An Italian Wedding, Act 1

Last year, I asked Ilenia to marry me, and she said yes!

I think if we knew what we know now, we might have considered running off to get married on some tropical isle, accompanied by a few good friends and relatives.

Getting married in Italy is not easy for a foreigner, or at least it wasn’t for me, as we were soon to find out.

In reality, our first stop wasn’t so bad, at the “Comune di Padova”. We didn’t have to wait long, and they were friendly and helpful. They gave us a sheet of paper with all the things we (well, me) had to do. In any case… one sheet of paper – how bad could it be? Perhaps the relative friendliness of the people in the Comune lulled us into a false sense of security. When dealing with “statali” (government workers) in Italy, one often expects the worst, because it is the antithesis of a meritocratic work environment. To get fired, you’d probably have to perform a human sacrifice while on the clock (during coffee breaks I suppose it’s not a matter that concerns your employer). So if it was all as easy and pleasant as this… no problem, right?

Taking a step back, weddings here aren’t just shuffling paper around, there are a lot of important things to be attended to, and it’s critical that they’re done correctly. For better or worse, Italians don’t take as much latitude with their weddings as we do in the US. Whereas in the states people come from a multitude of cultures and traditions, and don’t have too many preconceptions, besides a nice dress for the bride, weddings in Italy are relatively formulaic. A Catholic church, a long ceremony, followed by a feast of epic proportions with lots of guests is de rigeur. Anything less, or just out of line with the formula, would be frowned upon. As always, the important thing is to “fare una bella figura”, and to put on a good show for your guests.

Luckily, the biggest decision, the bride’s dress, isn’t something that I was involved in thanks to the handy superstition that I wasn’t supposed to see Ilenia in it beforehand. Whoever invented that one was a clever man – “No dear, I can’t see it beforehand, so you’ll have to go shopping without me”. Life is stressful enough without “dear, does this wedding dress make my butt look big?”.

The next big decision – given that the reception is all about EATING GOBS OF FOOD – is the restaurant. I think Ilenia and I went to at least 10 or 15 different restaurants scattered throughout the Colli (hills) Euganei west of town. I would have preferred to make use of the telephone to get an idea of how much different places were charging, more or less, but Ilenia impatiently explained to me that it needed to be done in person. Apparently, these kinds of things aren’t readily disclosed over unencrypted communication channels, because not only is a price discussed, but to even arrive at the price, it’s necessary to establish, roughly, what sort of menu wants, how many firsts, seconds, appetizers, deserts, the wedding cake, what kind of wine, and so on. Very important business, in other words!

And just when we’d thought a place that matched our style and budget, Ilenia happened on another restaurant that we couldn’t say no to once we had seen it. It was a bit further afield, and a bit pricier, but it was the right location for us.

So even though it’s a lot of work, at least the elements like the restaurant are worth it though, whereas the bureaucracy just eats time.

The first step was to go to the United States consulate in Milano, which wasn’t so bad in terms of things to do. Three hours there, three back, several hours in Milano signing the actual bit of paper, and raising my right hand and swearing that the information written was the truth. A long train trip, but pretty straightforward.

Of course, having a signed document written in both English and Italian and sworn to in front of a delegate of the Consulate of the United States in Italy is not enough in the way of paperwork. It’s just the beginning. The next step was to take the signed paper and have it “legalized” in Italy in the local prefecture. Fortunately, that only took two hours of my day and was actually fairly easy.

The following step was the tough one. In order to really be legal here in terms of marriage, they need to know you’re not married elsewhere. And far from being innocent until proven guilty, you must prove that you really aren’t married! Since that is, of course, impossible (the US, nor most other countries as far as I know do not issue “not married” licenses or certificates). So the solution, according to the Italian legal system, is to declare in front of a judge, with two witnesses, that one isn’t married and has no prior obligations.

“Hi Marco, you doing anything next Tuesday? No? How would you like to take the morning off work to be a witness in front of a judge, to attest to the fact that I am not, indeed, married elsewhere to the best of your knowledge?” Luckily Marco is a good friend, and took the time off. I have lots of friends here, but that notwithstanding, people are hard workers here, despite stereotypes to the contrary, and can’t easily just take a morning off work. So it took a bit of work to find another “testimone” (witness), yet find him we did – Ilenia’s friend Domenico, to whom we are eternally grateful.

We woke up very early on Tuesday and rushed off to Cittadella for our 9:30 AM appointment. Cittadella? The attentive reader with some sense of the lay of the land in the Veneto wonders why we are going to Cittadella when the city of Padova is the “capoluogo” or administrative center of the Padova province.

Indeed, we were unable to make an appointment with a judge in Padova. Ilenia went to the local office (phone calls met with nothing more than endless ringing or voice message systems) to ask for an appointment. After waiting around to actually speak to someone while gazing at the various ‘amusing sayings’ hung on the wall, such as “hombre que trabaja pierde tiempo” (a man who works is wasting time), she finally was able to ask about making an appointment. After thumbing through pages of empty paper, the functionary told her that “no, we don’t have anything free” (Ilenia’s father still suspects that the clerk just wanted a bribe). I tried to make an appointment in another office in Este, only to be greeted by a woman with a southern accent who was also to be noted for her singular lack of knowledge regarding the possibility of making an appointment in the office where she worked.

