The long-distance operator charges for a wrong number but the customer, although angry, resigns himself to paying. The airline capriciously canceled its flights, but the furious would-be traveler only curses.

Drivers cope with a street that has gone unrepaired for a year by choosing an alternate route. Newspaper readers shake their heads at reports that the undersecretary's wife was involved in illegal capital export and turn to the sports page.

In the midst of the indifference and resignation that has reached levels here unknown to the United States, one Italian stands out. Eight years ago, Milanese industrialist Alberto Bertuzzi decided that it was time for him to take an interest in public affairs. His methods -- unusual and controversial in a country where most individuals reject first-person action or delegate it to Italy's highly ideological parties -- have won him the title of "Italy's Ralph Nader."

The frequent comparison here with Nader is inaccurate because Bertuzzi works alone, does not have much faith in associations and hopes primarily to stimulate other individual Italians to "stop being passive subjects" on community issues.

Armed with a copy of the Italian constitution, the penal code and the ample resources of his profitable fruitjuice firm, this 65-year-old businessman has been giving his acquiescent countrymen an unprecedented lesson in civic affairs.

Over the last decade, Bertuzzi has arranged for bridges to be repaired, forced Venice to act against the pigeons that damage irreplaceable monuments, caused airplane routes to be altered, shut down illegal strip mines and persuaded polluters to mend their ways.

He has also fought an ongoing battle for full financial disclosure by Italy's privilege-hungry public officials and focused public attention on what he calls "the bad habits of power." The result is that many Italians are slowly beginning to realize that a single individual can make his voice heard.

The "conversion" of Bertuzzi came in 1970 when this businessman-scientist-inventor was recovering from a bone fracture resulting from a motorcycle accident.

"Immobilized for the first time in my life, I began thinking about myself and came to the conclusion that until then I had done little else than worry about my personal interests," he said. "So I decided to try and give back to society something of what it had given me."

Suspicious of ideology and reluctant to join a party, Bertuzzi decided to work on his own. At his home on Venice's Grand Canal, he almost caught his foot in a gaping hole in the planks of the wooden Bridge of the Accademia.

Most people would have grumbled and walked on but Bertuzzi, enraged, fired off letters to Venice's mayor and commissioner of public works. When they failed to set a timetable for the repairs. he warned the commissioner that if the major pedestrian thoroughfare was not repaired within two weeks he would file a complaint charging him under the penal code with failure to perform his duty.

Looking back, Bertuzzi says, "I must admit I was scared, in a way typical of those who for years have considered themselves subjects rather than citizens." Repairs on the bridge began promptly.

Since then he has involved himself in hundreds of parliamentary interrogations, filed scores of complaints and bombarded magistrates, local officials, members of parliament and Cabinet members with letters.

Some Italians call Bertuzzi an Italian Don Quixote, vainly charging at the windmills of bureaucracy and self-interest. But Bertuzzi, who is now working on two civic education books, does not agree.

"Ten years ago no one here even knew what democratic participation meant. Today, I get 3,000 to 4,000 letters a year from people who have either emulated me or who are planning to do so."

Three of Italy's 20 regions have already instituted a local ombudsman whose function is to help resolve citizens' complaints.

The reason things often do not work well in Italy, said Bertuzzi, is that most people don't realize voting is only the first step -- they are concerned primarily with their private affairs.

"A century ago, when Italy was unified, we became Italians. We must now become citizens if we want our country to survive."