Be forewarned, this is a long story. Fortunately, when it's a blog that's telling you a long story, you get to decide whether to continue reading to the end or not.
This is the story of our quest for a "Permesso di Soggiorno" (literally, "permission to stay") a magic little card that would allow us to come in and out of Italy as many times as we wish for a full year. This is also a story of the bewildering Italian bureaucracy, which makes our Canadian bureaucracy seem like a well-oiled machine in comparison. (Actually, that last sentence is just a joke. I'm pretty sure the Canada immigration process is much worse. )
Why did we apply for the Permesso? Canadians are only permitted to remain within the territory governed by the Schengen agreement (in other words, most of the European Union) for 90 days in each 180 day period. This year, we need a lot more than 90 days in order to get the boat ready for sailing, explore the Adriatic and return to Marina di Ragusa in the fall. Any time we spend in Croatia, Montenegro or other non-EU locations will stop the clock, but Italy is really where we want to be for most of the time. Although many of our cruising friends cheerfully over-stay their visas without fearing the consequences, we've never been ones to enjoy "sailing close to the wind", literally or figuratively. So, back in Halifax, we optimistically accumulated a lot of paperwork to prove that we would not be a burden to the Italian government and called on Mr. Rodolfo Malone, the Italian consul in Halifax. After a pleasant 30-minute visit, much of which was spent discussing the activities of the local Italian wine society, our papers were stamped and cleared to be sent with our passports to the consulate in Montreal. Less than a week later, our passports were returned with a coveted one-year, multi-entry visa inside. We could hardly believe our good fortune and thought, OK, that wasn't so bad!
But there is still one hurdle to be cleared. Mr. Malone had mentioned that we had to check in with the Italian police within eight days of our arrival in Italy, bringing copies of all the paperwork we'd submitted with the initial application. So the day after our arrival in Marina di Ragusa, we gather our papers and head up the hill to the local police station, where not a soul is in sight. Fortunately, the local tourist office is in the same building, and a helpful senora advises us that we should to go to the Questura in Ragusa. The Questura? As an avid reader of Donna Leon's novels, I realize immediately that we are headed for police headquarters. Maybe this process will be a bit more complicated than we'd expected.
Thirty minutes later, we join a small group of migrant North African workers who are waiting outside a large blue gate under a sign that says "Questura" . After a few awkward moments where we stand there trying to act nonchalant and they look at us in puzzlement, one of them takes mercy on us and leads us down the street to the main entrance of the Questura. Unfortunately, it seems there is no one available who can check us in, or perhaps no one who speaks English. We are told to come back "domani matina" (tomorrow morning). At the front door, the policeman guarding the entrance smiles at us and salutes. Rick salutes back and marches out of the police station.
We arrive at the Questura bright and early the next morning, and are taken to the office of a scholarly-looking gentleman whose business card identifies him as "Dr. Prof. Ignazio Carbone, Funzionario Linguistico". Dr. Prof. Carbone briefly consults with another bureaucrat, and then proceeds to explain the process. "There is a lot of red tape, but it's really all about the money", he said. "You will need to submit papers that prove you have enough money to look after yourselves. For you, I don't think this will be a problem." (Well, hopefully not.) "But" he continued, "the Questura no longer processes these requests. You need to go to the post office on Via Risorgimento. They are authorized to process your application. Don't hesitate to call me if you have any difficulties."
Dr. Carbone's English is so perfect that I can't resist asking him where he'd learned it. He smiles modestly. "I was an English teacher for many years" he says "and I like to think that my students were well-served. And if I may say it, your own English accents are also very good... almost British!" It is strangely flattering to be complemented on our ability to speak the English language. I decide it is best not to try out my Italian on him.
The reference to our "application" has made us a bit uneasy. Back in the car, we realize we have brought only one copy of our information. Thinking that it might be wise to have a second copy, we make a quick stop at a photocopy shop, then fire up our TomTom GPS to navigate to the Risorgimento post office. Leaving Rick waiting in the car in a no-parking zone, I enter the post office through an automated security booth of the type no one wants to use in airports. Once inside, I have to select a category of service in order to get a number from the ticket machine. With no hope of deciphering the list, I take one ticket of every type. But after waiting for about ten minutes, it dawns on me that Rick probably needs to be there in person to have his application processed. I dash out the nearest door to look for him, and alarm bells sound. I have gone out the emergency exit. Apparently, one is supposed to use the security booth on the way in AND on the way out. I beckon to Rick, then go back through the security booth, muttering "mi dispiace" (I'm sorry) to the staff. When one of my numbers finally flashes up on a screen, I approach the booth and show my paperwork, but the attendant frowns and shakes her head. "Non qui" she says (not here). "Posta Centrale". She writes the address of the central post office on a piece of paper and summons the next client.
