Going to the Post Office …

18 August, 2010

You can’t miss Palermo’s post office, a huge fascist style building that dominates one of the city’s main streets, via Roma.  It’s the work of Angiolo Mazzoni , an Italian engineer and architect who was  responsible for many of Italy’s early 20th century public buildings, including Rome’s Stazione Termini.  The size and solemnity of the building lead you to expect a superior form of postal service inside.  Nothing could be further from the truth.    The hall inside is vast, but few of the desks ever seem to be manned, and chaos seems to reign at the ones that are.   

 ‘Going to the Post Office’ is a phrase loaded with meaning in Palermo.  I still remember a conversation that took place not long after I arrived here.  When I said I was enjoying Palermo one friend looked wryly at the other and said:  “She obviously hasn’t been to the Post Office yet!”, and then proceeded to tell a long story about leaving her mother in a queue in the Post Office while she went shopping, and returning several hours later to find the queue virtually unchanged and everyone in it making their frustration known.     

I have been to the Post Office today.  In fact, I spent a considerable part of the day there – and I will have to go back tomorrow.  The experience has been frustrating, but revealing.      

I returned home yesterday, after several days away, to find a card from the Post Office advising me that there was a package which I could collect at the Post Office after 10.30 today.    I arrived at the Post Office just after 12.  The machine that issues numbers to regulate the queue was out of order, and there was a long queue at the relevant desk.  I went through the usual process of identifying the last person and establishing my place in the queue. 

Then the wait began.  More and more people joined the queue and gradually the complaints began.  One young man, obviously not from Palermo, was saying to anyone who would listen “It’s not only the Post Office – nothing in Palermo works efficiently.  The whole city is like this”.  A woman in the queue agreed : “Offices, banks, they’re all the same”.  There were conversations going on all round me;  unfortunately, many of them I couldn’t understand.  People came and went and at one point, when there was much confusion about who was where in the queue, one of the men took it upon himself to organise a ‘voluntary list’.  Everyone’s name was put on the list and the list placed on the counter. 

By this time about an hour and a half had passed and it seemed I was making very little progress.  I asked the woman sitting next to me why it was taking so long.  She said the problem was that some people were collecting not one, but ten, or even twelve, registered letters.  Certainly a girl had been at the counter for more than half an hour, but I couldn’t see that it would take that long even if she had been collecting ten or twelve letters.  Then about half an hour later, the man immediately behind me in the queue wandered over to the counter, came back and started chatting so I asked him what the delay was.  He said “They are missing 60 euro from the till”.  This didn’t seem to me to explain things either, but again I said nothing. 

After about two and a quarter hours it was almost my turn.  The man immediately ahead of me was at the counter – and taking a very long time.  All of a sudden he was shouting, really shouting at the top of his voice, at the man behind the counter.  Unfortunately I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I heard the man behind the counter saying “It isn’t a game!”

Finally it was my turn.  And now I think I understood why it had been so slow.  It wasn’t the multiple collections, or the missing money from the till.  It was the man behind the counter. 

 I handed him the Post Office card and my identity card.  He looked at the identity card for such a long time I thought he was going to tell me there was something wrong with it.  Instead, he said that my name was similar to that of an actress in a TV show.  After pondering that for what seemed like several minutes, he said the name was Italian/American and proceeded to tell me about the show.  All I could think of was the queue behind me and the poor people who had been waiting so long – according to the ‘voluntary list’ there were still 14 people after me.  Then he started looking down a list of numbers, for the number that was on my card.  He went up and down the list several times, not quickly, and then, finally, turned to the computer.  As he did so he looked at me, raised a finger in the air and said “Enquire!”– probably the only English word he knew – and proceeded to enter my number into the computer. 

The item came up.  He had been looking on the wrong list.  So he got a new list of numbers and the process started over again.  Still he couldn’t find the number on my card.  At this point he disappeared and after a little while came back with a pile of letters.  He went through those one by one – spending time on ones that were quite obviously not mine.   Still not there!  Off he went again,  got another pile of letters and did the same thing.  It wasn’t there either.  He went off again and came back with a third pile.  Same result.    

I couldn’t believe it!  After waiting two hours and 40 minutes!  I kept pointing at the card which clearly said I could collect the package after 10.30 today.  All he could say was “It’s not here.  Maybe they forgot to enter it into the computer.  Come back tomorrow – and you had better make it the afternoon”. 

When I turned to leave, the man behind me was sympathetic.  He smiled and said “I’m sorry.  This is Italy”. 

It seems that here an incompetent person will often get a job on the basis of a ‘recommendation’,  while any number of competent people, eager to do the job well, remain unemployed.  Perhaps that has happened at the Post Office.  As I waited in the queue this morning, I couldn’t help wondering who all these other people were who were waiting between two and three hours, what disruption it was causing to their life and work, and what it was costing the city.  I do believe that things can change, but this morning I couldn’t help feeling a kind of despair.

6 Responses to “Going to the Post Office …”

  1. Louise F Says:

    May be the grander the building the worse the service. I thought the service in public offices in the UK was poor but your experience puts it all in context – positively Kafkaesque! I hope you get your parcel and that it does not contain anything perishable!

    • kateludlow Says:

      I’ve had success today – and although the Kafkaesque elements were still very much to the fore, it has taken only half an hour. Fortunately it was a dvd, not perishables!

  2. Sally F Says:

    I too feel quite exhausted after reading that – why they don’t all get post rage I cannot imagine. And the thought Royal Mail was inefficient …

  3. kateludlow Says:

    Royal Mail is a world away! I’ve been puzzled by the apparent acceptance of the situation too. Maybe people are just resigned to things being this way – and don’t expect them to change. And that in itself is a problem.

  4. CateM Says:

    You have amazing patience is all I can say. I’m not sure I could have faced going back! I was just this morning feeling annoyed by how expensive sending anything from Switzerland is but perhaps I don’t mind so much now having read your story…

    • kateludlow Says:

      On balance, I think I might prefer the high charges! Apart from the personal irritation of my experience yesterday, I was aware of a feeling of helplessness. There was nothing I could do but wait, and go back today.


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