02 August 2015

LIFE: Clandestina

CHIAVARI, Italy – This is a true story. It’s the story of the day I was attacked by a vicious German shepherd dog while on an outing to Orta San Giulio, a small lakeside town in Piedmont. Actually it’s more than that. It’s a story of what it was like to live in Italy illegally, to live as a “clandestine”.
 Lakeside, Lago di Orta San Giulio (Piedmont)
I had entered Italy with a normal three-month Tourist Visa issued to everyone entering the country. But then, when my three months were up and I still didn’t have a legal Permit to Stay – a Permesso di Soggiorno, I took the train to the south of France. I spent a few days there, then I re-entered Italy getting my Passport stamped with another three-month Tourist Visa in the process. I didn’t know it then, but my journeys to the south of France would go on for many years, almost eight. 

It’s not that the Italian government was refusing to give me a Permesso, they just were not willing to give me the type of Permesso I wanted. I wanted a Permesso di Soggiorno that would allow me to work. I was, and still am, a free-lance journalist/writer but at that time, 1990, the Italian government didn’t understand the concept of “free-lance”. They wanted to know who I worked for. Since I couldn’t come up with a name or a contract -  Permesso refused. 

In Italy, if you are not a legal resident, or a citizen, you are not allowed to open a bank account, have an Italian Social Security number, rent an apartment or have a Partita Iva, which is a license to do business, in short, everything that I needed. If nothing else, I am a problem solver and within a year of living here I had managed to get all of those things, and more, in spite of being illegal.
The Main Piazza is Very Colorful
I soon settled into my Italian life. I had a nice apartment near the sea, I had tons of work, I got used to going to the south of France every three months, and truthfully I stopped worrying about my legal status. I knew  the situation would eventually right itself, but every once in a while being illegal would become problematic, and that is what this story is about.    

One bright June day Barbara, a fellow American, and I decided to go to Lago di Orta San Giulio, in Piedmont and have lunch. We had no idea what was about to happen when we stepped off the train. As there was no one around and the lake was nowhere in sight, we started down the single lane road in front of the station hoping it would take us into town and to the lake.

We figured we were going in the right direction since we were going downhill, but it seemed to be taking a very long time to get there. There were few houses along the road and those that we saw were set back and surrounded by tall chain link fences that seemed to send a message – do not disturb.

 View of the Island of Orta San Giulio
Then we spotted a woman out in her front yard and walked over to ask her how much farther we had to go to reach the lake. I approached the fence first and called out to her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a young guy coming around the corner of the house and next to him was a fully grown German Shepherd running full speed ahead, barking and growling and heading right for me.

I won’t say I wasn’t scared to death because I was. I pulled back from the fence but the dog, with fangs bared and spittle flying from his mouth, was on top of me before I could react. He crashed into the fence and caught me with his claws right at my waistline and dug in hard, knocking me to the ground. The pain was excruciating. I lay there in the dirt crying, clutching my side. My clothes were torn and I when I took my hand away, I could see I was bleeding.

Barbara, who spoke very little Italian, started yelling at the woman using the few words she knew, to get some water, some bandages, to do something. The woman did nothing. I don’t remember a lot of what happened after that, but when I heard Barbara saying something about calling the Carabineri, I remember saying no, no Carabineri.
 Our Destination - Lunch by the Lake
I settled for a ride to the nearest pharmacy where I bought bandages and something to clean the wound, and fixed myself up the best I could. I was in so much pain I could barely walk. We found a café, had a quick lunch and then took a taxi back to the train station and left.

When I got home I went to see my doctor. He looked at the puncture marks of the dog’s claws, and the deep purple and green bruising and just shook his head. “You can still go to the Carabineri and report them, and you can sue them too,” he said, “you certainly have a case. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this. Just think if you had had a child with you, that dog could have taken their eyes out.”

I knew he was right but given my legal status I didn’t want to do anything that involved me and the law. I had worked too hard to get here and even though I still hadn’t gotten my legal situation straightened out, I knew I would. Sooner or later. So I just said, yes I would get a Tetanus shot and yes, I would think about reporting the incident to the Carabineri. I thanked him for his concern and left.
 Lovely Shops Line the Piazza
He was right about the dog being dangerous, and if we had had a child with us the situation would have been much worse. But I knew I wouldn’t do anything about it. That’s the problem with being illegal. Even when you want to do the right thing, you are afraid to, afraid to do anything that will upset the fragile balance of your existence.

Did I think I would be deported if the Carabineri discovered my situation? In the beginning, yes I did. But then, the longer I was here I began to think that since I have no criminal record, and the fact that I am Italian, the most they would do is tell me to start heading down the path of legalization and give me a time period in which to do it. But if I hadn’t managed to legalize my status so far, how would I be able to do it with a deadline? I wouldn’t.

Then la forza del destino (aka fate) stepped in. Quite by chance I met an Italian Senator, who shall remain nameless. When I told him my story, he made some disparaging remarks about the Italian government and then he made a phone call.  In 24 hours I had a Permit to Stay and Work in Italy. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 Lago di Orta San Giulio
If I have learned anything living in Italy, it is that it is my “American” way of doing things is not better; in fact it doesn’t work at all – not here. And as far as my desire to be self-sufficient, that doesn’t work either. People just think you are stupid. Which I was, and in many ways I still am. I admit it.

As for my status, once I got my Permesso di Soggiorno, it didn’t take too many years before my Permesso became permanent, or as the Italians like to say, Valid for an Undetermined Time. And who knows, I may even get my citizenship next. I may not know much but I do know when I’m wrong, which is 99 percent of the time, and that La Forza del Destino works in mysterious ways.

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