Here we go again. Now our Tom-Tomis leading us deep into the streets of Ragusa Ibla, the baroque centre of old Ragusa. We are driving through an amazing World Heritage site but are too distracted to appreciate it. Miraculously, we find a parking spot right around the corner from the post office. Even better, the "take a number" machine actually has "permesso di sogiorrno" listed as a selection. We are closing in on our goal. Or so we think. The attendant looks at our paperwork, takes out two thick envelopes filled with applications, passes them to us and says something about going to a consulate. We are sure there must be some mistake. I try to explain that we have already been to a consulate and show her the Visas in our passports, but she doesn't seem at all impressed. Finally, I show her Dr. Carbone's card and ask her to call him. She gets him on the line and passes me the phone, looking exasperated. "You will need help filling out these forms" says Dr. Carbone. "Come back here and I will show you what to do".
Back at the Questura, Dr. Carbone is apologetic. "We can't help you with the forms here at the Questura" he says. "But an agent can handle it all for you. " He points out his window. "There is one just up the street." As we leave the office, one of the North Africans is sobbing openly. After a few more hours of this, we may be doing the same, but I suspect he has a lot more at stake than we do.
Fortunately, we manage to find the agents' office before it closes for lunch. (Have I mentioned that they take very long lunch breaks here?) The only English-speaking agent is busy with a client, so we take a seat and wait. I amuse myself by surreptitiously watching the woman beside me. She is dressed to the nines...taupe suede jacket, elegant taupe boots, purple pants, a fuchsia belt and a large expensive looking handbag. The overall effect is dynamite. I wonder if I should shop for a pair of purple pants and a fuchsia belt, but decide that I would succeed only in looking like a member of the Red Hat Society (not that there's anything wrong with that!).
The agent finally takes our forms, fills them out, photocopies all our paperwork and hands everything back to us. When we ask what we owe, she motions us away with a smile. "You owe me nothing!" she says "But I'm sorry to tell you, you will be paying a lot of money at the post office". We try not to gulp as she points out the additional fees due. "And don't forget to buy your stamp!" she calls after us as we leave. Which seems like a strange thing to say, considering that she knows very well that we are on our way to the post office.
Back in the car, we add up the additional fees and wonder if we should forget the whole thing. But we've already got a lot invested in this, so we head back to the post office, take another number and speak with another agent. We hand her our forms and she hands them back. "You need a marca da bolla", she said. "A stamp". She continues in rapid-fire Italian and I catch the words "tabacci" "chiuso" and "stasera". I think she has just told us that we need to buy the stamp at a tobacco store, but that they are all closed for lunch and we will need to come back this evening. I think I must have misheard, but then I remember reading something about the bollos on an ex-pat website. The tabaccis are all-powerful here. At least now we understand why the agent had reminded us to get the stamp.
We have lunch in a small café, where the excellent cappuccino cheers us up immensely and convinces us that we really do want this permesso. Rather than hang around in Ragusa until the tabaccis re-open at 5 p.m., we decide to go back to the boat and regroup. But on the way out of town, I spot a bar with an open tabacci inside. "Pull over!" I tell Rick, and ten minutes later we are back at the post office with two impressive-looking bollos in hand. The senora accepts our applications, stamps everything with a satisfying flourish, and hands us each a piece of paper.
What's this? An appointment to be fingerprinted in the Ragusa Questura, on May 7th. Yikes! We are told that, after the fingerprints are taken, it may take months for the actual permesso card to arrive. Since it will be delivered to the Questura in Ragusa, we are unlikely to receive it until we bring the boat back to Marina di Ragusa in the fall. But we've also been told that with the Visa in our passports and the receipt from the post office, we won't be arrested as illegal immigrants. Hopefully that's true. We'll keep you posted.
We've been back on board Aisling for nearly two weeks now, and things are (mostly) sorted out. We've put our living quarters back into a semblance of order, stocked the larder and washed the remnants of Mt. Etna dust and Sahara sand off the decks. We've dedicated many hours to fretting about whether the water lock that was installed in our exhaust system during the winter is big enough to do the job. (No definite conclusion has been reached, although Vetus tells us not to worry.) We've spent an entire day with various Italian bureaucrats, in pursuit of the coveted "permesso di soggiorno" that would allow us to legally stay in Italy for more than 90 days in a six month period. With many little tasks to keep us busy, the days seem to be flying by.
