High Drama at the Italian Post Office

Photo credit on image, OneDayInItaly.com

Post offices in America tend to be the territory of older people, retired people. People who like to buy special keepsake/commemorative stamps. The odd younger person who might need to mail a box somewhere. Small business owners or part-time residents who keep P.O. boxes for mail, as we do in Spokane.

Italian post offices are something else entirely.

As in France and elsewhere in Europe, Italian post offices (Le Poste Italiane) are a place to bank, transact immigration tasks, and more. I know this from my time in Strasbourg in 1996, when I opened a French bank account at the PTT (the historic Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones) not far from my student hall. I was attended to by a professional and sweet Vietnamese francophone immigrant with shiny black hair swept into a tight ponytail, deposited 1000 French francs, and received statements for years afterward with international postage. I suspect the account was closed sometime around 2000, after the entire balance had been spent on the postage to remind me that I continued to hold an active account at the Aristide Briand PTT branch in Strasbourg.

I am convinced that the Poste Italiane are a Napoleonic holdover, as are many of the organizational institutions of Italian civil society. In my imagination I see an long organizational lacuna starting with the sack of Rome and drawing to a close, more or less, with the arrival of the French. I know this is less than historically accurate. Various popes and Medici did what they could to organize and/or strategically disrupt their domains. But whenever I see a bored, uniformed functionary (is this even a word in English) sitting at a desk behind a window, and I take a number to get in line for the right person at the right window for my specific question, I think wryly, merci Napoleon, rolling my tissue number into a tiny fag.

Italian friends block out half-mornings on their calendar if they must attend to business at Le Poste. The lines are long, the functionaries sometimes efficient, more often frustrated, sometimes both. And yet the services aggregated at Le Poste are essential, and extend well beyond mailing a letter or a package. I have waited half an hour before on a weekday morning at the Poste in Piazza della Liberta to mail a postcard abroad. I have waited at the Poste in Cavour many times with our attorney to start or complete Italian immigration applications.

Remember this: I typically go to Le Poste with an attorney to transact my business.

Recently, my benefits with my employer underwent some key changes. I had a vision insurance claim to file, but because my benefits ended before I had ever even created a profile on the insurance’s website, I was required to file a paper claim. (As it turns out, I would had to file a paper claim regardless because I received the optometric services outside of the US.) So I found myself in 2019 compiling the translations and receipts and the claim form, and begging the French intern in the reception of my co-working space for a paper envelope. The sealed envelope sat on my desk for a few days. It made some round-trips to home and back in my backpack. I was delaying and avoidant.

I did not want to go to the post office. That way lies misery!

The kind Italian woman who sits next to me at work attempted to reassure me. Go to the one close by to us, on the viale; it is small, and never busy. You’ll be in and out in no time! I thought in relative terms and of the swiftness she had in mind. Sure, she’s Italian, but also savvy and international. I decided her idea of “no time” might closely approximate my idea of “no time.” So one morning in mid-May, I gathered my gumption and the thick envelope, and trotted the fifteen minutes to the Poste closest to my office.

The day was sunny. The office was not full. The lobby was calm. What’s this? No little paper number machine? I stood in line feeling weirdly unprepared without my paper number. Would they recognize my place in line? How in the world was order to be maintained? I was reassured that only two people were in line in front of me, both Italian men. The office sign indicated it closed at noon, but that was a long twenty minutes away. I felt on the brink of breaking the European post office curse that has plagued me since 1993.

Still, my palms were in a sweat. I was in a cultural crouch of flight or flight. You don’t know if you’ll be yelled at by an employee or a fellow customer in French/Spanish/Italian when in a post office in these lands. It really is an exercise in random outcomes. If nothing were at stake, it would also be a highly amusing cultural foray. But today I needed to get this claim mailed off. I was on a deadline for the insurance.

The man being served completed his business and left. The next man in front of me approached the window. A dispute ensued. Apparently she asked him for a document to receive his approximately 417 euros.

I have never had to show a document before, he said.

Please step away, sir, she said.

The woman, who was not young, began to count out a change drawer. I surmised the man’s pension payment was set to zero out the change drawer. Mi spiace, mi spiace, she apologized repeatedly aloud to the people in line, we only have one cassa, this is a small post office. People began filing in from the street and standing behind me. Soon five, six, seven, eight Italians were waiting, no doubt to transact their business prior to the noon closing time. I noted it was May 15 – perhaps a scheduled pension payout day. The man did not look old enough to me to even be retired, but, Italy.

Soon all the Italians realized that they might not, in fact, transact their business before closing time at noon. Those in line swiftly and collectively reached their boiling point. It began with muttering, to the ceiling, to the floor, then aside, with eyes cast down. Then to one another. Then the Italians began shouting at the woman as she painstakingly counted out coins.

You are useless and work in a useless office!

I might work in a useless office but I am not useless! she retorted. Daniele! she hollered. Aiuto per favore!

Daniele emerged (where had he been?), and started counting the centesimi with her. Other staff also seemed to be shouting at each other behind the thinly partitioned walls of the office.

