According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “A long history of organized postal systems in Italy began with the cursus publicus of the Romans.” We know from the writings of Procopius that through a series of stations, a relay system was developed that greatly increased the speed of long distance communication in ancient Rome. Each station maintained a generous supply of strong men and fresh horses which were able to travel the same distance in a single day that one lone rider could travel in ten.
However, as anyone living in Italy today can tell you, it seems that the Italian postal service has since returned to the lone rider system, hence ensuring that your electric bill is already ten days past due when it eventually arrives in your mailbox.
The Italian Post Office
The Ufficio Postale is a place where you go to accomplish all sorts of daily tasks. There is an incongruous array of services that confounds the uninitiated American who had always believed that a post office was a place from which to send packages. And paradoxically, the one thing that you often cannot do at an Italian post office is buy stamps.
When you enter through the front door, the first object that greets you is that little yellow machine which dispenses numbered tickets meant to keep the order. (Ha!) You have four or five options represented by buttons with various symbols indicating the available services—and you must select the correct one or else you may find that you’ve waited a long time only to start over again.
In any case, your number is irrelevant in many post offices, as the citizens of some towns have yet to appreciate the social benefits of adhering to the rule of “first come, first served.” There is jostling and angry looks and all manner of gamesmanship which supersedes the little scraps of paper which are viewed as a senseless attempt to impose order where order is unnecessary. Why mess with tradition, after all?
You may get angry with this attitude and be tempted to take it out on the postal employee who is talking on her cellphone behind the glass. However, this will do you absolutely no good. She has a very secure job and has no qualms about telling you precisely where you can put that package you wanted to send. Congratulations; now you can go back and take a new number. But at this point, I would advise you to try your luck at another post office—obviously, hai fatto una brutta figura (you have made yourself look bad) and your chance of success in this particular filiale (branch) are now next to zero.
So beyond mailing a letter, what else can you do at the Italian post office? Among other things, you can pay certain bills (assuming that they have arrived in your mailbox—can you appreciate the irony here?). If you’re retired, you can collect your pension check. You can renew your passport or buy health insurance. The list goes on. They offer banking services which are famously inexpensive and infamously erratic. There’s shopping to be had; books, CDs, t-shirts, and even cell phones. But again, often there are no stamps.
Adopt a friendly attitude
For the foreigner, the most important service is the Sportello Amico, where you can apply for your Permesso di Soggiorno (otherwise known as the Holy Grail mentioned in a previous post). While the word amico literally means “friend,” I wouldn’t count on creating any lasting bonds with the random postal service employee. You are merely a gnat buzzing around their head who is keeping them from their next coffee break. The best approach is to be polite but insistent. Don’t raise your voice, but don’t back down either. If you blink, you’re done—just go home. BUT, the chances are that if you persist long enough while maintaining your politeness through clenched teeth, they’ll give into your request just to make you go away.
You should apply this same attitude when dealing with any public agency. The first phrase out of their mouth is always, “No, it’s not possible.” This is the automated response that they’ve been reciting since birth. They know that 90% of foreigners will take this as the final word and just walk away. But as it turns out, “it’s not possible” is only the opening salvo; an invitation to verbally spar.
Italians seem to gain some sort of pleasure out of these exchanges, but are often “disappointed” by an American’s reluctance to engage. If you’re staying in Italy for the long run, you need to unlearn this tendency, as it will only lead to endless frustration. You’re in their country, so it’s incumbent upon you to learn their ways. We come from a country where everything is possible, so “it’s not possible” sounds like a truly hopeless situation and the perfect moment for a hasty retreat. In Italy, it’s merely the next phrase after, “buongiorno.”
Through the Gates of Hell
In this post I’ve attempted to impart a bit of my hard-earned wisdom to you, my kind readers. And these little pearls are valuable, no doubt. But the best advice that I can give you is precisely this: enter this den of chaos only when absolutely necessary. Remember the words of the great Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Dante placed this warning above the Gates of Hell, but it’s no less fitting at the Italian post office. So buy your stamps at the tobacco shop—and make friends elsewhere, too.