Sunday, July 29, 2012

You've Got Mail

One of the welcome changes from being in Armenia these past two years is the absolute absence of junk mail.  When I live in New York and go away for two weeks for vacation, I return home to a pile of mail nearly a foot high - magazines, bills and tons of catalogs and other marketing driven mail. Mail in Armenia is not a foreign concept, but (as with everything else) it is very different from the US.

During training, we had a language lesson about dealing with the post office and the related vocabulary.  We also learned that the address format here is the reverse of the one we use in the US.  Specifically, the format is:

Republic of Armenia
Marz (region) name
City/town/village name
Street address

Our homework assignment was to ask our host families for the mailing address of our house and bring it to class.  I knew I was dealing with a different reality when my host mother looked at me like I had two heads.  She told me that if I ever wanted to send them a letter, simply address it to "Solak Village - Gohar and Razmik" and they would get it.  I asked about their surname (which I still to this day do not know) and she told me it is not necessary - everyone knows them.  [I subsequently learned that wives do not always take the husband's surname upon marriage, so not all family members have the same one - but I digress.]

I did not know at the time that Gohar works in the post office, but I don't think that is even relevant.  A former Armenia PCV sent a postcard to one of my fellow volunteers last year and the address (written in English) comprised the volunteer's name, his town and "Armenia" and it reached him. What is more important in may cases is to specify the marz (region) since there are multiple villages in the country with duplicate names (one of my sitemates learned that the hard way when she thought she found a 20 minute shortcut to a village that normally takes three hours to reach - oops - but, again, I digress).

Since that experience, I have learned that many people don't know their post code, where their local post office is, or even what their full mailing address is for one simple reason - they don't get mail.  One of the lifelines for a lot of PCVs is letters and packages from home, so you learn a lot of interesting lessons in trying to navigate the system that does exist.

For example, the time required for something to reach you here can vary widely.  We are told to use the US Postal Service only because there is some sort of agreement that allows us not to deal with some of the customs formalities that might be applied to the courier services such as FedEx and UPS.  But more importantly - those services do not normally deliver outside of Yerevan.  While a FedEx package might reach Armenia sooner, getting the package would entail a trip into Yerevan once you know it has arrived, and maybe a trip to the airport to pick it up.

But following the USPS route is not foolproof either.  My first year here, I left my winter clothes in New York and asked that they be mailed to me once I had a mailing address.  My brother-in-law mailed two boxes to me - both the same size and nearly identical weight and mailed at the same time.  One of  the boxes reached me in four weeks, the other in eight. In tracking the packages (thank you Priority Mail!) I saw that both reached Yerevan the same day, but one was returned to Newark where it sat for a few weeks and then came back again. I have no idea why it got waylaid.

Once the packages reach Yerevan, they are put on a train to Gyumri and I need to trek to the post office adjacent to the train station to retrieve them. It takes me about 30 minutes to walk there and I don't mind it  except that recent packages did not go there, but instead went to one of the local post offices.  I never got an explanation as to why the process changed, but that made me realize how few people here know where the post offices are - it took me two days to locate "Post office 18" (this was made more difficult because people here give directions without really knowing street names, but I digress yet again).

But the combination of the small-town feel of Gyumri (that is - how much people know of my business) and Armenian resourcefulness makes it a bit easier sometimes.  When a package for me was mailed to my Gyumri host family's address after I had moved out (and after they had decamped to Russia for a while) the mailman heard (I suppose from the neighbors) that I sometimes worked at the American Corner which is nearby.  So, he brought the letter there and left it for me. For the next couple of months, any mail I received was delivered there, even when the correct address was used. Another time, a mailman saw me near my apartment and chased me down the street to give me a package notification slip - even though I had never laid eyes on him before.  Likewise, when I finally tracked down the post office I needed to go to for the first of the packages that didn't go to the central location, I walked in and didn't need to ask about a package - one woman took one look at me and asked "Are you John?"

