Friday, January 13, 2012

The joys of postal bureaucracy

Today, I had another delightful experience with the entrenched, by-the-book bureaucracy in Romania.

My brother sent us a package about a month ago with Christmas presents for my wife, daughter, and me, plus a birthday present for our daughter, and a couple of North American necessities that I can't find in Romania (Frank's Red Hot sauce and Old Spice deodorant). Unfortunately, Canada Post waybills leave enough space for about nine reasonably-sized characters in the "name" field. So, my brother addressed the package to "FROH MIKE", fully consuming the available space.

Fortunately, when the slip from the post office arrived yesterday, saying that there was a package for "EROH MIKE", I was prepared for the worst. The conversion of the "F" to an "E" was undoubtedly the mistake of the post office (as my brother knows our family name quite well), but I knew that I would need to explain that "Mike" is short for "Michael". I also knew that I would need to explain the discrepancy between the address on my ID card (which shows the address when I received it, a little over two years ago, when we've moved three times since then), so I brought a copy of our lease.

As it happens, explaining the idea that "Mike" is short for "Michael" took longer than I expected. Furthermore, despite having the original Canada Post waybill in front of us, and getting agreement that the letter on the waybill was, in fact, an "F", I was told that the delivery slip required that a "Mike Eroh" present himself, and that I had no right to hold that delivery slip. Luckily for me, the guy behind me in line (another programmer in Iasi, based on appearance) chimed in, concurring that "Mike" is, indeed, short for "Michael" in English.

Then there was the issue of the fact that my ID card says "FROH MICHAEL STEPHEN" (and we've already resolved the EROH/FROH, MIKE/MICHAEL discrepancy), so I needed to explain that my brother does not use my middle name when addressing me. I made the mistake of trying to ask the postal worker her first and middle name, so I could present the example of her brother/sister addressing her as "Cristina Elena" or whatever. Unfortunately, that did not go over well, as I believe she thought I wanted her name to report her to her supervisor. Again, the guy behind me (who was very helpful, though I'm sure he also wanted me to wrap up, so he could pick up his package) chimed in, explaining that middle names don't matter in Western culture. In fact, I almost feel like my parents gave me middle names to create difficulty if I ever decided to move to Romania. (My wife and I weren't allowed to get married in Iași, since my birth certificate says "Michael Stephen Joseph Froh", while my passport says "Michael Stephen Froh".)

Then there was the address. My ID card has one of our old addresses, since it would take one month, minimum, to get a new ID card, and I must turn in the existing ID card beforehand. You can't really do very much in Romania without your ID card. For example, to pay our rent (in Euros), I need to withdraw RON (which I can, fortunately, do with my bank card), exchange it to Euros (which requires ID, though I can use my passport), and then deposit it into our landlady's account (which requires my ID card). Since rent needs to be paid monthly, I'm not exactly cool with the idea of losing my card for a month. Anyway, when we got to the discrepancy in addresses, I presented our lease, which my wife signed. In the first paragraph, it explicitly lists me as her husband. Unfortunately, the part where it says that I am allowed to live in our home is buried in a paragraph on page three.

In the end, when it became clear that I wasn't going to walk away empty-handed, after 20 minutes of discussion, the postal worker "corrected" the waybill, and asked me to sign for the package. I then had to open it and present one item (a single stick of deodorant) to the customs official. The people in front of me in line, who had the "correct" names and addresses, needed to show everything in their packages to customs. So, I assume they have either a low required quota of customers served per day, or an implicitly understood "time wasted" per customer.

