Monday, May 31, 2010

Going Postal in Calitri

The other day, while we were sitting by the window, my eye caught movement outside. It may simply have been a reflection in my glasses, which with a quick head movement can generate artifacts, causing me to double take. What was that? Our New England nasty, you call it snow, had melted and the still dull colors of the close-by forest and dreary bare earth momentarily hindered my ability to focus on the cause of my sensation. On second look, there they were. I'm not sure what you call a group of turkeys. Is it a flock, possibly a gobble? Well, in any case, there they were, slowly meandering along, seemingly with nary a care in the world. There were about five out ahead followed by a much larger, obviously male bird telling from the beard prominently protruding from the top of his chest. If this beard substitute for an Adam’s Apple wasn't a giveaway, his fan of splayed feathers made it clear that here was Tom, in charge and bringing up the rear of his fine retinue. Uniformly, their plumage was dark, almost black. They blended well with the forest background where nascent buds on the trees hadn’t yet turned that rusty red before bursting open. I wouldn't say these birds were headed anywhere in particular, simply walking along pecking now and then at something of interest. Theirs, it seems, is a simple unhurried existence most likely of habitual routine. I don't catch sight of them often - maybe once a month. Perhaps they were making their monthly rounds with my yard on today’s venue.

In some ways, we humans aren't much different when it comes to making monthly rounds. We too are creatures of habit. When the first of the month arrives, for example, don't we all go though some sort of routine - check our investments, pay the bills, visit the bank? But God forbid if you try to visit an ufficio postale (post office) in Italy on the first of the month! I speak from experience, although it is an experience of only once. Fair warning, however, for once in a lifetime is plenty.

In this age of the Internet, we are accustomed to getting things done fast. Computers have spoiled us, or at least me, although I think I was a goner long before their introduction. We can get services and information instantly. The barriers of bureaucracy crumble before our nimble fingers and gigabyte bandwidth. I expect, for the most part, the same holds true in Italy, though I haven't had that experience beyond passively checking my bank balance there from way back here in the States. That seems to work just fine.

Aside from the Internet, other activities have also sped up. You can drive through a beverage outlet, for example, and get everything you need without even stepping from your car. Can you believe that here there are now even funeral homes with drive through facilities for, would you call it, "drive-by" condolences? Yet although we can also do our banking via a drive-through for speed and efficiency, can you imagine doing that in Italy? I've not seen it. Mention something like this to an Italian and he’d look at you as though you are pazzo (crazy). Thinking about it, could speed and post office in the same sentence be oxymoronic? A stifling bureaucracy could never allow something like a drive-through, for to experience Italian banking is to experience an Italian bureaucracy of a thousand cuts.

In Calitri, the local post office serves a dual role as a bank by also providing banking functions. I learned the hard way that it was not the place to visit on the first of the month for this is the day when the Calitriani make their monthly visit. They say forewarned is to be forearmed, not me, not this time. "But your honor", I'd plead, "I had mitigating circumstances". I had little choice since I was approaching an out-of-money experience. I had to make some deposits before leaving and I'd run out of time. Anyway, how bad could it be? A simple act you'd think, but woe to him on the first of the month!

I'd driven there and that was my second insidious mistake, though I must admit that I instigated what developed. With nowhere to park and naively thinking this wouldn't take long, I foolishly decided to do what I'd seen many others do and I'd done myself before - park on a portion of the piazza in front of the post office, located across the street from the Church of San Canio. I had the pious hope that I'd be in and out in a flash. A sin of pride no less - I should have gone to confession instead! So, hoping for the best, I was all dressed up in curiosity as I walked in wondering how this would play out.

The building itself is rectangular in layout. Think of it as similar to a shoebox in shape with one of its long walls facing the street, while the opposite interior wall hosts a series of teller service windows. Its floor is tiled in light colored marble, which continues up the walls until replaced by plastered walls displaying posters and brochures describing available services. The similarity continues to scale with the walls rising 12–15 feet before greeting the ceiling. The cavernous dimensions of this civic building truly commands an air of gravitas worthy of being called "ufficiale".

