Ah, Pochta Rossii. Post offices everywhere are slow and inefficient, but Pochta Rossii takes the cake.

On Friday Kostia and I wanted to mail a few boxes of winter clothes to Sweden so we’d have room in our luggage for, well, everything else. We took our boxes to the nearby post office, prepared to wait in a long line and face a technicheskii pereriv (technical break, which means employee smoke break) every 20 minutes, but when we got there, the window that deals with international mail was closed entirely (for technical reasons, of course). They recommended that we go to the nearest post office a half-kilometer up the street.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We lugged our packages on to a trolleybus and went in search of this obscure, out-of-the-way post office. When we got there, there were no customers! Of course, there were no staff in sight either, but eventually a young woman sauntered up to the window. She rolled her eyes and grudgingly set about peeling the old packing tape off of our boxes. “Where are these packages going?” she asked. “Sweden,” we said. “Oh, it’s not my window then. Thank god.” She nodded down the counter.

We moved the packages two meters and looked at the window. “Technicheskii Pereriv 16.00-16.15” read the sign. Fortunately, it was 16.10. A pleasant-looking middle-aged woman soon emerged, chewing the remnants of her lunch. After recovering from the initial shock that someone was sending multiple packages from her window, she set to work.

First of all, we couldn’t send the packages in our own boxes. They had to be in special, smaller, Pochta Rossii boxes. Fine. Second of all, we were going to need to itemize every piece of clothing in the boxes. I knew from previous experience not to seal our original boxes, that the clerk would have to look at everything to make sure we weren’t mailing any contraband or antiques, but I hadn’t remembered the itemizing.

So: Winter hats: 4. Pairs of gloves: 4. Scarves: 3. Coats: 3. Pairs of boots: 4. Pairs of sneakers: 1. Sweaters: 8. And so on.

(A holdover from the late Soviet Union is the “Elitny Second Hend” – Elite Second Hand – shops, found here and there in St. Petersburg, which sell clothes formerly worn by western Europeans. I wondered if the clerk thought we were sending all these clothes to some kind of less-than-elitny second hand in Sweden. Or maybe she just thought we were sending them to relatives. I don’t think she caught on that we were sending them to ourselves.)

Anyway, I packed the boxes while Kostia filled out the shipping forms in triplicate for each box and the clerk weighed each category of clothing. Then the clerk had to calculate the cost of each box about five times to make sure she was doing it right. A guy came in wanting to mail two small rubber discs to Spain. She told him to come back in a few hours. He said he’d wait and proceeded to talk to the clerk while she kept saying, “Don’t distract me! This is really complicated!”

Finally, two hours later, we were finished. The total was 4500 rubles, about $175, a lot of money but not really, considering how much we were sending and how much it would cost if we had to buy new coats, hats, boots, and sweaters in Sweden. However, this particular post office had never conducted a transaction of this size before, so they were really blown away by our extravagance.

I have to say: the clerk was not the most efficient worker, but she was really, really pleasant and the experience could have been so much worse. I thought we ought to give her some flowers or a few hundred rubles or something, but Kostia was like, “Megan, you don’t tip post office workers.” Well, duh. In the west you don’t “tip” policemen or doctors or tax officials either, but you do in Russia. And I really believe in encouraging pleasant customer service here. (You should see how well I tip waitstaff who manage not to roll their eyes at me.)

So the question remains: How long will it take for our boxes to get to Sweden? I’d say two months. They still have to go through Russian customs, after all.