Florence, you can be such a cruel mistress.
This past weekend our old friends Alice and Jonathan were visiting us from the UK, where they live. Fun! Friends! Dinner! Fines.
(Italian: “controllare,” “to check” – also the verb for what the ATAF officials do when they board the bus and ask you if you have a ticket, then fine you if you don’t.)
After two hours in Saturday market and unsuccessfully searching for the green heart of Moana for Eleanor amongst all the southeast Asian sparkly bangle tables, we contrived to wind our way up to Fiesole on the #7, a favorite pastime of Victor’s. It sits on a hill north of centro, topped by a tower, ever serene. Jason purchased an ATAF CartaAgile (10 rides on a magnetic strip) at the news kiosk in Sant’Ambrogio and we set off.
|Our destination: Fiesole
Our children, however, were not serene that morning. The original plan was to all take the city bus. Then certain little people indicated that that was not at all in their plan. So we tried to put the little people in the car. The smallest one immediately protested and insisted on boarding the bus. The 6B was rounding the corner.
Let’s go, let’s go! I said.
What, Jason responded, I’m going to carry her for the next two hours?
Just come on, I wheedled. I had sunshine and Fiesole on the brain.
The bus stopped and we all got on. Victor held the CartaAgile and beeped it on the machine. We stepped to the middle of the bus. Alice and Jonathan were at the back. Jason and Eleanor got on behind us. The bus pulled away from the stop, and we began bouncing our way down Via della Colonna.
How many times did Victor beep it? Jason mouthed.
Just the one, I mouthed back.
Jason beeped the card three more times. Beep beep beep.
At the next stop, the controllers stepped on. Navy blue uniform, official-looking small hip bags, headed straight for Jason. Jason showed them the card, and they said we would all be receiving fines and that we should get off with them at Piazza San Marco.
|An actual ATAF poster. “No ticket, don’t go!”
It was a beautiful day. A woman on the bus tsked and shook her head at me as we rattled past Santissima Annunziata. Not that we had done something wrong, but that we had such terrible luck as to be picked up in a ticket control. Italians almost universally have a distaste for officialdom, even as they grudgingly respect Someone Who Does Their Job. A job, after all, is a job.
I will tell you now, in my months and months of bus riding in Firenze, I have never seen a controller on a bus, nor have I been controlled, even though I never ride without a ticket.
The controllers took all six of us off the bus at Piazza San Marco, where they also happen to have their controller hut on the other side of the piazza, adjacent to the Galleria dell’Accademia. Victor whimpered in the strong sun. Jason held a sleepy Eleanor on his shoulder and stared ahead. I squinted. Alice and Jonathan were rightfully confused.
|Lovely place to receive a ticket.
The controllers immediately started in and informed us that we had broken the rules by attempting to use the CartaAgile for more than one person. We all stood there and looked at them. I looked at Jason because I knew what was about to happen – I had seen it before, although infrequently.
Jason kept staring at the sun with his sunglasses on, straight ahead. Eleanor had her head on his shoulder. Jason was furious. I could feel it. I sensed him gathering his medieval anger and verbs to unleash a volley of public dispute against officialdom such as these two official controllers had never heard before. So you all think you caught a big fish today, hmm? Good job, guys. Well done. His nostrils flared as he inhaled.
We catch the fish every day, the older one said, it is our job. He looked simultaneously depressed and offended.
Jason was just warming up. We tried to do the right thing! We bought a card! We beeped it! It was an honest error, he said. The bus driver said nothing! If he had said a word, of course we would have bought tickets. We buy your tickets all the time. We buy single tickets and monthly tickets. We always validate. We were not trying to cheat ATAF! he shouted.
They were having none of it. Everyone who’s getting written up now, give us a document, all of you, they said.
Alice and Jonathan furrowed their brows. I produced a Washington state driver’s license, which is the easiest to locate in the front pocket of my wallet. Jason gave them nothing, since of the four beeps, at least one was legit. Alice and Jonathan gave them UK documents.
Jason continued to dispute with the two officers the whole time they were handwriting the tickets. They asked me for a different document, and I fumbled to give them my tessera santiaria – my health system card. The older official was genuinely shocked.
But … but you work here! he cried, looking at me.
By this time Jason and the two men had been shouting for some time, while our two stealth Brits and the kids and I kept to ourselves. Best to leave this in the hands of a disputational professional. Jason loves to rise to the occasion when Italian outrage is involved. Someday I will retell here The Story of the Huge Dispute in Milan Malpensa.
Yes, Jason said. Yes, we work and live here. Did you think we were tourists? Because we have guests? Did you think you could bully us? Just take us off the bus and charge us 50 euros cash, each, for this? Do we look like tourists to you? Do I sound like a tourist? Here, tell me to my face right now that I look and sound like a tourist to you. Go on, tell me. Tell me now.
The man did start to
look a little rattled. It’s my job, he said. Signore, just doing my job here. Jason relaxed slightly.
They finished writing us all up, and we combined the contents of our wallets to pay them the collective 150 euros.
No one wanted to go to Fiesole anymore.
Jason looked like he might punch one of the nuns nearby in front of San Marco.
Eleanor was almost asleep, and Victor was quickly turning pink in the sun.
Alice and Jonathan decided to meander down Via Cavour to do tourist things. We went to our local fish and chip stand to get some fries. Victor said he just wanted to go home.
Don’t beep the card again, Jason grumbled. It’s good for 90 minutes.
Victor and I caught the #14 back to our palazzo. On the bus, Victor examined the back of the AgileCart and helpfully informed me, look, Mamma, it says right here on the back that it is good for one person only. It is the head of one person with a number 1. Do you see? Even I can understand it, Mamma.
Grazie, Victor. Tante grazie.
Jason arrived home soon after and left on a bike ride to go work it out.
Friends since then have remarked to us that the ATAF drivers are trained to use their controller call button if tourists get on the bus and look like they haven’t paid. The bus driver likely heard the three beeps in succession and pressed his button.
I was a bit surprised afterward that neither the driver nor the officials attempted to extort us for a lower cash price than the official fee. That bus driver could have easily said, pay me 40E or 100E right now or I’ll press this button and call my friends the controllers to come write you all huge tickets. The controllers could have said, 40 to us right now each or we write you tickets for 50. But that didn’t happen.
It is, after all, Tuscany, not some less savory or law-abiding zone.