When I first began to frequent this town, many things were new and strange to me. The post office, like the bank, a coffee bar, the market, all have their rules and particular quirks. It might take many years of experience to understand the subtle nuances of these places, but things don’t change rapidly here, and the basics are rapidly absorbed. A visitor might be well advised to contemplate the following.
1985, any day: You have a number of errands to run this morning, and you opt to arrive early at the Ufficio Postale to beat the crowds. Your letter, or package, or whatever business brings you here, cannot be taken care of in any other way. And although you know you will regret it, you step into the peculiar world of the state-run Italian post office.
Upon entering the post office, be aware that there will be some confusion as to where you should go. There will be a choice of three or four windows, one open, maybe two, one closed, maybe one which is undetermined. You will try to find a line to wait in, but you will probably be unable to find one, as there are no lines. If it is a day when pensions are handed out, the sheer number of older people, all shorter than you and dressed in dark clothing, will be daunting. Many are here to make a deposit or withdrawal from their postal savings accounts, and account ledgers will have to be scrutinized thoroughly before the user will move away from the window. Interest and benefits will be discussed. Gas, electricity, water, these bills may only be paid in person, here. There will be a solid mass of people jockeying for position, some grumbling, most acting bored, all of them using all their available senses to commit to memory the invisible order which will determine “the next person in line.” If you are a foreigner, or from an Anglo Saxon country, good luck! You will be unable to keep track accurately. Personal space in non existent, and elbows and hips will touch. If it is winter, the crowd will exude a pungent odor, as people wash often, but dry cleaning winter coats and sweaters is prohibitively expensive.
Minutes crawl by, an hour. You will have the vague impression that your turn is approaching, noting that those who arrived ahead of you are surely fewer. Luck will be with you if you arrive at your window and it is still open for business. There will be no justice for those who wait in vain, confident that their turn in imminent, and find that their clerk has gone on to some mysterious “other” place. This line is closed. No eye contact will be made if your former clerk is still behind the counter. You may start your wait anew.
Sometimes, without warning, a new window will suddenly open up for business. Oh lucky day! But wait, the people who came in after you are already shifting toward it with blazing speed for such ancient folk, and you are left again at the outermost boundary of this new mass of people. Your protests will be met by icy stares. Sometimes a sympathetic witness, also suffering this unfair reordering of position, will second your protests. A hearty discussion about post office etiquette will result, but no one will actually give up any ground. You may suggest, as I did myself on many occasions, that a line, behind which all comers wait until there is an opening, would alleviate the suffering associated with this ordeal. Your suggestions will be met with blank stares. One or two people will observe that such measures are effective in other countries, but would never work here.
When you arrive at the counter, finally, you should expect to be told that your particular item of business cannot be addressed at this window, and you should have known in advance to go to another. Eye contact will be scrupulously avoided. After all, you should have known that the generic term “packages” does not refer to international mail! If your package is acceptable for shipment, you must place it in the Star Trek style cylinder and spin it into the bulletproof no man’s land where the clerk will extract it as the chamber revolves. If, by chance, you are in the right place, your item, if outgoing, will not have been properly prepared. New day, new rules. You must return home to practice your packaging skills. And if you are there to pick up an item, it will have been mysteriously misplaced. Even though you received an official yellow notice slip that you should pick it up, (and soon!), it will be lost somewhere behind the counter or in the maze of back rooms. You will be assured of its presence, but you must come back later.
Maybe you would prefer to receive your mail at home, but outside of the city limits this is not an option. But if official eyes have fallen upon you for some inscrutable reason, the post office may come to you! You will receive a raccomandata brought to you personally by the postman or woman, the same who cannot bring your mail to your home because your home is too far away for such frivolous use of postal time and gasoline. But before you can receive this important letter, you will receive a visit the day before by the same postman/woman. Why the duplicate visit? Why, to inform you that you will be receiving the official letter the day following today! You must sign today, just as you must sign again tomorrow when the letter arrives. Officially. I often wonder if this chain of letter-bringing might become the stuff of nightmares, a continual announcement of an announcement that, as announced, will be announced. But all is well in the real world, and the taxpayer absorbs this cost, as well as so many others, in silence.
2012, another day: The yellow line, applied to the floor with the brightest of fluorescent paint, crosses from one side of the post office to the other, creating a division between the served and the not-yet-served. People are massed behind it, jockeying for position, grumbling and milling nervously, hoping to be the next person “up.” All else remains the same.