Vive la différence, or the weight of words

Last week I had three identical books to post to the United States. They are quite heavy, so I wanted to post them by the most economical means.

The French postal system has a special book rate. You have to write on the packet ‘livre‘ to indicate that it contains a book, which I did.

There was until fairly recently a rarity in our nearest post office – a thoroughly miserable and difficult little woman who was as awkward as she was able to be within the remit of her job.images

At the time there were two adjacent cashiers. People queued in a single queue and moved to the first cashier to become vacant. From long and depressing experience, if we saw that we were going to have to do the wearisome battle with Mrs Sourlemon-Face, as we called her, we would allow the person behind us in the queue to leapfrog us. I don’t think she was so difficult with French people.

Anyway, the good news is that following a revamp of the post office, she has now been relegated to a back room where she hands out parcels through a small window, and there is a new friendly lady dealing with the post section.

I handed her the three books, said that they were for the United States and that they were to go by the least expensive means.

After she had weighed them, she asked if they were French books. I said that they were about France, but written in English.

Then they could not go by book rate, she said. Only books written in the French language qualified.

But how would anybody know what language they were written in, I asked.

Well, the Customs might open them, she replied.

Why does the language matter, I asked.

Because the special book rate is to promote French culture.

But these books are all about France. They are about champagne, history, the French Revolution, French food ….. it is just the words that are in English. Why can’t they go by book rate?

She shrugged. Because it says so, she replied.ticket-rules-and-regulations1.jpg

The cost of posting each book – €10 – was more than the value of the book. I said I wouldn’t pay that, it was ridiculous.

Ah yes, she sighed. It’s a shame.

But she wanted to be helpful, and after a moment she had a bright idea:

If I went home and put all the books in the same parcel, and sent them to one of the recipients as a parcel, it would cost less.

But then how would the other two recipients get their books?

The first recipient would deliver them.

One lives in Texas, one in Massachusetts and one in Oregon. The first recipient would have to pay to post the books to these people.images (1).jpg

We both agreed that her bright idea wouldn’t work. She looked up what it would cost if the books went by book-rate. Less than one-quarter of the non-book-rate. Oh la, she said, there is a big difference. But, still, it says ……………….

I said to her, this is the first time I have ever been asked what language the book is written in. It has never happened in any other post office, or indeed in this very same post office, even by Mrs Sourlemon-Face.

Which other post offices had I used, she asked.

I named the one I frequently used.

Well, she said, I think it would be better for you to go to that one. It will cost you much less.

So I went to another post office, where the lady didn’t ask what
language the books were printed in, and they cost precisely €2.13 each to post.


Of course it did take an extra two hours out of my life, and thirty miles of fuel.

There’s a moral here in case you need to post books abroad from France. 🙂 download (3).jpg


This post is linked to:

Lou Messugo




33 thoughts on “Vive la différence, or the weight of words

  1. The moral as I see it is: there is no shame in lying when it comes to getting around stupid laws. The French know this, as did clearly your post office lady. Funny post!

      • They lost any small sympathy I had when I asked for the pretty stamps to put on my Christmas cards overseas (yes, I’m a renegade…). Mais non! Those were only for France, if you wanted to send anything internationally you had to use plain old boring Marianne!

  2. It’s terrible, isn’t it, to have to use such subterfuges. The whole French system is based on the saying “It’s forbidden but tolerated”. You just have to know how to get around it which we Anglosaxons don’t seem to manage very well! I’m glad you sorted it out.

    My daughter in NYC asked me if she could order some underwear (about 10 items) off the Internet and have it sent to me so I could then send it to her because the website wouldn’t send it directly to the US. Since I was worried about her having to paying customs on the other end, I took the precaution of taking everything out of the individual plastic bags, removing the price tags, and wrapping the lot in wrapping paper along with a note saying “I know it’s a little early for Christmas but I saw these in a sale and thought you might like them. I hope the size is right”. I figured that if the parcel was opened, it wouldn’t look as though she was doing illegal business.

    As it turned out, the parcel wasn’t checked so I don’t know if my scheme would have worked!

    P.S. I have had so many problems with the PO that I get my husband to go for me if possible!

    • Eventually nobody will send parcels anywhere. We’ll just order over the Internet and have the goods delivered to their destination. Then we won’t have to resort to this silly chicanery. And the parcel police at laposte won’t have a job!

