The aerogramme and the email

Once upon a time, the cheapest, most convenient way for travelers abroad to write to friends and family back home was the aerogramme. This ingenious creation was a razor-thin, super-light, roughly 6-x-11-inch sheet of blue-colored paper that was designed to be folded into thirds, creating six postcard-size panels (both sides of the paper were used).

One of these panels was pre-stamped and printed with dotted lines for the recipient’s address; four of the panels were blank, to be used for writing your message; and in the Greek aerogramme that lies before me now, the other panel features a photo of whitewashed buildings rising up a rocky brown hill against a deep blue sky.

Adjoining the stamp-and-address panel were two gummed flaps; when you finished your message, you licked and folded these flaps to seal the note. Then all you had to do was drop the aerogramme into a mailbox. No weighing, no paying, no standing in line. This was the height of epistolary convenience when I lived in France, Greece, and Japan in the 1970s.

The challenge, of course, was how much information you could squeeze into those four blank panels – how precisely and minutely could you write and still be legible? On that Greek ‘gramme to my parents, I managed 60 lines of about 11 words each, enough to cover the highlights of a spring swing through Egypt (riding Arabian stallions four hours into the desert, climbing the Great Pyramid, touring the temples and tombs of Luxor), a quick outline of plans for my just-starting summer trip (staying with friends in Nairobi and exploring Kenya on day-trips, climbing Kilimanjaro and going on safari in Tanzania with the family of two of my Greek students, then returning to the States via Santorini and Paris), plus the obligatory update on my financial situation.

Writing home is a whole lot easier in 2011. The digital equivalent of the aerogramme isn’t confined to six panels, and doesn’t take weeks to reach its intended recipient. You can write as much as you like, and send it to as many people as you like, and it arrives instantaneously! And still no weighing, paying, or waiting in line (unless you count the occasional wait for an open terminal at an Internet cafe). Though the Internet hasn’t reached every crack and crevice of the planet, I think it’s safe to say that there are vastly more digital post offices now than there were stone-and-stucco ones back in the day. And what about that evocative photo of those whitewashed hillside homes? Now you can attach your own.

Luckily, my parents kept big rubber-banded bundles of my aerogrammes so that I can peruse them now, but with emails, you don’t have to rely on anyone; you can store them yourself. And instead of having to paw through bundles of letters when you’re looking for a specific passage 35 years later, you can effortlessly search your archives to locate that stallion’s-eye view of sunset in the Sahara. So convenient!

Is there any downside to this technological evolution? Well, maybe just this one. There’s a kind of palpable poignancy to that Greek aerogramme. I hold it in my hands, trace the rough letters and creases in the page, smell its musty perfume – and it’s a pale blue magic carpet that whisks me back to the moment in the Athens airport when I sat at a small table, with a demitasse of Greek coffee, scribbling. I taste the thick, bitter coffee, the sludgy residue on my lips, feel the dry dusty heat, the anticipation in my fingertips….

Will my emails transport me that same way when I read them three and a half decades from today?