My wife, Kay-Kay, and I have spent a lot of time in foreign countries. We lived together—sometimes married, sometimes not— for four years in two countries. One was Italy, where they do not speak English. The other was Scotland, where they speak something almost akin to English. We’ve also done a lot of shorter stays, either on vacation or business trips. I’ve now visited 75 countries, maybe 80% with Kay-Kay.
For the 16 years since I retired from the Air Force, Kay-Kay has accompanied me on a lot of business trips. These have varied in length and location. Also in quality. One was a 10-day trip that included three days in Beijing during one of their worst smog events ever, followed by three days of clear and sunny Melbourne, followed by a near miss with the Malaysia Air flight that crashed into the Indian Ocean (we were on the same route on the flight right before that one). Not a great trip. On the other hand, she spent six weeks in Jamaica with me. While I worked a consulting gig, she hung out in, well, Jamaica.
I recount this brief history for two reasons, although you may have despaired by now of whether there is any reason. First, it demonstrates how astounded I am that she hasn’t gotten utterly tired of hanging around with me after All These Years. I attribute this, as with her initial agreement to marry me, to some unspecified substance-induced delirium. Second, this establishes Kay-Kay’s bona fides as an expert on How To See a “Real” Country.
You see, Kay-Kay has an interesting methodology to discover the true nature of the population of any nation-state.
She goes to the post office.
“Pshaw!” I hear you scoff. Although I have no idea what pshaw! means and scoffing sounds rather unpleasant, so please don’t do it. I was just as incredulous initially. “But how, my dear Kay-Kay,” I said with unctuous insouciance (which is more pleasant than scoffing), “it surely isn’t possible for one to divine the national character of a people by the simple expedient of going to the post office?”
My l’amour is not one to be lightly gainsaid. “But of course it is, mon chéri,” she parried. “For under what more propitious conditions is one to observe the essence of a people than while tightly confined in a malodorous public edifice, forced to queue with a crush of waspish humanity, and after a seemingly endless interlude, be confronted with the dyspeptic visage of a much put-upon government fonctionnaire?”
(Did I mention I’m practicing dialogue for a Regency romance? Kidding/not kidding.)
The more I pondered this, the more I realized she was absolutely correct. Or at least that’s what I told her, having long ago discovered the secret to a happy marriage is never disagreeing with one’s wife, especially one using Many French Words.
Here’s the thing. For those of you who are not aficionados of foreign mail arrangements, the post offices in most countries are very different from those in the US of A. In this country, a post office is for sending stuff to people or picking up stuff that’s been sent to you by people. Or you buy stuff with which to do this sending (i.e., stamps). Maybe a passport application once in a blue moon. Not so in other places.
My and Kay-Kay’s first experience with this as starry-eyed young lovers studying at St Andrews in Scotland. I loved the post office on South Street, just up from the cathedral ruins. It was like a WGBH/BBC mini-series, with sweet old ladies in their wool coats and headscarves chatting about the best recipe for cream buns or various weather-related matters. That there were always so many of these dear old ladies, and old men, and every other kind of person, had everything to do with the fact that the Post Office was the place where you picked up your state pension in cash, paid your utility bills in cash, and did all your basic banking because of all the darn cash you needed for everything. In fact, the Post Office was and remains one the biggest retail banks in the UK.
Isn’t that cool? I mean, imagine every little burg in the US with a post office that’s also a bank. With banks across the country consolidating through merger after merger and losing interest in retail banking, this seems such an obvious idea to borrow from the British Cousins and others.
Most countries have post offices that offer many more services than the US’s postage-and-passports. La Poste in France offers basic insurance products and email service. Poste Italiane in Italy runs its own mobile phone network. In 1980, I had to go to the General Post Office in Dublin to make an international long distance call to the States–the desk clerk took your number and you waited to be assigned a phone booth where the call was forwarded after a post office operator dialed it for you, then you paid at the counter when you hung up. In the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the Post Office is often franchised to a grocer or sundries shopkeeper. I remember chatting with one grocer/postmaster in far-north Caithness who said the revenue from the post office allowed him to keep the grocery open for the locals. The possibilities are endless. Again, imagine this variety of services offered in small rural post offices across America.
Being in the nature of post offices, there are inevitably lines wherever you go. This is a wonderful opportunity to observe up close the collective behavior of a population. What we’ve found is a wide spectrum of line-minding behaviors. It would look something like this, on the spectrum from most to least line-abiding:
- British. Hands down the most disciplined linesmen and lineswomen. The Brits will stand in a queue forever and through anything. I guarantee they’ll still be standing in line after a tsunami wave hits and recedes. They are preternaturally patient and polite about it, too.
- Canadians. Very much like the Brits, except they all have Tim Hortons double-double coffees in their hands and they complain for you by constantly apologizing for the wait.
- Americans. Moderately good at line-minding, but we like to bond through mutual whining over the wait, which is a strangely sociable activity.
- French. They will grudgingly stand in line, but with crushing looks of existential pain at having been singled out by the cosmos for the wretched unfairness of having to WAIT IN A LINE. (N.B.: the French have gotten much worse since smoking was banned in public buildings.)
- Italians. Genetically unable to stay in line for longer than 60-90 seconds. This is because every Italian, in their heart of hearts, believes s/he is a Wo/Man of Consequence and should enjoy all the privileges appertaining thereto. But they’re so unflappably oblivious to the offensiveness of their conduct you kind of don’t mind letting them get away with it.
- Egyptians. The only reason there are lines in Egypt at all is some vestigial habit from a British colonial past, so people move in and out of the lines often, talking loudly in what sounds like angry Arabic. But the Egyptian dialect has such incredibly long rolled-out rrrrrrrr’s that you fixate on that and don’t notice you haven’t moved in 20 minutes. Egypt also has the most unpleasant postal clerks who randomly punctuate the general hubbub with loud thwacks of their Many Important-Looking Rubber Stamps from which every transaction requires at least three thwacks.
- Albanians. This may seem rather a random choice, but Kay-Kay once horrified me upon my return from a day’s work with her Tales of Terror from the Tirana Main Post Office. So Albania makes the bottom of the list. Suffice to say Albanians do not stand in line and they treat getting to a service window as a full-contact blood sport. Kay-Kay claims to have hip-checked her way to a window to demand the surly service on offer there.
One last postal memory. I’ve done a lot of contract work in Indonesia over the last 15 years. It’s a notable characteristic of the Indonesian population that they aren’t, well, very big. I once went to buy a shirt for Batik/Casual Fridays. I couldn’t find anything that came close to fitting me on the Large rack—I wear between a Medium and Large in US sizes—so I asked the clerk if he had anything that might fit. He smiled wryly and said, “You go back to Jumbo Rack!” Turns out in Indonesian shirt size, I wear a XXL. As in girth, so in height. I have vivid memories of standing in line at the Pos Indonesia Office, a full head or more above everyone around me. It felt like I was the Really Big Hand in that old Land of the Giants TV series.
So there you have it. Kay-Kay, of course, is correct. So next time you travel, cut out some time to sample the local culture, a la Poste. Just don’t plan on rushing through it.
[You can now get the third book, No Hero’s Welcome, in my First World War and 1920s trilogy here or here. And guess what? I’ve lowered the price of my None of Us the Same ebook to only $2.99 which you can get here and here.]