Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Icelandic Postal Service -aka- Big Brother

I have developed an arch-nemesis during my time here in Iceland: The Icelandic Postal Service.


It all started when my friend Anna (whose blog you can view here) wanted to send me a care package. She had found some cool cards she thought I might like, and asked me if there was anything else I might want or need that was small enough to send in a little care package. I requested a little container of Pacifica solid perfume which is about the size of a round tin of lip balm, and that was that.

More than a week went by, and one day I received a letter in the mail from the customs department. This letter told me that there was a package waiting for me, but that I had not paid any customs fee or taxes for the items therein, and I was required to provide a receipt or order number for the items, and to let them know the total monetary value of the items I was having shipped to me. I went to the postal service website and did an online chat with one of the customer service representatives. I told her that the package was just a gift from a friend, that the items inside were surely not worth more than 10,000 Icelandic krona, and that I hadn't purchased any of them, and asked if I could please come pick up the package. She asked me why my friend had sent me the gift. (Wait, what?) I told her she had sent me the present for no reason at all. She then said that I had to send an email to the customs department, with the individualized number that was printed on the letter they sent me, and tell them that the package is a gift and the reason it was sent to me. What the beep?!

So I did. I sent an email that said, "Hello, my name is Inga and you sent me a letter with this number on it: [number]. My friend Anna send me a present for no reason in particular, and I would like to come collect it."

I was then allowed to collect my present.

I called my mom to ask her if this kind of thing was normal, and she said that unfortunately, it is. Her friend worked at the post office for years. There was a woman in their town who loved to paint, but the paints she used were very expensive to buy in Iceland. This woman had friends who lived overseas who used to send her paints every few months, just as a way to be nice and help her save a little money. She always wrote on the shipping label that the paints were a "birthday present," and of course the postal workers opened the packages to check and make sure that there were no illegal items in there. Eventually, the people working there noticed that the same woman always got paints sent from the same friend and compared notes behind her back, suspicious that the packages were always labeled as "birthday presents," saying things like, "How many birthdays can that family have in one year?" and so on. They even wanted to confront her about and considered reporting her to customs, for the apparent "crime" of having a nice friend who sent her things.

Someone I work with told me that she has a friend whose mother lived in the United States, and who also had a young daughter. The grandmother of the little girl used to send her clothes every few months or so, from the time she was a baby, because... Well, because she loves her grandbaby and wants to send her clothes! Geeze, why else would she want to?  The woman always brought her little daughter with her to the post office to collect the packages from her grandmother, this went on for a few years without incident.

One day, however, the postal representative at the counter said, "We're going to fine you for these packages you're getting from the States."
"Why?!" the woman exclaimed.
"Because you're importing children's clothes and selling them," the representative told her.
It took some doing to convince the post office and customs department that the clothes she was "importing" were really gifts from her mother for the little daughter that accompanied her to the post office each time she had come to pick them up.

Now, I agree that people need to be honest and pay any and all appropriate taxes if they're running an import-export business. But the postal service here takes this monitoring to a new level. What business is it of theirs if someone gets a lot of presents from overseas, or if -heaven portend!- they get a bargain on art supplies or clothes for their kids? These postal workers seem to take jealousy too far and try to use their authority to prevent people from making their lives a little easier.

My mom told me that she once sent my grandparents a package with, along with some clothes, a tube of Neosporin antibiotic ointment in it. When they got the package, the Neosporin had been removed. Apparently, there's some ingredient in neosporin that is illegal in Iceland, so they took it out. So many pharmaceuticals are illegal here, it's ridiculous. Don't even get me started, but here I go anyway. I'm not talking things like ephedra, which is illegal in the States too, but even things like Excedrin Migraine and my beloved Dayquil cold medicine are banned, you have to get weak substitutes with a prescription from the doctor.

Medications for "personal" issues that come up are even worse. You also can't buy things like - wait for it - yeast infection medicine at a simple grocery or drug store. No, no, no. You have to go to a pharmacy, and you have to wait in line at the counter and then, in front of EVERYONE, ask the PHARMACIST if you could please buy some yeast infection medicine. So. Humiliating. At least that's what I've heard, ehem. Other "personal" medicines that we take for granted in the States, like pain reliever for a simple U.T.I. are unavailable without a prescription. You either suffer for days or you get antibiotics, there's no in-between. Not that the person writing this blog or anyone she knows deals with these issues often, but every once in a while these kinds of things are bound to happen, and you don't realize how nice and convenient it is to be able to run out to the store and take care of them quickly and discreetly until you no longer can.

When you go through the duty-free stores in the airport, alcohol and cigarettes are sold for less than half the price that they are in stores in the country. The extra cost outside the airport is pure tax. So naturally, if you live in Iceland and are paying the equivalent of about $85 U.S. for a one liter bottle of rum for example, you're going to want to stock up on booze if you get a chance to go on a trip somewhere. But they have a limit on how much you can buy, so you can't stock up and save "too much" money or avoid the taxes. When I stopped in the duty-free store in December they had signs posted showing how much of everything you could buy, with different combinations of each. For example, you can buy one bottle of wine, one large bottle of liquor, one six-pack of beer and a carton of cigarettes, and that's combination A. They have two or three other combinations of wine, beer, booze, and cigarettes that are allowed. But no more than that! Otherwise they might lose some of their precious taxes on the booze you would be buying for the rest of the year or time you spend not traveling. They also assume that there is a good chance that if you're buying that much of those products, you're probably selling them to other people or worse, giving them to friends for free. 

