Mail. Once upon a time, way back when, getting mail was exciting. As a child my sisters and I would compete for the opportunity to check the mailbox. We lived in what we called a condominium — I am not sure this phrase is even used any more — but it is basically a townhouse, if not somewhat smaller. The mailbox was located across the street in a cluster box unit. Getting hold of the key from my mom was like winning the lottery, or at least on the same level as scoring money for the ice cream truck. Sure, there was junk mail then, and of course bills, but receiving a card or handwritten letter would happen with a fair amount of regularity. Arriving at college, mail — letters from friends and family and care packages — also held a special magic. Even when I lived in Korea and Japan, before the internet and email really took off (dating myself again), I regularly composed and received long missives. Yet these days in the world of instant messaging via smart phones, email, Facebook, and a whole host of other social media sites that I have no clue about, waiting for the post has lost its significance, at least for the majority of Americans.
Not so for the American expat, especially those located in more out of the way places. First let me caveat all that I write here with the fact that I am a Foreign Service Officer and thus have access to Embassy mail; other expats generally have to rely on the local postal system. This means I actually have a U.S. address located at a State Department facility in Virginia. My mail goes to that facility where they then forward it on to our Embassies. Some overseas missions have the Diplomatic Post Office (DPO), which essentially establishes a branch of the U.S. Postal System at select diplomatic missions overseas. Here in Malawi we have the former, which is a little slower and has more restrictions than using the DPO.
These days of course I do the vast majority of my correspondence via the Internet, but when it comes to packages, well, “snail mail” it is. While folks in the U.S. are getting their packages within a few days, even same day, our mail takes just a wee bit longer, on average three weeks. At certain times of the year, for instance Christmas, it can take longer as our mail flies “space available.” There are then no quick last minute online purchases. Last year we received notification in late October that packages should be ordered for receipt at the Virginia pouch facility by November 10, to ensure delivery before the holidays. When C’s school emails on Monday that Thursday is book character day, there is no way to order something to arrive in time.
Until recently we received two air shipments a week, with the mail being sorted for pick-up on Monday and Tuesday. But a few weeks back the mail room supervisor notified the Embassy community that shipments would be reduced to once a week, and due to the short notice we would not receive a delivery either that or the following week. However, overall we are a large mission, with lots of employees. And, as it turned out, we had quite a lot of mail heading our way. So, in the second week the decision was reversed — an Emirates air freight flight would arrive Friday afternoon in Lilongwe bringing in our many, many kilos of mail, and to accommodate the large delivery the mailroom would re-open for pick-up between 5 and 5:30 PM. (This is an especially big deal as we work longer hours Monday to Thursday so the Embassy closes for business at 12:30 on Fridays)
At a quarter to the appointed time, C and I began our drive to the Embassy. The late afternoon sun directly in my eyes; I felt giddy. There is always excitement surrounding an out-of-the-ordinary event. Once in the Embassy parking lot we saw many more of my colleagues’ cars pulling in. I smiled and recalled a story a fellow book club member had shared when I lived in Jakarta. The woman and her husband had served in Yemen in the 70s. Naturally, foreign products were hard to come by, so when someone got word the cargo plane from France was landing, the news traveled fast. People stopped what they were doing, jumped into their cars, and drove down to the airfield to welcome the flight carrying wine and cheese and other goodies from Europe.
Our convergence on the mail room at Embassy Lilongwe in the Spring of 2018 cannot really compare to dozens of international diplomats flocking to the sand swept Sana’a airfield of the late 1970s. The latter holds a certain element of romance to me. And yet, the diplomats of today were likely no less desperate for their delivery as the diplomats of yesteryear; its all relative after all. Of course we have access to the internet and thus online shopping with our favorite retailers like Amazon and Walmart. But whether we rush to pick up a package of our kid’s favorite cereal or hoof it to meet a plane with some much desired fromage, we are trying to have a little taste of home while soaking up the culture of afar. And that Friday the mail room and the area just outside had a festive feel. Coworkers and spouses gathered around catching up and laughing. For the children, it was as if we had organized a spontaneous play date – several clamoured into one of the mail carts, others ran impromptu races, they played on the gymnastic bars outside the gym. In the fading light as we awaited our names to be called so we could sign for and carry off our boxes, there was most certainly a sense of shared community and happy anticipation.
Oftentimes when I receive the “you’ve got mail” notification in my in-box I cannot even recall what I have ordered. Not so much because I purchase a lot but because I barely remember what I did the day before. Just kidding. It’s more a function of never quite being sure which order made it into which pouch and plane. It’s a bit like Christmas every time, sort of a secret Santa gift exchange with yourself. And while there can be a level of frustration marking time for the arrival of that one thing I really need (or convince myself I need), I must admit to an overall enjoyable level of satisfaction in the biding of time.
Waiting for the post for weeks does, I believe, teach patience. In a world of ever increasing desire for the instantaneous – and an ability to meet those expectations – it is almost refreshing to have to cool our heels in anticipation. Over time one finds there are many things one (and one’s children) can do without. If I cannot order some seemingly needed item for the book character/international day/Star Wars themed event at C’s school, then, well, it’s not really that vital. We can in fact soldier on quite well without it. Little by little I order less, I find local substitutes, or my tastes change and I no longer crave those same favorites from home. Not that I stop ordering altogether mind you, I have a fairly strong, bordering on unhealthy, addiction to Amazon. I cannot quit just any time.
I miss composing and posting long letters. The stationery, the stamps, dropping them in a mailbox. Yet, I love that living overseas means mail still holds a wee bit of mystery – even if it’s just wondering if the package contains the special diet cat food or chocolate Lucky Charms.