Red Stamp, Green Stamp…

It’s figuring out how to do the ordinary things, those things that you take for granted and rarely have to think about,  that become the most challenging when you move to a new country. For me it’s been things like trying to figure out where to buy contact lens solution, determining the best running route, what to do if one of us should need a doctor, or, on one particular day, figuring out how to buy a stamp and mail a letter. Let’s see how I’ve done so far with these challenges:

First, after a few failed attempts to find contact lens solution from, what seemed to me, the most logical locations – a Pharmacy, a grocery store, a department store – I finally turned to my friend Google who told me that, in France, I can only purchase contact lens solution at an Optical store. Imagine. Fortunately for us there’s an Optical store about a block away suggesting I could have saved myself a lot of walking if I’d only thought to start there first! When I finally went into this store I further discovered that the cheapest (and preferred it would seem) way to purchase contact lens solution is by the caseload – 6 large bottles at a time. I guess they figure that, if you wear contacts, you’re always going to need solution so why muck around buying single small bottles one at a time: just fork over a wad of Euros and we’ll give you a caseload, now go away and don’t bother us anymore! Frankly I’m just happy they didn’t make me buy it in a 10 litre jug because pouring it into my tiny lens container would have been a nightmare!

Second, as you know, I’ve also determined a decent running route. I’m sticking with that route, by the way. I have tried changing it a couple of times since I wrote my post, just to mix things up – I like variety – and to try and see some of the other cool sites in our vicinity. I’ve tried running away from the river and along the Champs Élysées and then home through the back streets, I’ve run through the Tuileries and past the Louvre, etc. but on each of these occasions I’ve ended up lost and running about twice the distance I’d planned on, as well as suffered some twisting of limbs from running on the crazy cobblestone streets.  I give up.  No more variety.  I’ve finally come to the conclusion that no good will come from changing my route so I am now a committed “river road runner”.

With respect to finding a source for medical attention, I’m actually trying to be a little proactive (you just never know). I have actually spent some time with my friend Google trying to get it to give me some plain, simple instructions about how to get medical attention for a non-life threatening injury or some such event. Google and I are still working on it. At the moment my impression is that the French medical system may well be excellent (according to all sources) however, their ability to explain who to see if you have a weird rash or have cut yourself and may need a stitch or two definitely leaves something to be desired. I highly doubt that calling an Emergency vehicle is the correct response to any of my scenarios but that’s the only advice I’ve been able to find.  I guess I’ll have to keep searching and perhaps consider signing up for an emergency medical course once my French improves!

Which brings me to my most recent chore-challenge: buying a stamp and mailing a letter. A simple concept yes? But I had no real idea what to do.  To be honest, I’d been carrying around a thank-you card for Uncle Freddy (from my Belgium visit) for about a week when I realized that my card was finally getting to it’s ‘Best Before’ date and that I needed to suck it up and figure out how to get a stamp for my card and then get the card into a mailbox. Since one of my grocery store routes took me right by a Post Office I finally gathered up the chutzpah and went in.

Well, I can tell you this, going into the Post Office (PO) did not actually get me any closer to figuring out how to buy a stamp. To begin, as a PO customer you have 2 options for attention: one of a number of self-serve machines right at the front of the building or a “real” person set way in the back behind a large counter.   Since the line-up of people waiting at the distant counter stretched all the way to the self-serve machines at the front, and each of these customers was was holding more than one package needing attention (do they stockpile them to put off dealing with the PO?) I decided to take my chances at one of the machines near the front door which were, surprisingly, all vacant.

- Taken from the main entrance. See the counter way in the background? That's where the "helpful" person sits.
– Taken from the main entrance. See the counter way in the background? That’s where the “helpful” person sits.






These 5 machines sit just inside the main entrance. Much closer to the door than the "real" person
These 5 machines sit just inside the main entrance. Much closer to the door than the “real” person from the distant counter.

I figured out from the signs above the machines that: 1) I did not need cash so machine #1 was out, 2) I did not have a big package so machines #2 and #3 were out, which meant I was destined for either machine #4 or #5 – both were empty. Now I just had to follow the instructions, which should be easy, right?

To begin, the postage meter works by weight and less by size (they list a rough size estimate for you but it’s nothing like the exaggerated measuring act that goes on when you try to send anything bigger than an envelope through Canada Post. You start by setting your letter on the scale on top of the machine.

To begin, I set my letter on top and then choose 1 of the 4 options. Even I could figure out that some options were for letters and some were for packages. Yay to step #1

Next I determined that the screen was asking me something about the kind of postage service I wanted. My French vocabulary associated with the Post Office and mailing things is not that great so I tried simply making a few semi-intelligent but mostly random choices on my machine just to see what would happen. Most of these efforts led me to a screen that suggested it would cost me about 4Euros to mail my 3”x5” very flat, 15gram card to Belgium and I knew THAT couldn’t be right so back to the start I’d go.

