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Something almost everyone does, when they go abroad, is send messages home. Nowadays it is likely to be email, cell 'phone or text. Yet even as little as a decade or so ago, most contacts would be cards and letters. And to send them, of course, you needed a post office. Spanish ones, in particular, could be something of a challenge. Like supermarkets, they often had no sign on them, as if trying to keep their existence secret. Even when a resident pointed one out to you, its opening hours or even which days it opened may not be shown on its frontage. You just kept turning up with your postcards and hoped to catch it unawares.

The counter clerks were invariably thin and stressed and used rubber stamps with a degree of violence that was quite unnerving. Even apparently simple transactions, like dispatching an ordinary-looking brown envelope, required them to consult huge directories, their supervisor, and each other, in low whispers while the line on the other side of the counter drooped in the airless heat behind a yellow strip painted on the floor. The culination of every transaction was signaled by slamming a rubber stamp from ink pad to envelope or document half a dozen times with a force that made the windows rattle but also brought a brief tremor of hope to the wilting line of people.

A particularly memorable one was in an old worn building in a narrow street in a small coastal town. The big, square room had a bare wooden floor, flaking walls, a large old-fashioned, slow-moving ceiling fan and looked like a scene from a movie set in war-torn Europe. We could not work out what was happening at the long, high wooden counter ahead of us where several elderly people stood hunched in front of the right-hand clerk. They had younger members of their family with them, apparently to take it in turns to wait because periodically a couple of them would go outside for some fresh air, leaving other members of the group to take their place at the counter; holding vital documents aloft, baton-style, like in a relay race only waiting instead of running.

Meanwhile, at the left-hand end of the counter, a middle-aged man had waited so long for his envelope to be processed that as soon as the clerk raised her rubber stamp he lurched away, blank-eyed, towards the door and had to be called back to pay. The fee had been overlooked among the whispered consultations, terrible directories and hammer blows of the rubber stampa. It was all probably futile anyway, since the contents of his lumpy manila envelope would never have survived the rubber stamp. We took his place at the counter, hoping the foreign destinations of our envelopes would not consign us to a fate similar to that of the family on our right, and flinched in spite of ourselves when the rubber stamp finally fell.

With such hushed, bureaucratic complexity on one side of the counter, passive endurance on the other, and the execution-like effect of the rubber stamp, I have since wondered if Franz Kafka got the idea for his novel, The Trial, from a Spanish post office.

We never did work out what the family at the right-hand side of the counter were trying to achieve. Whether it was registering a birth or a death, buying a marriage license or questioning their social security check, their documents were still unstamped when we staggered out into the sunlight with our letters pummeled and a vague feeling of relief to find ourselves still alive and at liberty.

Source by Sandra Clayton