Dearest fellow travelers, please join me in welcoming to these pages one of the great comic writers of our time, a dear friend of mine and world traveler in her own right, Mlle. O’Leary. She has lived in Venice, New York, Seoul, and northern Ohio, and she’s traveled all over, from Dublin to Tibet. She’s a skilled postcard writer and the perfect person to guide you all in that dying art. Here we go!
You’ve set the itinerary, you’ve broken in the backpack, you’ve burned any necessary bridges and left for adventures in greener pastures. You’re doing amazing, interesting things every day. Or maybe you’re doing the same old shit only now you’re doing it abroad! There is one thing you should seriously do when you travel and rarely does anyone think to do it. You should send postcards. You don’t, do you. But you buy them right? Ask yourself this: do you hand your written postcards over to your friends after coming back home, maybe with their first name written in the address column? If you answered yes, you are a terrible person. Yes, you are. Your friends hate this and they just put up with three weeks of your mass-emails. Stop it.
This post is part appeal, part advice on the plight of the postcard. It is easier and easier to send an email out to everyone at once telling them that you are still alive, now broke and loving life. So with the internet in a growing stage of ubiquity, postcards seem more and more like an afterthought. A hassle. But they aren’t. Postcards are fun. They are timeless. More to the point: they are quick, or at least they should be. There are five things you need to write and to send a postcard: a postcard, a stamp, a pen, an address, and a message. Of these five things, three hinder sending the most. Here is some troubleshooting advice:
1. I don’t have stamps/didn’t get them/don’t know where the post office is (and similar iterations)
Get your stamps immediately. Even if you’re going on a huge hike or a crazy long train ride you will be in a major city before and after. Yes, this will take a little effort on your part but that’s part of the fun (see below). Many airports have post offices within or just outside customs (I believe this is the case with Greece’s airport). Other countries have dual Bank & Post Offices, making it a great catch-all: grab some currency, buy some stamps, spend the rest on beer. Kiosks are a great place to inquire for stamps, if you really have an aversion to post offices after your cousin was shot by a mail carrier. By picking up stamps ASAP you can write and send your postcards out at whim, which is the whole essence of the postcard.
2. I forgot your address
You planned the trip, right? Make ‘addresses’ part of that to-do list. Get the ones you need and keep them handy at all times. Some write them all in the back of a travel journal. Others fold up loose-leaf paper and stash it in pockets or carry-on. Tattoo street names and zip codes on your partner’s arm (always ask first). I used the Contacts feature on my iPod while traveling. Find a method that works best for you. If this falls through, depending on your country of choice, you are bound to have internet access at some point. Send an email to your desired recipient. I would much rather receive that email than another link to your Flickr account (a photo’s worth a thousand words but that don’t mean I can cash in on it).
3. I don’t know what to write
It’s the size of an index card. What did you eat today? Cobb Salad? Was it good? Did you find it weird they serve Cobb Salad in Bangkok? There, you’ve used up all of the space without even remarking that maybe you should have ordered Pad Thai. Focus on one cool/weird thing and you’ll send your friends postcards without sentences like “the weather’s really great!” or “I’m really enjoying seeing everything.” Which means you’ll be sending your friends really wonderful postcards! See? Easy.
It all boils down to accessibility. Keep everything in reach, always: stamps, postcards, addresses, pens. This makes it easier, which makes it stress free, which makes it fun, which makes you do it more frequently, which makes it easier. And then your friends won’t think you’re a dick. They will know you’re a good person.
The fact is that postcards – and sending postcards from their place of origin – are invaluable to the travel experience. Postcards can be your MacGuffin to hilarious antics. They can force you to learn more than “Hello!” and “Bathroom?” They can push you off the major tourist circuits: rather than stopping by the souvenir stores around major sites, seek postcards out in old bookstores, quirky shops, even grocery stores. And then look around. Chat up the proprietor. You might make a friend. You might find your newest favorite place in the world. You might even walk out with better postcards. If you’re taking any excuse to seek out undiscovered places, why not the excuse to write to your friends?
Maybe you’re somewhere without a recognizable writing system. Or maybe you’re in a land that missed out on the Indo-European fad (Magyar, I’m looking at you!). “How much are stamps?” isn’t the first thing you’re going to learn in a new country, which will make you seem that much more impressive. Ask a local to teach you some phrases. Hell, go all out:
“Are those the most interesting stamps you have?”
“Who is that man? Why are you honoring him? Oh that isn’t an honor?”
Sure, you’re bound to screw up but you only stared learning the language at the airport. Give yourself a break and keep at it. Remember: English is becoming the dominant language across the world. These exchanges might be a dying breed if you don’t make the effort. Take advantage of every opportunity. Even by asking for postcards.
You will also LOOK COOL writing postcards. There is only so long you can spend looking pensive in front of your Moleskine and that’s twenty minutes. This is a great way to unwind, take some deserved downtime. If you’re traveling alone, bring them to dinner. And yes, you will look cooler with a stack of postcards in front of your meal than your diary. Come on.
There used to be a tactile sense to our correspondence. Now, hardly anyone writes letters. People write postcards if they write at all and as more people forget to write postcards, the intimacy that comes with physical mail becomes more endangered. But the postcard comes with its own type of intimacy: with its limited space, the postcard asks for a snapshot of the writer’s feelings and for that moment, that second, the writer thinks only of the recipient, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. Unlike a letter, a postcard is not expected to have a return address. There’s no room for it. There’s no immediate way to respond in kind. The postcard exists solely for the recipient’s pleasure. That is what makes postcard sending so beautiful. Go send a few today.
Keen to start writing postcards? Not going anywhere for a while? Maxed out your friends’ patience? Try www.postcrossing.com. Get mail from strangers, but not like that.