Lost in Limbo

I stopped by the post office this morning to mail out a small package.  It was a few small collectible items that were being sent out as part of a trade with another person I had only met over the internet.  There was no line to wait in, so that was lucky, yet when I handed over the package I was handed back a form to fill out.

“What's this?” I said.

”The package is going to Canada.  You are required to fill out this form.”

Strange.  I had mailed to this person before without needing  to fill out any paperwork  The only difference was that this time I was sending a small box instead of  padded envelope.  Somehow that made a difference (even though it cost the same.)

I was perplexed by the form.  Oh, it was simple enough, sign here, date there, write in an address, etc. I was confused by the fact that half of it was in French. I guess it made sense, given Canada has two official languages and all, but it still confounded me to the point that the clerk had to keep instructing me on what to do.  My mind was blank, and I even read French.

Anyway, the language hurdle aside, I was stumped at what to do with the final check box.  I was asked whether the package was a gift or a sold item.  It was neither.  It was a trade.  I was terrified.  I did not know what to do. 

Years ago I worked for a company in Seattle that was contracted to build software for Corel out of Canada. We were building a spreadsheet product that pretty much cloned most of Excel 4.0.  I was responsible for the architecture that handled the user interface and rendering.  Rendering was a big deal to Corel, since they had their own specialized graphics libraries, and given the fact that some of their own employees out of Ottawa were building components they intended to blend into the product, my piece of the project was the topic of much discussion.

At one point in the project Corel needed one of us to fly out and meet with the development team on their end, to talk about how the code functioned and how they could interface, etc.  So I packed a bag and hopped a plane headed for Ottawa.  Everything was going fine until the plane neared the Canadian border.  Then the stewardess handed out a form to fill out, so you could declare what you were bringing into the country.  One question asked non-residents whether the trip was for business or pleasure.  Of course, I marked 'business.' 

Boy was I stupid.

When the plane landed and I got to customs I was pulled aside for questioning, anyone that answered 'business' was pulled aside.  It was late, nearly midnight, and that was west-coast time.  A customs agent in his early twenties, scrawny and nervous started to ask me questions. 

”What is the nature of your business arrangement?”  

I was flummoxed.  What was I supposed to say?  I didn't have any idea.  Being an honest person, I blurted out whatever made sense to me.  “My company has a contract with Corel and so I'm going up there to teach them how to use our code.”  All of that was true, but it only made things worse.

He wanted details.  What company? What contract? How much are they paying me to teach? Why was the value of this transaction not disclosed?  Has your company filled out the appropriate forms, disclosing the contractual relationship?

“Uh...”  Of course, I didn't know anything.

This went on for hours.  It seemed every word out of my mouth kept hitting minefields.  We were in pitched battle over semantics. No matter what I said I could not get the point across that no money was changing hands during this visit, that I was sure my company had done all the appropriate paperwork, etc.  He was prepared to only understand one kind of business relationship, one involving direct sales, and so he kept trying to force our conversation to fit that mold.  I kept insisting that was not the case.  We were getting nowhere.  My brain hurt.  I was in Limbo.

Apparently we had used up too much of his time.  If we did not get this resolved soon, he threatened to send me back to the US, at my own expense.  In only a few hours the sun would rise and I needed to be at a meeting.  Somehow this kicked my brain into high gear.  Maybe it was just so late my internal clock was already starting to re-activate and I my mind was coming out of the fog.  Something I said then changed his mind.  Or maybe the threat was only a last ditch attempt to get me to admit the true nature of my stealth sales business, and he caved when I did not bite.

He backed off, and let me pass into Canada.  I was free.  

Later in the week two other co-workers flew up.  Neither had the problem I had.  When I asked what they had done one said, “Oh, I just marked down 'pleasure.'  You never mark down 'business'.“  They other one said,  “just tell them you're here for a meeting.“  I slapped my head and let out a big “doh!” in true Homer Simpson style. 

So you can see why I was puzzled at what to respond on the form at the post office.  It was not a gift or a sold item.  It was a trade.  Technically, I guess that would be a sold item.  There is an exchange, and there is value to the items.  It is just barter and not cash.  The whole point of the question and the ordeal I experienced earlier was just a means by which Canada tries to account for all international transactions so they can be taxed appropriately. 

Of course, I put down 'gift'.  Now, I fully expect them to figure out the lie, and for a Canadian Mountie to come hunt me down for this indiscretion.  I think I should start packing now, so I can flee at a moments notice.

But I digress.

Matt