Postcards from Paris

…are harder to find than you’d think.

Postcards from Paris

Before email, when long-distance phone calls cost a bundle, my mother was queen of the postcard, loving to communicate but not to write. She kept USPS postcards, postage pre-printed, in her shoulder bag and wrote distant friends and family while waiting in lines or impatient with faculty meetings.

Mom packed me off to college with a stash of these cards (postage: two cents). Our postcards provided ongoing, staccato conversation. When I moved to England, I sent picture postcards. She saved them and gave me the collection upon my return.

Presto! An illustrated diary.

Today, snail mail is endangered and postcard stock limited. But heading to Paris in March, I packed my address book. Of course there’d be postcards! We’re talking Paris — city of the heart and mind.

My redeye wasn’t canceled despite its arrival on a day of mass transportation strikes protesting Macron’s pension plans. I rode Metro in from Charles de Gaulle (luckily ignoring prior advice to take a cab, learning later that protestors had blocked the airport access road). Daughter Rebecca was due to arrive at midnight — if her train got into France and through to Gare de l`Est, and if she could taxi across town past les manifestations.

Committed to staying awake, I unpacked and went shopping. The tip of the Eiffel Tower peeked over the rooflines, an inviting point of orientation and an easy destination from my borrowed neighborhood. I sleep-walked through jetlag, following Rue de Grenelle along the elevated Metro line.

Mountains of bursting black plastic bags overflowed the curb, evidence of the trash collectors’ strike — not as photogenic as the 1950s garbage Mrs. ‘Arris encountered in my inflight movie. Mais plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Soon, I was strolling along the Quai Grenelle. The silky Seine unspooled below. Trash and drizzle couldn’t dampen my spirits. La vie (and the spectacles) en rose.

Daughter arrived. I slept.

Over breakfast croissants, we studied guidebooks and checked the Strike Alert on the Metro app to learn which lines and neighborhoods to avoid. On Rebecca’s long-ago first visit to Paris, there had been mass-transit strikes, so her indomitable chaperone marched the middle-schoolers around town. Good walkers, too, we’d take Paris à pied if need be. Plus ça change…

Rested and alert, I spotted a storefront post office. In resurrected, rehearsed French, I requested stamps for cartes postales. The startled young clerk summoned his boss. What had I said wrong?

Nothing, but my apparently unusual request required the manager to access a locked cabinet. She offered me a choice between a bland generic stamp or a commemorative Marcel Marceau, in honor of his centenary. Who could resist Bip the Clown, hands up, eyes wide? I purchased half a dozen, €1.80 each.

Stamps ready, I scoured corner tabacs, vendors’ kiosks, and souvenir stalls. Plenty of fridge magnets, Eiffel Tower paperweights and snow globes, and berets in gumdrop colors, but no postcards. Museum-shop reproductions of famous paintings would not do. I was in search of Picture Postcards, bright colorized photographs of Paris icons.

Still empty-handed days later, time was growing short.

We made an early morning trip to the Bird Market on Île de la Cité and discovered it closed permanently by the pandemic. Around the corner, we stood in a chaotic queue for Sainte Chapelle. The jewel-box chapel’s ethereal stained glass dazzled. No postcards in the crypt gift shop.

Continuing beyond the construction barricades, below the cranes surrounding Notre-Dame, we joined a quiet crowd on bleachers facing the shrouded, scaffolded cathedral. No vendors, no postcards.

A grizzled trio played New Orleans jazz as we crossed Pont Neuf to the Right Bank. We browsed the bouquinistes: Tintin, but no postcards. A sudden shower chased us into a café for lunch.

Fortified by crêpes, we paused in a souvenir stall — postcards! Only a few: several views of the Eiffel Tower, l’Arc de Triomphe, Notre-Dame before the blaze. Cheaper by the douzaine (like oysters at the neighborhood market). I bought 12.

Needing more stamps, we found a post office the next day. I’d had beginner’s luck the first time. Not even any ordinary stamps to be had here, just adhesive strips with barcode. Oh well, it would get the job done. Time to write.

Penning postcards is best done outdoors, preferably at a café table or on a park bench. You’re painting en plein air, the card a tiny easel. The form is closer to poetry than letter, with even fewer lines and syllables than haiku. Facing the challenge of such compression, the writer (whether postcard classicist, nostalgist, or novice) may fall back on standard phrases:

Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.

Not so bad, good subtext; I am here, thinking of you.

And a safe formula. Remember the early days of email, the prescient warning not to say anything online you wouldn’t put on a postcard? Postcards are public, billboards in miniature. Part of the fun, if you wish, is playing with convention to be a bit, well, impressionistic as you pin the moment down on pasteboard.

A postcard is not like an Instagram post, with image and caption broadcast to a collective, assumed audience of followers. Be it ever so casual, each postcard is chosen, and its message composed, for a specific recipient. But once the card leaves your hands, no matter how automated the postal process, it passes along a chain of other hands — and eyes — to reach the hands of your addressee.

Only if you remember to mail it, that is.

I carried the completed cards in my bag all the following day. We rode the cross-city bus #69 from the Eiffel Tower to its terminus at Pere Lachaise Cemetery. We followed winding lanes past Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Piaf, Chopin, and Colette. Children’s voices floated over the wall as we absorbed the monuments to Holocaust victims — engraved with the names of camps — honoring the Parisian Jews deported and killed.

We returned to the land of the living and walked downhill to Le Marais. I only remembered my flimsy souvenirs when I saw a postman emptying a mailbox. I handed him the cards.

Knowing I’d arrive back home before the mail but wanting at least an illusion of communicating from Away, I sent my husband’s card to his office. He brought it home: a gilded Eiffel Tower against cinematic clouds, neon green trees, the river, and a bateau mouche below. The photo was surely taken (and enhanced) years ago. Nobody’s visible on the observation deck. But shades and shadows linger, fleeting visitors eternally in Paris, captured on cardboard, enduring ephemera.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus