Doing Business in Rome — let’s take a trip to Rome Together– A manual for living and working in Italy
Welcome Back Everybody!
Well, I was going to tell you a little something about Rome but it wouldn’t make sense to you until I explained to you about what I’m doing in Rome in the first place. As you may know, we have a division of our law firm that conducts cases for other immigration lawyers. The nature of the beast has made it necessary for us to operate 24 hours a day. Finding a California licensed attorney who will practice law starting midnight is not easy; it is even higher if you want to hire one of the most brilliant minds in the country. An alternative is a London office, but the weather is not appealing to everyone. In winter, I don’t see many California lawyers living in London or anywhere close. I have always wanted to spend some time in Rome, and this provides the answer.
On October first I set up a Rome office for us. It seems that in the area of immigration appeals and immigration waivers both immigration lawyers ‘and’ their clients wait until the last minute to make a decision. Over eighty per-cent of our cases are rushes (under 2 weeks to prepare) or emergencies (48 hours or less to create the case). Without operating 24 hours a day it is not possible to complete the work required on some of the more complex cases we receive. I will never understand why people wait until the last minute but they do, and that helped land me in Rome.
Don’t envy just yet. There is a lot more to moving operations to Rome than meets the eye. The first three months were a real struggle. Although I speak 80% fluent, remove 20% of meaning from anything you hear/read/write and you will understand what I mean…something is lost. Getting things done in Italy is very different than in the US. It is for this reason I keep my offices in the US and work there. As much as I love Rome in many ways, I really believe a lot of its charm would be lost if it operated in the same manner as the US business machine.
However, what I gained in charm, I lost in productivity. The best idea I had the first week was to hire an Italian assistant who spoke English. She introduced me to some of the customs and the way things were done. Very simple things were difficult — not because I was in Rome….but because I didn’t know I had to do them (you don’t know what you don’t know) — it is for this very same reason I created www.USAexplained.com ; I wish there were an equivalent in Rome.
If you plan on doing business in Rome…plan on carrying your passport with you wherever you go. Any time you need something important, they require the passport. Carry a lot of cash; I’ve frankly never seen an Italian check to date; I’m sure they may have them but this is for the most part a cash society. They do use credit card machines but it is often cumbersome as they are dependent on wireless carriers so it can slow down the whole payment operation and you will create a line behind you.
Passport and cash. The next thing you need is a Codice Fiscale. This is the equivalent of a social security number. You will need this for certain things. Trust me, if you open an office in Rome, you will want it. You need it, for example, to send an overnight letter at the post office…that was a surprise. However, the friendliness of the Romans (I can only relate to Romans as I am in Rome) is unbelievable. I waited in line in a busy post office for quite a while. When I discovered I need the Codice, the gentleman actually closed his window and waited for me to return so that we wouldn’t have to start all over with all the forms for all the overnights we were sending out (it’s a bit of a production); 15 minutes later I returned and he resumed. You see, in 10 more minutes they were closing and the packages would not have gone out if we had to start from scratch…you see the post office closes early here..I think 2 PM or so…for the day.
The codice fiscale is important for other things too. I always thought that hanging clothes outside was a sign of poverty in Europe. No, it’s a sign of tradition. Dryers aren’t all that popular here. But again, I spent most of my life in California and I couldn’t get into not drying my clothes for 24 hours…frankly I don’t see me hanging my clothes outside a window..although everyone has an indoor drying rack. Well anyway, I bought a dryer and I needed the Codice Fiscale to get it delivered. Sometimes you just don’t ask questions. Tradition is more powerful than productivity..so we move on. Another time I needed it was for television. They have a broad array of TV channels that are free (not exactly, but as close as you get)…and I mean plenty. However, should you want to watch a movie, you need to get a dish (if your balcony faces the satellite) or if you have a modern TV, you plug in a metal device that looks like a thick credit card, and in it you slip a card that allows you to subscribe to movie, soccer, and other channels. Once again, they need the codice. Although I don’t watch much TV, if any, I do like movies in the background as I work. I learned to zone out sounds when I was going to university and my roommate at the time decided to bring his girlfriend to live with him. She watched TV nonstop and I was either getting into law school or not, depending on how well I could zone out of the noise. I learned and that year had a 3.75/4.0 average. It served me well as now I can work in almost any environment and zone out the noise…trains, planes, parks, airports, you name it.
Customer service is one area I wish that Rome (Italy?) would be more concerned about. When you buy something here most stores aren’t crazy about exchanges or returns. For example, the card for the TV didn’t work so they exchanged the card once. Despite multiple calls to Mediaset, the carrier the card would not work (ie the insert). If you don’t have a land line, you have to not only spend money on your cell calling them (about .15 a minute), they charge you for the call. After a dozen calls and 18 Euros in fees, the card did not work, so I went back to Eldo, an electronics store where I bought it. They told me it’s not their problem so they got quite nasty about the fact I could not return the $100 unit, despite the fact that in one week I spent $2500 there. They told me to send it to Mediaset and I would receive a refund. Well, I returned it to the address that Mediaset ( a company that offers movie channels etc through this unit) tole me to, and 2 months later, no letter, no refund…it’s just lost. As a BPR (Business Process Reorganization) consultant, I see a lot of room for a better economy if customer service was more of a priority. On the other hand, I only found this with retail operations. When it comes to restaurants, cafes, and other such places, and considering the fact that tipping is not standard fare in Italy, the service could not be more outstanding. Moreover, it is sincere; even if you order a cup of coffee you are made to feel welcome and invited…it’s not just about the tip they will receive. A refreshing change of pace.
To summarize, you carry a passport, lots of cash, and a Codice. If you are there in winter, an umbrella and gloves. The last two things are important as well: ATM card issues and the Internet. Although my debit card has a $1000 daily limit, most machines I use tell me that I have exceeded my daily limit when I ask for 250 Euros, even if I haven’t used it in a few days. The message is erroneous. If I ask for 200, it works. However, it won’t provide a second 200. On the other hand, Wells Fargo charges me $5.00 for every withdrawal. So as a result, it costs to get money. I have only come across one machine that would let me get 250 twice. I have to open an account here but it is such a production that I think I have more important things to do (I hope I do as I dread the bureaucracy). Now to the last item you will find very important.
Internet in Italy. Living in California, I was never concerned about the Internet. I paid the bill, and I received high-speed Internet. In all honesty, I took it for granted, as I did many things (dryers, dishwashers, air conditioning) before I moved to Rome. Before locating an office, I had to locate a place to live. Wanting to move to Trastevere was easier said than done; it is was popular that there were no places left to rent. I went to a rental agency and, although I wanted to live alone, was convinced that I was better off with roommates in an area very close to Trastevere as there were no vacancies. All right, I’m easygoing and I’ll try almost anything at least once. The idea of 2 roommates wasn’t so bad; one a dance instructor and one an actress. Also, it would make the transition to Rome easier as I didn’t know a single person when I moved here and would have someone to ask a few questions of (ie what is a Codice Fiscale?).
The only thing the home did not have (apart from a dryer, which I came with, a dishwasher, and a few other things I am accustomed to) was Internet. I was surprised to find that 2 modern thirty-something women did not have an Internet connection (or for that matter a land line—cell phones can be so expensive—my first 2 months I spent about 1500 Euros a month in phone bills). OK no problem. I crossed the street to one of the phone carriers..Wind, which is quite popular in Rome. They informed me that in 2 weeks I would have a land line and Internet. Great. In the mean time, the only solution was the one the girls used…buying a little USB stick that you put in your computer and you get 100 hours a month for 20 Euros. OK. I have two 17″ computers, a MacBook Pro and a PC, so I bought one from Wind and went a couple doors down to Telecom Italia to buy one of theirs…in case one network was down or there was some other issue, I could always use the other one. Also, I normally like both machines connected to the Internet.
Well, guess what…in my location, despite being on the fourth floor, Internet with these USB devices was spotty. I brought several VOIP (Voice Over IP or Internet Protocol) lines with me. The problem was, we were connecting at 2400 baud (remember when you were a child?) and I was lucky to get web pages with pictures, let alone a VOIP line and connection. This is where I really got to know Skype. They have an amazing infrastructure and do not require a lot of bandwidth. Again however, there were only certain time that even Skype worked. However, as I got to know it (I had used it before with a friend but never got to know it well) I had a lot of respect for it. The one thing I didn’t ever understand about the whole Internet business model is why companies never charged for their services. As a CEO, I would have no trouble paying for Skype services and they would make a ton of money, as would their shareholders (yes, I play the market). But, for whatever it’s worth, despite studying Strategic Management at Harvard and belonging to the MIT Venture Capital Club, I never was able to understand the revenue models of most Internet companies. It seems they think that if they charged for their (often very valuable) services, no one would subscribe. Well, my opinion, for whatever it’s worth, is that in the near future the whole Internet landscape will change or Venture Capital will dry up; how many losses and for how long can investors sustain them before something happens? Anyway, back to the Internet.
Anyway, I struggled with the little cards for almost 3 months. You will too, unless you are hooked up before you moved in. You ask, what happened to the hook-up from Wind? Three weeks after I ordered it they told me that a week ago they left me a message on my cell telling me that they couldn’t do it. It took 2 weeks to find out? I didn’t get the message. I told the man my cell is with Wind….and it didn’t receive the message…no response. I went to a second company…they couldn’t do it. I went to a third and they guaranteed in 2 weeks it would be up. I went back to the US expecting it to be completed on my return. Nothing happened. No call, no email, no notice. A month later they called telling asking if I ’still’ wanted it. I gave up. No more 2-week promises; I needed Internet and now. My productivity was diminishing at an exponential rate. I finally decided to find a new place to live with Internet access.
