Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Frantic Antics Series: Fulfilling Favours For Fellow Fumeheads - No 2: Olfactoria's Parcels And My Mail Mule Muddle

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


Ines said...

Aaaargg! My long comment disappeared!

I'm really very angry with blogger lately.
I'll try and retrace my comment. :)

The word is the same as in Croatian and is actually spelled "carina" - as Slavic languages pronounce the "c" differently.
Btw, I was explained the difference between regular and air mail by a clerk here. Air mail means it will be leaving the post office in an hour or so after you posted it and regular means, that will happen at the end of the day. In terms of arrival, my experience so far has been they arrive at the same time. :) They just don't cost the same.
And the customs form is left to the free will of clerks. There is no clear evidence when you need or don't, sometimes I'm asked to fill, sometimes I'm not.

One good thing about packages here is that even if you're sending a box, you can put it in an envelope and it goes as a letter shipment and therefore cheaper for some reason, even though the prices are calculated by weight. :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

So sorry about your aggro with Blogger and thanks so much for persisting and leaving your most informative comment!

"Carina" - great! I was hoping someone from the area would read this post and enlighten me.

What an interesting difference between regular and airmail - is that just for sending mail from Croatia or also from Slovenia, do you suppose? If it does apply there, I only topped up the postage on the two parcels to Croatia and Italy *at the end of the day*, so they most likely didn't get there any quicker than they would have done by the cheap method, which is maybe why the first clerk didn't think it necessary to inquire about my preferences.

I was clearly told by the gentleman in the second post office that priority to the USA (from Slovenia at least) is quicker in terms of the number of days taken than regular (surface?) mail, so that extra postage seems to have made a difference.

How curious also about the flexibility with customs forms in Croatia! It is definitely consistently required in the UK when sending packages outside the EU.

A box in an envelope as a letter shipment? I like the absurdity of that a lot! : - )

Anonymous said...

Oh I hear you, Vanessa!

I too felt that the more I paid to send my package (to Birgit, as it happens), the more likely it was that it would get there safely. (I wouldn't mind but I even sprang for additional Insurance - so the package would have the appropriate sticker - even though the Royal Mail would never have paid out [because it had P**Fume in it!] should it have gone astray.)

I think there's something about being at the Post Office counter that scrambles one's thinking up completely. It looks reassuring to see the small package disappearing under a wealth of colourful and large stickers and stamps! The package looks too spartan if it has just one stamp.

Must get a grip - I can't even excuse myself by saying that I couldn't communicate with the PO staff. Mind you, they seemed especially keen on selling me various other services - life insurance, for example. I didn't think I'd spent that long in the queue!?

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

Glad you can empathise with the fraught nature of international mail outs. And you are right about the insurance - I have never yet lodged a claim for lost perfume (and a few of my swap parcels have gone astray in the past).

On those occasions when I have splashed out on insurance, for example on a follow up parcel to the one that went awol(!), it has mainly been in the hope that the post office will take better care of the package. For even with international signed for, the service is still not guaranteed in the way our Special Delivery is, and it costs nearly as much now. But it definitely adds that extra level of confidence if not complete reassurance, say!

Oh and I tell you, I would have got mightily confused had the Slovenian post offices tried to cross-sell me insurance or a credit card, but I am sure they felt they had their work cut out already with me and the transaction in hand!

Anonymous said...

Here in Canada that box in an envelope trick won't work as the key to cost is thickness. No matter how light your padded envelope, if it doesn't fit through their measuring slot (2cm max) you're moving up to the full parcel post rate and it ain't pretty. There used to be a "small parcel" rate for just this kind of thick envelope or little box circumstance, but no more. We also used to have a "short haul" rate for parcels within a 100 miles. (That "Gross Brief Economy" is looking pretty interesting.)

And, you can be darn sure they are not going to be retrieving a package you posted once you have walked out of the premises even if there was no line-up, or hold something based on a phone call (maybe thirty years ago). So bless those very helpful Slovenian clerks.

