French Friday #33: They’re all worse.

When Mr. Gren and I moved to France in 2003, we packed up the vast majority of our belongings and stored them in a friend’s garage. The position that Mr. Gren had accepted with a church just outside of Paris didn’t pay much, but did come with a furnished apartment. All we needed to bring were personal items — clothes, books, movies, and a few other things. The church gave us a few hundred dollars to defray moving costs, so we packed up thirty boxes of the aforementioned items and entrusted them to the post office, which said they should arrive at our French church’s address about six weeks later. That was in June. We had left our duplex and spent three weeks driving around the Western U.S. saying goodbye to family before it was time to catch our flight to Paris mid-July.

Our (quite spacious) apartment, furnished with a hodge-podge of items.

We weren’t terribly shocked to find that none of our boxes had arrived by the time we got there, after all, they were taking the slow boat. We had been living out of our suitcases for over a month, so another week or so wouldn’t hurt us. How naive we were. If you recall from way back at French Friday #9, France was experiencing its worst heat wave in decades. We each had five changes of clothes which were quickly soaked in sweat, and all of them were extremely casual since we had packed for a massive road trip and not everyday life.

View across the back courtyard from our apartment.

One day, mid-August, I was at home in the apartment when Mr. Gren called and said that he and Pastor Brian were on their way upstairs. I opened the door when I heard the elevator stop and saw it full of boxes. Familiar boxes! Our boxes! I helped Mr. Gren and Brian transfer the boxes into the apartment and they told me their end of the story: That morning they had received a call at the church informing them that the post office was currently in possession of several packages addressed to the church and that someone needed to come get them. In other words, it was August in France and the few postal workers unlucky enough not to be on vacation didn’t want to deliver them. Mr. Gren and Pastor Brian went to the address given them to retrieve the packages and found themselves in a sort of distribution hub for the post office. They were directed to a large bin overflowing with all kinds of boxes for the church. Some of them ours, some office supplies that had been ordered, some Sunday school curriculum that teachers had been expecting. All chucked into a bin for the past month because it looked to be too much trouble to deliver.

We realized fairly quickly, though, that not all of our boxes were present. There were only about half. No matter, though. If those ones showed up, the remainder couldn’t be far behind. Our excitement was further dampened when we began unpacking to find that these particular boxes were full of boots. And coats. And sweaters. In the middle of a heat wave. Awesome.

Streets in Rueil

Another week or so passed and still no sign of the missing boxes. I began inspecting the empty boxes to see if I could find any clues to help me track down the other ones. I happened to find a stamp with the name of the postal distribution center. I looked it up in the phone book and placed a call. Little did I know I was about to embark on one of the most frustrating and absurd series of conversations I was to have during our whole three years in France. A woman answered and was immediately on edge that a mere civilian had called the distribution center. I forged ahead and explained that I was expecting several more boxes and wondered if someone might check to see if they were there, perhaps in another bin. She informed me that she was not the person to do that. That person had already gone home for the day and I would have to call back tomorrow between 9 and noon. Fine. Just a temporary roadblock. The next morning I waited until about 10, so as not to seem eager, and my call was directed to a man. I explained the situation again and he promptly informed me that no such packages had arrived. Unless he had an incredible memory for detail, I was pretty sure he didn’t so much as get up from his desk, much less go look. Beginning to get frustrated, I asked him if there was someone who could help me track down the packages. Oh sure, he said, only too happy to pass me off on someone else.

A woman answered and once again, I explained that half of our boxes had arrived and we were trying to find the rest. The following conversation then took place (in French, bien sûr).

Her: Do you have a colis number?
Me: Um… where would I find the colis number?
Her: Well, the sender would have to give it to you.
Me: But I am the sender.
Her: No, the person who mailed you the packages.
Me: Yes, that was me. We were in America; we mailed the packages; now we’re here.
Her: Well then, you should have the colis number from the post office in America.
Me: They didn’t give me a number. I have the numbers from the customs slips…
Her: No, that won’t work. You’ll have to contact the sender to get the colis number.
Me: I AM the sender!!
Her: Sorry, madame.
Me: Is there someone else who can help me find these packages? We received some of them, so the others must be in France already, too.
Her: Well… I have some other phone numbers of people you could call. But not until after 2:00.
Me: Ok, I’ll try that.
{she gives me three phone numbers}
Me: Now, are any of these better than the others to try?

And then, the simultaneously best and worst line I’ve ever heard:

Her: No, they’re all worse.

Ils sont tous pires. I was already in tears by this time at the inane runaround and hoops I’d been forced to jump through all day. So to be informed that my final hope was “all worse” than anything I’d tried before? Well, you could say I was speechless. I feebly thanked her, hung up, and sobbed. It’s funny now, so it’s almost hard to remember how distraught I was then. That’s the good thing about time — it softens the blow after awhile.

Another street near our place in Rueil

Now that dreadful offhanded remark that seemed like a death knell at the time has become one of our favorite catchphrases.
“We don’t have time to get home for lunch. Do you want Arby’s or Taco Bell?” “Ugh, no, they’re all worse.”
“Did the kids behave for you ok today?” “No, they’re all worse.”

See how handy that is?

I can’t remember now whether those phone numbers really were all worse or not. They certainly didn’t expedite the delivery of our packages which finally arrived via one very overwhelmed mailman towards the end of September. American postal system versus the French postal system?

They’re all worse.

One thought on “French Friday #33: They’re all worse.

  1. Pingback: UFO #2: Peasant blouse | Two Frogs and a Grasshopper

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