I’ve been putting off writing this account because every time I think about it I want to s-c-r-e-a-m. I will try to keep it brief, but I shall fail. And before I start on the Tale of Woe, you should know that Italy is justifiably proud of its delivery of excellent public water. They’ve worked hard to see that safe water is universally available, and they’ve done a great job at that. But.
In September I casually opened our water bill. It comes twice a year and is usually in the neighborhood of E 30-40. I almost fainted when I saw the amount due on the new bill: E 3,276.00. Now I thought I’d seen everything outrageous that Italian utilities could hurl at us when, after five years, the electric company finally took an actual meter reading and sent us a bill in excess of E 800. But E 3,000? Surely this was a typo.
It was not a typo. We had, unbeknownst to us, a leak, a ‘perdita’, from our supply pipe.
Well, ya big dummies, I hear you thinking – didn’t you even notice the ground was wet or something? Well, no. We didn’t. The black plastic pipe that brings water to our house originates at a ‘contatore’ (a water meter which is also the site of the junction with the water main) about half a kilometer up the road from our house. It crosses under the road, and then runs down a very steep torrente, a river bed which is usually dry unless there’s been a lot of rain. The torrente is very narrow and runs between our neighbor Giovanni’s house and the property of other neighbors, the Trattoria Rosa family. It is, by and large, invisible. The pipe then runs under the road again and then goes underground to arrive at our house.
Neither the Captain nor I was able to scramble up the torrente to look for a pipe problem – it is that steep. We called our trusty friend Giovanni, the Human Backhoe, the very strong Romanian who has his own building business now. He arrived in a couple of hours with a wiry young man who was able to climb up the rocky stream bed.
He found that our neighbor Giovanni’s wall had tumbled down into the torrente, breaking and burying our plastic pipe in the process. Hence the water loss was never visible, nor was there any noticeable decrease in water pressure at the house.
The Water Company (Acque Potabili) has an office in Rapallo which is open three mornings a week, and there you can speak with an actual person. Unfortunately she was unable to do anything other than give us the fax number for the main office in Torino where she instructed us to send a letter explaining the problem, along with photographs and the Backhoe’s bill (too many Giovanni’s in this story).
That’s right. Fax number. Acque Potabili doesn’t give you a phone number until things have become quite desperate. But they will call you, and a very helpful man did call. What he said amazed us. Here is the chronology of what happened, as we’ve pieced it together from this conversation:
n.b. Our normal usage for 6 months is +/- 100 cubic meters
Sept. 2007 – we received a normal bill from a normal Feb. 2007 reading
August 2007 – the meter was read, usage showed 824 cm
Feb. 2008 – we received an ‘estimated’ bill of about E 35, in spite of the fact there a reading had been made in August 2007
Feb. 2008 – the meter was read, usage showed 767 cm
Sept. 2008 – we received the gigantic bill
In the course of the conversation from Mr. Acque in Torino Louis learned that, based on our meter readings, our actual bill should be in the neighborhood of E 6,500. In that conversation Mr. Acque said they would reduce the bill to E 2,500.
We have also been in touch with neighbor Giovanni’s family (he died earlier this year) and they are willing to discuss sharing responsibility with us. All our Italian friends have said, “But of course, it is the neighbors’ fault. Their wall fell on your pipe. They should pay.”
Another friend suggested we should charge the water company with threatening our health because the leak was there for so long that impurities could have entered our water, and they did nothing to notify us.
We have just received news that a telegram arrived this week threatening to turn off the water if the bill is not paid by Dec. 23. Merry Christmas! At least this time we’ve been given a telephone number and have found their web site with contact information; the Captain will call first thing tomorrow morning. And at least the exchange rate, which was $1.50 = E 1 when the bill arrived has improved to $1.27 = E 1 today. And thank goodness we have a wonderful friend who checks the mail and alerted us to impending trouble.
But still. Wouldn’t you think a company has some responsibility to bill in a timely fashion, and especially a responsibility to alert a client to a problem? We thought so, but evidently we were mistaken. (We must be becoming partially Italian since, in this case, ‘timely’ means six months later.) Think of the water that was wasted, for starters, then think of the size of the bill. It makes us both groan. There does not seem to be any board or commission that oversees the operation of monopoly utilities in Italy – at least not one that a consumer has access to.
Me? I’m waiting for the other shoe to fall. This big bill was based on a meter reading from February, 2008. What might the bill of February 2009, based on an August 2008 reading, have in store for us?