Post Office

uspsYesterday morning I went to the post office. I wanted to send a package to Germany. It seemed like 50 other people had a similar idea at the exact same time. While I was waiting in line for what turned out to be 45 minutes, I had enough time to ask myself a series of existential questions, such as, “why do some people wear shorts and flip flops when it’s freezing outside?” or, “what can I have for dinner tonight?”, but mostly wondered, “why is there such a long line at the post office at 10 AM???” In order to clarify this very important matter, I went through a very thorough 4 point analysis.

  1. Are there enough employees working at the counters?

There were employees at every single counter working at full speed. There was even an employee that was just there to answer questions. If a customer wasn’t in line to ship a package they could get ahead of the line.

Conclusion: The employees are very fast, so that couldn’t be the reason for the epic line. Next point.

  1. Is the USPS not efficient enough?

In my case, maybe. When it was (finally!) my turn, I was told that I had to fill out a custom form. No problem. However, the lady at the counter wasn’t sure which one of her two custom forms was for Germany. The only way for her to find out was for me to fill out the form, then type everything into the system and THEN see if it was the right one. It wasn’t. While that took maybe 5 minutes, other people in line went through much faster, so I can only assume that any other process seems to be running pretty smoothly. Also, there was a machine inside the post office for automated US-shipping. Anybody who wanted to ship a package within the US could avoid the long line and just handle their packages there. In fact, there were about 10 people using the machine and from what I could tell, they moved really quickly.

Conclusion: Besides minor issues, the USPS seems to have a well-organized system that works very efficiently. Moving on to point three.

  1. Is this the busiest season of the year?

It is Christmas time, which means that probably EVERYBODY is sending off packages to aunt Terry in Canada and cousin Martin in the Caribbean. So it makes only sense that there are this many people at the post office. Well, it would make sense, if I didn’t remember the last time I went to the post office. It was the end of July and the line was just as long.

Conclusion: Unless there is a disproportionate number of people abroad whose birthday is in July, this can’t be the reason either. .

  1. Are the customers slow?

If the employees aren’t slow, maybe it is actually the customers that ask too many questions or don’t understand the process of shipping a package. I count. 2.25 minutes. That is the average time it takes a customer to go up to the counter, handle their package and leave the post office.

Conclusion: This might not be as quick as the Wendy’s drive through, but it still cannot be considered slow.

Concluding this analysis, there seems to be no apparent reason for the never-ending lines at the post office. This then leaves me with four possible explanations. Explanation one: Americans are simply obsessed with sending packages to friends and relatives abroad. Explanation two: The vast community of US expats orders electronics, books, clothes (and pretty much anything that is cheaper in the US) online, and asks their friends and relatives to ship it to them. Explanation three: Both of the above. Explanation four: Every American has read Post Office by Charles Bukowski.

’tis the Season Guide to How to Best Pack Your Carry-Ons (and remember: don’t do what the priest does, only what he preaches!)

While I am really glad that for the next couple of months I don’t have to take my backpack anywhere, I know that the holidays are typically the season where most commoners (that is: people that don’t spend half the year backpacking) travel. I have noticed that people prepare for their trips in different ways. There are people (like my mom) who make very detailed lists before they pack their suitcases, spread the packing over several days, check and double-check that they really do have everything, and by the time they’re heading for the airport, everything is neatly organized in their suitcases and they haven’t forgotten a thing.

packing suitcase

There are also people (like my boyfriend) who start packing five minutes before they have to leave and in a wild session of organized chaos throw a bunch of random things in their backpacks. By the time they’re heading for the airport the inside of their bags is a mess, but strangely enough, they never seem to forget anything important.

And then there is people like me. I make a detailed list of things that I will need to buy for my travels, and another detailed to-do-list with tasks I should complete before I leave (I have just added “write a blog post about the typology of suitcase packing” on this list). I start packing and preparing days before my actual trip. However, I somehow always end up with a huge list of things that I still need to get or do, one day before I have to leave. By the time I head for the airport, I haven’t gotten half the things on my list, and forgotten the other half, in other words, I am a complete mess when it comes to preparing for my trips.

I don’t know how many times I checked my bags, and forgot to take out the book I wanted to read on the flight. Or, worse, forgot that I still had my mosquito spray in my carry-on bag. Something, I’d suggest you should avoid if mosquitoes tend to take a liking to you because, there is no convincing an airport official that you just won’t survive the jungle trip without that mosquito spray. Over the years and after many frustrating experiences, I have come up with a list of things that I know I want with me at all times, and that’s pretty much the only list that’s worked for me.

Chargers charger

I was flying to Germany a while ago to see my parents when they announced that my flight would arrive late. So just when I wanted send my parents an email that my flight had been delayed, I realized that my laptop wasn’t charged – and that I had put the charger in the checked bag. So make sure, all of the electronic devices you might need are charged and / or pack your charger (phone, laptop, mp3 player etc.) in your carry-on bag!

P.S. Until writing this post and searching on Google Images for a picture, I had no idea that Charger is actually a type of car!

P.P.S. You should also make sure that you have a converter with you if you travel internationally.

Booksbook

Nothing can be worse than leaving your Kathy Reichs thriller at home! I forgot to pack my book and had to wait 2 months before I could find out who the killer was. I realize that most of you probably don’t care too much about Kathy Reichs, but if you like reading on a plane or while waiting during your layovers, make sure you have the book you want to read in your carry-on bag.

