke hung in the damp air and crept into my lungs. Suddenly the door burst open and the man with the plastic basket appeared. He passed passport and signed documents to the outstretched hands as he called out names.


My hand shot up and I pushed my way through the crowd.

In slow motion he stretched out his arm, holding the precious paper aloft. Music started to play, the sun came out…I think I heard violins as I reached out to him. Beams of light fell upon my face and I took the document. I am sure I heard voices raised in song as I found the words “
indeterminato” printed across the top of the page. Indeterminate. I will never expire. …I will never have to come here again. I closed my eyes and soaked in the elation, warmed by the glow of the paper in my hands.

Then the stench of smoke and anxiety tickled my nose. I noticed the wretched people around me and I began to feel the rain on my shoulders again. Tucking the prized bit of paper under my coat, I trotted out into the streets of Treviso. Legal.

I never even looked back.

questura window