by Terry Oliver on October 1, 2011

My elderly mother-in-law used to regard going to the local post office in the village where she lived, to buy a stamp, as her day’s outing. The rest of the family thought this was very amusing, including me.

Yesterday, I finally bought a stamp. One full month after arriving in Paris, I’ve discovered where the local post office is. Until you find yourself in a place as appealing as Paris, you forget that people back home are not satisfied with an email. Something more is expected of you. Like a postcard at least. I stopped sending postcards years ago, along with Xmas cards. It’s a lost art – like letter writing, only more difficult.

Many stages are involved. First, you must find a suitable card – the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe will not do – far too insulting. We had visited many museums and art galleries before choosing an acceptable card which reflected our friend’s artistic leanings and our own impeccable good taste. Often this involved nearly as much time in the museum bookstore as in the actual museum itself.

Next comes the writing. You can’t just dash off some cliché like ‘having a ball’ or ‘don’t you wish you were here,’ on the back of a photo of Rodin’s majestic sculpture of The Burghers of Calais. Something more is demanded if you don’t want to be dismissed as a philistine. Much agonising is required to find  the mot juste to reflect the suggestion that you are up to appreciating great art.

Now, things become even more taxing. I don’t know about you but since switching to email, I no longer carry around with me an address book fully updated with postcodes and street numbers. So I can’t sit in a museum café, scribble a few lines and drop it in a letter box while the mood is upon me. No, I must take it back to the appartement, where I put it down somewhere while I begin the hunt for my old address book.

Knowing that even if I find it, my friend’s latest details will probably not be there anyway, the hunt is only half-hearted. I seldom manage to update my email list when people send me changes of address, never mind my old address book, which is full of scratchings out and illegible jottings over top of old ones. When I do find it, I’m reminded of how many people are in it whom I don’t even remember. But I don’t dare throw it out in case it might be needed sometime.

From time to time, well-meaning friends or relatives – usually women – will present me with a nice imitation leather-bound replacement, but the thought of transcribing all those cryptic notes defeats me.

Eventually, after an exchange of emails, I acquire the necessary address and code and look for the postcard in the pile of leaflets, brochures and old copies of Le Monde which I accumulate on a daily basis here in Paris. I find the Calais Burghers at last, stuck in a guidebook, marking some future intended theatre visit.

It took me half an afternoon and many puzzled looks, shrugs and useless vague directions to track down the local bureau de poste. I was surprised to discover Parisians apparently use snail mail even less frequently than I do. When I at last located it, a wall of automated machines faced me. After several futile attempts to operate one, a young female employee input the necessary data and pointed to the sum indicated on the screen, before moving on to the next baffled senior who stood aimlessly toying with a touchscreen.

I removed my change and something I thought was a receipt but turned out to be the actual stamp. It was a simple strip of white paper with the amount printed on it and adhesive on the back. No coloured engraving of the Louvre or Charles DeGaulle, only a three inch long strip which would cover up part of the address if I put it across the card. In the end, I put part of it on the front and folded the rest around the other side nearly masking one of the Calais Burghers anguished faces.

Embarrassed, I looked around for the letter slot but couldn’t find anything resembling one. Another young woman with a toddler led me outside the building, around the corner to a row of letter slots and pointed to the one which said Etranger. I deposited my dog-eared Burghers in the slot and went off with my significant other for a well-earned glass of vin rouge at our favourite people-watching café.

If you’re expecting to receive a postcard from me, you may have to wait awhile.

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