Where is a Line not a Line? In Italy.

This month’s Blogging Piemonte topic is “A Day in the Life.” When you’re in Italy, even as a tourist, there is one thing you will experience in daily life: the Italian line.

Not only do Italian lines function differently in Italy than they do in the rest of Europe and the US, but they come in a variety of flavors.

For your safety, I’ve listed some of the more common ones you can encounter:

1. The Caffè Crowd

Notice “line” isn’t in the name. Two waiting periods are required when ordering a caffè (usually). You’ll run into the Crowd if the bar, or cafe, is popular or busy.

First, a disclaimer: I still don’t know if at most bars you pay, then order; or order, then pay. I guess it depends on the bar and something like the owner’s choice and the alignment of the stars. Here is the pay-then-order situation.

Get in line at the cash register first. This will be a real line. After you pay, keep your receipt.

Now, go over to the bar and get your drink as though you were at an American bar, mainly by elbowing your way in between others or, if there is no shoulder room, brandishing your receipt between caffè drinkers and calling out your order. Thankfully, even if it’s crowded, an Italian caffè is a sip-and-go affair, so there will be more room for you soon.

2. Take a number

The number-spitting machine is a way of combatting the natural Italian tendency of slipping in front of you in line. You’ll see the little, plastic machine in supermarkets at the delicatessen or cheese section, though strangely it doesn’t stop determined shoppers from edging in front of you; I guess they still hope that the girl at the counter will say, “Oh, come right ahead. It doesn’t matter that we’re on 30 and you’re number 35—you’re special.” The number machines may also be in bakeries, butcher shops, and in popular gelaterie. Even some outdoor markets will use them in the fight against the combative nonnas that terrorize the lines.

I love it. The little numbers allow me to buy cheese without anxiety, because I just know I’d always be shunted away otherwise.

3. The post office

Is there a country in the world with a fully functional post office? Even Terry Pratchett had fun with the strange phenomenon that there’s always a problem (see: Going Postal), like your package is the first one like it that they’ve ever seen, and they don’t have the exact right [fill in the blank] to help you today. Next!

The post offices in Italy have number machines, too (thank goodness; I wonder how many people died long, slow deaths in the days before number machines). But the main thing to be aware of here is to pick the right category. If you pick the wrong category, you’ll wait in line for 25 minutes, finally get to the sportello, and the person will say you’ve chosen the wrong category. Go back to start and try again. It doesn’t matter that yesterday, she was doing that very task for that very category and could easily do so again today. Clearly, you’re trying to be tricky, and the post office cannot afford to set any dangerous precedents.

I’ve heard that in Naples, some enterprising people get to the post office early, grab tickets in the lower numbers, and sell them for a few euro later on. I’ve never been to Naples so can’t vouch for this…but I’d definitely spend €2 to get through faster!

4. Dr.’s waiting room

At your family doctor’s office, you don’t get an appointment. Instead, you enter the waiting room during the set hours, ask who was last to arrive, and sit down with the others. Expect to be asked that yourself, and respond “Io,” when the next person comes in.

And it’s always polite to greet everyone with a “Buongiorno.”

“Chi è l’ultimo?” Who’s last?

“Io.” Me.

I think it’s quaint.

5. The average no-line and the dangers of not being furbo.

If your line doesn’t fall into the categories above but you’re still waiting in line, congratulations! You’re in a real line. But pay attention. It may not last long. Many Italians love to inch their way just ahead of you, avoiding eye contact and winning at being furbo (tricky).

I usually try to calm down, let the antsy ones pass, and stay in line with the normal, well-mannered citizens of Italy. Once, though, I suffered the consequences of my politeness, and experienced what I guess is what all these people imagine will happen to them if they’re not FIRST.

I was left behind.

And this was not any old leaving-behind matter. I had to catch a bus for my Christmas flight to the US, a bus that passed by every 30 minutes.

It was early in the morning, and there was a national train strike. Let’s not talk about strikes, because that’s a whole other can of worms. But thankfully, the bus company to the airport is private. Unfortunately, this meant it was many people’s only way to get there that cold December morning.

So the bus came by, packed full, and everyone pushed ahead. Those in front got on. Those in the back, like myself, were left behind.

No matter; you know how the recommended time to arrive at the airport is two hours before your flight? This is the kind of situation those extra two hours are for. Ha, I thought. I was so prepared.

The next bus came by 30 minutes later. It didn’t even stop, it was so full. I no longer felt so prepared.

