Thursday, March 3, 2016

A letter from the U.S. in bureaucratic limbo - bet you TTIP won't fix that either

If you listen to the speeches and policy declarations, the world is a global village of boundless opportunities, with only the terrorists du jour and Russia standing in the way.

Oh, and non-tariff obstacles in international trade and services, which is going to be fixed by the great Pacific free trade agreement and, for Europe and America, by TTIP.

The small Danish cake maker will finally be able to sell their baked goods in the U.S., and Europeans will be able to bu all the Heinz ketchup they want. Just kidding, Heinz ketchup is everywhere.

The fact that Aspirin in Germany probably costs about fifty times more than in the U.S. won't matter as long as German pharmacies are the only place you can get it. Sure, there is the odd online pharmacy that sells Aspirin much, much cheaper, only about 30 times more expensive than the friendly supermarket co-op WinCo stateside.

Why would someone who played a grown up version of hopscotch, one country today, another a few months down the line, be cynical?

Certainly not because a piece of heavy machinery is stuck at customs in some developing country and you have to bribe officials to release it. That's just par for the course, all priced in, all done every day by shipping companies.

The cynicism has much simpler roots.

Like when you had a global express letter to the undervalued post office employee who then tries to print out a label and tells you: There is no such town in Germany.

I don't understand.

Maybe the zip code is wrong? Is it really 12345?

Yes, it is, and I live there, so the town exists.

The computer shows 12345 A-Town, you say it should be B-Town?

Yes. Here's what we do, print the label with 12345 A-Town, but add B-Town to the street address part, does that work?

Let me see.

It worked.

What was the problem? Database synchronization.

A German zip code is typically used for a cluster of small rural towns, and whoever pulled the German zip code database into the USPS/FedEx system only pulled the first town (in alphabetical order). **

Why hadn't anybody done anything for over a decade after Germany transitioned to the new and improved zip code system?

Because cities don't have the problem, and because large companies have their very own zip codes - thanks to trade friendly German governments.

And what if the Germans can't make a letter from uncle Ted (not his real name) in the U.S. arrive at your place? All because Ted wanted to be nice and send you a used flashlight you originally bought for $ 4.99 and that you forgot at his place?

Instead of the flashlight, you find not one but two papers from Deutsche Post in your mailbox.

Paper one is from customs, it has the sender, the recipient, a tracking number, the value of the contents at $ 0. You can disagree with Ted on the value, but have you ever tried to sell a cheap, used flashlight?
The paper says the letter is held at customs. The customs office is 50 miles away, but there is a phone number for inquiries. Which you try multiple times during the opening hours provided next to it. Nobody picks up, and you can not leave a message.

Paper two is from Deutsche Post, two sided with lots of information. It tells you that the piece of mail does not have an invoice or proof of payment on the outside. It further informs you that you can fill out the paper and turn it in to the post office for them to have the piece of mail processed.
Sounds good until you get to the money shot.

Deutsche Post will charge you 28.50 Euros for the processing, and there will be a storage fee of 50 Euro cents a day for the period the mail sits at customs. Customs/import duties may apply and will be charged on top of that, the paper tells you.
It has a phone umber for inquiries. Which you call, only to be greeted by an automatic lady voice - BTW, it's nasty sexism that female voices are used for unpleasant announcements.
The lady voice tells you that the number is no longer in service, and that you should use the new number <rattled off once, so you are f***d if you write at a normal speed>.

Now what?

Look up another number for the customs office, why deal with Deutsche Post, who will be clueless anyway.

The other number for customs works, yeah.

You explain, and the gentleman elaborates on the process. He totally understands that there is no invoice on the letter, the Deutsche Post paper is just a routine paper, so yeah, disregard that part. He also says you can simply drop by at customs and pick up the mail. When you explain that you are fifty miles away and have no business anywhere close, he offers friendly advice: someone else can pick it up for you.

You bite your tongue and feel the metal taste of blood in your mouth. Isn't the postman the quintessential definition of "someone else"?
You just make an agreeing noise.

In order to eliminate any communication problem, you ask: So, I can either come by or send someone else, or I can pay Deutsche Post 28.50 to pick it up and deliver it. Is that correct?

Yes, that's just the way it works, he sounds genuinely happy. Probably because that's the point where he normally gets yelled at by frustrated citizens.

