No, this isn’t a rant about the non-delivery of something in the post (you know, what the Americans think is the “mail”).
This is your insider’s guide to using a post office in Italy.
The first thing you will notice is that there are nearly as many counters as there are staff. And they are scattered around the building so that some can only be found after a little journey, or two…
The principle is that there is a different counter for each type of transaction. So posting a letter would be at counter “P”; buying a stamp would be at counter “S”; drawing cash would be at counter “B” and so on.
Italians don’t really go much on queuing. It gets in the way of greeting old friends, relatives and chatting up any pretty girls in the vicinity.
So they use the numbered ticket system. Very logically, there is a numbered ticket for each counter. Press button “P” to get a number for the Post A Letter counter, right?
If you want to draw some cash so that you buy some stamps in order to post a parcel to Spain you will need a numbered ticket for each of those counters. Simple. Until you realise that it is entirely probable that your numbers will be called to the posting counter before the stamp counter and way before the cash counter. The only safe way is to get the tickets for each as you finish with the previous. Of course that does make the job a tad longer – maybe half a day or so.
If you are Italian, you will immediately recognise that I have misrepresented this. Of course stamps and posting letters and parcels are done at the same counter. I just wanted to get the principle across without making it seem as complicated as you and I both know it really is!
OK. You have walked in and have located the counter you need first and, with a bit of careful surveying, you have located the machine that issues the numbered tickets. Good. Your ticket says you are in position P125 and the large sign above the P counters say “Chiuso”, 41 and 92. Chiuso is closed; 41 went off on other duties before calling customer 42 and the person running the only working counter is serving ticket number 91. So, 125-91=33 people ahead of you in the queue.
For lots of different reasons, not so.
As you sit down and watch the next 5 customers being served, you may be tempted to do a bit more maths. Each of the 5 customers were at the counter for approximately 10 minutes each. You have 33 ahead of you so you can expect to be served. It is now 11am. 33 x 10 = 330 / 60 = 5:30 + 11am = 4:30. But they close for 2.5 hours from 1:30 till 4:00 so you should be dealt with at 4:30 + 2:30 = 7pm.
You will be out of there all done and dusted well before lunch time.
You may also think to yourself, “I could go and sit outside in the sun for half an hour rather than sitting here watching a series of repeating advertisements on the plasma screen. Now don’t get me wrong. Italian post offices are nice smart, well equipped places. But sunshine is better…
Don’t do it.
You may well lose your place and have to start from the bottom of the first ladder.
There are techniques available for you to deploy here.
1. “Can I have a form, please”
You may need a form that needs filling in. Hover by the person currently being served and when you see them start to fill in their form or get some change, ask the teller for your form. Now you have established a relationship with the teller and can come back to him or her any time there is a break. These people are brilliant at multi-tasking and can quite happily serve three or four people at once, albeit a little slower, and only one of them needs to be the person with the right number. This fends off any complaints about queue jumping.
2. The Dead Tickets
So you just did the maths and worked out that you have a 3 hour wait. You are 125 and 91 is being served. Then suddenly the numbers wizz through at the rate of 1 per second and there is just a couple ahead of you!
Did a string of people decide not to post that day after taking their tickets? How did the teller know they weren’t waiting behind a pillar? Being a foreigner, I was taken in hand by the other attendees. As the number display did its spurt towards my number, several people told me to go to the counter. I showed them that mine was still 4 away from the current but it seemed they all knew what number I had and I was almost pushed to the counter. I was still one away from the displayed number when the teller smiled at me and held out his hand to take my parcel. I am nervous, expecting 124 to come screaming out of the background demanding retribution for taking his or, worse, her place. I confess, I haven’t worked out if there is some form of telepathy at work here. Would a runner have fetched me from outside the door if I had just popped out? I really think they might!
3. The Ticket Swap
You have ticket 130. You hover near the counter carefully placed so you can see the display and you can see anybody approaching the counter. Ticket 93 is called but nobody is approaching the counter. You go immediately to the counter, screwing up you ticket and throwing it in the bin. You are now presumed to be ticket 93! This explains why most customers don’t display their tickets so that anyone can see what they have got…
I must admit to be somewhat surprised that there were no recent immigrants offering to give you an earlier number ticket as you come in – for a small consideration. If they made the deal an exchange for the one you have just taken, they should be able to keep that scam going all day without ever having to take another ticket themselves…
There may be other sub-plots involved in the queuing system that are far too subtle for me to catch.
Now comes the process of posting a parcel. It is going to Spain.
First it must be measured and the dimensions entered into a computer. Then it must be weighed. This is entered into the computer. This is necessary because, like some in the UK, carriers charge by density which must be calculated by the computer and, again like the UK, the postal system often uses private contractors along the way. Quite how many decimal places are required in the final specific gravity result was not clear to me.
There are three services which we offer that will get this parcel to Spain. Which would you prefer to use?
I decided to just point out that it was a laptop computer which was worth about €800 but as it was going back for repair, I really was not concerned with the time taken to arrive. What I was clear about was that I wanted it fully insured.
“In that case, please fill in this form here, sir. The cost will be €48.” As I am filling in the form, the teller asked, “Is there an invoice in the parcel?”. I tell him there is and that I have a copy of it but not with me.
“That is fine. We don’t need it unless the parcel gets lost. But it does mean that you could have better insurance for very little extra money.” I agree to that and am asked to fill in the other half of the form. The cost has gone up to €50.76 so I am happy enough.
Everything looks set to go but…
“Have you got a Codice Fiscale? We will need a copy of it.”
A Codice Fiscale is an Italian Tax Number. I had discovered that they were needed now for a lot of different transactions in Italy – like getting a Pay-as-you-go SIM card. But anyone can have one. You just go onto the government run taxation site, fill in a form which doesn’t require an address and you get a code immediately.
“I haven’t got it with me”, I explain. The teller is very understanding and asks if I can remember the number. “Well, your parcel cannot go until you give us the Codice Fiscale”, says my teller friend. (We have established quite a good relationship by now.)
It is now 1pm and they will close for the two and a half hour lunch break at 1:30. Off I go back to the van, fire up the computer, find the document and think to myself – if I stop to break out the printer, I won’t get back before they close. I have the GPS which can display photographs quite well so I transfer the image of my CF card to that and rush off back to the post office.
At 1:25pm, I am greeted by two tellers like a long lost friend. No kissing but hands are shaken and certainly no question of waiting in any queues. I offer the image of the Codice Fiscale in full colour.
“Ah, we need a copy of it. I will see if it will photocopy off the GPS!”, says one of the tellers and disappears out the back. A few minutes later, he comes back and tells the other teller that it hasn’t worked. A quick conference is held. I am shown a bit of black paper so that I can see that the photocopier has worked. “we are going to try and send it without the copy. It may or may not work. We will just hope.”, says my friend.
Whilst we are waiting for the teller behind the desk to do his stuff, the guy on my side is chatting about the state of the Sicilian world, we find we have acquaintances in common, and he explains how so many customers do not show proper respect for the guys working at the post office. “They just won’t keep silent while we try to work”, he tells me. At this point I catch the eye of the other guy who rolls his eyes at me!
Suddenly, there is great excitement from both members of staff. The system has accepted the parcel. I am given the receipt and escorted outside by one of the tellers. We continue to set the Sicilian world to rights for another ten minutes and part the best of friends.
There are many ways to pass the time in the sun. This has been one of them. I wonder wether the parcel will get to Cartegena.