I’m standing at a tall counter in my kitchen in London. I can hear the ebb and flow of traffic outside. A siren echo-locates its way through the narrow streets. A small whisp of steam rises with Parisian laziness from my fresh cup of coffee. I take a sip.
The reason I am standing at a kitchen counter, with a never-opened yellow pages — around 20 years out of date — serving to raise my computer screen to an appropriate level, is that I don’t have a desk. I’ve ordered one, after a positively luminescent review from Nate and Mark, but I opted to purchase only the metal frame. I was feeling creative. The place where I’m planning to put the desk is small, and oddly shaped. I’ll be spending so much time at this desk sipping coffee (occasionally doing some work) that I want it to be perfect. To accomplish that, I need a custom-cut table top.
Enter the internet, and the earth’s friendliest finding folk: The elves powering the Google machine, and a foray into long-distance shipping.
The finest wood from Cairo.
For you, special price: $67.
I’ve ordered the top for my desk. It is beautiful. Hand-crafted from, well, cheap, un-treated wood. There’s a lot of walnut in this 100-odd year old house, and I will finish my desktop with Danish Oil, to help it look the part alongside the rest of the interior. Or maybe it won’t — I am under no illusions about my do-it-myself expertise. But at least it’ll be real wood, and I’ll have had part in making it look the way it does, which is a lot more appealing than medium-density fibre-board clad in wallpaper. At least it will wear better.
The best place I could find to ship me this overgrown (and beautifully cut to my specific size requirements) plank of wood was in Cairo. Maybe this particular purveyor of made-to-measure planks of wood are just slightly more internet savvy than its competitors. Or perhaps the others running such operations aren’t available on the internet, and I’ll be damned if I am removing the yellow pages from underneath my monitor. I have some semblance or ergonomics to consider.
And so it happened. I filled in their form. I paid my $67 dollars, and now my wooden desktop is winging its way to me — more than 2,200 miles in distance — in what is truly a feat of global economy coming together.
Five days later, it’s with me.
There it is, installed on the metal frame of my desk, gently emanating smells I remember from my childhood. Freshly cut wood, soaking in oil that’s glistening in the late morning sun beams spilling through the windows.
I stretch. I take another sip of coffee. In contemplation, I nod to my father, many miles away, who would be proud of me actually building something, rather than ordering it from IKEA. In so far as ‘bolting wood to metal’ deserves the ‘building’ moniker. But, just for this fleeting moment, I pretend I’m a master furniture maker, surveying my most recent creation.
Yeah, so that didn’t happen.
The whole story above is completely absurd.
If I were based in London, there’s no way I’d look outside of the UK. As a result, the furthest anything would be shipped to me would be a point around 500 miles away. You’d have to fly it back and forth four times to hit anything like the distance to Cairo.
Also; the price of the product. Shopping online, I’ll do £. I may even stretch to € or $. I have no idea what the currency is in Egypt, but I’m a world-wise kind of guy, and I’m prettttty sure it isn’t Euros or Dollars. And it definitely isn’t Pounds.
Also; I shudder to think of the shipping cost, the import fees, and the sheer hassle of getting a — let’s face it — pretty ordinary plank of wood smuggled across the border.
Reminds me of a joke, actually.
A retired customs official sits in a bar, and sees a beautiful redhead enter.
“Hey”, he says. “I know you. You’re the lady with the bicycle. You used to come through our border crossing every day with a bundle of wood on the back of your bike.”
The redhead flicks her hair. “Hi”, she says, eyeing him with a not-so-thin veil of suspicion sparkling across her face. “I remember you.”
They drink together for a few hours. They may even have flirted once or twice. Eventually, the customs officer musters up the courage to ask.
“So, I have to ask you… All these years… I just know you were smuggling something. I could feel it. But I searched your bundles of wood at least a hundred times without finding anything.”
The redhead blushes slightly, tilts her head, and waits for an actual question.
“I’m retired now. Nothing’s going to happen. But I really must know the truth. What did you, in fact, smuggle?”
“Bikes”, she laughed.
Anyway — even a pretty ordinary plank of wood gets stuck in customs for a week, and you’re paying an exorbitant ransom to get it back out. It just isn’t worth it. Or maybe it is, but people generally never even bother to find out.
And yet, the whole story is true.
Well, almost all of it.
I did order the plank of wood from 2,200 miles away. I did have it custom cut to size. It did arrive in just 5 days. And it cost me only $67 including shipping.
Except I no longer live in London; I’m in San Francisco these days. And the top for my desk is being shipped from Florida — 2,200 miles away.
TL;DR: The US is really, really fucking big.
The reason I’m writing this in the first place is that this incident is the first time dawned on my quite how bloody large my new country is.
The furthest you can travel anywhere in mainland Europe is circa 2,600 miles. A number of miles don’t describe how different those two places are. I’ve been in both Nordkapp and the Tarifa and they couldn’t be more different if they tried. It makes sense that they’re in different countries. It’s perfectly obvious that they should have different currencies. And nobody in their right mind would order a plank of wood from Spain to install it on a desk in Norway. That… just… doesn’t… compute.
I’ve lived on 4 continents, and visited a metric fucktonne of countries, but this realisation absolutely blows my tiny little mind: But the US is all one country. All one postal system. All one currency. And that makes it perfectly normal to order a plank of wood from Cairo, when you’re sitting at a computer in London.
Well, sort of.