I used to joke with my husband, Richard, that when Swiss postmen stopped delivering the mail twice daily, it would be time to leave Switzerland.
The twice-daily postal deliveries stopped in 1988, when the PTT (Post, Telephone & Telegraph) became Swiss Post, a private/public entity formed to address new communication challenges. By then we’d moved to the States, via Belgium, where we often joked about the strikes that frequently paralyzed that nation. Sometimes our mail would be delivered three days late; sometimes, packages would be lost. Apparently BPost has not improved its service.
Fifty years ago, Richard and I met in Switzerland. We were married two years later in Pully, a small Swiss village on the shores of Lac Léman. Our two daughters were born there and educated in excellent local schools. When Christmas was coming, the girls looked forward to writing letters to Santa Claus and receiving a note and a small gift of stamps in return from the PTT. It seems, all these years later, Swiss Post carries on the tradition.
Over the 16 years we lived in Switzerland, we fell in love with the country, its culture and traditional values. We all thrived on Switzerland’s common sense approach to life and its emphasis on individual rights. I wrote stories about the PTT beginning with Willi Addar, the last Swiss mounted mailman, who delivered the mail on horseback to snowbound chalets in Lauenen, a tiny, beyond quaint and quiet village not far from Gstaad.
The PTT offered Willi a snowmobile, but he declined. He wanted to stay in a warm saddle and protect the calm environment. My story made the Swissair Gazette, the airline’s in-flight magazine, and it made Willi famous.
Another of my postal stories got international attention in the International Herald Tribune, for whom I was its features correspondent.
It was the discovery in 1978 of 26 perfectly preserved letters, encased in a PTT sack, that had made its way down a glacier from the 1950 crash of an Air India flight into Mt. Blanc while en route from Calcutta to Geneva. The PTT delivered the pristine letters to companies still in business. There was only one of the private addressees still alive,an 86-year old doctor, who had worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
The letter was hand delivered by the doctor’s local postman and featured on Swiss T.V. Both became subjects of an exhibit at the PTT museum in Luzern that praised the reliability of the Swiss mail and how important Swiss postmen were to village life.
For some time, there’s been no rhyme or reason to the delivery of our mail here in Montecito — although it does get delivered. During the last Christmas holiday, a neighbor told me the mailman had come down with coronavirus, the post office was scrambling to find a replacement and we should wear gloves to open our mail.
I asked him if he knew the last name of our postman. I knew his first name was Joe from his Christmas thank-you note for the token bills we gave him. We wanted to send him a get well card. The neighbor didn’t even know his first name.
To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, ” A postman’s life is not a happy one.” It’s hard not to compare our postman’s old, rickety,rattly truck with the shiny pristine Amazon, UPS and FEDEX wagons that deliver mail and packages to us and our neighbors at any time of day. Apparently, the Biden administration is going to overhaul the postal service eventually (when the cows come home!!) with a fleet of electric vehicles, which will mean stealth deliveries by postmen (and postwomen) at all hours of the day.
Last year more than 1,200 out of 600,000 USPS employees contracted the coronavirus and 30 died. Stories circulated that many USPS workers work under unsanitary conditions and that masks, gloves and hand sanitizers are still in short supply.
Many neighbors now have locked mailboxes as roaming gangs, when they’re not raiding train cars, (or what Gov. Gavin Newsom calls “organized groups”) will empty any mailbox with a red flag up in hopes of finding info that can be used to hack.
We moved to Montecito a dozen years ago. The village reminded us of some of the blessings we’d had in Switzerland and other villages and towns we’ve lived in over the years — gorgeous gardens and vistas, enchanting architecture, privacy and a voice in village life.
We could never have guessed that we’d be living in a one-party state with such unwieldy pension funds, an out-of-control and too powerful teachers’ union and venom-laced political rhetoric that takes pride of place over local and common sense. That doesn’t care to know the last name of the one person in a neighborhood who linked us during unnecessary quarantines in an unprecedented national crisis.
President Trump called the U.S. Postal Service “a joke” and threatened to stop funding the country’s largest employer if it didn’t quadruple the cost for mailing packages to reverse decades of red ink were he re-elected. Our bloated, bureaucratic postal service is no laughing matter. Especially when compared to the private sector that is all too happy to oblige.
President Biden should form a Post Office Task Force of business leaders to study how the Swiss were able to develop a postal system that combined government and the private sector into a pristine, profitable entity that was still able to deliver the daily mail during this pandemic. Maybe then Americans can tell their children and grandchildren next year that there really is a Santa Claus.
Calla Jones Corner
The author lives in Montecito