Post offices in the US: a guide for Australians

This holiday season I’ve had a few Australian friends travelling in the US, and something I’ve seen repeatedly on Twitter is, basically, this:

So, here is a guide for US post offices, aimed at Australians. I’m qualified to write this because I had exactly this experience when I moved there. It went something like this.

Me, to office manager: “Hey, where’s the nearest post office?”

Office manager: “Uh… I think there might be one at [distant location]. Or you could take the bus to [other distant location] I guess.”

Me: “Isn’t there one closer? Like, walking distances? This is a busy urban area, after all!”

Office manager: *puzzled look* “No, you have to take the bus…”

Me: *boggled*

Then I caught a bus out to some forsaken quasi-industrial wasteland and found a grey-painted bunker with a USPS logo on it, where one poor worker stood behind a screen and a queue of dejected people lined up to collect or mail parcels.

A sad change from the Australia Post outlets I’m used to, which are in convenient retail locations no more than a few minutes’ walk away, have bright decor, and try and sell you things like calendars and gifts and travel whatsits and office supplies and generally are quite upbeat. Not to mention fairly quick service — I was in and out of my local one in 5 minutes, right before Christmas.

Compare:

Australia Post retail outlet at Sydney international airport

Australia Post retail outlet at Sydney international airport

USPS

US post office, location unknown.

And let’s talk about how many post offices there are. Each map, showing search results for “post office near…”, shows approximately the same area — they were all taken at the same zoom level on Google Maps.

Here’s where I used to live, in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the US:

Map showing post offices in San Francisco

San Francisco, population density 17,160 people per square mile (6,632/km2)

Here’s where I currently live, in a country town in Australia:

map showing ballarat post offices

Ballarat, population density 1,957.5 people per square mile (755.8/km2)

Here’s what most Australians, living in capital cities, would be used to:

Map showing Melbourne post offices

Melbourne, 4,058 people per square mile (1,567/km2)

In case you can’t make it out, every small dot on that map is a post office, too, albeit sometimes a licensed Australia Post outlet combined with another business; Google only puts full sized pins for a few of them.

Actually, I fudged the search a little bit, and when I explain why you’ll understand something about the US postal system. See, when I searched for “post office near san francisco” I got lots of small dots, too, which made it look like there were lots of post offices. But when I dug deeper it turned out that most of them weren’t actually post offices, but were “mailing offices” or UPS or other courier shops, or other retail outlets that just sold stamps. I had to specify “USPS post office near san francisco” to get the actual official ones, and I’m still not sure it’s accurate; the USPS locator gives me 34 hits for within 5 miles of 94105 (the zipcode of where I used to work in SF), some of which don’t seem to show up on Google Maps — but note that this is a larger area than is shown on the map above, and that Melbourne still has far more, despite 1/4 the population density.

However, the proliferation of non-post-office hits on the Google map is the key to understanding why Australians get confused when trying to find a post office in America. The point is: most of the services an Australian thinks you’d get at a post office — buying stamps, sending mail, packaging parcels, etc — happens elsewhere. You simply don’t need to go to a post office except in extraordinary circumstances. At least, not if you’re affluent and have good Internet and technology at hand; like so many crappy, underfunded, inconvenient US government services, people buy their way out of using them if they can.

So, here’s the actual advice for Australian travellers looking for a post office in the US.

