Our first satirical column about daily life in Italy
By Lina Pizzi
The post office is the most simple system mankind has ever created. Directly from your home, by feet, car, scooter, bus, metro, you can reach the post office located where the anonymous, superior authorities have decided to place it.
Once arrived, the procedure is quite simple: you get a ticket with a number on it, you wait until the superior authorities have decided you have to wait, you go to the designated civil servant and you do whatever you need to do: ship a package, send a letter, make a money transfer, top up credit on your phone, get information on your balance, inquire about the letter you have never received or about the pack that has been lost, and so on and so forth.
All simple. This simplicity is only apparent, though. Let’s follow a common citizen in his adventure at the post office.
Italians have the tendency to go to the post office only when it is the only place left where you can solve a problem — or at least, not to complicate it further. They know that going to the post office means that you know what you want to do there, but also that it will take an indefinite time and that nobody will be moved by the fact that you have starving children at home wondering where is their caregiver, colleagues who may need you, or another important appointment somewhere else.
The post office is studied in a way that makes sure their opening time is only compatible with the schedule of a retiree. It usually opens at 8 in the morning. Apparently — and only apparently — this means that, technically, you can bring your children at school by 7:50, go to the post office, and have enough time to reach your office by 9.00.
The problem is that the queue is composed by hundreds of elderly people who have decided that the post office is also their social circle, and that the employees are their kind grandchildren: while they wait, they exchange their news, commenting the facts of the day — this explains why, although they are not on Whatsapp, they are all the time fully aware of current events, albeit they sometimes change the details. So, for example, if there is a rumor about two people who are buying a house, what you may learn after a couple of days is that they are heavily indebted, and therefore buying the house is a great mistake; or that the house itself — built by Giòst de Quél (Justin Son of That One) in the 40s — has the structure fundamentally mined, due to the fact that Giost de Quel was a heavy drinker, and so on and so forth.
When the employee finally calls one of them, they look surprised: for some hours they forget the reason why they went to the post office in the first place. While walking slowly towards the mythological employee, they try to find the fil rouge that brought them at the post office early in the morning. They don’t know how to open the conversation, so they bet it all on familiar stuff like: “Morning, how are you doing? How are the children?.” The employee, moved by all this kindness and interest coming from the old person, sighs for a moment and thinks: “isn’t it nice that, in a world that speeds all the time and where being fast means everything, this person is taking the time to speak to me, wondering how me, myself and my closest are doing? Oh, the infinite kindness and sweetness of the elders! Oh, how would it have been nice to be a postal officer 50 or 60 years ago!” The postal officer then replies, briefly but kindly, precise but not verbose. In the meantime, old people cannot recall the reason why they arrived there. Therefore they take out their phone. After all, while we’re at it, why not to get a sim card from the Italian post, and ask to top up the credit? The solution to the initial problem, though, is worse than the problem itself, because now the priority is remembering the phone number.
In the meantime, the person who still lives with the privilege of being working class, starts looking disconsolate at the clock: “20 minutes in already, a lot of old people queuing, maybe, I say maybe, if stars align, only for this time…”. However, the guy knows that he has everything to lose by doing this move, because if old people sense that you are in a rush, well, they will feel it is their precise duty to teach you the pleasures of a slower life, and also a bit of manners, because if you show that you are pressed, you will reveal your most intimate secret: you believe that they do not have important matters which require postal officers to devote to them at least 30 minutes of their lives.
Now, once you’ve decided, you try the desperate move I’ve just described. In poker, it would correspond to move “all in”. So you approach an old lady: “Good morning ma’am, how you doing?”. This means that you’re trying to pass yourself off as one of them, someone who is there only looking for some innocent chat. The old lady will never ever find your question strange. She will actually think that you are someone nice, making her naturally start talking to you about her most secret medical issues in detail and, in some cases, with graphic details. Why have you done that, you fool? Because you wanted to move all in.