I was greeted by a host of men and women seated along the walls in groups as if this were some sort of Sadie Hawkins dance. There was a total lack of Sadie Hawkins shyness, however, for in this sea of gesticulating adults, hands flailed the air in classic Italian semaphore, adding extra animated oomph to every point being make. The symbolic totems of today's generation, communications without real words, were totally absent. There wasn't a 'tweet' or 'instant message' going on anywhere. The telltale white wires of iPods were also markedly absent, for these were the pensionati (pensioners). Babushka draped women in black with wizened, leathery faces and hawk-nosed men clutching their passbooks simply traded in gossip the old fashioned way - face to face, without the ever pervasive encroachment of present day technology. Here was their monthly source of replenishment, equivalent to an economic ‘fountain of youth’, as they made their monthly pilgrimage to the ufficio postale to collect their pension incomes from the State. I was, no doubt, witnessing entitlement almost at its best, just shy of the Greek euro calamity.

Unlike what you might find in a market deli, there were no numbers in play here. Although seated, each person apparently knew his/her standing in line. Seemingly engrossed in their chitchat, notwithstanding the energy of their arm flapping expressions, I sensed that as insurance, they time-shared at least one eye to keep track of who was next in line. Complicating matters further, only about three teller windows were open. Oh, well. I was overdue for a lesson in patience anyway. How bad could it be? And besides, what better place to get one then in Italy? People here never seem to complain about long lines, especially these virtual type queues, where you have no firm idea where exactly you are in the line or even where the line is. When the time got closer to someone joining the head of the line, they’d get up to join the other one or two standing. Unaware of the pecking order and with nowhere to sit, my only recourse was to stand.

I’d let those with apparent seniority move ahead of me when they would approach. Any progress I might make was therefore stunted in a sort of one step forward and two steps back off-Broadway choreography. I'd been at it now for some time when I noticed HIM. I noticed him when he first entered. He was in his late fifties and unfamiliar to me. He was a short stocky fellow wearing a quite typical local attire - dark dress trousers, an open-necked shirt with pullover sweater-vest topped with a dark suit jacket. The darkness of the ensemble coordinated well with the funeral-like attire of the females but for an occasional colored sweater stripe to cheer-up his outfit. In many ways, the drab colors of these seniors resembled the plumage of my monthly free-range turkeys on their passeggiata (stroll).

He oiled his way around the room, greeting acquaintances, chatting, always moving forward toward the stunted line. His was a pretend currency of ingratiation and flattery. Could he be Il Sindaco (the Mayor)? I'm sure if he had been, he would have been wearing his dapper beauty-queen style sash to officially indicate he rightfully belonged at the head of the line! I was not used to meeting Italians who took advantage of you, at least not in Calitri, at least not until now. But then, while I can be way out front on some things, I can be equally naive, as for instance, to believe that “I Claudius”, was an autobiography. I did for a long while. Though past the median in life, I still have much to learn. By now, I held a latent hostility toward him. He soon joined what there was of the line. Our eyes locked, his revealing a brief inner thought, "What would a ‘stranièro’ (foreigner) know about such things anyway?" The only real words that passed between us were brief. His, as he looked at me directly, poised to move to the next open window while cocking his head toward a raised shoulder: "What matter a few more minutes wait.", meaning for me of course. Pretty ballsy. I thought I could come up with something pithy but stinging, on the order of a memorable Dirty Harry character comeback, but all I could muster, while wishing I could at least swear in Italian, was: "Lo so, questa è l'Italia non è esso!" (I know, this is Italy isn't it!). I needed to say something and it shot from my lips without much thought. Everyone knows that a shot from the lip (or hip) misses the target by a wide margin. Pretty lame and sure to give him pause before he goes and pulls this again on the next guy, wasn't it? As I fumed, I realized then and there that I needed to seriously bone-up on my cuss words!

