So what do you do, I am frequently asked, with all that time you spend in Italy?
What do I do? I stand in line.
This is the post office in Camucia where I stood in line for 35 minutes this morning, waiting to pay two bills. That was not a bad wait, all things considered. I took number AO53 from the little machine that gives you your priority; at that point, the service windows were already at AO35 and AO36. But things move slowly in Camucia, and of course there are also completely separate numerations for people who want to buy stamps or mail a package, and for people who want to deposit or withdraw from their post office savings accounts.
I’ve heard that Elizabeth Warren wants to install banking in U.S. post offices, in an attempt to make them somewhat more useful and even perhaps profitable. Much as I admire her, I would caution the Senator to spend a little time in an Italian post office before she goes ahead with that proposal.
I had already been in line for 40 minutes at our weekly farmer’s market—this is the market where real farmers sell directly to consumers and it is often crowded because around here people put much more faith in local farms and farmers than they do in the stuff at the big Thursday open-air market, stuff that might have come from Umbria or China or some equally unreliable source. So the farmer’s market is crowded and as there are only two vegetable stalls and this is peak season for local peas, fava beans and strawberries, well, not only did I have to wait, I also had to keep a sharp eye out on the little old ladies (most of whom are probably ten years younger than me) who would be very quick to duck in front if my attention wavered from the task at hand.
Going back to the post office, you may well wonder why I have to go to the p.o. to pay bills. That, in fact, is the only place to pay certain bills and they have to be paid in cash. This often means standing in line at the bank to start off with, just to make sure you’ve enough cash in your pocket to cover the bills. There is no question—no question—about writing a check and sending it through the mail. This is the country that invented banking, I’m reliably told, back in the 15th century when the venerable Monte di Paschi was established, and still it is not really permitted to send checks through the mail.
Especially not for the bills I was paying. Now this is where it gets a little odd. I had two bills that had come in over the winter—no one seemed to mind that these were a good six months in arrears by this time. One, the smaller of the two, was for garbage collection. Well, okay, someone has to pay for it so why not the people who actually use it? The other was something called the mountain tax, the special tax that we who live up in the mountains behind the town have to pay for the privilege of indifferent postal service, inefficient and messy rubbish collection, inattention to the state of the one road that links us to town (the road that collapsed over the winter and fell part way down the mountain again, in a different place from where it had collapsed four years ago—and that earlier collapse had taken three years to repair), no more primary school, no more bus service, and no priest in the local church—though the government of Cortona is not in fact responsible for that last. This costs our household 99 euros a year—about $135, not much you might think, but our household is privileged economically compared to most around here.
All of this waiting makes me wonder sometimes why I even bother coming to my Italian mountaintop village at all. To pay bills, is the quick answer. But then, once the bills are paid, why do I stay?
At lunchtime, I had the answer to that—not just because the lunch was delicious, the view was gorgeous, the wine was crisp and fresh, and my companion was my good friend Pammie. But when it came time for dessert, the waiter (who is also part owner of the restaurant and husband of the cook) suggested gelato made right there. Mine was gelato di crema with a dribble of real aceto balsamico over the top. “But don’t you have any strawberries?” I asked, thinking of ones I had bought in the farmer’s market. (I adore strawberries with aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena—it strikes me as the highest and best use of that condiment.) He heard me mention the strawberries in my car, parked up the hill from the restaurant, and offered to fetch them. And that is exactly what he did—left the restaurant and went up the hill to where my unlocked car was sitting, found the strawberries, took out four of the most splendid, tucked the others under the car seat out of the sun, brought the four back to the restaurant, gave them a quick rinse, and produced them at the table along with the gelato di crema and the aceto balsamico. That’s what I call service and that’s really why I keep on coming back. Despite the lines.