On the whole the French postal system (La Poste) is one of the few public services in France that does have a good reputation. Or at least that’s what I thought. I did a little research on the subject and found that this might need to be qualified somewhat. Here’s what I learnt from scanning several websites:
‘Post offices emblazoned with dashing bright yellow La Poste signs are generally open 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 9:00 a.m. to noon on Saturday.’
But then I read:
‘Don’t depend on these hours!’
In our experience this is a sensible caveat. It’s true that in smaller towns and villages the post offices may close earlier and, often unexpectedly, for lunch. This can leave customers milling around confused, undecided on whether to join the post office workers for an extra-long lunch, or give up and come back another day.
If one is lucky enough to chance upon an open post office, a further thorn in the side comes in the form of waiting times. I referred back to my research which states that:
‘In Paris the main post office is open 24 hours.’ (Bravo!)
Equally, clients are advised to:
‘Avoid lunch hours and late afternoon, when office workers are dealing with business customers who create endless lines.’
In the countryside we don’t have quite so much inconvenience from business traffic, but we do have the local tittle-tattle to deal with. Particularly on Mondays, the priority is always focused on getting up to speed on births, deaths, the weather and any seasonal bugs that might be trying to incapacitate the population. In a rural environment, where time pressures are not quite the same as the trading floor of the London Stock Exchange, the inevitable periods of unnecessary waiting are generally regarded as a feature of local life. The cheery internet advice is to try to view this minor inconvenience as an opportunity:
‘Waiting times are sometimes necessary (without a seat) on busy days. Nevertheless, the queues provide everyone with plenty of chances to gossip!’
The one (and only) time I sent my husband, Jack, to the post office with a parcel he returned looking as though he had lost the will to live. Apparently this was due to “being there longer than it would take to do a full 15,000 mile car service,” and the added trauma of “being drawn into chatter that should have been reserved for a tabloid’s agony aunt.”
A further claim to fame is that France has one of the highest number of post boxes of any country in the world. This is marvellous, if one could only manage to put the intended mail item into them. There are two challenges that face the would-be sender. First, the post box is usually very small, so anything other than an ultra-slim standard-sized envelope or postcard simply won’t go in without a fight. The other problem is that rural post boxes are often already stuffed full, so one ends up spending an inordinate amount of time trying to thread the end of the envelope between a stack of others, or turning it into a sausage and spearing it down one side. These techniques can work, but at a cost to the envelope which, I dare say, looks fairly tattered by the time it reaches its destination.
In a typically French way La Poste offers clear guidelines on how to create a successfully addressed envelope, i.e. one that might end up being delivered. These rules forbid the use of commas in the address, and clearly define the proper use of upper and lower case characters. These well-known rules also explain why I occasionally see our post lady looking askance at some of the post we receive from England.
So, to give your French mail the best chances of reaching its destination, just follow these tips:
1. Try to use special envelopes with an address box for your handwritten letters.
2. Use six lines maximum to write the address, with a maximum of 38 characters per line.
3. Never put a comma, full stop, apostrophe, underline or dash anywhere in the address.
4. On the final line put the postcode before the name of the town or city and always use capitals, for the name. Write the five numbers of the postcode very distinctly. If you are not sure what the postcode is, then ask at your local post office. Failure to do this may result in your envelope getting delayed or lost.
5. Write your own address on the back flap of the envelope near the top. But, be sure to mark it expéditeur (sender), otherwise, it could end in tears.
This latter point I learnt to my cost when, on one occasion I dutifully entered my address in neat, tiny letters on the back of my envelope and carefully eased it into the box. Two days later my letter re-appeared in our post box. This was foxing. The destination address was correct, so I took it to the local post office to ask where I had gone wrong. After a moment of scrutiny, and with magnificent disdain, monsieur frisbee’ed my envelope back to me with the obvious explanation. I had failed to write expéditeur next to the return address, so how could La Poste possibly be expected to know which address to use?
La Poste also prides itself on processing and delivering parcels efficiently. And now, it seems, inventively. It is currently considering the use of drones to enhance the service normally undertaken by humans. I read up on this too:
‘Tests, conducted recently in collaboration with the company Atechsys at La Poste’s special test site in the Var, southern France, used a six-propeller drone able to carry loads of up to 16 inches by 12 inches by eight inches in size and weighing up to nine pounds in all weathers and terrains within a 12-mile radius. (Note the typical precision in the parcel dimension and weight.) The idea is to be able to fly the drones in remote areas or places difficult to reach by car – up very steep roads, down hillsides and areas with few roads and over water.’
According to a local newspaper, the subsidiary testing this service, Express Internationale GeoPost, seems to be happy with the results. Geopost reports, ‘We now know that we can reach isolated zones very rapidly.’ Furthermore, ‘It’s very interesting, notably for urgent medical needs or blood deliveries,’ it said.
