Friday, June 15, 2007

How God Comforts Us

We started out this morning on what could have been an incredibly exhausting and spirit broken day...but it wasn't. Every year or two, we have to renew our permits to live and minister here in Italy. We had reached the time to do that once again. We had gotten everything together during the days leading up to this day...the day our living permit expired. A couple days ago, I went to the police station where we have renewed and picked up permits many times in the past in order to ask a question. We had heard that maybe they had changed where and how to renew your permits, so I went to inquire about this. Now, change does not come readily to Italy nor Italians, but for some reason they love exercising their creativity and independence in changing how foreigners apply for and renew their permits. So, when I asked the lone guard at the booth that night, I expected to hear that they had made changes. Unfortunately, he didn't know and said that I just needed to come the next day (Thursday) to get a number for the following day, today. He said that would be my best course of action. So, I followed his advice. The next day came and Angie and I went on a scavenger hunt of sorts to gather all the paperwork needed for our renewal. A government stamp used on legal documents (worth about $20), copies of many legal forms, copies of insurance, four new photos (that ended up costing much more than they were worth since we noticed too late that the machine we used didn't give back change.....and we had used a 10 euro bill, worth about $14). All these things together and the number we had gotten earlier in the evening were enough to put us to bed soundly and uncharacteristically confident the night before going to the police station. That should have been our first sign.......

The next morning we got ready and prayed together before heading up to the police station for the morning....this is usually a two to three hour process, so we were prepared. So, we arrived at the police station, in Italian known as Questura. There were about ten people waiting in the entry way, which is a pittance compared to past visits. Our number was 86, they give out forty numbers for the morning, and ours was not at the beginning, therefore we arrived about forty-five minutes after they opened their doors. I went up to the booth and asked the officer behind the glass, what number they were on since we had just arrived. She said they weren't going in order, how novel. Instead, as long as you had a number you should get in, in fact it didn't matter which day you got it, as long as you had one. Ten would be let in at a time when she let you and those who had been there waiting would get first dibs. We shuffled back through the entryway and found a section of the wall to slide up against. As we stood there, the throng of us watched many Italians, who don't have to wait, as well as others with "supposed" appointments go through the doors. However, not a single one of us with a number went through the "magic" doorway. Finally, an hour and fifteen minutes of waiting and something seemed to be happening. The officer had come to the doorway, outside of her booth, and was pointing at people saying things like, "you're okay", "you can enter", "yeah you too". Angie and I pressed forward and I was trying to make eye contact with the officer. She looked my way and said "okay, you too". I replied, "and my wife?" The officer said, "of course". We were in. Finally we were in. It wasn't long now.

We walked into the immigration chamber that we have been in many times before to see a mass of people with no apparent organization. It seemed incredibly chaotic. I edged to a window to ask for the proper paperwork to fill out and the person behind the glass, seeming frustrated told me to hold on for now. Angie and I gathered with the herd of people that had just made it in near the window, while the man behind the glass told all of us to "stay behind the yellow line please". We all complied, with no real designation as to who would be next in either of the two open lines. In Italy, lines are not sacred, but desire is. If you desire to be next, then you will...if you try to wait for lines...then you will be waiting for a long time. Well, it seemed to be going quickly, in the man's line on the left, person after person seemed to leave the window. I saw my opportunity and when up to the window just as the current man left. I pulled out our paperwork, told the man we needed to renew our permits and happily handed the man our paperwork, knowing the worst was almost over. He looked over it and said, "this is for religious reasons?" I replied affirmatively. He handed the paperwork back to me and said you need to go the Post Office to renew our type of permit now, along with about twenty other motives for legalized permits. I said, this is why I asked the guard in the booth the other night where I needed to go to renew my permit and said that he didn't know, but that it would be best to just come here. The man shook his head, as if to say that guard should know better, we have told him a hundred times. Then said unfortunately, you still have to go the Post Office for this. I asked him if it mattered which, and he replied "asdlka asdhlkasd asdgoirwiohd". Yes, I speak Italian and yes, I understand Italian, however when thirty people are talking and people are yelling over maltreatment and problems with their applications it is hard to hear. I asked him if he meant the Post Office in downtown. He said, "no, not downtown, but sdj assd;j a;sdjjs train station." I said, "oh the one at the train station?" He said, "NO, not the train station, the PORT, PORT, PORT." I couldn't tell if he was yelling because he thought I was stupid, or couldn't hear him, or just because he was frustrated with his working environment. I am not sure at that point if it really mattered, because now, not only was it later in the day, but we knew we had to start all over with the process and it was now a completely new process to work through.

Now, you may be wondering....the post office?? Why would you do that at the post office? Well, in Europe, post offices are marvelous things indeed. You can accomplish many wondrous things at the local post office. You can pay utility bills, open a post office bank account and do banking, shop for books, music or DVDs and many other fascinating procedures. Add to the list, apply for legal residence permit and renewal of said permits. Angie and I were a bit incredulous to say the least. Really, what would it look like? Would they shove all the foreigners into one office and make them sweat until one by one they got their chance? Like the Questura, would they yell at all of us, when one or two, due to language hurdles, push them too far in asking questions and demanding respect? Would we have to get a number and come back the next day? Or on Monday, since the next day was Saturday? Our permit expires today, so we hoped against all hope it wasn't the latter.

