A town by any other name would be less confusing

I've often wondered whether the residents of Rome, Ga., or Paris, Ky., are inconvenienced by the fact that larger places exist with the same name. I know it is a problem in New London, N.H., where my wife moved in 1953.

Once, when my computer cable connection went out, I had to spend quite a while convincing the person at the telephone help desk that I was in New Hampshire, and not the much larger city of the same name in Connecticut.

Some years ago friends were coming to visit from Mexico, and they had clear directions: After arriving at the Boston airport, go to the Greyhound bus terminal in Boston and take the Vermont transit bus to New London, N.H.

We got a telephone call from them: "We're here!"

"Where is 'here'?" we asked.

"The bus station in New London."

Our New London is not big enough to have a bus station, and the bus stop, on the town green, is less than a mile from our house. But the Mexican girls had managed to get to New London, Conn., and had to take the Greyhound bus back to Boston and then the Vermont transit bus up to New Hampshire.

On the second try, they made it.

I had become acquainted with similar-sounding places in other countries even before I moved to New Hampshire in 1977. In 1971, I was on leave from the University of Kentucky (in Lexington, not too far from Paris) and had occasion to lecture at the University of New England, in New South Wales, Australia. (On the way I passed through the village of Kentucky, New South Wales.) This was years before St. Francis College in Maine changed its name to the University of New England, and a few years before I went to work at New England College, in Henniker, N.H., a town that proudly advertises itself as "the only Henniker on Earth."

All of this makes me appreciate the occasional small miracles performed by the post office. (My wife and I travel enough to make life hard for our letter carriers. We know some of the troubles letter carriers face.)

When they are on the address, ZIP Codes do help. A letter once arrived in New London for a stepson. The envelope had been badly torn, and all that was left of the address was "Thomas N" and the ZIP Code, 03257. Despite the fact that the family name didn't start with N, and Tom wasn't old enough to get much mail, the package somehow arrived on our doorstep.

Internationally, even postal codes don't always help. When my wife and I were working in the Faeroe Islands, we found letters from the United States arrived two weeks sooner if people wrote a note on the envelope telling the postmaster a route for the mail. (Looking at a map suggests the Faeroes are near Iceland, but the plane carrying mail comes from Copenhagen.)

A few times I've had a chance to watch postal magic performed. A fellow student at Kenyon College had a very common name - on the order of "Steve Clark." He'd been in the Peace Corps in Ghana, and one of his pupils there had sent him a letter - addressed only to "Steve Clark, Canyon College, USA." In the early 1960s, only a couple of colleges had "Canyon" in their names, and the letter had notes from their mailrooms on it. The most recent on said: "Not here, try Kenyon College." It took a while, but the letter arrived.

It's probably easier to explain the arrival of a letter received by Einar Hille, the distinguished mathematician with a distinctive name. After he retired from a long career at Yale, he held visiting appointments at a number of other universities. A friend in Italy, knowing that he'd left Yale but not sure where he was, addressed a letter to "Prof. Einar Hille, Not Yale University, USA." It was successfully delivered, to the University of New Mexico. I've seen the envelope.

And, once, I was able to help. In the early 1980s a letter arrived at my office at New England College. It was postmarked in Indonesia and addressed to someone with another extremely common name I can't recall. The full address was "Department of Chemical Engineering, University of New England."

Consecutive notes on the envelope read "Try USA," "Try Boston," and "Try New England College, Henniker, NH." Well, for once my strange travels turned out to be just what was needed: I knew that only one likely school had a department of chemical engineering, and I sent the letter on to the University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia.

Remarkably often, the mail does go through.

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