Ever felt like you wanted to kill someone? I mean, like, really strangle them. Out of sheer frustration. Ever felt like screaming? Giving vent to your inner two year old? No? Obviously you have never been to an Italian post office. Going to an Italian post office is an activity only the truly sadistic, highly motivated and time-rich person should undertake. Be warned. It is not actually an easy thing to do. Oh no, no, no. Why? Because the Italian post office is most often closed. Closed for siesta. Closed on Sundays. And Mondays. Closed at Easter and Christmas. Closed in the summer. Closed in the winter. Closed for Saints’ days. Closed for employees’ birthdays. Closed for all kinds of holidays no one else in the world has ever heard of. And my personal favourite…’closed because our fire hydrant is leaking.’ I actually saw that written on the post office door in Bologna. At first I thought I had lost something in the translation. But no. Closed. Closed. Closed. Finding an Italian post office that is actually open when you need it to be is therefore an exhilarating feeling, akin, I imagine, to buying a lottery ticket and discovering you have just won a million euros. There is about as much chance of one as the other.
The thing is that when you find a post office that is miraculously open your problems have only just begun. You now have to go inside and conduct your business. I use the term ‘business’ very loosely. First decide what it is that you require. Then take a number. You will, of course, inevitably take the incorrect number and spend the next five hours waiting in the wrong queue. When your turn finally comes an employee will actually smile at you (probably with secret delight) whilst they inform you to take another number and stand for another five hours in a different queue. No, they cannot possibly help you. With anything. When you have taken the correct number you may be lucky enough to secure one of the five plastic chairs made available to the five hundred people waiting to be served.
My time does however eventually arrive. On the day in question I have have come for postcard stamps. I know. No one except me actually writes postcards. I assure you that after today I won’t bother anymore either. “Six stamps for postcards please,” I say. “For Australia.” Post office staff love to talk. With each other I mean. “Australia!” the man exclaims to his colleague behind the desk. “My cousin went to Australia in 1976. Melbourne I think it was. He took the whole family to live there. He owns a restaurant.” He asks the colleague if she has ever been to Australia. “Noooo,” she says, “it’s much too far away. And they have a lot of dangerous things in Australia: sharks, spiders, Crocodile Dundee.” She jokes that she is safer staying in Italy. This is all most informative I think. “But my stamps,” I prompt helpfully. The man isn’t finished. “But you have kangaroos down there too don’t you? They aren’t dangerous.” And just in case I need some clarification on what kangaroos actually do he does a little bouncy/hoppy action up and down on his chair. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry and wonder if in fact I am part of a candid camera episode for Italian television. “Do you really eat them?” he continues. “Ooooh, I could never eat a kangaroo,” puts in the colleague. When I finally get a word in I tell them both “Yes, we really eat them. And very tasty they are too.”
Suddenly the man gets up and disappears through a door out the back. I entertain a vague hope that stamps will materialise with his return. But he is gone so long I wonder if he has in fact gone home for the day. Or maybe he is so traumatised by the thought of eating a kangaroo that he is having a calming cigarette in the back alley. Or, perhaps having remembered he has a cousin in Melbourne who owns a restaurant, he has decided to make a long distance telephone call and suggest he puts kangaroo on the menu. The possibilities are endless and I have plenty of time to think about them all. Eventually he returns with, miracle of miracles the stamps, but without an explanation as to his long absence. He arranges my cards on the desk in front of him in a neat pattern and studies them carefully, as if he is pondering his next move in an all important chess game. Except that would have been quicker. Suddenly he loses concentration again and addresses the group of people behind me. “She’s from Australia you know!” They all smile at me and nod their heads and I wonder if any of them are going to start hopping up and down to demonstrate their full comprehension. Thankfully I am spared. “My stamps?” I ask again perhaps more forcefully than I should have. “Signora. You will get your stamps but please do not raise your voice at me.” Contrite, I tell him my voice is not raised; that I just have good projection. “I’m an opera singer,” I say by way of unnecessary explanation. He gives me a long look. Clearly he thinks I am more of a comedian than an opera singer. He finally takes one of the large stamps and tries to place it horizontally in the upper right hand corner of the card. Not satisfied he then tries it vertically. Then diagonally. “Sorry Signora,” he says, “the stamps are too big for your cards and I cannot help you.”
I am desperate. “Haven’t you got any smaller stamps?” I beg. “No Signora. These are the only stamps for Australia.” Incredibly he then hands me back the six postcards. I am surprised I manage to say “thanks very much,” but not surprised I add “for nothing” under my breath. I accompany these words with one of those forced smiles where your teeth grind together at the back and your jaw aches from the tension. As I turn to throw the bloody cards in the waste paper basket under the counter he has the last word. “Signora Kangaroo,” he says and winks at me. “Next time it might be quicker to send an e-mail!”