November is birthday season in our family. My first two daughters and I were all born during the month of falling leaves, dropping temperatures, sweater weather, short days of golden hues and long chilly nights. My third daughter was born 3 days after November finished, but she gets to be in the club anyway.
When I left my hometown for good, I moved 3,000 miles to the East. My sister only moved 2,000 miles away from home, but in the opposite direction. Me in France, Emily in New Mexico. If we’re lucky, we get to see each other once a year. Our children see each other even less.
Which is why, when birthday season comes around, the care package that Em and her family often put together for us are a big deal. She is an Aunty Extraordinaire, never asking “what do they want, can I send a check?” but taking the time, and pleasure, to explore, happen upon little treasures, ponder what could bring us each joy. In a nutshell, her packages are magical and full of love.
So, last Thursday, when the mailman rang the buzzer, I was having one of those moments that I have a tad too often: when multi-tasking meets frenzy and the clock is not my friend. Here I had cut my timing way too close; had a videoconference beginning for work; was trying to shepherd my eldest to take my youngest —plus the dog!— out for a walk; and was realizing I also needed to show her how to tie the wrap and get baby Stella into it. Forget about preparing myself a nice mug of tea to sip during the call…
When the mailman rang I had been on the videoconference for 1 minute and 2 out of 3 webcams weren’t cooperating. I maneuvered the launch of a new call from a different software. Odile, holding Stella in her arms, beeped the mailman into the building then met him at the door. Soon she reappeared and whispered that I had to pay something. I left my boss and the president of a marketing firm we might hire, hanging, none of us suspecting how long they’d actually have to make conversation before my return.
The mailman was about my age, or maybe a little younger. Several piercings somewhere on his head, I can’t remember. Wearing the traditional French navy blue postal service slicker with yellow-trim. He held the prized birthday package in his arms and informed me that I would need to pay 43 euros to get it. “Customs fees.”
My heart dropped. I’d had myriad unfortunate experiences in previous years, the worst of which was my having to fork over 80€ to receive a package containing a 10-year-old camera lens worth 50$ that my dad had just paid 60$ to refurbish and 35$ to mail! Emily and I thought we had found the solution to avoiding unnecessary customs fees — and it had worked fine last time.
Gifts are not supposed to be taxed, and the recipient is certainly not supposed to pay a dime. But there’s apparently been a lot of sneaky activity with the advent of ebay, and the increase of person-to-person transactions and package mailing. Customs is only supposed to make you pay taxes if it’s merchandise.
Emily and I had worked out a system to avoid begin wrongly charged yet again: Inside the package, right on top, was a signed letter from her explaining that these were gifts and we were sisters, plus a pile of receipts for each object in the package. And a photocopy of our 2 passports, with the same last name…
We thought we were finally going to get around their twisted wrongful fees. Alas, we did not.
I stood there processing this bad news and looking at the mailman. I gave him the briefest of histories on this package, and although I knew he wasn’t the decision-maker, just the messenger, I did let him know that I shouldn’t have to pay any customs fees on this package.
I have to say I found that his reaction from the start was rather akin to playing dumb. He kept a poker face for 5 minutes, as I progressed from shock, to deep disappointment, to active frustration.
When I told him these were gifts from my family in the States and I shouldn’t be taxed on them, his response was “You don’t have to accept the package.” How was that helpful?
There was way too much happening in my head. Mini electrical shorts kept happening. I was ultra aware of my boss and this new potentially important contact waiting on the video conference line, which I hadn’t even bothered to mute. Odile was hovering about, looking concerned, with baby Stella in her arms. I couldn’t find my checkbook. Then I couldn’t find a pen. Or maybe I didn’t want to. I couldn’t believe this dude and how uncaring he seemed – he could see my distress and I never said it was his fault.
His shoulders lifted in a shrug as he unhelpfully said, “It’s just customs fees, Ma’am.”
At this point I felt my own brattiness mounting to match his. With my pen poised on the checkbook (because I figured I’d have no choice but to pay) I told him, “You should get informed at least. That’s not how it works”
His feathers immediately started to ruffle but I pushed on indignantly: “I’m not judging you here. But this is your job, right? This situation is likely to happen again sometime. At the very least you should know what’s a mistaken fee and provide people a number to call…”
That set him off! He raised his voice and instructed me to stop speaking condescendingly. Things were going too fast for me. I’m not good with speedy conflict, in English or in French.
“Condescending??” I repeated in disbelief, staring at him like he was nuts.
“That’s the problem in France! People have NO RESPECT!…” and he launched into some impassioned speech which my brain immediately decided to ignore.
And then I lost it. A rage quickly flared, from my gut up into my ribcage, and for a split second I imagined the incredible release I would get by karate-kicking his puny ass against the wall behind him. I was aiming for his sternum. But my karate kicks aren’t what they used to be, and luckily for everyone, I instead shouted, “Give me that!” and ripped the package out of his hands. His la poste cellphone which had been sitting on top of the carton crashed to the floor.
“Get out! Get out of my home!” I shouted, after he’d scrambled to recover his phone. He reluctantly retreated a few steps and I closed the door swiftly. Then it hit me: I still hadn’t paid for the package. Shit.
“Madame!” he began from the other side of the door.
“I will write the check now,” I said. “Stay out.”
“Madame, I am calling the police…This is unacceptable…”
“Whatever…” I muttered to myself. Too much static in my brain. “Get ahold of yourself now,” I tried to shake myself from within.
