The Most Useful Phrase in Italian Bureaucracy

10 Dec

No, it’s not vaffanc***, although that is usually what one wishes they could say.

Does anyone who lives here or has lived here before want to take a stab at what, IMHO, is the most important phrase to know if you have to make a trip to somewhere like, say, the doctor’s office or the post office?


My vote is for: CHI E’ L’ULTIMO??

Who’s the last in line?

If you plan to live here for any amount of time at all, you’d do well to learn that phrase. It’s like knowing the phrase “Scende?” (are you getting off?) when riding the bus.

I’ve been making quite a few trips to the post office lately, it being the holidays and all, as hope springs eternal that my gifts will eventually arrive at their recipients’ doorsteps. My post office is about as big as a walk-in closet. When you arrive, there are always at least 8 or 10 people crammed in there, so there’s no room to form a line. So, what is the first thing that should happen when you walk in the door (that is, if you manage to push it open against all the bodies inside)?

That’s right: “chi è l’ultimo?” Then you keep your eyes on that person, because as soon as they have their turn, you’re up next. Today mine was a gray-haired woman with a hot-pink grocery trolley.

I’ve found that this system tends to work fairly well and in rare cases allows you to even take a seat while you wait. This morning I had to wait a half hour at the post office so I managed to get one of the three chairs and get a front row seat for the “show.”

You see, living in Rome is often like taking your seat at a play. You may know the context, but you never really know what the plot has in store for you. I’ll give you a little excerpt from Act 2 of this morning’s performance:

Woman: Can I have a blue form, please?
Postal Clerk: We don’t have any. We’ve run out.
Woman: But I need one to send this letter by registered mail.
Postal Clerk: Well, we don’t have any. The main office didn’t send us any.
Woman: Excuse me, but how am I supposed to send it then?
Postal Clerk: Look, I know the blue forms are mandatory. But if they don’t send any to us, what am I supposed to do about it?

At this point I accidentally laughed under my breath and no less than three people turned to look at me. Because when these scenes happen, a rare silence descends. It’s like when there’s a critical move in an Olympic performance… the crowd holds their breath. What will happen next?

I have no idea how this situation got resolved, because the woman then had to do an operation that involved cashing a check, which means she had to go to another building of the same post office located around the block, where the money transactions are performed. (Yes, many a time have I observed a “newbie” wait in line a half hour only to find out that he or she was in the wrong office for the transaction they needed to do.)

I’ve taken a very Zen attitude towards these things. Last time I went to the post office I had a larger box to mail. I had purchased the box (had a holiday design on it) from an official Poste Italiane postal shop. When I brought it up to the window, the clerk looked at it, then looked at her coworker, and said, “You think this box might be a little too big for the States? Maybe over the regulation size?”

The coworker thought maybe she was right. “Could be. Measure it.”

So out came the tape measure.

Calculator…click, click, click.

Meanwhile, drops of cold sweat fall from my brow, after having waited over 30 minutes for my turn, and knowing that the gift in that box was not going to get any smaller no matter what I did.

After a few rounds with the calculator, and with an almost disappointed look on her face, she realized that it was within postal regulation size. Thank God for that. Although I have to say that it wouldn’t have surprised me if the postal service had produced, marketed, and then sold a mailing box that wasn’t suitable for mailing. These are the conundrums of daily life here that you learn to live with. I mean, hey, people, if the main office doesn’t send the forms, what can the clerk do, really? You can see how their hands are tied.

Ever heard of a post office that runs out of stamps? It happens.

And, at that point in the show, perhaps vaffanc*** just might come in handy.


22 Responses to “The Most Useful Phrase in Italian Bureaucracy”

  1. anna l'americana December 10, 2007 at 2:08 pm #

    I’m wondering if the Poste di zona is still in that inset accross from Pzza Sonnino (how was that guy’s first name Sydney I want to know!) on Viale Trastevere across from the big movie theatre where the 56 and 60 buss lines ended? (actually I think they moved the bus thing and now you have street vendors there = another example of good thinking) How many hours did I spend in there? Until I figured out that I could use any post office – and back then you could drive in Italy and there were no ZTLs – I figured out that I could go to some borgata post office and as long as it wasn’t Pension Check Delivery Day there would be no line. So from then on, I did all my business with the Poste Italiane at the branch office in Decima (a hellhole public housing neighborhood outside of EUR northeast of Mostacciano) if you can believe it! But it worked. I think the woman at the sportello was so glad to have someone to talk to that they were actually nicer, and they never ran out of supplies because no one used them! I laugh now, but in order to survive you have to find a way………

  2. J.Doe December 10, 2007 at 2:39 pm #

    Chi e’ l’ultimo reminds me of going to the doctors office (my doctor didn’t give out appointments to patients, it was first come first served). But vaffanc*** seems to have “Italian postal service ‘ written all over it.

