Monday, August 27, 2007

Pricey Post

We’ve recently been the grateful recipients of a couple of packages from home, thoughtful family and friends wanting to give us reading material and DVDs to watch. It’s always appreciated since English language books, magazines and movies are hard to come by around here. When I do find a book in my madre lingua it costs at least double the usual paperback rate, if not more. Besides, receiving mail is always fun!

Until la dogana comes a’calling, that is. We learned the hard way that in Italy sometimes mail is held for ransom. While it’s not perpetrated by thugs demanding bundles of unmarked bills, the Customs officials do sometimes request hefty sums before they’ll hand over the goods. Payment must be made on delivery, so while we rummage through the purse, scour the house, and check the sofa cushions for enough money to pay them off, the oh-so-friendly delivery person waits downstairs pushing the door buzzer every 20 seconds to remind us that they are waiting. It makes the gift-receiving just a little frustrating.

One large envelope containing two magazines cost €14.00. Another small box bearing used DVDS and a couple of books set us back a whopping €56.14. I could have ordered new ones from Amazon for about the same amount.

Why they arbitrarily pick some packages rather than others to extract money from us is a mystery. How they arrive at the required fee is another imponderable. But we have learned a few lessons along the way that can ease some of the wallet pain of your loved ones if you’re shipping things overseas.

How To Mail Stuff to Italy:

*Write the Right Stuff
On the customs form when it asks you to disclose the contents of the package, be as vague as possible. Rather than itemizing each and every gift, write “personal care items” or “used goods”. Never state that it contains media objects; it seems that books, movies and magazines are more likely to draw the attention of the customs folks.

*How Low Can You Go
I know it is tough for Americans to do this, but seriously undervalue the contents. Well-intentioned friends think they are being helpful by stating a higher than realistic value in case the package goes missing. In actuality, Customs calculates the charges based on the stated value…the higher the number, the more they’ll ding us. It costs us more to get the box out of hock than worry about replacing the stuff if it gets lost. The Customs Declaration you form you fill out is used to assess - you guessed it, Customs Duty value. Never, ever (never!) give a value higher than $30. $20 or under is better still.

*Stuff it In
If it can fit in a large envelope instead of a box, shove it in there! Boxes draw inquisitive eyes that want to know what’s inside. Envelopes are less beguiling. They also tend to be delivered faster or often don’t require a “pick me up at the main post office” slip, as well.

*Pack It Right
If you do use a box, it’s always well-appreciated if you use the local newspaper as packing cushion. Bryan especially enjoys smoothing them out to read the news from home. Sure, some of the news can be found online, but sometimes you just want to see it in print. Besides, how else are you going to see the marriage announcements, the grain report, and who showed up for the K of C dinner? Okay, maybe that’s just in our home-spun, home-town papers.

*Send it Out
Normal airmail is usually the best route. I can tell you from experience that sending gifts the cheapest rate puts it on a slow boat that takes a couple of months to traverse the ocean. Our immigrant relatives had a faster trip from their remote villages. Airmail arrives within about 10 days on average. It may also help to have it blessed by your parish priest or to say a little pray as you drop it into the hands of the postal service. Sooner or later it will (normally) arrive.

And preferably it won’t arrive in the hands of a customs agent demanding cash on delivery.

c. 2007 Valerie Schneider


Barbara said...

Good points Valerie. Regarding the value, since packages to Italy can't be insured anyway, there's really NO POINT in declaring any value over $5/$10, especially when there's a chance we'll have to pay for it here in Italy!

Judith in Umbria said...

Amen! I got two used T shirts and some other jokes last month and had to pay €35 to get them.

I can't afford to be loved.

Texas Espresso said...

Man how true is that! I've sent 2 packages to my husband, stuff he already owned, and it has really cost him to pick it up. for some reason though, I couldn't put "personal or used items" - they made me put exactly what it was. I dont know why - maybe the shipper?


Farfallina - Roam 2 Rome said...

Do they really charge to receive a package? That's not good... so much for receiving stuff from home!

Valerie said...

Barbara, you're right...the lower the better!

Judith, Affection does come at a price when it's delivered by the postal system!

Texas, I do think it depends on the shipper. The USPS allows the vague descriptions. It's what I always wrote when I was sending care packages to soldiers, too. Helps deter theft, as well...not as tempting to a postal employee if they see "used goods" on the description!

Farfallina, yep, sometimes they make you pay. Other times they don't. It's a curious thing. It's kind of a crapshoot.

sognatrice said...

I have nothing to add here other than to say--sing it sister!

It's *ridiculous* how arbitrary the customs system is. At least if there were some predictability to it, you could have family and friends plan their packages accordingly--or you know, just go halfers with them on a plane ticket so they can hand deliver magazines and books themselves--sometimes it might be cheaper!

Brendan said...

I went to the Post Office to pick up a "raccomandata" and I saw a little closet behind the clerk stacked with boxes being held for ransom! Money grabbers!

Valerie said...

Sognatrice - I've often had the same thought, that personal courier service by my sister would cost about the same and by a whole lot more fun!

Brendan - And here I thought Italy had extortion laws! Guess not. What's the difference with the raccomandata, prioritaria and such anyway? Whenever I try to ask I get blank stares, shrugs, or mumbled nothings from the oh-so-friendly clerks.

J.Doe said...

I learned by trial and error (mostly error) That if you are mailing clothes to Italy DO NOT imply that they are new. They will ask stupid questions such as the origin of the shirt and all material used to make it (i.e. wool) and then make the recipient in Italy pay extra duty charges. Better to say that the items you are mailing are personal, USED items with a value of 1 dollar.

Valerie said...

Good advice, J! The customs and trade wars sure wreak havoc on getting and giving gifts, don't they?

Janice Robinson said...

This made me laugh, thanks. All too true. It tortured me when i found out that my friends had to PAY to redeem a gift i had sent. Now i know thing you can do with the USPO is send a canvas bag of books (PO supplies this), which is pretty reasonable and since all the books were used and bubble wapped, no one ripped anything open...i dint do it too neatly! i sent several of them over, and when i realized how expensive they would be to mail back, i had to leave all the books there. A year's worth of reading...people were happy to receive them (gave to friends with B&Bs)

Valerie said...

Janice - It's a racket! But there are still some people who continue to put the exact value on the package, which just ensures their recipients will have to pay something to customs. Crazy! Don't get me started on the M-bag for books. We did that prior to our move to Italy and a year's worth of books never arrived on Italian shores. grrrr.

Jen said...

I'm so glad I saw this! I have been researching my husband's family history and have written a few times to his great-uncle in Cersosimo. We have a language barrier, but I have been looking for something to mail as a gift to him and his family. Sadly, now I realize that wouldn't be a good idea. I certainly don't want to cost him money, especially when I really don't know what they would appreciate, and they are elderly.