To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.
This small poem by Hans Christian Anderson has been a guiding principle in my life. I first read it as a teenager, preparing an essay about his life, at my local public library. When in Odense Denmark, on the island of Funen, I visited his birthplace; now a national museum and historical site.
In my twenties, during the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, I was wanderlust; a true peripatetic. I was curious about the world and its people. I wanted to escape the confines of my small town and discover for myself what I learned in books. At an early age, after parental dictate to politely sit through endless hours of neighbors' slides, I knew I never-ever wanted to burden someone with my future anticipated travel photographs. I, therefore, was in the habit of drifting without a camera. At the time, they were cumbersome, used up precious backpack space, expensive and drew attention to a solo female holidaymaker. In its place I always travelled with a beloved notebook or journal chronicling my daily experiences on a hostel bunk late into the night. When full, I simply sent to my parents for safe-keeping.
As a young diarist, this was the obvious way to record impressions of people and places I wished to remember. I also knew that I could never take the beautiful images captured by professional photographers of architecture, landscape and tributes; therefore, I started to rely on postcards found in tourist bureaus, museums, gift stores and the like, to compliment my descriptions. Since I don’t need to see myself in front of things this seemed like the perfect way to add to my memories. In 1979 I started sending postcards to myself from all the countries and places, including eight Canadian provinces and 23 American states, I visited. They tell a story of a young woman in search of something in Australia that later she found in Ontario. The ones mailed from Arequipa Peru, a colonial-era capital with a stately main square, in August 2010 took 18 months to arrive. Nevertheless, they did, and to great joy, for I had forgotten about my profound insight unleashed at Santa Catalina Monastery in my 52nd year.
From Manhattan, while sitting on Museum Mile at the Church of Heavenly Rest, I described the street scene after a beautiful morning in Central Park and afternoon at Guggenheim Museum. From Turkey there was a collection sent from magnificent beaches (Patara, Fethiye, Oludeniz, Alanya) and ancient ruins (Ephesus, Troy, Temple of Artemis) reminding me of sacred times and learnings. Over the years, each card had a short concise summary of the day and the meaning & feeling of the place captured on front. Choosing a card – the right card – is also fun and challenging. I search for the one that is most accurate of the time and the place visited. Of course, when in Vienna at Christmas the picture HAD to have snow, as I saw it, showcasing the magnificent lighted lanterns outside the State Opera House.
It is bewildering how many postcards are available to purchase that don’t honestly represent the place at all. Sometimes it is impossible to find a single card or assemblage that embodies the memory or experience. In that case, I purchase a book of a particular city (ie. Kyoto) or a region (ie. Lapland) to compliment my writings and impersonations. After walking the 800 km Camino de Santiago, for instance, what seemed most important was to invest in the stunning gift book from the cathedral, after visiting the tomb of St James, which documented the entire route in great historic detail and supported pilgrims’ comfort at alberques.
The older cards (from the late 1970s-1980s) I sent to myself were all photographed, designed and printed in the country they were purchased. As years progressed this became harder-and-harder to find. Even from Japan or Korea the postcard would be “Made in China” which I found astonishing. Standing in line and visiting post offices throughout the world also contributed to the experience of being far from home. Finding a post office in a foreign country when you don’t know the language and understanding their processes can be an exercise in great patience and fortitude.
Furthermore, over time and upon review, postcard stamps tell stories of national events at the time of travel or shortly thereafter (9/11, Nagano Olympics, fall of the Berlin Wall, Expo 86 …) and the currency to purchase them (Remember the German Deutsche Mark, French Franc, Italian Lira or the Soviet Ruble, the currency of the USSR?) Stamps are inexpensive miniature works of art which can provide harmony to the printed photograph or symbol on postcards serving as recaps.
I love browsing vintage postcards in antique and thrift shops. They provide snapshots of a different time in society and it is wonderful to see beautiful displays of cursive writing. Instead of a text or group email, which had yet to be invented, friends & family would post picture cards for the quick hello and greetings. It continues to be a very personal act, to take the time, to write a message. I always assume that letter carriers read postcards. They are ‘open season’ in the same way confidential faxes are sent to a shared office space.
During the past few years, as I managed injury-related pain, which prohibited international or extended travel, I still engaged and appreciated my local jaunts which my rehabilitation forced me to do regularly. Postcards came into my mailbox from UBC, Van Dusen Gardens, Victoria, Harrison Hot Springs, Bowen Island, Nelson, Revelstoke and Whistler. Reminders that living on the west coast of Canada is a world-class tourist destination and, for the days when I am not limited to be an armchair traveler, or on an inward journey through writing in the comfort of my own home, I can venture out and enjoy my city and its environs many-many wonderful offerings. By sending a card to myself I not only support local business and a national institution such as Canada Post I receive a memory a few days later and feel appreciation for where I live and what I am able to do. Many years ago, from Paris I sent as remembrance from Musee of Montmarten a card of a painting displayed in our own Vancouver Art Gallery in 2018. I feel blessed.
Last month I travelled to Italy and the Republic of San Marino for four weeks. Ten days were spent in the wonderful company and thoughtful tour organized by Story Circle Network while also enjoying 12 days in Rome and five days in Venice. A joyous trip. I was so pleased to go on so many-many levels. Great to connect with like-minded writing women and also a realization of how far I have come in recovery to manage the many challenges, as well as, celebrating global travel restrictions lifted after several years of pandemic lockdown. Again, I did not travel with a camera. Again, I sent 1-2 postcards to myself weekly. Again, I had to reconcile the bureaucracies of two countries with divergent processes of purchasing stamps and sending international mail. Again, I now wait till see when and if they arrive …
The best thing about writing post cards and sending them regularly to loved ones is that you are bound to receive one in return; always a wonderful surprise. In one year alone I received from my darling man, Mike, while on a solo trek to a desired bakery in San Francisco as I rested in our hotel after an outing; from Colleen while on a business trip to Vietnam; from Arlene exploring Sicily with Parisienne friends; from Bill & Laurie, newly retired, in southern France; and Mary & David trekking the mountains of Bali. I appreciate that it is a very specific act, either to myself or from others, and takes time to write a 1:1 message. I personally think that we have become too attached to modern marvels with technology and we have forgotten about the more quirky and meaningful methods of communication. Like a printed book in your hands, as opposed to an e-reader, I hope that others can find the benefit and fun of writing postcards to yourself and preserving your memories on something that can be held rather than only displayed.