As for those customs forms, seems to me that it's the customs office of the receiving country that will determine what happens in the end, although it sounds from comments on some blogs as if the U.S. is very concerned its citizens might be outfitting the rest of the world with all sorts of nefarious goods. On the other hand, official/officious forms filled with artful detail can bypass unnecessary snooping.

Great news to hear the parcels are turning up as intended!

-- Lindaloo

PS. Always good to have a "what not to do again, please" pic for your hairdresser.

Olfacta said...

Here in the U.S., so much seems to be up to the individual post office. I've found a couple of them that don't interrogate, but others will harass you as to exactly what is in the package and how much of it and so on. When I mail domestic, I just put on the postage stamps and mail them from home (and they always seem to get there). International is a whole different story.

Mail to the US without a customs form? Hard to believe!

Vanessa said...

Hi Lindaloo,

That slot measuring thing is a relatively new feature of our own British postal system, though it only relates to domestic mail, as far as I know. I saw no such apparatus in Slovenia and as you observe, it proved to be a pretty relaxed place to do postal business generally. I also doubted whether they would agree to retrieve the first two packages out of the bin to add extra stamps, but the clerk didn't bat an eyelid!

I think you are quite right that the US is concerned about its citizens exporting fragrant munitions to other countries which may be used against it some day. I am still marvelling at how the two packages we know to have arrived in the US did so without a customs form. I hope the recipients didn't have to pay a huge ransom to release them or submit to any other gruelling formalities.

I love your phrase "little box circumstance" - and we all do have these from time to time. Quite a robust way to send perfume samples instead of the usual "I hope they don't sit on it" Jiffy bag or "bubble mailer" (as you may call it) solution.

Yes, I had a positive picture to show the hairdresser originally - the "Puckrik" or "Muckrik" as she calls it herself - and now this one of "What Not To Shear". : - )

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfacta,

I have had both sorts of experiences in US post offices - even to the point of being interrogated once in LA as to the contents of four flat Christmas cards. : - )

Affixing stamps at home for domestic mail sounds like a good plan. Why, it is the postal equivalent of home schooling!

Anonymous said...

Hi Vanessa,

That's my reasoning too - that the more stickers and stamps there are on the package, the more careful the Mail staff will be with it as it passes through their hands! I'm not sure that my hope has any basis in reality at all but I'm reluctant to send a relatively unadorned packet *just in case*.

Glad I'm not alone in reasoning thus:-)

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

PS Nothing wrong with "Maxi Briefs" or "Harvest Festivals" (as in All is Safely Gathered In!) - fab name for a postal option though I wonder how they arrived at it? Best not to speculate, I suppose.

PPS I thought your fringe looked fine in the photo!

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

Re the stampage issue, we are as one that more is definitely more!

"Harvest Festivals" - not heard that one before, haha! "Gross Brief" is quite a let down in German and simply means "large letter", ditto Maxi, I imagine.

Thanks for your kind comment about my fringe - I do prefer it longer and wispier and feel very self-conscious when any of the ploughed field that is my forehead is inadvertently exposed.

Which brings us neatly back to harvest festivals... : - )

Anonymous said...

Now that I checked back I saw to my horror that my initial comment (like Ines's) is not there! *grumbles at blogger in asterisks*

First of all: Thank you so much again for your labors, you are such a good friend and an extremely conscientious person. Not everyone would go to so much trouble!!! I believe all the packages are accounted for by now. :)

Second: I had such a good time once more reading your post, what did I do for laughs before I discovered Bonkers? I don't know.

The Maxi Brief and Gross Brief thing had my husband and me in stitches for hours. Sadly I had further setbacks with the d**n postal service, so I am considering driving to Slovenia on a regular basis from now on, since I am so well informed about practices there now.

And your conclusion that nothing is ever that simple - I couldn't agree more.

