Fun and frustration at the Modern French Post Office

I haven’t been out of the house for a while so despite the grey overcast this morning I thought I’d go out for a bike ride. We’ve also had some post sitting around over the weekend, because there’s no collection after 9.30 on Friday. It seemed fair that I make the Post Office run on the way out.

By the time I eventually made it out of the house the overcast had started tentative gestures towards that fine, misting rain. The kind that soaks you through. No problem, I had my sweat lodge bomber jacket and some old jeans on.

I was at the Post Office in two minutes. It all looked good. The car park was half empty. I just propped my bike against the wall, not bothering with the lock. I only needed 3 stamps for 3 envelopes. If they weren’t busy I’d be in and out in no time.

A woman already stood at the counter, steadily working along a list of transactions. The post lady was operating at her usual glacial speed. It looked like I’d have to adjust my estimate to being out in next to no time.

Just as it seemed they’d done everything, there was an innocent spark of an idea this side of the glass.

“Oh and I think I’ll have a booklet of stamps please.”

On the far side of the glass this starts a pantomime of fumbling and sorting. When the booklet is found it’s the size of an old style strip of passport photos. The post lady operates the till with one hand and unconsciously waves the stamps in the air with the other. I feel as if I’ve taken a trip back to the 70s and I’m watching a teenager and her friend discover the photo-booth.

At the little desk off to one side of the counter, an older couple sat filling in one of the French Post Office’s endless supply of carbonless-copy forms.

The tension began to mount. Obviously the older couple had arrived before me. If they’d already even spoken to the post lady then politeness would demand that I let them go first. But they were obviously struggling with whatever it was they were doing. I only needed a minute, maybe less. If the person at the counter would just get a move on, I could be straight up to the glass and back outside. Being slowly soaked through to the skin.

Inevitably, the exact moment “have a good day” was being exchanged at the counter, the older couple stood up. The wife looked at me, standing dutifully behind the yellow line with my meagre bundle of letters, then back at her husband.

“Oh if the m’sieur …”

“No, no,” I said, gesturing to the counter.

After all, from their body language they’d already had their opening chat with the post lady. She’d given them some kind of standard multiple-sheet carbonless form, and now they’d filled it in. I’d be fine.

How did I get to be so old and still so naive?

The single carbonless form was only the tip of the iceberg. The real work of the transaction was the 95 per cent hidden below the water line.

I stood, patiently. After all, as Jacqueline pointed out later, I had nowhere else I urgently needed to go.

I stood fascinated by the back of Monsieur Takeyourtime’s angry pink right ear. The micropore tape that was holding the gauze over something he had caught or done was slowly giving up its will to stick.

If I’d been in the casually impersonal environment of an English Post Office, or supermarket, I would have just plugged my iPod back in and left them to it. In French shops from the opening “Bonjour” there’s no escape from being institutionally noticed by staff and other customers, and I’m oddly reluctant to do this.

Eavesdropping was the only other reasonable option. As the chat passed back and forth through the bulletproof glass, what I originally assumed was a high value cash withdrawal from their Post Office account turned out to be an 800 euro bill payment. Mercilessly the post lady added 10.50 euros in Post Office handling charges.

Monsieur Takeyourtime hunched at the counter and seemed to be trying to push his face through the little access gap above the money tray.

Off to one side, like a surreal cabaret act, Madam Takeyourtime struggled with a thin wad of torn paper. Once upon a time I’m sure it had been a printout of something related to the transaction they were making, the same sort of sealed, secure, multi-layered printout as a modern payslip or the notification of a new credit card PIN. She’d obviously fallen at the starting blocks and failed to grasp the basic principles of opening it. She’d peeled it, so what she was now holding looked like a thin paper banana, with ragged strips of different layers torn in half and hanging loose.

