It's been one of the most difficult things to get used to, here. Having been raised in the suburbs outside of a smaller town in the United States (not an urban upbringing by any stretch of the imagination), I'm accustomed to a postal service which leaves mail in a mailbox alongside the road in front of my house, or even, when the occasion calls for it, places a package on the front porch or by my front door for me to find when I return home.
Nothing could have prepared me for the row of mailboxes on the wall outside the main doors of the palazzo where I now live, or for the ringing of my rather alarming doorbell which brings to mind the change of classes in my high school days. How many times have I been startled by a prolonged, startling ring of that bell, which scares the cat and shakes me with the sudden unexpectedness of it? Alternatively, how do they time it so perfectly to catch me at the most inconvenient time possible? Are they spying on me? Does my doorbell have a hidden camera which peeks into my flat and shows when I'm "indisposed"?
It most frequently rings while my husband is away at work and I'm home alone, leaving me to pick up the citofono and call down to the street – loud enough for people in the building to hear, because the apparatus is by my front door and because the street noise on the other end is too loud for the visitor to hear me speak in a normal voice. Unless I'm expecting a package, I seldom bother answering it.
And when I do, it's almost always the same thing. A peddler, a salesperson or a "survey taker" is the one waiting for me to answer, to grant access to the building. Needless to say, I don't, and I can hear the bells ring all through the palazzo as the would-be Willy Loman tries his luck with the other residents who are home during the day. La vecchia upstairs will let him in, she always does, and so I ignore the next loud assault on my quiet day and bide my time until I'm sure they're gone, lest I find myself repeating: "Mi scusi. Non parlo italiano molto bene… I'm sorry. I don't speak Italian well." Invariably, they just keep repeating whatever they're saying, louder and sometimes faster, until they just give up. (I understand more than they realize. I just don't speak the language well.) At least the frate who comes round to bless the house at Easter is amused and tries to practice his English with me even though he doesn't come in.
Sadly, more often than not, my admittedly disgruntled "Chi è?" is met by silence or the sound of traffic. Occasionally, I hear the wasp-like whine of the postal carrier's scooter disappearing into the distance – or to the front of the next palazzo, a few meters away. No human voice replies. In the few moments between the jarring bell and my response, the other party has already gone, usually leaving a sticky note on the outside intercom, next to my doorbell, indicating they were trying to deliver a piece of mail or a package and couldn't wait the fifteen seconds or so for me to answer their summons.
But I won't know until I check. And yet, how many times has this proven to be a fruitless exercise? After all, the people who drop the advertising flyers are in the habit of ringing the bell, too, occasionally barking "Pubblicità! Advertisements!" when I ask who's there. (You rang my bell why, now? To tell me you just dropped three copies of the SIGMA circular in my mailbox? Gee, thanks for that.)
Grumbling, I make my way downstairs and hope they've left that note in my mailbox on the wall instead. Often, this isn't the case. The message is outside, sometimes already having fallen to the sidewalk, so I must unlock the gate (never mind that the driveway gates are wide open on either side) to retrieve it.
If the note is there, that means I've got to make a trip to the Post Office to pick it up. That is another adventure in the making, of course.
Back home in the US, this is a pretty simple procedure. Sure, the line might be long, but there's usually only the one counter to go to, where I hand over the card the postal carrier left behind, show my I.D. and wait until the clerk retrieves my package and gives it to me. Done and…done!
Not so, here. Instead, I take that little card and play a sort of Italian Postal Roulette: is the package in the main office, or in the undelivered goods warehouse, or magazzino, as it's called? It's only been one day, so it's reasonable to expect it might be in the main office. But it wasn't delivered, so it might be in the warehouse. Decisions, decisions…
It really is a crapshoot. I mean, I've tried going to the main office first, only to be sent to the magazzino. When I've gone to the magazzino first, I've been told to go to the main office instead. This is after taking a number and waiting ages while the line crept slowly along, and in spite of the fact the card itself said to come to whichever place I already was in order to get the package.
However, there is a sense of theatre while waiting one's turn in the magazzino. The performance goes like this: A number is called. Someone rushes forward with that number held aloft as they eye their neighbors anxiously – Can't let them poach my place in line! – and then the nervous handing over of the claim card follows.
The worker looks the claim card over and gives the customer a book in which to sign their name. That done, they compare signatures and go to get the package – whether it's an envelope or a crate, it's the same procedure – which seems to involve going right past it at least two or three times, looking up the last name each time and then calling over a coworker for assistance.
Once the package is found, it's brought forward to the customer, who can't leave yet. Another signature is necessary, perhaps another check of the I.D., too, and then there are papers to separate and stamp.
No, sorry. I got that wrong.
There are papers to separate and STAMP! STAMP! STAMP! And stamping means there has to be a suitable WHAM! on the ink pad and then STAMP! on the paper. Again and again. And again, for good measure. Oh, that one didn't take. I'd better STAMP! it again. (It's best not to go to the Post Office with a headache, if one can help it.)
At last, the customer is given the package, bade a perfunctory "Buongiorno" and the next number is called so the performance can be repeated in its entirety.
I must confess now, that there's something almost reassuring in all of this. Something about the fact that I can count on it, that even this little sojourn along the edges of bureaucracy is as familiar and habitual as it can possibly be is heartening. Maybe it means I'm becoming a part of this place? Or that this place is becoming a part of me?
Nah… Let's not take it quite that far. Not yet. I've got a lifetime to go.