Regular readers of Olfactoria's Travels will be familiar with her benevolence: for in addition to hosting giveaways and the occasional bottle split, she is noted for thoughtfully sending out samples to anyone curious to try a particular scent. Back in the summer, however, the Austrian postal service increased its international rates to ludicrous robdog levels - I believe they quoted a figure of 25 euros for one small Jiffy bag, which in most EU countries would comfortably cover a whole bunch of packages of that size.
When this came up on Olfactoria's blog, I offered to act as mail mule and post her packages from one of the countries I was visiting on my penultimate work trip of the summer, given that we were planning to meet up in Vienna not long after the problem of the price hike first arose.
The zeal with which I embarked on my proxy postal mission was further fuelled by Olfactoria's generosity when we met, for she totally spoilt me with perfume gifts. I batted aside her offer to pay for the postage after the event, and set off for my next destination with a carrier bag from Le Parfum full of padded envelopes of assorted thicknesses and weights, bound for perfumista friends in Europe and the States.
I felt I had been entrusted with a big responsibility, because although I didn't know the contents of any of the packages or their value, I do enough decanting myself to know that Olfactoria would have spent a long time getting them all together.
On the Sunday after our rendez-vous, I found myself in a smallish town in northern Slovenia. Mindful that I was not going to be in a town larger than smallish for the next week or so, I decided to suss out the post office options where I was. Funnily enough, there was a small PO right opposite my hotel, and in my wanderings round the town centre I came across a larger office with similar yellow signage.
The next morning before my first meeting, I headed across the road to the small branch, where the two clerks spoke very little English. So I decided to start the mail-out with the packages to Italy and Croatia. As these two countries were adjacent to Slovenia, I figured they would be the most straightforward to post in a near wordless fashion. When I saw how much they cost - something like 45c and 75c respectively - I remembered thinking that that was exceptionally cheap, but didn't think to query it there and then, as I had no prior experience with which to compare it.
I then drove an hour north to my first appointment, and clocked another post office as I was entering the village, where I returned after my meeting with my six remaining parcels. I was pleased to find that two of the three clerks spoke pretty good English, and decided to send the other packages from here: five to the USA and one to England.
The male clerk weighed them all, and the prices of the ones to the USA still seemed awfully reasonable. This time I decided to take the matter up with him, and he explained that weight rather than distance was the key determinant of Slovenian postal rates. That accounted for the similarity in price between the English package and the ones to the US, but they still felt worryingly inexpensive.
The clerk may have picked up on my puzzled expression, for he suddenly inquired: "Ah, now did you want priority service or normal?" It seemed that "priority service" equated to our "air mail", so I immediately said yes to this - the higher the price, the more reassured I felt. The switch to "priority" doubled the rates he had originally quoted, so I started to relax a bit.
All eight parcels were now shipped and I drove back to the first town, where I had an afternoon meeting. I parked up in the centre and popped into McDonald's to log onto my emails (which was conveniently located opposite the main post office I had recce-ed on Sunday afternoon). A couple of queries started to fester away in my mind: would the first two parcels of the day to Italy and Croatia - ie the ones that were the cheapest of all so far - go "priority" mail? And what was the position regarding the need for a customs declaration on the parcel declaring its value and contents, for the US packages at least, if not the ones within the EU? Seasoned swapper that I am, that aspect had totally slipped my mind.
So I quickly knocked back my tea and took my place in the queue in the main post office - now parcel-less of course - but anxious to get another opinion from a larger (and possibly more authoritative?) branch. Perhaps I should have come here with all my parcels in the first place...
Unfortunately the clerk at whose till I was queuing spoke even less English than the lady in the first office, and every time I said: "customs form?" she would reply: "sign for?" This game of verbal ping pong continued for a while until the clerk summoned reinforcements, but her colleague didn't speak any more English than she did. It suddenly dawned on me that they may have thought I was inquiring about some kind of registered or signed for service.
This impression was confirmed when, a few moments later, one of the ladies decided to ring the second post office where I had sent the US parcels, and discuss directly with the staff there the exact service I had used. This took some time, during which the queue behind me lengthened considerably and was starting to get restless. Eventually the clerk hung up and I got the gist of the conversation, namely me that if I wanted my mail to be signed for, I would have to go back to the second post office before the end of the day to action this request in person.
Oh dear, I thought, but I don't want the recipients to sign for their parcels; I just want to know if I should have filled out a customs form to avoid the packages being intercepted and, God forbid, opened by the US authorities and impounded. Does this mean that the second post office is now waiting for me to turn up before close of play? Will they send the parcels regardless if I don't go back there? (For it was a two hour round trip in the opposite direction to where I was headed that night.)
