Italians fear inspections the same way naughty blackbirds fear a sentinel scarecrow. And from the way they nervously flit and hop while blatantly breaking the field's best rules, you'd think the whole country was in dire risk of being swiftly stuffed as supper fowl. Which means, of course, that I have been waiting sixteen long years to witness a controllo actually happen, just to revel as all the rulebreakers run from their rainy parade. Not that I would be any less sopping after the sprint-everyone breaks rules in this country and that, in fact, is the only law the whole population is expected to unswervingly respect.
So the day the European Union representative arrived to investigate possible irregolarità with my EU-funded English course for hotel staff, I was beside myself with glee. There were mountains of bureaucratic misdemeanors whose summits she could climb with paramount ease, sending an avalanche of ruptured regulations tumbling down from the top rock.
I had double the amount of students per class compared to legal numbers-none of whom had officially registered. And all the enrolled folk were chronic no-shows, unless you counted their phantom signatures, which regularly appeared in the registers each week, the same way new soap bars showed up for the hotel's guests after each second wash. Plus, during what they called ‘personalized courses' I spent half the lesson-time chasing down reluctant chambermaids. ‘Talk to whoever you can find', the hotel manager had instructed. And it is precisely this wonderful axiom that I plan on spending one day, in lieu of a retirement check. Because while the chambermaids are no longer safe hiding in the linen closet whenever it is their floor's turn to be taught, they are not unknown to run the vacuum during ‘lesson' if their rooms aren't clean-an inconvenience that crops up each time I have a grammar point they want brushed under the rug.
The controllo lady met with me in the hotel's breakfast bar and ordered a macchiato before saying that my register looked spotty. ‘I've encountered some irregularities,' she said, spooning both brown and white sugar into her cup.
‘Really?' I asked, more surprised at her two-tone sugar than at her palpable affirmation.
‘There's a problem with the course name,' she explained. ‘In the space marked ‘Course description' you wrote ‘English conversation.' That is incorrect. Its title is "L'arte dell'accoglienza e l'ospitalità attraverso l'evoluzione delle competenze professionali." We are going to have to rewrite all the registers, otherwise they may not release the funds.'
Release the funds? I stared. Who cared about released funds? I was a Hospitality teacher and I hadn't even known it. No-I was an Art of Hospitality teacher. And I taught Welcoming. Wow. And Evolution of Professional Competency. So, either Europe was getting much too much for its money or I was obviously due for a retroactive raise.
Unfortunately, the same was not true for the controllo lady, as her eyelids were apparently ‘lined with prosciutto', as the Italians would say, for she was blind to all the bug-eyed ways in which the management had succeeded in beating the system. If it was ‘irregularities' she wanted, she had reached the end of the rainbow and I was hoarding the Leprechaun pot. Was it possible that she really couldn't see it?
‘Listen,' the lady said, shutting the register after two sips of espresso and one red ink scribble that only a doctor could read. ‘I have to go now. If un controllo comes within the hour, please tell her I've had un'imprevisto and was forced to leave early. Say it was something unexpected.'
Hmm. Unexpected indeed.
‘Can you believe the controllo lady has a controllo lady that even she is scared of?'
‘Of course,' Filippo said, once the inspection was over and I'd crossed town to tell him the tale.
‘What do you mean of course?' I protested. ‘Wouldn't it be easier if Italians just learned to do things the way they're supposed to be done-by the book, I mean.'
‘Book?' he frowned, ‘Which book do you mean?'
I had more incriminating evidence than an FBI agent and not a soul to sell my secrets to. ‘It's not a real book, Filippo! The point is, we can't even count on the law to follow the law!'
‘I don't know why you are so surprised about this,' he shrugged.
‘I'm surprised, because unlike you, I'm not an incurable cynic.'
He laughed, because the man loves it when I get flustered, which unfortunately-or fortunately-is often. ‘In Italy,' he grinned, ‘we don't look kindly on unbending law-abiders-you're right. Laws are usually just technicalities anyway. So you can either shut an eye to them or raise an eyebrow. And most Italians know how to do both things at once. It's a talent actually.'
‘But, there's no need to ruin your liver over it'.
When Italians start reminding you to safeguard your liver, it means a discussion has nearly reached its end. It didn't matter. I had no intention injuring my inner organs. In fact, all in all, I was quite satisfied with how the afternoon had turned out. It was proof that Italy provides practically perfect real-life entertainment at pre-paid costs. Consider the issue inspected: in this country, not a cent of one's salary ever needs to be spent at the circus.