I have to admit, I’ve gotten a bit complacent these days. Since moving to an address that the postal system and the various private shipping companies actually believe exists — a place where my packages actually arrive, taking a reasonably direct route from the shipper to my very own front door — I’ve come to assume that as a standard of service: put the correct address on a piece of appropriately mailable or shippable material, pay the correct amount, and the item will appear where you intend. Call me na?Øve, but I thought my days of mail snafus were over.
As R. and I were packing for Paris, we had the great book debate, which went something like this: I really need a fair pile of books for the work that I’m doing this summer. I could attempt to put them in a suitcase, thus adding another twelve pounds to our already overloaded baggage — baggage that we knew would not only have to survive the various handlers on the way to CDG, but would also have to be picked up and gotten in a taxi, and then, most significantly, would have to be lugged up three flights of a fairly tight, creaky, slightly uneven spiral staircase to the flat we’re staying in — but would ensure their immediate availability upon our arrival. Or I could ship them to us, relieving us of the physical burden, though adding, I now realize, one a bit more metaphysical.
It appeared at first that we were going to go the baggage route, as FedEx wanted something like $150 to get the books to Paris. But then, alas, we discovered that the USPS now has flat-rate international shipping boxes: for $37, we could ship as much as we could stuff into the box they provided, and it would arrive — so they said — in six to ten days. That seemed the obvious choice: less heavy lifting, a not-ridiculous fee, and just as my head would start to clear from the jet lag, I’d be able to get down to real work. So on the 11th, the day before we left, we sent off the box.
When the books hadn’t arrived after eight days, I didn’t worry terribly much; after all, six days seemed pretty optimistic, and they may well have meant six-to-ten *business* days, which would dramatically change the ETA. At the ten day mark, though, I thought I’d start trying to figure out what was going on. On June 21, I started searching around the USPS website and decided, on something of a lark, to attempt to track the box using the only number that I had, which was a US Customs number. And lo but the tracking worked: except that what it said was that delivery of the package had been attempted on June 18 and 19. And there was no further information. This was when I realized that, armed only with a US Customs form and my crap French, I was going to have to brave La Poste.
One hears horror stories about French bureaucracy, though I’m not convinced that their systems or personalities are any worse than those in the US. My fear mostly came from the thought of having to negotiate such a bureaucracy in a language that I speak at the level of a five-year-old. I got R. to come with me, though, both for moral support and because people working behind desks just seem to like him, regardless of language barriers, and are often willing to help him out in ways that I’m not sure they’re willing to help me. So we went over to the neighborhood post office and waited in line.
The young woman who wound up helping us was utterly charming — a little perplexed at first, but very sweet. I haltingly explained the situation (j’ai m’envoy?© un colis des ?âtats-Unis à Paris, mais il n’arrive pas; ce matin, j’ai suivi le colis sur le site de USPS, et il m’a dit qu’on a essay?© de le distribuer le 18 et 19 juin, mais…) and asked whether the package might be there. She looked at the form and told me that the package number was an American number, and that when the package arrived in France, it would have been assigned a French number, and that she needed the French number in order to do anything. I asked her how to get that French number, and she said that perhaps I could call the United States, and someone there could inquire of the post office for me? After that, she did go look in the back to see if there might be a particularly American-looking package lying around, but, for obvious reasons, to no avail.
That afternoon, once they were open for business, I did call the United States (which suggestion, not incidentally, provoked an ongoing “allo, ?âtats-Unis?” joke in the flat), where I was most helpfully told that if the French had assigned the package a number, then only the French would know that number, and that there was nothing else to be done. So that evening, I asked one of our French flatmates, S., what to do next, and he volunteered to take things on from here.
And thank god. The next day (the 22nd, if you’re keeping track), S. and I headed back to La Poste, where he talked to a different woman from the one I’d spoken with before. This woman not only looked in the back for a package, but also looked through a notebook in which I assume were written the various bits of info about packages whose delivery had failed, but came up with nothing. She suggested that we go to the next Poste up the sorting and delivering chain, which was about seven or eight blocks away, so S. and I headed that way, joking to ourselves that I might get a proper tour of Paris this way, being directed from Poste to Poste.
At the second Poste, things were a bit more technologically sophisticated. The guy behind the counter took my Customs form and scanned the barcode, the first time that had happened, but of course came up with nothing, as it was an American barcode. He then flipped through that Poste’s notebook, which also provided nothing in the way of results. He took, however, a photocopy of my Customs form, saying that he was going to fax it somewhere, where they might have more info, and that he would phone S. if he found anything out.
Apparently he did phone S. very quickly, because within half an hour of returning to the flat, I realized that the conversation S. had been having on the phone was about my package. I sat and listened, attempting to be helpful however I could, but only comprehending about a quarter of what was being said. S. was able to come up with the French number (and not only that, but for future reference, a phone number at La Poste that one could call in order to get the French number in the future), and the information that the delivery had failed because the person to whom the package was addressed didn’t actually live at that address. (I’d of course been careful, however, to address the package to me *chez* the woman who actually lives here, and all parties to whom S. spoke agreed that that should have been sufficient, and the package should have been delivered.) The package had been sent back to the United States on the 21st — the day before. From there, S. was directed to French Customs, where we might be able to intercept the package on its return journey aux ?âtats-Unis — but to no avail. The package was already on a plane, headed home. Rather radical efficiency, I’d say, though unfortunately not in the direction I’d like.
Somewhere along the way, someone warned S. that we would need to talk with the United States again (“allo, ?âtats-Unis?”), because a package that gets returned like that is often deemed suspicious by US Customs, and could be held up there for weeks before making it all the way back to southern California.
So here I am, rather seriously underbooked, really ready to get down to work, and not quite able to do so. A Canadian flatmate who’s currently working at the Bibliothèque Nationale is checking today to see if a book or two that I need might be available in the open part of the library, which might tide me over a little longer. In the meantime, though, I do feel I’ve learned a couple of things: first, that I can make myself understood in French if I really need to, but, as I already imagined, it takes fluency to really navigate a bureaucracy; second, that French bureaucracy may be a bit harder to penetrate but is no more stupid than is that in the US; and third, that the most important sentence in the French language may well be “on va voir,” said with the tiniest of shrugs.
What will happen? On va voir.