An American in Serbia: From a Writer’s Notebook
AUGUST 20, 2018
MAILING A CHILD’S WATCH TO AUSTRIA TURNS INTO AN ORDEAL
I have never been to the Belgrade main post office before even though I had walked by it “a million times.” Today, I went in for the first time. It will likely also be the last.
I went into the post office to mail a small child’s watch I got in Switzerland for my youngest Vienna granddaughter’s birthday.
As I would have done it in the US, I had carefully wrapped it with a white sheet of paper on which I had written the ‘send to’ and ‘from’ addresses.
After waiting in line for over 10 minutes even though there was only one customer ahead of me, a young man opened up another window and motioned me to come over. He was neatly dressed and groomed with a black mustache. A hundred years ago, he would have made a perfect civil servant of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Alas, that empire has been now gone for that long. But bureaucracy and inflexibility has outlived it by a century.
I told the young man what I needed to do. He rolled his eyes as if I was going ship a package to the moon. The first thing he said was that I needed to open my little neatly packaged box.
“So I can make sure it is a watch.”
Then he said I needed to buy a larger padded envelope, address it and and put my opened box in it. He used a term for “padded” I was not familiar with in Serbian (“pucketava“).
“Will you repeat what you just said but slowly,” I said.
He did. Patiently. Without rolling his eyes.
“Pucketava,” I repeated. “That’s the word I had never heard of before.”
“Then you’ll have to fill out customs forms,” he continued.
“And where do I get these forms.”
“From me. I will give them to you.”
Which he did. But seeing that these were two identical blank forms I said, “Do I have to fill in the same thing twice?”
“That’s stupid. Has no one at the Serbian post office heard of carbon paper?”
“I agree it’s stupid,” the young man shrugged. “But that’s how it is.”
So off I went to buy a “pucketava” envelope, address it by hand, fill out two customs forms and another one (a receipt) which he also had given to me.
About 15 minutes later I went back into the same line as before and eventually faced the same well-groomed young man with a black mustache. He did not smile. He just took my papers and opened box and stared in it as if he had never seen a watch before.
“Does it have a battery?” he asked.
“Of course, it has a battery,” I said. “It’s a watch. How else would it work?”
He then consulted with a colleague next door about this seemingly novel problem – a child’s watch with a battery. After a minute of muttering between the two of them, the man with a black mustache said to me, “you’ll have to remove the battery.”
“What?” I said, not quite believing my ears. “Remove the battery? Are you pulling my leg?” (”Да ли ме зезате?” in Serbian).
“No I am not. You have to take out the battery from anything you ship.”
I just shook my head in disbelief. “That is utterly ridiculous. It’s a brand new watch I bought in store. There is no way I am messing with the battery.”
“I am sorry, but those are the rules.”
The young back with a long mustache then took a good look at me. I thought I saw a little smirk creep onto his face. “Give me those customs papers,” he said.
He crossed over what I had written. And put them somewhere out of my line of vision. Probably a trash can.
“Why don’t you go to a smaller post office,” he said. “They’ll mail it for you. They don’t have to follow all these rules like we do at the main post office.”
“So the man has a heart after all,” I thought to myself. “And where is the nearest small post office?”
“Go to Nušićeva street,” he said.
I thanked him with a big smile on my face this time, and went on to Nušićeva street. Which very close.
SECOND POST OFFICE
Again, I had to stand in line for about 10 mins,. This time, a young woman asked how she could help me. I explained. She also gave me those two customs forms. I did not ask her if I had to do them twice.
She also gave me a small form with the print so tiny that one would need a POWERFUL magnifying glass to read it.
“I am sorry the print is so small,” she said, anticipating my question. “So I will tell you what you need to write on it and where.” Which she did.
“Do I have to wait in line again when I come back?”
“No,” she said. “You will be the priority.”
I went off to fill out the same two forms I had filled out before at the main post office, and that little one which no one could read.
I came back to the line. The young lady motioned me to come to the window.
“Oh, you filled this one upside down,” she said referring to that little illegible form.
She got another blank little white form and started filling it out for me. This time, I just needed to sign it.
Then she did her work. Lots of stamps, stickers, rule… like the return address must not be close to the recipient’s address on the envelope.
Five minutes later, we were done. My birthday gift for my little Liesl was finally ready to take the 615 km (381 mile-journey to Vienna,
I looked at my phone watch. I had spent over two hours trying to mail this little parcel. A darker side of life in Serbia.