Help Desk One

Help Desk One

Wed 05 Oct 2016 4:19 PM


the famous permesso di soggiorno, or permit to stay, which allows non-European Union citizens to legally stay in Italy.


the headquarters of the local Polizia di Stato, and where most matters pertaining to permesso application, renewal and retrieval take place.


literally, “Help Desk One”. The place where foreigners can make general inquiries without appointments, or the place where you are assigned a number according to what immigration-related task you need completed during your Questura visit.


Illustration by Leo Cardini

Illustration by Leo Cardini


“Popping by the Questura to drop off a missing paper for my permesso kit,” went my 7am WhatsApp message. “You know how these things go. Should be in a little after 10.”

I wonder how often some variation of this text gets sent to bosses and supervisors in Florence, only to blow up in the sender’s face six, seven hours later.

“Drop off” implies a brisk and barely business-y transaction—befitting a trip to the dry cleaner’s. “Popping by” is better suited for obligatory appearances at birthday parties. One doesn’t “drop off” at or “pop by” the Questura. One stands in line for Sportello Uno.

My friend Karen describes this sportello’s queue as “triage”, and I can think of no more concise definition. Sportello Uno—not to be confused with the various incarnations of Sportello Unico, or the chummy-sounding Sportello Amico—is Square One in a literal, lived sense. Few of us forget the first time we triumphantly reached the counter after two or three hours on our feet. Your shoulders slump as you realize all you’re getting is a number—that you and your comrades are being sorted according to the tasks you need completed and, supposedly, their level of urgency. So the thrill of arriving at the window immediately goes out said window, replaced by a gut-deep sense of defeat.

The sportello’s hours, of course, are telling. Officially, you can “pop by” between 7.30 and 9am, but operatively it often takes from 7.15 to 11am to get everyone catalogued. Disappointingly, the lone Sorting Hat bureaucrat wears no such accessory.

In my rookie years, I’d arrive at 6.45, 7am, prepared to face the music, but not yet privy to a trick: show up at a quarter to nine and the line will have significantly shortened. You might even move straight to the threshold—the front door to life as a foreigner in Florence—instead of snaking up slowly from via del Pratello. Early birds do not catch worms where Sportello Uno is concerned.

Permesso pickups and fingerprintings are typically in the afternoon and by appointment, when the whole complex is closed to seekers of general information. For those people, phoning in is a fruitless exercise. Anyone with a Questura query should plan to arrive within that 7.30 to 9am slot; “walk-ins welcome,” as it were.

The queue itself is its own animal, with everyone discreetly eyeing each other’s passports and wondering what brought the person in front of them to Italy, to Florence, to that very spot. And though the pleasures of the Questura are best enjoyed with a friend or romantic partner in tow, the Sportello Uno line is not the sort of place where you want to bump into a casual acquaintance or chat with the person next to you. Make no mistake: you’ll be standing there for hours, and the feeling will be akin to when you’re seated next to a talkative dud on a transatlantic flight.

Naturally, you can always expect that one rabble-rouser who insists on making a stink with the policeman standing guard at the door. At best, a shouting duel ensues for a few minutes; at worst, the offending orator ignites the passions of the people in line, slowing it even further. Yet you can’t help but feel solidarity with most of your fellow shufflers. After all, there’s a certain camaraderie that comes from being “on the cusp” together, coveting the cold bench seats snagged by those who beat you there.

I like to think that Dante would delight in the liminality of it all. That he’d fancy it a Purgatory for postmillennial souls. You see, when approaching the Sportello Uno, instant grace is never guaranteed, and some form of purifying punishment is largely inevitable.

Foreigners in Italy, or anywhere, often occupy this sort of space—that of perpetual purgatory, of waiting to get in, of wondering if we’ll be accepted or turned away, of questioning how our souls stack up to the others, of what we can do to “enter into joy”. As such, life for stranieri can bear startling resemblance to a trip to the Sportello Uno. Upon arrival, we’re sized up. We tell people what we need, what we’re after—and, if we’re doing it right, ask what we can do for them as well. We may have to wait a while, and standing on our own two feet might be a strain while we do. But most of us, sooner or later, will find our spot on the bench.

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