This screen only served to confuse me. I tried every option and had a range of price options offered up for my little letter. None seemed quite right until, somehow, I got to a screen offering me “green” or “red” stamps. Preferring the colour green to red, I chose those for my letter.

Finally, I got to a choice that offered me stamps. EUREKA! I finally made it to the right spot, or so I thought.  My stamp options weren’t not, however, based on values (i.e. 1 Euro, 2Euro, etc. ) rather they were based on colour!  Specifically I could have red stamps or green stamps.  I chose a package of “green” stamps (mostly because I like the colour green more than I do red).  At first I thought that the use of colours rather than values for their stamps could be attributed to the French obsessions with design and fashion, weird I thought, but okay.  However, after a little more rational sleuthing at the machine I determined that “going green” actually meant my letter would receive a slightly slower mail service – 2 to 3 days – but would cost me less than the “red” stamps which promised to deliver my letter in 1 to 2 days.  I figured the savings were worth it but I couldn’t help but wonder which stamp I would buy if I wanted my letter to arrive in exactly 2 days?

I further determined that I could purchase my green stamps in groups of 10 for 6Euros 80 centimes. What the heck I decided, I should get a bunch of stamps to save me a trip back here. After all, I still don’t know how many of these stamps I need in order to mail my card to Belgium, plus if I buy extras I can send actual cards and letters to my friends in Canada (something I know would make my friend Jaclyn particularly happy). And it was this inner dialogue that led to my decision to purchase not 1 but 2 bundles of green stamps for a total of 13Euros 60centimes.

Happy with my purchase, but still unsure what to do about my card, I approached the Post Office lady (who happened to be at one of the machines all of a sudden helping another customer) and quickly asked her how many green stamps to put on my card. She looked at the card, then looked at me, then looked back at the card and then, in a rather incredulous tone of voice informed me that the green and red stamps could only be used to mail letters within France. Oh. Are you kidding me?? I just spent about 15 minutes trying to figure the dumb machine out and now I’ve bought the wrong stamps? Damn.

Back to the stupid machine I went. This time, however, I was able to move a little more quickly through some of the options – mostly because I’d already tried them – and somehow, this time, I got to a screen that now offered me choices to mail my letter/package inside Paris, around France or into the “Monde” – I like that – no instructions for specific countries just France, somewhere overseas or “the world” (how “over seas” and “world” differ is beyond me.  Maybe one is for sunny destinations like Jamaica, Greece or Portugal and the other is for grey rainy places like London, England or Vancouver?  At any rate, I have no idea how I got to this screen as I was quite certain I had not seen it during my previous stamp purchasing effort! l

My 3 options: 1) France (I finally figured out that the shape shown is, in fact, France! – can you say “impressionism”?. 2) “Outre Mer” – must mean other places over seas that have a lot more sun then we do and then….the best choice of all 3) “Monde” – send a letter to the world! Cool!

Of course I chose “ Monde” (who wouldn’t?) and my stamp price was 95 centimes (under 1Euro) which made a lot more sense to me than 4Euros.  However, I had to pay for this little stamp with my bank Card since I had no change left from my previous purchase and the machine only takes coins, not bills. Sigh.

With the correct stamp finally in hand, I put it onto the envelope and then looked around the room for a mailbox. This is when I learned that there is no mailbox inside the Post Office (unless you go to the desk and are mailing a package). To mail my card I had to go outside and walk around to the backside of the building where, again, I had to make a choice to mail my card to somewhere in France or to an international destination. I popped it into the international slot and my card was finally on its way to Uncle Freddy.

A guy figures out which mail slot to use at the back of the building while the “helpful” desk lady sneaks a smoke (maybe that’s why they keep the desk at the back of the room??)

In the end, my simple chore of buying a stamp and mailing my card took me about 25 minutes and my little thank-you card to Uncle Freddy ended up costing me 14Euros 55 centimes to mail. It sure makes the initial 4Euro option seem pretty appealing!  Plus, I’m not even certain the card has actually arrived at its destination yet.

By the way, does anyone have any letters they’d like me to write to people here in France?  I have a lot of postage!  Oh, and next time, I’ll go to a Tabac because I’ve since discovered that you can also buy stamps there and a real person will ensure you get the correct postage.

Another day, another adventure.

My collection of "green" stamps. They don't even look very official if you ask me.
My collection of “green” stamps. They don’t even look very official if you ask me.

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