Mr. Customs Man

November 18, 2008 at 6:46 pm Leave a comment

In the past, I have been irritated by having to pay customs on gifts that my children received from their grandparents. I grumbled and paid, and then they stopped sending presents. Postage and customs often amounted to the value of what was in the box, so they switched to savings bonds. And when we visit them, I usually need an extra suitcase on the way back!

Part of my recovery has been to learn to accept certain nuisances, but also to take action where it is appropriate, without getting overly emotional. I used to get all worked up and then react totally out of proportion. When my beat-up eyeglasses arrived last week — the eyeglasses I bought around 16 years ago in this country — and I had to pay €21 customs and delivery tax, I was rather annoyed. But I’ve learned enough over the past 20 years (of recovery) to not blame the mailman. I complained to him, but in a way that he knew I didn’t blame him for something beyond his responsibility.

Oddly enough, he’s the same mailman that accidentally backed into our garage on my husband’s birthday a couple of months ago. Even then I didn’t yell at him. Was it his fault that the garage was standing just where it was? Of course not! On the other hand, I do expect him to develop some routine and know where the buildings stand. He’s new, so I’m sure he’ll eventually get the hang of it.

But let me get back to the main story. I brought the unopened box inside and read through the papers. Oh, my father had filled in $75 for their value, and the customs people assumed it was a new pair of glasses. After looking over the whole form, I turned it over. On the back, near the bottom, it said: “If you want to complain, you can.” I smiled. Hmm… if nothing else, it would be a good exercise in asserting myself. So I dialed the phone number on the paper, which connected me with the central customs place in the state capitol. They informed me that my local customs office is responsible. I didn’t think to suggest that maybe they include that information next time. But if they did, maybe all of the Americans living in this district would complain on a regular basis if they knew there was a local office.

The friendly woman on the telephone gave me the mailing address for the local office, so I wrote them a letter and explained that the eyeglasses are quite old, slightly battered, and purchased in this country, thus I really don’t think it’s fair that I should pay so much money to get them back. I mentioned that I would not open the box, in case they wanted fresh evidence.

Two days later, a friendly man called me up. His voice was full of amusement as we discussed the situation. He invited me to stop by with my unopened box and then he would help me get my money back. I stopped by, opened the box, showed him the glasses, and listened as he explained that he would fill out two forms and within the month the money would be transferred to my bank account. The eyeglasses are considered “returned property”. Sounds good to me!

Now I have some questions. Was it so easy because I was friendly and didn’t take my annoyance out on them? Or maybe because I didn’t have a trace of hostility in my attitude? Or is it just a simple situation? (Probably.) But I wonder what good it would have done if I had simply called the first number and said: “I think it really sucks that you charge me customs when my kids receive presents from their grandparents. But to pay for an old pair of glasses is ridiculous!” And then slammed down the phone for example. I might have felt self-righteous, and maybe satisfied that I’d “told them” what I think of them. (Anyway, you can’t slam push-button phones, so why bother?) But in view of today’s economy — on both the spiritual and financial level, I prefer the friendly approach — and €21 back in my pocket!

Such situations are an opportunity to learn. I didn’t learn to simply be calm and deal with situations when I was growing up. I learned to be silent and suffer until I exploded. That approach never helped me much. Because it isn’t completely automated yet, I jump at such opportunities to “practice” standing up for myself. There is no risk of great loss, it’s not at all dangerous, and it gives me a chance to get used to being the way I’d like to be on a regular basis. The more practice I get with the little things, the better I am at dealing with things that matter.

Of course, the definition of “things that matter” is quite broad. Often I smile at situations, as some descriptions remind me of Arlo Guthrie’s famous song monolog (Alice’s Restaurant). To see the humor in a situation lightens it up in more than one way. It often becomes easier to deal with. As in that song, with humor we can also say a lot about serious things, but somehow it goes over better than with hostility or aggression. Since the aforementioned song is so long, how about something else from Arlo? (No, not Coming into Los Angeles, although that’s also a fun song and gave me the title for this post.) I had the good fortune to go to a couple of his concerts several years ago. His spoken words are as delightful as what he sings. So here’s a rendition of “This Land is Your Land” I found today.

It’s frustrating to have to learn these basic skills at such a late age. On the other hand, I have observed people older than myself who are yet to learn it. And now you’ve surely guessed the closing line: “Better late than never!!”

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