personal history

Postcards from Italy

Why name my blog after the Italian postal service?


As some of my friends know–those who have either received a postcard from me, from Italy, or those who failed to receive one that I tried to send–I have a nuanced relationship with the Italian postal service, known as Poste Italiane.

This is what happened. When I was in Rome last year, I wrote some postcards to friends. I wanted to mail them. So I went to the post office in Rome. I took a number and waited around. When it was my turn, I asked if I could buy stamps, and the guy was like, “Oh, we don’t sell those here.”

Huh? Apparently in Italy the post office is for paying bills and stuff… not so much for, you know, postal services. The guy directed me to the tabacchi, or tobacco shop (actually like a convenience store), next door.

I went to the tabacchi and asked for stamps for the US. The guy sold me some stamps. They looked oddly slick and commercial, not like any country’s postage stamps that I was used to seeing, and they had the name “GPS” on them, but I shrugged it off (stamps are stamps, non?), put them on the postcards, and dropped them in the nearest Poste mailbox.

In Florence, I went to a different tabacchi and bought a few more stamps. These also looked oddly slick, and said “FriendPost” on them, and the guy said explicitly to only drop them in the yellow FriendPost box outside the door of his store.

At this point I got suspicious and started googling GPS and FriendPost. Apparently there exist private postal services in Italy, postal services that are not the official national one, Poste Italiane. To use them, first of all you have to put your mail in the right box to even have a chance (so my GPS-stamped postcards in the Poste Italiane box were DOA). But even then, according to the internet there seems to be a pretty low chance that your mail will make it to its destination.

Okay, so forget FriendPost. I just wanted to use the same stamps that people who live in Italy actually use. (Is that so much to ask??) I googled how to do this, as well.

First, I figured I’d have to ditch the tabacchis in the touristy areas and just try the one in the neighborhood where I was staying. Where it was likely they’d speak only Italian, and I, being uncharacteristically ill-prepared, hadn’t learned a word of Italian before I landed in Italy.

The next day I mustered up my courage and went down to the tabacchi across the street. Behind the counter and a veritable wall of newspapers and magazines was a kindly-looking elderly lady with long gray hair.

“Buongiorno,” I said.
“Buongiorno.”
“Do you have stamps for Poste Italiane?”
“Non capisco.” I don’t understand.
Hmm. “Eh… Francobollo?” Stamp?
“Sì.”
“Poste Italiane?”
“Sì.” She asked something else, which I didn’t understand. But then she made a flying gesture, with her hands as wings travelling across space, and I got it: where are they going? Dove?
“Ah! USA.”
“Sì.” She walked over to a shelf, pulled out a thick binder, flipped through it, and produced, to my great relief, much more official-looking stamps.

I marvelled at that brief moment of understanding, and the work it took to get there: how far you can get with making do, with the give-and-take of two people actively trying to understand each other, even without a common language. How much more we could relate if only we tried as hard when speaking the same language. I kept the stamps safe until I mailed every postcard, including those rewritten from memory to recreate the ones I lost in Rome.

For some time I wondered if the extreme non-user-friendliness of basic functions like mailing a postcard, or taking the bus (compared to the equivalent in e.g. the Netherlands), might actually be a form of subtle resistance to tourists and other outsiders. If you’re a local, everything seems obvious; otherwise, everything seems unnecessarily difficult. If it was true, I thought, I had to admire it.

“Nope,” said an Italian woman I met much later when I shared my hypothesis with her. “No, it’s really just that disorganized. For native Italians too.” So much for that.

Even after properly mailing the postcards, we weren’t in the clear: the Italian postal service is famously slow and unreliable. In the end, I think about half of the postcards made it to their destination. I only sent a handful. (As a friend of mine went to Italy with me a few weeks ago and sent a bunch more postcards, I’m looking forward to the additional data.) I was sad about the lost postcards, as I’m sad to lose anything I put together by hand, but as I fell deeply in love with Italy on the same trip, I resolved to love it, in spite of its flaws–or maybe even because of them.

Accepting the uncertainty of the Poste Italiane, and sending my postcards anyway: that’s the essential spirit of this blog. For most of my life, I have been hesitant to publish anything, try to communicate anything, that I wasn’t sure would connect. Now I know: you can never be sure. You just can’t know. And what is meaningless to some people resonates perfectly with others. So send it all, and see where it lands.

There’s going to be a lot of communiqués flying around on this blog, about everything I’m interested in, which is a lot of things. Not everything I write will mean something to everyone. But if something I write means something to someone, then it’s worth it.

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