07 March 2010

LIFE - Stamp This

SARONNO, Italy - How well I remember the day I crossed the “foreigner” threshold and finally felt “Italian”. No longer the Americana or Italo-Americana, but 100% full fledged Italian. My country, my people. For better and for worse. From this day forward.

It happened a few months after I moved to Milan from Genoa where I had lived for six years on a splendid street of palm trees, blood red bougainvillea and orange trees so heavy with oranges they would fall and splat onto the sidewalk making walking a challenge. My Genoa apartment was in a small borgo called Nervi, and as apartments go it wasn’t so great. But what didn’t have in terms of space, the weather, the flowers, the blue Mediterranean Sea and glorious sea walk at the end of my street more than made up for it.

My Milan apartment, chosen more for location than aesthetics. It was ten minutes from the center of Milan, near a subway line, grocery stores and the post office. The nearness of the post office was important because back in the mid 1990’s, the internet was not fully integrated into the Italian way of life. There were no Italian internet servers so I was using an American based internet service and Compuserve for my emails, and paying a $20 per hour premium for the dial-up service to the Italian government to do so.

The transformation from Americana to Italiana came the day I walked into my local post office with an armload of letters to the U.S.A. – an article I wanted to sell. 
The line for stamps was long and it was hot, and as I stood there, shifting from foot to foot I tried to calculate how much longer it was going to take for me to buy stamps and mail my letters. With twenty people in front of me, each one taking five or six minutes to complete their business, well, it was going to take a while.

I resigned myself to the wait. I made a mental list of groceries I wanted to buy on my way home, I bounced around ideas for future articles, and wiping the sweat from my brow, I seriously wondered if I hadn’t made a mistake leaving the Italian Riviera. 

When I finally got up to the Stamp window the harried clerk frowned, looked at my armful of letters and said in a sharp voice – “Cosa voi?”. “What do you want?”

I was stunned by her rudeness. I remember standing there just looking at her.

“What do I want?” I asked. “What do I want?” I said again, my voice getting louder? “Where am I? Isn’t this the Post Office? Isn’t this the line to buy stamps? Are these not letters in my hand? You tell me. What do I want?”

With my voice ringing out across the small post office, she backed down. “Calma, calma,” she said.

Calma?” I yelled in Italian pushing my letters to her side of the counter. “I am not calma. And I am not going to be calma any time soon.”

Who knows what happened to that other person, that nice person that used to be me, the one who was so worried about not coming across as an “ugly” American. She was gone. In her place was this new person who was not about to put up with rude behavior from anyone, in any country. Not on a day as hot as this.

As I walked out of the Post Office, my mission completed, an older woman, who was still standing in line, looked over at me and whispered, brava. I nodded toward her, acknowledging her compliment. The transformation was complete.

Photos: (1) Typical Italian Post Office, (2) Italian stamp, (3) old post card

Next week: ON THE ROAD - Mantua

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