After all of this, it's worth noting that I am still so much happier to be dealing with Romanian bureaucracy than I was in Belgium. Where Romanian bureaucrats have inconvenienced me, time and time again, the Belgian bureaucrats outright lied to my wife and me. It took two months for me to get my original Romanian ID card (since there was some confusion between office workers about the legal reason under which I would be staying), but it took one month each time thereafter (and my current card is good for five years). In Belgium, I registered in the commune in which I was staying when I first arrived (without my wife and daughter), and later registered in the commune in which my wife, daughter, and I found a place to live. The original commune never processed anything. They were theoretically supposed to send someone to confirm my address within two weeks, but I didn't move into our "permanent" location for a month and a half. In the new commune, my wife visited every month to ask about the status of our registration, and was always told that everything was fine and we would be receiving our cards in 2-3 weeks. After returning to Romania, I finally received an email from the commune, telling me that they needed some additional document from me before they could issue my Belgian ID card (which was supposed to be good for one year from the date of application, meaning five months from when they sent the email). Obviously, I told them to shove their ID card, since we will never be returning to Belgium.

So glad to be back in Romania, where the bureaucrats waste your time, but things (usually) work out in the end.


  1. Hi Mike,

    The fact that you could not provide a valid document stating either the name or an address to whom the package is entitled does not have anything to do with beaurocracy. The postal officer had to make sure the pack is delivered to the rightfull owner.

    Maybe we can look at the fact that the Canadian post should have allowed for more than 9 characters to fill in or maybe your brother should have placed you first and middle name initials plus your last name under these 9 characters.

    The fact that you find it funny to make a non english speaker person to understand that Mike is short for Michael looks to me like Englishman Arongance'(BTW Mike and Michael in an official document is not the same person under any legislation). I certainly do not expect while entering a Canadian post office for the employee to understand that in Romania Nelu is short for Ionel, Titi is short for Constantin, Lica is short for Vasile and I am sure a Canadian french speaker does not expect a Canadian english speaker to understand the french short names.

    While i do not argue that bureaucracy is big in Romania, in this case the blame was uncalled for. After all, i see that inspite of all that the people were reasonable and gave you the package, i know that this is the twist in your story, but unfortunatelly most people will not rememeber this.
    As a note, i can say one or two things about Canadian bureacracy too (when applying for a visa, you need to declare your parents', brothers', wife's and kids' addresses and job places).

    1. Hi Eduard,

      I absolutely agree that the fault lies with Canada Post's silly waybills that only allow nine characters, which is why I opened with that very point.

      In Canada it has been about a 50/50 split in my experience as to whether I've been asked for ID when arriving at the post office with a delivery slip, since the delivery slip itself shows that I have access to the mailbox at the destination address. That said, having the delivery slip and an identity card with a matching last name tends to meet the threshold for "probably not stealing his neighbour's package" that Canadian postal workers look for. Having something (e.g. a passport) identifying you as coming from the same country as the origin of the package further elevates the likelihood that you're the correct recipient. That said, if you have a particularly common last name, they might also ask if you can identify the sender of the package (since they have the package and the delivery slip doesn't show the sender), as further evidence that you're the intended recipient (or a family member acting on behalf of the intended recipient).

      A similar, but more absurd case was when my wife and I were getting married. My birth certificate has two middle names, while my passport only shows one (largely because I never use the second middle name, and Canada had no problem issuing a passport with one fewer middle name than what appears on my birth certificate and citizenship card). We were told by the Iași county office (after collecting the necessary supporting legal documents) that we could not possibly get married, because Michael Stephen Froh and Michael Stephen Joseph Froh, born on the same date in the same small town in Germany, were clearly two different people, and that I had managed to get the other Michael Froh's passport or birth certificate, in order to get married in Romania as part of my master plan. When my wife asked the county official to think about how absurd that sounds, the reply was "I am not here to think. I am here to compare documents." In the end, luckily for us, the county officials in Piatra Neamț had no problem allowing us to get married there.

      I'm certainly not trying to bash Romania. After all, I have chosen to live here because I genuinely like living here. I'm simply suggesting that the Romania bureaucracy could afford to tolerate some shades of grey, instead of making things entirely black and white (and fortunately for me, the officials in Neamț county felt the same way).