Earlier this month, I was asked to order a car part for a friend's Buick. I ordered it from www.rockauto.com in the US, which happens to have an excellent online catalog interface. It cost $150. My friend inquired into the cost of the Estonian customs duty and found it would still be cheaper than buying the part locally.
Before I go on, let me note I have had problems before with Estonian customs arrangements under the EU. For example, gone are the days when you could order books from Amazon in the US with no headache. Now you have to make sure you are under the minimum of about 40 EUR or you face a tax form that besides being an incredibly poorly laid out and ugly document (which is beside the point) is also an expensive proposition. Also, Morgan's baby clothes, both new and used ones, have been taxed. The Joe Q. Populist in me says the system is slightly broke. But as I said, we did the math in this case.
I chose the basic international shipping option at $35. The valve shipped the next day.
On Friday, two weeks later, I got a cryptic first-class letter from a logistics firm in Maardu, which is a town 20 km from Tallinn, saying that a package had arrived but they had been "unable to contact me thus far". Eh? The letter also listed various prices for customs formalities, which I figured was not "mix 'n' match" but "we choose most of them for you", but nothing was clear about the letter.
I sent off an e-mail, saying, essentially, "Hi; You found me at my address, good work!; Now please tell me the amount and your bank account number, please, so you can deliver the package to my address" (but not actually sounding like an asshole).
Because this is the way you do things in Estonia. If you need to pay, you remit by Internet at light speed. And things do get delivered to your doorstep 99% of the time.
No answer for two days. It was the weekend, but it was an international logistics firm. On Monday I got a reply with a list of options for formalizing the customs declaration. One seemed time-consuming and one seemed exorbitantly expensive at $50 plus the actual duties.
I finally got around to the time-consuming option on Wednesday, figuring that I needed about an hour. I hopped in the Skoda and headed off to the ominous-sounding address of Kesk-Sõjamäe. It translates as Central War Mountain. This is very relevant.
It was located in a battlefield -- I mean, brownfield -- between the airport and the Soviet suburb of Lasnamäe and I think I nearly snapped a tie-rod negotiating the potholes before I got to the customs warehouse.
Every courier firm you can think of has leased space in the customs building.
At FedEx, which to their credit I found quickly, two women were sitting at computers in the busy-looking/doing-nothing way. One of the women, who was very nice, handed me a stack of papers, including the incredibly ugly and poorly laid out tax form. I checked: "Just one package?" She told me to go to customs, adding, "have you been there before" in the tone of voice that implies long and involved directions are about to follow.
Customs is in a separate entrance to the building, 300 metres away, far enough to verge on annoying and probably (I'm just editorializing here) avoid the semblance that FedEx is in bed with them and collects part of the customs storage fees.
Customs was a blast. If you wondered where the apocryphal world of EU banana-length standards had got to, it is right here, in Estonian customs. Or, Welcome to Soviet Estonia.
When my number was called (after 15 minutes) I had to fill out a document called "traveler's form", which I should have known to do when I first took my number. A "traveller's form"? I hadn't travelled anywhere, ah, not unless you count the potholed route to get to the customs terminal at the edge of the brownfield.
Then she studied me and asked if I knew what the auto part was for. Uh-oh, I thought, could it be used for making pipe bombs or something? No, she needed to find the code. I don't know, I said, can you just put down the code for "auto part"? No, she said. To be honest, I still don't know what an EGR valve does.
But I finally said it goes "inside the car", and she seemed to be all right with that.
She then told me to sit down, which I duly did, and this kept me from seeing what she got up to in the next 30 minutes, but I know it involved:
* conference calls
* huddled consultation with co-workers
* ballpoint pen
* felt-tip pen
* co-worker's computer
This was not her first week on the job. I asked her.
But she wasn't done. She told me to go to a window across the aisle to pay the duty, $35, and then return the receipt to her. I asked if I should get another waiting lisr number. You never know with places like this.
The cashier was a silent type whose acknowledgment of me was ambiguous (this seems to be true of bursars everywhere). Then followed more use of scissors and pen, manual keying of my debit card number followed by what must have been a very lengthy payment details field; and then -- as a novelty -- an ink stamp on multiple receipts.
Back to the first woman, who actually said I was good to go...to Package Pickup on the ground floor of the first part of the building.
The reading material at Package Pickup was, generously, Linnaleht, the free rag. But I recommend you bring a copy of The Bridge by Iain Banks.**
Here at Package Pickup I had a problem. They had started calculating the storage fees on the package about two weeks ago, and they had run up to another $40. But I KNOW I received the first notice on Friday, two business days ago. At this point I balked. They told me to pay, and take it up with FedEx later. I said I would go right back to FedEx before paying anything.
Back upstairs, at FedEx, unfortunately I made the nice women turn defensive and not so nice. Oddly, they leapt to the defence of the mystery Maardu logistics firm, NT Logistika, which was not even in Tallinn, who, they said, had gone to CONSIDERABLE LENGTHS to contact me. NT Logistika had apparently even Googled my name, costing them a pretty penny, to try to find my mobile number and e-mail address.
Unfortunately -- no, they had not tried to reach me at the address to which the package was addressed. But -- they quickly put in, seeing where this was going -- this was good service.
I went back downstairs to Package Pickup, where I told them that FedEx had screwed up royally, and had admitted as much, and had made their first written attempt to contact me only on Friday. The woman at Package Pickup unfortunately called FedEx and learned that FedEx refused to pay the $35 in stroage fees for me, and someone would have to pay it before I could pick up the package.
It then turned out that the whole prospect of paying was academic, anyway -- Package Pickup had no pay-by-card option. The woman, who was twirling a ballpoint pen significantly, told me to go to a shopping centre 2 miles back down the road to use an ATM.
At this point, things, mm, deteriorated.
I left, drove off, and just kept going. I may have to authorize the Buick owner to pick up his part. I'll have to think of something. They may call security if I go back myself.
**The Bridge may not ring any bells, but it's convoluted and I remembered the absurdist bureaucratic parts.