But by now it was time for my second appointment of the day, so there was nothing more I could do for the moment. It seemed clear though that I wasn't going to be able to sort out this growing muddle unless I could find out the Slovenian for "customs form" pretty damn quick.
After this meeting (having struck up a good rapport with the two respondents - do you see a pattern emerging?) I decided to ask them point blank for the word for customs form. I had by now thought to sketch one out on a bit of paper as a back up, but it wasn't necessary. Although my respondents had never had occasion to send any mail to the USA personally, and didn't know whether a customs declaration was required, they were able to tell me what it was. I have yet to see it written down but it sounded like: "zarina".
I thanked them very much for this information and hotfooted it back to the first post office where I had sent my super cheap parcels to Italy and Croatia some six hours previously. A different clerk was on duty, who spoke more English than her colleague from that morning.
I explained that I had posted two parcels there first thing, but was not sure if I had bought "priority" stamps. Without demur, this clerk (No 8 of the day!) fished them out of her plastic bin and started printing off extra sticky labels, charging me the difference for this "top up" fee. Yay! That was more like it. Still very reasonable, but twice the price of this morning's postage. As they were only going "next door" there would be no issue of customs forms anyway.
But that still left the matter of the five parcels bound for the US, as priority mail but with no customs form...and languishing in another plastic bin some 60 km away! So I judged this to be the moment to try out my newly acquired Slovenian. I said how I had posted some packages to America from another post office and hadn't put a "zarina" on them, whipping out my drawing to reinforce this point.
The new clerk didn't know the regulations on this point, but proceeded to rummage conscientiously through several Lever Arch files she retrieved from the cupboard behind her. After a good few minutes had elapsed, she gave that up as a bad job and decided to phone a friend! Or rather some colleague at the Slovenia postal service's HQ, by the sound of things. The conversation was prolonged, but at last the clerk looked up at me, grinning broadly: "No zarina!" I could have hugged her.
So all I had to do then was to ask the clerk to look up the phone number of post office No 2, and I stepped outside to call them on my mobile. I spoke to one of the two clerks who had helped me, and sure enough they were wondering whether I was going to drop by and switch to the registered service instead of just priority mail. I used the magic word "zarina?" again, with my by now well practised rising inflection at the end. They confirmed that this was not necessary, but - if I understood rightly - a customs form would have been needed had I opted for the signed for service. Aha! Thudding drop of penny ensued. So I told them to go ahead and send the US parcels just as they were (and obviously the one to England was okay anyway). Job done!
Well, there remained of course the small matter of whether the packages ever turned up at their destinations... It was a nail biting time for both Olfactoria and myself, but so far four of the eight parcels have been confirmed as received: two of the European and two of the US ones, so the omens are good.
And the moral of the tale? If you want to prevent frantic antics of any kind, do not assume that you can get by with English anywhere in Europe. As with the paprika story below, the onus was on me as the visitor to the country to have researched the key terms in the local language first. And given that I didn't, the back up plan was (and will be again, I've no doubt!) to ask the same questions of as many informed people as possible and take a consensus. Which is pretty much my day job, come to think of it...
Now I thought to tell this tale - and the one about the paprika - not because I am after pats on the back, for let's face it, nipping to the post office for someone or to the supermarket to buy one item is a very minor errand - but rather to illustrate the point that nothing in my world is ever that simple. I could liken myself (both professionally and in my perfumista life) to Harry Worth, a hapless comedian from the 60s and 70s who was perpetually in and out of scrapes, and "reduced all who came into contact with him to a state of confusion and frustration".
PS I am pleased to report that Olfactoria has now identified a more humanely priced domestic postal service, involving a different class of mail called the Maxi Brief, which (despite appearances) is in fact nothing to do with capacious - or in the case of the "Gross Brief" - tasteless or otherwise repellent underwear.
Maxi Brief Priority & Economy
Maxi Plus Brief Priority & Economy
Gross Brief Priority & Economy
PPS I am also pleased to report that my fringe has grown considerably since that shot was taken. I shall be speaking to my hairdresser about it next time, and may uses the photo as evidence.
Photo of Tito statue from artfagcity.com, photo of post office from slovenia.info, photo of customs form from 2.royalmail.com, photos of the first town from its own website, photo of post box from flickr.com, photo of Austrian mail from nadelspiel.at, photo of Harry Worth from edgemediatv.com, other photos my own