Each summer, Reykjavík goes on holiday; residents vacate their residences and the post marks their mail with a pink return sticker with the “gone away” box ticked. Even the postal workers who normally sort this mail take time off. So who delivers the mail from May to September? This is where 29-year-old Maren Winkler from Germany comes in.
Maren is just one of many young foreigners who took up mail carrying for Pósturinn as a summer job. You may recognise them by the cherry-red sweatshirts, ear-warmers and rain trousers. For many of these university-age substitutes, carrying mail represents a romantic return to the days of the envelope in an email age. And although the job requires little Icelandic language proficiency, it offers carriers the chance to integrate themselves into Icelandic society.
Guðmundur? Gunnar? Guðbrandur?
At first Maren had a hard time distinguishing between Icelandic names, but now she is a regular pro. We discussed the prevalence of the name Guðmundur in particular. She also quickly learned the Icelandic phrases for, “Does this person still live here?,” and “Sorry, I accidentally put the mail into the wrong slot.”
“It makes me feel a part of society and Reykjavík because you keep everything going in your own small way,” Maren said. Delivering the mail on foot also means learning neighbourhoods and becoming attached to them and their inhabitants.
As I walked with Maren on her route in the 105 district, I discovered she had actually been delivering mail to a flat I’ve been subletting in the 101 district. Even though it was no longer her route, she still remembered the exact location, and had even snapped a picture of a gnome in my yard on her last day as a memento. Although she was sad to leave her favourite neighbourhood in Reykjavík, she was pleased to finally spot Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr, on her last day in 101.
As we walked around her new neighbourhood, I kept forgetting to go up to the door with her. I am not accustomed to walking up to strangers’ doors; I was reminded of childhood games of ding-dong-ditch, but instead of ringing the door bell and running away, we were pushing mail through slots hoping territorial dogs wouldn’t bite our fingers off. Luckily we only ran into one aggressive Pomeranian, who laughably overcompensated for its small stature and ridiculous coif.
The neighbourhood cats on the other hand, couldn’t be friendlier. There are also other perks to mail carrying, the exercise and the chance to listen to your own soundtrack. Maren’s varies depending on the weather: Nick Drake when it’s sunny and Melodica when it’s cloudy, but most days she finds herself listening to the German rapper, Casper. As a singer/songwriter herself this time to listen to music is particularly important to Maren.
Unlike America, where no one gives a flying fuck
At each address we reached, she checked the name on the envelope against the name on the door, which puzzled me at first. Unlike my native America, where no one gives a flying fuck whether you get the correct mail, Iceland will not deliver letters to addresses that aren’t correctly marked. In fact, nearly every day, Maren has letters and catalogues she cannot in good conscience deliver. Each morning, she thus uses Pósturinn’s database to determine whether an address is incorrect, the recipient has moved, is away or in some unfortunate cases, has passed away.
In the morning I helped her sort the mail into shelves of mint green, black and red plastic dividers. Seeing each Icelandic postmark peeking out from their little cubbies made me feel so orderly and accomplished, but the task was far from done. Next we had to bundle each group of letters according to residence and street and place them in her mail trolley in the correct order: first houses’ mail on top, last houses’ mail at the bottom.
“Rubber bands are VERY important,” Maren said as she snapped two around a thick stack of envelopes. As she delivers each bundle she removes the rubber bands and pushes them up her wrist—by the end of the day you can tell how many houses she has visited by the bands stacked on her arms. And with anywhere between five and twelve hours of deliveries, Maren could have her own shot at the world’s largest rubber band ball by the end of the summer.
Junk mail day
As you may already know, Thursday is junk mail day, and therefore the bane of any Icelandic mail carrier. Last week Maren had 100 kg of Ikea kitchen catalogues to deliver to nearly every house on her route. Do everyone a favour and put the red, “no junk mail” sticker on your mail slot. Also while you’re at it, make sure your name is above the slot and notify the post office when you move. It’s the right thing to do.
While Maren curses junk mail she takes delight in postcards, (especially those written in German—not that she reads them or anything), handwritten letters (bonus points for drawings on the envelopes), children’s books or quirky items like a plank of wood or a single sheet of loose paper.
Maren marvels at how she is expected to fit things through such slim mail slots sometimes. And while this may not have been perfectly legal, she let me deliver some letters and I have to say it was quite satisfying.
All the magic this world has to offer
When I met Maren for the first time, I knew I had to jump on the chance to see what delivering the mail was like. And not surprisingly I am not the only one who has had this excited reaction. One of Maren’s friends from Germany, Matthias, served as her first mail carrying “intern.”
Like me, he has fostered a life-long obsession with mail carrying as a profession. As children of the net generation, we grew up with email. And we are not the only ones who react positively to Maren’s summer job. She often finds people are unexpectedly excited by her work. She admits, “There is a certain excitement with me being the official person putting mail in the slot.”
And while letters delivered instantly as code through electric cables at the speed of light might have dazzled some, I was always convinced it was the physical letter carried by the omnipresent postal worker that contained all the magic this world had to offer. This may have something to do with the fact that Harry Potter did not receive his letter from Hogwarts via Hotmail.
As magical as being a mail carrier may seem to me, it is certainly not as flexible or friendly everywhere as it is in Iceland. Maren said she would not be interested in working for the German postal authority. “I would only want to do it here. I think it’s something special to say I have been a mail carrier in Reykjavík, Iceland.”