A few friends have written to say that we seem to be having such a good time this year, they are worried that we won’t return home. And still others have told us that they had to stop reading our blog because envy was getting the better of them. (No doubt, I will feel similarly next year reading other travel blogs).  So this post is meant to balance the blog a bit and show that life in southern Europe isn’t always a torta walk.

I have now visited our bank here in Rome six times. And it feels as if those visits account for a significant proportion of my time since arriving in Italy. Here’s a little local flavor. . .

Visit Number 1:

I arrive at the bank to open an account, bearing every conceivable form of documentation I could think of. But I never could have adequately prepared. First, according to UniCredit/Bank of Rome, Wisconsin does not exist. Using the most polite and formal form of address that I could muster, I insisted that Wisconsin was in fact one of the 50 United States. But the banker kept shaking her head and telling me that her computer would not accept it as a US address. “Florida?” she asked me twice. “No, Wisconsin,” I replied, brandishing my driver’s license. After nearly an hour, we compromised and, according to my bank account here, my permanent address is “Wisconsen.”

My mis-spelled address was not my biggest hurdle. It took me three and a half hours to open my account. This transaction seemed to require a particular choreography that involved the banker typing a lot on her keyboard, telling me that opening the account was “not possible,” calling her colleague on the phone to express frustration, then talking in an agitated manner to another colleague about how impossible it was for me to open an account, and then returning to tell me again that it was not possible for me to open a bank account, but she would try again. This dance was repeated four times. After each stanza I was told it was “not possible”. I would ask again, each time commiserating more with her about how difficult life is and apologizing profusely about my coming into the bank to open an account. She would wave her hands in the air and consult with a colleague, who did the same. Repeat.

The fifth time was the charm. Although it was “not possible,” they deemed it okay to “make an exception” this one time. The saving grace seemed to be either the welcome letter I had from the American Academy in Rome, or my having secured a Codice Fiscale (the Italian equivalent of a social security number), courtesy of the Italian Consulate in Chicago. Or simply that I did not give up. I have no idea what was being exempted. But it was necessary for me to sign many pieces of paper. More signatures, in fact, than were required to get a mortgage and buy our house in the States. The banker set an empty folder in front of me and then proceeded to pull sheet after sheet of paper from her printer that required my signature. By the end of the morning, I had signed almost an inch-high stack of pages—most all of which were simply put in the folder and given back to me to bring home. I was told to keep all of them. I was told my ATM card would arrive later (“later” being the understatement of the year).

Visit Number 2 (or, where’s my money?):

Once the account was opened, I wired money from my bank in “Wisconsen” to my account in Rome. The money was taken out of our US bank account immediately, but failed to appear in our Italian account. One week, then two weeks, then a month went by – no Euros appeared. Jenny called our US bank to ask them to trace the wire transfer, and they reported back to us that the money had in fact been accepted by our Italian bank just hours after it was sent. So I took a deep breath, grabbed my Italian dictionary, and headed to the bank to find our money.

First I was told that it was “not possible” for them to trace the money and if I waited, it would appear. But I was already intuiting that tenacity was the only way to get anything done at the bank. I refused to leave and showed them the transfer confirmation number. And then I waited, and waited. And waited. The banker returned and said that the money had not been put into my account because I never completed the required paperwork. They could not give me the papers to sign until I gave my verbal oath that the money was simply to be used for my personal living expenses. We went to a cubicle and the familiar dance began again. The banker pounded on her keyboard, raised and lowered her hair in frustration, called her colleagues, went from office to office until the entire staff was standing in the hallway talking animatedly about my wire transfer. I didn’t understand a word of the conversation.

And then the banker began printing out pages for me to sign. Half of the pages had my name, address, account number, and the amount of the transfer on them. The other half of the pages were identical forms, but not populated with my personal data. I was told to take all of the blank forms and hand write the information from the populated forms so that all of the pages contained identical information. When I was done, I had twelve pages of identical information, half of which were printed and the other half handwritten. The banker asked me to sign all of them, then stapled them together, and handed all twelve of them to me to take home. She told me that the money would be in my account “soon.” The process took just over two and a half hours.

Visit Number 3 (or, nobody’s home):

The third time I visited my bank, it was a Friday morning. I intended to deposit a check that I had received from a university in The Netherlands. When I arrived, I found a locked door displaying a sign informing me that because it was August, the bank would only be open on Wednesdays– and maybe, sometimes Thursday mornings. I walked back home. It was a nice stroll.

