Undeliverable: Tragedies of the Italian Post Office

Greek monuments litter Italy at nearly the same rate as beggars and churches, but nothing serves as an icon to Greek Tragedy like the Italian post office. Government bureaucracy is a bad word in every country, but only in Italian do the syllables rise and fall with the singsong charm of a French guillotine.

Burdened by too much luggage, and a proclivity to wasting time, this past week found us hauling two suitcases to the post office in Rome in order to empty their contents into quite pricey (4 euros each) PosteItaliane boxes before shipping them off to a land where they would quickly be forgotten; Ukraine.

In order to do this however, it was necessary to explain to the postal worker at the first post office we visited that Ukraine is indeed a country and no, not a part of Russia… unless you happen to think so because you’re Russian. Nevertheless, a man whose life consists of sending packages around the world needed a colleague to confirm for him that yes, Ukraine is an actual country in Europe, just like Italy. After this realization, the postal worker informed us that Ukraine was on PosteItaliane’s undeliverable list, along with such countries as Somalia, North Korea, and Myanmar. Naturally, no reason for the odd inclusion of Ukraine was given, the most logical explanation perhaps being that countries are added to this postal axis of evil based on the proximity of the request to lunchtime, or a coffee break, or whatever occasion the employee feels fit to add.

Thus the newly purchased boxes were unpacked and their contents stuffed once again into the two suitcases. However, for verification purposes, it was decided to visit another post office. This being Italy, it’s best never to cling to something heard only once… or five times, but that’s another story. In this one we wound up in the Roman neighborhood of Garbatella.

The post office here could double as some kind of cruel test site to determine the actions people take when under severe stress. After taking a number from the ticket dispenser at the front we wait, along with a multitude of others, for our turn. Unfortunately the concept of “waiting your turn” hasn’t quite gained popularity on the Italian peninsula yet, as people just off the street stride up to the desk, packages firmly clutched, as if the numbers above each desk and the queue of frustrated Italians to the right is purely illusionary.

Adding to an already precarious situation, Italian postal workers appear a bit trigger happy, giving each patron approximately two seconds to come to the desk before flashing the next number in line. We found ourselves victims to just such a situation, standing four deep in line at the desk of a clerk who had called up all of her numbers in rapid fire succession and was now helping someone who- you guessed it- had just come in off the street, numberless.

Rarely do the words “patience” and “Italian” go together, and were it not for my deliberate manipulations they wouldn’t now, so a frenzy was bound to ensue, and so it did. The man in line behind us started yelling at the newcomer off the street, then when the postal worker appeared to take the newcomer’s side, he turned his wrath on her. This caused the workers behind the desk to begin yelling at the clerk responsible for helping the rule breaker until finally the manager came over and in turn started yelling at everybody. In total, four loud arguments took place in the two hours we were there, which actually shows a surprising amount of restraint.

Sidenote: when faced with a dispute in Italy, it is important to remember that here, nobody admits fault… ever. Even the woman who so clearly violated the rules of an orderly queue by coming in off the street and rushing to the desk, refused to admit that she was in the wrong, instead choosing to yell at those protesting behind her. God knows if such a thing happened in America someone would have been shot already. But in Italy arguing could pass for the national sport, a cherished pastime second only to watching other people argue on television.

Adding to the chaos, the government here has deluded themselves into thinking that the post office is capable of handling much more than just sending letters to people’s nonni. All three locations I visited featured a handful of clerks dispensing financial advice and information on various insurance plans, leaving only one to actual postal worker duties like dealing with packages and letters. Indeed, when I finally arrived at the counter there stood a stack of brochures advertising a PosteItalia sponsored dental insurance. One ought to ask why, when the post office has this much trouble identifying countries where it’s possible to send mail, they should be trusted with which of your teeth need to be pulled.

Even though identifying the problems of government run institutions in Italy is akin to buying a gun in Texas (anyone can do it), the Italian system defines holy endurability. It doesn’t make any sense, yet is as hallowed and entrenched an institution as the Catholic Church, another Italian institution that doesn’t make any sense. And like Catholicism, Italians in past and present continue to have little choice, or seemingly will, to do anything but put up with it.

I snap out of my thoughts because we’re at the counter now. The clerk informs us that it is indeed possible to send packages to Ukraine. She has also just come back from a coffee break, so the window to communicating to the rest of the world via post has yet to close.



  1. Nicely done piece that truly captures one of the less appealing essences of italian culture. Anyone who has spent any time in Italia is sure to empathize. Bravo. (BTW, I still love the place!)


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