You hope to find a point in her speech where you can spontaneously create a link between her stuff and the pressing issue that makes very important for you to arrive to the postal officer before her. The fact that the lady will let you pass first, requires a lot of empathy and a lot of tact. If you introduce your children, she might say that her grandchildren are waiting at home as well, and she may start crying wondering if those innocent creatures will ever see their grandma again. If you introduce an horrible boss that will get very angry if you are late, she may say that the only way to not arrive late is to start the day in time, and therefore, you should join the queue at least 45 minutes before the opening time, as everyone does. She will not be moved by the fact that your children need for education, and this is precisely the reason why you send them to school. In exchange, the school demands them to arrive in time at 7:50 and leave at 12:30, as it is not a center for abandoned kids — and you may have serious issues if the school thinks that your children are getting abandoned.
Therefore, there are three possible outcomes: 1) you are now stuck with an old lady who is sharing a lot of details with you; 2) you are being given a lesson on how to properly live on this earth; 3) you are lucky and the person with whom the old lady wants to talk with is not arrived yet. Then, she will not mind switching places with you.
In this last case, you have made it. You have just to repeat this process with the whole queue, to finally arrive at the front desk: it’s like the sphynx, but reversed. Here the problem is not giving the correct answer, but asking the correct question.
The reader will forgive me if, instead of the serious and impartial analysis that the most revered reader is expecting, will find here an autobiographical reference. I went to the post office. I was there at 8. At 8:20, the post office opened. I got the ticket. I waited for 30 minutes and then it was my turn. I had to ship a package abroad. To reduce the hussle, I even decided to buy there the box in order to avoid issues. I packed the item in front of the postal officer, but then I asked the wrong question: “Is it possible to ship this package abroad?”.
She started asking me questions: my address, what was I shipping, my phone number, the address of the recipient, the recipient’s phone number. All this was easily audible from kilometers away. I gave all the information and she inserted them on the terminal. Now, the problem is that you cannot print the label, even if the officer has all the data on the computer. So I had to write with my handwriting the package label. Twice. One for the recipient, one for the sender. Then I pay. Luckily, it was one of the few post offices that accepts payments also not by cash. With “not by cash”, I do not mean “in nature”, but credit cards, cheques, bank transfers… All of this shall never be taken for granted. In fact — stupid me — I forgot to withdraw money before arriving. This inconvenience may have jeopardized the whole operation. All good, all set, it seemed that, even if we spent 20 minutes discussing minutiae, I could achieve the important mission of shipping a package abroad in less than one hour. I felt like the commander of Apollo 13, and mentally I was picturing the countdown on the finger of the employee who was about to press “confirm”: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3… 2…. 1… aaand: ERROR.
“ERROR? What error? What have I done wrong?” “It is a line problem… Wifi, or software”. “Solution?” “You just have to wait.”
I waited. I went out. I wandered among the empty cars, becoming reddish due to the heat of the sun. I smoked a cigarette. I wondered why all things must be overly complicated, and if shipping that package was so important after all… I checked the time: 1 hour, 10 minutes and counting. I went back to inquire about the line. They gave me false hopes: let’s retry. We re-do the whole operation, she presses “confirm”, but the result is again “ERROR”.
1 hour, 20 minutes and counting. I go out again. I don’t want to make the professional queuer think that I am a threat that is going to invade the postal territories, and the last thing I need is someone who accuses me of being the cause of the havoc. I smoke another cigarette and, with sadness, I think about my family — they will not see me again — and to the person who will never receive the package. If I had a drink on me, I would toast to all the days I have lost like this. The post office is so far away from the bar, I cannot even get a coffee and read newspapers. 1 hour, 30 minutes and counting. I go back in. I am a destroyed person, nobody dares to look at me. I approach the counter and I say: “why don’t we cancel the procedure and start it over? I was thinking that I want the package to arrive in 3 days, not in 10. We can cancel everything. I will pay again.” So the stars align and the package is finally good to be sent.
1 hour, 50 minutes, and I am free to go. Joyfully, a new spring of hope fills me. I enter the car, I turn the key, and I hear the engine singing softly. I am on my way and finally I can start the day as every other free person on this earth. While I enjoy my newly found freedom, I cringe: the lady did not reimburse me the first shipping. Wild thoughts cross my head: “Go back”. On the other hand, I think that an extra 17 euros are damn good for the disastrous public finances. After all, what does the loss of 17 euros represent when you can just go back home?
I spare a sad thought to all those who did not make it before me, then I speed up a bit: I want to hug my family as soon as possible.