One would imagine the two to be pretty similar, right? After all, they’re both sunny Mediterranean countries with Latin peoples who have a history of taking post-lunch naps during the workweek, a love of good food and wine, and are known for their gregariousness, hospitality and good humor. But despite the similarities, the two countries — and more specifically, Rome and Barcelona — are worlds apart, each with their own characteristics and ways of doing things.
Scene: The historic center of Rome, which is jam-packed with souvenir shops, newsstands, bookstores, and tobacco shops selling racks full of postcards. It’s also jam-packed with tourists, some of whom presumably want to send postcards home to their loved ones.
Monday: I stop in a tobacco shop near Campo de’ Fiori and ask if they have stamps. Before I’m able to finish saying the word “stamp” (francobollo, in Italian), the cashier shakes her head no to dismiss me and starts talking to the person behind me in line. Later that afternoon, I stop in two more tobacco shops. Same result. One of them tells me to come back in the morning because apparently they’ll get a delivery of stamps then.
Tuesday: Walking near Piazza Navona, I stop in a tabaccaio. No stamps. Try three more tabaccai the same day: no luck. “They haven’t come in,” they tell me. Is there some sort of federal stamp shortage I’m not aware of? I also stop by the tabaccaio that had told me to come back today. They still don’t have them either. “By now you’ll have to wait till Thursday,” the girl tells me. Thursday? Oh yes, Wednesday is a federal holiday and everything is closed.
Wednesday: I don’t even bother trying.
Thursday: I visit three different tabaccai; no stamps to be found.
Friday: I finally give in and go to the post office. Get my number from the machine and settle in for a 35-minute wait to mail one stinking postcard. When it’s my turn and I go up to the counter, the woman says, “Oh, you’re just mailing this? You could have just bought a stamp, you didn’t need to come here.” She starts pointing to a nearby tabaccaio and telling me to get out of line and go buy my stamp there. I give her a Look of Death and say through gritted teeth, “Can’t you just print the postage on it?” As if that hadn’t occurred to her, she assents and prints the postage and I pay.
RESULT: 5 days to mail a postcard.
Scene: A residential part of L’Eixample, not particularly close to the Passeig de Gràcia (which is the more touristy part of the neighborhood) in Barcelona.
Thursday: I’ve just spent a few minutes sitting in a sunny park writing a postcard. I spot a nearby tobacco shop and go in to ask for a stamp (sello, in Spanish). I ask the owner, almost nervous, “Do you have stamps… for the US?” She replies pleasantly as she takes out her giant book full of stamps: “Yes. How many?” This has been way too easy. I decide to push my luck and ask her if there’s a mailbox nearby. She points out the door and says there’s a mailbox one block up. I find it right on the corner, bright yellow, and drop my postcard in.
RESULT: 5 minutes to mail a postcard.
CONCLUSION: Sometimes the simplest tasks that can be easily accomplished in most other places somehow become Herculean in Rome. Organization is not Italy’s strength and although this is usually considered an acceptable sacrifice for good food and inexpensive wine, Barcelona doesn’t lack in either, and works surprisingly well, from the flow of traffic to public transport to basic everyday chores and interactions.