  3. Andrea December 10, 2007 at 3:35 pm #

    That is so funny. You gotta love the Italians. They certainly have a way with things! Oh and you have an apartment, I would love to have details if you get a minute. Feel free to use my email, My husband has never been to Rome, I have been quite a few times, but I would love to go again!

  4. sognatrice December 10, 2007 at 4:05 pm #

    I have to say that living in a small town definitely has an advantage in the Post Office. Yes, the computers are probably some of the first ever invented and run accordingly slow, but at least no one is pushing ahead of one another. Imagine the gossip around town!

    I spent a half hour there today waiting to pay 2 bills and then had to run and make change. For the post office. WHICH IS LIKE A BANK!

    But that’s OK. I happened to have had a package there waiting for me (sometimes they prefer that I check in every day to see if I received anything rather than just delivering it to me), and it was a new book to review, so I got to read while I waited 🙂

  5. nyc/caribbean ragazza December 10, 2007 at 4:44 pm #

    Ha, I would have laughed out loud as well.

    I am very nervous about this whole post office situation. I get annoyed dealing with the post office here. I might have a melt down in Rome.

  6. kataroma December 10, 2007 at 5:26 pm #

    The upside (if there is an upside) to Italian bureaucracy is that when things do go smoothly (rare, but it happens) you feel like you just won the lottery.

    I had a really good experience recently sending a letter racommandata from the new PO at Termini (the one on Via Marsala but next to the Terravision office). There were only 2 people ahead of me and the worker was efficient and polite! I walked out of there with a big smile on my face.

    Luckily for me my boyfriend handles all the bill paying etc (I can’t take all that time off work since I work 9-6). I don’t know how I’d handle all the bureaucratic stuff if I had a partner who also worked an office job.

  7. Shelley, At Home in Rome December 10, 2007 at 8:52 pm #

    Anna: The one that I go to is just off of Via della Lungaretta, near the pupazzaro’s house. It’s a hole in the wall but the closest to my house. I was going for a while to the main p.o. in Piazza S. Silvestro b/c it’s so huge there was hardly ever a wait, PLUS there’s a civilized numbering system, but the other day when I went and took a number, I got C627 and the current number was C471. No, I didn’t stick around to find out how long that would have taken.

    J. Doe: That’s how it works at my doctor’s office too, you just have to ask who’s the last in line because although theoretically you can make an appt., every time I’ve tried to, the secretary has told me I couldn’t and needed to come with the other “urgenze” because it would be faster. BOH. Most docs I know don’t even have the luxury of a secretary and the patients have to battle out the wait among themselves. At my doc’s, at least the secretary keeps a close watch over who’s next.

    Andrea: We’re actually no longer accepting reservations for 2008… mi dispiace!! Maybe in 2009?

    Sognatrice: It would be fun for us to swap places for a week or so. We’d probably both get culture shock. I’ve never lived in a small Italian village before.

    NYC: You’ll be fine… just consider it material for your next book, no??

    Kataroma: I totally agree with you about the lottery thing. So sad, but true, how victorious you feel when you manage to accomplish something. Joking aside, I shouldn’t knock the bureaucracy too much because it seriously does give you good skills for resolving and anticipating problems. In the States I was just so used to “Can I speak to your manager?” when I had a problem. Here if you even ask for the employee’s name they most likely won’t tell you. It does go back a lot I think to that “I can’t be fired, so screw you” mentality. But it has made me more assertive and better at finding solutions on my own. As far as the bills go, I finally did “domiciliazione” for all my bills (since we have three apts. there were quite a few between gas and electric) and have them automatically debited from my account. It’s been a lifesaver.

  8. Valerie December 10, 2007 at 10:23 pm #

    I hear ya, sistah. I’ve written and lamented about the Post Awful, too. The wiley old folks are the worst about butting up in line! But…I thought you swore off the Poste Italiane in favor of the Vatican Post Office?

  9. my melange December 10, 2007 at 11:42 pm #


    I think I have to start practicing counting slowly to ten and inhaling and exhaling through my nose. Training, in case I ever move to Italy!

  10. Shelley, At Home in Rome December 11, 2007 at 8:37 am #

    Valerie: I wish, but it’s too far for me to go every time I have to mail a package.

    My Melange: Sounds like a good plan!! After years of experience it kind of comes naturally (or you self-destruct).

  11. nicki December 11, 2007 at 10:34 am #

    We hae huge problems with the post office in Positano at the moment. For the last 6 months post isn’t being delivered, people are not getting their phone bills , electricity bills, pension cheques etc and are getting their power cut off. A few weeks ago my OH got a summons to go to INPS in Salerno but it arrived 4 days after he shoud have gone. Three times this year including 2 days ago my post has arrived completely open, the sellotape torn from the package and the contents falling out. And the locals here don’t seem to care ‘che e l’ultimo?’ because they just walk in and push in front of whoever is standing there.
    It is a horrible horrible place that makes my blood boil every time I have to go there.

