A Lesson in Futility

An appropriate subtitle to the title above would read, “Running (Italian) Errands”.

Allow me to preface this post by acutely pointing out that having now lived in Italy for more than a year, I’ve come to embrace and appreciate the chaotic nuances of daily Italian life. The discombobulation that’s met with simple, routine chores is not so much an obstacle, as much as it is purely part of the day-to-day program. We can safely assume the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, which is the route most western folks will take to maximize efficiency. Comparatively, Italians are much more likely to take the circuitous route that involves seventeen more points than are seemingly required. But you know what?! Those little adventures are what makes life (choose your favorite adjective…) exciting/colorful/unique/dramatic! They’re not rushing from point A to point B simply to accomplish a task. Rather, Italians emphatically engage in conversation and appreciate company. Italians are an incredibly impassioned people ripe with more cultural heritage than most of us could ever dream of.

To put it another way, while in Italy you don’t go to Wal-Mart and buy your Jimmy Dean’s sausages three aisles away from your Q-Tips and cross the store from your double-XL sweatpants all in one fell swoop. Chores, il mio amico, take time and that’s how you fill your day.

That being said, let me provide two anecdotes to this aforementioned lesson in futility to help illustrate my point. This week, among other rigors of professional cycling, I had two simple tasks: collect money from the ATM machine and buy a trio of postcard stamps.

Exhibit A, Get money from an ATM.

Two birds, one stone: the picture of efficiency, right? I needed to pad my wallet with cash and I knew I was going to ride my bike by a few banks on my ride, so I took my ATM card with me and set out for a vigorous round of bicycling. Oh look, an ATM machine! (By the way for the banking nerds out there, I realize that the M in ATM stands for machine, but it’s common vernacular to say ATM machine, so I’m going with it when I deem it appropriate. Like right now for example.)

Insert card into machine, read screen which now displays, “Questa macchina รจ fuori servizio” (perhaps you can read a bit of Italian and recognize “fuori servizio” means “out of service”), flip out accordingly. Fully kitted-up in spandex, cycling shoes, helmet, and glasses, I waddle into the bank and tell them that their machine ate my card. Mind you, this is a fun test of my Italian language skills – I’ve had all sorts of these off-the-wall conversations in Italian lately, this being one of them, and it’s very reassuring that my Italian is coming along when I can handle dialogues of this nature. The kindly gentleman walks to the back of the machine, opens it up, shows me my card, asks if it belongs to me, and upon breathing a sigh of relief, I reply yes. He then says I need to contact my bank back in the USofA and have them email or fax a form with my name, date of birth(?!), and bank card information. Upon receiving this fax, when I return to this bank with my passport in hand I can then have my card back. That right, I can have MY card back. Sweet…

I was mildly satisfied to see that the card was not in the hands of some raving lunatic, but then the more I thought about it, my card was quite literally in the hands of a raving, banking lunatic waving my card around asking if it’s mine. Look Pal, my frigging picture is on the card! My name is on the card. If I show up with my passport – which has my name and photo again – can’t you just hand over my card? No, was his vehement response, which is Italian for No.

Dealing with bankers operating with only a half deck of cards in addition to contending with a six-hour time difference back to my bank in America, I took a few deep breaths and just accepted the current state of futility. Blah blah blah, fast forward a bit, I spoke with my bank later in the day, they laughed at the inane tactics of the kindly banker, Signore Puccinelli. They then explained that they can’t email customers’ private banking formation, but thankfully they can fax that info. Whatever, I said, just do what you need to do, I’m going to France tomorrow, please please help me out.

I arrived at the bank at 8:20 sharp this morning, exactly when they open and discovered that their fax machine is also fuori servizio. How ironic. It’s now 2:20am back in America so I have a hunch my bank is closed and they can’t email this information over – which, remember, they’re not allowed to do anyway. So I again proceeded to show them my passport with the matching name and photo as on my ATM card. Approximately 10 minutes of berating them later, they handed over my card.

Grazie, arrivederci!

Exhibit B, the trip to the post office.

Post offices are not quite as grand and elevated (literally above ground level) here in Italy as they are in America. So in concert with a facade of glass doors opposed to the contemporary American brick, when you ride your bike by them you can easily see right into the front door. Packed like sardines into a tin can, regardless of the time or day I see dozens of people inside doing Lord knows what… presumably mailing stuff. Having been through the song and dance of merely buying a stamp before, I know I’m in for a long afternoon if I ever set out with the post office on my to-do list. Another factor with which to contend, they’re open and closed at extremely weird hours of the day. I think there’s someone basically flipping a coin inside saying, “Heads, we open. Tails, we’re closing up shop for the day!”

Mid-ride earlier this week, while passing through a sleepy Italian hamlet I saw not only an open post office but one with just one patron inside. Hustling inside I managed to squeeze off a tweet to broadcast to the world what I was doing in case I was never to be seen again.

Since these postcards aren’t going to mail themselves, and with the requisite 1.60 Euro x 3 in my pocket, I decided to take advantage of the dearth of customers. A minute passes, soon five, then ten, and twenty. I have since sat down and am curious beyond belief why mailing anything could take so frigging long. I can’t bear the thought of leaving and having to sit through this process again, so with a half-hour already invested I stew away… and of course mindlessly stare at my phone. (Meanwhile, the economist in me recognizes the concept of sunk costs and I therefore know I’m not getting my time back, so frankly it doesn’t matter my next move – stay or go.)

The kindly woman in front of me, fiiiiiiiiiiiiinally pays, turns around, cordially smiles at me, and leaves. I mosey up to the desk, ask for three international postcard stamps, pay with exact change, nearly explode with anxiety, and leave with stamps in hand no more than 28 seconds after initiating my stamp-buying-process.

That’s life. What an adventure.




  1. Helene Barrette

    I’d still trade with you ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Jay

    Having spent time in Italy I can tell you that the reason there was only a single patron in the post office is that everyone else in the village knows that that particular woman always takes at least half an hour to complete a transaction. So the rest of the villagers were across the street at the bar having a cafe corretto.

  3. Carl Hofmann

    Hilarious and exceptionally well-written, Ted. Blessings this weekend!

  4. Rachel

    I went to high school in Germany, where bureaucracy and needless paperwork related delays rule the world.

    You just have to take the deep breath and let it go. Much easier to do with a smartphone loaded with Angry Birds.

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  6. Chris Boerner-Bennett

    Funny! Ted, I am Crocker’s better half. We have taken trips on bikes to Italy; things have gotten a TINY bit better, banking-wise, but in the olden days (as our daughter would say) you couldn’t even cash a traveler’s check without at least five employees handling your paperwork, and many, many, many stamps upon said paperwork; it was really strange…

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