Thursday, 24 July 2014

"Check" Republic

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
7 October 2011

Going to the post office can be an adventure when you live in a country whose name causes non-residents to ask innocently, "Check what?" At best, getting a package to or from the Czech Republic is like a "Where's Waldo?" hunt. You never know quite when or where your package is going to turn up, but it usually does eventually, even if it's likely to have been opened by Czech customs official or a curious postal worker along the way.

Over the years, I've never had an international package go completely missing in Prague, and even those "opened" packages have always had their contents intact. Although once soon after my initial arrival in 2002, my grandfather sent me a birthday card with 10 USD in cash. I only found out about the missing card and cash when my mother casually inquired if I'd been able to spend the "mad" money. Often packages mailed from the US take longer than the anticipated 10 days to reach us (especially if they are larger or heavier than average). Around the holidays, there's backload in both directions, with the longest wait we've had being close to two months for a belated Christmas package from an aunt in the States. In the end, we received the package, and the children were just as excited about wearing reindeer sweaters in February as they would have been in December.

There are rumors about corruption in the Czech postal system, and some of our international friends have experienced instances of package theft, but these situations seem the extreme, rather than the norm. Interestingly, in addition to the one birthday card, the only time we've ever not gotten something was a baby gift that a friend in another Czech village mailed to us in Prague. Although my friend had sent the package doporučené (registered mail) neither she nor I ever saw it after she'd passed it through the window at her local post office. I think the loss of the package was the most upsetting because she had the option of waiting a few weeks and delivering it in person, but she'd wanted to treat us to the surprise of receiving a gift by mail in our new house.

From my personal experience, mailing and receiving packages in the Czech Republic has been for many years a relatively straightforward procedure. Assuming you can master the Communist-era inspired hours of postal operation, and the sometimes confusing different windows for posting and pick-up. In our small village, the local post office is closed for a two-hour-lunch-break from 11-13 every day, and is never open on the weekend. Therefore, if you are a working individual with a tight schedule, you have to be quite clever to get to the post office.

Until this spring, Czech customs regulations permitted a gift up to 150 EUR to be exempt from customs fees. When my mother mailed us regular care packages, she simply went to her hometown post office to fill out a declaration of contents and a customs form, upon which she assessed the goods value at 50 USD. After about a wait of 10 days, less if the package was smaller or she'd sent it priority mail, I would receive a white slip in our mailbox in Prague informing me of the package's arrival. In the beginning, before the postal workers in my branch office got to know me, I often had trouble picking up packages, not because of a customs fee, but because of the label. When my mother wrote, "Mr. and Mrs. Radek Prucha," the postal authorities insisted that only "Mr. Radek Prucha" was eligible to retrieve the packages. I also had trouble when my white paper read, "Emil Prucha" because an unknowing worker thought the epsilon in my name was a mistake and automatically assigned me the male version which didn't match my passport or Czech ID.

But as of 1 April 2011 the situation became more complicated. Now EU regulations require the Czech Republic to reduce the tariff-exempt gifts to those under 22 EUR. Although I haven't been able to find the new legislation in writing, except on disgruntled expat bulletin boards, I've come to understand that all packages entering the Czech Republic from a non-EU member country must go through a lengthy customs process to determine whether and how much tax must be paid. With the repeated drop in the USD and the heightened abilities of international shipping, many of our Czech friends regularly place online orders from US companies, most often for clothing. Skirting the issue of paying customs' fees has become a lively pastime for many Czechs who instruct overseas shippers to label their products as "tester" or "damaged goods," to avoid paying the taxes.

A few weeks ago we experienced the new tariff restrictions personally when a package my mother had mailed this autumn got waylaid. After a much longer than usual wait, I received a registered letter notifying me that a package from a non-EU zahraniční (foreign state) had not cleared Czech customs. I immediately panicked and called Radek for help. He deciphered several pages of bureaucratic fine print and concluded that the letter didn't indicate why the package had been detained, but it gave instructions on different options we had for clearing the package as well as a form I could fill in to authorize the local postal service to act on my behalf.

We quickly worked backward and got my mother to itemize a list of the package contents, which, ironically, primarily included used baby clothing that we hadn't had room to pack in our suitcases. Radek communicated with the customs office via email and provided the necessary documents proving we'd visited the US over the summer and that the package contained personal items we'd forgotten. Ultimately, the package cleared. When I went to pick-up it up later at our local branch, I was asked only to pay a standard 96Kc processing fee, which I later discovered was the charge for the local post office retrieving the package from customs on my behalf. Package in hand, I counted my blessings, though I did ask my mother to wait before mailing another package. If the customs procedure would continue to be this complicated in the future, it made more sense to shop within the EU or to wait until my family traveled from the US to bring us some treats from home.

But the Czech Republic isn't the only country with postal complications. During the summer, my mother and my six-year-old daughter visited the post office in my Virginia hometown to mail several postcards back to Anna's friends in the Czech Republic.

"Now, where is the Czech Republic?" the postal worker innocently queried, "Can't seem to find it in my list anywhere. Does it have another name?"

Anna Lee impatiently tapped her foot. "It's got to be there. I live there. Look near Italy," she nodded wisely.

After several minutes of searching, the postal worker finally turned the screen toward my mother in desperation. "Oops," my mom declared, "Check your spelling, it's Cz not Ch."

"Never was much on spelling," the man muttered and took the postcards from Anna.

Eventually, Anna's postcards arrived at their respective Czech destinations without further incident, and I felt proud that she had gained at least a little broader perspective on her world. Okay, Italy isn't exactly beside the Czech Republic, but at least it's a start.

Remembering that living abroad makes it necessary both to send and receive packages successfully, it's easier to get past the sometimes tedious details. Complications exist on either side, but staying focused on communicating effectively, helps me better deal with the minor frustrations that inevitably arise.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.