  1. First things first: don’t ask, “Where can I find a post office?” Ask what you really want: “How can I mail this thing?” The answer is generally not “at the post office”, but some other way.
  2. Buying stamps: in San Francisco, buy them at Walgreens. I’m not sure how widespread Walgreens are, but wherever you are, some major retail chain probably stocks stamps at the counter, and will be more accessible, open longer hours, and easier to find than a post office.
  3. Finding out how much it costs to mail a letter overseas: usps.com — don’t rely on Walgreens staff to know this, but do your research ahead and just ask them for the monetary value you need.
  4. Sending letters: mailboxes are painted dark blue and are low-set compared to Australian or British ones, so they’re hard to spot on the street, and USPS’s website doesn’t have a locator. However, you can generally leave your mail at the front desk of anywhere where the post office would deliver mail, eg. the reception desk at an office, or the front desk of a hotel, and they’ll hand it to the mail carrier. (In some places, mail carriers pick up mail from residential mailboxes — that’s what those red flags are all about, which was always bewildering to me back when I used Eudora for email in the 1990s. If you’re staying somewhere with a mail flag on the box, you can leave mail in it, and raise the flag to tell the carrier to collect it.)
  5. Sending parcels: as above for letters, but you can do your own weighing and buy the postage online at postcalc.usps.com. You can print out a label and tape it to your parcel, which is valid postage, and you don’t have to visit a post office at all. Most hotels, offices, etc should have a scale you can borrow to weigh a parcel.
  6. Buying mailing materials (envelopes, boxes, bubble wrap): the same place you buy stamps, or an office supply store like Office Depot or Staples.
  7. Another option: in the US they rely much more heavily on courier services like UPS and FedEx. If you’re sending a parcel, it may work better to use them. Check their websites and you should be able to calculate shipping prices, print a label, and arrange a pickup. There are also retail outlets for these services, which will also sell packing materials and print the mailing label for you, and are generally easier to find and get to than an actual post office.
  8. If you’re trying to mail parcels internationally, you’ll probably have discovered how ridiculously expensive it is from the US (around $100 to send a small, 1kg package to Australia, for instance). So in fact, it’s probably cheaper to get an extra suitcase and pay excess baggage fees for your flight back. Sad but true.

So in short: ask “where can I buy stamps/packaging?” or “where can I mail this letter/parcel”, and the answer will be something other than a post office. Hope that helps!

Travels: SFO for the weekend, PDX for Open Source Bridge

Hey, I am massively disorganised this week, but I figured I should probably mention that I’m going to be travelling and would like to catch up with people.

Saturday 15th to Monday 17th June, I will be in San Francisco, mostly in the Castro/Mission/ish area. Social activities planned so far include:

  • Saturday afternoon: hanging out on Liz Henry’s patio in Bernal Heights, with laptops and snacks and generally socialising. Likely to be a hackerish/feminist crowd. If you know Liz and where she lives, just show up. If you don’t, then she says to email her and she’ll give you directions.
  • Saturday evening: drinks and foods at The Liberties, corner of Guerrero and 23rd. My old local. I believe that a space has been booked for a group in either the back or side room. Not sure what time this’ll go to, but just a warning that I’m not likely to make a very late night of it what with jetlag and stuff.
  • Sunday morning: brunch at Erica’s, and again, if you know her then you know the drill.

Sunday afternoon/evening are unscheduled, but I would expect that we’ll probably have some kind of dinner plans, so let me know if you’d like to be part of them.

Monday I’m hoping to have lunch with the Metaweb crew at Google (I’d better email them about that, huh?), meet up with some other folks (yipe, gotta email them too), and then off to PDX in the evening.

PDX: mostly I’m just gonna be at OSBridge. I’ll be keynoting Wednesday morning, and splitting my time between talks and the hack lounge. I think there has been talk of an outing to yarn and/or fabric stores at some point. Yes? Then, the weekend afterwards, some Growstuff folks are going to carpool and head out into the country to visit some farms and community gardens and stuff like that.

I would love to catch up with as many people as possible, so please, drop me a line if you’d like to have tea or burritos or go yarn shopping or whatever. See you soon!

And a third thing:

3) I’ve been sitting on this for a little while, but it’s been announced now, so: I’ll be keynoting Open Source Bridge in Portland, Oregon (USA) in June. I know a bunch of my people will be there and I can’t wait to see you all. If you have never been to Open Source Bridge before, it’s one my my favourite conferences, bridging (get it!) software and social responsibility in a way that you don’t see many other places. I’m pretty sure I’ll be talking about Growstuff and how growing food is like writing software. It is, really!

Home!

Well, I’m home. Have been for a few days, actually, but in between jetlag, flaky internet, and nesting, I haven’t gotten around to posting.

The flight home was ghastly and let’s never talk about it, okay? I am still processing my thoughts on the trip overall but I guess the quick version is: 2.5 months is a long time to be city-hopping, it was more expensive than I expected, it was great to meet people everywhere (hi! thanks!), and I really want to spend more time in Andalusia and in the north-east of England.

