When the "remodeling" sign went up on our local post office on the edge of Florence, I took it philosophically. After all, delays and disruptions are routine here, and although I was skeptical about the projected completion date of the renovations, I optimistically assumed that afterward the office would be able to serve more people more efficiently. I should have known better. Whatever the motivations for change around here, efficiency ranks low, which probably why you still find old - school Fascists muttering about Mussolini's making the trains run on time.
I was pleasantly surprised when the post office actually returned to operation as scheduled. A few days after its opening, I arrived to mail a package, curious to see what changes had been wrought.
The old post office had consisted of a large room divided front to back by a long counter disignated areas for telegrams, stamps, registered mail, pensions, accounts and so on. Unfortunately, each employe was as specialized as his few feet of counter. On pension - collecting days (once a month), the retired, aged and infirm waited in an enormous queue, while the lone "pensions" clerk laboriously filled out forms and thumped stamps. The other clerks sat looking on, doing a little desultory business now and then. Perhaps remodelilng would change all this?
I stepped into the "new" office with my package and saw the same long expanse of counter, the same signs of specialization and the same personnel. Approaching the nearest clerk, I asked where to mail a package overseas (even the Florentines have difficulty interpreting whose speciality is whose, and each operation requires a new transaction; one can't mail a package AND a letter at the same section). The clerk mouthed words and, with exaggerated motions, pointed to himself and to a glass booth beside him.
hen he pantomimed opening door.
That's when I realized when the remodelling had been done. From the counter up to the ceiling was a sheet of thick, impenetrable GLASS. Set into the counter was a sliding metal drawer so that I could deposit money or forms and the clerk could pull them across, under the glass wall, to his side. A package wouldn't fit; hence the glass booth.
It worked this way: The clerk pushed a button, releasing a lock, and signaled to me to pull open the door on my side of the booth.It wouldn't open. "Forcefully!" he mimed. I threw my weight back against it and the door opened. I set my package down on the floor of the booth, a large scale. "Close the door," signed the clerk. I set my shoulder to the heavy door and managed to shut it. The clerk then released the lock on his side of the booth, jotted down the weight of the package and removed the package to his side.Next, he sent the customs forms to me through sliding drawer. I filled them out and he drew them back. " - ere - ate?" he asked. "What?" I shrugged. He pushed the drawer into a half-way position and shouted down into it, "Valore dichiarate? "Dollars earlier" I shouted back.
In a country where "face" is of utmost importance, I was rapidly losing mine. My Italian is not so fluent that I enjoy using it in a voice to be heard from one end of the office to the other. The fellow on the other side of the glass wall was sympathetic, though, and seemed apologetic about the whole farce as the drawer clicked back and forth and I finally left, change and receipt in hand.
The glass wall, I realized, was erected in response to the increased feeling of vulnerability of all sorts of institutions in an era when robbery, kidnapping and mindless terrorism have become endemic. It is doubtful that anyone could succesfully storm the double-lock glass package booth or fit through the metal drawer, and so it would seem that the postal workers and their cash drawers are safe from attack. One wonders if it makes up for the petty inconveniences and the constant craning of neck and cupping of hand to ear. The lines, of course, are just as long, and move even more slowly, due to communnications problems.
I used to think glass walls were a hygenic measure, erected to protect those who dealt with the public from constant exposure to the latest virus. Now I see things in a different light. Take the U.S. Consulate in Florence, for example. My recollection was of a large, spacious, impressive palazzao. Today, it resembles in armed camp on the budget plan. A couple of bored-looking guards petrol the entrance. The palazzo's impressive inner doors are closed, and one finds one's own way into a cramped, sealed vestibuls with a dusty rug, seemly uninhabited. Eventually, however, one discovers the glass wall. Aha, the receptionist. She is busy typing, but if one shouts loudly or taps on the glass, she looks up. There is a circle cut out from the glass (daring, surely), with another circle mounted slighltly behind, leaving a rim of air between the two. One tries to get one's words to slip through sideways.
The day I dropped by the consulate, I'd come to have a signature notarized, and couldn't help feeling I'd have to make it on my own. Nobody was interested in risking his life by talking to me face to face. In accented English, the receptionist coldly commanded, "Put your name on this slip and put it in box No. 1. You'll have to wait." "Where's the box?" I shouted back. She pointed. I waited. Somewhat later, the door on which the box hung opened a crack and a lady reached out to take my slip. She looked me over. "All right," she said. That meant I should follow her, which I did, first through one locked door and then another. Some welcome to a little piece of the U.S. abroad.
Is it all due to excessive paranoia? Unfortunatley, it's not. Newspapers here no longer have to use their large type for "Husband Shoots Wife's Lover" or "Police Arrest Transvestites." They have a sufficient number of authentically sensaionalist stories, including molotov cocktails thrown into fashionable boutiques in Florence's historic center, invaluable art treasures stolen from the Stibbert Museum (which lacks not only glass walls but electric lights), buildings "liberated" by youthful leftists, and one bank after another robbed. Granted, the extremists are not as active here as in Rome or the industrial cities of Milan and Turin, but it's gotten to the point where no one's taking chances.
When I decided to open an account at the local branch of the Cassa di Risparmio bank near me, a friend cautioned, "Are you sure you want to put your money in there? They must have been hit three times in the last year or so!" I went ahead, for convenience's sake, and guess what I found: Glass. Glass and, when I was conducted to the director's office, more inner-locked doors leading to other locked doors.
The bank has not been robbed in the few months since I deposited my meager funds there, but I can't help feeling that the the same glass that protects the tellers poses a hazard to me. I don't so much mind broadcasting my views on the weather, travel or thumb-sucking as I chat at full volume with the friendly teller. I have learned to shout my pidgin Italian with barely a blush. But when we get down to business, I find myself glancing over my shoulder as I yell, "I'd like to withdraw100,000 lire, please! Yes, 100,000! Thank you!" The teller does the paperwork and sends the withdrawal forms down to the cashier at the other end of the counter (speciallization, again). When it's my turn to be served, the cashier calls my name and begins counting out the bills. We shout denominations and I pocket the money. Everyone else in the bank knows to the last lire exactly how much cash I have on me as I head out to the street.
Obviously, the wave of the future will be customized, individualized glass boxes we can don in the morning before leaving our double-locked houses (which in my neighborhood are guarded by German Shepherds and mastiffs). Each of us will shout out of his recessed-glass breathing space, and the local businessmen will shout back from theirs. We'll all have sliding drawers instead of pockets, and "sotto voce" will be expunged from th dictionary.