And if I don't?

After 14 days, it will be returned to the sender.

And I don't pay anything for that?

No, it's just a return.

The flashlight will go back to uncle Ted. The customs clearance process it a hoot. Why don't they just open it and use their intelligence, and maybe Google or eBay, to determine that the value of the thang is zero or near zero?

They can't be prohibited from looking inside because they rip stuff open all the time. Hey, when we shipped the household stuff from the U.S., a substantial number of boxes came with cool green DHS tape telling us how our security is important to them.

Don't worry, they didn't take the porn.

If customs cannot determine a fair market value and the family relationship, why can't they at least set up a website for the recipient to provide whatever information needed?

Having to take a paper to the post office and get ripped off is so 19th century.

By now, the blogster thinks the reason for not answering the dedicated inquiry line is that too many customs officers had to take early retirement after years of verbal abuse by citizens. Their union would see to that.

To make a long story short: unless TTIP contains a line that says you don't face government sponsored blackmail for international mail, f*** TTIP.

** This was a few years ago, and we don't know if it has been fixed.

[Update 3/31/2016]
Hey, let's go for a road trip.


We could go get Ted's letter and spend the day in the city.

That's more or less how the final conversation about the letter at German customs started. We decided to close shop for a day and head out to collect the heirloom piece. Mostly out of curiosity, since the blogster had never seen a German customs office. The drive took us into an industrial area outside of the city. High fences around shipping company yards, old boxy buildings, installations that looked like factories but didn't have a parking lot, all of the scenery combined to a charming sight.

All the charm of a puddle of puke on a Dublin sidewalk on Saturday morning.

A left turn at the garbage yard, more potholes, then a one story building complex with a faded sign "Zollabfertigung" and a customer parking lot.

A quick glance at the license plates reassured the blogster that it* was not the only resident affected by postal service blackmail.

The stylishly retro 60s single pane anti energy saving glass door creaked just enough for atmosphere. The inside was narrow, about two yards wide, a sequence of about ten tiny windows built into walls on either side. No doors to whatever lay behind the punctured walls. People were standing at several of the windows, about half were closed. Not a single person in the corridor looked 100% German, and all were slightly nervous, a couple visibly upset as they talked to unseen people on the other side of the wall.

We ambled up to an open window and put the notification paper on the light colored wooden counter. There was lots of light and air on the other side, it was one open plane room with a supervisor office behind a glass partition at one end. Desks with stacks of papers, presumably forms were spaced at comfortable distances - as a former cubicle resident you know what space feels like.

A fat old guy manned the desk in the supervisor booth. Everybody else was younger. To their credit, the wait was short. A friendly business like introduction, and the question: Did you order something? 

No, it's personal mail from an uncle in the States. He didn't quite believe this, you could tell. Probably everybody said that, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Then the twenty something male announced: I'll go get the item.

He came back, placed it on the counter and manifested a box cutter from somewhere, Let's have a look, and proceeded to cut the packing tape.

As the item came out of the box, he lost interest right away, that's how obvious it was. He turned it around, than put it back in and handed it to the blogster. That's it, you can can go, he said and started to turn away.

Wait, can you explain what this was about? I don't want to have to go on a day trip every time if someone sends anything other than a sheet of paper.

It's the declared total value, he said. They put that down as 50 dollars. 50 dollars is the limit at which we assume it is a commercial shipment, which means you may have to pay import sales tax.

Despite the fact that the declared value of the item is 2 dollars?


Okay, so anything under 50 dollars would not get stuck here?


After a thank you, we headed towards the door. The day in the city was nice and concluded with dinner at a Greek restaurant. Oddly enough with a 60s decor. Think Italian mafia style dark mirrors along the length of the room, deep brown wooden tables that don't easily stain from the blood of the lamb ribs, or your own in case you didn't accept that offer you can't refuse.

A late night phone call to Ted was made to find out why he put a total value of 50 dollars on the shipment and to instruct him to never do this again. Shipping was so expensive, he explained, all I wanted was make sure the declared value covered the content and the shipping in case it was lost.

Just don't do it. Forget the shipping cost. The value of the contents, and also not in its original packaging if it looks brand spanking new after you carefully stored the empty container in the garage for five years.

Just don't.

* Gender neutral editing.

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