Monday, 5 August 2013

Tracing the post from Bulgaria to the UK

Tracing a posted item online is nothing new or exciting for Royal Mail clients for years already. But being able to do the same on the web site of Bulgarian Posts is new to me. Particularly when it concerns a posted item which  needs to arrive to England by a strict and fast approaching deadline - my PhD thesis in this case. And when the origin is Byala - a Black Sea coastal town where postal service is, well let's say, quite traditional.

'Traditional' here stands for something that has been experienced by generations of tourists along Bulgaria's coastline ever since the birth of mass tourism somewhere in the early 1970s. Since back then the tiny understaffed and poorly equipped postal stations in small towns and villages all of a sudden had to handle increasing numbers of visitors during the summer months when the Black Sea's sand dunes became one of Eastern Europe's best known holiday destinations. Tourists were flocking in endless queues in front of ancient looking phone boots or tiny cashier windows, experiencing WW2 technology and impolite services. For good or bad, Byala's post office still looks quite the same, with its opening hours limited to the morning only. And while the advance of mobile phones and the internet has cut on the phone-boot queues, new post office functions keep attracting visitors in fairly large numbers. These include SIM cards and satellite television sales, money transfers - including retirement pensions and other social benefits, and good old post office merchandise, such as good old postcards, but also cosmetics and other small consumer items. As a result of seemingly wrong office and labour organisation one of two clerks sits idle most of the time behind her counter, strictly refusing to invite and serve customers queueing in front of the other one.

This means that every visit to the post office, for even a most innocent operation like buying stamps, promises to take easily a quarter to half an hour of waiting. The fact that the clerks seem to struggle with computer technology and are now apparently learning to use keyboards doesn't make things easier. In addition, on this particular August 29 when I had to post my three hardbound thesis copies to the Open University in Milton Keynes, one of the clerks had an intern, to whom she kept explaining tediously each of the simple operations that she was performing, and a visiting supervisor from Varna was standing in the office observing, while also chatting up casually with everyone.

Yet, after my usual thirty minutes of waiting time I was able to reach the relevant counter and place the neatly packed package in it. "You know it needs to be open so that we can check what's inside," the lady muttered while moving it to the electronic scale. I did not, apparently, otherwise I would not have glued the envelop. But there was little reason for regret, as the package appeared to weight some 12 grams more than the 2 kilos maximum allowed limit for a postal package. I declined a kind invitation to have it mailed as a parcel, having read on the posts' website the previous night that there is no priority delivery for parcels, and that would probably mean missing my delivery deadline set by the Open University's Research School. Luckily the same counter could sell me two brand new 'bubble' envelops and I retrieved from the counter to re-pack my thesis copies and re-label the new packs. Another customer took my place in front of the counter and did not vacate it until about 15 minutes later - during which time he managed to send 4 recorded letters to various countries.

I then kindly let a young man receive his 40 BGN money transfer, with which he claimed he had to catch a bus to Sofia that was leaving in 15 minutes. It took ten of them for the women behind the glass to release his money, he then rushed in the street. Ten minutes later I realised that his wallet full of IDs and other plastic cards was left behind on the counter. "He will come back for it," the clerk concluded peacefully, while collecting it. My time to send the dissertation had come. I handed the two open envelops to her through the tiny opening in the glass. "We are now checking if this are really documents," she explained to the intern who was staring at the packages. Then she pulled the stripe and sealed the envelops. "The two can go together, as one delivery," the clerk explained again, this time a bit more hesitantly. In any case, ten minutes later I was the happy owner of a tiny payslip with two bar code numbers printed on. With international priority and return receipts the overall price I paid was 58.10 BGN - roughly about 23 GBP for the two packages. Relieved and almost proud I left the post office, assured that my envelops will make the mid-day post to Varna.

And they did, I realised a week later, that is today. Lead by curiosity, but also a little but anxious whether my thesis is bound to arrive where it is supposed to on time, I decided to trace it online - not even sure if such service is offered by Bulgarian Posts. But it is! Following the Track and Trace button on the right side I was able to type the bar code number from my payslip and learned - both in Bulgarian and English that:
  • on the very same day's afternoon, July 29, at 16:45 the mail was received in Varna;
  • on the same night, at 02:56 past midnight on July 30, it arrived in Sofia "in good shape";
  • eight minutes later, at 03.04 am, my thesis was already in the international exchange office in Sofia; and 
  • the latest record from 05.05 am on July 30 says "Insert item into bag (Otb) and Send item abroad." 
Here is where the trace of my thesis ended, as far as Bulgarian Posts were concerned. So I thought it worth checking its path on the Track and Trace web page of  Royal Mail.  The same bar code produced an encouraging report:
  • Delivered! 
Under it, in smaller type, it clarifies that "Your item, posted on 01/08/13 with reference RI087770163BG was delivered in BRINKLOW PDO on 02/08/13." No exact hours mentioned. From all I know, this means that it took over 24 hours for the two envelops to arrive on English soil by air, and then another day to get to Brinklow, where I suppose the post depot in Milton Keynes is. Royal Mail then thanks me for using their International Signed For™ service - not that I have any idea what it is.

What seemed like a happy end needed one final check - has my thesis actually arrived to Research School?

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