Now I’m home I’m sorting out money (yay Centrelink) and work (some balance of Growstuff and more audio stuff), settling into our rearranged home (we have a new housemate, and a significant turnover and reshuffling of furniture as a result), and trying to restart my social life. Incidentally, if you’re interested in my domestic blog it’s over here and likely to have lots of food/gardening/crafts in the near future. NESTING. SPRING CLEANING. MORE NESTING.

I’m becoming increasingly disenchanted with social networking websites and probably going to delete my Facebook account. Yes, again. Especially after they outed queer students to their parents and then blamed the students for not understanding Facebook’s “robust privacy controls” — despite the students having locked down their accounts, and Facebook ignoring those settings.

With the way Twitter is going these days, I may drop that too. Or at least stop using it as a primary interface to the world. I keep coming back to the fact that if I’m going to create stuff, I don’t want some corporate jerkwads shoving ads all over it, potentially ads for things that are anathema to me. See, for example, that time when LiveJournal put anti-equality ads all over someone’s post celebrating a same-sex marriage, or the “Meet Hot Gamer Chicks” ads we used to get on the Geek Feminism wiki. I’ll gladly pay money to support a service, but I won’t stick around for that sort of misuse of my words.

So, if you want to be sure to keep following me even if I drop off those places, you might want to subscribe to my blog (by RSS, or you can get email updates if you prefer — there’s a subscription form on the bottom of every page on my site.); or subscribe to my journal on Dreamwidth (mostly an aggregate of this blog and my domesticity blog, with a few other things from time to time); or on whatever the next not-completely-asshatty social network gets enough people to be worth the trouble.

On the home stretch

It’s almost a month to the day since I posted my last travel update. Since then I’ve been to Paris, then to Calais and across the channel to Dover, along the south coast to Brighton and Portsmouth, up to London, stayed a week and a half, then north to York, brief visits to Durham and Newcastle, a few days in Edinburgh, then over to Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, and five days in Cornwall.

Tonight I was meant to have taken the ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff in Bretagne, then spent a week meandering back through France and across the Pyrenees to Spain and fly home from Madrid. Problem: ferry strikes mean that my ferry’s not going anywhere. Rather than try and arrange my travel to figure that out, I decided I was a bit over high-energy travel and not all that enthused about figuring out a new route through France and Spain on short notice. So here I am back in London, staying at a friend’s place again, for a week til I hop on an EasyJet flight to Madrid and then home.

I suspect I’ll be taking it pretty easy in London, mostly just kicking around and working on Growstuff. I do want to make it to the one museum that was closed during the Olympics/Paralympics when I was last here, but that’s about it. Okay, and maybe another visit to the V&A. Um. Well, let’s just say that I don’t have any particular plans, and don’t intend to work too hard at it.

That said, if anyone wants to catch up for drinks/meals/pair programming this week, let me know.

Travel update

I’m halfway through my 10-week-long trip and I haven’t updated in a month. The only excuse I can offer is that I wanted to include pictures, but my relationship with Flickr has turned out to be strangely complicated lately, and the whole process of uploading them (often via dodgy hotel wifi) has just seemed too hard.

Actually, I’m noticing something new in my picture-taking this trip. Just as, a few years ago, I purged any book from my shelves that was effectively obsoleted by Wikipedia or Project Gutenberg, now I am avoiding taking pictures that would be available by a Creative Commons image search. What’s the point of taking a photo of Notre Dame when so many other people have done so already, and undoubtedly better than I could? Sure, a photo of me standing in front of Notre Dame would actually have some individuality, but I’m not that big a fan of photos of myself in random locations, so I haven’t been doing that. Instead I’ve been carrying around a somewhat clunky, heavy camera (not a DSLR or anything, but an Olympus PEN camera) and using it to take pictures of odd, quirky things here and there, which I might as well just use my iPhone for. Ah well.

So, places I have been since my last update, and what I thought of them.

The week in A Coruña for the conference was a mixture of hanging out at the conference venue, sleeping in the university residence where we were staying because I had come down with a fairly nasty cold, and a bit of wandering around the city. I saw the ancient Roman lighthouse, but didn’t go inside; I spent more time wandering around the old part of town looking for food than I really wanted to; and I found a pretty good craft/artisan market near the bus stop where I had a awkward (due to language incompatibility) but pleasant conversation with a handweaver and bought a linen and alpaca shawl she’d woven.

