A British-American bluestocking living in the UK writes about politics, pop culture, and emerging new paradigms as they unfold on both sides of the Atlantic. (New content.)

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Royal Mail vs. US Mail....It's not even close...

Royal Mail Worker from 194
I heard on the news today that the U.S. Postal Service is going to have a huge cut in its coffers. I was astounded. With all the money being thrown to bailout the huge corporations...why can't we bailout our own postal system? Ridiculous. It's big and its amazingly inefficient, but it is still the cheapest way to get things from Point A to Point B. And darn it....it's part of our history.

I have to admit, however, that I love the Royal Mail, the postal system in England. It hasn't always been perfect. But I tell you what, they deliver their mail....quickly. I was pleasantly surprised by their efficiency when I came here to live. I remember early on, calling a company to order an item. "Well, thank you madame, you will have your package by tomorrow afternoon...." I said, "Oh, you don't mean tomorrow afternoon surely...." "Yes, madame....that's tomorrow afternoon...." I didn't believe them. It was impossible. I had ordered it in the afternoon and the company was North of London. I lived in the Southwest of England. Well, la-di-da, The package was delivered the next afternooon. I thought it was a fluke. But it wasn't, the Royal Mail can deliver a package that quickly. My postwoman is alwaysbright and cheerful and doesn't complain when she has to bring armfuls of bulky envelopes filled with books from Amazon. The mail is bundled up with bright red elastic bands (rubber bands) and though people have complained they find them thrown everywhere by careless postpeople...my postwoman usually leaves them so I can keep them and use them later. She carries the mail in pouches on the back of a bike. She does her work so quickly that sometimes I hear the lid shut on the wooden postbox (which is outside the front door) and by the time I go to open the door, she has disappeared. She is slight in build and wears a bicycle helmet and one days that I am fast enough I can see her zoom up the hill away from my house with her hair flying behind her. Sometimes, I can see her bright orange vest against the green of the ridge above my house as she makes her round to the neighbors on the adjoining road. I have also seen her soaked to the bone in those English rainstorms that spring out of nowhere and still smiling and doing her job. I am so grateful for all she does.

Now, the Royal Mail has sometimes mangled my packages and in them I usually find a polite note: "We are so sorry that your package was damaged...can we make it up to you and have you round for a cup of tea?" Okay, well that last part was made-up, but they do have the grace to apologize when they mess up.

When I was a child, in America, the postman was a family friend. I remember running to meet him when I was expecting a package or a letter from a boyfriend. I used to sit on the family stoop and wait for him to walk up the street with his huge leather bag. After a while, they started to use small cars to deliver the mail. It wasn't as personal, but they must have welcomed the change from having to haul the mail themselves. But is the US Mail slow? Yes, it is. You can argue, "Well, England is smaller than America, you know." Yes, that's true. But I once mailed a letter from one side of Portland, Oregon to another and it took ten days.

The best US Postal story I have is one that happened recently. I went home to visit my family and had to mail some packages from America back to England. I have a pretty good intution and I felt that I should travel the extra miles to a post office in an adjoining town to mail my packages to England, rather than send them from my hometown. The reason is simply that I had gone to the hometown post office of a few weeks before and the worker had refused to give me a package that was clearly being held there. She just said, "No, we don't have it...it won't be here till tomorrow." She couldn't even bother to look for it. Even though the paper I had stated that it would be there. I needed the package as it had supplements for me. I had to talk to the Postmaster who quickly found the errant package and kindly gave it to me. The local post office had also delivered packages to my mother's house that clearly had been opened. It made me uneasy. I decided that the extra miles would be worth the peace of mind to send my packages and make sure they were safe.

The postal workers at the other post office were incredibly pleasant and efficient and they went out of their way to make sure the packages I was sending would be arriving in the best possible shape. It was ironic because the post office there was in a much smaller town and yet, they worked like a dream. I was happy as my boxes had been shipped to England in anticipation of my arrival. However, the glitch came when on the day that I was packing to leave, I realized that I could not fit some items into my luggage without going over the weight limit. So, I packed one more box, addressed it in very clear and neat lettering and left it with one of my closest childhood friends to mail. He opted to mail it from the local post office as it was more convenient. I was so happy that he agreed that I didn't warn him that it might be better to drive the twelve miles to the post office in the next town.

When I got to England, one package that I had mailed from the small post office was waiting for me already. It had taken about two weeks to get there. The rest of the packages that I had mailed also arrived a few days after that. My friend had told me that he had mailed the package from my hometown post office a few days after I left. I asked him, " What did you put on the customs form?" And he said, "What customs form? They didn't give me anything." I thought, "Uh..oh..." I had a nagging feeling when the package did not arrive in two weeks, but I let it go. One month passed. Another month passed. Three months passed. No package. I finally wondered if my friend had indeed shipped the package or perhaps he had gotten busy? I called him and asked him. He insisted that he had sent the package and was so embarrassed that the package had not arrived that he marched over to the local post office to find out what had happened.

He asked to speak to the person who had waited on him the first time. He was told that she was not there and he would have to return on the next day. He asked to speak to the Postmaster and was told that he was "out". So my friend said that he would return the next day.

When he went back the next day, the clerk spotted him and went to the holding room behind the counter. By the time my friend arrived at the counter after being in the queue, my package was waiting, right there on the counter! Three months had passed and it had not been mailed! My friend was astounded at how crazy this was. "Why on earth did you not mail the package?...My friend has been waiting for this for three months!" The woman looked sheepish. "Well....we didn't understand these funny numbers....it had all these numbers and letters..." My friend had to restrain himself. "These funny numbers ARE A POSTCODE...and these TWO LETTERS...ARE UK...THAT MEANS ENGLAND." "Oh," was the answer. And not even an apology for the gross inefficiency and total mishap. He grabbed the box and left because he didn't want to go into a meltdown right there in the Office of the United States Postal Service. He made a beeline and re-sent the package from a larger city and never got his refund for the first package. Nice, huh?

I think that the staff at the local hometown post office need some training in international codes and geography....or at least, training in how to ASK someone who MIGHT have a clue. And the post office is going to cut more money from the system? Heaven help us all. I can see packages meant for Albany ending up in Albania. Oh, no, wait....they won't know what the "funny numbers" mean and they will just stay in the back in the "funny numbers" room. Yet, the postal workers in the next town knew exactly what to do. It's rather hit or miss. You get someone who knows that people live outside the United States or people who think as soon as you hit Houston, Texas, you fall off the earth to be seen no more.

After my friend re-sent the package, it arrived in about ten days. The saga was over. My friend and I had a good laugh....but we also were just floored at what had happened. Uh....hello?

Yes, England has taxes that are too high, everything is much too expensive and it is often overcast and gloomy. But England has the Royal Mail and we get packages and post usually in very good time. I am grateful for the Royal Mail and my cheerful postwoman. Besides, even she knows that USA...means "United States." I can't say that for the postal workers in Chile Relleno Gulch, Texas. Someone buy them a map and show them where the UK is....please.