by Markus Studeli
Contacts with law enforcement agents and other officials in foreign countries are normally expected to be unpleasant, especially if one is not fluent in the language. I learned at the age of 15, on a trip to the city of Luino in Northern Italy, that this is not always the case.
Luino is famous for its big street market that takes place every Wednesday. Half the town is blocked off from traffic. The Piazzas and narrow lanes are packed with stands offering everything from local food to lawnmowers. Thousands of pedestrians make it difficult to move against the general flow.
Being one of many tourists, I submerged myself into the big crowd and began to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the place. Suddenly, I began to experience the symptoms of food poisoning, probably caused by one of the many ice creams I had enjoyed in the summer heat. It’s one of the last places one would want to experience a loss of control over all bodily functions. Being a teenager, I was deeply embarrassed by the commotion that I caused among fellow tourists and stand owners. Their reactions ranged from disgust to concern.
When a police officer approached and began to question me in incomprehensible Italian, it did not make me feel any better. The officer soon gave up on his attempts to communicate and began to act. He took out his walkie-talkie and soon we heard the horn of a police car, plowing its way through the crowd.
Dirty and stinking as I was, I was put into the front seat of the small Alfa Romeo. The driver steered his car through the narrow alleys of the old town, opening the way with his lights and horn. Once out of the crowd I admired his high speed driving skills as he drove up the winding road to the hospital, even though my condition did not really warrant it.
We arrived safe at the local hospital and I was immediately seen to. When I woke a couple of hours later, I felt considerably better. A doctor explained me what it was I had suffered from and what they had done to me. He let me contact my parents, told me to rest and spared me the paper work. My parents never received a bill. There were never any records at the hospital to show that I had been there.
The absence of bureaucracy and the way in which the Italian police and hospital officials handled my case impressed me deeply. The officer could have called an ambulance, which would have spared the front seat of his police car, but probably would have taken three times longer. At the hospital, they could have insisted I fill out the foreign paper work, which they didn’t. They probably neglected quite a few official procedures and did what compassion and common sense bid them to.