Tuesday, July 20, 2010

And Why Do You Want To Go To America?

Leaving the catacombs beneath Villa Taverna on my way to the Wine Tasting Event.

Italy is part of the visa waiver program which means that most Italians traveling to the US on vacation or brief business trips do not require a visa. However, there are several categories of visa for which even Italians must apply, such as student visas, religious worker visas, government official visas and my personal favorite, 'O' visas which have the annotation, "Person of Extraordinary Ability" printed right on them. I'd like one of those myself. Then there are third country nationals in Italy who require visas no matter what their reason is for travel. Our workload, therefore, on any given day is split roughly fifty-fifty between Italians requiring special categories of visa and third country nationals requiring visas of any type. My consular colleagues in the foreign service who work in some of the visa 'mills' (Mexico City, Manila or Mumbai for example) and interview 100 or more applicants each day would not be overly impressed by my workload. I typically interview between 25 and 30 applicants a day, four days each week. I process investor, government and diplomatic visas in the afternoons. On a particularly tough day I might refuse five visas. Like I say, folks who work in the trenches would consider this soft duty.

 It is, nonetheless, interesting duty and here's how it works in Rome. The Visa Chief, my immediate supervisor, determines how many reservation slots will be available on any given day. That number is passed along to a call center contracted to handle telephone inquiries and reservations. Visa applicants begin the process by going to the Rome visas website and filling in an online application form (DS-160). They then make a reservation with the call center for an appointment on a specific day. The call center charges their phone number 15 euros for that service. They are told how much the application for their category of visa will cost and they go to a local branch of the BNL bank, pay the fee and are given a receipt. The new fee is $140 for most visitor categories. That fee is non-refundable whether the application is approved or denied. Each family member must have a separate application form and pay the full fee.

On the appointed day, the applicants line up outside the consulate. They must have their passports, DS-160 forms, BNL receipts and any supporting documentation required for their category of visa. They may not have cell phones, other electronics, bags, backpacks, cartons, cases, or weapons. They may be on line for as long as two hours before they are passed through security into the NIV (Non-Immigrant Visa) Section. 

Once inside, they are met by one of our Italian staff members who will quickly check their documents and briefly explain the next few steps. She will then give them a number and ask them to wait until their number is called. Visa applicants are remarkably short on patience and will spend most of their 'waiting to be called' time wandering back to the staff member to ask if their number has been called yet. She remains calm and courteous at all times and resists the urge to slap them upside the head and say, "You have number 47, we have just called number 7. If you interrupt me again, I'm going to give you number 87!"

When their number is called, they go up to the first interview window where another Italian staff member enters all their information into our visa adjudication template. This staff member then takes their fingerprints and rechecks all of their documentation. When she's finished, she puts their application form with supporting documentation and payment receipt along with their passport into a bin and then directs them to the interview waiting area. She asks them to wait there until an officer calls them for an interview. I am one of those officers.

I pull the passport, DS-160 and receipt from the bin and call the applicant up for their interview. By the time they see me, they have experienced the frustrations of filling out a form online, dealing with a reservations system by phone, paying a fairly substantial amount of money to a bank clerk, standing in line outside the consulate for quite some time, passing through a rigorous security system, waiting to be checked in, waiting to be processed into the NIV system and then waiting again for their interview. I am behind bulletproof glass.

Our regulations state that all visa applicants are considered to be intending immigrants and that it is their responsibility to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the consular officer that they do not intend to immigrate to the US. They 'demonstrate' their intentions with their documentation and their interview. In short, they must convince us that they have greater reason to return to Italy than to remain in the US. Sadly, some intending immigrants are not entirely truthful when asked why they want to go to America. Rarely will a 20 year old Albanian hairdresser who has been in Italy for eight months and can barely pay her rent say anything but, "I've always wanted to spend two weeks at Disney World."

