I spent four hours last week trying to “liberate” some boxes from the Czech postal service. It was an enlightening experience that took me deep into the bowels of a bureaucracy. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t just about a Czech bureaucracy. Every nation has them. But thanks to Ceska Posta, I have the following stories.
My wife took pity on me by sending some boxes by air mail, well in advance of our house stuff’s slow trip by boat from Boston to Prague a few weeks from now.
Weeks after the packages were sent, nothing showed up at my apartment. The manhunt began…
1. Using an online track & trace (in English thankfully, but with nicely mangled phrases), Ceska Posta informs me that for some packages they had attempted delivery. And that others were in some sort of customs process.
No notice had arrived in my mailbox about this. Why?
- It turns out my name wasn’t on any mailbox at the apartment for the first few weeks of tenancy. Why? My employer rented a short-term flat on my behalf, so their name was on the lease, though I was a named sub-lessor.
- Mysteriously, my name shows up on a mailbox a day later without my asking. I use my key, but it won’t open. Why? The property managers put my name on the wrong box.
- That night, I open the mailbox and voila! Notices from the post office start spilling out.
- Some of which say (when translated by a co-worker) that items will be returned to sender within days.
Yikes! The clock is ticking.
2. Online track and trace had its own arcane messages. Herewith is one:
|Posting number of an item affixed in the Czech Republic: CV911110562VV.|
|Item was posted on 22.04.2010.|
|Item was on 24.04.2010 dispatched to the Czech Republic.|
|Item was accepted on 27.04.2010 at the Office of Exchange 22000 – pošta Praha 120.|
|Item presented to customs clearance on 27.04.2010.|
|The item stored at the Office of Exchange 22000 – pošta Praha 120 on 05.05.2010.|
|Customs clearance discontinued on 05.05.2010. Addressee called upon cooperation (my emphasis).|
“Called upon cooperation”? Holy sh*t! What kind of meeting for “ko-operation” am I invited to?
3. An empathetic co-worker agrees to accompany me to the two post offices where my stuff is being held. I think his role in our office is a “fixer”, as he seems to relish the forthcoming fight with the bureaucratic machine.
4. We get to the first building. Outside of office “A” there are chairs. People are nervously pacing the hallway. A chime sounds, and the next party is invited to enter. We enter, only to find another set of chairs, there for no apparent reason.
The sheaf of official notices is presented. We are directed to office “B” down the hall.
In office “B” several supporting pieces of paper are retrieved from a file. They are stamped in multiple places and given to us. We are invited to return to office “A”.
In office “A”, my passport is requested for review (your passport is asked for everywhere. I’m waiting to be asked for it in a coffee queue). I’m asked for a copy of my lease. Thankfully, I had read up on the topic of immigration and knew that proof of accommodation was another common requirement for various government processes.
The official then asks for me to fill out an affidavit that these are personal belongings, meant to accompany me as a (now semi-official) resident. The purpose of which is to avoid any customs or excise fees.
However, there is no form. Instead, the official pulls out a binder and begins reading phrases, which my Czech co-worker is furiously writing on a clean sheet of paper. My affidavit is thereby constructed.
Some of the other documents are stamped. By then, these papers are a sea of ink; there had to be 10 stamps on each. We are asked to proceed to office “B” for further processing.
After more furious stamping in office “B”, we are done. Four of my 8 boxes are released. They are crushed, and wrapped like mummies in Ceska Posta packing tape in an apparent effort to stop the contents from spilling out.
“Have a nice day!”, everyone says to each other in pleasant, singsong tones.
5. Off to the other post office, located in my neighborhood. Apparent, these four boxes passed through customs without any affidavit needed. Though the contents we nearly identical. A little while later, after struggling with a computer system from a bygone era, the clerk presents the packages. Crushed. Mummified.
“Have a nice day!”
6. Two more boxes were still being processed by customs. I asked my co-worker if he wanted to bet on the outcome: would they both pass customs and proceed to the neighborhood post office? Would they require another visit to the affidavit-takers?
NE! (No.) One box went to customs for affidavit-retrieval, and the second to the neighborhood depot. The arbitrary processing was a beautiful thing.
7. So why does this bureaucracy still exist?
One has to keep in mind the central role of the Czech post office and its legacy as the main interface to the government on many matters. For example, you can still go to the post office to pay your rent, utility bills, mobile phone bill, etc. They are in effect the central payment processor for the whole economy.
So the post office is designed to remain involved. Processes are designed to ensure full “utilization” of its employees. Ceska Posta was never, and is still not, about getting money from you. Such is the legacy of the communist era. Heck, this whole experience of mine cost me nothing in fees but for a few taxi rides.
No, it’s about ensuring the bureaucracy justifies its existence with mandatory, arcane policies and processes.
And that, my friends, we can find in our governments the world over.
Oh yeah, for a “documentary” on how this all works, watch the movie Brazil
My wife, in parallel, had sent a desperate email to a general mailbox at Ceska Posta. In it, she made a plea for help in locating the boxes and telling us how to get them. Days later, a thoughtful reply arrived. The email had been forwarded through multiple people. It was clear that with each reading, someone had made an effort to get it to the right person. They might be working for a bureaucracy, but they’re nice people.