I come from a very mail-oriented family (or so my husband tells me). In the four years I was away at college, I don’t think a week went by that I didn’t receive a funny card from my aunt, or a newspaper clipping from my mom, or cookies from my grandmother. When it’s someone’s birthday—you send a card. End of story. When it’s Valentine’s Day? Mother’s Day? Someone got a new cat? You send a card. Tim was amazed at the amount of birthday mail he started receiving when we got married.
And like many Americans, we send and receive Christmas cards. This year, I would guess we had about 40 cards from the US hanging in our window. (Maybe you see yours?)
Yesterday as we discussed the news that the United States Postal Service will eliminate Saturday delivery this August (now I’m definitely not moving back), a friend inspired me to write a post about our experiences with the mail since we moved. It’s become one of those little pieces of life abroad that was “so different” in 2010, and now is “normal but occasionally cause for griping.”
This is our mail slot. It’s part of our front door, and kind of lets in the cold.
The Dutch mail system is privatized, with TNT/PostNL being the main carrier, delivering six days a week. There are, as I understand it, also a couple smaller carriers, who deliver less often (and maybe only do corporate mailing, not personal stuff?). This explains why I used to be confused, thinking we often got mail more than once a day.
We can’t send out-going mail from our home (nor can other people). Two years ago I found this mystifying; now I’m used to it. We take letters to the public boxes around town (two slots—one for local postcodes; one for overige, everywhere else). We take packages to one of the stores sporting the orange TNT/PostNL logo outside, most often the C1000 grocery store in the Zuidpoort because it’s so close. These are not post offices. They are retail stores that have a TNT counter in them.
We can choose to opt out of junk mail! Every mail slot has a sticker like ours over it reading “Nee/ Ja” or “Nee / Nee.” When we moved in we had the first sticker, which meant we got circulars and ads and community newspapers we couldn’t read a word of. It was nowhere near as much junk mail as I remember getting in the US, but it was still a waste, and it went directly to the recycle pile. So after a couple months I went to the Gemeente (town hall) and (for free) picked up the other sticker, pasting it over the first one. Instantly, junk mail stopped, with the occasional exception of some rogue flier-stuffer.
Early in our days here, the doorbell rang and I raced downstairs, excited to see the mailman outside with a package. Only, the package wasn’t for me. It was an important-looking, signature-required package, and it was for a neighbor. The mailman asked if I wouldn’t mind accepting it, signing for it, and handing it off to my neighbor later on. Surprised (and not knowing my neighbor at all), I wasn’t sure I wanted that responsibility. Wouldn’t my neighbor think it was weird that I had his package? And, if something was awry with it, would he blame me? I declined to take the package, which as I recall exasperated the mailman.
I had no idea that accepting neighbors’ packages is standard procedure. With mail slots being only a couple inches high, there’s no place to stick a box, and they (thankfully) won’t simply leave a package on your doorstep or porch, as they might in the US. (But will they try with all their might to shove a near-fit through the slot, even if it destroys the packaging? You bet they will.) So when a package comes for you and you’re not home, the carrier rings the bells all around you until he gets someone. That person takes the package, and you get a slip in your mail slot saying “Your package is at # 49.” Since I work from home, I’m frequently a package-acceptor now, and I don’t mind at all. (Although I’m always disappointed when the box isn’t for me!)
Moving abroad has greatly increased my respect for the reliability of the US Postal Service. Really, it is quite fast; and it is rare that things get lost. My close friend and I have written letters back and forth since we were about 16. About a year ago, we instituted the system of notifying each other when we mailed a letter. This followed a stressful and drawn-out incident in which one of us had mailed the other a letter whose contents were Highly Personal—and was horrified to discover, weeks later, that the letter had never arrived. This was one of my first tip-offs that things in the international post do not always reach their destination. This specific item—literally months later, I believe—was returned to sender with a note scrawled on it that it was mis-addressed. It was not in any way mis-addressed.
But at least it turned up! Still in the void somewhere are: an invitation to my cousin’s wedding; a personal note and card that a dear friend put time and thought into…. and who knows what else, that we didn’t know to expect. Several times we have received envelopes from the US with a note in Dutch that they were not properly addressed, or with the zip code crossed out—and every time, the address and zip code are correct. Last year I mailed a birthday card to my cousin and thought little of it… until a few months later, it reappeared in my mail, marked (inexplicably) “return to sender.”
Two Christmases ago my father paid some ridiculous fee to send a box to us from New Jersey via priority international (possibly not the official name), to have it arrive before Christmas. The tracking on it stopped updating after it crossed the Atlantic, and it didn’t arrive for weeks (looking, I believe, like it had been opened and searched somewhere along the way). When we send boxes back (which honestly we try to avoid whenever possible), the only options are “normal” (they send the package) and “with tracking” (same speed– but with tracking). I once paid the extra for the tracking and wouldn’t bother ever again. The updates, once it left the country, just said “in transit” with no location for about two weeks.
In general, letters go in either direction in roughly 7-10 days; occasionally faster if they originated in a major city. Packages are anyone’s guess but I don’t think a package sent from us has ever reached in less than two weeks.
We also make sure people know to never send us anything a) by FedEx b) with a high value on the customs form. We got a big surprise that first Christmas when a FedEx package from family came with an invoice for us, owing something like €30 to customs. We were taxed on not only the value of the contents of the box, but the cost paid for shipping (groan). After this happened a second time, on a USPS box with a high content value, we sent out an all-points memo to family telling them to undervalue things they send.
Another thing I take for granted now is that our mailpeople bike or walk everywhere just like we do (minus the package girl). No little US mailman putt-putting in his truck from house to house, leaning out to reach the mailbox. Our mailman is a whistling older gentleman (I can usually hear him before I hear the distinctive flap of the mail slot) who pushes a bright orange cart. Does he occasionally give us mail for our neighbors? Yes. Do our neighbors occasionally get mail for us? Yes. But we all play nice and redeliver things gone astray (or so I hope).
What will happen one day if we move?
A Dutch friend told me once that if we moved, we could just leave a big addressed envelope with some money for postage, and the new tenants could wait a month and round up some stuff for us. (You can see that over here it’s far more common to rely on the general goodwill of other people, even people you don’t know.) When we first lived in this apartment, we got INCESSANT mail for the former tenant. I couldn’t figure out how she had been so irresponsible as to not change her address on anything. I marked everything I could with the Dutch “return to sender” phrase and dropped it all in a mailbox. Finally fed up, I began contacting organizations that routinely sent her mail, asking to be taken off their lists—and one of them actually put me in contact with her via e-mail. It turned out she had only moved locally, and she seemed surprised that we were still getting all her mail. I invited her over to pick up the giant stack, and she claimed she had set up a forwarding service with TNT. If that was true—I can’t recommend TNT forwarding.
If you’re intrigued (or want a good scare), the London Review of Books published a fascinating article on the Dutch postal system in 2011 (with England trying to decide whether or not to adopt a similar model). After I read this article, I was afraid to send letters to my friend for, um, about a month.
It’s still a minor miracle that I can drop some papers in a box and friends or family can have them in a matter of weeks—regardless of what country I live in. But we still hold our breath a bit when someone says, “Hey, I’ve sent you a package!” And I occasionally see ads around town suggesting that if I am a stay-at-home mom I might enjoy some easy part-time work of sorting or delivering mail. No, thanks—but I’m trusting in the goodwill of whoever’s sorting ours.