We drove from the police station to downtown, where we live and could have walked to the post office if only we had known. Parking is always and issue and thinking it would be faster, since we were closer, we went to the parking garage that is near our facility. We went down the ramp and up to the gate in order to pull a ticket that raises the bar and.......the LCD said the parking garage was full. In this very technological parking garage each parking space is monitored and if all are taken it doesn't let anyone else in. Nice normally, but we were in a hurry, we didn't know how long it would take at the post office. Since there were two lanes and cars in both, I waited with my finger poised on the button waiting for the green light to come on showing there would be a space available. Flash, the green light lit, I pressed the button and the ticket started printing. The bar lifted and we followed the arrows until we found the space with the green light lit above it. We exited the garage and made our way to the post office.

On the way we passed by our friend, Yuri's family's Cafe. We stopped in for a quick bathroom and water break. This was the first oasis in the morning. It felt so nice to feel human. Yuri and I chatted briefly and Luana said hi with a smile. Then his Dad, came up from storage and greeted us warmly, finally as we were leaving, Yuri's mom, Francesca said goodbye dear Matt and Angie. It was the boost we needed to continue on in our journey. We briskly walked down the street the twelve or fourteen blocks until we got to the post office at the port. We walked in looking for something telling us where to go. There was nothing. No sign, no instructions. I glanced through the forms available to fill out, and there was nothing there besides payment slips and mailing forms. Angie saw a section that said customer counsel, must be some kind of help service. We waited about ten minutes for the employee to finish with the lady in front of us, all the while looking around for something to tell us we were in the right spot. The postal employee finished with the previous customer and told us she would be right with us and proceeded to do a couple of other tasks. I said, I just have a quick question. She listened. I asked, "Is this where you come to renew your resident permits?" She said, "yeah, is that all?" in a very sweet way. I said yes. She then pointed out that we needed to go stand in line number five. Line five was behind a pillar, so until she pointed it out we did not see the four people in the line who had also been at the police station earlier. So, we felt closer and waited.

Another ten minutes went by and we stepped forward to the clerk. He gently helped us understand what we needed to do and how we needed to do it. He said we could take this kit home with us, fill it out and then bring it back OR we could go over to the Immigration Office at the Prefecture building. He said it was free for them to help us fill out the paperwork and it would eliminate any risks of us filling out the wrong thing. Oh and we had a pay a new fee of about $35 per person, for what I don't know, but it was in the brochure we found at his window, so we knew he wasn't just ripping us off. We took the kits and went on our way. First we made our way over to the Prefecture building to the immigration office. The police at the door told us that the immigration office was closed and only open on Mondays from 9 to noon and Thursdays from 2:30 to 4:30pm....what great hours. But then he said there was something other kind of office we could go to around the corner that might be able to help us. We went around the corner and saw a few more of the guys from the police station that morning, it was like some kind of twisted city-wide scavenger hunt that we had not chosen to be in. We went in the door, there were no signs or instructions anywhere, except the ones that said they accept the public, Monday through Thursday 9-12. There was no title to this office either. The waiting room was small, hot and had about ten people in it. They weren't busy but the few workers acted as if they were all but ignoring everyone else in the room. In the corner, found some forms to fill out, which we for people on work permits. They were contracts for the foreigner to have filled out by their employer so that they could get work permits. This didn't seem to be the right place. After starting to sweat and feeling more miserable by the minute we decided to leave and try the kit on our own.

We left the office, and upon reaching the street we sat on a step to the side and composed ourselves once more. We were feeling drained from all this leading astray. It was already 1 pm. three and a half hours after starting this process. We decided we needed a little comfort food, so we headed to McDonald's. There is nothing like American comfort food to strengthen your soul! This fast food restaurant was another blessing used by God to comfort us. When we left we set out for our air conditioned apartment to refresh our selves and fill out the paperwork.

After a little time working on other projects, this wasn't the only thing we had to do today, we got back on the paperwork. We wanted to get it in today and the post office closed at 6:30pm. So we filled out the sixteen pages of form for Angie and I, made more copies to ensure we had all the right documentation with each request and put the packets together. Then around 5:30 pm we walked back down to the post office by the port. We got there waited in line behind a couple of other people and then stepped up to the clerk. She was very friendly and helpful. We showed her how her colleague that morning had not charged the right amount on the $35 fees that we paid, for whatever it is we paid them for. They laughed at him and his ineptitude and fixed the mistake. Then she noticed that we had only photocopied the page of our passport with our picture and information, she nicely informed us that we needed copies of every single page in our passport, including the blank ones. She told us there was a copy store down the street. So, we left with about thirty minutes left before the post office closed.

We found the copy store and she made all the copies of our passports and we grabbed a few other things at her store to purchase. We went to pay and after two tries she told us her bak card machine wasn't working, so she could only take cash. I had cash to pay her, but there was now a new problem. When we had gone to the post office I had put enough cash in my wallet to cover the next $45 charge that they were going to request for us to send in the renewal request. This was $45 per person and now after spending some of it, we would need to find an ATM to get a bit more out to compensate. Fortunately, there was one that worked right next door to the post office. We walked through the door, we could smell the finish line. We had almost made it.

We went back up the the woman's line that had helped us before, in fact it was the only one open for permit renewals. The sign at the desk said, "sportello amico" which means "teller friend". That is a nice thought that this stranger would be a friend to us, and in some ways had already been. We showed her where she had stapled a receipt of mine onto Angie's application, and Angie's receipt onto mine. We all laughed, now at her ineptitude instead of her colleague's and she fixed the error. She looked over the envelopes, through the check list of required documents, took our $45 per application and gave us a shiney new receipt. This receipt is our current proof that we are legally permitted to reside here and do ministry. I asked and she told us it could be as long as two months before our permits are ready. So, I guess now all we have to do is wait and we thankful for the ways that God comforted us through a potentially 'zapping' day.
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