On the second-last day, I daytripped to Santiago de Compostela, just 40 minutes away by train. Touristy, but I felt okay about it, somehow, knowing that it was a thousand-year-old pilgrim site and that many of the tourists had walked a long way to be there.

After the conference I took a night train to Madrid (cramped, overheated) and whatever the Spanish equivalent of a TGV is to Cordoba, in the southern part of Spain that had been Islamic during the middle ages. I loved Cordoba, its narrow streets and white-and-ochre houses with their courtyards and fountains. The cathedral-inside-a-mosque (or “mosquedral”, as I like to call it) was mindblowing. The city was hot and quiet and empty, as all the locals had gone on holiday, but I spent a few pleasant days wandering around and sitting in parks and eating tapas and drinking cheap wine. I’d love to go back to Andalusia and spend more time exploring its other cities and its architecture and its food.

On to Barcelona, which I hated. Crowded and unpleasant and I spent the whole time worried about people trying to steal my bag. To be fair, the Gothic quarter is pretty cool, and the Barcelona History Museum is amazing, especially the parts of the Roman town that they’ve dug up and you can walk around in the basement. The bits that fascinated me most were the dyeworks with the stone troughs still stained blue, and the place where they made garum (fermented fish sauce) in enormous round pots. I’m not much into Gaudi, so though I went past some of his works (the Sagrada Familia, etc) I didn’t get off the tourist bus to actually go in. I did try to go to Parc Guell, on the recommendation of many friends, but I’d somehow got the impression that it was a park, with, you know, green space. Actually it was a pile more building-sized Gaudi blobs, crammed full of tourists, and it made me angry. I got straight back on the tourist bus, and two stops later found myself at a 13th century convent (Pedralbes) which was operating as a museum, free on Sundays, and had a beautiful courtyard with fountains and grass and trees and no more than a handful of tourists, none drunk. I spent half a day there.

I’d heard that the food in Barcelona was amazing, and it was the best I’d had so far on the trip, but I don’t think it was enough to make it worth the unpleasantness of my visit. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I had been with friends and we’d been able to sit around and drink and eat and enjoy the nightlife. As it was, I found some delicious tapas that actually contained vegetables, which after a couple of weeks of subsisting on not much else than ham, and not seeing anything greener than an olive, was lovely. I had a wonderful dish of spinach, chickpeas, and some kind of pork that pretty much made my week. At a pinxtos place in El Gotic, I had a tartlet with some kind of sweet fruit paste, goat cheese, and fresh mint, and another where a sort of fish salad was topped with fresh dill and tiny slivers of candied lemon peel. They were delicious. And yet, I have lots of delicious food at home. Coming from Melbourne, it takes a lot to blow my mind, and Barcelona didn’t manage it. Sorry.

On to Avignon, which I was using as a stopover and to have a quick minibus tour of Provence because, well, if I’m going to pass through I may as well take the time to look around. It was, as expected, very scenic. I visited a lavender farm where I saw sweat-sheened young men exerting themselves heaving bales of lavender into a still to make lavender oil (they were well aware of their decorativeness, and posed for photos; there was also a tip jar for them by the exit), any number of medieval villages full of gift shops, where I wondered how or indeed whether anyone actually lived there full-time; and the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct, which was pretty awesome — you actually walk across it, or rather across a modern footbridge set up right next to it, close enough to touch. For the most part, though, Provence rubbed me the wrong way. I think I associate it too much with the sort of people who use it as a style of home decoration, and the result was that it all felt terribly twee to me. It didn’t help that the place was packed full of gift shops that seemed dead set on promoting that sort of thing: “Provençal” table linens made in China, and whatnot. Ugh.

Then the TGV to Lyon, and then a local train from there to meet Anatsuno who lives in an adorable little village, in a house that’s about 500 years old and is right on the village square, next to the bakery. We spent a lot of time sitting around, knitting, and eating cheese. By this point I really needed a few days of downtime, and especially of not walking on cobblestones in barefoot shoes, as bits of me were pretty achey. One day, though, we went to visit the Romanesque church at Anzy-le-Duc, which was gorgeous, and filled with amazing medieval frescos. My last night there, we went into Lyon and stayed over at another friend’s house, where there was a cluster of fangirls and pizza and watching Vividcon vids and then, in the morning, a visit to La Droguerie (the famous French button mecca) before the train.

