Tuesday, September 25, 2012

911, Italian Style

There are so many wonderful things about living in Italy, far too many to mention.  There's the food, the weather, the new friendships, the opportunities for travel and the quirky little things that lurk around every corner.  But, there are some downsides too.
Last week I wrote about my distress with the litter and graffiti that plague much of southern Italy.  It's an eyesore, but in general not life threatening.  I don't think I can say the same about Italy's emergency response system!
In many ways, Italy takes better care of its people than does the United States; it provides good health care at little to no cost, the law requires that a pharmacy be open 24/7 somewhere in every town, there is a "guardia medica" in every town for drop in visits after office hours and on weekends.  The guardia medica office is staffed by local physicians who take turns being there on call.  So, even in a small town like Cervinara, there are lots of options for health care and for emergency services.There are however, serious weaknesses in the emergency response process, and I would like to share a recent event that, while funny, showed up some of the holes in the Italian system of responding to emergency situations.
My sister Mary and her husband Bill were visiting us at the end of June and, on our way home from the market we decided to stop at the cemetery to visit the Salvatore Raviele family chapel.  It's part of our weekly routine to stop in on our way back up the hill to sweep things out and to light a candle for my in-laws and relatives.  On this fateful day, I unlocked the chapel door and left the keys in the keyhole, as is my normal habit.  The four of us entered the chapel.  The door opens in, and it was rather crowded in the small space, so we closed the door.  It latched.  It locked.  We were trapped.
Normally, this wouldn't pose too much of a problem because there are always people around the cemetery, cleaning the graves of their loved ones.  But it was lunch time and everyone was home preparing the big noon meal.  Our cries of "Aiuto!" went unheard.  It was time for more drastic measures.  The day was very hot and the temperature inside the chapel was heading up over 100 degrees.  My husband took out his phone and dialed 118. 
There is not a universal 911 number for all emergencies in Italy.  There is a special number for each need: highway accidents, fire, police, water emergencies, etc.  Since Cervinara is in the province of Avellino, it was that city's emergency squad who answered our call.  "We are trapped in a chapel in Cervinara.  Can you please send someone to get us out?"  We assumed they would contact Cervinara's police department to send a rescue squad....but no!  That's not how it works here.  We were told we would be rescued by the Avellino fire department that is located over an hour away!  And they hung up.
We waited a bit, it got hotter and hotter, and we called back.  "Can't you call Cervinara and have them send someone?  We are getting overheated and are feeling unwell."  No....that's not how it's done, we are told again.  At this point my husband's Italian temper got the better of him and he threatened to sue the town, the region, the province, the country and Jesus Christ himself if someone wasn't here to let us out soon.  No response.
Finally, we asked for the phone number of Cervinara's town hall.  At first they were reluctant to even give us that information, but after some more persuasive words from dear hubby, they relented.  This time I got on the phone.  In my slightly accented Italian, with a voice quivering with false tears, I pleaded my case with the Cervinara phone operator.  "Oh signora, don't be afraid!  Someone will be there soon! Please stay calm!"  It was funny because they were so concerned that I was afraid of being locked in the cemetery, when in reality it was just the heat and frustration that were getting to us all. 
True to their word, within ten minutes a young man was at our chapel letting us out.  All it took was an hour, half a dozen phone calls, some serious threats and a semi-hysterical American to get the job done!  Shortly after we were out, Avellino called again to check on our status.  Told that we had been freed, they radioed their rescue squad to return to their base, they asked me if my husband had calmed down, and then were happy to be rid of us!
I know that ours wasn't a life-threatening situation, although it could have been if we had been forced to stay inside that oven-like chapel for much longer.  We all had a good laugh over our adventure and we now no longer leave the keys in the door.  But I sometimes wonder how  this byzantine bureaucracy survives.  There has got to be a better way! 

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