By the Belgian Border: Being a customer

Alternate titles:

International shipping

Shipping international packages

Shipping packages à l’étranger

It’s not a small world after all

WTF

Being a foreigner is exhausting

Warning, this post will either be read:

  1. As a whiney rant of a privileged expat
  2. As a account of the trials and tribulations of figuring out how things work in a foreign country filled with whimsy and hilarity
  3. In a way I have not foreseen because we are all unique and thus have a unique response to the written word

OR

  • You may choose to not read the piece in its entirety because there are so many hilarious cat videos drawing your attention away from a lengthy piece of writing

Regardless of all of the cat videos vying for your attention, I am hoping you will be drawn into my story. And so I will begin the most recent account of my experience navigating the world of customer service and international shipping in a small community by the Belgian border during an global pandemic.

The other night, I fell asleep at 9pm. Actually, I didn’t so much fall asleep as passed out on my bed while my husband read aloud from the current volume of the Dragons of Pern series we have been reading for the past year.

Why so tired?

Let me just say, it is exhausting being a foreigner. I am a privileged foreigner, too. I am not a refugee. My husband has a job. It is in academia and not with a pharmaceutical company, so there are benefits beyond the basic paycheck. But it is a job with a paycheck, at least, and that goes a long way, especially in this surreal pandemic year.

I am a yogi, and I have been meditating at least once a day since the spring 2016 when I paid an exorbitant amount (with help from my parents) for a Neelakantha meditation initiation. I had been wanting to establish a daily meditation practice, and after paying such a crazy sum there was no way I was not going to be making myself meditate every single day.

The meditation practice has become a foundational part of my day, but my mind persists in running circles around me before, during, and after each sit. Suffice it to say that even without being a place that requires constant interpretation and translation and confusion, my overactive mind would already be creating fatigue.

A trip to Ikea under “normal” circumstances would elicit similar fatigue. Add to that the experience of interacting with French staff persons, for whom the customer is not always right and often does not exist at all.

The customer might stand at the register for what feels like an eternity, while staff people hustle and bustle about as if no one is there. Not one person thanks you for your patience or assures you it will just be another moment. When the new person is finally about to switch places at the register and someone does check you out, there is no apology for the delay. There is no eye contact.

When the customer asks a staff person where to find “the thing that goes on the bed to make it more comfortable” because they don’t know the word for “mattress topper” (let alone the word for “mattress”), the staff person says you have to look at them in the showroom and pick them up in the area with the furniture. A small eternity later, I look up where to find the mattress topper among the enormous stacks of furniture by sleuthing through the computer item locator. I first type in “lit” and then scroll down and find “matelas” (mattress) and then “sur matelas” (on mattress). I find the one that is the least expensive and what my husband would call “good enough” and click on it to see where in the stacks I might find it. My husband is a research librarian, so finding an item in the stacks should be a no brainer, but when in a foreign country…

The French computer informs me that I need to send a demand for the item to my email. I input my email address and leave the station.

There were several people waiting behind me, and I grew up in Boston, where people start not subtly huffing and puffing if you take too long in any line: traffic light turning red to green, grocery store, etc. I could already feel my anxiety and stress level rising above my normal resting state of woodland squirrel. I checked my email. Nothing. Checked it again. Nothing. I have a US cell phone, so I do not connect the faster 4G in European countries and experience has shown me that usually instant transfer of information is not part of my mobile reality. After several minutes of refreshing my inbox, I approached the customer service “help” desk.

The man there looked at me with an “why are you bothering me” expression (possibly my interpretation as a highly sensitive person, but his behavior following the aforementioned expression supported this interpretation.

He proceeded to ask for the name and model number.

I responded that I didn’t know. I had been prompted to input my email and was informed that I would receive an email but I had not received the email. I explained that the item was a surmatelas and cost 90 euros (which I first said in the Belgian French and then corrected for the French French).