I stood at my kitchen counter, not quite sure what all had just happened. I filled out the check as best I could: I had no idea whom to write it out to so I left that blank. But, ever the lesson-giver —I fear it’s a family trait— I felt I must also take the time to stick a post-it on the check. I was already feeling regret for the whole scene but still felt deeply hurt by his shoulder-shrugging attitude.
With a trembling hand and a palpitating heart, I wrote, in French of course:
If you show a tiny bit more empathy,
You will surely see many more smiles looking back at you.
I could hear him on the phone with the Gendarmerie outside my door. Oy vey.
I opened the door and gave him the check with the post-it. He handed me a receipt.
“I’m sorry but I’ve called the gendarmes. You will be notified and be called in to explain yourself.”
“Don’t say you’re sorry when you’re clearly not. That’s another problem with the French!” I exclaimed, rather proud of myself for finding this closing comment, and closed the door in his face.
Within seconds I was sitting, still shaking all over, in front of the computer, trying to calm my nervous body down. My boss and our new collaborator were talking about cats. I declared that I had just nearly escaped assaulting the post-man, that he had called the police, but that I was fine. We dove into work. Two minutes later the tears started flowing and I couldn’t make them stop. The two women on the screen, 3,000 miles away on the other side of the ocean, quickly realized I needed to vent, so I delayed our meeting even further by tearfully telling the story.
My boss commiserated about French bureaucracy by sharing an anecdote in which the simple liquidating of her deceased (French) mother’s bank account required a huge battle involving multiple law firms and three years of struggle. The marketing firm president empathetically declared she hoped the mailman would step in some fresh, warm gum that afternoon. Quite unprofessionally, but desperate for baby Stella to get her nap and for doggy to get his walk, I held everything up for another 5 minutes while wrapping Stella up on her big sister in a 4+ meter wrap. The meeting could finally commence for real.
Just after the meeting had ended, I embarked eldest and youngest daughters in the car so I could go be tortured by my sardonic physical therapist. On the ride there I asked Odile, “What did you make of that whole crazy scene?” And she replied, “He was right. I thought you were rude to him from the start.”
“No, untrue!” I confidently replied. “I was pissed off but it was clearly not directed at him!”
“I’m going to stop this conversation here. I don’t want to be the recipient of any misdirected anger,” she eloquently and courageously quipped.
During physical therapy I was unable to do anything but cry, silently. The physical therapist was uncomfortable, I think he was pissed off that he wasn’t the one to be making me cry.
And that was the end of that. On the phone with various friends and family members, I alluded to some mailman drama and promised to write up the story. I even started to. But something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t keep writing. It all felt terribly heavy, even though I knew I could certainly put a humorous twist on it. I had a bad taste in my mouth and it didn’t feel particularly story-worthy. I thought about the episode a hundred times a day.
And then, something shifted and opened. Light and lightness returned.
Two days after “the events” the buzzer rang. There was a bit of a knot in my stomach, as the man said he was from la poste and had a package for me. A tall, speedy guy was up the three flights in seconds. It wasn’t the guy. But he appeared to be smirking at me like he knew the whole story. Then he was gone. A sigh of relief.
Then twenty minutes later the buzzer rang once more. It was him.
“Hello, it’s la poste, I’m the person from the other day… the check is incomplete…”
I beeped him in and, feeling somewhat vulnerable as I was home alone and had Stella in my arms, I grabbed my phone, turned on the voice recorder and hid it behind a mirror by the door. As I opened the door he was just arriving on the landing.
“I am happy to see you, what happened really bothered me,” he began.
“It was horrible!” I agreed. “I want to apologize for…for…”
“Me too!” he said, with feeling.
And even though one of the problems in France is that people don’t hug, we suddenly were!
For several full seconds we hugged (Stella, too) and of course, my tears flowed readily. While we held each other I heard him quietly say, “It’s OK. Everything’s OK.”
Stepping back and looking at me, he said, “What happened really shook me.”
“Me too,” I admitted. “I went back to my videoconference with my boss and a potential collaborator, and I cried!”
“I hope it turned out well though?” he politely asked.
“Yes, it did,” I said.
“Well that’s good news,” he said, seeming to actually care.
Then we laughed for a short moment when I said I still didn’t know who to make the check out to, he told me, and I filled it in.
As I handed the check to him, he repeated, “I was really shaken by it all.” And to my great surprise, he added: “Plus, what you wrote on your post-it…you were right. I’m glad it turned out this way, it’s for the best. Right?”
“I know there are problems in France…” I started, not quite knowing where I was going with it, “…but I don’t want to…”
“It’s humanity that’s missing in France,” he interrupted. “But here, there is humanity. Yes? It’s our example that matters…Right?” and since I was speechless, and still crying, he added “OK?” and I nodded my head, wishing I were finding something better to say.
“And please don’t worry, you won’t be summoned by anybody, I didn’t call anyone,” he reassured. “I was saddened by all this. And,” he added, “I do understand.”
I was still speechless, nodding, crying silently. Stella in my arms, quiet as a mouse, taking it all in. Perhaps feeling the tensions and regret of the previous 48 hours melting away.
“Don’t worry. I’m glad it turned out this way. It leaves us with a nice image. Right?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“It’s a good thing you forgot to fill in the check after all,” he said precisely what I’d been thinking.
“That’s for sure!” I managed, laughing through my tears.
“It will be a pleasure the next time I encounter you.”
“Thank you sir,” I said, sounding much more French and formal than I would have liked. Spontaneity and tears are not always a fertile mix for me.
“Thank you,” he said, “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” I said, closing the door, then let out a series of sobs in my kitchen.
Now that’s what I call resolution.