Life in Italy vs. Spain

by Amy Knauff

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.

9 thoughts on “Life in Italy vs. Spain

  1. The Italian postal service has become so miserable. Not only are stamps regularly not available any where, even the print out label kind was not available one day due to some computer malfunction – nationwide! Three out of four small packages that I sent recently “disappeared” in the mail. Stupid stuff, such as t-shirts, small fabric samples for my business, etc. One would think that I wouldn’t have to send things like that raccomandata or insured. That said a raccomandata letter that a friend sent to me didn’t arrive. I finally went pick it up myself at the post office of origin after tracking it down online. They said I should have at least received a notice from my mailman, but he left nothing. My personal mail arrives regularly with a corner opened, especially if it arrives from overseas and look like a birthday card. I have told all relatives to stop sending cash gifts to our kids for their birthdays. So sad that a ten dollar bill can not get through from grandparents. My husband and I have talked to the police about our packages and mail being “lost” or opened. They said that we have to report it to the post office – Ciao!

  2. Sounds like a soft spot, Laura! Yeah, this is an open wound for us too. Another sucky thing – paying dogana tax on gifts! We had an award sent to us recently to the Beehive – a little plaque, and the sender insured it for 30 bucks and wrote that it was a gift. But we had to pay about 10 bucks in IVA on it because that 30 dollars becomes a declared commercial value. Just because it would cost the sender another 30 to resend it doesn’t mean it has 30 dollars of commercial value, right? s

  3. I dropped by the exhibit for the 150th anniversary of the italian postalnservice in circo massimo last week. They were selling commemorative stamps and i bought a bunch. They asked if i wanted them cancelled (i guess collectors do that) and i explained i was getting them to use because it’s impossible to buy stamps anywhere. I’ve even had the PO tell me they were running low and could i come back.

  4. Ha ha ha, Tom can I marry you? Oh wait… I am already married. I LOVE this story. I walked through that same Circo Massimo exhibit one day after going for a jog with my teenage son. By the way my wonderful sister in law worked in the Italian postal service for 40 years. She became famous there because she was so friendly and competent.

    Steve, I have a story for you about dogana that has a happy ending, but I don’t want to compromise the incredibly kind woman in the Milan dogana who helped me sort it all out. Some day over a bottle of wine….

  5. It IS crazy!
    I’ve learned the hard way: I “over-insured” a package of make-up for an Italian friend. I put $100 (it was about $40) and they had to pay an amount of they wouldn’t even tell me because cosmetics are considered medical something or another!

  6. Nancy, that sounds like our 150 euro potty we had sent from my sister once (that she bought for 10 bucks). With three kids though, that potty definitely got its 150 euro worth!

  7. The worst thing is that the post card sent from Rome may well never arrive at its destination. There are 4 or 5 cards that I sent in 2008 from Italy that still have not arrived in Canada. But, you gotta love Italy!

  8. Sometimes I think I’d have the same odds by just folding it into a paper airplane and throwing my letter out the window.

  9. Moved to Spain in Oct 2014 and opened a bank account. Ordered a debit card that never arrived. Went into the bank branch and yes, they had sent it. Asked them to send another. They posted it out and again it never arrived. I decided against requesting a third card as i wasn’t happy with the thought that by doing so I was increasing my chances of either the postie or some random recipient having my card and PIN. So much for the “efficiency” of the Spanish postal service.

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