Thursday, January 31, 2013

Italian school supplies, or, if you prefer: Italy in a nutshell

Dear Readers,

I realize this post about back-to-school supplies is about five months late, but that tells you how things are rolling here at Letters from Florence headquarters right now. We ask that you bear with us.

As I've noted previously, Italians have the uncanny knack of taking something simple and making it ridiculously complicated. It is their Achilles' heel as a nation. (Or, if the goal is to keep everyone in a perpetual state of stress and humiliated servitude, perhaps it is their Trojan Horse). At times I think there must be some sort of secret society at work in Italy, some diabolical clandestine group of ass-backward Masons whose sole purpose is to plot new ways of bureaucratic torture. I imagine that their secret meetings, held in dank old high-ceilinged halls and wreathed in stale cigar smoke, go something like this:

Il Presidente: "It has come to my attention that it is far too easy to do X; it only takes three simple steps. We cannot, in good conscience, possibly allow this situation to continue or the sniveling masses--with all that extra time on their hands--might realize that us power mongers are feeding this country to the dogs, like so many scraps of rotten manzo. Any ideas?"

Signore Sticuppaculo: "If I may, sir... Permit me to suggest that we add at least three dozen more hoops for the poor vermin to squiggle through. Thus, in order to do X, one must first do A, B, C, D, E, F and G, then jump to QRS and do H, I, J, and K. Pending the approval of W, and accompanied by the appropriately expensive marche da bollo (only to be obtained after having  performed 2(3x - 7) + 4 (3 x + 2) = 6 (5 x + 9 ) + 3, naturally), the pitiful rube need only complete L-M-N-O-P before being sent to the YZ office--which is of course only open between 9:55-10:06 every other third Thursday in a leap year--where he will receive an official printout (but only if the printer is working and/or an ink cartridge can be found, which it isn't/won't) detailing the applicant's paltry particulars which he can then present to the TUV bureau (which stands for Troppo Ubriaco per dirti Vaffanculo), thus, finally, achieving X--or insanity, whichever comes first."

Il Presidente [rubbing hands together with glee]: "Excellent plan! Keep them as busy as rats in a maze; after all, as we know, bureaucracy is the opiate of the people. Are we all agreed, then? Raise your withered talons. Good, agreed. I move that we break for two-hour lunch, subito." [much scraping of chairs and maniacal laughs all around]

School supplies are a case in point. As a non-native-born citizen, the whole Italian school supply thing has been uncharted territory for me: no trusty, straightforward Mead here to fall back on. Of course, it doesn't help that my kids' teachers never provide a detailed list at the beginning of the academic year as to what's needed, particularly in the area of notebooks (quaderni), of which a fiendishly bewildering array exists. Will someone please tell me why there's only, like, two kinds of deodorant to choose from in all of Italy but when it comes to notebooks--specifically the choice of line-rulings and squares available--there are more options than there are iPhone apps? When, like any self-sufficient American worth her spurs, I take the Italian bull by the horns and go forth on a quest for said notebooks, this is what I come up against...

Lines ruled for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th grade with and without margins. Lines ruled for middle school and high school. Squares, or quadretti, of 10 mm for 1st grade, 5mm for 2nd and 3rd grade (with or without margins), and 4mm for 4th grade and above (again, with or without margins). And I won't even get into the myriad Hello freakin' Kitty, slutty Winx or weirdly anthropomorphic Pokémon covers with which these notebooks are adorned.


It doesn't help matters in the slightest that while I contemplate the dizzying selection of quaderni at the supermarket on the day before school begins (okay spare me your eye-rolls), the usual seething mass of humanity roils around me like frantic tsunami-driven waves, crashing relentlessly against the half-plundered, decimated shelves and spurting glue sticks, colored pencils, and ring binders like angry foam. Parents shout and grab wildly at the stacks of notebooks and kids squeal and paw at pencil cases and markers, as if some bizarre scholastic apocalypse were about to befall the earth and there just might be a multiple-choice quiz afterwards.

But mwahaha! just because my kid is in 1st grade (or 2nd or 3rd or 4th grade) doesn't mean that that is the notebook I should buy. How could you ever think there would be such an internal logic to the enterprise, you hopeless fool? Sometimes the 2nd grade teacher wants the kids to use the 1st grade quadretti and the 2nd grade ruled quaderni without margins. Or the 4th grade teacher wants them to use the 5mm quadretti with margins for math, 5mm quadretti without margins for science, and the 3rd grade ruled quaderni with margins for Italian. If only I had a euro for every time I bought notebooks for my kids to take along on the first day of school, only to have them tell me afterwards that maestra said I got ABCD when I should have got WXYZ--I'd be, well, um, I'd have a lot of euros.