In any event, you had better have your passport with you to pick something up.  Passports seem to be the most widely used form of ID here and heaven help you if you can't prove your identity - even if they seem to already know who you are.  The information is entered manually into a big book; you sometimes see carbon paper (remember that?) if duplicate copies are needed.

Mailing things out is interesting also.  There is no apparent standard stamp rate here as every letter is weighed and postage charged accordingly.  In my first visit to a post office in Armenia, I sent a few postcards out.  Since the hours are irregular at best (many close for a lunch break and this was in a village so there are many reasons people wouldn't show up at regular hours) I decided to buy some stamps for future mailings.  When I asked to buy them, I was met with confusion as I did not have a letter to weigh so there was no way of knowing how much postage I would need.  I was still in the very preliminary stages of language learning  - plus the concept of no minimum postage was alien to me - so the whole exchange must have been comical to the other people there.  Finally, she sold me a couple of stamps, probably just to make me go away.  I still have them.

I have since learned to navigate the system and have successfully mailed various items, although I have no explanation as to why some things reach the US in two weeks while a letter mailed to England took four months.

I was in for a shock when I paid a recent visit to mail some of my things back to New York as I wind down here.  I had heard previously that packages needed to be mailed from Yerevan but recently learned that I could mail from one particular post office in Gyumri.  Whether the old information was incorrect or if the system had changed is unknown to me  - I was just excited that I could mail locally.  I decided to do a test package to gauge the process, the cost and the speed.  I packed a box the size of a shoebox with things that were non-essential but which I wanted to keep and packed it up in a way that I thought would be acceptable.  When I got to the post office, I was told by the very stern lady who handles packages that I needed to open it so that she could inspect the contents.  I did so and (although she did not look at everything) she asked me to explain certain items (as if she had never seen socks or glass jars before). 

Four copies of the mailing label were needed and this was not a carbon paper kind of place - I had to fill it out by hand four times.  And she required my passport to mail the package.  She then proceeded to wrap the entire box with packing tape so that in the end it looked like something I expected the post office in the US to treat as suspicious.  The kicker was that a 3 kilo package (about 6.6 pounds) cost 50 bucks to mail.  Looks like more of my stuff here would move into the no-longer-needed category.

Yesterday, I had to mail a letter-sized envelope to my Solak host mother (she of the unnecessary surname and street address).  The envelope contained a stack of photographs and a small flash drive I was sending so the family would have the electronic versions of the pictures. It turns out the stern package lady is also the person one needs to deal with when sending a letter also (this was told to me by another woman there whose purpose is a mystery to me if she is not responsible for letters or packages; since people pay utility bills at the post office, maybe that's her job, but I digress again).

My "customer service representative" looked suspiciously at the envelope which I had sealed with packing tape since the glue on envelopes doesn't tend to hold.  She asked me what was inside, which I thought unusual and which made me think also that either she generally distrusts foreigners or takes her job too seriously.  I am not aware of any customs restrictions on mail within the country but she started to make a big deal when I mentioned the flash drive and consulted her supervisor.  Thankfully, his response was sane: it's being mailed within the country - what's the problem? She asked for my passport and I think my surprised expression actually shut her up.  She seemed disappointed that the postage for this envelope was only 220 dram (about 55 cents).

But the funniest post office story I have relates to something the USPS botched, but in a very creative way.  The post code for my office is 3104.  I went into the post office near work one day to mail something and a woman who worked there said she needed  my help and produced a letter addressed to someone with an American sounding name - maybe I know him, she thought.  I looked at the envelope and saw that it was mailed from Tampa, Florida to another address in Tampa, Florida.  The mailing address, however, was 3104 N. Armenia St. (I looked on Google Maps - it's a legitimate address).  Despite normal US postage, the correct ZIP code on the mailing address, and no indication whatsoever that it was going to a foreign country, it made it's way here.  

Maybe it would have helped if the person mailing it had needed to show a passport.