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:SLOVAK MATTERS

Trying to make sense of the Slovak post

The mission of the United States Postal Service is simple: to deliver mail. My business at US post offices is confined to sending letters and packages and picking up packages. The most complicated manoeuvres I've ever executed there are changing addresses and sending registered mail to celebrities.
All that changed when I came to Slovakia three years ago. In Slovak post offices bills are paid, currencies are exchanged, phone cards are sold, film is sold, pensions are doled out and a host of other activities I don't understand are administered. Walk into any Slovak post office and you'll find the majority of people don't deal with mail.
Attempting to understand this bureaucratic tangle only generates confusion. The main hall at Bratislava's central post office on Námestie SNP has 17 windows; a room around the corner has at least that many. The main hall seems to be designated, with many exceptions, for mail services. Yet its booths are divided into six categories and two sub-categories.

The mission of the United States Postal Service is simple: to deliver mail. My business at US post offices is confined to sending letters and packages and picking up packages. The most complicated manoeuvres I've ever executed there are changing addresses and sending registered mail to celebrities.

All that changed when I came to Slovakia three years ago. In Slovak post offices bills are paid, currencies are exchanged, phone cards are sold, film is sold, pensions are doled out and a host of other activities I don't understand are administered. Walk into any Slovak post office and you'll find the majority of people don't deal with mail.

Attempting to understand this bureaucratic tangle only generates confusion. The main hall at Bratislava's central post office on Námestie SNP has 17 windows; a room around the corner has at least that many. The main hall seems to be designated, with many exceptions, for mail services. Yet its booths are divided into six categories and two sub-categories.

And what titles for categories. Nowhere does Slovak more resemble the runaway polysyllabism of Hungarian than in its post office jargon.

The most daunting is Filatelistický tovar. Knowing tovar means goods, and not finding filatelistický in the dictionary, I always assumed this was where stone-faced customs officials examined international shipments of suspicious items.

But two months ago I went there in search of a particular stamp to illustrate a story. I tried all the other windows - every category and sub-category - before approaching Filatelistický tovar, even though I kept being pointed in that direction.

To my surprise, it was the window I needed. It turns out filatelistický is an adjective meaning related to stamps. A filatelista, incidentally, dashing as it sounds, is nothing more than a stamp collector, as a philatelist is in English.

Across from Filatelistický tovar is the window I know best, Príjem listových zásielok. By observing others, I learned to stand in line here to mail letters and packages. Only recently have I discovered its formal meaning, The Acceptance of Letter Shipments. I guess Letters was too simple.

It's at the six Príjem listových zásielok windows that the sub-categories come in. The windows marked organizacia and fyzické osoby (organisations and individuals) are open to everyone, whereas those marked fyzické osoby are open only to individuals. A businessman with hundreds of letters should not always wait in the same line as a babka with a card for her grandson. Shame on those, and they are many, who break the rule.

The lengthiest title is Komerčné služby (commercial services), subtitled Výdaj zásielok, poste restante, Doplnkový tovar, kodak, kopírovanie. It sells 'special goods' and film, makes copies for a fee and passes out registered letters.

In the midst of this chaos is a window mysteriously marked Vedúca zmeny (Head of Change). It houses, I like to think, an Oz-like figure who pulls the levers and throws the switches that control Slovakia's economy. The government has stashed him in the indiscriminate drudgery of the post office where spies and would-be assassins will never have the patience to find him.

If you're thoroughly confused by now, you might be getting a sense of what awaits you at the Slovak post office. I get this befuddled feeling whenever I'm forced to buy an envelope or purchase international reply coupons or seek any kind of out-of-the-ordinary service.

Since this is an advice column, here are my orientation tips, at least for the Bratislava SNP office: 1. Post mail to the right, pay bills at the back 2. Never try to decipher the signs 3. Find people who appear to require the same services you require and follow them 4. Assume an ingratiating tone when speaking with a postal employee 5. Never disturb the Head of Change.

A final discouraging reality is that Slovak post offices vary in terminology, services and layout, which renders rule number one useless anywhere but SNP. At the north-Bratislava Dúbravka post office, for example, I was viewed contemptuously when I asked a clerk for an envelope. Selling envelopes was evidently below her. She directed me to a newspaper stand. On SNP, the Filatelistický tovar will handle your packaging needs.

I think my post office in the Bratislava suburb of Kramáre is the most perplexing of all. Its main room contains a five-section, 104-word key. The key, for example, explains that window Peňažná priehradka (Money Transfers) #1 sells highway stickers whereas Peňažná priehradka #2 changes foreign currency.

A side room, marked Informačný panel, runs telegraphs and pay telephones and administers 10 additional listed services, among them, subscribing and unsubscribing (odhlašky, prihlašky) to magazines. The employees there have never been able to explain why my packages sometimes arrive to this room, sometimes to the other, and sometimes not at all.

It's a complicated place and I wouldn't want to work there, which is why I forgive them for misplacing aunt Toni's package last Christmas.

Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the thrills and spills of life in Slovakia.
The next Foreign Affairs column will appear on stands November 19, Vol. 7, No. 44.

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