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.