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Italy, 2008

To pay or not to pay?

Our flight back, after our Venice and Piedmont trip, started in Genoa, which we reached by train from Casale Monferrato. At the station's tourism office we inquire how to get to the airport. The young woman at the desk was very friendly and helpful and told us exactly where to take the bus. It was on the square right outside the station. A bus arrived there at just about at the same time we did. On the side of the bus, near the rear door, was a sign in both Italian and English saying: "Enter through the front door, buy ticket from the driver". The driver, however, had disappeared, I assumed to get a cup of coffee, or whatever the drivers can do in the ten minutes their bus is supposed to be at the station. So we installed ourselves in the middle of the bus. When he returned, two minutes before the scheduled departure, I dutifully approached him and asked how much the fare was.

"Oh, I do not sell tickets", said he, "you have to go to the kiosk across the piazza".

I wondered: "Should I bother?" but of course I did. I ran over to the kiosk. There I found out that the only kind of ticket they sell is a one-day, all inclusive ticket for about $7 a piece. It is great if you spend your whole day running around Genoa, but for the 15 minute ride to the airport (which is built on the sea, just at the edge of the relatively small town), it is a bit steep. But what could I do? I bought the two tickets.

Of course it is not enough to buy tickets to ride a bus in Italy (or, for that matter, to ride buses or trains pretty much throughout Europe), you have to validate it by sticking it into a small yellow machine at the front of the bus, which prints the date and time on it. The French have a wonderful verb for that, it is "composter"; I wonder if they know what compost means in English.

By the time I came back, the bus was pretty full, but I managed to make my way to the front, to validate the tickets, and back without stepping on too many toes. As we were waiting to depart, I overheard several groups of foreigners, mostly English, who were unclear about what to do. Some had just realized that tickets had to be bought at the kiosk but, by that time it was really too late. Another tourist had managed to buy tickets but was obviously unaware of the need to validate them. I decided not to tell him, secretly hoping there would be a control and wondering how he would handle the situation. Soon we were off and, after one stop along the way, arrived at the airport in a short time. The tourists who had not bought tickets were relieved, or maybe proud of themselves, and the driver was thoroughly unconcerned.

It seems to me this was, in a microcosm, a summary of many of the things that are wrong with Italy: indifferent or lazy bureaucrats, rules that are too complicated to follow, and a system that penalizes those who try to obey it and rewards the scofflaws, thus encouraging a general disregard of the laws. But when all that happens in the beautiful Mediterranean light, amongst people who are generally friendly and smiling, you wonder: "Does it really matter?"

And then they re-elect Berlusconi! Mama Mia...

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