Waiting in line, and practicing patience!

“Scusate, chi è l’ultimo?” which means “Who is the last one?” is a phrase you’d best remember when you prepare to stand in line at the post office, the doctor’s waiting room, the questura (immigration police), almost any utility company, and a host of other government or public service offices.

I don’t mean to imply that Italy is the poster child for long queues, or that life in the States is devoid of having to stand in line. But, in my experience waiting in line is a far more common experience in Italy. My dear friend Elizabeth gently coached me on practicing the three P’s – patience, persistence, and politeness. She also urged me to always have a good book (or, in my case, my Ipad), and be prepared to settle in for a bit of unpredictability. Knowing this early on has helped me to breathe, and release my American-conditioned need to “move things along”. In other words, I’ve had to check my “Chop, chop, get ‘er done attitude.”

The feature photo for this post is the classic Poste Italiane sign (sadly soon to be defunct and currently being replaced by a new snazzy design). I’ve done my share of complaining about waiting in line, and very long queues with the good ole’ USPS. The experience varies by location here in Italy, but in most larger Italian post offices, the experiences make me feel a bit guilty for complaining back in the states.

I’m talking about the Poste Italiane as an example of how waiting in line functions in other venues. Learn the ropes and the rules of behavior, and all will be good.

At our local Poste Italiane in Rome they have a machine you approach when you enter, and based on the type of transaction you hope to make, you choose the appropriate button, and the machine dutifully spits out an alpha-numeric slip. Then you stand or sit, and wait for your number to pop up above a specific window. I’ve seen people enter and push all the different buttons and hold onto three different slips, banking on being able to plead ignorance if they’re summoned and they are attempting a transaction at odds with the function of this particular window. No surprise, most of the people who do this are stranieri (foreigners).

The experience varies at our local Poste Italiane in Umbria. No numbering system exists to help provide sanity to the queueing up process. There is a manual machine where you can go to pull off a paper number, but it always is empty. So, the “organic” system of queueing up goes into play, and I return to how this post began,”Scusate, chi è l’ultimo?”

Rarely do you see a discernible line in such a situation. Unless you have followed someone into the venue and you know for certain they are the last person, be sure to ask (in Italian) “Who is the last person?” Then, you will know when it is your turn. Also, be prepared to answer the question for the next person who enters.

Follow the above practice religiously, or you risk inadvertently stepping ahead of someone else, and the “mob” can get pretty irrate.

At my doctor’s office the organic queueing is always in play. At my farmacia, the numbering system helps keeps things under control.

The most challenging office for me is the questura, when I am going for my annual permesso di soggiorno renewal interview. Even though I have an appointment, I’m lumped together in a waiting room with people waiting for a variety of reasons, some with appointments and some without. And, every time an official opens the door to call in a person, there’s a bit of a mob scene, with people trying to get in ahead of others. Yes, foreigners. Italians, as a general rule, would enact the system described above, and then patiently wait their turn.

In closing, I must stress that the system of waiting in line will vary, often to your frustration. I’m a person who desires much greater predictability in “taking care of business”. So, I’ve had to learn and adopt a very different attitude. If you’re planning a long stay in Italy, or if you’re planning on making a more permanent move, I urge you to prepare yourself for this “fact of life”, and manage your expectations accordingly. If you’re like me, you can employ techniques to make waiting fun. If you’re open to it, rather than getting worked up when things don’t move along briskly, play the people-watching game, and use it as an opportunity to listen and train your ear to what is being said in Italian!