Snail mail

Snail mail

Snail mail

It was probably in the late 1980s that I became aware of the word ‘openness’. That is, openness as it relates to governments and large organisations. It seems to me that it arrived from Russia in the form of Gorbachev’s glasnost. Whatever its origins it was a concept, particularly as it related to drug companies, that became very important to me as I strived for more transparency in the provision of medicines.

Now, of course, the idea of openness, of sharing information, is widespread. Companies even market it as a virtue, almost seeing it as a must. I suspect that it is with this in mind that the French postal company Chronopost, along with umpteen others, decided to provide tracking information, allowing customers to see the progress of their letters or parcels. Such a service is very appealing, perhaps tracking touches on our hunter-gather instincts? Be that as it may, our recent experience with Chronopost’s services turned into a nightmare for us and a public relations disaster for them.

For some weeks now our son has been patiently waiting to receive a new bank card from Berlin, where he used to work. Because of his somewhat nomadic life style he often uses our home address for receiving important mail. In keeping with this arrangement, last Saturday his bank card arrived at our house in Brittany. Knowing that he would be at a particular address in London for only a few more days – until Thursday midday to be exact – the race was on.

Due to the French Post Office opening hours – on Saturday they close at midday for the weekend – the card’s voyage proper actually started on Monday mid-morning, but that still left 72 hours. The cashier told my wife of a guaranteed, next-day, delivery service. Send the letter by Chronopost, a Post Office subsidiary, and our worries would be over. Feeling comforted, Rohan carefully completed the specially-provided envelop and handed over an exorbitant 48€, or around £37, for the service.

Ha! Ha! Ha! Nothing arrived within the promised 24 hours and so we started our tracking. Over the next few days we watched our letter being carried across France and then to Belgium and Germany and finally to its intended destination. In all this we became frustrated, our son became more anxious and the the company showed no outward signs of urgency.

The journey went like this. Monday morning, after being collected from our local post office, the envelope was taken about 100 km south east to Vannes, then back to our neighbouring town of Pont l’Abbe and finally returning to Vannes where it spent the night. On the Tuesday it went a further 100 km south east to Nantes where it spent a second night. The route taken on Wednesday was altogether more bizarre. It went from Nantes to Brussels, then to Leipzig – close to its very origins in Berlin! – then across the channel to the ‘East Midlands’, finally arriving at Heathrow, where it spent its third night. On the Thursday, at 14.43, it was delivered to our, by now, empty Richmond house that my son had left over two hours earlier. For all concerned the experience was most infuriating.

Explanations and more were needed. My wife, by now very angry, eventually got past the telephone robot and spent twenty minutes arguing the case with a man at company headquarters. His position was that it was our fault for writing the address incorrectly. He mentioned nothing about the senseless zig-zagging across Europe, and eventually conceded that the address and postcode were right and that Richmond referred to had to be in London and nowhere near the East Midlands.

Finally, he offered us full reimbursement and the cheque arrived a few days later. But nice as the reimbursement was, it does not recompense us for the frustration and annoyance, and indeed for the awful inconvenience to our son of still not having a bank card.. And, in some ways, helplessly watching the envelope’s maddening meanderings made things worse.


Post script. If you want to check the journey out for  yourself go to, and in the box labelled ‘Suivre un envoi’, type in XC269494924FR. Our letter’s itinerary will appear.

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