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

Like Ines, thanks so much for persevering with the annoying comments box. I have problems too that have recently started, and the only way to leave a comment seems to be to be signed into your account first (Google, Wordpress etc) and then type it in and use the pull down menu box. I had comments eaten on other blogs in the past week or two until I discovered that trick, and have also started to routinely copy them to the clipboard as a back up before attempting to post, which really shouldn't be necessary. Why it has suddenly gone like that I don't know, sorry!

And thanks also for *grumbling in asterisks" - you have a reputation to live up to now and I will expect all your future emoting to be in starry parentheses! *: - )*

I was more than happy to fulfil this particular favour for you - I love beating the system and postal services with robdog rates are a particular "bete-noire" (or should that be "penny black"?) of mine.

I suppose I do take "ownership" of tasks I am given, which is lacking somewhat in British business today - you know, where people don't ever ring you back though they say they will, that type of thing - but I think being a researcher propels me to behave in this way. I may also be half terrier.

Vanessa said...

Comment from Suzanne, who is still thwarted by Blogger's comment-munching behaviour.

Vanessa, ok, I'm back and signed into my Google account beforehand to see if Blogger will finally accept my comment here.

I've thoroughly enjoyed your latest travel adventure posts -- especially the one in which you employed your miming skills at a Hungarian grocery store in order to procure smoked paprika for your friend. And now I discover the incredible amount of effort you went to in Slovenia to mail Birgit's packages, which I am most grateful for, being one of the recipients. I know you didn't write this post to earn a pat on the back, but I am at this very moment determining how I might return the kindness to you anyway.

For such a teensy little thing, you certainly are intrepid, resourceful, and steadfast in your resolve. My hat is already off to you for driving around Europe on these long trips by yourself -- but I doff it to you again for going above and beyond the call of duty on these trips, doing favors for your fellow perfumistas and then writing so entertainingly about it. Pixie physique aside, I think you might be ready to take on PureDistance Antonia now. ;) If you have used up your sample, let me know and I'll send you some.

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

I was very touched by your comments, and apologies again for Blogger's ongoing bad behaviour. I wish I knew how I could influence that, though past experience suggests it may mysteriously right itself at some point.

I must say that I was more than happy to undertake my mail mission without expectation of anything further in return. That said, as I can see myself using up my Antonia sample quite soon, I will PM you about your kind offer of another one. Just a smidge, mind you, as befits a "teensy little thing"!

Undina said...


As one of the lucky recepients in that story I want to use that occasion to thank you.

When I read first that you planned to send it from Slovenia I didn't have too much hope it would ever show up. I'm glad I was wrong and I enormously enjoyed reading your report on the whole process. You are a real friend! :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

You are very welcome. I hope Birgit can find a long term solution for her mail outs (seems like she is encountering further problems with the Austrian postal service). I would certainly be happy to oblige next time I am passing.

Which reminds me - I am in Switzerland at the end of the month, which also has quite pricy postal rates. If anyone is out there with a load of packages, I have a comfortable weight limit on Easyjet and am back in the UK within a few days!

: - )

Anonymous said...

Oh, Bonkers! I so love your blog. Thanks for many laughs during the course of this post.

Vanessa said...

Hi anotherperfumeblog,

Thanks so much! I'm glad I raised a chuckle. I guess that's pretty much why I write. I love perfume and travel, and both are handy vehicles for general silliness.

Martha said...

As a slave to Postal Regulation Phobia, I of course had to post to express my admiration for your bravery. If I were in your place, I would have pictured stern-faced government representatives waiting for my return to the post office, prepared to interview or quite likely arrest me.

Vanessa said...

Howdy ChickenFreak,

Haha! It is true that even in relatively lax Britain it is illegal to retrieve items of mail from the mailbox that you have already technically posted...

My main fear though was for the recipients - ie that they might have their customs form-less parcels intercepted and ripped open, the contents discarded at best, or at worst used as evidence in a court appearance, where they would stand charges of moral turpitude and importing hazardous goods.