Monday, January 22, 2007

Going Postal

The other day I finally broke down and went to La Poste to submit a change of address form, which I hadn't done since leaving my furnished apartment at the Madeleine several months ago. My Yankee (okay, cheap) sensibilities were offended by the notion that I would have to PAY to have my mail forwarded. Look, the guys at the US Post Office , bless their hearts, are forwarding my Massachusetts mail to me, via international airmail, for free. Zilch. With a click of the mouse, it's taken care of. So the very idea that I would have to pay 40 euros for a year of transferring my courrier from an arrondissement merely one digit away -- harrumph! More than I could bear. Thinking I was clever, I attempted to avoid the cost by simply notifying everyone of my change of address -- or at least I thought I did. After all, I had only been at the old apartment for 5 months.

But last week when a coveted invitation to a fancy reception didn't arrive, and didn't arrive, and didn't arrive, I realized I had only myself to blame. When will I learn to stop thinking outside the box here in France?

So -- god forbid I should miss out on any social events -- I realize that I have to bite the euro, and I head to my neighborhood Poste to fill out the forwarding card. I'm getting pretty good at dealing with bureaucratic procedures, I think, perhaps a little too smugly. I come armed with the ever-important justificatif de domicile (proof of residence) and my carnet de cheques for reluctantly paying the damned forwarding fee.

Arriving at the Poste on the rue de Sevres, I am greeted by a line at least 15 people long, snaking all the way to the entrance. There are a total of 2 workers in the guichets. Since the Poste is now "La Banque Postale", some customers are there to buy stamps and mail packages, others to fill out mortgage applications. No one has any simple business. Anyone with a basic matter to deal with has high-tailed it out of there at the first sight of that line.

From my view in the nosebleed section, transactions seem to take an average of 5 - 8 minutes. You do the math.

The woman in front of me, defying the explicit "pas de chiens" sign on the door, has her nervous little cocker spaniel on a leash. It is constantly twitching as if it really needs to pee, hopefully not on my feet. An older lady sits down to doze in the chairs the Poste so appropriately provides in the waiting line. She sporadically wakes and tries to "remember" where her spot in line was, always conveniently remembering a spot about three places ahead of where she should be. She is swiftly corrected each time by her neighbors-in-waiting. Three people hop out of line and head across the waiting room to try their luck at the "Espace Pro" station when they see the Pro lady step into her guichet. Espace Pro is basically an annual subscription service you can buy in order to not have to wait in line, supposedly for professionals who have to get back to the office. (I call it institutionalized bakshish, which by the way also exists for taxi service in Paris. You can have a taxi in a split second any time you call if you pay 250+ euros per year for priority service. But complaining about that un-democratic practice would require my writing a separate Victor Hugo-length essay, aptly titled "Les Miserables".)

Have I bored you yet? I'll go on longer, as I have time to muse on all these things and many more as I ponder life's issues -- from trivial to momentous -- while waiting in this line. Next, the defeated folks who had jumped out of line realize that they won't get service in the Pro express lane ("expressholes," we used to call them in Massachusetts) and they have the temerity -- the Gallic gall -- to simply reclaim their prior slots in the regular line. Our line. They don't even ask or apologize -- they just slip adamantly back where they left 5 minutes earlier as if it's their God-given right. I'm starting to simmer.

Are you? Are you annoyed yet that this is taking so long? I stand there watching the activities of the lucky ones who actually make it to the guichet. Suddenly tones are hushed, they lean conspiratorially in conversation with the window clerks. I start thinking seriously about what I will say to maximize efficiency and efficacy with the clerk once I actually reach a window somewhere in the year 2009.

If I simply say "I'd like a change-of-address card" in French, I know that something will go wrong. If I have learned any tricks in France, I have learned not to make cultural assumptions about what I need or want. Experience has taught me that if I were to ask for something specific like a "carte de changement d'adresse", which would be a literal translation but isn't the right name, I would simply be turned away. Point final. That would be assuming too much, and such an item doesn't exist at La Poste. Lesson: deconstruct, deconstruct.