Side note: Belgian French says the number 70 as septante (sept for seven) and 90 as nonante (neuf for nine). The French say (no joke) 60 plus 10 and likewise, 80 plus 10.

The staff person thought I was saying 90 as the size and moved swiftly up the irritation scale to uncharted levels of vexation when I repeated that no, the price was 90 and the size was 140×200.

I finally learned that contrary to the information provided by the first staff person I asked, the customer orders the surmatelas at the Ikea store and then pays for it and picks it up at a warehouse located somewhere else.

Holy hell.

I eventually checked out and paid for the mattress. I then inputted the address for the pickup center into my GPS and drove another 10 minutes to a warehouse that looked decidedly closed. I had been texting my husband to make sure he did actually want this surmatelas. Not hearing a response, I decided to just drive home. I could pick up the mattress another day that week or try to return the mattress without having it in hand. As usual, I tried to figure out how to explain (in French) that I needed to return the mattress and that I had not actually ever picked it up and thus only had the pickup slip and receipt as proof of having paid for it. I had already experienced confusion when I returned a runner rug and the staff person was certain it had been used because I took several weeks to bring it back. Store policy is a 365 day return, but again, customer service…

Side note: In my four years in Belgium, I have to say that while overall my experience as a customer has adhered to the stereotype that customer service is not a part of European culture I have had several very surprisingly positive experiences, so my opinion is not set in stone. And after all, I denote my experience and cannot speak for others.

My explanation that I had bought one with a different pattern (motif) was further complicated by the fact that both rugs had the same model number and two different motifs. The one pictured on the website showed yet a third design. It took me showing the staff person a photo I had sent to my husband of the rug I bought to replace the one I was returning, along with a second staff person, who confirmed that yes indeed Ikea used the same model number for a rug with several different patterns, before I received the green light for the return. There was an additional moment of holding my breath when I was informed that because I had removed the tag from the rug I would only receive store credit, and then the staff person decided to have mercy on the foreigner and issued a refund.

Fast forward to 24 hours later when I went to pick up the mattress and was informed by the staff person that I was supposed to have picked it up the previous day.

I apologized and said that I was not able to pick it up the same day I bought it. I was given the mattress and when I expressed my thanks and apologized, the staff person cut me off by saying goodbye.

Sigh.

Every time I try to do what seems like it should be a fairly straightforward task, I imagine it will take an hour, tops. And every time, I return home a minimum of 2.5 hours later and subsequently pass out on my bed from exhaustion, often after first consuming a small glass of whiskey to ease my nerves.

So of course, when I decided that my husband and I should send care packages to family in the United States and Canada, I was taking on a far more chaotic task than I ever imagined possible for organizing and shipping boxes that consisted predominantly of a postcard, waffles, and chocolate.

I spent about a month trying to figure out where the grocery store staff had “hidden” the waffles. Then I made a careful stack of treats on our table for each family member. I then put each pile of sweets into a Ziploc with a post it to denote the intended recipient, put all ziplocs into a reusable grocery tote, and brought them to the post office near our house.

I was greeted by a very friendly staff person, who was super helpful and brought me boxes, which she helped me pack, for each person.

So far, so good.

The staff person then introduced me to a self-service machine, where customers could place their packages on a scale and then input all of the information into a computer, which would then spit out a shipping label to place on the package. This was fairly straightforward, though I had to click “retour” (go back) several times when I inputted my address for the destinaire instead of the sender.

The heart attack came when I saw the price for sending a couple bars of chocolate, postcard, and small package of waffles to my parents in Massachusetts.

With the 2 euro box, the total came to (I kid you not) 41,75euros!?!?!?!?

Is there a less expensive option for shipping to the United States? I asked the staff person.

No, was the response.

Holy hell, part II.

I paid and texted my husband that perhaps we should abort the international shipping mission.

Agreed, he said. We can regroup and reevaluate.

