Tag Archive | post office

French Friday #55: La Poste

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.

Main post office in Rueil. At least the building is cool.

Main post office in Rueil. At least the building is cool.

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.

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.