Not a Cunning Linguist

Today has been a fairly typical day for me so far; get up, have breakfast, get on with looking for work, proofreading, studying Italian yada yada yada. But every now and again I have an adventure to somewhere new, somewhere magical, or just somewhere that will sell me stamps. Today’s trip was the local post office, which fulfills the third criteria if nothing else. I’d popped out to buy some milk and chocolate wafer biscuits for the over-worked Spangles and had been instructed to find somewhere that would sell stamps for post that is being sent to England. They have a bit of a weird system in Italy in that you can buy all sorts of things at your local tabbacheria, which is usually a slighty bizarre combination of a coffee shop/snack bar/place to buy fags. However, the jolly and rotund stereotype behind the counter informed me that no stamps were sold there, but that the post office was only around the corner. With a little spring in my step I sauntered off into the Rome sunshine, happy with the way I communicated with the locals and feeling a bit more like I was at home here. That optimism was soon to be chopped down like a tree in the Amazon; quickly, quietly and by a leather-faced foreigner.

Italian post offices are just as depressing, boring and packed full of people at all times of the day as their UK counterparts; you could see people lining every wall in the building waiting to pay their utilities and post packages to relatives down south or abroad, staring blankly into space in the way only those in the icy, sky blue grip of the truly mundane can. Luckily for me the queue for the post section was pretty short and I popped up at the counter after a couple of minutes. ‘Posso comprare un francobollo per l’inghilterra?’ I asked. To which Leather Face responded ‘Il blah a blah sul blah di blah. Questo blahblahblahblahblah nella blah fila.’ A familiar sense of dejection washed over my entire body; I knew that I wasn’t going to get stamps here, instead I was going to get a less-than-cheerful reminder that I am utterly incapable of completing the most basic of transactions. It’s a shit feeling, let me tell you, one that’s impossible to grasp unless you’ve experienced it. Feeling like a total outsider, looking at the sympathy on the faces of people who are trying to help but can’t, then skulking off.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had problems communicating with people since I’ve moved over here; buying the laptop that I’m typing this post on was a particularly painful process, and one that cost me €100 more than it should have done, but it’s humiliating to explain to someone that you literally don’t understand a single word that comes out of their mouth and that despite trying to learn the language for the best part of a year you’re still no closer to cracking it, especially when near enough everyone you meet has at least some grasp of English (although it would be handy if they worked in post offices and consumer electronics stores). This feeling will often manifest itself externally by blaming Italy and Italians; usually by complaining that they speak too fast, or that their language is shit and makes no sense – and by the way how dare they not speak exactly as it is written in textbooks – but really there’s only person to blame, and that’s a realisation that is pretty hard to take well.

I’m off to the post office up by Termini now, they deal with tourists posting things all the time, so I suppose I’ll make out I am one. At least that way I won’t get the pitying looks.


3 Responses

  1. I have this feeling in California all the time.
    “I’d like a croissant please.”
    “A ‘cra- sant’ ?”
    “Um, yeah, a croissant.”
    “Sorry, a ‘cra-san?'”
    “Um, sorry, a cruhsaunt”
    “Oh, a cruhsaunt! Sure.”

    Largely I feel too humiliated by my own incompetence and leave without whatever it was I came for.

  2. Yes, but this is actually a new experience for me. I don’t think I flounce quite as naturally, frankly.

  3. Here’s a tip from personal experience.
    Wear a sport jacket.

    They will consider you a “cliente business” and open a special window for you (which will then close as soon as you have your stamps).

    It’s a truly bizarre experience.

    An alternative is to go to the Vatican; the post will get to England faster as well.

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