I See France

E-Commerce in Italy

It fell to me to find us an apartment in Rome. It took me about five minutes to do this. I went onto the Internet and found a Web-based Italian rental company called RomanHomes. I didn’t check them out; I didn’t ask for references; I just flipped through the list of apartments on their Web site, picked one overlooking the Piazza Campo dei Fiori, and cut a deal. When Tabitha asked me what I’d done, I lied and told her I’d spent all day researching the subject. It was a necessary lie. My wife disapproves of my tendency to find easy solutions to what are meant to be arduous tasks. In my experience, people who take a lot of trouble with their vacations invariably wind up with the same hassles as those who wing it, and then they have the added psychological torture of being irritated about being irritated. My wife disagrees, and there is no proving her wrong. When my plans go wrong, it is further evidence of the price I pay for my sloth and indolence. When her plans go wrong, it only proves the need for even more advance work.

At any rate, my first experience with an Italian Internet company began smoothly enough. I wired them a deposit; they e-mailed back a confirmation. But as our departure day neared, the man from RomanHomes on the other end of my e-mails, one Dr. Abate, stopped responding. At the bottom of one Dr. Abate’s old e-mails was a phone number, so I called it. No answer. I tried again the next day: same result.

It is amazing how clumsy e-commerce becomes when the seller ceases to be e-. The Internet quickly loses its magic. After three days of calling I realized it would have been simpler for me to fly down to Rome for the day. Soon I was spending half the day wondering whether RomanHomes actually existed and the other half phoning the only number I had for Dr. Abate. Finally, after about 20 rings, Dr. Abate himself answered one of the calls. He was testy. “What do you want?” he asked. When I told him I merely wanted to confirm our imminent arrival at RomanHomes, he shouted at me: “You are not allowed to call me about that! You are a prospective customer! Prospective customers may telephone only between hours of 11:30 and 12 o’clock!”

Then he hung up.

I called back, indignant, but it only made him angrier. He shouted even more loudly: “I am very busy! I have very many e-mails to answer! More e-mails than you can know!” His tone suggested a man facing a firing squad of electronic messages.

I tried to protest but he cut me off. His tone became weirdly calm. “When you arrive in Rome you will no longer be a prospective customer,” he explained. “You will be a new tenant. Then you can call also between 12 and 2.” Then he hung up on me again.

The man was clearly unhinged. What had I been thinking, sending money blindly to an Italian Internet company? I thought, “Here we go, one more piece of evidence to be used against my case for sloth and indolence.” The night before we were due to leave I went down to the kitchen and announced to wife, child, and jeune fille au pair, “I’m not sure we actually have a place to stay in Rome.” They were all sweet about it, which of course only made me feel guiltier about having lied about all the trouble I’d gone to in the first place.

I should have had a little more faith in Italy, where the first rule of life is that everything always works out fine. We arrived at the Rome Station, piled into an oversized taxicab, and drove to the Piazza Campo Dei Fiori. True to his word, Dr. Abate was there to meet us. He was as nervous and jittery in person as he’d been on the phone. Sweat poured down the sides of his face. His natural speaking voice was closer to a shout. He couldn’t have been more welcoming. He offered advice about the neighborhood and had even found a crib for Tallulah. I felt remorse for the ill will I had harbored: What I had taken as rudeness was obviously just a lack of composure. Perhaps he was even a bit deaf.

He swapped the keys for the rent—he had insisted on being paid in cash dollars—and left. Once he’d gone I realized a) we could not find the dryer to go with the brand-new washing machine; b) we didn’t know our own phone number; and c) we couldn’t figure out how to open the front door. It appeared to be bolted into the ceiling. We were, more or less, trapped.

I checked my watch: 2:05. Five minutes past the deadline for tenants to call Dr. Abate. I called anyway. “How many times do I have to say!” he shouted, before I could ask how to get out of the apartment. “Do not call me! I have many e-mails I must answer! If you have a question, you must e-mail!” Then he hung up on me again. It may take a while for Italians to adapt to the Internet.

Dr. Abate clearly took the view that if you leave the tenants locked inside an apartment for long enough, they will solve their own problems. Tabitha found the dryer coiled up inside a drawer in the kitchen. She even got it up and running:

At length, we found a way out the front door and ventured into our piazza where all hell was breaking loose. The people in the piazza made Dr. Abate seem calm and collected.