Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why I Live at the P.O.*

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 19 July 2005.

My local branch of the post office is a microcosm of Israeli life. Nowhere else will I find myself in such close proximity to all the different sorts of people who make up the population. The impatient sabra who is trying to close a business deal on his cell phone stands behind the Ethiopian woman with a child wrapped in swaddling on her back. In front of her is a contruction worker from Thailand. The elderly Russian woman at the counter is getting advice from the teenager with the belly button ring who is behind me in line. And me? I'm just waiting to pick up yet another package from America.

In the center of all the action is the patient and always gracious Edith Atias, owner of this branch. Edith started this post office branch in April of 1967, and has made it a homey, welcoming spot for the wide variety of people who use its many services. Not only do folks come to buy stamps and send packages, they send faxes, buy phone cards, and pay bills as well. Edith helps many of them in their native language; she speaks Hebrew, English, French, Arabic, Russian, Italian and Yiddish. Sometimes people just come to visit. I finally got around to asking Edith about the impeccably dressed elderly gentleman who always seems to be in the post office whenever I am there. Turns out, he is her ninety year old father! I would love to talk to him sometime; I'll bet he has some interesting stories to tell.

When you go to a place week after week, year afer year, you slowly get to know the people you see there. Not only do I know the names of the postal workers there, they know me, too. Sometimes I feel like a character from the once-popular television show "Cheers" - where everybody knows your name. It was at the post office that I learned the true meaning of the Israeli term "proteksia." When Miriam, who among other things handles all the packages that come in, sees me, she brings my package right out to me, no waiting in line. I also often see people I know waiting in line: the woman who used to be the guard at the elementary school, the local cop, people from my neighborhood, and various others.

It was also at the post office that I first experienced the true meaning of the word "tsafuf" (crowded). With people from so many different cultures all squeezed in together in a small space, I learned that many people here are quite comfortable standing a lot closer than I prefer. My husband taught me a handy expression to use when I feel encroached upon ("bo tagur li be'ozen" - literally, "come live inside my ear") but I haven't had the guts to use it yet.

There have been periods of time when I went to the post office two or three times a week. There have even been occasions (not many, thankfully) when I've gone twice in the same day. Mostly I am there to either send or pick up a package. Since I got interested in rubber stamping in 1998, I have sent and received dozens of packages: handmade gifts, stamp swaps and other items going out, gifts and stamp orders coming in. Naturally, stampers don't just send out plain envelopes. My decorated creations have caused amazement and many comments. If I went through a quiet period during which I had no reason to go to the post office, I was always greated like a long-lost friend when I finally showed up again.

Over the years, Edith's post office has become like a second home to me. When there's no line (which doesn't happen often) I have time for a nice visit with Edith and the lovely people who work with her. When it's crowded, I can people-watch - always a fascinating pasttime in this particular place. The blend of languages reminds me that people from many different lands, each with his or her own story, have come from far-off places to make this spot home. And like me, they have not lost contact with those left behind in "the old country." The need to stay in touch is common to us all.

Last month a new post office branch opened up in my neighborhood, a five minute walk from my house. It's located in a shopping center, with a bakery and cafe downstairs. It sounds great, but I'm not too thrilled. I suppose I will be picking up packages there from now on. But I know I will be going back to Edith's post office to buy stamps, send packages, and just to visit. After all, it's like home.

*With apologies to Eudora Welty.

(c)Amy Samin

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