A time machine called the post office

All I wanted was to send a letter to a friend in Europe. What I got was a trip back in time, to a country – and a world – that no longer exists.


Despite keeping in touch with family and friends abroad through my smartphone – whether through voice calls, text messages, emails or social media – I still enjoy handwriting letters and postcards to my loved ones. Especially when I’m living in a foreign country, every few weeks I try to make the time to sit down and reflect on my experiences. I carefully choose my words to fit on that tiny white square – a space blissfully free of emojis and selfies.

I have friends in different parts of the world and it happened that recently I wanted to send a letter to Slovenia, a country in Europe. I didn’t expect the employees of the little post office in Ahlone Township, the neighbourhood in which I live in Yangon, to be able to point out Slovenia on a map. This is nothing peculiar to Myanmar; most Americans would probably fail that exercise. From my own experience, I know how hard it is to convince some of them that Switzerland and Sweden are not one state, and that despite my blonde hair I’m not from the country that brought us IKEA, Abba and meatballs.

So when the woman behind the counter stared at the address on my letter, I didn’t wait for her question – I told her that Slovenia was in Europe. The question marks in her eyes didn’t exactly disappear as she pulled out a stained and visibly aged piece of paper: “Myanma Posts and Telecommunications Foreign Postage Rate”. It contained lists of countries divided into different zones. Zone A-1-a was named North American Zone, A-1-b the South American Zone, A-2 the African Zone. On the third page, I discovered Zone B: European Zone.

The list was alphabetically ordered and I jumped to the letter “S” and looked for Slovenia. To my surprise, I couldn’t find it: there was only San Marino (credit for that – many people probably could not name the third-smallest country in Europe), Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. How come other countries, such as Slovakia or Serbia, were also missing? On the bottom of the list, I discovered the answer: to my astonishment, there was Yugoslavia.

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For sure, Slovenians were part of this former federated country – along with Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians and Montenegrins – for more than seven decades, since its creation from the wreckage of World War I. But if you were to tell these folks that they are still united – in Myanmar, at least – you might start a new one.

Slovenia gained independence in 1991. In March 1990, secessionist forces had changed its official name to “the Republic of Slovenia”.

That was six months before I was born. It felt as if I had been given the privilege of sending a postcard back in time.

I scoured the list and found other historical relics, such as Czechoslovakia (1918-1992) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922-1991). The islands of Madeira, Corsica and the Azores were also there. These have never been independent, suggesting that the list was probably more about defining postage fees based on distance and less a political statement on secessionist or federalist movements.

Still smiling when I left the post office that morning, I decided to come back the following week to send a postcard to some Russian friends in the USSR.

Four weeks later, my Slovenian friend thanked me for the letter, which had finally arrived. She also sent me a picture of a curious stamp on the envelope.

It said: “Missent to Thailand.”

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