Poste Restante: Blast from the Past

I don’t think you’ll find many non-cycling blog articles from me, but I just have to get this one out, since it seems like I’m the only person who knows what it is. Prove me wrong.

When I was travelling through Asia in 90s there were few ways to keep in touch with friends and family back home. You had the questionably-named STD booths that were ubiquitous all over Asia at that time, and were little shops that had one or more phones (sometimes in a booth, sometimes not) that you could use to call overseas on. Your calls were on a timer, so it was a little stressful for the traveller on a budget, i.e. every traveller.

I only used these things once a month, maybe, and only to call my dear old mom back in Canada. Our main means of communication was The Letter. You might remember this ancient method that involved you ‘writing’ on ‘paper’. Think hard, it’ll come.

Well, there was a lot of that for me because I like to jot my thoughts down on ‘paper’, real or digital as the case may be. But, you are surely asking yourself, how did your loved ones get letters to you when you were always on the move? That’s where Poste Restante (or General Delivery) came to the rescue.

Poste Restante is a beautifully simple service (usually free) that any General Post Office (GPO) offers. All your dear old mom needs to do is address her letter like the one below and she can usually be assured that it will get to you. Actually, you can just write ‘Poste Restante GPO’ and it’ll arrive.

Once the letter gets to the GPO, they put it in alphabetical order (careful here, they could be using your first or last name), either in a space reserved for post office workers, or, like in the case of Kathmandu above, pidgeon holes that anyone could rifle through.

Uncle Ho overlooking the Saigon GPO

The system worked amazingly well and, since I was always writing someone, I sometimes had 10 or more letters waiting for me at the GPO of a big city. There may still be some there for all I know, because when I was travelling I had only a vague idea of where I was going (not much has changed). I would tell my mom in September that I thought I’d be in Delhi ‘in November’, for example, and hope that I was.

I visited the GPO of every large city I went through, which were often grand and beautiful buildings, like the one in Saigon above. It was like Christmas morning every month or two for me to go to these places and see what showed up with my name on it. I’m not going to say it was better back in the day, but there’s not that much romance in receiving instantaneous emoticons from anywhere in the world nowadays. Stuff is always a little more appreciated when you have to work for it.

I’d really be interested to know if anybody out there has heard of or used the Poste Restante. The only people I’ve ever met who knows what I’m talking about are travellers from the pre-digital age.

18 thoughts on “Poste Restante: Blast from the Past

  1. I recall writing letters to my mom in Belgium when I moved to the US in 1989. (International calls were almost $2/min so those happened seldomly 🙂 I learned here about having a PO Box 🙂 But never used GeneralmPost Office. Very cool. Humans always find a way … And yes, I just sent a “happy birthday” txt to my youngest nephew which means so little being inundated w social media. Alas… (happy birthday to all living in the US, as Shannon says: while it’s a shitty 2020 at least soon we can travel again and not be embarrassed to come from the US. So that’s our gift 🙂

    • I must admit, many of the calls I made to my mom back then were ‘collect’! Times have changed quickly, huh? Now you can call anyone, anywhere with WhatsApp, etc. for ‘free’.

      Did you move to the US for school? Been there ever since? You must be more American than Belgian now 😉

      • Yes, I got a sweet scholarship so I figured to go “for the experience” to CA for one year (for a Master’s) upon graduating in Belgium in 1989. The plan was to return and get a job but life in CA was so nice that the master’s turned into a PhD, which turned into my current job in Evanston where I met Shannon… 🙂

  2. Gerry, you are an excellent writer, with good stories to tell. It makes sense to have cycling as your “center of gravity” here, but by no means should you feel strictly constrained by that, in my view. In other words, bring it!

    Meanwhile my inner life coach (whose advice is routinely ignored by yours truly) wonders if you are working your way toward a more visible outlet for your work.

    • Tony, I just had another idea from the oldie times, but will restrain myself!

      As for that ‘visible outlet’, I’ve been thinking about it and chipping away at something, but when I try to write anything longer than a blog article, things start falling apart.

      • You can buy one and send it like a cheque as it can be cashed for money at a post office. It is useful if you don’t have a bank account or don’t wish to give your details away when paying. Grandads used to give their grandchildren one instead of thinking of something personal or useful.

        • I should have used my imagination more before asking the question. In Canada we call those things ‘money orders’. I think I used them once or twice. By the way, if I were a grandad, that’s the type I’d be. Money is always useful!

  3. There is something incredibly endearing and enduring about getting a letter or a card. I wonder how long these post offices hang on to those letters. If you went back and found a letter that somebody sent you all those years ago it would be like opening up a time capsule.

    • I agree, and I’m really bad at not writing letters on paper anymore. I really should because my mom loves getting them. Not sure I can still write with a pen!

      I don’t think they hang onto letters at the Poste Restante more than a few months, but I wonder if post offices have a place where they thrown unclaimed letters? That’d be something to rifle through.

  4. Thank you for sharing this memory. It’s nice to hear about someone who traveled in the same era that I did. I went on an around-the-world year-long bicycle trip in ’91 and ’92 in the pre-digital era. One of the tasks before we left was plotting out the approximate months we would be near major cities. Then we checked into an American Express office for mail. It was so gratifying to pick up a packet of letters every month or two. I called home collect for a brief check-in once every month or two as well. Except in Vietnam. We were totally cut off from the US for our month’s travel since there were no diplomatic relations at the time between the two countries. In those days, when you left to travel you really felt far away!

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