I brought all of the boxes to the counter and explained that I only wanted to pay for the boxes because I was not going to ship them after all and headed home.

Repeat return experience: Walk in the house. Drink whiskey. Fall onto bed. Wake up disoriented. Wipe the drool from mouth.

My husband and I scratched our heads at this even higher than usual for cost for international shipping. Certainly, we and our family have paid exorbitant amoutns, not only to ship care packages internationally but also on import customs fees. In Belgium, you pay a VAT and customs fee for any package with a value over 25 euros. When my mother-in-law sent us a package and had to add an extra line for a free bird calendar she had received and was sending our way, the tally somehow came to something above 25. We explained what we thought was a clear example of a misunderstanding on the customs form, but we were told that the only way we could go home with the package was to pay (again, I kid you not) 45 euros. With the shipping cost from the US to Belgium already upwards of $50, the total cost for a care package consisting of homemade almond squares (clearly priceless because my mother-in-law is a phenomenal baker), a Tefal skillet, and the aforementioned free bird calendar, came to over 80 euros. I believe that was the final package sent in the traditional fashion.

We managed to have my parents send a small package with a friend of a friend who was moving from New Jersey to Brussels this past spring and then a second packge to a friend of a friend who worked for a military school and could magically send and receive packages there through USPS. The shipping costs were the same as shipping within the United States, and while the sender still had to fill out a customs form, there was duty paid to receive the package. Magic!

It is fairly hilarious (after the tears, of course) how something as seemingly mundane as sending a package can become a journey through hell and back when you live in a foreign country. And it is not like we are sending or receiving packages in the African bush, mind you. We live in an increasingly global, connected world, and yet somehow the cost and ease of shipping is not reflective of this paradigm shift.

Back to the surreal experience of attempting to send chocolate and waffles overseas.

My husband recalled that we had sent a copy of his hefty dissertation to his mother for her birthday this past summer for 13 euros from Belgium. Surely, the dissertation had been as heavy, if not more, than the chocolate and waffles I had just shipped to my parents from France.

Since we happen to live less than three kilometers (I often feel like Sarah Palin when I say, I can see Belgium from my house), we decided plan B would be to compare the cost of shipping from Belgium to see if it might be less. Seemed worth a try, especially since the alternative was to not send anything at all. I was filled with disappointment and sadness at the thought of all of those neatly packaged boxes of French goodness never reaching their intended destination. This year of all years is one to send presents to the ones you love, if only for a momentary pause from the stress and perpetual feeling of living in a nightmare version of the movie Groundhog Day without the whimsical hilarity of Bill Murray and instead a never-ending series of days where the news is terrifying, politics are also terrifying, and a return to normalcy feels increasingly far away and out of reach. Add to that an election that could very well lead to the end of the world if people do not come to their senses, and you have the recipe for a much needed surprise present in the mail.

I wrote down all of the addresses on a piece of paper and added it to the grocery tote so as to be prepared with all information at the ready at my next visit to a post office. I put the tote of packages in the trunk of the car, out of sight but not out of mind, until the time when I could sit down and find the closest post office in Belgium for the continuation of our international shipping experiment.

I finally looked up Bpost locations on Google maps and found one a mere 8 minute drive from our house. Check.

I got into the car in the driver’s seat, my big white husky in the back. He hadn’t been eating for several days, and I did not want to leave him alone. I was not sure if he was on a kind of stress-induced hunger strike from our recent transition to a new home, where my own stress was likely adding to his, or if he was really unwell. Animals are not able to explain what they are feeling in a language that is readily translatable. Our husky has been far more concerned by the transition than the wild garden cat I spent three year worrying about trying to rehome when the time would come to move. The garden cat has been doing fine, adjusting to the transition from living outdoors to being inside and using a litter box, while the dog has been an emotional mess. Just goes to show that we can plan for many potential crises, but the universe often has surprises in store.