My next stop was Strasbourg, or rather Mutzig, a little town just outside Strasbourg. I stayed with some people from AirBNB, who turned out to be an ex-sysadmin-perl-guy-turned-professional-origamist, and his wife who’s a guild-trained painter who does things like restore Medieval churches. They were completely delightful, as was their village. On my first full day I went back into Strasbourg, which was an interesting architectural and cultural change from the more southern areas I’d previously been in: definitely more German, with lots of steep-roofted half-timbered houses and sausages and the like. On the second day, my hosts offered to take me for a drive up into the hills to sample some of the local food and wine, which was utterly delicious. I had some kind of pork thing in a creamy sauce with mushrooms, and spaetzle, and the local pinot noir, Rouge d’Ottrott, which is unusual because Alsace mostly goes for white wines. Anyway. Strasbourg and environs: surprisingly awesome!

After that I went to Paris, but I’ll save that for a subsequent blog post. I’m glad to have caught up this far, at least.

From Madrid to A Coruña

Yesterday I took the train from Madrid to A Coruña, a six hour trip that caused a fair bit of consternation among the GNOME people who brought me here. I’ve been telling anyone who asks that I’m not in a hurry, I like to see the countryside, that I’d rather not have the environmental guilt of an unnecessary flight, and that I just like trains. All this is true, but people seem incredulous til I tell them that after this conference I’ll be spending another two months taking trains all around Europe. At that point I guess they put me into the “mildly eccentric tourist” box rather than the “bizarrely idiosyncratic business traveller” one.

When you take long-haul trains, it’s always a toss-up whether the scenery’s going to be interesting or whether you’ll end up going through boring farmland and the semi-industrial back-lots of small towns. This trip had a bit of both, but there were enough cute villages, medieval churches and old buildings in various states of ruin to keep me watching out the window.

The land west of Madrid is mostly flat with dry, yellowing grass and plantations of trees (mostly some kind of conifer? I couldn’t place it) and, delightfully, sunflowers. I was on the sunward side of the train for most of the trip, so the sunflowers on my side were facing away from me, otherwise I would have attempted a photo out the window. It was actually a bit strange to pass through a Mediterranean landscape without seeing Australian flora. I found myself looking out the window for eucalyptus trees or familiar scrub along the railway tracks, but there was nothing I recognised.

Heading into Galicia, the land got greener and hillier, and when I arrived in A Coruña the weather was mild and damp, compared to the blasting furnace of Madrid. At A Coruña, I ran into some other GUADEC people and got a ride to the conference accommodation, which is a university residence up in the hills. Driving up there along winding roads through the university campus, with the car windows open, I got a sudden whiff of something. I looked around but couldn’t find the source. Then we rounded a corner, and I found a whole bank of eucalypts planted along the road, letting off their scent as if after rain. I don’t like to think of myself as one of those people who is always looking for the familiar when travelling in foreign places, but I guess I am one. I suppose being pleased at the presence of Australian native plants is a fairly mild version; I’ll reassure myself that I’m not one of those tourists who eats at McDonalds all round the world.

Anyway, after meeting some people at the pre-reg and reception, a restless night’s sleep, and a pretty decent breakfast (so glad there were decent protein options! I’d been worried), I’m now at the conference itself, about to watch Jacob Appelbaum’s Tor keynote. Onward!

Europe 2012: The travelog begins

So, here I am in Madrid, after about 30 hours in transit. I flew Emirates for the first time, and Emily was right — they’re pretty good. Went via Changi where I didn’t have time to do any of the fun stuff you can do there if you have a long layover, a brief pitstop at Colombo which is notable only because it afforded us a Sri Lankan curry for breakfast (yay! I would eat curry for breakfast all the time if I could), and Dubai, where I found myself thinking a lot about the dark side of Dubai and how much of their prosperity is built on slavery. Then I remembered that I lived in the US, and, hey, the former British Empire. So. I don’t have any answers to that, but I will say that coming into Dubai around 5am, with the sun rising through a haze that made it impossible to see the horizon, I saw a lot of compounds on the edges of town, ringed with security fences and lights, before we got to the bits that are trying to look like Versaille and/or something out of science fiction.

