Sally White | Post Crossing: Ambassadors via postcards

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My mailbox yesterday contained two bills, a catalog and a picture postcard from Galina in Belarus.

Galina told me that her hometown, Minsk, is celebrating its 950th birthday; she works for a design company as an engineer in "heating and air condition." She sent her card on Dec. 27, when, she noted, it was cloudy and 2 degrees C. Along with a sweet Belarusian postage stamp of a bunny rabbit, she added a sticker in red and green that proclaimed, in English, "Warmest greetings from Belarus!"

Galina knew my name and address because we both belong to a loose confederation of worldwide postcard enthusiasts who have joined an all-volunteer group called "Postcrossing.com." All told, there are 716,342 members (at this writing). There may be more by the time you read this. Postcrossers live in 213 countries, from Iceland to the Vatican to Taiwan to Tuvalu. Membership is completely free: all one needs to join is a computer and an internet connection. Once you set up a home page, you are given the name and address of a complete stranger — whoever pops up on the Postcrossing computer — to whom to send a postcard. You also get an ID and number for that specific postcard, which indicates your country and the card you're sending. You can scan your postcard, so that you, and the recipient, both have a record of what you've mailed.

When you send a card, the recipient only knows your ID number; your on-line profile doesn't include information beyond what you've supplied: your hometown, your hobbies, the postcards you're interested in receiving. Your identity is protected; only Postcrossing knows your email address.

When your card arrives at its destination, which could be Singapore, South Carolina or Siberia, the recipient registers the ID number online. Then you're allowed to send another postcard to someone else. The more postcards you send and receive, the more you can have traveling at one time. Occasionally, Postcrossers indicate that they'd like to "swap" with you and continue a correspondence, but most don't, and you're not obliged to do so. Most often, the interaction is one-way.

Postcrossing is the brainchild of Paulo Magalhaes, a Portuguese graduate student who set up the basic system on his home computer in 2005. He loved postcards and wanted a way to link like-minded enthusiasts. He and a friend, Ana Campos, have since expanded Postcrossing to handle millions of cards each year. It's now headquartered in Germany, with a few paid administrators and several volunteers. Postcrossing surpassed its 45-million-card mark a few days ago. Some 1,156 cards are being sent around the world every hour. Perhaps 5 percent of Postcrossers volunteer to pay an annual donation of 10 Euros (about $12.40), which can be charged through PayPal or a credit card. This defrays the cost of running the Postcrossing computer and organization; the price seems cheap for the pleasure I get from sending and receiving postcards. But the vast majority of Postcrossers pay nothing at all.

An astounding aspect of Postcrossing is that it has spread almost entirely word-of-mouth. There have been a few newspaper articles and radio interviews, and there's now a Facebook page; Ana gave a TEDx talk a few years ago. But, by and large, postcard people have found like-minded postcard people all on their own, and 45 million postcards later, Magalhaes' idea seems to be a universal success.

The costs for being a Postcrosser are minimal. Americans pay 47 cents for a postcard stamp for a card heading to a U.S. destination. Cards that you send to Canada, Mexico or to the rest of the world, cost $1.15. The Postal Service sells a fine International $1.15 stamp, but I prefer to use its lovely 71-cent blue butterfly stamp along with a 50-cent regular first-class stamp. I like to select a first-class stamp that reflects something that might please the recipient: Star Wars, cherry blossoms, animals, Elvis, WPA or Civil War commemorative. There are dozens to choose from. I chalk up the extra six cents postage as a donation to the Postal Service, which needs it.

The other cost beside postage is, of course, the price of a postcard. Some can be had for 20 or 25 cents in postcard books; museum or picture postcards are usually a dollar apiece. Collectibles often can be found for 50 cents in antique shops or at flea markets. Searching for interesting cards becomes a hobby in itself.

Most Postcrossers offer a list of their preferences: lighthouses, teacups, cats, railroads, vintage ads, national monuments are just a few of many listed. All recipients say they look forward to any card you want to send. I've built up a collection of postcard books (Amazon has a great selection of "used" — usually pristine — books) of all sorts of subjects. It gives me great pleasure to tailor what I send to the interests of my recipient. For a Russian schoolteacher, I sent a Winslow Homer picture of a one-room school house, and explained that there are still a few hundred in the U.S. A young girl in Beijing received a photo of a covered bridge, which I've driven across many times. To a homesick Scottish exchange student living in California, I sent a Pre-Raphaelite painting of grazing sheep.

Sadly, I'm unable to fulfill the desires of some Postcrossers, who ask for a picture of my king and queen, or of my national costume. For them, I often send a pretty card from The Clark or the Williams College Museum of Art. Mass MoCA sells great black-and-white art photos, and funny cards, such as singing dogs or nuns playing with hula hoops, which I keep for just the right person with just the right sense of humor.

In return, I am blessed with greetings from strangers from all across the world, who are unanimously eager to tell me something about themselves. Chloe from France wrote that she was planning to go to the cinema that day because the ticket would cost 4 Euros instead of the usual too-expensive 12 Euros. Valery in Ekaterinburg, Russia, said that she loved her city, which has "the shortest line of subway and the highest north skyscrapers." A medical student from Poland wrote to me at 10 p.m., just after an anatomy class, saying that he could "barely see or smell" because of the chemicals, "but I love it, it is really the greatest fun."

Then there is the postcard from a retired Belgian postal worker, who sent me a black-and-white photo of a chateau, with only the message: "This castle was situated not far from home, but it was burned down by the Germans in 1914."

In my profile, I ask for any type of card, but look forward to art cards, or pictures of elephants, flowers or Fiat 128s. Among the many cards sent to me have been bouquets of flowers, all sorts of art cards — paintings, photos, sculpture, ceramics — as well as a swimming elephant, a beautiful carved Thai elephant, a funny Finnish elephant cartoon and an amazing hand-drawn Fiat from a very talented French correspondent.

Postcrossers often adorn their cards with weather news, washi tape, stickers or sketches. Friendly messages are what Postcrossers are looking for when they open up their mailboxes at the end of the day. I enjoy writing about the black bears that wander through our yard in the summer, or the deer I can see in a moon-lit frozen field. Perhaps I offer a slightly different view of the U.S. for my many foreign correspondents when I tell them about maple sugaring weather or our Fourth of July parades.

In our own way, my fellow 716,342 Postcrossers and I are amateur ambassadors. We happily share small vignettes of our lives across political borders.

Whatever the season, whoever the recipient, wherever my card is going, I always sign my cards with: "Peace."



Sally White worked for Time Inc. magazines in New York City before moving to the Berkshires with her family.

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