Adventures at the French Post Office

Since I work from home at the moment, I haven’t been going out most days because 1. the weather has been crap until about 2 days ago and 2. I’m slightly anti-social, so living in Europe with its high population density stresses me out. And usually when I do go out to accomplish some mundane task, something ridiculous happens and I wonder if it’s France getting back at me for loving Germany more or if it’s just a natural inclination of mine to end up in strange and awkward situations.

Right after I got home from traveling, I needed to run to the post office to mail the rest of my postcards and presents. If you didn’t get a postcard from me, either I didn’t have your address or France didn’t want you to receive it. And I hope the 4 people I sent the presents to actually received them or my 2 hour ordeal in the tiny post office of downtown Chambéry was all for nothing.

I hope the boîte à lettre did not eat all of my pretty postcards.

I only live 5 minutes from the main post office, which is actually open between 12 and 2 PM – a rarity even in a “large city” such as Chambéry, with its massive 50,000 inhabitants. I thought I would be able to run this errand in a few minutes and get home before the storm came in and go back to lying around watching L’Agence Tous Risques because I was still too sick and tired to do anything else. So I grabbed my jacket and the 4 packages and dashed outside, noticing that it was in fact already raining and I should have probably brought my umbrella. But the post office is only a few blocks away, right?

Right. Except when I get there, I notice signs posted all over the walls and windows that this particular branch is closed for construction until June 29. Of course.

It starts raining harder as I try to figure out where the other post offices are. Of course x 2.

I reach into my pocket where I thought there was an entire packet of tissues, but only find one slightly wet kleenex. Of course x 3.

I shove the packages under my coat and start running towards the downtown pedestrian area, hoping that none of my former students are out and about. They already think I’m the weird American who can barely speak English anymore (remember Do I still speak English?) and I really did not want them to see me with a runny nose, unbrushed hair, and a bulging coat like I had just shop-lifted something.

Finally I find the tiny office and go inside to see 9 people waiting in line. A woman asks me why I’m there, and I respond intelligently “to send some mail.” She asks how I’m going to pay, and I say “with my bank card?” almost as a question because I have no idea why this strange lady is so nosy. Then I realize she actually works there and is trying to get people through the line as quickly as possible. A fonctionnaire who is helping customers in a timely and orderly fashion? What? Am I still in France??

She wants to know what I’m sending, and of course I forget the word for fridge magnet (oops, just spoiled a gift) and can only think of aimant, which does mean magnet, but not a fridge magnet. I explain it’s for the frigo, and she says ah, un magnet. ::facepalm:: I need to stop forgetting that French nowadays is just English spoken with a French accent.

These are magnets in English or “magnets” in French.

She informs me that I can use the automatic machine to weigh and print shipping labels for my packages, so I don’t need to wait in line. She even stands next to me and helps me choose the correct buttons on the screen. I weigh all 4 packages and pay with my card and I think everything is working like a charm, until the machine spits out one of the four labels I need and then barks at me “transaction interrompue” and won’t give me the rest of the labels even though my card was debited the amount for all four.

Um, ok. The woman has no idea why it didn’t work and even apologizes for leading me to the machine because it’s just wasting my time instead of saving it. I look back and still see 9 people in line, albeit 9 different people, and sigh. This is going to be a long day. And my one kleenex is not going to last much longer.

Another postal worker comes out to help but he can’t find the right key to open the machine. Third postal worker tries to help but he doesn’t have the code to punch in the machine to put it into maintenance mode. Finally fourth postal worker gets the thing open, but can’t figure out why the labels didn’t print. The woman is busy writing a note on official La Poste paper stating that if my card had been debited the full amount even though only one label had been printed, I could come back to the office and try to get it sorted out.

Number four asks me a bunch of questions about what buttons I pushed, and it becomes clear that he has no idea how the machine works. He thought it was only for buying stamps.

Number three returns and seems to be a little more knowledgeable about this mystery machine from the future, but doesn’t understand why I was weighing four different packages. He thought you could only do one package at a time.

I just stand there with my kleenex in one hand and the packages in the other. Is this really happening?, I ask myself. I know more about La Poste’s machine than the people who work at La Poste. And then I realize Why yes, I am still in France. The familiarity of the “everything in France ends up becoming a strange and bizarre adventure that I will never forget” feeling begins to set in and I’m surprised I haven’t been given the Gallic shrug yet.

But eh, whaddaya gonna do, right?

