Isle of Man Addresses a Deeper Issue

Five years ago, I brought back from New Zealand a trick they use to increase neighborliness, but now I can report from a place where neighborliness has been taken a step further.

New Zealand does not regulate its citizens’ mailbox designs. I wandered residential Auckland and I saw dozens of examples. I saw mail inside dragons’ jaws, doll houses, repurposed trombones, and almost anything else you can imagine. Not all the mail receptacles were necessarily practical, but a little soggy mail seemed to be a fair trade for curbside self-expression.

Isle of Man outdoes every other advanced nation at neighborliness, because they’ve chosen to dispense with addresses altogether. This attitude toward house numbers is not unusual in rural England, but I don’t know any other country that skips them altogether.

The island nation is five times the size of Eugene, but with half as many people. Or half-again larger than Portland, with one eighth the population. Isle of Man is a sovereign nation under the United Kingdom’s military protection. It sits in the Irish Sea, mixing Celtic, Norse, and Roman influences. Its parliament has been meeting every year, they claim, since 979 AD.

As America contemplates what could be the end of its 240-year experiment, I thought it might be worth exploring the oldest democracy on the planet. The exploring was trickier than I had anticipated.

The government doesn’t give every house a number. Instead, residents give their houses names. I stayed for a week at Westlodge on Castletown Road.

I asked several people what never occurred to me as a difficult question: “Where is Westlodge on Castletown Road?”

Each took the first three words as my question and the last three as its answer. “Where is Westlodge?” “On Castletown Road.” Never mind that Castletown Road is two miles long, or that there are no rules against two buildings being named Westlodge.

I asked for an appointment with Sarah Read, Communications Manager at the Isle of Man Post Office. She immediately arranged to meet me the next morning. I got lost on my way there, because even the national post office headquarters does not have an address.

I stopped for directions three times, after I learned that GPS serves no real purpose. Each time I was asked what landmarks I knew. (None!) For the record, their offices are just past B&Q. You can’t miss it.

Read welcomed me warmly when I finally arrived, and brought me upstairs to interview a couple of other managers.

Each of them wondered why I saw their system as problematic, but each had stories of problems they had personally encountered. One had been invited to an evening wedding, and recalled looking at each house name before finding the right one. Another recounted the difficulty that came with training a new mail carriers.

“You’re never really lost,” Read explained. “Confused for a bit, maybe. It’s too small an island to get lost.” Each reassured me that they rely on “local knowledge” to keep things straight.

I asked a taxi driver what he would do if he picked up a visitor at the airport (not naming names here) who asked to be dropped at Westlodge on Castletown Road.

“I’d take him there,” he replied, mimicking the post office’s “what problem?” attitude.

Yes, but what if you didn’t know where Westlodge was?

“Oh,” he replied, as if the reality of it just dawned on him. “Then I’d get on the radio and ask the other taxi drivers. Somebody would know.” Local knowledge.

If I’d stayed longer, I might have been able to ask an ambulance dispatcher. I’m pretty sure I would have gotten the same answer. “Asking around” doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to find any particular location, but no one I talked to believed it was a problem.

The more I thought about it, the clearer it became. Their system addresses a deeper issue. If everybody has to “ask around” to deliver a package or attend a wedding, the harder work of knowing and being known is already partly complete.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.