Posted by: 4initalia | February 11, 2009

Deliver This

It’s finally sunny so I made a break for it. This was my second stroll to Modena, the first one with a purpose: to buy a bathing suit. This is trickier than it seems. All Italian women are bounteously endowed; to find a suit that fits I’m going to need to shop in the preteen department. And Italian woman wear bikinis into their 90s. Not me, I’m keeping a layer of spandex between me and two pregnancies.

I can try the stores, but there is a cheaper option: every Monday in Modena there is an open air market They’re like our flea markets at home. Miraculously, hundreds of vendors got amazing deals on a variety of things: belts, pajamas, shoes. Okay, so there’s only one item per size, and the boxes look a little scuffed, like maybe they were stuffed into a foil-lined shopping bag to evade a metal detector, but I do not think for one minute that this stuff is stolen. Okay, so I think that for three minutes, but if I can find a one-piece bathing suit in the market, I’ll overlook that. Go, Robin Hood.

The market is somewhere downtown, so I head off on foot. Already this has become familiar. The shuttered windows, signs in Italian. It’s after one p.m., so most of them say “chiuso.” I avoid the old (old meaning before Christ – Italians are very serious about old) section of town, it has charmingly winding streets but if I’m lost in there I’ll never make it back out, and the market is closing at two.

I can’t find the market, I’m on the wrong street. It would be relatively easy to tell if I’m on the right street because the market holds 300 very lucky vendors, 800 very lucky Italians, and if I’m lucky, a bathing suit.

I walk into a stream of college students emerging from class: spiked hair, short jackets, chattering and happy. Of course they’re happy, they wear bikinis. Confused, I call Andy, who knows where everything is. “How do you get to the open air market?” “Take bus number three – it takes you right there.” “I’m already downtown. Where do I go?” “Are you north or south of the tower?” I hate these questions. I couldn’t determine direction if I was sitting on the top of the world holding the actual North Pole. But some brain cells fire up and I actually figure this out: “I’m north of the Tower.””Go back to the tower. The tower is at Via Emilio. Go to Via Emilio, and take a right.” I find the tower and take a right. And keep taking it, but there’s no market. Along the way there are clothing stores. The crispness of the design, the richness of the fabric, and the tailoring details are entrancing. But there are no bathing suits.  Maybe I can find one at the market.

I pass a mime. He’s gorgeous, costumed and painted like an antique playing card. His cheeks are puffy and slide into jowls. His jowls slump and flare into a magnificent belly. Hmmn, maybe we wear the same size. I want to stop and ask him where the market is, but he’d only gesture in Italian, and I’m in no mood to translate. I walk to the edge of Italy. I keep walking, and have walked so long that some of the little shops are opening up after closing for lunch. That’s a bad sign in this country if you want to get home before nightfall.

I pass the post office. I have three letters to mail, already stamped.  With eighty-five cent stamps, the ones the internet tells me would send a letter to the US. Efficiently, I drop the three letters in the mail slot for out of town mail. I fearlessly bought stamps at the tabbacheria, and now I just pop my letters into the mail box – I can.do.this. Freakishly, the post office is actually open, so I go inside; I need more stamps to mail more letters to the US. I have already mailed letters, I know how to ask for stamps, and I am totally ready for this transaction.

Inside the post office there’s a long counter with a long line of postal employees. In this office, the postal employees do not sit behind bullet proof glass, like the other offices we’ve visited. So at least there’s some sport in torturing customers here: when they tell you need seven copies of a blank piece of paper it is theoretically possible to fight back.

Now I notice that the waiting customers are holding numbers; I need to get one. I go back to the entrance: there are three types of numbers, based on different types of postal services. I have to choose a type of service. The options include paying bills, a list of transactions I couldn’t possibly understand, and another list of inscrutable services. Nestled deep within the list of services in option two, I find “francobolli,” stamps, and push the button. I get a number, P288. Now I just have to wait in line.

And wait. Everyone in my postal option line seems to be holding multiple copies of complicated documents. When their number is called, they heap the documents on the counter and stand back fearfully. Providing postal service means that a postal employee pokes at the pile, shifts a document or two, and goes away. The worker directly in front of me has no customer at his counter, and a pile of documents that he ruffles listlessly every once and a while. He is “serving” number P268 – this does not bode well. I decide that the wrath of the tabbacheria is preferable to the torturous wait at the post office, and am glad that I am finding my way around the quirks of the Italian mail system.

My number is finally called. The woman who waits on me is finely boned, her long narrow face an etching in thin but firm strokes. As I approach, her slender nostrils flare perceptibly: she’s here for a fight. I ask for eight-five cent stamps. Her lips curl into a sneer: Game On. “Where is it going?” she demands imperiously. Napolean would have loved that sneer. “The United States” I answer, and I have fallen into her clutches. Aaah, an American. Her Italian adjusts to warp speed: “Does the letter weigh more than twenty grams?” I don’t know. “If it’s more than twenty grams, you.need.to.pay.extra.”

She is licking her enamel-pink and chiselled chops. She is infinitely pleased that she can demand for the Italian government that additional bit of lucre, as if she will turn the tide for the Italian economy one stamp at a time. She knows full well that Americans are helpless at the metric system, and senses that I did not do serious drugs in college: I have no idea how much twenty grams weigh. So I ask: “How much is twenty grams? If it’s just a single piece of paper and an envelope, is that under twenty grams?”

“I must weigh it.” She is the Empress Josephine, and this bit of formica counter is her empire. I am not worthy of her contempt.

“But how much does a single piece of paper weigh?”

“I must weigh it. If it is over twenty grams, You. Must. Pay. Extra.”

Resisting the impulse to leap over the counter and counteract her reasoning with a little of my own, I retreat from the field of battle, muttering more than usual. Is it ME?? If the post office makes a stamp that is used specifically to mail letters to the United States, and the smallest letter to the United States contains only one sheet, is it unreasonable to ask whether a letter to the United States would qualify for the Letter to the United States rate? Could I mail a simple letter without having to stand in an infernal line and wait for Italian postal employees to scrutinize every document in Italy?

All of my adjusting has led to more frustration. My clever move to obtain stamps at the tabbacheria has failed. The postal employees are right now breathing on my envelopes, pushing the scale past the magical twenty grams. My three letters, which contain a piece of paper each, and cost me almost $4 to mail, are going to end up in the same landfill as my debit card. And I never found the market. No wonder the mime has nothing left to say.

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