Although this does seem to be an excellent idea, in theory, I would have severe concerns about the survival of such an object in our rural community. Hunting is a passion here. Most anything with fur or feathers (unless it has a sign ‘cat’, ‘dog’, ‘farm animal’, or ‘neighbour’ stuck on its back) is fair game. I certainly wouldn’t put it past one or two of the more mature, less keen-sighted, amongst our shooting fraternity to accidentally blast one out of the sky with his 12 bore.
Whilst the parcel service provided by La Poste may be good, and quite similar to the UK, the quality of contract delivery companies can be extremely varied. When we first moved to our house, which admittedly is in the depths of the country, the only person we could rely upon completely was our trusty post lady. She would, without fail and despite a worn-out hip, stride up to our door and present our packages with great aplomb, and some drama. Deliveries from the other service companies were different, and usually preceded by a telephone call saying, “How do I find your house?” What followed would be a lengthy, but generally unproductive, description of how to get from where they were, to where we are. And, in most cases, the end result was that they never actually arrived, or gave up and told us to meet them at the local Mairie (town hall) where we could collect the parcel ourselves. I think the technical term for this might be ‘couldn’t be bothered.’
Nowadays virtually all the delivery drivers know where we are, and we rarely have to visit the Mairie to collect our deliveries. However, and again much like the UK, it appears that anything marked ‘fragile’ means it must be thrown underarm and stored underneath heavier items for stability and safekeeping (crushed).
In the case of one particular firm, who mostly handle our dog food orders, I’m convinced that they throw our parcels out of the van’s window as they drive past. This leaves us, and the dogs, dealing with the aftermath. Happy dogs playing 'find the dried pigs' ears, dental chews and croquettes games', and unhappy customers trying to salvage what's left of the ensuing canine-related carnage. On several occasions I have been sorely tempted to offer the delivery drivers a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ regarding the careful handling of packages, but I’ve so far failed to zip out there quickly enough to intercept them. Jack’s position on the matter, probably due to spending too much time in the States, is to tip them. That way they’ll always arrive at the door with a pristine parcel and an expression of eager anticipation. All very well but, in the case of this particular firm, I still have to catch them to start the process.
But it is on the subject of sending parcels that I have encountered the most recent difficulties. I took three nicely wrapped packages to our local La Poste to be despatched to overseas destinations. I’m always a little anxious about doing this job because, apart from anything else, I have great trouble in actually getting in. The doors are securely locked, and entry is activated by the client pressing a nifty little button which alerts the post master, who then releases the lock. Seems simple? Well it isn’t. I can spend quite a long time prodding and pressing to no avail, and then ending up waving pathetically at the post master in my efforts to attract his attention. It really doesn’t make any difference whether the post office is full or not. The electronics never seem to work for me and contacting monsieur by semaphore is difficult. This regular routine of mine is made all the more tense because our post master is extremely fierce. When I finally gain entry he habitually glares at me over the top of his tiny reading glasses, nostrils flared and giant moustache fanning out either side of his grimly-set mouth. With a resigned expression, and looking rather fatigued, he will reluctantly spit out the words, “Bonjour madame.” Our encounters have never begun well.
So, on this occasion, after I had fought my way in I saw that there were no other customers present. Perfect! This meant I had neatly avoided the chit-chat brigade who, lovely though they may be, can spend hours talking about nothing in particular.
I walked up to the counter, made my usual apologies for general button-related ineptitude, and placed my parcels on the counter. It all went severely downhill from there.
Monsieur (sitting on a very low stool) took my parcels and dropped them theatrically on his side of the safety glass partition. Taking one look at the addresses the conversation went like this:
Monsieur: “Ooh là là!”
Me: “Is there something wrong monsieur?”
Monsieur: (Grave wagging of head.) “Ooh là là! là LÀ. Where are you sending these?”
Me: “Two to England, and one to New Zealand. Erm, what’s wrong monsieur?”
Re-focusing on the parcels he did a double take at the words ‘Nouvelle-Zélande’ and clutched the edges of the counter, staring goggle-eyed at the address labels. His expression a mask of horror. I genuinely thought that he was about to pass out.
Monsieur: “But this is not possible!”
Me: “Oh sorry, oh dear… But why not?”
Monsieur: “But these, they are far too heavy and too thick. Look!”
With that he proceeded to squash one of the packages energetically. Suddenly he stopped, looked at me, and then rather more cautiously, started feeling the package all over – tracing an outline with his digit. I could guess what he was thinking, and for no reason at all other than nervous tension, I felt I needed to explain.
Me: “Oh I think that’s a big dog bone you can feel. My friend Gill has a very big dog and it’s for him.”
He gave me a searching look, muttered “Bizarre” to himself and started to frisk the other parcels. Apparently, other than the weight and the fact that I was insisting on sending them somewhere other than la France, he could find nothing terminally wrong. Faintly vanquished, he gave me a huge lecture about the problems with the changed postal regulations in France, all the new documents and the increased postage costs; all of which were causing him a great deal of extra work. In the middle of this rant the buzzer sounded to alert him that a new customer was trying to get in. Clearly irritated, he tutted, then completely ignored it. Further, more staccato buzzes indicted that the customer really did want to come in. With a huge sigh and a loud “Merde!” (shit!) he pressed his button to allow the offender to enter.
