Until a few years ago, hardly a day would go by in the summer without the mailman bringing a postcard from a vacationing friend or acquaintance. Nowadays, you’re bound to get an email enclosing a photograph, or, if your grandchildren are the ones doing the traveling, a brief message telling you that their flight has been delayed or that they have arrived. The terrific thing about postcards was their immense variety. It wasn’t just the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal, or some other famous tourist attraction you were likely to receive in the mail, but also a card with a picture of a roadside diner in Iowa, the biggest hog at some state fair in the South, and even a funeral parlor touting the professional excellence that their customers have come to expect over a hundred years. Almost every business in this country, from a dog photographer to a fancy resort and spa, had a card. In my experience, people in the habit of sending cards could be divided into those who go for the conventional images of famous places and those who delight in sending images whose bad taste guarantees a shock or a laugh.
I understand that impulse. When you’re in Rome, everyone back home expects a postcard of the Coliseum or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: send them instead one of a neighborhood pizzeria with five small tables, three potted plants and the elderly owner and his wife wiping their hands on their aprons and smiling broadly. Fans of quaint and kitschy postcards spend their entire vacations on the lookout for some especially outrageous example to amuse their friends back home, while their spouses consult serious guide books and stroll for hours with moist eyes past great paintings and sculptures in some museum.
Once they find the right card, they are faced with the problem of what to write on the other side. A conventional greeting won’t do. A few details about the trip and an opinion or two about the country they are visiting are okay, but even better is to come up with something clever, since every postcard is written with a particular person in mind.