Soon everyone was shouting at everyone, and making fair enough points, but was this really the time and place for those?
I thought not.
Apparently they all thought so.
Public shouting really rattles me.
This is a way I am congenitally Finnish/Scottish.

My hands got more and more sweaty. Just remain calm, I told myself. Your turn will come. You will get this envelope mailed. They’re not shouting at you. And yet the shouting alarmed me. Who does this in public?

Italians. Even northern Italians. Here we are, high up on the thigh of the hip boot, and there is screaming. Imagine this scene far south! I thought to myself by way of contrapositive thinking. It would be so much worse!

Then who should I see swan out of a back office but the older, elegant Italian attorney who offices on the piano terra of our palazzo. I always greet her by name. She is from a different era. Her mother is almost 100. Cristina practically feels like family.

Buongiorno, I said. I hesitated.

Her huge eyes further widened. Buongiorno! She was very surprised to see me at the little post office so far afield from Piazza D’Azeglio. Not much for further conversation, given all the shouting, she quickly scooted out of the cramped lobby and left.

The public unrest turned into a near riot between the pensionati and the dipendenti of the Poste. My post-traumatic memories from France and the PTT plagued me. I stayed around awhile to try to desensitize myself, and tried to laugh rather than be freaked out by the shouting and complete lack of civil filter.

Then the woman at the cassa put on her coat and left at noon, just as she said she would. On the dot. Everyone in line who had just been insulting her, her family, her job, her career, and her employer wished her a good day.

I finally folded too and left. Daniele continued to count coins while the man in front of me muttered, Incredibile, incredibile! The dipendente walked her bike next to me across the crosswalk. I silently wondered how much she hated her job, and how many more years she had to go before she retired.

I returned to my office with the insurance claim in hand, unmailed. I messaged Jason in frustration. Just bring it home, he said. I will take it to the Poste on Cavour and mail it tomorrow. And he did. No drama on Cavour! Approximate time: five minutes.

I wondered if I had manifested the situation at the little post office.

Back at the office, my deskmate Sofia could not believe the drama I’d encountered. I shrugged and said I’d more or less expected it. She said that nothing of the kind had ever happened to her before. I wanted to ask her, does she live in the Italy I live in? but clapped my mouth shut. Maybe I should have brought my attorney.

Italy versus Spain

Friday marked our three-year anniversary of moving back to Italy. We arrived directly from Norman, OK to Florence, a city we both knew well, Jason very well. Eleanor and Victor were much smaller, but no less rambunctious.

I returned to Italy with plenty of experiential knowledge; I have logged my time in the EU as a long-term resident in Spain, France, and Italy. Our year in Arezzo though held no candle to Florence. They are both Tuscan cities, but that is where the resemblance ends. I am an inveterate internal and external networker, and always seek to fit new information and scenarios into the framework of what I already know. (This was a way cooler skill before the interwebs took off.) As I prepared to get down to it, to fit myself and my family into communities in Florence, I thought back to my prior time in Italy, and in France. Technically, huge parts of these countries form parts of the Mediterranean Basin, the Mare Nostrum, and so, particularly given their shared linguistic roots and climates, even a curious observer might conclude they share much in common culturally. But in culture, as in all things, nothing is as it first appears.

For years my acquired Spanish was near-native. A different, equally intense era heard me yapping away in acquired French and cracking jokes about any number of inappropriate topics. But these languages went to ground as the reality of our new life in Italy began to sink in. Italian is the lingua franca here, overlapping in my brain in confusing ways like a Jack Ezra Keats illustration. He’s that guy who wrote The Snowy Day and illustrated it with wet tissue paper collages in bright tones, intense colors that bled impressionistically into one another. I can close my eyes and see this book because it was read to me approximately 20 times a year until the fourth grade. My layers of languages began to bleed into one another, and coherence was disappearing. Note: Don’t go to an Impressionist if you’re interested in accuracy and realistic detail.

I have written before here about how Florence is like France. The French influence is palpable, those fleur-de-lis everywhere, the pomp introduced by the Medicis to the French court in the sixteenth century. Florence is in Italy, and has many characteristics of Italian culture. But Florence is also its own particular culture, borne of international banking and commerce when the rest of the world was barely in communication with people outside of their roaming range. In Florence, an astute cultural empath can detect traces of France, of England. Campo Arrigo, the old English battle camp from the fourteenth century, monikered for one King Henry (hence ‘Arrigo,’ or ‘Harry’), who camped there with the English mercenary John Hawkwood. There are whiffs of Germany, from much more recent decades, mostly in the form of the Kunsthistoriches Institute, the vestige of protecting or actively stealing treasures of Florentine art and learning during World War Two.

One culture that is detected not at all in Florence is Spanish culture. Why is this?

It is true that Roman Hispannia was a part of the Roman Empire. Yet Hispannia must have felt a bit of an outpost, sort of a Lubbock, TX of 1920 but with its own solid history and much better wine. I wonder at times if Spain lost some of its historic connection to the Roman Empire after roughly 600 years of Umayyad rule. It is quite possible that the rest of the geographic and cultural relics of the Roman Empire felt that Spain had been split away and become something other than Roman for awhile.

