From Banks to Baths, and Back

At home in Ohio, my life can be a hot mess — I run too fast without ever catching up, desperately chasing efficiency and accomplishment. In precious moments of clarity, I know that this freneticism is mostly manufactured, born of the American tendency to equate one’s busy schedule with productivity.

I also know that efficiency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Take, for example, being summoned by one’s Italian bank to come into any branch office and sign a piece of paper. Such was the gist of a letter we received.

We started our quest at our branch in Orvieto, but the office was closed. We walked in the front door, but the bank was empty. Finally, from a darkened interior office, someone proclaimed the obvious: the bank was closed. Posted hours and open door be damned — they were closed.

The following morning, on our way to the thermal baths in San Casciano dei Bagni, we stopped at another branch office. Approaching town, we saw that it was market day. As I eyed the crowds, blocked roads, and parking spaces given over to commerce, my stomach knotted in frustration over my chronic inability to operate efficiently in Italy.

Determined to sign the form and get to the baths, we parked where we could and walked back to the bank, working our way through all the stalls and crowded streets.

Entering the bank, a teller referred us to Il Direttore‘s office, where a diffident, jeans-clad manager lounged at his desk, sitting sideways to the open door. Immersed in what appeared to be a personal, and lengthy, telephone conversation, he finally glanced our way and gave us a surprised, “Oh!!! are you here to see ME???” look.

He invited us in, eventually bid a lengthy goodbye and hung up the phone, and addressed our problem. Apologetically, he explained that we could only sign the form at our branch in Orvieto. He kindly agreed to make an appointment for us at the other branch, and proceeded to call every number could find for it. Each number went unanswered until he finally reached that branch’s direttore on his cell phone.

After a lengthy consultation with his colleague, he told us to go back to Orvieto — the opposite direction from the baths. Fortunately, we were invited to use a much more convenient branch. I direttori promised us that the two Orvieto branches would be uguale (equal).

But we had to hurry, as we were already approaching the bank’s 2-hour lunch closure.

As we tried to rush through the still-bustling market, we encountered a neighbor and spent a few precious minutes catching up with her. Our dreams of the baths dimmed.

Although we reached the next branch before it closed, the woman assigned to our problem quickly determined that we had come to the wrong branch. We told her about i direttori and the “uguale” promise. As the office was being locked up for the lunch hour(s), her fingers continued to work her keyboard. Her officemate jumped in to help, and another man appeared from nowhere to look over her shoulder. Phone calls were placed. An email appeared on her computer screen, and finally the previously inaccessible paperwork arrived.

Filling out the forms in preparation for signing them, we stumbled on a technical question. We knew our commercialista in Rome could help us, but he was in a meeting. So the banker suggested we come back after lunch to sign the forms. The office closed at 4:00, she explained, but she would be there until 5:00.

We hopped on the freeway and raced up to the baths. Enroute, our commercialista handled everything and assured us that the forms were properly filled out and would be awaiting our signatures when we returned to the bank.

We got to Fonteverde in 45 minutes, ate a quick lunch there and had time for a relaxing swim. We returned to Orvieto, signed the papers, and walked out of the bank before 5:00.

At first, I was flabbergasted by the inefficiencies of the process. But then I thought about it … everyone was very helpful. We were personally engaged with the bankers, all of whom were committed to helping us. We got the forms signed. And we got a random market experience, visited with a neighbor, and went to the baths.

Back in Ohio, I bank alone at my own kitchen table with the sterile efficiency of my über-efficient bank’s smartphone app. I try to pause and appreciate a slower pace. That wonderful, highly inefficient, and very satisfying day of banking in Italy helps.