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What Fresh Hell Can This Be: International Mailing

I sent a book to Texas this week that cost me $4.

I sent a book half that size to Finland, which cost me $22.50.

What is wrong with this picture?

**another update to this post**

One of my favorite hobbies is sending and receiving books via BookCrossing or PaperBackSwap. Now that I’m moving to a new place in August, one of my goals is to get rid of unnecessary stuff, including some of my extensive book collection. In the past few weeks, I have managed to read and send out 15-20 books to people, mostly via PaperBackSwap, which is domestic only, versus BookCrossing, which can be international.

Media Mail is one of the most wonderful things ever invented for sending books around the country. It starts at about $2.63 per package, going up a few dollars if it’s a particularly heavy book, and given that I’ve gotten a lot of books for free either as gifts or from friends, it’s a very small price to pay for the cost of a good read. However, Media Mail only exists in the USA, and I learned the hard way this week that the base price for international mailing is a criminal $22.50, which I paid twice, once to Finland and once to the UK. For that kind of money, you could probably buy at least 2 copies of the same book over there and still have enough left over for a cup of tea, or whatever the Finns drink (cocoa?) to sip while you enjoyed reading. To make things worse, while Media Mail has free tracking (which used to cost extra), you have to fill out an extra customs form to send things overseas, and there’s no tracking system, so if you’re sending something to, say, Istanbul, and it doesn’t get there, it could be anywhere from under the desk of the postmaster in Madison or in the back of a truck halfway to Syria, for what it’s worth.

One other option for international mailing is FedEx, which is also criminally expensive but at least comes with tracking. I used it just once to send something to Israel, and it cost me twice what the item was worth, but at least I got to see it bounce from Madison through Memphis, London, and Paris before it eventually arrived in Israel, safely. Never doing that again unless it’s a real emergency.

So how do we solve this? I have no clue. Write to my congressman? My postmaster? I don’t remember it ever being this costly to send stuff overseas, and at this rate if I keep offering books to people in other countries, it’s eventually going to bankrupt me.

For now, at least, I’m sticking to PBS, and the occasional domestic bookcrosser. I guess the days of fun international shipping are over. Sigh.

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Post Offices in Israel

Going to the post office in Israel can be quite the adventure.

The hardest part?

Finding one.

The Israeli postal service isn’t the greatest, and that’s partially because nobody knows where the heck the post offices are. For the longest time I would go to either the one on Emek Refaim or the one in Kenyon Hadar. Little did I know that there was a tiny post office on Beit Lechem…that I walked past nearly every day. Honestly, it’s like they don’t want you to find them; this one was marked by two random red poles on the side of the street, which obviously say “hey, walk back here behind the building and then come in the side door!”

Right.

After you go through the metal detector, you enter the room and take a number. From a machine. Like the ones at the deli. And they may not call yours for quite a while. One time, at the Ministry of Communications Post Office, I actually got a pleasant 45-minute nap on one of their hard wooden benches. It’s like the DMV or something. Smaller post offices may not have the number system as there is usually less traffic.

Mailing things also can be tough. That year, I was participating in BookCrossing holiday gift giving and had a bunch of postcards to send out. One happened to be going to a member in Lahore, Pakistan. It got handed right back to me, with the postal worker apologetically saying that they can’t accept it, because Israel does not send mail to Pakistan, because they are at war. So now I have a stamped postcard to Pakistan that has absolutely no value.

“What would happen if I sent it?” I asked.

“They would probably send it right back.”

Hmm. Quite a pickle, that. I went home and quickly logged onto the forums and apologized to said person in Pakistan, saying that it would be impossible to send anything to her for political reasons, to which she said ok. Funnily enough, someone in Texas posted that she’d be willing to forward the mail to Pakistan if I sent it to her. I thought about it for a quarter of a second before realizing that not only would it have to cross the Atlantic twice, but get postage paid on it TWICE. All for a 2-shekel postcard.

My experiences with postal people ran the gamut, but two instances were annoying when they happened but funny to laugh about, it retrospect.

The first one happened at the post office on Emek Refaim. I got to the counter and started speaking in English to an older woman at the counter, who just gave me a blank stare in return. It was still early on in my stay there, so I was not as confident with my Hebrew, but I did try to string together a sentence explaining what I wanted. Another blank stare, no remark. All of a sudden, a postal worker two stalls over starts yelling in Hebrew at the lady who’s failing at helping me. My postal worker turned her head to the side to hear the sound…

And that’s when I saw her hearing aid.

Oh…wait…huh?

Her blonde co-worker came over to me and apologetically said, “I sorry, she don’t speak English, only Hebrew,” and started saying some commands in Hebrew as she took my packages and stamped them. As she did this, her hands came up. Then she started using sign language to communicate with the older woman.