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was under Spanish control for centuries. I’d have to look it up, but very likely it was Charles V of Spain who annexed the toe and heel of the boot, along with Sicily’s triangular lily pad. I have never understood why that chunk of southern Italy is ‘the second Sicily,’ but suffice it to say, to this day there is much Spanish culture to intuit in southern Italy. The dialect, the late hours, the pastel Baroque architecture could not be further from Tuscan ideals. Perhaps the gender politics as well in Southern Italy take more after Spain than Italy at large. Scholars have shown how Spain’s centuries of economic domination and entrenched, heavy-tax hungry bureaucracy bled out southern Italy so that what is the mezzogiorno, or southern Italy, of today continues to struggle and lag behind everywhere north of Rome. The decadent absentee landlords cared little for the welfare of their indentured subjects, scraping to get by each harvest year.

My Spanish language continued to sink below the waves of Italian as that ocean increased in surface area and in depth. If I caught a snip of Spanish in town, tears sprang to my eyes. I saw a tourist couple from Cordoba two years ago who asked me to take their picture, and when they complimented me on my accent, I jauntily returned the compliment. Laughter erupted, who cared about that picture? In a different year I probably would have been invited for, and then joined them in, a drink in one of the bars on Via dei Servi.

In the 36 months since we arrived, my shadow Spain has felt like a petulant friend in the background, wanting to know why we don’t hang out anymore. Spain, I am sorry, I want to tell her, Italy is just that demanding. I’ll never forget all those happy Spanish times, but Italy – can we talk about Italy. And Spain says no and shuffles away in sniffles.

What is it about Spain that I miss, in contrast to Italy?

Spain don’t care. She is insouciant. She is a survivor. She is a bit rough around the edges, but her appeal is found in her steel core. Italy cares. A lot. Italy wants to look nice. She wants you to think she looks nice. Spanish doesn’t even have a catchphrase like ‘bella figura.’ Spain just is. Spain is the Lost Generation Gertude Stein in Paris to the Murphys in Nice. Spanish people look and act as they wish. If you don’t like it, go find some other friends. Italians (Florentines) are constantly checking one another, looking, looking sideways, surreptitious side-eye, seeing who looks nice and who does not look nice, who is suave and who is stumbling. The Italians here might help you, but they might judge you after hours. (I realize these are gross generalizations and would like to offer a sincere apology now to my local Italian friends, who have been handpicked for their international mien.)

I had two serendipitous conversations last week, within days of each other: one with a Spanish woman from Malaga, also named Monica, and one with an Italian friend, Mariella, who looks like an Italian Heather Graham, originally from Palermo but relocated to Florence, and now dividing her time between Florence and Madrid.

La otra Monica and I were at an agriturismo with a couple other families. She came to Italy a couple decades ago, and stayed for love, as is so often the case. (Oh, Italy …) Even all these years on, she confessed that she found Florence cold and difficult to navigate, the people reserved and full of judgement for outsiders. Her Italian, she said, never felt natural; she could never feel fully at peace here. I felt a cool wave of realization and shock roll over me as I realized – I thought my adjustment struggles had more to do with not effortlessly mastering Italian! But now I see that perhaps I am experiencing Italy from a core Spanish identity, and my responses and confusions are near identical those those of a Spaniard! This was a revelation. Just hearing her explain all this in Spanish and I was listening with tears in my eyes.

I saw Mariella at a work-related event with Jason; Mariella used to work for the RFK Center for Human Rights, headquartered in Florence (nice job, Kennedys). Her accent is so Madrid that I had to laugh, slightly nasal, with an agreeable inflection uptilt at the end of each sentence. She loved Madrid, she said, having moved there for a PhD program at la Universidad Carlos III. After years in Palermo and Florence, Madrid was comfortable, was home for her. If she could swing it she’d move there for good.

‘And you know,’ she said, her blue eyes widening, ‘the Spanish can actually run a city, unlike what so often happens in Italy. I think,’ she continued, leaning in conspiratorially, ‘ that their dictatorship is a much more recent memory. They follow rules, they work together, unlike the anarchies that reign in Italy.’

I chuckled but she had a point. I could see it. Italy’s never won points in the global arena for calm administration and management. Not since Rome, anyway. The Roman hangover has lasted approximately 1600 years. Well, Florence did alright, it could be argued, for a few centuries in there; the Florentines somehow managed things when they weren’t launching boiling oil through one another’s living room windows.

It is tempting to draw a line around the Mare Nostrum and attempt to draw conclusions. And yet those conclusions retreat like a stormcloud on the horizon.

I will have more to say on this topic. My Spanish subaltern is diminished, but not deceased, and returns to life when Spanish culture draws near. How strange to have invested decades of travel, inquiry, research, two degrees into a culture and language that is so close, yet so far, from where we are now. And yet I am happy here, in Florence. It is a new set of challenges well-suited to me. But, oh, Spain …