Another 30 minutes passed, with my wiggle room drastically reduced. More people came to wait for the bus. When it came, I pushed my way to the very front of the crowd. I lugged my suitcase in without waiting for the driver to load it, and squeezed to the doors. I was almost cut off—the girl behind me didn’t get on, but I didn’t feel bad; she was a newbie and hadn’t been passed by twice already. The driver nearly didn’t let me on, but I told him, “My suitcase is already on.” The kind-hearted man (no sarcasm here: his bus was fuller than the one who passed us by already!) let me on, bless him. He was probably uncomfortable with the murderous desperation in my eyes. I had to stand in the aisle of the charter-style bus for 45 minutes, but I got to the airport on time.

This brings me to…

6. The airport

This drives me nuts! Why the cluster at the gate? You have a ticket with your seat number, and you know that everyone else does, too. You’re probably just rushing to get on the shuttle, anyway.

No one is going to throw your luggage away or leave it behind. No one is going to give away your seat. No monster is going to scarf up the last person in line. They’re not going to leave you behind. Whyyy the anxiety?

I’ll leave you with this fun video that illustrates cultural differences between the rest of Europe and Italians. Lines are included.


Blogging Piemonte

About every month, the Blogging Piemonte group will meet to talk and decide on a topic we’ll all write about, from food and drink to travel and life in Piemonte. Follow along with the hashtag #BlogPiemonte!

Read up on what the others have to say about a day in the life in Piemonte (and check back as it’s updated!):

Snaps from the World of Wine in Piemonte, by Uncorkventional
A Day in the Life of a Winemaker…After the Harvest, by The Entire Pizza
Sloooooow down, by Wine & Truffles
A Morning at the Markets, by Turin Mamma
Why I’m Always SO Tired (my life in 8 minutes), by A Texas Mom in Torino

Are you a blogger who lives in Piemonte and writes in English?

We’d love to have you join Blogging Piemonte! Just send me an email at diana.zahuranec [at] winepassitaly.it.

It doesn’t matter if you also blog in another language, as long as you post the Blogging Piemonte articles in English.

Cover photo from Wiertz Sébastien, Creative Commons


20 thoughts on “Where is a Line not a Line? In Italy.

  1. Greta post Diana! Very sorry to hear how you came close to being stranded here for Christmas though. A coupleof years ago, there was a story on thelocal.it/ about a guy who invented new job for himself – getting paid to queue for other people.


  2. Wow, this is interesting. I wrote a similar post about “A day in the life in Rome” about a month ago, but I had assumed that things were much different (read: better) in Piemonte. Seems that Italy has more in common from north to south than I would have thought!


    1. I just read your post…It’s spooky how similar our experiences are! It’s true, there is less of a difference (in some things) between north and south Italy than many Italians are willing to admit.


    1. So he does exist! I would be willing to pay up to €5, if it saved a lot of time, but not €10.

      I like his attitude. Even though he lost his job at 42 and speaks English, and has sent out over 500 resumes and received 10 replies, he says, “I’m not thinking of going abroad. It would be a defeat. It would be like throwing in the sponge. The future is here. My future is here.”


  3. Great description of the culture of Italy. After living south of Boston right out of college, I could relate to a couple of these. Especially the description of the post office, except it was the Department of Motor Vehicles. Native New Englanders had shared their nightmares with me, but I experienced it myself one day. The place was packed with several lines for specific transactions. No numbers to be pulled out of a machine. It was hard to tell which line went to which destination at the counter. As soon as I discovered I was in the wrong line, after who knows how long, someone in the line where I was supposed to be witnessed my long wait and let me in front of them. Thank goodness! Otherwise, I would’ve had to go to the back of that line and wait for another mini-eternity.


  4. Great post, love your storytelling 🙂 I’m Italian and I have to say one of the reasons I thought Canada was great when I moved here 15 yrs ago, is that it took away my anxiety about lineups (I guess I’m one of those “normal, well mannered citizens of It Italy”). Great job summarizing the different situations – I never really rationalized that, but you’re spot-on!


    1. Thanks, Paolo, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, if I had to classify you, you’d be a normal, well-mannered citizen! Clearly not everyone is a line-breaker, but the ones that do it create stress for everyone. I’m curious–I should do an anthropological study and start questioning people why they’re pushing ahead and avoiding eye contact. Think I’d get honest answers? Or just glares?


      1. Just glares. They’d deny they have been pushing or justify themselves with an excuse. I have a few times done so – questioned people that were “edging me” while I was in line. It’s tense, you need to be prepared and hold your grounds.

        Thanks for classifying me as normal though 🙂


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