My estranged acquaintance now long gone, I soon advanced, without further challenge, to number two in line and was close to one of the open, heavily barred windows overlooking the piazza. Remember the car? Glancing out through the bars, I noticed a policeman, pad in hand, investigating my car as he orbited it from front to rear. Oh no, not injury to insult! Had HE put him up to this? I had to do something, but leaving the line to go outside seemed risky. Who knew what my status might be following my return to the line after even a brief absence? I could imagine being pummeled with black purses and poked with canes! No need to add a hospital visit to this saga. Instead, I shouted through the bars “Aspettato qui molto tempo” (my best try after a glance in my pocket dictionary at “I have been waiting in here a long time”). He must have understood both my meaning and my situation for he walked once more around my vehicle, closed his ticket-book, and moved on. I'd gotten a pass - barely escaping an initiation in yet another bureaucracy, this one involving the local police or at least city hall. Maybe Saint Canio was looking over me and my car after all and had forgiven me my sin. When would I learn? If Maria Elena had been with me, she would have never allowed me to park as I had. I was agitated by this time, people could tell. They gave me a wide berth but kept their eyes on me for, no doubt, pure entertainment value. My 'bella figura' was melting, as though I'd morphed into the Wicked Witch of Oz and suddenly gotten wet! If only one of them had considered giving me their place in line, I’d have been gone much earlier and without further drama. But then, maybe they had considered this and decided against it for the simple enjoyment of it all. I'd just about had it by this point but my agita wasn't over yet. Oh yes, there was more.

I knew only a few people who worked in the Post Office. And with a castle overlooking the town, I like to think of the director of the bank as the king. He was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he was off somewhere in his counting house, counting out his money as kings do, while undoubtedly, this being Italia, sipping cappuccino. I nodded to the queen and prince, though, when we chanced to make eye contact as I dealt with one of the lower level royals. I'd signed the backs of the checks while waiting in line. What else did I have to do besides shifting from one leg to the next and worry about my car? Had I been wrong? Did I have a parking ticket, had he blocked my wheels, was a tow truck on the way? Nervously sliding my checks beneath the thickest of what looked like bulletproof glass and explaining through a bullet-hole size opening that they were for deposit, I was informed that I’d endorsed them improperly. The objection was that I hadn't used the side with the lines specifically meant for endorsement. Ouch, I got my first sense of where this was going. Moments after I re-submitted the checks, now with my signature at both ends according to Keynesian theory, if not Medici banking rules, we then began a post office kabuki dance to certify who I was, even though I was known to the teller. In many ways it reminded me of the hassle I sometimes endure in the States when I order a beer. Over sixty as I am, I laugh when they ask for my ID to check that I'm at least 21. If I'd used "Oil of Olay" all my life, maybe I could understand, but this boarders on the absurd. When they pull this State ordained stunt, I refuse and drink something non-alcoholic to their financial loss and for me, a loss of calories. Hadn't they heard about profiling? It certainly was all the news. It most likely is just me but I have a hard time putting up with this type nonsense. With computers before them, you would think they could simply look up my account by my name. Anzi (on the contrary), I needed my account number! Fortunately, after a long moment’s hesitation, I recalled that I’d thought to take an old bank statement with me. I’d hoped that my photo identification card, which I had gently slid to the teller along with the checks, would have been sufficient. Allora, I'd guessed wrong. Apparently the twelve or so numbers of my account best described me. Nothing for human judgment to get wrong this way by involving a photo, I guess. As that now famous character line once expounded, "We don't need no stinking (photo ID) badges!". By now, I was having difficulty understanding why all this fuss and strict protocol. After all, I wasn’t attempting to take money out, I was simply trying to put it in! I’ve read it in many places, how Italy may have millions of laws and regulations but no rules. You get my meaning? Yet on this day, whether they be rules, regulations or maybe simply local practice, I was being initiated into Italian banking as though at the plate facing a 90 mph fastball, strike-out king. Santa Margarita! There was more. Needless to say after two hours, I successfully had concluded my banking. Just thinking about it, my agita is reawakening and we know how angst can play havoc with ones nerves!

Following the drama of that day, I needed sleep. In fact, I think I need sleep from just recounting this story! With all those turkeys outside my bedroom, maybe a tryptophan induced sleep is just what the doctor would order. It's a wonder drug in fact, for besides inducing sleep, tryptophan also helps reduce anger and aggression. It's a regular miracle drug on two legs of the bearded and non-bearded variety! And to think, Benjamin Franklin, who began the US Postal Service (without banks, however), wanted the turkey as our national symbol. Maybe Ben knew something and maybe those strutting turkeys are trying to tell me something - the subliminal signs were aligning. I need to sleep this postal funk off again. Imagine, turkey comfort food along with a nap chaser? "Maria Elena, turn the oven on and where's my rifle?"

The Rouge Tourist, Paolo