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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gettone Telefonico

Remember telephone booths?

Before cellphones became so ubiquitous, keeping a pocket full of change was a good idea, just in case you needed to call home to ask for a ride.

Communications while traveling internationally was also an adventure, especially in Italy where the telecommunications infrastructure was at one time pretty horrendous. It was operated by the PTT, a state-run Italian government service.

I've heard that the wait for Italians to get a telephone installed in their home could take years.

It was also primitive beyond belief. For example, every time I called a friend in Rome from the US in the early 1980s, the line was "busy." As a result, I just kept calling him over and over again with the same result for days. When I finally got through, he explained that he had been away, but that his phone system was a "party line" which usually results in a busy signal for incoming calls. It was also expensive. Making international phone calls of any kind was a real luxury.

It is said that even into the early 1990s (according to Corriere della Sera), only 52 percent of all telephone calls originating in Italy would reach their intended destination. The NY Times reported that, "Many calls that do get through are suddenly cut off, or, more commonly, the connection sounds as though the person on the other end is crinkling an empty potato-chips bag against the mouthpiece." You would often hear other people's conversations, which was often entertaining until you realize that others may have been listening in to your conversation as well.

Later, when I lived in Italy as a student for a few months, I was virtually out of telephone communication with my family back in America. I only made a few calls, and there were only two ways to do it:

The first option was to locate an available public phone booth. They were hard to come by, and ususuly occupied by long-winded and animated rambling Italians. This method also require that you pre-purchase a large supply of Gettone Telefonico tokens needed to insert in the telephone, and have all the appropriate country codes and numbers ready to dial. Phone cards weren't invented yet.

The Gettone was a copper token, and it was used in Italy from about 1959 to 2001 (I was in Italy in 1984). The price changed over time, but it was roughly equivalent to about 200 Lire (or 18 cents) at one time. Some people used Gettone as legal currency - small change.

There is actually a way to read the number at the bottom of the token (#7805 in the photo above). This Gettone was minted in May (05) of 1978.

The payphone option never worked well for me, since I could barely feed the phone fast enough with Gettone to keep from being disconnected. The service was very unreliable and intermittent.

The other option for making a call was to go down to the Central Office of the PTT. This was always a dreaded encounter of the worst sort with an indifferent Italian government bureaucracy. Only the Italian Post Office could come close to rivaling the poor-customer service your would get at the PTT (in fact a division of the Post Office).

In Florence in 1984 the Central Office of the PTT was grey, dark, and dreary. As you entered the room you were greeted by a long line of 100 or so people who were all waiting like cattle for their turn at one of the dozen or so individual phone booths. A fat balding man wearing a fascistic uniform and a big hat sat at a central console and collected money from people who had just made their telephone calls. He looked at a meter hidden from public view in his tall desk, and then demanded a fee from you in Italian. It had to be paid.

Other fascistic-looking PTT personnel stood idly by doing nothing other than made occasional cryptic comments among themselves while doing their best to look menacing. Boredom was the order of the day. No one ever smiled. People stood in line, grim faced, waiting for their opportunity to call a dear friend, ill family member, or lover. A customer could make only one call at a time, but often appeared monopolize the "cabina telefonica" for extended periods of time. The Central Office was open day and night, around the clock. In some ways it resembled a busy train station with lots of tired poor people in search of something. Occasionally folks would leave their phone booth in tears after speaking to their loved ones.

On one day, I had walked a long distance to get to the Firenze Central PTT Office. It was cold and raining. The line was rather long, so I had to wait (standing up) for at least an hour and a half. I finally got my turn in a phone booth, and dialed my parents who were almost always at home. It rang once, and then the circuit disconnected. I heard a loud click that resounded as if someone was picking up a phone on another line.

Angry, I stomped out of the phone booth and began to walk for the door. I had assumed, no connection, no payment. That's they way it works in America. Same thing here in Italy, right?


The fascistic-looking bureaucrat at the PTT desk yelled out at me and waved his arms around in anger. He realized that I was a tourist, but was all too willing to call his guard dogs on me for avoidance of payment. I walked up to his high podium and tried to plead my case in my terrible Italian, which had the impact of sending him and his cronies into a state of uncontrollable sadistic laughter. It must have been the most entertaining thing to happen to them all day. But I realized that the only way I was going to leave that building without getting arrested was to pay thousands of Lire, whatever fee the big man deemed appropriate. He looked and acted like "Il Duce."


I paid my fee, left the mausoleumish PTT building, and lived to tell this story.