I searched for an apartment and found a beautiful one in Trastevere, where I had wanted to be. Everything went well, I checked to see if I could get high-speed Internet, it was a go. I placed a deposit on it. I would finally live alone. Well, a week later she informed me that she would not rent it to me, regardless of how much of a deposit I left, as I didn’t work in Rome. The quest began again. I looked at a number of single and double apartments and two with roommates. I got busy and didn’t deal with it. Finally, the gentleman I met in one of the roommate situations I found called me and asked me to reconsider living with roommates. He threw a get-together to introduce me to his friends and even offered to help me move. I do take some risks, and I took this one. Now I have high-speed Internet, Mediaset works for him and I can borrow the card whenever I like. There are no ambulances and police cars wailing several times a day, I am in an upscale neighborhood across from a police station…it’s safe too. I can buy a nice car and park it outside…oh yes…I forgot to mention…parking is hard and you can’t find a garage to rent no matter how hard you try in the city center. I will deal with the car issue when I am ready to take the test, figure out what’s involved in insuring and buying a car, and that whole production…not to mention getting a license. That’s for another day…too busy now.
Things are different in the new place. I am accustomed to eating while I work. Here we take a break and always eat together. Not only that, they won’t start until I arrive. That’s Italian. They don’t have a microwave even though we are in a high-end home (PS all central Rome homes are really high-rise apartments…there are very few detached homes…yet these apartments are very expensive to purchase). It’s not a matter of money… they weigh the pasta so there are no leftovers. I had to ask. Well, here they believe in fresh food..always. Why would you want a microwave? They don’t eat leftovers. They don’t cook them in the first place. On the other hand, if someone drops in unexpectedly, there is always enough food for everybody. Figurati (the Italian version of ‘go figure’). We shop at our market 2 blocks away every couple of days or less for fresh food. The two roommates are architects; one is working and the other is in school. Both amazing chefs. When we get visitors, they often cook, especially if they are from out of town, so I have learned to make many new meals. It’s a real change from the high-productivity, every second counts life I live when I am back in the US. On the other hand, it’s a learning experience.
I have two challenges ahead of me. I notice that there is an insatiable desire to learn English. Those who know me are aware of how much I love dogs. I came up with an idea. If I teach an English class for 3 hours for 5 Euros a person, I can raise 1000 Euros a week for the 10 dog kennels in Rome if I have 200 students. The challenge is to find a place to have the classes at low or no cost so that we can put 100% of the money towards the dogs. I have been told that this is not the the only challenge…but one challenge at a time…finding an inexpensive central location.
The second challenge is figuring out how to make business-minded friends in Rome. It seems to take some effort to figure out where they go to meet, have fun, and otherwise congregate. This of course is the challenge any time you are new to a city. It is compounded by the difficulty of reading a new language…it’s one thing to speak Italian and quite another to read and write it. If you say something wrong and ask, people are happy to help you. If you read something wrong, you may never know what you misunderstood….
This insert was a bit longer than normal because you needed an introduction in order to understand what is to come in future articles. However, many will be very brief and this one will balance them out.
I hope this provides you an idea of what you will face when you open your Roman operation. Despite all the challenges, this is truly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s a friendly place with a sense of community. Family is important here. The food is to die for (or it will kill you not sure) …especially if you have too much bucatini all’Amatriciana. It’s the only city where the metro stops are world-class venues…where else can you find a city with a stop called Colosseum …and they really mean it? This is a city where you will find an elderly person giving up their seat on a metro to someone more ‘elderly’ than themselves. A city where a 25-year old girl has a scooter hit her car, gets, up, brushes off, and continues on her way to work. A kitchen table where there is always food for one more. A locale where anyone and everyone will help you with directions and genuinely feel bad when they don’ know the way. It’s also a city where you can speak to anyone…and I mean anyone, any where. People say hello to each other here…for no other reason then to connect with that long chain crossing the planet….called humanity. What was I going to tell you in the first paragraph? Although I miss working closely with my cracker-jack team in law and film production, where I have intellectual and informational firepower at my disposal in milliseconds, I can’t put a value on how I wake up in the morning here. While my cappuccino is taking its sweet time (I would never wait that long for coffee in the US), I open the window in the kitchen that leads to the back area. From my fourth floor, I break Italian bread into small pieces and throw it on the first floor roof where I watch the pigeons and seagulls sharing breakfast. What can I say?