The machine seems to be functioning again, so I decide to weigh the remaining packages and hope it works correctly this time. Number three stays next to me, presumably so he could help me, but I really think it was so he could learn how to use this new and exciting technology.

Finally, everything works perfectly and it prints the labels and accepts my card and I’ve taught a fonctionnaire how to use a stupid machine. I hand over the packages to the woman because she is the only one that I trust and wish an old lady who wanted to buy some stamps from the machine bon courage as I leave. Now all I have to do is check my bank statement and hope La Poste didn’t charge me for 7 packages instead of 4 so that I don’t ever have to come back to this place ever again.

Walking home I was so grateful that my level of French is near-fluent because I think I might have just started crying dealing with all of that ridiculousness in any other language.

And that pretty much sums up every encounter at a French store/pharmacy/bank/post office/train station/anything located outside of my apartment that I’ve ever been in. It’s like one big series of bizarre events after another. Like the time the bank lady said she didn’t know how to do a cashier’s check or where to find them even though I needed it within 2 hours so I could buy my car or when we needed to buy a new box spring and had to drive the scary minivan that we rented from the mafia men or every single time I have ever stepped foot in the préfecture. I’m on residency card #7 in less than 4 years, mostly thanks to screw ups by… you guessed it, La Poste!

So other expats, is it me or is it France?

  • I love this! Oh la Poste! They really are tying harder, I think, but the infrastructure doesn’t allow for advancement. So, for example, the answer is to install a TV screen so that the wait in line is less painful? 🙂

    Here’s my take on it,which of course was entitled “Going Postal”

  • It's Latin Europe, I guess. In Italy things are pretty much the same – if not worse, if you add all the shouting and gesturing that they can't do without.

    Poste Italiane is so absurd that it still cracks me up sometimes, even after 8 years living here. It just never ceases to surprise me. Last time I wanted to mail a parcel the woman (no uber-modern machines for that here, Italy is always lagging behind when it comes to outstanding new technology) crossed out my name. When I asked why, she said she didn't want the mailman to get confused and deliver it to me again instead of the recipient. Except the recipient was in Brazil and the address was written in huge letters, while my address was a tiny little thing on the upper left corner. And you know why? Good thing she did, because this has actually happened to my husband: he sent a box to the US and the package came back to him! The mailman actually DID get confused, in spite of the bright yellow box with POSTE ITALIANE written in blue on all sides and of the huge recipient's New Jersey address.

    I've also had documents (pretty serious stuff, even, something I needed for my tax return) collected by another Brazilian, my former b*tch of a neighbor, at the post office, because the woman at the counter didn't think asking for an ID was important even though it was a registered letter. You know, foreigners are all one and the same, after all. Needless to say, she got mad at me when I told her what had happened – her exact words were “Do you think I have time to the check the ID of everyone who comes in here for a registered letter?”. I rest my case.

  • Amy

    Hahah It's definitely NOT you. Belgium isn't much better really. We don't even have machines, and sending anything outside of Belgium is ridiculously expensive.

  • Kim – Kiwi in France

    Definitely not you… I now go to one small La Poste quite far from my house (there is one just down the street) because the guy who works there is very nice and helpful! My worst visit was when I received a note to say a parcel had arrived only to go there and they couldn't find my parcel! I waited the lady searched she came back said she couldn't find it, shrugged and said come in tomorrow. My vocab sucks so I just said ok and left. If I could speak fluent french I would've kicked up a fuss! I got a friend to call La Poste a few hours later and another person was able to find it. I don't find the Préfecture too bad here now, they have a different system so you post all your documents in and you just come back to pick up your card in a few weeks. There is never many people waiting but it could be because mine needs renewing in April. But I do have the wrong CDS and they said I'd have to go back home (to NZ!) to get a different visa… so I have to put up with extra unnecessary paperwork because I got the wrong visa to start off with. Go figure that a PhD student shouldn't have a student visa! I think I've become accustomed now to the French admin hell but I am reminded of the hell when I call my bank in NZ (and its free) to get a new card or enquire about a purchase and I'm helped within 5 minutes by someone who is polite and actually asks me how my day is, is there anything else we can do for you, have you thought about this account for your money etc. They actually want to help (or if they weren't polite they'd be seriously reprimanded!)!

  • Kate

    My friends who live(d) in France and I are always talking about “The Game.” For us, The Game is that every time you need to talk to a French person in some professional context, they are going to be as unhelpful as possible, and to play the game you must read the person and re-act appropriately. Sometimes you must reciprocate the hostility, overcompensate with niceness, use the dumb foreigner card, or sometimes prove that you are not a dumb foreigner, and well if worse comes to worse, cry. The Game left me feeling so tired at the end of the day in France!