Sign. Language.

Really, Israel?

Even though I went back to that branch regularly, I never saw the deaf woman again. Maybe she decided it was time for a change of career. But for her sake, I sure hope it wasn’t as a phone sex operator.

The second incident happened on one of my final days in Israel. I was in downtown Jerusalem mailing out one last batch of postcards to friends around the world. That day, one of my postcards happened to be going to Jessica, a friend of mine from college who now lived in Honolulu. As the girl at the counter went through the postcards, typing in the countries’ names and printing the postage, she came to the one addressed to Honolulu, Hawaii. Without missing a beat, she tapped her long fingernails to the screen and punched the Hebrew letter hey, then vav, then another vav, then aleph, then yud.

To her surprise, nothing came up. She handed it back to me, mumbling in Hebrew, “Hawaii is not in the system. I guess we can’t mail there.”

Are you serious?

Then, I make things worse by suggesting to her she type in USA, because Hawaii is part of the USA. In fact, it’s been the fiftieth state since 1959, and still is, if nothing changed while I was in Israel.

“No, it’s not part of the USA. Hawaii is a country, no?”

Facepalm.

And they say Americans are bad when it comes to knowing about the world around them.

After a few minutes of arguing pointlessly, she called over her supervisor, and punched “Hawaii” back into the computer system, which again, unsurprisingly, came up with an error message. Her supervisor took my side, telling her to “just type it in as USA, because Hawaii is in the USA.”

“Then why doesn’t it say that on the card?”

Whoops. My bad. I had completely forgotten to write “USA” on the line under the city, state, and zip code.

And we all learned a very valuable geography lesson that day.

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You’ve Got Mail

This week has been quite an exciting ones, in terms of mail. Columbus Day meant no mail on Monday, but on Tuesday, my bound thesis showed up, and on Friday, the recent issue of Ecumenica with my article in it, and today, a packet of chocolate from my friend Claire in England.

One of the few pleasures of pre-Internet life is in danger, and that is mail. For those of you unfamiliar with it, mail is a service that brings surprises to your door, sometimes unpleasant, but mostly pleasant. When I was little, I used to get so upset whenever the mail came and I didn’t get anything. I subscribed to a kid’s magazine, and had a pen pal with whom I wrote infrequently (oddly enough, we’re now Facebook friends and I have no clue what is currently going on in her life), but other than that, I guess I didn’t have anyone to write to me.

When I was in college, I joined Bookcrossing.com, which really changed my life – I made so many new friends from around the world (including Claire) and even met a few on occasion, and in 2011 when they had their annual convention in Washington, I went and met many more people! Unfortunately, their conventions are usually in Australia or Europe, so I haven’t had the opportunity to go to another, but I still keep in touch with people here and there. Usually when holiday season rolls around we exchange gifts, and of course, swap and give each other books all year long. BC really fueled my reading habit and wherever I’ve lived, they’ve always taken good care of me. And since I love buying/sending gifts and postcards and stuff, it would be a joy to get a thank you email or – even better – a public forum post. I haven’t been hanging around so much for a little while due to the thesis and the move, but I’m hoping to stage a return soon.

Some of my most exciting and fun mail stories have been because of BC. A few highlights:

1. Last year in Houston, I got a lovely birthday package from Claire, and when I opened it, a paper butterfly FLEW out of the envelope! She had rigged it with a rubber band so that opening the card would set it off. She also makes beautiful handmade cards every year. Thanks for all the love Claire 🙂

2. Back in Amherst, I had just come back from a weekend away when I found the oddest package in my mailbox – it came from Hawaii and it was a book, but on the outside, it had a stamp reading: “DAMAGED – CONTACT WITH RAW CHICKEN.” The contents and the envelope smelled and looked fine, but I always wondered what that was about.

3. Finally, my favorite story, from Israel. When I was in Israel, in order to keep contact with the outside world and feel less lonely, I became way more active. I didn’t have an address, but the program had a PO Box, and every Wednesday we’d all meet up for lunch in the main building and, among other things, receive packages. My birthday happened to have been a Wednesday in 2009, and when I walked in the room that day I saw a huge pile of six or seven packages. I went, “ooh, packages!” The top package had my name on it, so I picked it up and went to sit down with it. But before my butt hit the uncomfortable metal chair, Yonit (the program director) turned to me and said “they’re ALL for you, Jacob.”

And indeed they were, every single one. Almost all from Bookcrossing friends. I had at least one from each continent (except South America, but I counted Mexico as “Latin America”), which was extremely exciting, and I just sat there during the announcements chomping at the bit to open them and facing quizzical looks from people wondering why I had so many friends. I just smiled and hugged my packages.

Sometimes I tremble when I open my email, but I’m always excited if you send me a gift, a postcard, or a letter in the mail.