It took two countries and a whole month to mail my Patrons’ postcards. Conquering a foreign postal system is one of the hardest things you can do other than trying to get a work permit.
In Buenos Aires, I bought postcards but never got up the courage to attempt a post office trip. I say “courage,” because doing anything when you don’t speak the language takes courage, but also because dealing with the post office in the United States is hard enough.
No one is ever happy. There’s never enough time. There’s always a line. There are never any pens when you need one. If you don’t have something filled out correctly or on time, you have to start all over and go to the back of the line.
One time, after a few years of living in Austin, I went home to Arkansas. I remember being so shocked that my mom actually liked going to the post office. She knew all the postal workers. They smiled. They conversed. They even helped her buy a box and fill out the address information right there at the counter! But most of my post office experiences rank up there with getting my wisdom teeth removed.
For some reason, I thought it would be fun to promise to send monthly postcards to people who support Little Spoon Book for $5/mo or more. I didn’t think about the fact that I might not be able to just buy a stamp and drop the card in the mail, but, instead, would have to traverse hill and dale to learn how to mail a postcard.
In Buenos Aires, we were told not to have anything sent to us because the odds of it making it to us were around 0%. We heard stories of people who ordered packages which got held up in customs and required a release fee, but the customs notifications didn’t arrive in time for the people to go pay the fees, and the items got returned to sender. So no way did I have confidence that anything would get out of the country.
I did find a post office in my neighbor, but then I learned that mailing a postcard was going to cost $5! 5 USD! So, I opted out of that and promised that I’d try again in Lima.
It took four weeks to mail the postcards from Lima. It’s not that I procrastinated for a month; it’s that it took four separate tries.
It’s called Serpost. I easily found it on Google Maps. I didn’t look up the hours, but I was going to be nearby for another outing, so I thought I’d stop by to see if they were open. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday, and it was clear from across the street that they were closed.
I went home and looked up the hours. Google said they were open Monday-Saturday, 8am-8pm. “Well, that gives me plenty of opportunities,” I thought. (Protip: don’t trust Google.)
One night after work, I walked the twenty minutes to Serpost. Closed again. But this time, I noticed the hours on a piece of paper taped to the window.
LUNES A VIERNES 9:00-17:00. SABADO 8:00-15:30.
Okay, I was making progress.
I took the Thursday morning off work before my Central lunch. I figured I could run some errands that could only happen during the week like mailing these damn postcards. I was gonna get this done! I rounded the corner and—IT WAS OPEN! THANK GOD!
It was a tiny room, maybe 300 sq ft, with a tiny counter. An older woman with long gray hair was behind the counter but busy doing something. She saw me walk in but didn’t say anything or stop what she was doing. “So far, this is exactly like the States,” I thought. I patiently waited for her to finish what she was doing, not wanting to disturb her lest she turned on me.
Finally, she acknowledged me, and I pushed the postcards across the counter. She did some addition on her calculator and said “60 soles.” I pushed my credit card toward her, so excited that these cards were about to go to their forever homes. The woman shook her head and said, “Cash only.”
My heart sank. I didn’t have any cash with me, and I didn’t have time to go to the atm, because I had to make it to Central within the hour. I turned, defeated once again, and left.
The fourth time, I tasted sweet sweet victory. I had all the weapons: I knew the hours (although, part of me was afraid it was a holiday I was unaware of), I had the cash, and I had the cards. I walked into that Serpost like I owned the place.
I greeted the same woman loudly, “HOLA!”
What happened next was a dream: I pushed my cards through the slot. She ran her calculations. I slid 60 soles her direction. She accepted it. My heart melted with relief. I WON THE POST OFFICE.
What happened next was a nightmare: She spoke to me in Spanish.
The thing I’ve come to realize when you’re in a country that doesn’t speak your language is that you don’t know how to react when you don’t understand something. Your first instinct is to respond in your own language, which you know would not be helpful. Plus, you don’t want to need your own language. You don’t want to be That Foreigner. You want to understand what is being said like normal. You want to respond like normal. You want things to be normal, but they aren’t normal. Nothing is normal! You left normal behind! So just suck it up and ask them to repeat it! But you can’t even remember how to ask them to repeat it.
While your brain is doing all this processing, your mouth, meanwhile, has stopped speaking altogether. Perhaps your eyes have gotten wider in the misguided hope that somehow you’ll visually increase the foreign audio capacity in your brain. It doesn’t work. It never works. Now things are awkward. Now they’ve either given up and moved on or fallen into English which was absolutely the last thing you wanted to force them to do.
Eventually, you learn to pick a word that will be The Word you instinctually blurt out when you don’t understand something. You practice it in the mirror long enough to have it become habit. You don’t want to have to think about it. You don’t want to have to think about what it means or how it sounds. You just want to buy yourself enough time to hear whatever they said again in the hopes that the second or third time you’ll comprehend it.
It usually doesn’t work, but it makes you feel better for trying.
So, she spoke to me in Spanish. All I caught was “ten days.” My eyes did the wide thing and my face did the frozen-but-trying-not-to-be-frozen thing, but all I caught was “ten days.” I didn’t know if that meant the cards should arrive in ten days or if they wouldn’t be sent until ten days, but, at this point, I didn’t really care. I had mailed the things! I had done my part! They weren’t my problem anymore! I was free!
I skipped home.
And I have received word that the cards arrived safely.
Score one: Serpost.
What have you been victorious in lately? Respond in the comments and let me know.