Neck Pillowneck-pillow-10

I think after about one year of nagging and complaining about neck the pain, my boyfriend finally got the hint and bought me a neck pillow for Christmas. Even the most cozy plane seats can get uncomfortable after a couple of hours, and I really can’t stand the plane pillows that feel like somebody blew up an airbag under your head. So the neck pillow is an absolute must for ANY trip. I think if I had to choose 3 things to take on a lonely island, this neck pillow would be one of them!

Gumbad breath

Not every airline thinks about giving out toothpaste, so if you want to make sure you don’t smell like a mix of coffee and the airplane pasta dish, you should pack some gum or mints.

Socks

I know some people insist on keeping on their shoes at all times and are horrified of the idea of taking them off, or even worse, other people with possibly smelly feet doing it, but I really don’t see why anybody should have to wear their heavy boots for the entire duration of a 15 hour flight. So I always pack a pair of comfy woolen socks. In case you wonder, yes, my Grandma made them for me, and yes, I also make sure they are clean and smell like spring flowers!

Snacks

If I am on a flight with a cheap airline where a bag of peanuts costs $ 10, I always pack some food. You cannot take any liquids on a plane, but nobody will take away your food!

Getting out of the airport

You should always find out BEFORE you land how to leave the airport. This seems obvious, but I have also left airports assuming that there will probably be some bus that will take me where I need to go. Lesson to be learned: NEVER assume anything! Will somebody pick you up? Are there buses that can take you into town? How much are cabs? Do you want to rent a car? If you want to rent a car, you can actually save a lot of money if you compare rates and reserve a car in advance. If you fly within the US you might find RelayRides (car rental meets car sharing meets airport parking) useful. I just found out about this site recently, and haven’t actually used it yet, but it might be worth checking it out.

Print important documents

Coming into the US, I was welcomed by a big sign that said “the use of cell phones is forbidden”. This was especially unfortunate as I hadn’t printed my plane ticket for my flight out of the US. As I asked if I could just show them the ticket on my phone and started taking out my phone, the migration officer didn’t really appreciate it. Well, his exact words were: “What are you taking that out for??? Are you going to record me!!!” Recording a police officer is a felony in the US, so you really do not want to get them angry at you, especially if you are already sitting in the FBI interrogation room at the airport trying to explain that you really do NOT want to live in the US, and that you are very happy with being a resident of the European Union. Okay, this might not happen to anybody else but me. However, if you want to avoid any possible discussion with the officials, or if you forgot to charge your cell phone with all the important documents on it (and didn’t put your charger in the carry-on bag), print out anything that you think might be important, tickets, hotel reservations, rental car reservation, your friend’s address, your lawyer’s phone number, ANYTHING. Better safe than upsetting migration officers sorry!

angry officer

To Rent-A-Car or Not-To-Rent-A-Car?

Renting a car in Albania seemed like a great idea: the rates are very low and countries such as Montenegro or Kosovo, otherwise difficult to get to, are only a few hours away. It seemed like a great idea until I actually got behind the wheel and my Albanian car rental nightmare began. Seriously, mind my words! If you are not Albanian or have not participated in at least 5 desert rallies before, DO NOT DRIVE IN ALBANIA!

Obviously, nobody warned me before so I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into…

Meet the rental car

It was 4 PM on a cold October day, and it was starting to get dark. That’s when I realized that there are no street lights in Albania. And by no street lights I mean no lights at all. Not on the highway, not on the main roads, not even in the cities. It is pitch-black. That’s when I realized that I could only manage to see something if I kept my headlights on full the entire time. That’s when I realized that everybody else was doing the same. That’s when I realized that a) the dim out function of my rear view mirror didn’t work, b) my windshield was so dirty that it reflected the headlights of the cars that came towards me, and c) the windshield wipers were so rotten that when I tried to use them to clean my windshield it only made matters worse. That’s when it started to rain. Not a slight drizzle but a heavy, torrential rain came pouring down. That’s when I realized that I basically couldn’t see anything any more and had to drive about 20 miles per hour. That’s when I got pulled over by the police (in Albania there are police check-points pretty much every 500 yards). I am pretty sure the officer didn’t feel like dealing with the bureaucratic monster of filing a police report for a foreigner, so he just let me go … well … creep on. That’s when we ran out of gas and realized that at Albanian gas stations you can only pay with cash. That’s when we started praying that our 5 dollars of gas in the tank would last us until getting back to Tirana. That’s when the highway ended and the moon crater of Albanian roads began, and no, I am NOT exaggerating!

Albanian road crater

That’s also when the Albanian drivers started swerving around these holes at about 90 miles per minute, honking and swearing each time they passed us and our snail-mobile, splashing puddles of water on my windshield while whizzing ahead, only to hit the breaks two seconds later because they had seen a police check point. That’s when I thought it couldn’t get any worse and that we would never reach Tirana. And that’s when it got worse. While trying to deal with some blinding headlights and a mad Albanian driver behind me, I missed a hole.

*shake* *jolt* *crash* *car dead*

Luckily, that’s when our rental car decided to take one for the team, and I managed to restart the engine. Happily, I drove on until I realized that this time the Albanian drivers had a good reason for slaloming around me, swearing and honking. I was driving in the wrong direction on a one way street. And that is when, 100 miles and 4 hours later, we arrived in Tirana.