Are you writhing with boredom yet? Sorry, but this is life in the sloooooooooow lane at La Poste. I'm still musing.

So rather than assume what I think I want from the Poste clerk, I boil my needs down to the essential facts: I have moved; I need to have my courrier sent to my new address; what should I do? Lesson: don't try to sound bright -- sound needy.

Now the dog in front of me is beginning to whimper and I'm getting nervous for my new boots, which haven't been waterproofed yet.

Are you getting itchy to move yet? Are you cranky? Sorry, this is the way life is and anyway, look how we've advanced. I think there are only seven or eight people in front of us. This is Progress.

Some time in the next century I finally find myself at the guichet. I find myself doing what everyone in front of me has done: slow down, transact business sotto voce, and above all, think of everything possible in the world I could ask this kind fellow before I have to move away. Efficiency? Efficacy? Not on your life. I can stay there for as long as I need to, a minute or an hour, and by God, I'm going to exercise that right. I've earned it. Mr. Guichetier doesn't care. His job is to care only about the person in front of him. Which right now is Moi.

We find out that what I need is no simple card -- it s a legal contract with La Poste: Le Contrat de Reexpedition ou de Garde du Courrier. My new Best Friend and I start filling out the contract together. He is so nice and gentle and helpful. The contract must be filled out in triplicate, initialed in five places in the margins. Oh, and I must show him my piece d'identite. No problem, I pull out my photo ID Massachusetts driver's license. His expression changes from puppy-sweet to apopletic-apologetic-comatose. He's not exactly sure why, but he knows that this won't work. "It must be issued by the government", he says.

"It is," I explain. "The state government."

"No, this must be a passport, " he says sadly. "There is only place on the Contrat de Reexpedition ou de Garde du Courrier for passport numbers. I could try to use this but then you might risk having the request for your Contrat de Reexpedition ou de Garde du Courrier not take effect."

Those billowing waves of optimism at having made it to the front of the line are now sinking into despair. I feel a lump forming in my throat, and bitterness in my heart. I have to get around this. I have to make a deal.

"Look, I live one block away," I lie. If I run back to my apartment and get my passport, can I finish this transaction without waiting in line again?"

Deal struck. I dash frantically back to my apartment building, a mere four blocks away. My gardienne is cleaning the lobby and I have to screech to a halt and chat nicely with her for a minute, or else. Then after a final "Bonne journee, madame," I step gingerly over the wet mosaic floor, walk through the glass corridor then scramble across the courtyard. Someone else is using the ascenseur so I run up the four flights to my apartment, grab my passport. Change heavy jacket because I'm overheated now. Back down to the vestibule. I see the nice pipe-smoking author neighbor whose windows are directly across from mine. Must stop and say "Bonjour, monsieur" to him for sure, exchange pleasantries. Finally back out to the street. Oh God, every neighbor I know in Paris seems to be out on this one-block stretch at this very moment and I know enough that I must not ignore them. The nice Lebanese boulanger. The cafe owner. The epicier. I can't simply streak by them like the madwoman of Chaillot. Bonjour, bonjour bonjour. Oui oui oui. Ca va ca va ca va. Bonne journee bonne journee bonne journee. This is unbelievable. The gods are clearly laughing at me.

Okay the coast is now clear and after walking calmly out of their sight I run down the street like a bat out of hell to get back to the Poste before my Best Buddy goes on coffee break. Sweaty and out of breath, I try to regain my composure as I enter the automatic doors of the Poste. There is still a line winding all the way to the door.

Confidently, I stride up to his guichet where he is in the middle of a transaction with another lady. I stand aside, waiting for them to complete their business, then step in to complete and pay for the Contrat. I can feel the evil stares of those angry souls standing in line, all the people who didn't see me in line before or don't recognize me in my different jacket. With their glares they are shooting nasty hateful daggers at my back. They think I am the worst of line jumpers. I keep my back turned to them to deflect their stinging poison-dart curses.

They think that I am an American expresshole.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Genial! After a year in Paris, I can totally empathize with horror stories from la poste!!

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