This post comes to you from Artesia train 9242 'Alexandre Dumas' from Milano Centrale to Paris Gare de Lyon. I am sitting in a comfortable seat with a view of the French Alps outside the window. I have a small bag under my seat and a suitcase and a rucksack sitting neatly in the luggage rack at the end of the carriage. That accounts for around a quarter of my personal possessions. The rest are … somewhere else, and, courtesy of the Poste Italiane, I have no idea when I'm likely to see them again.
The Post Office in Italy is almost legendary. In the UK, people pop into the post office for a few minutes in their lunch break, or maybe allow half an hour or so to complete a complicated transaction. In Italy, you take the morning off work to go.
Knowing that sending my things from Italy to France was never going to be simple, I started doing my research months ago. Most of my friends were away from Milan for the summer, so I was expecting to be on my own. Companies like DHL and FedEx were expensive and posed the unusual but awkward problem of being able to get my stuff to Paris faster than I could get there myself, so I decided to use a service provided by the Post Office called Paccocelere that would ship the things in around 2 days. After reading about it on the internet, I went to the main post office in my area to check that it was indeed the service I wanted.
Alarm bells should perhaps have started ringing when the man behind the counter had never heard of Paccocelere and had to check the post office website himself to find out what it was. However, he confirmed that I could use it to send “personal effects” such as clothes and books and gave me a large bundle of forms to fill out so that I could prepare my shipment in advance, and I went home to book my trip to Scotland and my train to France based on a timescale of 2 days and allowing a few extra days in case things got held up. I wasn't able to leave any more time because I need to go back to Italy at the beginning of August to work at summer camp, but I figured that was pretty reasonable.
I was expecting to have to take the boxes to the post office in a taxi because nobody I knew who was still in Milan had a car but luckily (perhaps the only lucky part of the whole story) my friend S. came back for the weekend and offered to take me in her car. We planned to go to the post office about eleven and meet another friend, J., for lunch around one, allowing what seemed like a very sensible two hours to complete the process, but we got held up by S. sleeping in and me running out of parcel tape and taking over an hour to fill out the three forms that had to accompany each of the five boxes in triplicate. As instructed by Mr Post Office Man, I wrote “effetti personali” on the customs declaration and S. said I could use her address as the return address on the ominous part that said “In case of failed delivery a) return the shipment to me at my expense or b) abandon the shipment.”
We decided to go for lunch first and then tackle the post office, and poor J. innocently offered to help. So, around 2.30, we headed to the post office and between the three of us, managed to pile up the boxes in a small space by the door. I took a number from the machine and, after a surprisingly short wait, was called to the counter and explained what I wanted to do.
The woman, who we will call Ms Slightly Too Efficient, looked at the customs declaration.
“You can't just put 'effetti personali'. You have to be specific. What's in the boxes?”
Confident that I was not attempting to ship grappa, explosives or child ponography, I replied, “Just clothes, books and some kitchen equipment. I'm moving house.”
“Let me just check that for you.” She typed a few things into the computer. “You can't use Paccocelere to send these things.”
She turned the computer screen towards me and sure enough, there it was in bold red letters. You are not allowed to send your own used clothes into France using Paccocelere.
Another post office worker, who we will call Ms Know It All, confirmed that this was indeed the case.
I started to panic. Was I not allowed to take any clothes to France at all? Would I have to arrive with nothing but the clothes on my back and kit myself out with an immediate trip to the Rue de Rivoli? It turned out, however, that you can send used clothes by road freight but not by air.
The mind boggles as to what spectacular fusion of French and Italian bureaucracy might have produced that rule. (A friend later told me that Germany has an equally bizarre rule that says that you can't send anything wrapped in polystyrene into Germany for environmental reasons, despite the fact that the Germans are perfectly at liberty to manufacture and export polystyrene themselves.) Road freight, however, was not enough to solve my problem by itself, however, because by the time the stuff arrived, I would be gone. Nevertheless, I collected another pile of forms to fill in and went to talk to my friends about what to do. J. lives outside of Milan and S. was going away on holiday again that night, so there wasn't a lot they could do to help, but S. suggested going into school to phone my landlord in France and see if I could send the shipment to his address instead of mine.
So we left poor J. at the post office guarding the boxes and S. and I went to school. I spoke to the landlord, but he was going on holiday. I phoned FedEx to see if they could store the things for me for a day but they couldn't. Another friend, M., offered to send a FedEx shipment from the school for me once I was gone, so I phoned them again but they couldn't do a pick up at the right time. Time was running out. School was closing and J. had been at the post office for almost an hour. The only solution was for my landlord to ask one of my neighbours to help me after I arrived. So I decided to send my worldly goods off into the blue.
By 4 o'clock, we were back at the post office. My three extremely tolerant and understanding friends helped me to fill out the new forms in record time, all three of them scribbling away around a tiny table, and eventually I was once again called to the counter. To Mr Post Office Man Number One. He almost told me to send the shipment using Paccocelere, which I would have willingly taken the risk and done (rules are flexible in Italy) but then I was directed to another counter where Mr Post Office Man 2 was waiting. He too almost let me use Paccocelere, and without the customs declaration too, but Ms Know It All was looking over his shoulder and said accusingly, “These are the people who wanted to use Paccocelere before but they can't because there are old clothes in the boxes.” So the ironically named “Quick Pack” road-freight service it was. (Perhaps tellingly, Mr POM2 had no idea what “Quick Pack” actually meant.)
The computer system was down so he had to write my receipts himself with a pen that J. lent him because why would a post office supply their staff with pens? Halfway through the transaction, he told me that, despite the fact that this was a large Post Office operating a banking service, I couldn't pay with my debit card. Having heard this before, I had had the presence of mind to bring my cheque book. Nope, no cheques either. Only cash or a Post Office bank card. Which would have been OK if the cash machine had been working when I went to the bank in the morning, but it wasn't. And only my own bank would let me take out enough money at once to pay for the shipment.
But once again, S. was there to save me. “I'll pay. I've got cash,” she said.
“Have you really? “ I said in disbelief."It's going to be about 500 euros." But she did. Italy being a third world country that has somehow managed to slip its way into the EU and the G8*, she had received her child benefit in cash that morning.
There was one last hurdle to overcome. When all the boxes were finally weighed, labelled, customs declared and paid for, Mr POM2 gave me a handful of “receipts”. Being the bottom carbon copy of three from a top copy that had been written by hand, they were almost illegible and certainly didn't look like anything I could hand to my new employer to claim as expenses. I politely asked him if it was possible to have a receipt for the total amount that somebody with less than second sight would be able to read. Instead of either giving me one or politely saying “no,” he decided to take this as an insinuation that he hadn't done his job properly, was planning to steal my money and was consigning the packets to the fires of hell. Sally and Maggie being fluent in Italian, the whole very Italian experience ended with a loud argument before we said our polite goodbyes and headed to the bar.
So I am cursing my foolish decision to put any trust in the Italian post office, but feeling eternally grateful to my wonderful friends who gave up their whole afternoon to help me out. And please, hold your thumbs, cross your fingers or pray that my boxes get there, preferably by the end of the week, but if not, the middle of August will do. Thank you.
*Harsh, but under the circumstances, also quite fair.