  12. Judith in Umbria December 11, 2007 at 11:58 am #

    Chi é l’ultimo? So what do you do when no one admits to it? I used to press on and on, why wouldn’t they answer? Now I go to the head of the line and they very quickly respond.

  13. qualcosa di bello December 11, 2007 at 1:21 pm #

    this post made me promise myself that i would no longer moan & groan in an american post office again!

  14. Shelley, At Home in Rome December 11, 2007 at 2:00 pm #

    Nicki: That’s awful! Luckily things haven’t gotten that bad here (yet). I wonder what the problem is?

    Judith: Here in Rome it’s never happened to me to have someone not respond, but I will definitely use your tactic if that ever happens! Funny how all of a sudden people wake up when they might get cut in line!!

    Qualcosa di Bello: I had kind of idealized the US post office in my mind after moving here, thinking it was so much more efficient compared to here, but last year I was back (granted, it was around Xmas time) and it was a crowded mess there too! But at least people know how to stand in line properly, I guess that’s one small consolation. I think post office and DMV are kind of universally awful places.

  15. anna l'americana December 11, 2007 at 3:10 pm #

    Are you planning to do a piece on the Motorizzazione (DMV) any time soon? I’d love to see that – it was a WILD place in my time, no lines, just a huge press of angry, screaming people waving papers and forms and pushing against empty sportelli…..(picture images of the stock market crash of 1929).
    And no computers (I think that goes without saying).
    At the time (70s/80s) I believe there was not one currently registered “in regola” vehicle in the entire country! Of course, everyone drove a car back then, which is not the case now, so perhaps it is more civilized or more functional? Boh.

  16. Isabelle December 12, 2007 at 10:11 am #

    Last time I was at the post office, crowded as ever, after having been waiting for like 45 minutes, BOOM black out… Nothing worked, even the automatic doors… They “evacuated” us through the back doors and told us to come the next day……. no joke….

  17. Sharon December 12, 2007 at 6:02 pm #

    We have a new mail clerk who is more sullen than the old one. No stamps is a common occurance. Lately my USA packages (that I am mailing) have had problems. Like being open and retaped. Items missing. I am going to the post office out of town from now on.

  18. Brendan December 13, 2007 at 12:55 am #

    I am sure that the post office in any country is an undesirable experience. The problem is that in Italy the post office is an essential part of your life, a place that you are required to visit at least twice per month. It can be your bank and it manages the state utility company coffers, so every bill you pay, from the university to the electricity, goes through the post office. In the US, I have probably been to the post office about 20 times total in my life. In Italy, the post office clerks recognize me and speak to me in the informal tense.

  19. Cinzia December 13, 2007 at 3:23 pm #

    23 years ago we asked our Swedish friend why did he ever think of moving to Rome from Stoccolma………..after 23 years hubby and I still don’t know if we want to cry or laugh histerically at his answer. The answer was: I was so bored in Sweden, life is so plain, so easy, if u need a certificate or a document you make a tel. call and they send it home. In Rome everyday is an adventure, you go to the post office (or any other public office) and you never know what will happen to you.
    Boh, Italy: land of adventure!! I had never seen it this way, to me it is all very “esasperante” and it’s getting no better as I become older. Grazie PC and Internet, it could be even worse.
    I read somewhere Italians are clever to make easy things difficult and the opposite. Quite true, ciao

  20. Rachele January 12, 2008 at 11:25 pm #

    I feel your pain!!!! My fiance has taught me to just forget about it….you will wait EVERYWHERE….you know its going to happen, just deal with it. But, it seems I am always irritated by it. And even worse, the way people try to get in front of you in line….i learned how to stand up and make a stink about it and tell people to beat it,back of the line buddy…
    going to la carola is just as bad only with 12 packed sick kids and parents squished into an office, then you finally get in and he tells you to use the liquid breath machine….MAMMA MIA!!!!!

  21. Lorna April 11, 2008 at 8:14 am #

    So who’s been pregnant in Italy? The best (worst) paperwork that I ever had to handle here was when I was given my maternity papers by the gynaecologist and then discovered that I had to travel 35 kilometers to take them to the work inspectors office for a “timbro” and then bring them back to INPS. There I was thinking “hey – I’m getting maternity leave because I’m 7 months pregnant – I’m tired and heavy and moving is pretty damn awkward -I don’t want to travel all that way for some bloody stamp.” But of course I had no choice. Hopefully by now the system is computerised saving other unfortunate mums to be from a lot of hasle.

  22. Francesca Maggi July 30, 2008 at 1:01 pm #

    I say it’s (and, I have tested the theory and it works)…

    “Mi può indicare per cortesia TUTTI ma TUTTI i documenti che servono in modo che io non debba tornare qui???”

    [please indicate to me ALL of the docs required so I don’t have to come back]

    To whit they reply, it’s on the form.

    So, you ask to please go through the form just to be sure, you’re a foreigner, maybe you don’t understand.
    You will always find a few more docs not listed which are required. Always.

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