  • It is France! Every little thing gets complicated like at the bank where you cannot deposit money or checks in the Atms. Or like last week when I pushed the door of the Mercerie at 2:30 (supposedly the time it opened) and I was yelled at because the lady hadn't eaten yet! When I came back at 4:00, she wouldn't let me pay my 12 euros with my bank cards (15 minimum), I had to withdraw 20 euros … and guess what she did not have change !!!!!!

    I'm also not insured with the Secu because no one can tell me how to do it for my specific case!

  • It's France — this happened to me once, expect instead of the “stamp” machine not working it's the coin machine, so I could get coins for the stamp machine, which wasn't taking debit cards that day — ugh.

  • Zhu

    I feel your pain! I found la poste so efficient in Canada compared to France… the only thing is that they don't deliver mail on Saturday, unlike in France.

    I think the Poste got worse when they started being a bank as well. It's painful to queue behind people who go withdraw 10 euro at the time!

  • Jen

    I must say that everywhere I've been, the Post Office has been horrible. I live in NYC and it's a nightmare everytime: I dread receiving packages! Finding one, terrible. California, hours in line. Illinois, terrible too. I can't imagine this is a reflection on the country of France, only on administration in general. Especially in small cities.

  • andrea

    definitely france. i avoid going to La Poste and the bank at all costs, and when i finally MUST go, I block out an entire afternoon. it's a lesson in patience, for sure, but it does allow for some great storytelling….

  • Joe

    lol, so much I can relate with, even if it wasn’t this extreme. I stumbled upon this blog from the Assistants in France forum. I’m from England and did an Erasmus study semester in Strasbourg, and am going to France again to become an assistant. Of course, I’m excited to go out, and my responsibles have been extremely helpful. Aside from that reassurance, I’m bracing myself for some of the expected incompetence when it comes to service, especially since I now have to open a bank account (I was able to just use a British account with no foreign withdrawal charges last time, but since I’m on payroll this time, I can’t say no). It’s a good thing that I don’t have to do any of the immigration stuff like you guys in America do. These were bad enough:

    *When it came to post offices, all I ever had to do mainly was post letters (simple enough) or buy cards/envelopes/stamps, except for one time (or ten). I went in to my local post office repeatedly to try and source a package of nifty books my mum sent me. The first time, they would not entertain and laughed when I got nervous and stuttery, other times they’d flick through their book, where they’d accounted for it not being there. I even went to some of the more central post offices to try and get it. Eventually it came back to my parents’ house; it had been there, and they’d not logged it in their book properly (and yes, I did show my passport).

    *Taking an already full bag into and out of a supermarket automatically made me a suspect for shoplifting; normally my bag was full of other things – paper, pens, clothes, mainly stuff not for sale. Maybe this just happened because I was a guy, but why they don’t just get the shoplifting detectors installed in relatively large institutions is beyond me.

    *Erasmus students staying for one semester weren’t allowed to stay in student accommodation, whereas stagieres, assistants and others could be let in at the drop of a hat.

    *The Erasmus responsible lost the Erasmus forms of my friend and me. Fortunately, the English end had scanned them and was able to send copies anew. Equally, this woman was not of any help at any other point during the sojourn. She canceled some of her office hours during the first week, hosted a welcome “soirée” a few weeks into the semester (during the afternoon when everyone was in classes anyway, so much for a “soirée”). We had no guidance during the orientation week and what should have been just an afternoon’s bureaucracy lasted a whole week. We were trying to look for somewhere to sign up for classes all week(for that was presumed what was done), and we found out on the Friday that we were simply allowed to just turn up to classes and ask if we could join (nobody in their right mind, Erasmus or non, would do that in the UK).

    One thing that I will defend is public transport and the rail system; both far better than in the UK. And France as a country overall is wonderful; why else would I choose to go back there when I could have easily applied for an assistantship in Austria, Germany or Quebec?

  • A post about my soon-to-be-adventure in France with a family of five. I am enjoying your blog. used to do the Expat thing ourselves… but in a third world country… not so easy, right?
    Thanks for blogging and please check out my post.. I would REALLY love to see a reply from you on this topic.

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  • Chris Lancaster

    Sums up nicely my experience of French post offices – this last time I wanted one stamp – no concept of customer service whatsoever….grrr…..