In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo explains, “In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old postcards that show it as it used to be … If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits.”
For the traveler visiting Oaxaca, the southern Mexican city differs from Maurilia in at least two respects. First, the historic center of Oaxaca appears not to have changed at all, for at least a century. The narrow streets packed with buildings built to a human scale hold businesses that open onto the sidewalk. If the traveler could find a postcard from 1918 and compare it to a postcard from today all that would be different is the clothing styles of the pedestrians.
If being the operative word, and therein lies the second difference with Maurilia, for something has changed in historic Oaxaca: while postcards are not yet extinct, they are no longer to be found among the Zocalo’s, (central plaza) inflatable giraffes, handwoven blouses, local and national magazines, newspapers, amplified clowns,and a duo in long light brown ponchos playing soft but powerful pipe and guitar music.
No postcards at all can be found near the Mariachi band waiting for one silent beat that follows the end of a number by the coastal band half a block down. You also won’t find them between the portrait painters and lampoonists, and while numerous ambulatory merchants, nearly all indigenous woman, each offer multiple versions of one, sometimes two items—bracelets and scarves, or folded rebozos—what the traveler will not encounter among their many and varied local products is a postcard.
After several trails went cold a guide led this reporter to a travel agency under the northwest side porticos of the Zocalo where voyagers can book a tour, and buy postcards. And two rooms behind the agency shines floor to almost ceiling silver revolving doors guarding spotlessly clean restrooms that can be accessed by depositing five pesos, about 30 cents, into a thick silver door post which then awakens the rotating door for one quarter turn, delivering the previously stricken supplicant into a porcelain promised land.*
*Voluntary Legal Disclaimer (VLD): as legal counsel, I would not normally advise my client to second guess the joy and relief he undoubtedly felt in what he has consistently and on numerous occasions in the presence of witnesses described as a feeling of joy and relief “in that cool and welcoming portico” … I know … and he’s ‘the writer.’ Anyway, given the topic of this article and how it touches on the role of memory [keep reading] both civic and private, my client is concerned, and for this sensitivity he should really should be nominated for some kind of a cash award, that the most unreliable narrators are those who appear most reliable, and he doesn’t want to be one of those. So for both legal and ethical reasons my client wishes to be quoted in full [again, very praiseworthy]:
“I observed that my guide’s reaction to the place of the postcards was considerably more restrained as if spending three days in a fruitless search for them was not the norm. Then again she may just have been thinking of something else.
‘That’s all the postcards you’re getting dad?’ was her only comment.”
The population crash of locus postcardus is not confined to the city of Oaxaca. At the nearby Zapotec ruins of Mitla, those public/private cardboard squares that once combined an official visual version of place with an empty space for unofficial messages and impressions are nowhere to be found.
After an online search for infestations of postcard eating beetles turned up nothing I found the culprit in my own pocket: the smartphone. They are everywhere now. Linked to the internet phone owners are making their own digital postcards, tagged with comments if they choose.
So is anything lost in the change of form? For the historian almost certainly. As the good citizens of Maurilia knew so well, traditional postcards are snapshots of how a place sees itself or wishes to be seen, a scene and a moment frozen in time. Accurate or not, reflective of a city’s diversity (almost never) or not, postcards can divulge more information than they intended, especially with the passage of time. And that’s just the front.
The back of postcards, while rarely grappling with the existential torments of the day, are gold mines for the social historian or linguist for that matter. Not to mention stamp collectors. Along the banks of the Seine in Paris, in the little second-hand book stalls old postcards can still, I think, be found for sale. If confronted by a fading postcard’s author striding out of the past in pearl grey spats, the researcher should skip the obvious defense that postcards are by their nature open for public viewing. The researcher will instead find a steadying courage by reciting the principals carved into the marble walls of the great Social Scientific enterprise in which said researcher plays a small but vital part. This means holding forth on the intrinsic value of these first person-as-it-happened slices of the past, extolling their honored place in the pantheon of primary sources.
But let’s face it, there is a kind of voyeurism in this peeking at the life of a stranger, even just a snippet. If this life is separated by several generations or a century from ours, the distance sometimes doubles back on itself to become uncomfortably intimate. Only uncomfortable because there is something way worse you’re making sure not to look at: All these jokes and messages and asking how uncle Harry’s surgery went, all the one paragraph summations of 10,000 Balinese temples, the thumbnail revelries on the cheeses of Oaxaca, the authors and the people they’re writing to are all long gone.
Due to war, famine or emigration, the researcher may be holding the last tangible evidence that any of these people ever lived. The easy familiarity found in such a consistently high percentage of postcards has been linked to a sadness (researchum melancholium) more felt than acknowledged.
We read the names of the people postcard writers asked after, (as if it’s a rule of postcard writing, which it’s not. Postcard writing has no rules, other than a broadly shared consensus concerning placement of the address) but it’s perhaps more interesting, and completely unproductive, for the researcher to imagine the acquaintances, comrades, and family members the writer passed over in glacial silence.
“But I simply ran out of room” Mr. Spats cries, throwing up his hands and coming to a stop by a pile of 1973 Paris Match magazines. “It was all a terrible misunderstanding.”
As with any form of communication that has become digital it’s theoretically possible, in fact, easier, to preserve the newer form–on servers, or printed out. But the question for future socioarcheologists will be where to find them. How long will the photos of those who have long since left this mortal coil be saved in the clouds, and who will be able to see them? How many people mean to print their travel memories but never get around to it?
Marco Polo’s visit to Maurilia is found in the Cities and Memory section of Italo Calvino’s book. Postcards, whether old school or digital, are all about memories, those notoriously unreliable thought patterns humans sometimes seem made to create, and change, and finally lose. Postcards in any form are only doing their job if they call up memories, or versions of reality—supposedly civic and shared, or personal and subjective. If we’re lucky, travel memories come back to us wrapped in beauty or joy.
But as for reliability or truth Marco Polo warns that it’s useless to ask, “… just as the old postcards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one.”
Read more about Nat Krieger’s travels in Mexico: