We were trying to make sense of the small place we live in and keep up with the clutter, a difficult task. My boyfriend got to a section within one of his drawers where he keeps mementos. You know the area. It’s not exactly a junk drawer, just a place where you store things you’re not quite ready to part with quite yet.
He held a thick stack of postcards I’d sent to him over the course of our years together. Postcards from the north, south, east and west of Ireland. From Argentina and Uruguay, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, Jamaica, Costa Rica, France, Russia, Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Malta, Italy, and loads of other places.
We may live in the digital age, but I’ll take a postcard any day over an email, Facebook post, text or tweet, from anyone out there tripping around. Digital messages have become so commonplace that they don’t give you any time to miss someone. Besides the meaning behind vacation is to vacate, right? Vacate your town; vacate your friends and family, to basically remove yourself from your current premises. I’m of the mind that unless it’s a real emergency, shooting out digital notes from the road while you’re on holiday is as bad as getting messages from the boss who’s on vacation.
Postcards are a different story. These little souvenirs are gifts to the people we send them to. There’s something about finding a postcard in the mail that puts a smile on my face. It’s a little treat that instantly connects me to a place where I might never have been and which sometimes inspires me to visit. It’s a little bit of intimacy from someone who’s taken the time to think of you while they’re in some other part of the world. It’s a thoughtful gesture that asks for nothing in return but sends great pleasure.
Like listening to an album, there’s a ritual around a postcard.
First, you have to select one. Sure, there are postcards bought on the fly—and that’s okay, because the intention is still there. But when you have time, the selection of each card is part of what makes sending one unique. I like spinning the racks in bookstores or magazine shops around ever so slowly to see what’s available and what speaks the most about the destination I’m in. Depending on where I am, or how long I’ll be there, chances are that I’ll only be sending one.
Later, there’s something about sitting on your own, whether you’re enjoying a post-safari sundowner in the Chobe National Park and gazing out at baboons practicing their military strategies, or sipping a perfect hot cocoa in a delicate porcelain cup in a hotel bar in Barcelona, to write a little story on that six by four-inch card that further establishes your sense of a place. Taking the time to contemplate your words and relish your experience helps appreciate the destination and the present moment of being there.
At the same time, postcards are all about distance. You don’t have to plug into anything because you don’t want to be connected. Some people may sign off, “wish you were here” but that’s easy to say when you know that won’t happen. In an age when we can find out anything on our own about a place with the click of mouse, postcards enable us to share intimate thoughts about our travels that friends and family won’t learn until they open their mail, or sometimes long after we’ve returned home depending on a country’s postal service.
A trip to the village post office gives you a chance to meet locals, be brave and practice another language (even if you stink at it) and buy lots of colorful stamps. You lick them, press them onto each postcard, and then send them on their merry way. Then you keep on keeping on to your next experience whether it’s sitting pretty on a beach or gearing up to hike Machu Picchu.
For the recipient, finding one in your mailbox is like being treated to an ice cream cone, it’s a nice surprise. You check out the stamps and read the tiny words that describe the destination on the flip side. Maybe you read it leaning against your mailbox, or hold off with anticipation until you get inside and savor it over a cup of coffee. Then you follow the words of the traveler and imagine where they might be now. If they’re not home yet, you’ll have to wait to hear all about their trip but something in the postcard has you traveling with them. There’s something about putting pen to paper and dropping a postcard in the mail that no app can take the place of.
The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and picked up a book I’d bought several years ago but hadn’t read. Around 22 pages into it, a postcard fell out. I abandoned the book right away and savored my find. It was a photo of people floating in canoes and kayaks with buildings and some kind of industrial ship in the background. For a minute I was stumped but when I turned it over, I couldn’t help but laugh. Posted in 2008, it was from one of my best friends. She was on fire to take a vacation but didn’t have the money to burn. Badly in need of down time, she opted for a staycation and one night invited me to join her for a sunset tour with The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. Located within a 15-minute walk from the building we both live in, I was happy to join her as a tourist on that perfect August day.
Now the Gowanus is no Erie Canal. It’s basically been a dumping ground for as long as I can remember. But over the past decade, efforts have been made to restore it to some level of decency so it can rise to the level of the affluent neighborhoods around it. As we drifted down the canal, it shimmered with the iridescence only oil can bring to water. I wondered what was seeping into my sneakers. Heading towards where a scrap metal yard exists, along with other industrial businesses, every once in a while we’d get a whiff of sewage. But in the opposite direction, where it’s quieter and more residential, the water was cleaner and our guide told us that oysters were starting to call the Gowanus home. A good sign when bi-valves set up shop. Unfortunately, last January, a dolphin took a wrong turn around New York Harbor and wound up in the Gowanus. That’s not something you see everyday and its plight captivated local residents and made the news. Already ill, it didn’t stand a chance in the polluted canal. “Go-Go-Gowanus! The Canal is Wow! The memories of the slick, fragrant waters are ones I shall never forget!!,” my friend had written.
My boyfriend had a loft bed and he’d plastered the underside of it with all of my postcards. When he’d kick back in the tiny living area underneath it, he’d look up and see all of the places I’d traveled to or might be visiting at that moment. They were a storybook of my life in a way. Of places I loved and would return to with him or on my own, or never set foot in again. Of new friends and new food…always food. And a reminder of my famous line that an old boss would kid me about anytime I returned from a trip, “Let me guess?” he say. “You could live there!”
Do you want to throw them out, I asked? I couldn’t blame him if he did; after all, we were going for a major clear out. “Not just yet,” he said. Then he sat on the bed leafing through them, getting lost in faraway places.