It took me a stupidly long time to realise that the British Museum is just down the street from my Hebrew class, and open late on the relevant evening. One of the best things about living in London is that the major museums are free and you can pop in for a few minutes any time you like. Often in those few moments you can find something that will transform your day.
Last week I was browsing in the Asian rooms and was struck by something particularly charming -- a ceramic pillow from the Tang Dynasty whose base was carved into a scene from Shen Jiji's tale 'The Pillow.' (I have found different translations of the title -- the Chinese seems to be Zhen Zhong Ji, or 枕中記. Likewise, the author's name gets spelled in different ways, but the Chinese characters are 沈既濟.) This is the story of a man who dreams an entire life, in which he becomes the ruler of a strange kingdom. According to ancient-china.info, the tale is the source of a Chinese idiom still used today:
(黄粱美梦 is apparently pronounced something like 'huang liang yi meng.')
Golden millet dream (黄粱美梦)—dream full of fantasy.
The allusion comes from a romance entitled Stories Telling on the Pil-lows by Shen Jiji in the Tang Dynasty.
"Once there was a boy named Lu Sheng. Although born in a poor fami-ly, he yearned all day long for fame, property and ranks of a general or a min-ister. One day when he lodged in an inn in Handan , he encountered a Taoist priest, who gave him a porcelain pillow. Lu Sheng fell into asleep and dreamt as soon as he laid his head on the porcelain pillow, while the innkeeper was cooking his sorghum food. In his dream Lu Sheng married the daughter of a rich man, took up a post of minister; he finally had a large number of children and grandchildren and lived in a luxurious and majestic life. When he woke up from his dream, the innkeeper had not even made his golden millet food ready. "
Later the story is meant to satirize the nullity of fantasies and unfeasible hope. Another phrase is "golden dreams on the porcelain pillow. "
The label in the museum said that the ancient Chinese viewed pillows as the gateway to dreams and decorated them accordingly.
I may well have missed the point entirely, but I immediately began imagining how it would be if we in the West embroidered our pillowcases with the subjects of our dreams. If I had any artistic ability, I'd do it myself.
Hymn to the postal service
In America, it's a cliché for people to joke about the alleged poor quality of the postal service. After living in Britain for five years, I have no idea why. If Americans spent a few months being served by Royal Mail, they would never complain about USPS again.In my 25 years in America, I can recall having the following problems with my mail delivery:
- A few times, the cover of a magazine got shredded when the mail carrier forced it into the mailbox. (Most Americans have a mailbox outside their house, instead of a mail slot in their door).
- Very occasionally I got some of the neighbours' post in my box, or they got mine in theirs. This probably happened fewer than ten times.
And that's it. In addition, the U.S. post office has a few annoying characteristics:
- It doesn't guarantee to deliver domestic mail within a particular time -- how long your letter takes to reach its destination depends on how far away you send it, how busy the post office is, etc.
- There are also no guarantees about what time of day your post will be delivered. Often you can guess, but the time can change if you get a new mail carrier. My parents get their post anytime between 11 and 4.
- The post isn't delivered on minor federal holidays that aren't days off for most people.
- The USPS charges extra to deliver envelopes that are a funny shape.
Compare this with the experience I've had since moving to Britain:
- Items of post constantly go missing. We get two weekly magazines and one biweekly, and at least one of them is sure to vanish at least once every couple of months. Other things that have got lost include airline tickets, a renewed lease for our flat, and credit cards. (Fortunately, the last only went next door and the neighbours were honest enough to return them).
- The envelope from the Home Office containing my passport and permanent visa, which I was supposed to sign for personally, was instead dumped through our door with the rest of the post.
- At our old flat, the postman routinely left parcels outside to be rained on and/or nicked, and to attract burglars. When we left a note asking him not to do this, he scrawled 'MAKE BIGGER LETTER BOX.'
- Another postman always left a note and returned the parcel to the depot without bothering to check whether we were home to receive it or not. This seems to be a widespread practice, even though postmen are supposed to ring the doorbell first.
- We always have to ask at least twice to get parcels redelivered, since they seem to ignore the first request. Chris once left work early to collect a parcel that was supposed to be redelivered to our local post office, only to find it wasn't there. He rang the helpline to be told that the parcel was 'too big for a branch post office' and he would have to have it delivered somewhere else.
- About once a week we get mail clearly marked with our neighbours' address.
- We have received mail for previous residents, marked it 'Not at this address' and returned it -- only to have it delivered again a few days later.
- Most recently, my mother sent Chris a parcel via Amazon. Although it was correctly addressed, Royal Mail returned it as undeliverable. We can only assume that the postman either put a note through the wrong door or didn't bother to leave one at all.
If you ring Royal Mail's helpline, things only get worse. I can't compare it with the American helpline because I never had cause to ring the latter, but here are some of the delights the British version has to offer:
- Being told that we can't reasonably expect our mail to be delivered properly because we live in a flat above a shop.
- Being told that it's no wonder mail gets delivered to the wrong address, when there are all those houses around us whose numbers differ from ours by just one digit.
- Being told that they can't take the problem up with the person who's causing it (i.e., the mail carrier who can't match the number on the envelope with the number on the door) but can only report it to the local sorting office and hope the information trickles down to the right person eventually.
- If you want to get a parcel redelivered, you have to talk to an automated system that either doesn't understand your accent, doesn't recognise your address or claims your local post office doesn't exist.
- Talking to a real person doesn't get you much further, as the call centre is clearly not outsourced to India and is staffed by surly young Britons who took elocution lessons from Ali G.
Other irritating things about Royal Mail are:
- It's pointlessly broken up into three branches -- Royal Mail itself (formerly Consignia), Parcelforce and Post Offices Ltd -- none of which is capable of talking to the others.
- Their website makes you register a username and password to look up postcodes, even though these are public information and it's in Royal Mail's own interest for you to use the correct one.
- However much I scheme or plead, I can never persuade post office clerks to sell me a whole sheet of air mail stamps so I can send letters to America without having to queue up at the post office each time.
- Their postmarks carry advertising.
- Their stamps are boring.
Thank heaven for e-mail.