Visit Number 4:

Now a savvy bank customer, I returned to the bank the following Wednesday to deposit my check. It seemed not to be so bad. In my previous visits, I had to go to the area of the bank where I sat at a desk in someone’s cubicle. But this was just an ordinary transaction in the bank lobby. I noticed three tellers sitting at their windows with a customer in front of each one, but the lobby was otherwise empty! I had heard so many horror stories of waiting times at the bank. So when one of the customers left, I approached the empty teller window. Major mistake. I had not realized that behind me was a lovely marble lounge area, with very sleek fire-engine red and jet-black leather couches . . .upon which sat many, many customers awaiting their turn and reading. Apparently, hidden somewhere in the lobby, was a ticket machine. The queue rolls so slowly that customers take their tickets, then go to the waiting area, where they hang out until their number is called. Although Italians are notorious for not queuing in an orderly manner, this system is new and has met with much local fanfare because it prevents crowding in front of the teller windows. You’d think when you take a number, it would be simple, 101, 102, 103. . .but, no. They add a letter to indicate what kind of transaction you want to conduct, which means there is no way to anticipate when your number will be called. The neon sign that indicates whose turn it is reads, serially: A100, A101, C22, D7, A102, E3, A103, C23. . .so you never know quite when your turn is coming.

It took me a while to select the right letter (I was wrong the first time and had to join the queue again). The story has a sad ending, though. Later that morning, when I finally made it to a teller window, she refused to take the check because it was made out to “Seth Pollack” instead of “Seth Pollak.” A common misspelling– and no worse than “Wisconsen.” “It is not possible,” she said flatly, because those are two different names and could be two different people. So I brought my check back home and asked the university to wire me the money because I didn’t ever want to go to the bank again.

Visit Number 5 (or, where’s my money II?):

The next time I visited the bank I noticed a sign on the front door that said “October 4th” in bold print above a brief paragraph. I didn’t pay too much attention to translating the sign because I assumed it was just announcing another day that the bank would be closed for a holiday. I dutifully took my number (the right one this time!) and made my way to the fashionable sofas (with a book in hand this time!). I was sort of excited because I felt like I got the routine of how to handle the bank. And on my walk, I had been practicing how to ask to withdraw money from my account. I had even prepared the right vocabulary to explain to the teller that it was my first time making a withdrawal, in case I didn’t complete the required forms correctly. But I need not have reveled in my emerging Italian.

When my turn arrived (at about 10:30 in the morning), the teller told me that the bank was out of money and there would be no withdrawals available until October 4th.  “No money?” I repeated, because I was sure I had not comprehended her fast Italian. She turned to the teller next to her and said, “Can we have money for Mr. Pollak next week?” Her colleague responded in rapid-fire Italian that I couldn’t understand at all. Then the teller said to me, in slow, deliberate Italian (that I actually appreciated), “Yes, come back on Monday and you can make your withdrawal then.”

I was truly dumbstruck. Still standing in the bank lobby, I pulled out my cell phone and called my friend Sabrina, a New Yorker who has lived in Rome for about 10 years. “I think I’m having one of those life-in-Italy-moments,” I began to say as I heard her knowing but jaded laughter. . .

Visit Number 6 (or, the where’s my money quiz?):

I went back on Monday morning to try and make my withdrawal. I brought my iPad with an Italian-English dictionary to help me complete the withdrawal slip correctly. I was engaged in a common situation in Italy: I was making a purchase for which I was quoted one price if I paid cash with no receipt, and another (much higher) price if I paid by credit card or wanted a receipt. So I opted for the option that required cash. When I approached the window, the teller took my withdrawal slip and then handed me a blank sheet of paper and a pen. I was sure that I was misunderstanding her instructions as she handed me the paper. So I explained that I was just learning Italian and asked her to repeat what she had said, but more slowly. Then I started sweating because I had, in fact, understood her. She had asked me to write a one-paragraph essay about why I was withdrawing money from my account. Ordinarily I would have thought this a bit intrusive (especially given the modest sum of my own money I was requesting), but I was too panicked to think much at all.

I should explain that at this time I was also taking an Italian class. And once per week we had a quiz, where we would have to write a description of a picture or recount what we had done the previous day. The teacher would return these essays to us covered in corrections made with a red pen. It gave me traumatic flashbacks to my abysmal performance in Junior High School French class, the nadir of my academic pursuits. So there I was—being given a non-native language quiz in the bank. I was nervous, not because I was using cash to avoid paying tax, but because I feared the bank teller was going to correct my subject-verb agreement. I wondered how ungrammatical I could be and still get my money . . . and whether money was a masculine or feminine noun. So, using the working vocabulary of a 5-year-old, I wrote a succinct paragraph about needing the cash to take a family vacation in France.

Then I took my cash and went for a much needed glass of wine.

My experience is not unique. My friends on sabbatical in France have had similar experiences. You can read a clever account of their experience that I particularly resonated with here.

— Seth

My beautiful but dysfunctional bank.

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