Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Post Office Counters

I always think there is something about post offices which epitomises and reflects the character & nature of the country to which they belong.

This is true of Britan where you will find polite orderly queues snaking back & forth in front of the counters, some even with flashing signs or an automated voice calling you forward. Very little noise, occasionally lonely pensioners pass a few pleasanteries, probably about the weather. Though, sadly they also reflect the technologially developed nature of Britain now which is gradually doing away with P/Os and the opportunity to collect your pension or child benefit in cash, renew a licence, apply for a passport from a human.

In Albania, the main post office in the capital, Tirana, is in a proper building. A few others are too, but most of the others in the city, are little prefab type buildings plonked on the pavement. If they weren't the yellow so characteristic of most european post systems you might be forgiven for thinking it was a workman's hut.

I expect they will be replaced one day. For now, they fit in with Albania's "Under Construction" image. Tiranas is one vast building site. Eating dust & concrete powder is part of the daily diet. Albania seems to be in a race to erect as many tall, glassy impressive looking buildings & swathes of new apartments, as possible, desperate to join NATO & the EU, and looking the part seems to be the primary consideration.

I hope they are not accepted too soon or there will be NO incentive left to stamp out the rampant, rife, all encompassing corruption at all. Hmm, I think I've made myself clear.

Anyway, post offices. The signs inside are as complicated as the language (which I am trying to learn). There is a different booth for every possible transaction imaginable, & no they won't just let you buy a stamp at the wrong one. Absolutely not, no way, what was I thinking?

Fortunately another national characteristic which is also rife in the P/O is being offered unsolicited advice by any & everyone. The other day a guy stopped me in the market to 'tut' at me and inform me my bike was dirty. Yes, and?? .... Another time someone suggested my son should be wearing a coat, or passers by stop & guide you into parking spaces. Or stop other cars so that you can pull out. Kind, but a little unusual.

Still in the post office , when I am usually only doing something simple like posting a parcel, or buying stamps, people can see what I'm trying to do & they grab my arm, propel me in the right direction, or point to the right booth.

Then of course there is the queueing. I always mentally chalk my cue-tip elbows before entering the P/O in order to participate with the best of them. It is quite refreshing as a Brit, I must confess, to barge, push & jostle legitimately and without causing offence. However as a Brit I can never resist the urge to tell people it's not their turn, even though clearly queueing in any form is not a national characteristic. Is it a Western thing I wonder?

You go up to the counter in a sea surge of paper wielding humanity, & immediately someone reaches across you with their money waving in the face of the postal worker, someone else moves in from the other side and shouts a question mid transaction. A man who has not so much invaded your personal space, as redrawn the boundaries, pushes in front. And if you're NOT up at the front you really do need to push & elbow or you would be politely waiting in a 1 person queue all day.

Then there is the laborious bureaucracy, which accompanies every transaction. where forms are filled in in triplicate, receipts hand written, signatures taken before you can receive a parcel. What happens to all these log books of transactions I wonder?

And then finally, there is the small injustice of paying 30 lek for the privilege of having braved Tirana traffic to get to the MAIN post office, to collect a parcel, which they won't actually deliver, which is torn, has been opened & is incomplete. This adds to the shouting you hear in the post office, whilst the postal worker shrugs & shouts back. There are so many frustrations & injustices in society here, where 'the little person' is powerless & has no recourse to any action. A subject I will be returning to in another post.

Having had parcels turn up 4 months late & so far nothing go missing (permanently), I have now come to the conclusion that it is fairly reliable, just slow & chaotic. And of course many of the pacrels have been opened & some contents removed.

There are many stories. One of my husband's colleagues many years ago (probably when Mars bars weren't available here) got sent a pack of Mars Bars in the post from the U.K. This particular pack had a "free extra Mars" in the packet. Strangely when he received the parcel, the 'free extra ' one was not in the parcel. It had been taken out & then the pack of Mars re-sealed & put back in the parcel.

Another friend had ordered her daughter some winter boots which she got sent out to her, much to the excitement of her fashion conscious daughter. Imagine the surprise when the parcel from her mother in England arrived, with an old landrover part in it. And not a boot to be seen.

A pile of brochures sent to another friend from his UK organisation arrived with a pack of playing cards enclosed. When he asked his London office why, they knew nothing about it.

Parcels here are weighed to check the weight & stamp price tally, so clearly the workers who sort the mail, you can just imagine it, are emptying a pile of parcels onto a counter, opening the promising looking ones & sharing out the booty then shoving stuff back in and sealing them up with any random objects added in order to 'make up the weight'. Seems a very long winded way of thieving. Many parcels don't get the 'sealed up again' treatmant of course.

The most remarkable thing about the main post office though, is looking beyond the booth to the mail room out the back, where all Tirana's parcels, disapora mailings, remittance gifts are piled up in a room with ceiling to floor metal shelves. These parcels balance Jenga-style all the way to the ceiling, they sprawl over the floor, they spill out of the door and have taken up positions all around the postal workers, so they have to pick their way through & rummage amonsgs the brown cardboard termite mounds in search of my little parcel. Here there are NO signs, no labels, no organisation. Seemingly. I am in awe really, that within 5 minutes they emerge with my parcel. I have no idea how they do this.

This is Tirana all over, it constantly surprises. It seem so chaotic, & yet it functions remarkably given the poor infrastructure, power cuts etc. It is such a mish mash of chaos and cosmopolitanism, tradition & trendiness, mess, mayhem and modernity. It, thus far, has refused to allow me to categorise the place in any way. But I haven't given up yet.

And as for my parcels, I'm told lots & lots of annoying sellotape is the best tamper proofing for parcels, and very dull or off putting customs 'contents' labels for those who can read English.

I'm also keeping my elbows perpetually sharpened, for my post office visits, just to be prepared you understand. After all I am trying to blend in.


Almost American said...

I don't think my mother ever tells the truth on those little green customs forms on the parcels! Most discombobulating when I open them and what's inside is not what she declared - did someone replace the contents? Is she losing her marbles and forgetting what she's put in the parcel right after she's sealed it up? No, she's just thumbing her nose at customs!

Wife in Hong Kong said...

It sounds like a bit of a lucky dip! Queueing does say a lot about a people, doesn't it? The other day I pointed out to a woman who pushed in front of me that I had been waiting in line for some time. She gave me an indifferent look, as if to say, Much fool you and carried on with her business at the counter.

nappy valley girl said...

Fascinating post - although I don't envy you the bureaucracy!

They are closing post offices left, right and centre in the UK. Our local one closed last year despite huge petititions from locals. I now have to go to an enormous one and queue for ages in order to simple things like send a parcel. Definitely says something about the state of the nation.

And on that note, I noticed that the postal service in Australia and New Zealand was fantastic when I was there a few years ago....

Laura - Are We Nearly There Yet Mummy? said...

What a palava!

The delivery time sounds similar to Spain. We sent my Dad a Xmas card last year and it arrived in July.

The russian roulette aspect must make opening a parcel even more exciting ... apart from the person opening the Mars Bars!

Iota said...

I like the image of you chalking your elbows.

Don't get me started on US post offices... that's a whole blog post (no pun intended).

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