Nihilism: the belief that existence is senseless and useless. This is the word that dances in my mind like a malevolent mantra when I ponder this uniquely Italian back-to-school mad dash, this great September melee with everyone jousting and elbowing roughly and sorting and sifting frenziedly only to buy the wrong stuff because nobody really knows what they need until they buy it, send their kids to school with it, and have the teacher--like some cruel and indifferent deity--smite them with a word and point out the error of their ways.

That lovable old curmudgeon, Thomas Hobbes, said once that life during times of war is nasty, brutish and short. Oh, dear old Hobbesy, if only you had to face-off with the formidable and impossibly hydra-headed beast of school supplies in the Bel Paese--you'd realize that life isn't nearly short enough.

Yours from the Tuscan trenches,



  1. that "fake" conversation is brilliant AND hysterically!

    1. Thanks, Hope--glad you got a chuckle out of it :-)

  2. Anonymous6:00 PM

    Wow. Good to know for future reference. I thought the long lines at the strange, refugee camp style tents for kids and parents to their textbooks... were eyeroll worthy and also foreboding. They haven't got anything on the quaderni struggle!

    1. "Refugee camp style tents" :-) To buy textbooks, really??? I haven't experienced that yet, thank goodness!

  3. Anonymous11:58 PM

    It's only been in the last year or two I've seen on the TG (and first hand at my local Coop) this wasteland were the textbooks are sold. I still can't choke down the fact that in a "socialized" country that high school texts (and middle, perhaps?) are bought. I complained enough in University! Basically, most places look like a wonky outdoor mercato, white tents covering the huddled masses fighting over schoolbooks. Or, at my Coop, a converted shop looking like a warehouse then used to display the array of books for the year as (Italian) lines and lines of parents and some of their kids fought their way to the front. I sound judgmental....but REALLY? I am gobsmacked. I fondly recall writing my name in my textbook and turning it in at the end of the year. Hell, when I was in elementary school we were all still provided notebooks and pencils as well (before the budget cuts of course).

    1. You bring up an interesting point about a socialized country not providing textbooks for middle and high school, never thought of it that way. I've been told that everyone in Italy has the right to education (usually "elencati" with all their other rights), and I wonder how the textbook thing plays out if a family is poor. Perhaps there is some sort of aid for textbooks?

      As with so many things, it's the pushing and air of frenzy that probably is most jarring to expats ;-)

      Thanks for dropping by!

    2. Anonymous1:25 PM

      Ah,I asked a woman what happens to poor families and the textbooks and she said there was state aid for the extremely poor. She said for her daughter it's common to pay around 200 euros for her schoolbooks annually (and no, they are hardly ever reused or passed on since 95% of the time 'new editions' are needed, another money making scheme), and it's often more money if one attends the scientific high schools. Color me repulsed or a spoiled expat from a capitalist society, in which money actually goes towards education (more or less, anyway). Sorry, hijacking the post again. I just have many many issues with the public skool system in the bel paese. I do like your more positive term of the "air of frenzy" though. ;-)

    3. You aren't hijacking at all--the comment section is for doing precisely what you're doing :-)

      I understand--a lot of us come from a place where the "public" in public schools/education has different nuances. I know in the U.S., for example, budget cuts are a big problem, as they are here. But my kids' Italian elementary school doesn't even provide toilet paper :-(

    4. Anonymous11:58 AM

      Now that you mention it, I remember a post in which you mentioned about the lack of TP. It makes me sad and frustrated. Politicos get chauffeured around and earn thousands of euros a month, but schools don't have the basics. Now I think I'll go youtube Fabri Fibra +Gianna Nannini's "In Italia." It came out on of my first years here and I didn't "get" what they were going on about. For a while the song's made so much sense to me.

    5. It has frustrated me, too, and other expat moms I know (and a lot of Italian moms I know as well).

      I think I'll go youtube that song too, as I'm unfamiliar with it. Thanks for sharing :-)

  4. Anonymous7:19 PM

    As a notebook completionist with Italian genes, I must have one of each notebook. Where can I get ones with the slutty covers?

    1. Mark, dear, I'll soothe your boiling Italian blood by sending you one of each, with the sluttiest covers I can find. You're incorrigible, you know that?

  5. Anonymous10:56 AM

    Absolutely hilarious rant that is so true. We are in the process, prob around letter J and I don't understand how anything gets done here.

    1. As I told one of my friends recently apropos of all this: there's a reason why good wine is so cheap here. It. has. to. be.

      Thanks for your comment--it did feel good to get this off my chest ;-) And good luck in your own efforts at navigating the bureaucracy!


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