From Pillar(box) to Post(man) – a parcel-based dilemma

My spring absence due to IT gremlins appeared to bear unexpected fruits. Rather than tapping out letters to Elderly Aunt, I took to sitting down and writing them and while each letter took considerably longer to write – as I remember her judging my brother and me on our ability not to cross out text when writing as boys – it was an exercise that she clearly appreciated, as a parcel arrived from her this week.

My brother and I are kept up-to-date about Elderly Aunt’s general wellbeing by June, the lady who runs errands in return for providing Elderly Aunt with company and being able to use the washing machine. June messages my brother quite frequently – it seems she is helping Elderly Aunt more and more. She alerted me last week that a parcel would be on its way with a couple of books as a birthday present (it is after all next month) and that she had helped her get it posted and had helped Elderly Aunt write a letter and card.

However, when the parcel duly did put in an appearance this week (positively normal service after what has been the case so far this year in the new post-Brexit world) the postman turned up to chug me for customs fees. From 1 July, I have learned, the excuse of it being a gift no longer cuts the mustard, and I had to duly rummage around my wallet, change purse and the change jar to ensure that I could meet the postman’s demands, wanting “exact change only” for EUR 29.13. I tried to offer EUR 30 and then EUR 29.20, but both of these gambits were turned down, and I duly scrabbled for some coins to ensure that it was paid to the cent. Since lockdown, while I have had cash in the house as a precaution, I tend to only have EUR 50 notes and the odd pile of coins. I’d just been out to the baker and paid him in cash, and cleaned myself out of small change rather than inflict a EUR 50 note on him for EUR 13 worth of produce.

The postman was patient, and did say that he was sorry to have to insist on exact change only, and that he couldn’t take card payments, despite the fact that the Post Office has a new partner bank, bank99. I am sure that this new bank could pull its finger out to equip the “beat posties” with a machine to accept cards, or even an app for the terminals that they use for parcels, but this is Austria where cash still seems to be king in certain areas, even if you can now pay contactless upto EUR 50. He did try to reassure me that it was all non-EU parcels that are being charged for now and wasn’t purely a Brexit issue (although were the UK still “in the club”, we would not have had the conversation). And as he went on his way he said that he hoped the parcel was worth it.

To give him his due, he has been our postman for 7-8 years and I know him relatively well in that he has often let me sign for parcels for the now dwindling collection of wobbly, bobbly old ladies in our building, since he realises that it I weren’t to do so, the chances would be that I might have to collect from the post office on their behalf, or drive them to the post office for them to collect them. Whether the contents will be worth the extra customs fee will only be discovered when I unwrap whatever the two books are that Elderly Aunt has sent me.

From the letter in the parcel and the label, it was clear that June had been press-ganged into writing action on behalf of Elderly Aunt for secretarial duties. The envelope on the birthday card (to be kept for my birthday itself, along with the present) was in a shakier, more spidery version of the handwriting I had known Elderly Aunt to write in. The other letter was in June’s hand – with graphologically interesting circled lower case “i”, interesting joined and non-joined lower case “s” and a “p” that was quite close to the Greek mu.

Before anyone worries, I do not think this shows traits of being a psychopath, but more likely that June’s handwriting is a mixture between the schoolbench joined up and some kind of bid to be slightly individual. Clearly there had been considerable effort into writing the letter, with a failing Bic the likely pen of choice, which occasionally would strike. It was odd that it didn’t feel like a letter from Elderly Aunt, although there were some flashes of Elderly Aunt coming through in places.

Of course there was never any danger that I would choose not to accept the parcel, although I am sure that Elderly Aunt would have been livid had I not accepted it, which made me think about the issue that arises – given that there are custom fees to be paid for everything, and which seem to inflate the actual cost of a present. The postman had given me a leaflet about how it was aimed to stop people from going for Chinese knock-off phone covers or buying clothes online from the US (I don’t fit this demographic, rarely buying much more exotically than from Schlatte on the Obkirchergasse). But, I would imagine that the terminally cash-strapped will soon being feeling the pinch of paying the € 7 here, € 9 there and finding there to be more month left at the end of the money.

I mentioned the new charges to Nephew, who after all was once a near online shopping addict, which was responsible for his penurous state during the #nephewgate era. He has been earning a bit on the side helping get a few little webshops running, having taught himself how to set them up, and recently displayed considerable restraint when he wanted an England shirt (he was convinced that it was going to be their year, and asked for an England top – I managed to get just about the last one from the fan shop in the 8th district). He had abstained from his urge, as he is currently trying to save up for a separate desk and a decent office chair (and not wanting to go through the ordeal of willhaben), having been camped out on their dining table for a lot of the pandemic period making his extra pennies, as his desk has become his girlfriend’s sewing table, at which she repairs clothes admirably for friends and family, which is proving a source of pin money to hopefully be able to go on holiday in due course (they haven’t been out of Austria together and want a few days down at the coast to help get them mentally prepared for the winter onslaught).

But the customs on parcels could prove the breaking point for frayed relationships, with family members inflicting postage fees on one another and then piqued recipients refusing to accept the parcel, with the effect that everyone requests money for Christmas and Birthday, and not in the similar vein of the postal order from the wealthy uncle, that was greeted with a gaping jaw when it fell out of a birthday card in my childhood. For others it might mean that the parcels from the UK to their children will cease to be a feature of their life in Austria, or that Mr. Bezos’ local store will see more of their trade. I’ve been a long-standing critic of the Amazonisation of the world and the way it has seen physical retail drag itself futilely to try to compete, turning many countries into pantheons of 24/7 retailing. I’ve enjoyed the fact that Austria hasn’t tried to join the crowd of nations that are actively built on wall-to-wall retail.

Of course this sentiment is likely from my being a child of the late 1950s and early 1960s. I remember making presents for my parents (a wooden pipe stand for my father and grandfather; a pottery mug that was decidedly porous for my grandmother). I wonder if children nowadays are programmed to keep the retail cogs turning, whereas we in those simpler bygone days used to make (and mend!) and all deal with having less stuff. But there is one positive – knowing that there will be a present waiting for me to open from Elderly Aunt when my birthday ticks around, given my kid sister’s propensity to forget or at the very least blame it on the postal services of the Iberian peninsula.

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