Friday, November 1, 2019

"Highly recommended": A Tidbit From Dottoressa

The shirt says "Totti is my uncle." Drawing by Suzanne Dunaway.

An excerpt from the "Wet Paint On My Shingle" chapter of Dottoressa: An American Doctor In Rome:

Back in my greenhorn days in Italy, when I was practically fresh off the boat, a hospital colleague asked me how they selected among applicants for medical school in the States. “College grades, mostly,” I answered, “But also scores on a Medical College Admission Test, a personal interview, recommendations . . .” He chortled and said, “Allora tutto il mondo รจ paeseSo the world is just a small village—even in the great America you have to know somebody.” I was mystified, not realizing that when I had translated recommendations as raccomandazioni I had produced the Italian word for having someone powerful pull strings in your favor. Case in point: a breast cancer patient called Milan’s famous Tumor Institute and was given an appointment a month later. Then she discovered she knew someone who knew someone who knew its Chief, Professor Veronesi, and was squeezed in the next day. 
Glossary: raccomandazione
A nudge from friends in high places that helps you land a job, a telephone line, a boot camp close to mamma. Traditionally offered by a politician in return for votes or support. La Repubblica editorial: “Italy is based on the raccomandazione, you need one even to get what’s yours by right.” A raccomandazione has no pretense of being based on merit, and is never put into writing.
According to author Roberto Saviano the protagonists of one major scandal in Naples sincerely had no idea they were doing anything wrong because no money had changed hands, only favors such as giving someone’s brother-in-law a job. The idea that the innocuous and ubiquitous raccomandazione is a form of corruption was greeted by many, says Saviano, “with genuine stupor and indignation.”
As an examining physician for the Social Security Administration, I once experienced the frisson of being the object of a genuine raccomandazione: an under-minister phoned to let me know how displeased the Minister would be if a certain Signora was not given a pension. It was slightly disappointing to find on examination that the Signora in question was morbidly obese and diabetic, thus actually meeting the criteria for disability. Pension applicants devoid of connections sometimes offered small gifts, which I would gently push back across the desk. Once I made an exception, when an elderly woman brought six eggs her chickens had laid two hours earlier. The crime of her bribe paled before the crime of leaving those fresh eggs uneaten. I reprimanded the patient but accepted the loot and handed it around to my staff, who proceeded to stick pinholes in both ends and suck ’em raw. 
I used pull once myself, to fix a traffic ticket. I had entered a freeway by mistake, asked the guys at both toll booths what to do, made a U-turn and drove off as they instructed, and a month later got socked with a fine for half a million lire (more than $500). I called a politician friend, he must have called somebody, and . . . the fine dropped into a black hole. What a perverse pleasure sprouted in my bosom from this tiny dabble in Italian-style transgression! Italians sometimes try these tricks in other countries, irritating the hell out of people.
Being somebody is even more important than knowing somebody. One friend happens to share a name with a star soccer player, and when cops see his license they tear up the speeding ticket. When a patient of mine got admitted to the San Giovanni Hospital for coughing up blood, I had a gastroenterologist friend who works there stop by to chat up the docs, so they’d know she wasn’t just a random carcass. 
A musicologist pal in the States once wrote asking me to go to the Museo Braschi, near Piazza Navona, and buy a postcard of a particular painting that featured a small orchestra. I walked over, saw they didn’t sell postcards . . . and when I tell the story to an Italian that’s as far as I get. “You should have gotten in touch with me,” one interrupted, “My sister-in-law works in the Art Ministry!” Another: “I have a friend who knows the director of the Villa Giulia Museum, she could have made a phone call!” What actually ensued was that I asked a guard, he opened the door to the administrative wing, and I knocked at the office of the museum Director. When she heard my request she complained about the trashy exhibit that was hiding my painting behind a panel, searched unsuccessfully through her personal lecture slides for one that would do, and finally arranged for a museum photographer to come in the next week and take the picture that is now reproduced in my friend’s book. Despite what Italians think, you don’t always need a raccomandazione
This excerpt appeared as "Pulling the Strings" in my July Bedside Manners column for The American In Italia. 


  1. Marvellous! Love how you ended that story....also worth mentioning that I've been told by Italians that our (British)expectation that the state will help us seem naive to them. Their own institutions fall far short, hence the reliance on and acceptance of "raccomandazione"....

    1. A great point. Certainly the virtual absence of all institutions beyond the family means that family or quasi-family relationships in the form of raccomandazioni are likely to fill the void.