Upon entering the post office on Via Marsala near Termini Station, I see that I have to take a ticket number printed out by a large yellow machine. I need to pick from one of three types: A, E, or P. I smile coyly at an elderly gentleman, and say, “Non capisco come farlo,” I don’t know how to do it. Without moving an extra molecule of muscle besides what’s essential to speak, he says in perfect monotone, “Prendi un numero.” Take a number.
I think, Well yeah, I know that. I grab ticket numbers of all three types.
It’s winter 2004, I’ve recently moved to Rome, and I need to buy stamps.
I’ve bought a card for my parents’ 50th anniversary, and I am determined that it arrives on time. I am notorious among my family for sending items late and they accuse me of being selfish. “I guess you have more important things to do,” my southern Italian-born mother would say.
A few weeks after moving to Rome, I’d managed to find an international call center — places that Italians will remind you are run by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. I called my folks, and my mom said: “It’s about time. We were worried. What does it take to make a phone call?”
With that strike against me, I really want this anniversary card to arrive on time. I figure it’ll be a lot easier to send a card than make a phone call. After all, I only need a stamp.
The post office is packed. There’s an apparatus high up on the wall that says what number is next, and everyone is looking up at the wall numbers and back at their ticket slips. And they can sit while waiting.
Now that’s the way it should be!
We used to have that at my post office on the Upper West Side in New York, but they got rid of it, and afterward, you just had to stand in line.
Boy we are so smug, we Americans, I muse. These Italians are supposedly the “backward” lot, provincial tooth-missing types. Honestly, Americans are sooooo judgmental.
I notice that many of the old women are wearing my grandma’s shoes and clothes and sitting the way she used to, with their fingers crossed and hands propped on their stomachs. My grandma, Nonna, didn’t smile either, except when we bought her ice cream. She used to bite into it — seeing bite marks in vanilla ice cream is an image I still can’t shake.
These nonnas are focussed on the job at hand — checking their ticket numbers against the number up on the wall. I could imagine them doing morning chores, sweeping at 6:30 am, waddling around the house because their knees no longer bend. When they walk, these old nonnas, they rock their hips back and forth to get some forward movement, given the loss of knee joint propulsion.
They keep looking up at the number on the wall and their pieces of paper. No one is smiling.
What a bunch of characters, I think, shaking my head and giggling to myself, charmed by this scene before me. Such a funny people, Italians! Ha! Ha!
The nonna with the dark purple jacket and light brown orthopedic shoes is getting agitated because a young woman has been at one of the three counters for quite a while. The other nonnas join in, making snide comments about the young woman, clucking their tongues, shaking their heads, and smoothing their already smoothed-out skirts.
Finally, Dark Purple Jacket Nonna speaks up, happy to step into leadership:
“Oh basta, sto qui da un ora!” Enough now, I’ve been here for an hour.
Now the entire Nonna vanguard joins in making snide comments with scrunched-up faces. We’ve got a near geriatric riot on our hands, and the poor young woman, still at the counter, steals glances over her shoulder at them, looking mortified. On the other hand, the extremely large female postal worker waiting on her is disturbed, not at all, understanding that her special talents are now needed. She stands up from her seat, slowly pulling her reading glasses down her nose at an unhurried pace. She then speaks in a calm growl that would have intimidated Marlon Brando the Godfather, enunciating each word as its own sentence:
Se. Non. La. Smettete. Chiudiamo. Prima.If. You. Don’t. Stop. We’ll. Close. Early.
Suddenly, it’s All Quiet on the Nonna Front.
The young woman at the center of the controversy finishes, and it’s my turn. I get her, Large And Scary Postal Lady. I clear my throat, hoping she won’t bite it.
I tell her I need to buy some stamps.
Sounds as if there’s been an execution, especially coming out of that mottled face, but “sono terminati” means they’ve run out.
What? Run out of stamps? This is the post office. I must have misheard her. Maybe my pronunciation was off.
“Non mi hai capito,” I say. I don’t think you understood. I repeat my request: I need some stamps. I laugh like we are in on the same joke. I kid on the edge of imprudence in an attempt to tame the beast.
The magic isn’t working. Her face is a dappled stone wall.
“Sono terminati,” she snarls. I dare not imagine her pillow talk.
But this is the post office, I say incredulously.
Uh oh, I don’t think she liked that. She’s making a move for her reading glasses! No, she just needs to scratch a pimple.
Try the tobacco store, she says.