Speaking of surprises, I was nonplused to arrive at my destination and not see any post office sign in the vicinity. I saw a bank and a small grocery store. Recalling that sometimes the Belgian post is housed in small neighborhoods catch-all shops, I looked more closely at the sign on the façade of the building. Indeed, there inscribed on the sign was the familiar bpost logo. Excellent.

Since it was located in a grocery store, I decided to leave the dog in the car. I walked into the store, recalling with mild horror that I was now not only in Belgium but in the Dutch speaking Flanders region of Belgium. Crap. My carefully polished French would be useless. I was a second tier foreigner now, completely lost without translation.

I waited in line. When it was my turn, I approached the counter and held up one of my packages. The woman on the other side of the pandemic plexiglass said something in Dutch. In my anxious state, I said, “ik spreek Engels” (I speak English) instead of asking, “U spreekt Engels” (do you speak English).

She asked if I preferred French or English (because, it’s Belgium, so you can literally pick a language, any language).

Either is fine, I responded.

She then proceeded to explain in perfect French that they had not shipped any packages since the first of October. It was not clear to me whether this was related to the pandemic or just that they were no longer operating as an ad hoc post office, despite the bpost logo on their storefront sign. But again, lost without translation is one of the current themes of my existence.

She told me that I could go to two other places, the names of which I did not catch well enough to actually look them up on Google maps, and then proceeded to say that they were only open in the morning, though. Helpful.

I returned to the car, where the husky was displeased at having been left alone and informed me through his own language of trilling howling sounds.

I looked for a Bpost in Ypres, thinking there must be one since it was the largest town in the surrounding area. Sure enough, there was a post office that was open until 6pm. This turned out to be very helpful as I spent over an hour and a half from start to finish. When I finally left the post office, there was a line out the door. My husband chided me that this was because I took up so much time at the register, but in truth I spent most of my time away from the register, addressing boxes and then filling out multiple customs forms per package.

Before I addressed each box, I took a number to go to the counter to find out how much it would cost to ship the United States. There was no point in addressing every  box if the cost was comparable with shipping from France. Plus, for packages you normally have to fill out a customs form that adheres to the box so there is no point in writing the address on the package because it will just be covered by the customs form.

The staff person weighed a box and informed me the cost would be 13,05 (this as opposed to the 41,75 of the same size and weight box I had recently shipped to my parents from our local post office in France). She then told me which side of the box to write the address of the recipient and which side the sender. I was a little surprised because normally I fill out a customs form that is then attached to the box so there is no need to put the address onto the box itself, but I nodded and followed her instructions. What else could I do? I argue over many inconsistencies in life but to little avail and much frustration. This one did not seem worth even asking the question, why?

I moved my bag of boxes to a bench and proceeded to write sender and destination addresses onto all of the packages. I then took another ticket and waited to bring the now addressed packages to another counter to pay for shipping.

Atticus and I went to the staff person on the opposite end of the counter. For each package, I was asked to place the box on the scale and share the weight. For the first box, I noted, Point 8 1 3.

This seemed clear enough to me, but the staff person looked at me like I was crazy. While this may be true (if it wasn’t before, it certainly was after the experience of sending packages internationally), I knew that I was sharing the number I saw on the scale.

What? The staff person asked.

I repeated the number.

She huffed and came out to look at the scale.

813, she told me.

What? I said in my head.

Second box. Repeat.

Finally, she explained that I was to tell her the number as grams, so rather than the 0.813 it would be 813.

Ok.

Things went faster after that, though I still was experiencing stress that the people behind me would be getting irritated at having to wait so long. I grew up on the eastern side of Massachusetts just south of Boston, where people would honk aggressively if you did not start revving your engine the second the stoplight changed from red to green. If you were taking too long in line at a store, they would start loudly huffing and sighing.

