I recently had the fortunate experience of meeting a fascinating woman named Alice So. Our conversation began at an art exhibit and quickly evolved to stories about travel where we both shared a keen interest. She asked for my address as she wanted to send me information about upcoming trip, a place where she had already been.
Not many days later I received a tightly wrapped package in the mail. It wasn’t a typical envelope. It was emblazoned with tapes and patterns, stamps of sorts that I couldn’t quite understand. Once opened, it contained a couple of dozen booklets telling the stories of her journeys – to mail boxes and post offices in Turkey! Over time I received many more from her, all lovingly packaged with stories of her visits to France, Copenhagen, Denmark, Germany and more.
We met again weeks later, this time discussing her fascination with the Post Office. She proceeded to invite me to her “personal” post office where her many postal treasures abound! I saw her active collections of letters she’s collected from all points of the globe, her toy mailboxes and delivery trucks, postal tapes and stamps, and an interesting set of items that were mailed to her, obviously to challenge the PO’s “flat” and rectangle processing methods.
After the tour I had a chance to sit downs and better understand what she was doing, and why.
How/why did you start this crusade of visiting POs abroad?
I’ve always enjoyed the art of correspondence, sending and receiving handwritten letters, via snail mail,
with interesting people — writers, artists, actors, and even pen pals I’ve never met in person. A mail artist friend asked me to take a photo of a mailbox in India for her when we went there in 2010, which turned into a fun scavenger hunt, and then a bit of an obsession. My husband, a physician, has the opportunity to travel to many international conferences, so while he’s catching up on the latest medical research, I do my own international “Post-Doc” research, “investigating” postal systems around the world.
How long have you been doing this?
Writing letters: always
Sending interesting mail: intensely and with creative intent for almost 10 years
Visiting post offices: 5 years
I’m still taking photos of mailboxes – a thousand mailboxes later, I still get a thrill when I see one!
How many countries have you visited on this mission?
About 25 countries and 50 cities in last 4 years
What similarities have you found among these sites?
The health of the postal system is correlated with the wealth of the nation:
The more “developed” and more literate the country, the more extensive the postal system: more post boxes, more sophisticated PO buildings and infrastructure, bureaucratic forms, branding, brochures, uniforms, memorabilia, and souvenirs. The less “developed” the nation, the simpler and more basic the postal system – but the postal employees tend to be more friendly and easy-going.
And, of course, postal services are decreasing everywhere. Less delivery, greater costs, automation.
What stands out as the most memorable? Why?
- Copenhagen/Paris: best Postal museums, artistic presentation; efficient, elegant service
- Japan: post offices open 7 days week, some late hour counter service, very popular
- Panama/Cancun/Cayman Island: basic, simple services, but most friendly employees
- Italy: most unhappy, difficult, mean, disgruntled employees
- Portugal: most stylish uniforms, elaborate logo
- USA: most defensive, theme park, Hollywood-like atmosphere at National Postal Museum
- Abu Dhabi: no women in sight at any post office
- Bangkok: biggest “postbox statue” in lobby, most beautiful/elaborate garden of postboxes
- UK: so much history, but no museum
- Turkey, Vietnam, Mexico, Cuba: slowest delivery times
- Saigon: most touristy Main Post Office
- Singapore: most popularly visited postal museum (in many places, I’m the only visitor!); longest slide show
What have you learned about the postal systems from these journeys?
Every postal system reflects the culture and values of its country:
France values art, culture and literature; therefore there is great respect for the art of communication, letter-writing, epistolary culture, artistic beauty, penmanship.
America values commerce and democracy; the USPS is utilitarian, functional, and fair; but does not much flair. Portugal is proud of its history of daring exploration and adventure. Opening lines at the Portuguese Postal Museum: “There are few stories as thrilling as that of the post.” The United Kingdom values its heritage and tradition, and the invention of many postal “firsts’ – first postage stamp, pillar box etc. But surprisingly, it does not have a permanent postal museum.
You pay for what you get. Wealthier nations charge more expensive postage, but ensure faster, reliable, more extensive service.
In addition to collecting photos of post boxes you also visit the post offices. How do you present yourself there and what kind of reception do you receive?
I smile and say with great enthusiasm: “I Love the Post!” I carry a lot of postal-themed paraphernalia with me when traveling:
fun “passport notebooks”, wallet, pouch of mail, iphone cover, purse, photos of my home “post office”. Reception completely varies from complete lack of interest and being totally ignored, to offers of behind-the scenes-tours of the post office, free postal gifts, souvenirs, memorabilia; drinks in the sorting section with postal employees, personal rides in postal trucks, and long-lasting friendships with postal employees (through the post, of course!).
How might the US PO vary or relate to these others you have visited?
In the middle – it fulfills the basic function of delivering the mail across a vast country, reliably, and for the relatively low cost of a postage stamp still quite well, considering the ever worsening financial situation and constraints. But the infrastructure of the US postal system, the interiors of most post offices (like US airports) feel quite dated and dilapidated compared to those in Europe and Asia, many of which are far more modern and polished.
However, the US postbox design is completely unique: it allows for package drop off. All the other mailboxes I’ve seen in other countries are limited to only narrow letter-sized slots. This unusual American design allows for creative package mailing!
The US postal system also does not have any affiliated banking branch system, which is common in other countries.
Are you seeing dramatic changes over time or just subtle changes?
Both! Many historic P.O. locations are being closed down and sold off to private developers. (Copenhagen, Sydney, New York…) I’ve seen postal strikes and protests. (Venice, Madrid, Toronto) There’s increasing privatization of postal systems: (UK, Netherlands, Germany) Post office outlets are increasingly found in commercial outlets, such as drug stores, corner stores, grocery stores. International shipping package rates are becoming astronomical! There’s no more “slow” rate, which makes sending “care packages” overseas extremely expensive.
Is there anything you would like to add?
In this age of instant communication, it’s still a miracle that anyone can drop off a piece of mail at any mailbox on any corner, and it will be physically delivered anywhere in the world in a few days (weeks or a month, depending on destination!) for a pittance, considering the operating costs. It’s an incredible effort of universal governmental cooperation between countries. It’s beautiful to send and receive something handmade and tangible in the mail; physical proof that someone cared enough to communicate and commit their thoughts on paper. People are literally “touched” to receive something personal and uniquely made for them, that they can hold and touch in their hand. The slowness and surprise of delivery is another aspect to the pleasure of anticipating the arrival of the mail. People say they don’t send or receive letters anymore: I receive something interesting almost every day. I’ve sent 438 pieces of “personal, fun mail” so far this year! (An average of 2-3 items every day). So though people always proclaiming the death of the post, it’s still premature to declare a Post-Mortem!
So go ahead, don’t wait – send a letter – it makes life better!