In Rome we have the luxury of time, which many of our colleagues at busier posts do not, to refuse visa applicants with apologies and explanations. I typically say, "I'm sorry but I cannot approve your application today because your ties to Italy are not strong enough at this time." I give them a pre-printed letter of explanation, sympathize with them for a moment and their interview is over. Fortunately, refusals are relatively rare in Rome and it's much more satisfying to approve visa applications than to deny them.

Although making the final decision on whether to approve or deny rests solely with the American consular officer, the entire adjudication process is most definitely a team exercise. We are most fortunate in Rome to have a terrific team of intelligent, hard working and very knowledgeable local staff. I didn't realize before starting in the consular section, how much teamwork is involved in this area. It's definitely a part of the job that has come as a very pleasant surprise.

I briefly checked one applicant's documentation for a visa to do some research in the US. Then I asked him a few questions about his work and when he claimed to be an astrophysicist on his way to MIT I cleverly asked, "Can you please explain dark matter to me in laymen's terms?" He stared at me for a minute and said, "If I could, I'd probably get a Nobel Prize." Enjoy your time in America, Sir.

The catacombs beneath Villa Taverna.

Most of our embassies have a CLO (Community Liaison Office) to help plan various social activities for us. Sightseeing trips, buses to the Commisary in Naples, special tours of Rome's museums and movies at Villa Taverna are all examples of the kinds of things the CLO puts together and offers to the embassy community. Once a year, the CLO holds an auction to raise money to support its budget. Various goods and services are donated and the auction takes place on a Saturday night in late Spring. It's a dress up affair with an open bar. The 'dress up' part isn't as important to the story as is the 'open bar' part.

I didn't attend the auction this year because I had a friend in town and we already had plans to do something else. On Monday, my friend Dave stopped by my office and said, "Didn't see you at the auction." I told him why I couldn't make it and he said, "Doesn't matter. By the way, you won the Wine Tasting Event." "Huh?" I replied.

He explained that he and our mutual friend Stacie had decided, after planning their strategy at the aforementioned 'open bar' for an hour or two before the bidding began, to outbid all comers for the Wine Tasting Event being donated by the Ambassador. Unfortunately, once the bidding  began, it became apparent that two different syndicates had been formed with exactly the same strategy in mind. Dave and Stacie, drinks in hand, never batted an eye and simply raised every bid by ten euros until they reached 1,000 euros. Here the syndicates both blinked and, sensing blood, Stacie jumped the bid to 1,200 euros. While the syndicates were both frantically calling their absent members on cellphones for approval to exceed previously agreed limits, the hammer fell three times and Dave and Stacie had just won the Wine Tasting Event. "Great," I said. "Count me in. How many of us are there?" He explained that, including me, there were already three of us. "But," he said, "this includes dinner too!" 400 euros to spit wine into a bucket and eat fingerfood was a deal I couldn't pass up.

 The wine tasting room in the catacombs beneath Villa Taverna.

Fortunately, by the night of the event we had gathered the maximum allowed ten participants. The Wine Tasting Event was held at the Ambassador's residence, Villa Taverna, in a wine cellar designed and built by his predecessor. To get to the small elegant wine tasting room, we walked through ancient Roman catacombs that were only discovered during the construction of the wine cellar. We were served four white wines and four red wines by a sommelier who had personally chosen them from Villa Taverna's 5,000 bottle collection. He explained what we might be experiencing with each vintage and asked us to tell him what we thought of each one. I thought that one eighty euro bottle of red was just fine, and said so.

After tasting the eight wines, we took a break up by the pool while the staff cleared the table for dinner.

Each of us was asked which of the eight wines we preferred to have during dinner and everyone was given his or her choice. "Gimme that 80 euro red," I said sophisticatedly. The food was every bit as good as the wine and I barely saved room for coffee and dessert. As we were departing late in the evening, the sommelier mentioned to us that we were the first people to use the wine tasting room. I'll be more than happy to join any future groups planning to take advantage of this opportunity and our bidding strategy will begin with an open bar.

