Friday, June 27, 2008

The invasion of the “Portuguese”!

For many years now (at least 19, the period that I’ve so far resided in Italy), cities like Rome and other major (and minor) centres throughout Italy have been populated by a small army of “Portuguese”. Now, pray tell, why have I put that nationality within quotation marks? Because the rather derogatory term refers to those Italian (and non-Italian citizens) who very often (1 out of 5 actually) never pay the bus or subway fare.

Why then the word connected to the Iberian nation? It stems from an event which happened in Rome in the 18th century. The Portuguese embassy had invited all its citizens to a show at the Argentina theatre located in the centre of the Eternally Chaotic City. The embassy had decided to invite all its loyal subjects, but without the need of a special invitation. All one had to do was to declare one’s Portuguese citizenship in order to gain admittance. Not wanting to pass up something for free (who does actually?), many Roman citizens went to the event pretending to be Portuguese, when in reality they obviously weren’t. And so the “label” has stuck ever since.

According to a very recent Italian transportation survey, there’s quite a variety of travellers who don’t pay their travel tickets (indeed very humane the Italians: they stopped travellers in order to do give out a travel questionnaire. Those who were in fact caught without a ticket but volunteered to take part in the survey were not fined!): students, employees, homemakers and the unemployed are included in the list. Statistics show that the hole left by unpaid tickets amounts to “only” 450 million Euros per year, enough to buy 900 new buses—per month!

Eleven percent of women don’t pay whereas the men amount to 21% of the culprits. And once the fines are finally dished out, only 1 out of 3 fines are in fact paid. Transport authorities are now thinking of adding stewards on buses and in the subways, sort of like what is now going on in Italy’s soccer stadia (an idea copied from the Brits). That’s an awfully smashing and wonderful idea, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have buses WITHOUT three doors, and proper turnstiles in the subways of Rome for example?

Just recently Rome installed electronic reading turnstiles in its subway, the ones that for years have been used in more “advanced” countries. The buses: there are usually 3 doors to a bus, the 1 in front for getting on and the middle and the 1 at the back for getting off. Naturally, in such a chaotic city such as Rome where the average Roman (and not only him/her) can’t follow the simplest of rules, everyone gets on/off in ALL the doors. Add to this that unlike the buses I used to take living in Canada (only 2 doors, 1 in the front and 1 in the middle), the drivers don’t accept money or tickets and don’t at all bother to check your monthly pass. What the buses do have is a cancellation machine, usually two to a bus (and in many cases, they don’t even work!). What that less-than law-abiding citizen must do is to “obliterate” his/her ticket in order to validate it. It’s basically based on the honour system (which in a country such as Italy is in itself a contradiction in terminology!).

I never ONCE recall a bus inspector in my hometown of Winnipeg (when I was a kid going to school), just because there was a little contraption as you got on (located right next to the driver’s seat) where you either put in the correct fare or your bus tickets. You didn’t’ pay? You didn’t get on the bus, it was that simple (and you can be SURE that there was NO hope in hell of convincing the driver of letting you on either!). The middle door was ONLY used for getting off and NOT to get on the bus. And if you tried, the bus driver would simply tell you to either or to use the front door!

Ditto for the subway (which I used to take in my 3 years spent in MontrĂ©al). You either had to show your monthly pass to the fellow in the glass booth (who was DOING is job well) or you had to pay for a ticket or to put your daily ticket in a special device. Or with your monthly pass you’d put it in the electronic turnstile. If it was obviously valid, the glass doors would open. If it wasn’t, the doors wouldn’t open and the man would give you a strange look (meaning to say, “So, you’re NOT going to try to jump over the turnstile, are you”?). We’re talking about the late 80s by the way.

Now some fun stories about taking the subway in Rome: pre-2000 (just in time for the Holy Jubilee in the year 2000 the local subway transportation hired a bunch of young kids for the added influx of pilgrims who flocked to Rome. Many turned out to be the kids of long-time employees who retired earlier in order to leave their jobs to their kids). One day, during the morning rush-hour (8ish or so), as I approached the tiny man in his airless glass booth, I noticed that he was rather pensive and with a pencil in his hand. He was sort of looking out into outer space, totally oblivious to the zillions of passengers who were whizzing by him to go to work (most of them could have been gorgeous naked women and he wouldn’t have flinched in inch!). As I got closer and being rather tall, I peered down to see what he was doing (perhaps he was filling out an important related to his job?). No siree, he was trying to guess the results of the upcoming soccer matches for the state-run soccer lottery known as Totocalcio! On another occasion, around 8ish during the week, a colleague of the soccer aficionado was simply sleeping in his booth (and as I walked by I yelled out in English: “Wakey wakey”!!. He opened his eyes half-groggy and rather p.offed too that someone had DARED disturb his morning siesta!). And on other occasions during rush-hour, the booths were totally empty with employees either out for coffee or a very long and extended pee! It’s no wonder that city transportation companies have throughout the years lost an enormous amount of money with such HIGHLY inefficient personnel!

But wait, the best has yet to come: the Rome soccer derby between Roma and Lazio! On more than one occasion I’ve taken the subway around 8:30 pm and NOT paid the ticket, simply because you can be nearly 100% sure that subway employees and the inspectors that are (at times) at the bottom of the stairs making sure you’ve paid your ticket, are either Roma or Lazio fans, and they’re either at the Olympic stadium taking in the match or at home watching it live on Sky tv! In fact, the subway that night is virtually empty (even more if Italy is playing in a World Cup event).

I said it nearly 19 years ago and I still say it today: in Rome’s case, both the buses and the subways are simply “strainers” that lose on a yearly basis zillions of Euros. Some people have accused me of being dishonest and of being like the Romans themselves (well, after all, there is a famous saying isn’t there, “When in Rome….”?). I almost say proudly that “Yes, I too am dishonest, but only because the system ALLOWS me to be dishonest”! I wasn’t perhaps particularly crazy to pay for the bus/subway in Canada, but I had no choice in the matter as the system didn’t permit me to be dishonest (in the nearly 19 years of Italian life, I’ve NEVER said that Canada is populated by saints. It’s just that Canadian society doesn’t allow you to get away with a zillion things as you can in Italy).

So yes, from now on, do call me then that “Crazy Italo-Canadian-Portuguese”!

PS In all this “Portuguese” matter, it doesn’t help much that according to the most recent Transparency International European corruption index, Italy comes in at position 22, right after the Czech Republic and just ahead of the Slovak Republic. The least corrupt nation in Europe? Denmark (the most corrupt one is Romania)!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Talk about following the rules!

Well, you can’t say that the folks near Bologna, precisely in the small town of Castel San Pietro, don’t observe the laws! While walking around the town for its great little blues festival (it also has several baths), I came across this old gentleman who was correctly parked in his wheelchair in the bikers’ parking spot (do note the sign on the left!). Apparently, his friends/assistants were calmly chatting away as he was just sitting there. If only the entire country were as observant of the laws as the folks in Castel San Pietro, well, Italy would indeed be a marvellous country in which to live (photo by M. Rimati)!