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The Educational Value of Italian Stamps by Pat Johns

When the world was younger, I was a backpacker passing through Italy. In Rome I stopped at a tobacconist in the railway station and a bought few postcards. There were no stamps to be seen in the little kiosk so I used some phrases in the back of my guidebook to ask where to find the Post Office and thus I set the stage for a life-changing insight.

(whereas the Vatican had been completely unmoved in any way by my presence). I felt this was not the right place, somehow that was obvious – but how was that possible? What an exciting city in which going to the Post Office was turning into an adventure and an education. How was this woman going to direct me? Do Italians not use the mail?

Responding to my question the vendor gave me “a look” with raised eyebrows and a challenging facial contortion I had not seen in the smallish Ontario city in which I had spent most of my life. Although the expression was undecipherable his directions were clear enough. The Post Office was only about four blocks away and it’s never boring walking around Rome so that was fine.

Does Ufficio Postale mean something more sinister than Post Office?

The Post Office was different than anything a Canadian would expect. No lines of people buying stamps and weighing parcels, no community notices, no women in freshly pressed dresses looking for a nice gossip. Clearly Rome is different than Ontario. That isn’t news, but the big revelations are always in the small details not the sweeping generalities, and that was still news to me then. It was a large brown bunker of a building. Mussolini in his cape with his entourage might have swept out the heavy doors and down the stairs at any moment. Inside, the old fashioned lobby had a smell that was both dusty and mouldy. There was a round desk behind which sat one bored, slightly surly yet animated, attractive woman who was perfectly positioned to direct the comings and goings of visitors, of whom there were none. She was as secure and entrenched as the Vatican and she was surprised and perhaps slightly interested to see me

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A world of possible answers opened before my hyperactive mind like a fascinating but unpopulated abyss. At that age it is normal to be made happy by uncertainties and unknown possibilities. Again, with guidebook Italian, I brandished my postcards and proclaimed that my purpose was to buy stamps. The first and smaller revelation of the next five seconds was that the woman responded in very correct and only slightly accented English. Even “tobacconists” which is not part of the vocabulary of every native speaker of English was familiar to her and she correctly pronounced the difficult consonant cluster at the end of that word. Romans certainly are cosmopolitan. What she said added a steel pylon that went all the way down to the bedrock which to this day continues to support my ideas of the way the world is ordered – ideas that my awakening brain was then working hard to build. The thought of that and the memory of the 15 minutes all of this took to happen continues to be a source of happiness to this day. What she said was this: We do not have stamps here. You can buy them at tobacconists. There is one in the railway station.

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