As with all forms of bureaucracy here in Italy, the public health system is impressively complicated. I’ve written about it before, but all you need to know for the sake of today’s story is that there is a system called the CUP—pronounced “coop,” which I find fitting on so many levels—through which people must schedule their doctor’s appointments and pay their co-pays (rather than doing those things directly at the doctors’ offices). There are CUP windows at many pharmacies and medical centers; today’s tale of trickery and angst takes place at one of the latter where I went to pay for Sophie’s optometrist visit.
Are you ready to spend half an hour in an expat’s shoes?
Great! Let’s get started.
Warning: Those of you who suffer from agoraphobia, claustrophobia, noise-triggered migraines, and/or overactive bladders should proceed with the utmost caution. Thank you.
9:59a – I walk into the CUP center and notice that the electronic number displays on the walls are all blinking zeroes. Awesome. I’d been hoping to sit and read while waiting my turn, but I suppose this is as good an opportunity as ever to work on my waiting-in-line skills. That isn’t sarcasm, by the way. Navigating lines in Italy takes a certain skill set that I have yet to master. However, the fifteen people already in line seem placid enough. I take a number just to be safe and join the queue.
10:00a – As I wait for the line to move forward, I notice that the building’s heating system must be on. It is distinctly warm in the room, at least 85°. While I ponder who would run the heat on an already-warm spring day, several newcomers take numbers and get in line “behind” me. By that, I mean that they fan out beside me like chorus girls effectively ensuring that I remain the one in the rear. I expected this, so it doesn’t faze me. I just need to hold my place, and all will be well.
10:01a – The line shuffles forward a foot, and I now count nineteen people ahead of me. More are now crowded at my sides as well. Where are they coming from? I scoot closer to the elderly man in front of me and grip my number like it is the grenade of justice.
10:02a – Subtlety Hour is over. A well-coiffed blonde woman takes a number, sniffs the air for weakness, and then makes a beeline for me. “I’m just here to pay,” she announces to the top of my head as she tries to edge in front of me. Aha! I think. This I DO know how to handle! Had this happened seven years ago when we first moved to Italy, I would have let her in and then cried about the experience later. Now, though, I am tough. I have strategies. I have perfected… The Elbow Flex. To correctly perform this maneuver, you take a deep, satisfied breath as if you were stepping outdoors on bright prairie morning. While you exhale all that cleansing air, you puff your torso and place your hands on your hips, pointing your elbows outward. This must be done casually enough that you can pretend it’s not on purpose yet deliberately enough that everyone else knows it is. Once you have armed yourself with these jutting joints of territorialism, you can look line-cutters in the eye as I did the blonde woman and say, “Sorry, but I’m just here to pay too” as you physically block their progress.
10:03a – Blonde lady is undaunted by either verbal or elbowal barriers. In a supreme move of one-upmanship, she “accidentally” steps on my foot while wedging herself between my body and that of the elderly man in front of me. A small burst of steam escapes my ears, though that could be due to the temperature in the room. It’s got to be in the 90° range by now.
10:04a – A pleasant-faced PR volunteer walks by, and I consider asking her if she can do anything about the heat. However, seven people are already complaining to her. “The number display isn’t working!” several of them point out at once. “What are we supposed to do?” “Wait in line,” she replies with an affectionate smile. “But I’m only here to pay!” protests the blonde woman who is still on top of my foot. “So is she,” the volunteer says, pointing to me. “So are they. We’re all here to pay, and we can’t do anything about the numbers, so let’s just wait in line calmly, shall we?” She walks back up the line, and I notice there are now twenty-three people ahead of me. For the love…
10:07a – Despite the fact that a good two-dozen people have arrived after me, I am still the last person in line. The newcomers are all clustered at my sides waiting for the slightest lapse in concentration or resolve that would allow them to merge in front of me. I decide to strike up a conversation with the closest of them, a young mom whose arm is literally resting on my purse. I figure that if someone is going to be that close to my wallet, I should at least try to stay on her good side.
10:09a – It is now 95°, maybe 96°. I am sweating through my spring cardigan and cannot fathom how the others are surviving in their scarves and coats. The general mood does seem a bit more heated than before. The blonde woman on my foot is huffing and telling anyone who will listen that this is a grave injustice, she only has to pay, how can they expect her to wait? The mom hanging onto my purse is arguing with someone on the other side of me about whether or not the CUP should be giving out numbers if we were going to have to wait in line anyway. “Che casino!” people are muttering from all around. What a casino.
