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Living Slow in Italy - Going Postal

Valerie Schneider

Post Office

The notice in our mailbox brought glad tidings of cheer from someone far-away. Bryan dutifully went to collect the parcel from the ufficio postale, hurrying home with a grin ... a package from his brother. We popped a festive CD in the stereo, burst open the wrappings and celebrated. Thanks to the Posta Italiana, Christmas lasts all year long!

It is always a surprise when there is mail in the box, given the notoriety of the Italian postal system. Who hasn't traveled in Italy and sent postcards home only to find them arrive a month or more later? The experience of trying to send or retrieve mail here is enough to make anyone go ... (groan) postal.

Post Office doors

First you must enter the building which is as well protected as a bank vault. This makes sense in an only-in-Italy kind of way since most of the post office's activity, oddly enough, involves banking-type transactions rather than postal business. In many postal locations you have to enter through a set of narrow sliding doors which close behind you, leaving you encased in a little glass cubicle where you wait for the inner set of doors to open and permit you access to the interior. You are presumably scanned for firearms while you stand in your fishbowl being sized up by those already inside. They will determine just how weak you are and this will play in their favor later.

Once you're deemed sufficiently benign to enter, you must figure out which sportello you need, because only one window is devoted to actual mail. Other windows are for paying bills and parking tickets, or for the Banco Posta. Another window seems always to be set aside for some kind of Very Important Business where several employees gather together going over paperwork while in deep conversation, ignoring the restless hoards.

Because Italy has a long tradition of rushing in a crowd to a window rather than queuing, the post office has installed a number machine. In theory this is a great idea to make things run more smoothly. In practice, it is as confusing as having no queue at all. The machine offers options according to the type of business you wish to conduct, so you must choose and press the correct button to obtain your number. No one knows which button to push. Women look at me pleadingly to help them. As if I knew! You close your eyes, hope you've chosen wisely, and receive a numbered ticket. Then you wait. People group together examining everyone else's tickets and keeping vigilant eyes on the digital signs, sighing and crying out if someone isn't quick enough with their business. Dead tickets lay on the floor, scattered evidence of those who gave up hope and departed.

Despite the number system, there are inevitably the deviants who feign ignorance and pretend the machine does not exist. They are nearly always elderly men, and they are wily old buzzards who hawkishly watch the windows and the people waiting to determine their moment to swoop in. They always peg me as prey, noting immediately that I'll be a push-over. They edge their way forward, usually saying they "only have a simple question ..." and upon reaching the coveted counter throw aside the current customer to state their own business, which predictably takes ten minutes. One such man did this to me, saying he only needed a couple of stamps. A couple? Try seventy. Which - you knew this was coming - they didn't have at the counter. When the clerk returned from some High Security Stamp Storage room in the bowels of the building, the man pulled out a stack of bills he needed to pay. When I tried to protest, he simply grinned. Unfortunately, my sadly-lacking linguistic abilities didn't permit me to say, "hey ya old fart, take a number and wait your turn!" Instead, I just glared – quite ineffectively – at him. I then turned my glare – also quite ineffectively – at the clerk who allowed him to butt his way into line in the first place. I'm a guppy among sharks.

Trying to successfully mail something once you've reached the window is another issue altogether, especially to a foreign destination. Sending Christmas gifts home took me the better part of the day as the clerk had to call in no less than three other workers to assist her, all joined together in loud debate and consulting some great book of wisdom for insight on how to mail a package, all the while I'm standing there thinking, "I'm inside a post office. Why can't they mail things?" I now refer to this institution as the Post Awful.

To be fair, I also had issues with my own nation's postal system. A few years after we moved to New Mexico, my grandmother wrote me a letter that was delivered more than a month after she sent it. It arrived battered and well-traveled in a plastic "we're sorry it's been ripped apart" envelope bearing markings from Mexico. Somehow it was routed south of the border before arriving in Albuquerque. My mom was indignant and complained about the "incompetent nincompoops who don't know geography from..." well, you know.

So, a couple years after that when she was sending a box of goodies that hadn't arrived after a few weeks, Mom was livid and stormed down to her post office in a rage and, with a map in hand, told them just how maladroit they were and then proceeded to give them a geography lesson on the difference between "NEW Mexico ... which IS a state in the Union" and regular Mexico, "which is a country". They assured her they would do all they could to find the package. Days passed without any word on the whereabouts of the absent parcel, when my stepfather arrived home and asked my mom, "Uh, hon, what's that box in the trunk of the car? It's been there for weeks!" (Poor Mom!)

Then we had an incident where our mail was stolen. For three days. During the time my passport was being renewed and expected any day. I frantically called the State Department to determine if my passport had been sent out. Fortunately they had not yet gotten around to my renewal. It arrived two weeks later by regular post without any kind of tracking or signature required. (For a passport!) It turned out the contract postal employee they'd just hired had been swiping all the mail from three or four subdivisions for her husband to rifle through and steal identities. Brilliant thieves that they were, much of the mail (or at least the remains of it) was found in their home.

And, let's not forget the box of books I shipped a year ago in anticipation of our move to Italy. It's never reached the shores of the bel paese and both countries claim it is the fault of the other's postal system. So bad are the postal problems in New Mexico that our senators had to intervene and hold meetings with the Post Master General to try to improve things. I've heard no word on whether there have been any changes.

My expectations on both sides of the Atlantic are low when it comes to the mail; it's just slower and I find I must be more aggressive to transact postal business here. Meanwhile, we'll keep our Christmas CDs handy in case gifts continue to arrive. You may want to note that my birthday is in November. Just to be safe, you may want to consider mailing things now.

A postscript by Pauline: Valerie and Bryan sent a parcel to me (presents from Italy!!) on March 1 and it arrived on March 19 in very good shape. Congratulations to both the Italy and New Mexico postal systems!

Package from Italy

Package from Italy: Ceramics, chocolates, card, maps, local paper!!

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2007

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