This does not happen in Belgium. Customers are well-behaved and patient (at least, they don’t huff and or show any sign of emotional response). When I went into a music shop in Ypres after first moving across the border to France, a second customer came in and waited patiently while the show owner was wading through stacks and stacks of piano sheet music to find the composers I had requested. I could feel the seconds ticking by. Then a delivery person also came in (the doorbell rang with each new entry) and stood, holding the packages and waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Had I known how to say, “There is another customer and delivery” in Dutch, I would have. Instead, I felt my own anxiety rising. And rising. And rising. Finally, the delivery person set the large boxes on the floor and left, and my anxiety level decreased ever so slightly in response.

At the post office, I patiently shared the destination country for each box and the weight. The staff person then handed me the sticker with shipping cost and postage, along with a little blue “Airmail” sticker to adhere to the box.

I thought we were done, but we were only just getting started.

You will need to fill out a customs form, she informed me. She then got up and left the counter.

I stood there, nonplussed, and then I realized that I should take my boxes and go get the forms to fill out. I placed all of the boxes into my grocery bag for a second time and went to look for the requisite forms, but I could only find national customs forms.

The staff person had returned to her spot and waved me over. Apparently, the staff had all of the international forms. As it turned out, this would be no ordinary customs form filling out experience. In addition to the traditional forms to fill out for international shipments, there was a special one-page sheet of paper to fill out as well.

The staff person explained that I needed to share very detailed information about the contents of each package, along with addresses and telephone numbers for sender and recipients.

I have never had to fill out two forms per package, I said with an inflection to denote a question.

It is because of COVID, she explained.

I sighed, took the forms, and went back to my “station” to fill out more paper work. Once this second round of paperwork had been completed, I returned (without a ticket) to the first counter I had gone to, now more than an hour ago. The staff person explained that she would need to make copies of each form and then place the originals into transparent envelopes that would adhere to each box. We formed an assembly line of sorts. While she placed documents into the envelope, which she adhered onto each box (yes, covering the addresses I had so painstakingly written on each box, I peeked at the next document on the stack and moved the next person’s box toward her on the counter. There was only one moment when she realized she had placed the wrong envelope onto a box, but thankfully she was able to remove it with enough adhesive left to place it on the correct box.

An hour and a half later, I returned to my car, sweating and exhausted. The grand total for shipping was 133 euros instead of what would easily been 400 or more had I shipped everything from France. This whole European Union experiment becomes more and more dubious with each new country we move to and with the stories European and expat friends share about their own experiences moving and traveling around the “Union.”

There was a line of people out the door when Atticus and I left. I wanted to think it was not because I had monopolized all of the staff with my ridiculous number of packages comprised of chocolate, waffles, and post card each, as my husband suggested. I had told the staff person who had made copies of the customs forms and then helped me place them in the adhesive envelopes that people were depressed because of the election and these packages were meant to cheer them up.

Because Trump will win, she had responded as a statement more than a question. Defeatist attitude, not that I blame her. Even still, intention is powerful.

NOOOOOOOO! I had cried, knocking my fist hard on my head in response. Don’t even say that. I waved my hands in the air to clear the aura of the intention before the universe could respond.

He can’t win because then I will have to send more waffles and chocolate.

She laughed.

The next morning, I could not find my Belgian driver’s license. As this was my sole form of identification since all of our documents (passport, birth certificate, Belgian id, marriage license, etc.) were (hopefully) at the prefecture in Dunkirk, awaiting (again, hopefully) approval for our new French ids, I called the post office in Ypres to ask if they have found an id. Of course, there was no direct number for the post office, so I called the main Bpost center and was passed from one person to the next until a staff person called Ypres on my behalf to see if they had found an id.

She relayed questions from the staff person with whom she spoke.

Are you the person with the dog? She asked.

Yes.

The big white dog?

Yes.

No ID was found.

Ok, thanks for checking.

I guess I had (once again) made an impression.

Note: I did eventually find the ID on the floor beneath our table.

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