The tobacco store? Il tabaccaio? Scusi, could you repeat that? My voice comes out a bit shrill and wobbly. Now there’s no mistaking it: She IS going for her reading glasses. She pulls them down at her signature snail pace as my gullet dips into my chest.
When she speaks, she spits out each syllable.
Okay, the tobacco store. That is what she said. I fake a huge smile that hurts my face and squeak out “Grazie!” while backing away from the creature, knocking into Nonna Leader with the Purple Jacket, who starts screaming. I turn and run for my life.
I go to the tobacco store to buy the stamp. But the shop’s closed for siesta break.
The tabaccaio reopens at 4 pm, better known here in Italy as 16. There’s a certain irony that Italians, who distinguish themselves by relying on a, shall we say, “malleable” concept of time, use military vernacular. 13 being 1 pm. 14 being 2 pm. 15 is 3 o’clock. Etc. They lay out their days like a pizza, but the oven is set up with military precision.
I’ve got to get my parents’ anniversary card in the post by tomorrow, so I’ll have to go after siesta. These people take resting seriously. One time a Roman roommate did a few errands, then came back to the house and said she had to rest. She was 25.
Admittedly, getting something done or rather, not done, exchanges at a higher rate here. I figure that a Roman errand exchanges at 47.6 times that of a New York errand.
I go home and take a nap. When in Rome, after all.
Thanks to a bit of sleep, my mood rebounds. Off to the tabaccaio. Upon my arrival and despite my terribly typical American upbeat attitude, when I say “Buon giorno tutti!,” Good day, everyone!, the tobacco shop owner barely manages a nod. I announce that I need a stamp, letting out a deep breath and a knowing smile to say, Okay, I have finally figured this out, and thank goodness this goose chase is over!
The owner looks at me. I continue to smile. His eyes are still on me, and he blinks once. I am quite sure that I’ve pronounced francobollo for “stamp” correctly. Finally, he reaches down under the counter at a pace that would make a snail seem like a sprint racer and brings out a large old three-ring binder with folders. He places it atop the counter with less energy than desiccated wood. I can hear the clock ticking. It would seem he has carried out the ritual of taking out the stamp book many times, and on this occasion, the owner is enjoying the ceremony no more and no less than any other time. He finishes, puts his arms by his sides, and lets out a sigh.
Reaching down made him tired? These people always need to rest.
He then places the palm of one hand over the other hand’s knuckles, cracking them one at a time. He repeats this with the other hand, takes another deep breath, and looks at me again.
I think the last time this man smiled was 1972.
Am I in the middle of a Fellini film? I know I am being judgmental but this is a bit extreme!
His eyes are still on me. I am a bit confused. I feel conscious of breathing. I don’t know what the next expected step is. I consider asking if I had come at a bad time? Should I come later?
Finally, with a touch of impatience, he says, “Allora…?” So…? I realize he needs to know what kind of stamp.
Oh, of course! With relief and smiling once again, I say,
Agli Stati Uniti! A stamp to the United States!
I tell him this while he keeps his eyes on me. When I finish speaking, he’s still looking at me. Another second. He still hasn’t blinked.
He looks down at the book then back at me. So this is what they mean by the Eternal City. People taking a &%$@! eternity to sell you a goddamn stamp.
Calm down, Ter. You are a guest in their country.
Finally, he blinks and says, “Sono terminati.” We’ve run out.
I stand there for a few moments, absorbing. It’s my turn to stare.
He starts the process of putting the book back with the same level of joy and speed.
I leave the shop. The time is nearly seventeen goddamn military time, and I have procured exactly zero stamps.
I realize that, of course, in addition to clothes and Italian grammar book, I’ve brought a whole lot of expectations in my suitcase as well. Oh well. At least the food is amazing.
I decide I am going to call my parents. I go back to the international phone center run usually, and may I add, efficiently, by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Compared to the stamps saga, really, what does it take to make a phone call?
When she gets on the line, my mother says, “See, now was that so hard?”
Full disclosure: I moved out of Italy in 2015. Not much post-office-wise had changed in those ten years. I doubt much has since. That’s one of the things one can love and hate about that stunningly beautiful country.
If you enjoyed that story, you’ll definitely get a kick of of this one:
Depending on the Kindness of Strangers on a Train
A New Yorker’s Culture Shock in Italy
And here’s a story of a misadventure in New York City that’s not got the attention I immodestly think it deserves!
The Most Embarrassing First Date I Ever Had
He said, “My name is Carlos Linus. ‘Linus’, it rhymes with penis.”
This one didn’t even get curated. Oh well. I thought it should have. (That immodesty thing again.)
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