10:12a – Behind me, genuine shouting breaks out. A man has just arrived and is eager that we all know how busy he is, very busy, FAR too busy to have to wait in line. This is a free country, he says like a soapbox preacher with an emergency. Why should he have to wait in line? BECAUSE THE REST OF US HAVE TO, YOU IMBECILE, someone informs him. A dozen people start arguing at once. Chief among their complaints is the fact that lines exist and that we are expected to use them. Why should we? What is the point? Are we cattle to be treated this way? The volunteer hurries back and forth trying to calm everyone. “We are well mannered!” she calls over the din. “We are civilized adults!”
10:13a – No. No, we are not.
10:15a – To my relief, blonde woman moves off my foot and leaves the building in a huff. Maybe I can breathe a little more easily now.
10:15a and ten seconds – A new blonde woman is suddenly at my side with her body angled so as to make it seem like she’s in front. I have no idea where she came from or what she’s here to do, but I do know that she needs to pee. I know this because she has started informing the volunteer of this at top volume. Why should she have to wait in line? She has to pee! Badly, dammit!
10:17a – The temperature is now pushing 100°, and the general volume is rising along with it. The very busy yelling man is now directly behind me, but at least that means I’m not the last person in line anymore. The mom leaning on my purse has engaged him in a shouting match about the philosophy of standing in lines. I try recording them on my phone, but the man catches me about to push start. I pretend I’m texting instead and will the embarrassed flush on my cheeks to simmer down.
10:18a – Another mom inserts herself into the fray. She is holding up a squirming preschooler as evidence for why she shouldn’t have to wait in line. Because: BABY. The others are having none of it; I see The Elbow Flex rippling down the line like a stabby sideways version of The Wave. Preschooler mom yells about the ridiculousness of being expected to wait her turn, and the volunteer explains for the nine thousandth time that lines are how we keep order and civility in just such circumstances as these. Mr. Very-Busy jumps in, alternately defending and berating the mom. Both of them berate the volunteer for a while, but she is much more skilled in the art of blocking than I, and the mom is at last obliged to remove both herself and her kicking preschooler to the “back” of the “line.”
10:20a – I am sweating profusely now. I would take off my cardigan except that I have one yelling man, one yelling mom, and one yelling blonde with a small bladder pressed against my body. One of them is touching my butt. I text angsty emojis to Dan.
10:22a – The volunteer walks within range again, and both Pee Lady and Busy Man resume their high-volume complaining. The volunteer is looking decidedly worse for wear; her hair is plastered down in the 107° heat, her shoulders are clenched, and I watch as the last remnants of sparkle in her eyes blaze out. She engages the man first. “Do not use that kind of language with me, SIR!” He starts to bluster, but she cuts him off. “Have you ever been to the theater before? That’s probably too high a level of sophistication for you, but—” He informs her that he most certainly has been to the theater, many times. “Ah, well then I’m sure you must be familiar with what they have at theaters.” “I don’t un—” “THEY HAVE LINES!” During his momentary silence, she turns to the blonde woman. “Ma’am. If you have to pee so badly, by all means, go ahead and pee. ON THE FLOOR.”
10:23a – Busy Man: 0, Bladder Lady: 0, Volunteer: 1,000,000. She walks away muttering, “We are NOT well-mannered, we are NOT civilized, we are immature and conniving, oh yes. We wouldn’t know civility if it bit us…” I think about giving her a standing ovation, but it’s too hot now to do anything but shuffle forward. To my surprise, there are only five people left in front of me. The end is in sight.
10:24a – Four people, not counting Ms. Bladder who is still angling her body to pretend she is in front of me.
10:25a – Three. I look at her hard, hoping she’ll feel appropriately abashed and step back. She does not.
10:27a – Two. I decide it doesn’t hurt to try The Elbow Flex one last time.
10:28a – One. Pee Lady gives up. A solid dozen people may have cut in line in front of me this morning, but I have prevailed over one of them! 1,000,000 points for me.
10:29a – My turn has arrived! I see a CUP window free up, and I stride forward. It’s like being released from prison. It’s like stepping onto the shores of a brave new world. It’s like—A white-haired but incredibly agile man darts out of nowhere and runs in front of me to the window. I freeze for a moment, unsure which direction my emotional current is pulling me… and then I begin to laugh. Sure, I have just been outmaneuvered by the thirteenth consecutive person in half an hour. True, I am no savvier at this cultural experience than I was at the beginning, not really. But it is all pretty entertaining when I think about it, and even if ten more senior citizens cut me off here at the end, the glorious truth remains that I’m through the line. Done. Finished. Free. You might even say… uncooped.