The past two weeks in my French lessons, I regaled my students with tales of the French post office, complete with all the appropriate vocabulary they would need to navigate the perils of La Poste (well, not all the vocabulary they’d need; I still haven’t taught them any cuss words yet). I’ve told you all a little of our own experiences in French Friday #33. Every country mocks its own postal system, but it’s something else to experience another one altogether. The phrase “going postal” entered the American vernacular after a spate of shootings in the 90s were perpetrated by uncontrollably angry postal workers and now describes anyone overcome by a fit of rage. In France, it would have to mean someone who was overcome by an uncontrollable bout of apathy. Will your mail reach its destination? Peut-être. Do they care? Non.
Entering La Poste was an exercise in self-control. Don’t plan on it being a quick trip. Don’t plan on successfully accomplishing what you came in to do. Then, if one or the other does happen, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and leave with a song in your heart and a spring in your step. Ok, that might be pushing it a little bit. One of the more frustrating things about conducting your business in La Poste was that it also functions as a bank (Why would you want to entrust your money to a place that is notorious for losing things?). But instead of having a separate line for banking transactions the poor saps waiting in line to pick up packages and buy stamps have to cool their heels behind the guy who wants to make a deposit into savings and withdraw this much from checking and then have a money order printed out. Then, oh yeah, by the way, he also wants to mail this box to Singapore. So you, as one of those poor saps in line, learn to go zen. Time ceases to matter in La Poste. They will not break me.
We do have to give credit to La Poste for their brilliant combination of lassitude and efficiency. On a wall outside of most post offices, you will find a bank of mail slots, each meticulously labeled. The first slot will be for that particular town. The second will be for a couple of nearby towns. The third will be for the rest of the département (similar to a county). The fourth will be for elsewhere in France. The fifth for the rest of Europe and the sixth for further abroad. It’s pretty handy, but you see what they did there, don’t you? You’re sorting the mail for them. And you don’t even get paid! Tricky. Little corner mailboxes have similarly labeled slots, but only three at most.
Pictured below is a French mail truck. This one happened to be delivering mail in the hamlet at Versailles. If you are in the centre ville of any town, though, you are more likely to see young people in their 20s on yellow bicycles weighed down with mail saddlebags. Much easier to maneuver through narrow streets and lean up against a building to deliver mail to separate apartment buildings.
I do want to add that not all French postal workers act like they have better things to do than interact with you needy package-sending people. I hated going to the main post office in Rueil, but the little office up the hill on Mont Valérien was much better. The employees were more accommodating and the line was usually shorter. But if all you need are some stamps, skip La Poste altogether and find a local tabac ; they’ll sell any that you need, plus a bus ticket to get you home.