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October 24, 2020 | Rome, Italy

A special place

By | 2018-03-21T18:43:46+01:00 March 13th, 2011|Features Archive|
Either you get the line or the line gets you.
I

taly is known for its laid-back lifestyle and sense of dolce vita. It’s also known for its complicated bureaucracy and myriad frustrations. It was at my third post office of the day, waiting for my turn at one of 20 highly specific desks, that I realized that those two aspects were, in fact, one and the same.

Italy is a country of specialization. To shop the “Italian” way, you go to the macelleria for your meat, the panificio for your bread, the fruit and vegetable stand for your produce. You can buy leather gloves at a guantaio and get a leather purse handmade at the pelletteria, but if you need your leather shoes fixed, you need to go to the cobbler. When heading out to eat, don’t mistake a pizzeria for an enoteca or a trattoria — or a host for a waiter for a server.

Meanwhile, Italians attend universities to study a specific subject and graduate with the goal of working in that field for the rest of their lives. Unions and associations make that specialization stick, using an iron grip to protect their members, and keeping all but the most-focused out.

Want to be an Italian journalist? Pumping out perfect copy won’t get you anywhere. According to national law, you must register in the Ordine dei Giornalisti. And to join the “Order,” you have to work as an apprentice for 18 months for little or no pay, and then pass written and oral exams. Who would switch careers after that?

Of course, some change is afoot. Italy’s jobscape still looks like the guild-littered Middle Ages, but the economic crisis is forcing more job shake-ups. Even if they haven’t expanded into offering shelf after shelf of shampoos and office supplies like their Anglo equivalents, many Italian grocery stores boast meat, produce and shoe shines. And the traditional lines between taverna and trattoria, if not pizzeria and enoteca, have been blurred.

But that automatic instinct to specialize is still how Italy works. There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place.

That even goes for time. In a country where being chronically late is cultural, the clock’s tick holds surprising power. You can do certain things at only certain times of day, whether because of etiquette (no cappuccino before noon!) or opening hours (good luck finding a drycleaner open over lunchtime, or a market open after 6 p.m.). There’s a precise rhythm for annual time, too. For a mild Mediterranean climate, the seasons seem strangely specific: Bring your fall clothes out on Oct. 1 on the dot. Plan for the nationwide sales that occur on pre-announced dates twice a year. Don’t expect Easter pastries in bakeries during the summer.

Even physical needs are slotted. Hungry for dinner before 8 p.m.? Sick after the pharmacy’s closed for the night? Tough.

It couldn’t be more different from the land of 24-hour pharmacies. In the U.S., time — and all else, it sometimes seems — is jumbled. Stores put on sales willy-nilly, professionals work through lunch hour (and into the night). The idea of “seasonal” foods is so odd that it’s trendy. When I visit friends in New York City, I’m always shocked at how I can get takeout… at 2 a.m., or buy toothpaste at midnight… from a grocery store.

But what Italy surrenders to convenience it makes up in focus. If you’re buying fruit at the market, you can’t get distracted by magazines or nail polish or a new herbal remedy. You’re buying fruit. And after 7 p.m., when most offices and stores are shut, you can’t keep working, or run errands, or go to the gym. You have to relax.

So while the stereotype that Italians are fun-loving connoisseurs of life’s simple pleasures is just that, it might also contain a nugget of truth: With specialization and scheduling comes, oddly enough, the freedom to live in the moment. If you can’t be anywhere else, how can you be anxious about why you’re not there?

But there’s also a flip side to the specialization. If just enough brings focus and rhythm to daily life, too much leads to scattered processes… and scattered minds.

Take the post office. For the first- (or even fifth-) timer, the experience baffles from the beginning. Faced with an endless array of desks, each with a different letter-and-number series blinking above, you have to figure out which one’s your goal. After all, it’s not as if they all do the same thing: Each one is designed to manage different, specific tasks.

Your only help is the hulking machine at the entrance, inscribed with hieroglyphs. One symbolizes the desk where you pay your utilities bills, one where you exchange currency, one where you file bureaucratic papers. And, oh, one for where you mail a package. Because it’s a post office.

Taking your best shot, you poke at a button and a paper spits out with the letter-and-number chain. After it comes up on the main board — generally 30 to 90 minutes later — you can go up to the desk. Thirty seconds later, you’re done… if you’re lucky.

The last time I went it took me three different offices to get one task accomplished. The first didn’t have a desk to do the process — submitting a permesso application — I needed. The second did, but the clerk there took his specialty so seriously he’d deepened his responsibilities: Rather than just making sure I was the person in the application and taking my processing fee, he told me he thought the questura would reject the application… and so refused to let me send it at all. In the third office, the clerk looked through the same documents, made sure my identity was consistent, took my fee, and sent it off with a smile.

That’s the funny thing about specialization. A little is good. But too much, and you’ve got a whole other kind of special.

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Amanda Ruggeri's column "La Straniera" ran from 2010 through mid-2014.

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