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mailbox nostalgia

I was standing exactly where the postbox was meant to be, where Google Maps promised it would be. In its place, a slab of smooth, newly laid grey stone stared back at me. The mailbox was nowhere to be found.

An older woman walked by, trailed by a waddling dog. She stopped, shrugged and said in Dutch, “Bezuiniging.” Roughly translated, the word means cost-cutting or the act of being frugal. But it’s more than the act itself; frugality is a prized Dutch trait, a national obsession. Politicians have exploited it in the last two decades to slash as much of the welfare state as possible through privatisation, leaving us in a Frankenstein world where a country of 17 million people has hundreds of health insurance companies. Childcare can cost more than a mortgage, and bus routes to entire villages have been scrapped because they aren’t profitable, leaving people stranded. The level of poverty has risen to more than a million people.

Magna Plaza building in Amsterdam
Former post office in Amsterdam, photo by Guillermo Casales

Anyone who’s taken public transportation in the last year has experienced budget cuts and personnel shortages firsthand. The trains are dirty, crowded and late. Worst of all, prices have spiralled out of control. Travelling by train inside this tiny country can cost more than flying across Europe.

All this in a country whose economy (depending on the study and factors used) has the world's fourth-largest GDP per capita.

Back to the mailbox. In the Netherlands, everyone’s mail is shoved through a small rectangle in the door. There’s no way to send mail from your house (or even near your house). The mailperson delivers the mail, but they don’t accept anything outgoing. If you try to hand them something, you’ll be met with the shaking no of the head. If you ask where the nearest mailbox is, they’ll say, “look it up,” and continue on their way.

The mailboxes are rectangular and a bright, garish orange. Many things in The Netherlands are orange: logos, advertisements, signs, flags. On the King’s Day (a national holiday that celebrates the monarch’s birthday), everyone wears a piece of orange clothing. It’s not just a favourite colour, the first Dutch King was Willem van Orange (1553-1584). He overthrew the Spanish who ruled the Netherlands at the time, and set off the Eighty Years War. The Orange comes from Orange in France of which he was an heir. Orange itself has, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with the colour. The name is derived from“Aurasio” a Gaulish deity. 450 years later and every brand uses this colour as a stand-in for The Netherlands.

And not just the Dutch. The orange of the Irish flag represents the protestants who supported the Dutch king; the green is for catholics and the white for peace between the two.

Along with the vanishing mailboxes, the majestic post office buildings have also been dispensed with, sold off to private real estate developers. They’re now commercial offices, luxury apartments or overpriced, failing shopping centres.

Despite the explosion in digital communication, post still deliver important news, invitations and contracts. The most monumental news of my life came via post. The first was my admission to university. Back then, the legend was that if a large, oversized package arrived it was full of documents to sign. If you received the standard flimsy envelope it was a “thanks, but no thanks,” letter. Thankfully, the former arrived.

The second most important letter I received was in a flimsy, nondescript envelope. On thin, cheap paper, the letter informed me that I’d been granted Dutch citizenship. It meant voting in national and EU-wide elections and it also meant access: the ability to live and work in 26 countries.

Now that most post offices are gone, parcels must be collected and sent in strange places - supermarkets, mobile phone stores, even someone’s living room can be registered to receive and send packages.

So, I head to the supermarket.

A woman at the cigarette kiosk waves me over.

I give her the letter. She takes it. She moves with a slow calmness that might ordinarily irritate but that today is soothing.

There has been a misunderstanding. An additional fee must be paid, the woman explains.

Otherwise, the letter would not make its way. It would certainly be lost.

Suddenly, I’m thankful that the mailbox was removed, that I was forced to find a different drop off point and that this woman has let me know the letter was doomed to failure. For in

The Netherlands, there’s no standard“return to sender” or “insufficient postage.” Such assurances cost extra.

typical US mailbox
Photo by Mick Haupt Iozza

She makes a new label for me, cuts it, and tapes each side carefully to the envelope, pressing along the edges and checking that it sticks. She looks it over once more for surety. In her hands, the letter is fragile and precious, as if a missive of great import sent to the king.

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