CinqueTerre is a group of five small villages up on Italy's Ligurian Coast. They are connected to one another by a hiking trail, a railroad and a ferry, making it possible to move from one to the next in several different ways. The five towns have been designated a National Park by the Italian government and a 'must see' destination by most guidebooks. It shouldn't be a surprise, therefore, to learn that I was not completely alone in CinqueTerre. There couldn't have been more than 900,000 people, divided about equally into three main groups, wandering back and forth between the five villages while I was trying to enjoy the sights.

The town of Vernazza, seen from the hiking trail.

The first group was the American college students. A huge number of Americans attend college in Italy every year and most of them went to CinqueTerre the same weekend I chose to visit. They were, for the most part, clean cut and energetic. They moved up and down the hiking trail without apparent effort and spent their evenings in the many bars soaking up great quantities of beer, wine, grappa and limoncello. The second group was the Italian contingent. They seemed to travel in tour groups of thirty to fifty people invariably led by a loud woman with an umbrella or pennant held over her head. The majority of them appeared to be in their 30's and 40's. They positioned themselves on the train platforms to take advantage of their mass and charged the opening doors of the train with martial enthusiasm. The third group was the Germans. They were robust and hardy and never took the train or boat. They wore shorts and sturdy hiking boots with heavy socks. They all had backpacks, two lethal looking hiking poles and very determined expressions as they marched along the trail. They were all probably in their fifties and I always moved politely aside as they and their hiking poles came swinging by. I tried to represent a fourth group, the sophisticated, erudite man-of-the-world type of traveller but failed when I managed to get lost on a well-marked trail between two of the villages. Thankfully, a couple of German tourists pointed me in the right direction with their poles or I'd be wandering among the grapevines even still. So that's what this path with all the red and white signs is, it's the trail. Danke!

Corniglia is the only town without its own beach.

In search of a decent lunch in one of the picturesque little towns I made a fatal mistake and ate in a waterfront restaurant with menus printed in five languages. Chef Boyardee would have been ashamed of the spaghetti I was served and I can honestly claim it as the worst meal I've had in Italy. That night, however, I ate in a small place down an alley that had its menu written in Italian in chalk on a board and that meal of stuffed anchovies and calamari more than made up for lunch.

I stayed here in the first town in line, Riomaggiore.

The five towns are very special and well deserve their reputation for having some of the most beautiful scenery in Italy. A two-day pass for the hiking trail also allows you to hop on and off the train, but the boat requires a separate ticket. You'll come into intimate contact with hordes of strangers on either the boat or train. Success has probably spoiled CinqueTerre somewhat in the last few years but the scenery is still magnificent and well worth the visit.

However, just south of CinqueTerre, along the Bay of Poets, are three small towns that have not yet been overrun by tourists. San Terenzo, Lerici and Telaro are also very picturesque and beautiful and only seem to be visited by Italian families on vacation. The three small towns line the shores of the Bay of Poets (named for Percy Bysshe Shelley who seems to have drowned while boating right off shore from San Terenzo) and can be hiked from top to bottom in about an hour and a half. I had one of the very best meals I've eaten in Italy in San Terenzo and two of the most relaxing days. If you decide to go to CinqueTerre but can't get reservations in any of the hotels or BandB's, I'd recommend that you try San Terenzo or Lerici instead. However, if you're a poet I'd suggest you skip a sunset cruise on the bay.

Picturesque and quiet, San Terenzo!

I still want to get down to Puglia and see the towns of Otranto and Lecce. They're on the heel of the boot and are said to have some of the most beautiful sea views in Italy. Actually, I really need to explore the entire Italian coastline, down one side and up the other to be able to make an informed judgement. I only have a little more than a year to do it, so I'd better not waste too much time working!

I was walking home from work the other day when I saw an attractive young woman (a not uncommon sight on the streets of Rome) walking towards me arm-in-arm with her mother. When she was about five feet from me she stopped, pointed to me and said, "Ciao!" I said, "Hello?," but because it was pretty clear that I didn't know who she was she said, "You gave me a visa last week! Thank you soooo much!" Ooops, enjoy your stay at Disney World, miss, and avoid the restaurants with menus printed in five languages.