  3. Laughing heartily here in Massachusetts. Where by state law you can’t have any alcohol delivered by post or courier – not sure if French labels make that better or worse 😉

      • Alcohol is taxed in Massive Chew Sets but not in next door New Hampshire which means that people cross the border to buy cheap liqueur which in turn makes the retailers here very cross as you can imagine. In theory, you are not supposed to bring any alcohol over the state line, in practice I think this is a much flouted law. I will not be testing it, however as I am scared of being deported!

  4. I think the whole world is served by the job recruitment company Jobsworths Unlimited who specialise in filling positions in the various state run sectors.
    What amazes me about your visit to La Poste is that the lady didn’t hint that if she asked the question again and you answered that they were in French then all would be well.
    That’s the normal French way round silly rules.

  5. Wow, I’ve never heard of that stipulation that the media rate only applies to books written in French! Having lived in France, that doesn’t surprise me…though like your prior experiences, I have never been asked what language book are in when mailing them! #AllAboutFrance

  6. Dying laughing here because I’ve had similar experiences at the post office that just leave you shaking your head. Sometimes with a few laughs and sometimes with a few tears when it’s just one of those days. Her bright idea was just fab. HAhahahah. Glad you got it figured out in the end. #allaboutfrance

    • Thanks for your visit. I do love the unpredictability of these events, which should be simple but can easily develop into small dramas. 🙂 They can make even the most mundane task a challenge.

  7. Wonderful story! I had no idea that was the case after 25 years here and countless books sent in many languages. Mind you, no one has ever asked me that question. Such zeal! Very commendable, n’est-ce pas?

    • It’s inspiring to see that there are still some people who take their job and responsibilities seriously, and don’t allow weasel words to circumnavigate the rules and regulations. 😀

  8. Another excellent story! I wonder had you said to her that you were mistaken and just realised the books were in French whether she’d have obliged with the French rate or whether that would have been a step too far. Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance. It’s on again from tomorrow….

  9. Only just discovered this gem (thanks to #AllAboutFrance). Beautifully told. Our village post offices have all been closed down now, so we have to go to the local town – which means these moments of culture clash are less likely.

    • Welcome, Harriet.

      Yesterday I was in a bank up in Poitiers, with a cheque to pay in to my husband’s account, as well as cash to put in mine.

      After using the automated La Banque Postale system whereby you fill in a form with the details of the cheque, and then stamp it in a machine, and then put it in the supplied envelope and stick it through the slot, I began queuing up to pay in cash behind a long line of people with parcels and ominous fistfuls of papers. It looked as if I’d be there for the whole afternoon. Then a helpful customer pointed out that there is a machine where you can pay cash in directly. The machine counts the cash. Isn’t that clever?

      Anyway, when I’d finished and returned to the car where my husband was waiting, he asked for his bank card back. After searching my bag I recalled putting it in the envelope that the cheque went in to, so that I wouldn’t lose it. I’d obviously left it in the envelope.

      In a panic I ran back in and told one of the cashiers that I’d made a betise. They had to call the lady who keeps the key to the box where the cheques are paid in, and she wasn’t very pleased because she said they are not allowed to handle the cheques that have been deposited. However, with a little persuasion and a hint of hysteria in my voice, she shuffled through the contents until she found the envelope.

      The card wasn’t in it. Now she and the original cashier fell into a real panic, an even bigger panic than mine. Where could the card be? They searched the waste bin, the floor, the counters, while customers queued with that commendable patience that the French seem to have in such situations. Oh mon dieu – what if somebody had picked it up?

      I went back to the car to explain to my husband what was happening, and that the card had disappeared. Then I had another good look through my bag. And found the card.

      When I return sheepishly to apologise and expecting recriminations for wasting their time, they were all delighted that the card had turned up, and not a ‘tut’ to be heard. 🙂

      • Ha! It just shows that people are just people, no matter their nationality. Well, I’ve just asked a lady at my gym club (who works at La Poste) about your Mrs Sourlemonface’s claim. She’s intrigued and is going to ‘look it up’ tomorrow (I didn’t use your name for her, you’ll be pleased to know). So I’ll let you know what she says next week.

      • Oh dear, it sounds as if she hasn’t been doing her homework as diligently as our lady if she’s not up to date on all the rules and regulations. 😀 I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

  10. I’ve just read your bit about the bank and the cheque card . It has cheered me up enormously to know that I am not the only “dame d’un age certain” who finds that which we have spent hours looking for, in my handbag!! I couldn’t believe it about the book postage, but Malcolm read it – and he wasn’t at all surprised! Post Offices the world over are a law unto themselves – and very slow!

    • I felt like a real twerp about the bank card, and it’s encouraging to know I’m not alone. 🙂

      As for the book – well, if the knowledge has come in useful for others, it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

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