Patti Chiari - Post Office traumatic stress disorder

Fri, 05/07/2010 - 10:24

Words by Pat Eggleton

If there are two things you should experience before you die, one is the bra stall at Modica's market and the other is trying to complete a transaction at its main post office. If the water delivery system tries my “pazienza”, the post office can reduce me to an angry, impatient wreck.

Many travel writers have mentioned the inefficiency and slowness of Italian post offices so this is not a problem exclusive to Sicily. But Sicilians do have their own, special sense of time, so for every half hour you might have to wait in a mainland post office, you should allow at least another ten minutes in Sicily!

The main problem with our local post office – which has recently been enlarged and modernised – is not that there aren’t enough counters but that few of the counters are ever open. There are now twelve counters, two for "prodotti postali" [ posting letters and parcels] one for "business" [for which you have to have a card] one for clients who have a post office account, several for “servizi finanziari” [bill-paying and the issue of pensions] and one whose purpose I have never worked out.

On a typical day, only one “postal” counter will be open, together with two “financial counters” if you are lucky, the counter for account holders, the “mystery” counter and perhaps the business one.

You have to take a ticket for the service you want when you enter the building – which I’ve always maintained should carry a notice advising you to “abandon all hope” - and then you sit down and wait for your number to show on a flashing screen. Somehow I always find myself sitting between two elderly folk who insist on reading the numbers out and nudging me in the ribs every time a new number comes up. When I first arrived I concluded that the majority of elderly folk visit the post office for entertainment and nothing I have seen in five years has caused me to change my mind.

One of the things that slows the system down is that people queue-jump to ask for a form or information while the clerk is attending to someone else. As a Brit, I take queueing very seriously for it is, as George Mikes said, our national pastime and, as it is not weather-dependent and you can do it anywhere, it is far more popular than cricket. Therefore it amazes me that a clerk will actually stop what he or she is doing to attend to the query. Everyone else seems to find this completely normal but it makes me huff and puff like the original Welsh dragon and I cannot understand why the carousels marked “moduli” [forms] are always empty.

If you are unlucky enough to have a bill which must be paid on the first few days of the month, you might as well take a book and a cushion along with you and settle down for half the day, for that is the length of time you will have to wait. Pensions are paid out in alphabetical order of surname on these days and, as everybody in Modica seems to have a surname that begins with A or B, the queue spirals into the street and there is even time to take a ticket, go and do your shopping and come back. Once or twice I have even taken a ticket, gone and had my hair done and returned. I still had time to read a chapter of my book before my number appeared.

To be fair, the service is improving and once you do get to the counter the clerks are polite and helpful. This was not always the case, though and this is what happened when I wanted to send a batch of change of address cards to Britain.

  • Clerk [eyeing the pile of envelopes unhappily] : I don’t know if we can send them.

  • Me: Why not? They’re not heavy and they’re only going to Britain.

  • Clerk: [consulting a list}: Just a minute. I have to check if Britain is in the EU.

  • Me: I assure you that it is.

  • Clerk: Signora, I have to check… Ah, eccola… Now I must weigh the envelopes.

  • Me: They’re all the same weight.

  • Clerk: But I have to weigh them one by one.

  • Clerk [after weighing 32 envelopes]: The weight is not a problem but I think they are too big. [Measuring an envelope against a template]: Yes, they are too big, signora. We cannot send them.

[I can see that the envelope is less than a centimetre wider than the template.]

  • Me: But can’t I just pay more and send them?

  • Clerk: Impossible, signora. You will have to put the cards in these standard envelopes and come back tomorrow.

  • Me: But surely I can just pay more?

  • Clerk [shrugging]: I’m sorry, signora. You must use the standard envelopes. Pazienza.

My friends in Britain never got the cards in pretty envelopes with their distinctive stickers but in dull, standard-sized, business envelopes. However, time and experience have taught me to be grateful that they arrived at all and now I take nothing for granted when I go to the post office.

The first time I went back to Britain on holiday I went to a post office to send some cards to Italy, did so and then rejoined the queue just for the joy of standing in a queue that moved. My fellow-countrymen, needless to say, thought I was mad but, being British, went on queuing and did not utter a word.