We were able, finally, to make an appointment with the office in Cittadella, a half-hour north of Padova, where we found ourselves heading early one morning, witnesses in tow. On our arrival, we quickly located the office building we sought, in the beautiful historic center of town. And a scenic town it is – Cittadella was an fortified outpost of Padova when it was a city-state in the middle ages, and it still preserves its medieval character, and high city walls, nearly intact.

What followed was Italian bureaucracy at its most glorious… worried about being on time, we hurried inside, only to find no reception or information desk telling us where to go. So we had a look around, finding an office that seemed plausible (“criminal cases”… no, that’s not us…), and asking. No, go to the next floor up, to the left, then left and right, then in the door. They don’t know either – “no, go downstairs again, and the first door on your right”. Did they know? No, but they gave us a room number to ask in “down the hallway, take a left, second door on the left”. And where should we end up? The first room we asked in! After a few more laps, we finally ascertained that we were to wait for the judge outside her chambers. Uh oh – the room with the huge crowd waiting outside waiting impatiently – it was by this time around 10, our appointment was at 9:30, and some people had appointments at 9, and there was no sign of the judge. More worryingly for us, some of the appointments were printed on a piece of paper outside the door, but ours was nowhere to be seen.

As the judge finally arrived and started seeing people, a gnawing doubt began to grow… perhaps on the phone they hadn’t actually written down the appointment or had otherwise made a mistake? At about 10:30, I couldn’t stand it any longer – I was, to put it mildly, irate. The next time the judge got up to call people, I “cut her off at the pass” and asked if she could at least confirm that we were on the waiting list.

But lo and behold, instead of more cold shouldering, bureaucratic runarounds, and general rigmarole, I was reminded of the “other side of the coin”, of dealing with people in Italy. On the one hand, you have the convoluted rules and regulations, but on the other, people can be very kind and accommodating. The judge, Paola Cameran, courteously ushered us into her office right away when she heard that all we had to do was this simple sworn statement. She apologized for the delays, explaining that she had been kept by paperwork of her own thrust upon her at the last minute by the minions of functionaries who spend their days… toiling would not be an appropriate word, let’s say plodding in the offices there. She explained exactly what we had to do, which preliminary papers we were to fill out and where. Very professional.

I had been preparing a list of choice comments about the proceedings in my head, but despite the earlier frustrations, it was such a breath of fresh air to be dealing with a quick-witted, competent human being that it mostly restored my natural calm.

Which was good, because to get the papers filled out so that the judge could sign them, we had to return to one of the resident bureaucrats. This woman had a slow, vacant stare that would, after asking me various questions, move back and forth between me and the forms to be filled out, at which point, almost imperceptibly, motion would follow, and another bit of the paperwork would be filled in, letter by letter. I was reminded of a tree sloth.

Back down to the judge, who went about adding her signature to the paperwork, having our two witnesses declare that indeed, “This really is David Welton and he is not to the best of their knowledge married elsewhere”, with a smile and manner that conveyed a certain commiseration at the absurdity of the entire procedure, a waste of time for an honest person, and no impediment to a dishonest person. She kindly remarked that my Italian was very good, congratulated us for our wedding, and sent us on our way.

The last step in this marathon was a trip back to the ‘comune’ to authorize the “publication of the banns”, which means that our names were published so that anyone who so desired could speak now, or forever hold their peace.

With that taken care of, we were in the home stretch. Suits, rings, flowers were all purchased, in addition to the “bomboniere” (useless little token gifts that you must give to your wedding guests – I let Ilenia take care of that one!). Things were pretty good. Just a few days to go, but we were ok, just a few items left to take

Like some kind of mythical struggle, we had to have one more go-round with bureaucrats before the big day… over the “live music” license. We really wanted some music to keep our wedding from being the typical “sit down and eat, then waddle away 5 hours later” sort of affair that many weddings here end up. We’d found a duo ( that we liked, who were capable of doing a good variety of music. However, like pretty much everything else here, playing music is not allowed without the government’s authorization. And more often than not, there is not a blanket one-time fee as many places do in the states, but you have to pay for each performance. But… we wanted the music, so Ilenia went down to the local office to pay the fee. Hah! It’s never that easy!

We live in the province of Padova, whereas the “event” is in the province of Vicenza, and for some reason rooted perhaps in the age of medieval city states, the offices of the SIAE (the government ordained music-tax Mafia) are unable to issue permits for music in other provinces, so the day before our wedding found me cruising around Vicenza trying to find the office before it closed for the day (at this point it will come as no shock to you to hear that they’re not open afternoons…). The best part is the detailed questions they ask you about your event – will people be dancing? That costs more. I was tempted to ask if maybe toe-tapping was ok if we didn’t pay for the dancing license, or if the dancing license covered touching girls’ behinds during slow dances, or if that’s extra.

In any case, with that out of the way, we were well and truly ready!

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