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Feet Are Often Faster Than the Post in Italy

The saga of a late postcard and a journalist who wanted to shame the Italian post office

POSTAL service was backed up so badly in Naples, and the complaints were so numerous, that Bruno Delfino, a journalist for the local Il Mattino daily, got a bright idea that embarrassed the post office.

He addressed a normal tourist postcard, replete with the Vesuvius volcano, to the newspaper's editorial offices and dropped it in the mailbox outside his office at the end of April.

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"Goodbye, see you soon," he wrote.

The postcard made its way to the local post office about a mile away, and was then delivered back to the newspaper - 20 days later. The newspaper then ran a story about the long-delayed postcard.

"We had a series of phone calls in the office to compliment us for the initiative, and to report problems that exist," says Mr. Delfino.

As a result of the news coverage, the post office has worked to correct some anomalies peculiar to Naples.

"This postcard created a lot of trouble," says Delfino, who adds that the newspaper intends to repeat the mailing.

A few years ago, when it was found that the Italian post office was the slowest in Europe, comedian Piero Chiambretti dressed up for a television season as a mailman and made gadfly interviews with famous Italians.

One of his first victims was the postal minister, to whom he offered a carrier pigeon, in the hope the bird would speed up service.

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But things have only worsened.

The Italian post office is being privatized, a move that has caused service to sink to new lows.

About 50,000 people have been let go, in an effort to cut the agency's massive deficit, and many of these were the most experienced workers. The result is a massive backlog of work that has caused delays that are extraordinary even here.

In Milan, supposedly one of Italy's most efficient cities, entire sections of town are without mail delivery because of strikes by postal workers protesting the personnel cuts.

It is estimated it will take months to sort and deliver the hundreds of tons of mail that have built up there.

Delays trouble the entire country. Parliamentarians have protested and consumer groups have begun to take the problem to the courts, but still telephones are being cut off and people are missing out on job offers because of late mail deliveries.

Even once the dust settles from the post office's present transition, not everyone is convinced that things will be that different.

"The privatization makes me laugh," says Enzo Sallustro, whose voice betrays no mirth.

Mr. Sallustro, a film consultant for the RAI state television in Rome, took out a subscription to the weekly entertainment industry magazine Variety earlier this year. The first copy arrived, but for a month or two nothing else came.

"I avoid making subscriptions for this reason," he says.

Sallustro, being a good Italian, got on the phone and started shouting.

First he called Variety, which expressed surprise that he wasn't receiving the subscription, since it was coming regularly to their own Rome office, which was just minutes away from his own.

Variety passed him on to the private carrier that was supposed to be delivering the magazine under a program designed to reduce the burden on the post office. Sallustro then yelled at them and threatened to cancel his subscription and make a stink with Variety's United States and European offices. He is now regularly receiving his copies.

"OK, it wasn't the post office, but it was a private service that the post office had itself proposed," says Sallustro.

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