Things then got a bit more complicated because, with the door now wide open, about ten new customers walked in, all chatting merrily, and carefully holding open the door for each other. This obviously irritated him because they hadn’t observed the proper security rules that required them to buzz individually. Eventually satisfied that the old ladies probably weren’t about to commit an armed robbery, but still thoroughly annoyed, he turned his attention back to me. He thrust a wad of forms into my hand and told me to fill them in at the table on the other side of the room. As I dutifully followed orders, with all seven triplicated forms in hand, I had a moment of regret. With this sudden influx of clients, I knew my strategic advantage, which might have allowed me a quick getaway, was now doomed.
Meanwhile the clients had started a riveting debate about the emerging mushroom crop and were becoming rather rowdy. Poor monsieur. He ended up having a devil of a job trying to restore order and work out which customer he should handle first. Nobody took a blind bit of notice of him until he stood up and banged his fist on the counter top. This caused a momentary pause in the debate, and one lady reluctantly peeled herself away from the thoroughly engrossing discussion, and took out her envelope to be stamped.
Monsieur had dealt with about eight customers by the time I had filled in my forms, so I took my place at the back of the queue and waited. Then the buzzer went again. Monsieur steadfastly ignored it which led me to conclude that he was obviously not a multi-tasker. But, of course, it kept buzzing because the client still hadn’t gained entry. To make matters worse the client then started knocking on the door. This caused monsieur further anguish. He glowered accusingly at the security door and stabbed his entry button. Unfortunately it seems that the customer had been knocking just at the very moment when monsieur hit the door release button, so the magical timing opportunity to open the door was lost, and precisely nothing happened. ‘Ah well, at least there’s another of us who struggles to master the open-door system,’ I briefly thought.
The buzzer sounded again, persistently now, then immediately followed by more banging. I could see that poor monsieur’s nerves were close to maxing-out as the pattern of buzz, bang, door-release-button-push activity consistently failed to allow the customer in. It had to happen – Monsieur snapped. Puce with rage, he jumped up, grabbed a big key and walked out of his office area. I think we could all hear what he was saying in the corridor. Moments later he appeared through the front door with his equally dishevelled customer, and order began to be restored.
My (second) turn finally arrived, and I re-presented my parcels together with neatly filled in forms. He grabbed them from me and studied my work. Then his moustaches started quivering at the end. I was convinced that he was going to burst in to tears. Now what had I done wrong?
Monsieur: “Madame, but this one is wrong. Look!”
With that he jumped up again and flattened his moustaches against the security glass in his endeavours to show me the error of my ways. Unfortunately the glass could not mask the fact that he had eaten garlic for breakfast, but at least it prevented him from landing on my lap. In mid stab of the chitty he stared wildly around him and muttered “Merde! Wrong form!” With no apologies for the fact that he had supplied it, he hurled it in the bin and produced a replacement set and pointed at the table. There was nothing for it, I had to return to my seat and start all over again. At least it was only for one parcel this time.
After what seemed like a very long time, I returned to the counter with new form duly filled in.
Monsieur: “This is better. But you know the parcels they are too thick. There are different regulations when they are this thick.”
Me: “Monsieur, I really don’t think they’re that thick.”
Monsieur: “Oh là là, madame, but this one for the dog it is more than three centimetres thick, I am certain.”
Me: “Oh dear, well never mind, I want them to go as they are please.”
Monsieur: (Muttering “Bizarre” again under his breath.) “I see, very well. And is there anything else you would like today?”
By this stage I was surprised that we were still ‘today’, and quickly shook my head. The prospect of asking for a book of ten stamps was simply too risky to contemplate. With a wonderfully diffident French shrug of the shoulders monsieur proceeded to perform a tap dance with his fingers on the calculator. He presented me with a bill that I felt sure belonged to our entire group, but reached for my wallet anyway, just thankful that our transactions were nearly at an end. Monsieur presented me with my two cents change and wagged his head sorrowfully.
Monsieur: “The next time madame, you must not have the fat parcels that weigh too much.”
As usual I found myself apologising profusely for my insensitive oversight, thanked him for his kindness, wished him ‘goodnight’ and hurried out of the door.
The happy end to this story is that, in spite of my poorly completed documents, each of the recipients received their parcels. They were sent speedily and arrived intact, and Gill’s big dog loved his bone. Unlike monsieur, I wouldn’t have wanted to change my parcels at all, and I am grateful that the French postal system is every bit as efficient as it is reputed to be.
My experiences at La Poste that day weren’t entirely unique. But they do present another example of what it’s like to live in our part of France. A place that’s rich in eccentric personalities, and simple living. That’s why we love it so much.