A Boston man living in Ireland reminisces over his pre-cell phone travels and his stash of nostalgic postcards from Europe.
During my backpacking heyday in the early 1980s, staying in touch with friends and family in Boston as I roamed across Europe was hard work. I couldn’t pop into an Internet cafe for a reassuring exchange of e-mails, and I certainly couldn’t pull out a cell phone to text or ring home. Those outlets just weren’t an option because they had yet to appear on the international travel scene.
Instead, my preferred mode of transatlantic communication all those years ago was the humble postcard.
Ignoring the Shakespearean dictum that “brevity is the soul of wit,” I attempted to turn my postcards into miniature travelogues, regularly crossing over to the address side to accommodate my glittering insights. I kept an intermittent journal while I traveled, and in its back pages I sketched out first-draft notes for my postcards home. Reading them now, it’s clear I should have followed the Bard's cardinal rule.
Of course, what I wrote in my rambling reports was beside the point. There was a more subtle subtext.
By sending a postcard of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, I was in effect proclaiming myself a citizen of the world, while at the same time reassuring my friends and family that I hadn’t forgotten where I came from.
I had another reason for gathering up postcards along the way. To record my travels in photographic form, I'd arranged an extended loan of my sister's Vivitar C-135 camera, a fine piece of equipment in its day but rightly regarded now as a technological relic. As those of us who came of age in the pre-digital era can testify, the likelihood of capturing a satisfactory image with such a device was fifty-fifty at best.
Given those odds, I made sure to buy a few postcards wherever I happened to turn up. As a result, in a back bedroom closet I still have some lovely images, captured on postcards, of Barcelona Cathedral, the Church of the Salute in Venice, and Stormont Buildings in Belfast (home to the moribund Northern Ireland Assembly, where in February 1986 I saw Ian Paisley deliver a fiery rebuke to the Anglo-Irish Agreement).
Closer to my adopted home in Dublin, I have some wonderful postcard depictions of the ancient monastic ruins at Glendalough in Wicklow as well as an evocative montage of Cork City at night – each purchased when I was a tourist in Ireland.
In the same stash, I also have an intriguing pre-Google aerial view of my hometown of Medford, located a few miles north of Boston. My family home isn’t visible in the photo, but if you look closely you can spot the basketball court at our local park and my best friend’s house just across the street. I remember buying this particular memento for 10 cents off a souvenir rack at a now long-defunct stationery store in Medford Square, simply because I was so surprised to find my birthplace commemorated in postcard form.
Even with today’s sophisticated digital cameras, I couldn’t hope to take such compelling snapshots.
Without a doubt, though, I picked up my most meaningful postcard in the spring of 1986, in the small town of Augusta on the east coast of Sicily, where my paternal grandparents were born. While I was there on a surprise visit, having dropped in on my father’s uncle Francesco and his family after an Irish sojourn, I found an oversize black-and-white postcard of the church where my grandparents were married before they sailed for Boston.
As soon as I saw it, I knew that I’d discovered something special. When I returned to Boston three months later, I had the postcard mounted and framed, as a gift to my father. It still hangs in our family home.
Postcards are still available in most tourist hot spots, including Dublin and Boston, although I suspect that with Facebook and Twitter now offering instant communication, they’re not an essential travel item the way they once were.
In my world, though, postcards will always have a prized place, helping me to remember where I’ve been – and where I’ve come from.
* Boston native Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. He is the author of Designing Dev, a comic novel about an Irish-American lad from Boston who's recruited to run for the Irish presidency. His latest book is the essay collection Entering Medford – And Other Destinations.
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