There are many English-speaking cruisers in the marina, so our social schedule has also been busy. We've attended two pot-luck lunches on the jetty, spent three pleasant evenings onboard the boats of other cruisers and hosted a lively (if rather crowded) gathering of our own in Aisling's cockpit.
With all this activity, I suppose it is not surprising that our to-do list is growing instead of shrinking. The number of maintenance items to be dealt with seems to be more daunting than usual, partly because of the difficulties in accessing services. The most pressing items are the hot water tank, which has developed a slow leak, and the refrigerator, which has been acting up in a most peculiar way. Sometimes it faithfully chugs away for long enough to actually get the freezer temperature below zero, at other times it will run for only about a minute before shutting itself off. We considered ourselves fortunate to track down the local refrigeration expert, Paulo, on a day when he was actually in the marina. Naturally, the darn thing worked perfectly when he flipped the switch. "I am very sorry but, if it is not broken, I cannot fix it" he said. He very kindly refused to accept any money for the call, but it seems clear that he will have another opportunity.
We rented a car for the first ten days, and although we mainly just used it to run errands, we did a little touring on Friday. After a leisurely drive down the coast to Pozzallo (where we dropped into a boatyard and made an appointment to get the boat hauled and anti-fouled) we continued on to Syracuse. With so much to see on this coast, it may seem silly to have returned to a place we know so well, but we wanted to go to the market and visit the cheese shop. The shop was as busy as ever, and the cheese was even better than we'd remembered.
While we were there, another customer struck up a conversation with Rick and introduced himself. We could hardly believe our ears when we said he was from Halifax! Do any of you know John Poulos? He and his wife have bought and renovated an old palazzo on Ortegia, the island that is the historic centre of Syracusa. Doesn't that sound wonderful?
Our next stop was the duomo square in Ortegia.
It seemed to be our lucky day since the church of Santa Lucia, which we had tried without success to visit on several occasions, was actually open. Hanging over the altar of the recently-restored church is a beautiful (if slightly depressing) Caravaggio painting of the burial of St. Lucy. No photos allowed, but when we dropped some coins into the offering basket one of the attendants called us over and gave us a small card with a reproduction of the painting. (You can also see a pretty good reproduction of it at this link Click Here )
As we stepped back into the sunshine of the square, Rick's cellphone rang and it was Christopher, calling us from Halifax, which made our morning even brighter!
After a failed attempt to have lunch at the restaurant Ristorante Jonico-a Rutta e Ciauli (which looked wonderful, so we plan to try again) we headed for Noto, one of the three baroque cities that are clustered in this region. All three cities (Ragusa,Modica and Noto) were built to replace earlier cities that were destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1693. Most of the buildings in Noto have been recently restored, and the entire city seems to glow. We grabbed a "caprese" sandwich (mozzarella and tomato) in a quiet square outside the tourist area, then drove down the hill and parked outside the impressive city gate. From there we took a leisurely walk along the Corso Vittorio Emanuel, then climbed the steep steps to the bell tower of the Santa Chiara church, said to be the best vantage point for a view of the cathedral.
Photos displayed in the passages along the second floor gallery gave insight into the lives of the nuns of another era.
Unlike most Italian churches, the interior of the Noto cathedral is full of light. This little corner was my favourite...
We wrapped up our visit with giant cups of gelato in the café opposite the cathedral. All in all, a great day!
There is much more to tell, but we will have to save the stories for another day. The to-do list awaits. Ciao!
Marina di Ragusa is a great little village, with a population of about 3000 in the late fall, winter and early spring (now). The population swells to 80,000 in the summer. The marina is new, modern and relatively inexpensive for this part of the world, but the resources for maintenance and repairs are somewhat limited even though the yard has a very large travel lift. Pozzallo has what looks to be a busy and competent yard about 17 miles east of here. We will take Aisling there later this month to have the bottom painted and some other work done.
The town has some excellent options for provisioning, including a large Demeglios grocery store and a few small bakeries and salumerias. Camping gas is available at the Tabacci across from the gas station and US propane bottles can be filled on the way into Ragusa. There is a DIY building store and a good choice of restaurants and pizzerias. The beautiful, large and bustling city of Ragusa is only 20 km (a 2.70 euro bus ride) away.
The biggest draw, in our opinion, is the number of other cruisers who overwinter in the marina. We like it here!