Give me a break! If I want to fill a shopping cart full of booze and cigarettes and I have the money to pay for it, why can't I? Isn't that my right as an adult of legal drinking age? If I want to be a raging alcoholic, I should be allowed to wantonly destroy my liver and kidneys!

No place is perfect, I guess.

What gives, Iceland? Are there any banned books I should know about, while we're at it? There are certain things that are good here, though. Things having to do with women's reproductive rights and certain aspects of health care that I won't mention here because I don't want hate mail.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

"Miss America"

There are a lot of people in the world who have a problem with America. I accept this. However, what I don't like is that often when I meet people and they find out that I'm American, they take it upon themselves to rant to me about everything that they believe is wrong with America. It is offensive, rude, and, worst of all, annoying.

These special individuals accuse *all* Americans of being racist, exclusionary, uneducated, illiterate consumerists. They complain to me, unprovoked and unbidden, about the war in Iraq, Black Friday, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Peace Corps (who, according to a French guy I had the misfortune of meeting on New Year's Eve, are really working for the CIA and go around ruining countries), Israel, Afghanistan, the list goes on and on.

I try to explain to them that trying to describe all Americans in these sweeping terms is like saying that every single person who lives on the continent of South America feels the same way about politics, religion, and personal life choices, or saying that all Europeans have one set of ideals and one political ideology. It is unreasonable to accuse every individual living in a country that takes up half of an entire continent of possessing the exact same characteristics of everyone around him or her. When I point that out to people who give me a hard time about being from the U.S., it seems to give them pause (most of the time, but not always). Maybe they honestly never stopped to consider that, just like they are not the exact same person as their neighbor, I am not a carbon copy of the American person sitting next to me. Also, I think that the fact that I refuse to apologize for America tends to make them more angry, or often earns me the title of being "100% Pro-American." That's not the case at all. I just refuse to be lumped into one category, and I dislike being expected to verbally disown the place where I grew up and do love, despite its flaws.

I guess I find this particularly offensive because I enjoy learning about other cultures and meeting multi-cultural people so much. I took Comparative Religions and International Relations as electives in high school, for example, minored in Spanish in college, and come from a "cross-cultural/ third culture" family myself. When I meet someone from a different country I generally take an interest and like learning about their culture as they experience it, I don't just start telling them what I think about their government's politics. I think America is one of those countries that some people like to demonize. As far as I'm concerned, anyone can think whatever you want about my government, I'm constantly reevaluating and criticizing it in my mind. But why must some people make the actions of my government something that I'm personally responsible for, as a citizen? I don't blame every Icelander I meet for their banks crumbling. I don't call every French person a colonist, or Brits imperialists, for example. I know that the individual does not necessarily match the governing body. And the only place I've been to in the States where someone has been outright rude to me for being, say, "from Iceland," was in Oklahoma at like, a drunken house party. Even then, usually people were just uninformed (albeit sometimes woefully so), and weren't trying to be rude.

Maybe because America is considered a "superpower" (are we even still considered that?) and there are so many subjective representations of our country and citizens out there, along with a government that certainly does make mistakes in plain view of the international community, that people somehow feel entitled to confront Americans they meet on certain issues.

I am also just not a fan of political ranting. The way I see it, if you don't like something that a government is doing, either do something to change it or talk to someone who can. As my friend Michelle says, "most people just want to rant about politics and then pat themselves on the back," which is exactly why neither she nor I like philosophizing about such things with most people. The only time I don't mind is when I'm talking to someone who hasn't yet made up their mind about the issue at hand, so I know I can have room to explore the topic without getting hit by a surprise barrage. In short, either do something about it, or shut up. Incidentally, I think I may program the White House toll-free number and maybe the number of a Congressman or two into my cell phone, so if people start complaining to me about things they don't like that America does, I can give them the number of someone who gives a darn, or is at least paid to do so.

I am an American. I know how to read and write, and love doing so. I support world peace. I am not racist or sexist. I vote. I do not shop in an avalanche of people breaking down store doors on Black Friday. I am descended from immigrants, and I respect this land's First People. I love the environment. I am a healthy weight for my height. I am fine with the idea of America having more than one national language. I believe in freedom of religion, and separation of church from state. I do not expect everyone to speak English when I travel overseas. I keep my voice at an appropriate volume in public. I don't eat at McDonald's, but that doesn't mean that I never have. I do not blindly accept everything that my government does. I do not deny the good things that my government does either. I consider more than one country to be my home, and am legally allowed to do so. I am not the same as every other American, and they are not the same as me. That's my favorite thing about my country.