While I watched she tried to even up the remains of the document. She found the perforations along one short end and purred off the thin strip of glued layers. Pleased with her success, she decided to apply the same process to every straight edge. She tore along the thick strip that in most cases forms the spine behind the main fold in the middle of the opened sheet. Pinching with her fingers and tearing, then pinching some more and tearing, she worked along the other edges, like someone nervous pulling apart a beer mat.

Matters came to a head. Monsieur’s face popped back from the money tray. Madam decided she needed an envelope to manage her handful of paper shreds. By now thy were obviously just beaten to the point they would just throw money away, because very little comes free across the counter at  French Post Office. That envelope will have gone on the bill. They retreated back to the little side table.

My moment had arrived and I seized it.

“Two of these are for England, the other one is for France.”

I passed the envelopes through to the other side of the glass and they were duly weighed in the official Post Office balance.

“2 euros 13.”

I may criticise the cost of a lot of things in France, but two airmail letters to England and a letter to CPAM, the French health service, in Montpelier for under 2 quid is a bargain in my book!

With a single “Good day”, I was free! My bike ride could begin!

Typically, it was raining properly by then. Still, it was only a water. I’d be generating enough of that on the inside of the non-pourous sweat lodge jacket before too long.

I plugged in the iPod, tuned into a reading of very funny turn of the century American short story about top hats that help drunks to walk in a straight line, and did my circuit of the vineyards.

Now let me turn your attention back to that letter to CPAM, the French NHS. The thing is, in September we applied to take up our entitlement to a year’s courtesy cover as former paid up members of the English NHS. It’s the sort of thing expat memoirs and forums describe at length as a nightmare of French bureaucracy.

We got off to a very good start, then hit a hurdle. I was told I’d been given a temporary membership, but they’d lost all Jacqueline’s documents. A couple of phone calls later Jacqueline’s paperwork was sorted out and in no time she had her proper Carte Vitale photo ID. In the meantime, my application seemed to have been lost in the shuffle. Despite a couple of phone calls , all we were told was “you need to be patient”.

We waited through November. We knew the key indication my application had moved on would be a letter asking for my passport photo. It didn’t appear. We waited some more. Christmas happened.

At the end of last week we decided we’d waited long enough. We’d just have to write to CPAM and try to get some action. Jacqueline typed out the letter and it sat on the shelf on the landing so we’d get it in the post today. That’s why I was so determined to get through the Post Office experience earlier.

Now here’s a funny thing.

When I lived in London, before I could drive, I had to use public transport. To get home from Hammersmith to Harrow I had to take a tube and then a bus, and these were the good old days when they didn’t have the digital panels at bus stops to tell you when the next one is due. I’d often end up standing outside the tube station for about half an hour, which wouldn’t have been so bad but I could’ve walked home in less than that! By the time you’ve waited twenty minutes, though, you think, oh sod it, I might as well wait till the bus comes.

These were the days when I smoked. Please try not to let the reminder that I used to have a filthy habit get in the way of a perfectly good observation. They were also already the days when you couldn’t smoke on a bus. Not even on the top deck. It wasn’t a problem, I could usually wait until I got home to spark up. On nights when I’d had a particularly long wait, though, and usually for no better reason than something to do, I’d decide to have a smoke at the bus stop. And just as I’d light up a cigarette is the exact moment the bus would come round the corner.

It’s what I always think of as the cigarette at the bus-stop conundrum. The point being, you wait and wait for something to happen, and then just after you give up waiting and commit to doing something else, whatever you were waiting for happens.

With my letter securely in the post and my bike ride finished I had a shower, we made a coffee sat down to watch a documentary that was on TV last night about French businesses that sell hand made crafts from home. It’s a boom, apparently. Loads of people making a small living.

Quite late in the day, at about quarter past 1, we heard the postman’s motorscooter making its distinctive stop-start progress along the road. There was a “clack” on the hall floor and Jacqueline bounced off to see who’d remembered us today.

Laughing, Jacqueline dropped my CPAM photo ID request letter in my lap. Literally the day I put my “Why oh why …” letter in the post.

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