“What does this mean?” I said, thrusting an official letter from the Federal German Post Office at my flatmate.
His eyes darted from left to right.
“You have to go to customs to collect a parcel,” he replied.
“Yes, but why?”
“I don’t know.”
The customs office was far, far away. When I got off the train I saw a motorway, some industrial buildings and a pair of old ladies smoking. It was cold and damp.
As I approached the dreary concrete customs office and a wind began to blow, I began to feel more and more like I was at home. I joined the queue. Two men were working behind the desk. Another fifty or so people were sitting with little tickets, waiting for their number to be called. A waft of inefficiency filled the air.
It came to my turn. I handed the officer my documents. He had a crinkled orange face and a snide mouth. “Do you know the sender?” he asked.
I did. My lovely sister, who is a geneticist in Philadelphia and says she analyses butt samples for a living, had sent me a parcel back in April and was dismayed that it had not arrived yet.
“What’s in the parcel?” said the man gruffly.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s a gift.”
“Well I don’t know isn’t going to get you very far, is it?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said “but how am I to know what is inside the parcel?”
He narrowed his eyes. “We need to know what’s in the parcel.”
“Okay,” I said with false breeziness. “I’m sorry, but I’m not from Germany and I’m not familiar with this system. How does it work?”
His lips flickered with hatred.
“Do you think you’re the only one who needs to be served today? Look behind you. Look at the queue.”
He sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m sorry, I just don’t know what’s in the parcel.”
“What could it be then?” he said with dull resignation.
I paused. He fumed.
“I’m sorry I don’t know. Maybe it’s a piece of clothing, or some chocolate. I really don’t know.”
He scribbled something down and issued me with a ticket. On it was printed the number 240.
“It’s a minimum two hour wait. Do you want to accept the parcel?”
“Well sit down then.”
I took a seat beside a black man, who was swinging his legs with boredom.
I looked at the clock. It was twenty to four. “I’ll chance it,” I thought to myself.
I got out my phone and dialled my sister’s number.
“Nothing has happened. There is no emergency. I’m sorry for calling so early.”
My sister, who was settling into a day’s work in her laboratory listened patiently as I told her that I was in the middle of nowhere and that officials were demanding to know what was inside her parcel.
“It’s a handmade bag,” she said.
“Aw!” I said. “That’s so sweet! Thank you so much.”
“Way to ruin a surprise!”
I rejoined the queue.
This time I got the other official.
“Hello,” I said. “I was talking to your colleague earlier.” (The latter snorted over, “It’s true.”) “I have just called my sister in America. And I can reveal that there is a handmade bag in the package.”
He looked at me. Silently.
“Does this help you?”
“It is too late,”he said. “You have been issued with a number already. You must wait your turn. When your number is called, you will open the parcel with a knife in the presence of an official.”
I returned to my seat. Thankfully I had Greg Baxter’s book “The Apartment” with me.
Every thirty seconds my reading was interrupted by a ping announcing a number.
After some time, I became puzzled. The numbers were not being called in chronological order.
I glanced at the noticeboard directly in front of me. Pinned to it was a sign which said “Customers should note that due to our organisational system, numbers may not be called in chronological order.”
Pot luck, then.
One of the girls in the queue was being told that she had to pay €75 tax on clothing from America which she had bought online. She was confused and dismayed.
“That’s the rules,” said the official.
Suddenly there was a ping and the number “240” flashed on the display board. I jumped. Only one rather than two hours had elapsed since my confinement.
I rushed through a little white door and found myself in a large space full of long tables. I made my way to station number 5. The official with whom I had spoken to second was standing behind the table.
The table was the kind that you sit on with one or two others when you are in secondary school. On it was nothing but a tiny package with my sister’s characteristic handwriting on the front.
I let out a little squeal of excitement.
The official handed me a knife.
I put the knife down and tore it upon with my bare hands.
An envelope and a little package covered in bubble wrap slid out.
I unwrapped the bubble wrap carefully.
My heart skipped. In my hands was the most adorable and charming of cloth bags. It had a brown strap and buckle and the pattern was Berlin-themed. There were little green signs with the names of the city’s famous stations and scattered between them, were little pictures of umbrellas, clocks, suitcases and trains.
The official’s face changed.
He smiled. “That’s lovely.”
“My sister made it,” I said, still gasping.
Then he looked at the envelope. My sister had written “Fraulein Katztilde” on it in purple pen.
“That’s sweet,” he said.
“No tax payable. Have a nice weekend.”
I didn’t wait for an answer and dashed outside clutching my precious bag.
I opened the envelope on the train. Apart from all the other lovely things she had written, my sister also finally provided unequivocal proof of her genius.
“I couldn’t decide which fabric was better so I made the bag reversible – just turn it inside out to go from urban U Bahn chic to traditional chocolate Fesch.”*
I looked at the red fabric on the inside of the bag, which featured lots of pictures of traditional German chocolate from times past.
Somehow, my sister, had created a two-sided magnet-drawn fastener which would allow me to sport two super-cool German-themed bags in a city known for both its trendiness and efficiency.
So, not only is she a talented analyser of butt samples, terribly witty, exceptionally attractive, kind, sweet and thoughtful, my sister is also a queen of crafts.
So, if you are reading, Jane Franziska, thank you so much. I absolutely love it. You’re a complete ledgeBAG.
*Fesch is a German word meaning something like “trendy,” which the Ferguson family finds amusing.