We flew over Cairo and Alexandria before crossing the Mediterranean to Spain. After a lot of very dull desert, it was amazing to see the Nile and its fertile plains and the sprawl of civilisation that’s grown up around it. Most of the fields under cultivation are all long and narrow, like English ones before enclosure, and a fairly uniform dark green. I realised I have no idea what they grow there. Most of my knowledge of Egypt stops somewhere around where year 8 ancient and classical history and “curse of the mummy” type pop culture left off. Also on the ignorance list: Tunisia and Algeria, or at least the coastal bits of them, are way greener than I expected.

Crossing Spain from the Mediterranean coast to Madrid, I saw what I think must be citrus plantations: regular specks of dark green against the yellow-brown land like the dots on a Roy Lichtenstein piece. Couldn’t help thinking a lot about Stephen Maturin and about Sharpe. I suspect they will be my regular companions over the next couple of weeks.

After landing, there was a painful and frustrating episode at the airport involving trying to buy a SIM for my phone, which I’d rather leave behind me (albeit with a credit card chargeback against the assholes in question); the Internet, especially the Prepaid With Data Wiki, was entirely right and I subsequently went and got a working, non-phone-crashing SIM just like they said.

Finally Google Maps-enabled, I headed out for a few hours wandering round to keep myself awake and see a bit of the city. I didn’t go much further than a few blocks from where I’m staying, but here’s a picture of the Royal Palace:

Three people stand looking through an iron fence at the Palacio Real.

That’s one end, not the front view, which is even bigger. Apparently Philip V, who built it (or rather, who decreed that it should be built, and then had others do it for him… at least I presume so) died before it could be finished; it was meant to be 4 times larger. I read that there is a guided tour of the “50 most important rooms” and my feet hurt just thinking about it.

Tomorrow I’m planning on a little more wandering, before I get aboard the train to A Coruña for GUADEC. Here’s hoping it goes through interesting countryside, and not just the back sides of industrial areas as all too often happens with passenger rail in Australia and the US.

The Itinerary Of Dooooooom!

Okay, I think I’ve got it together enough to post. Here’s where I’ll be in Spain, France, and the UK between July 24th and October 8th. If you’re in any of these places and would like to catch up for a beer/coffee/meal/tourist adventure, let me know. If you’ve travelled in any of these areas and have tips, let me know.

(Exceptions to request for tips: yes, I already have a Eurail pass; yes, I know about booking British tickets well in advance via thetrainline.com; yes, I know the Olympics are on at that time and know about getaheadofthegames.com.)

Summary:

July 24th-August 7th: Spain, including Madrid, A Coruña, Cordoba, Barcelona.

August 7th-21st: France, including Avignon, a friend’s place nearish to Lyon, Strasbourg, Paris.

August 21st-September 30th: England and Scotland, including the south coast from Dover to Portsmouth, London, York, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bristol, and Cornwall, with shorter side-trips along the way to various stuff.

October 1st-8th: Back through France and Spain to Madrid, and fly home.

More detail

Continue reading

Keynoting GUADEC, travelling in Europe

This is exciting! I’ve been asked to keynote GUADEC, the Gnome Users and Developers European Conference, in A Coruña, Spain, at the end of this month. I’ll be talking about my experiences with the world of open stuff since I stopped primarily being an open source developer a few years ago, about the ways open source software has inspired other movements, and about what we can learn from those other open projects in turn.

After the conference, I’ll be sticking round for a couple of months (side note: damn, I’m glad I already dropped out of school and didn’t have to make that decision in a rush) and playing tourist and visiting friends in Spain, France, and the UK, travelling extensively in all three countries. If you live in any of those places and would like to catch up — or even better, offer crash space — please let me know! I think there will be a couple of group gatherings in London at least.

Meanwhile, has anyone had experience travelling with the ebook versions of the Lonely Planet guides? How did you find them? I’d love to avoid carrying a couple of bricks around with me, but I’m wary about their usability, especially as the sample chapters available through iBooks crashed the app. Just in case it’s relevant, I have a first gen iPad and a Nook onto which I side-load books using Calibre. (Not being in the US, I can’t use the Nook store. If anyone knows workarounds for that, I’m interested to hear them.)