The Italian Method of Preserving Tax Revenue

Italians are brilliant.

I’m not talking about daVinci and Michelangelo, here. I’m talking about modern-day Italians.

Modern-day Italians in government.

Modern-day Italians in the branch of the government devoted to tax collection.

Now, I am aware the above statement tends to, shall we say, contradict current news-media coverage. But I have my own experience:

Over Christmas, I shopped in Italy. Specifically, for shoes. Specifically, five pair of shoes. Italian suede shoes make me purr like a cat in a sunbeam.

Being Catholic, such excessive (or really any) self-indulgence makes me feel guilty. (See related post on cleaning ladies). However, the Euro was tanking over the holidays, when my husband and I were on vacation. And also, there is the European Union tax refund. The VAT tax is 20%.  That’s some serious pasta-dough.

So with this flimsy but time-hallowed justification (Never mind how much I’m spending! Look how much I’m saving!), I was lured into a shop by an absolutely mouthwatering pair of boots with the most cunning buckle you have ever seen. And I ended up buying five pairs of shoes.

And then I tried for my tax refund.

With all my shoes packed up in shopping bags, I reminded the sales clerk I was a foreigner. Despite my barely intelligible attempts at Italian, horrible American sneakers, and embarrassingly baggy American clothes, the sales clerk expressed surprise. My accent was so good! Was I not from Naples?

No. America.

Was I sure I wanted the refund? It would take time. My husband already looked impatient.

I was sure.

The sales clerk, now cranky, brought out a thick binder. After repeated snapping and unsnapping, he extracted the correct form. There was an instruction card, written in tiny type, in four languages, in the back pocket of the binder.

He shrugged his complete befuddlement. I moved to his side of the counter. Together, we spent the next fifteen minutes filling out the form while Chris answered email.

Empowered by this experience, I shopped some more and filled out more forms. I found the forms festive, really. Practically every store had paperwork in a different color.

Then, after some time searching the tiny side-streets of Milan, Chris and I found the tax refund shop marked on our hotel tourist map. A clerk looked at our forms. She shook her head, pointing to all the different colors. Different color, different company. Where was the orange form? Her company was orange.

Outside, after a brief discussion, Chris and I agreed to soldier on—a kind of experiment to see if we could actually succeed in getting our money back.

We found another tax refund company. A blue one for our blue forms. But after waiting on their long line, we were once again refused. While our colors did match, their particular forms required a stamp at customs.

The clerk (perhaps breaking with protocol) offered the following helpful advice:  There were many counters for all the tax refund companies at the airport. Honestly, she said, it would be easier to do it there.

It was January 8th on the other side of customs at Milan’s Malpensa Airport. We saw a sign, like the star to the wise men.

It said, “VAT Tax refund forms stamped here.”

A few quick steps and we found the door for the VAT Tax Refund Stamp-Your-Forms Office. A handwritten paper taped to the wall instructed us to knock and wait. We did.

A short man in a blue sweater with three-day old stubble and smelling of cigarettes poked his head out.

“Are you from Switzerland or Norway?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“You must go to the other office,” he pointed out a route, past a long line of customs offices. “It’s on the other side.”

On we walked, following arrows, to the Non-Swiss-Non-Norwegian VAT Tax Refund Stamp-Your-Forms Office. The row of customs windows seemed to go on forever. My backpack grew heavier. Chris’ feet hurt. Though I have a bad sense of direction, we seemed to be going in a giant U.

We finally found the Non-Swiss-Non-Norwegian VAT Tax Refund Stamp-Your-Forms Office entry door.

A short man in a blue sweater with three day old stubble and smelling of cigarettes poked his head out.

I looked at Chris. Had he done something extreme? Like signed us up for an Italian reality show? A kind of intervention where desperate husbands enroll their shoe-addicted wives to chase the VAT Tax Refund White Rabbit?

But his face bore its own shocked down-the-rabbit-hole expression.

The short, cigarette-y man motioned us in.

He held up his hand, so he could finish with the Norwegian in front of him. The Norwegian subsequently exited out the Norwegian-Swiss door on the opposite side of the office.

Cheerfully, the man stamped the forms that required stamps. And then, with a certain gusto, he stamped the ones that didn’t require stamps. Then he sent us out the Non-Swiss-Non-Norwegian door.

Now late for our flight, Chris and I tag-teamed the rainbow of tax-refund counters, lined up like rental car agencies.

Finally, we had our Euros back.

Sighing, at last in my airline seat, I said, “Let’s never do that again.”

Chris agreed.

Here in New York City, there is also a tax-waiver process for foreign travelers. Tourists hand over their passport to the store cashier and are immediately exempted from our 8.9% sales tax.

I can just hear the Italians, chuckling at us.

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