Italian T.S.A. – no longer a punchline.

Posted on
Apr 8, 2011

We're not in hell, I promise. Hell's flags are different.

You know that old joke about heaven and hell? How in heaven, the police are British, the engineers are German, the cooks are Italian, the lovers are French? And how in hell, the roles are jumbled up? The police are German, the cooks are British, and, perhaps most cruelly of all, the bureaucrats are Italian.

And while the more culturally sensitive of you are rolling your eyes at the broad brush with which that joke paints Europeans, a few of you, like me, are knowingly nodding your head. If you’ve traveled at all, you know that the police in the U.K. are generally lovely, and you know the feeling of pure relaxation that comes after hearing your airplane pilot speak to the cabin in German-accented English. And if you are truly unfortunate, you know the hell of any organizational, governmental, or bureaucratic system in Italy.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, here is pretty much things go: take a bunch of screaming people. Put them in a room. Make sure no one has any idea of the specific details of their jobs, and that, upon any request to do the work for which they are paid, they look at you with scorn and exasperation. Add a coffee break every half-hour or so, and a cigarette break every fifteen minutes. And give substantial days off in the event of local festivals, and the birthdays of any saints, including all of those minor and fictional (“We can’t go into work! It’s St. Giuseppe the Flatulent’s Birthday!”). You know now what it’s like to work in Italy.

In every airport, train station, museum, or governmental office I’ve been in, I’ve scratched my head wondering exactly how anything gets done. Like, at all. I don’t expect big things (like citizenship or passport applications) to go through, but I don’t understand how all the small things, like the fixing of  leaky pipes and grocery-store deliveries, happen at all.

This is the miracle of Italy. Not the ancient ruins or the amazing food or wine or the art that spans centuries. No. It’s a miracle that the entire boot-shaped peninsula (and the island it’s been mercilessly kicking since god was a boy) hasn’t been swallowed up in a black void of nothingness. Bill Bryson puts it best in the delightful Neither Here nor There (read it immediately if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.):

The country has the social structure of a banana republic, yet the amazing thing is that it thrives. It now has the fifth biggest economy in the world, which is a simply staggering achievement in the face of such chronic disorder. If the Italians had the work ethic of the Japanese, they could be masters of the planet. Thank goodness they don’t.

And so, given this bacchanalia and chaos, you can imagine my concern when Rand and I were departing from Fiumencino airport in Rome for London a few weeks back.

We were, I was sure, going to get sucked into that black void.

We approached the security checkpoint not in a line, for queues don’t exist in Italy, but in an amorphous blob of people. The smell of humanity was thick in my nostrils as I braced myself for being yelled at (I am always being yelled at in Italy. But that’s another blog post. One I promise I will get to). Despite an entire lifetime of being screamed at by Italians, I have built up zero sensitivity to it. Quite the opposite really: my response to it is Pavlovian – my blood pressure spikes in anticipation. This is a problem when one considers that essential yelling is to Italian life – people do it constantly – even whispering in Italian requires you to raise your voice.

Given how often I was yelled at stateside by security agents, I could not imagine what the Italian equivalent would be. From our position (mid-blob, slightly to the left), I could already hear the Italian-equivalent of the TSA barking at people. I nervously started wringing my hands as the blob lurched forward, and a young mother with a baby strapped in a carrier to her chest was thrown to the front.

I watched intently as the agents explained she couldn’t go through with the child in the carrier, and that she’d have to remove him. The young woman looked nervous – she didn’t seem to speak much Italian. Finally, one of the agents snapped impatiently, “Stai da sola?” Are you alone?

The girl nodded.

“Okay,” the agent said. “I’ll help you.”

And in that moment, I remembered why, despite all the crazy, I love Italy. The mother handed her child to the agent, who in a blink transformed from a disgruntled Italian airport worker into the Roman equivalent of Maria Von Trapp. She bounced the baby up and down gently, cooing at him, while his mother finished removing the carrier and walked through the metal detector to join him.

No shouting. Not even a single tear.

Moments later, a second child arrived at the security gate with his mother. He looked about five years old, green-eyed, with a mop of curly ash-blond hair. Another agent was monitoring his side of the line – a large, gruff man with slicked back shoulder length hair.

“Veni,” he barked at the little boy. Come.

Here we go, I thought to myself. The black void, come to swallow this little Christmas card of a boy.

Veni,” the agent repeated. “Veni, tesoro.”

Wait, what? Tesoro? Seriously? It’s what my uncle called me when I was little. Tesoro mio. My treasure.

Come, treasure.

And the little boy skipped through, and the agent ruffled his hair absent-mindedly as he passed.

In this manner, something crazy happened. The blob advanced. No, it wasn’t lightening fast. And yes, there were raised voices. It was chaotic and noisy, punctuated with the occasional burst of laughter, the ruffling of a child’s hair, the cooing of a baby. This is how things happen in Italy. It doesn’t have the cool, mechanical efficiency of Germany, or even the U.S. for that matter. It is grimy and crowded and intimate and a bit pungent. But things do happen.

On the other side of security, Rand and gathered our belongings. A woman behind us had just walked through the metal detector, and set it off. Her eyes widened, mortified. She held her arms up above her head, and froze.

The agent, the gruff one with the slick backed hair looked at her impatiently.

“Madame,” he said, “Put your arms down. I’m not a police officer and you aren’t under arrest.”

And yet, her position, almost absurd in its vulnerability, is required of people going through the backscatter machines in the U.S. And here, he was rolling his eyes as she held her arms up. The entire scene? It was downright un-American.

It was Italian.

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