Special delivery: This Frenchman builds community, letter by letter
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At a time when letter writing has gone the way of the quill pen, a self-appointed bicycle delivery messenger and his team are helping to build the social bridges the digital world threatens to tear down.
But Mr. Berthelot does not work for the French postal service. He never has. In 2014, on the eve of his retirement, Mr. Berthelot got the idea to cross France on his recumbent bike for three months. But he wanted to do so with purpose. What if he delivered letters on the way?
In July 2015, he took his maiden voyage. With 66 envelopes in his yellow bike pouch, he set off across the country to deliver hand-written letters to friends of friends and soon-to-be new ones. The cardinal rule? No mailboxes allowed. Mr. Berthelot delivers all the letters personally.
“Each time I deliver a letter, it’s a story, a life,” says Mr. Berthelot, a sprightly 60-something who is quick to smile. “At first, people are stupefied. They can’t understand how I got there, how I went across the country with a letter just for them.”
Despite their shock, Mr. Berthelot says people rarely show him the door. He’s often invited in for something to drink and sometimes is asked to stay the night. He usually brings a tent with him, but he says he only puts it up about one-third of the time.
Through his acts of kindness, Mr. Berthelot has not only built unlikely relationships for himself but also helped family members reconnect and rekindle long-lost friendships. He’s even inspired others to join him in what is now a nearly 100-person-strong collective. At a time when letter writing has gone the way of the quill pen, le facteur humain – the human factor, as Mr. Berthelot is dubbed – and his team are helping to build the social bridges the digital world threatens to tear down.
“With social media, our interactions are one-sided. It’s easy to look away from someone who disagrees with us instead of finding common ground,” says Carole Gayet-Viaud, a researcher on civility and social norms at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. “More and more, we’re finding ourselves in spaces that are compartmentalized and closed off from one another, which affects our definition of reality.”
“It’s great to surprise someone”
Gwenola Furic was one of the first people with whom Mr. Berthelot shared his initial idea and is one of his most prolific writers. Ms. Furic says there’s something about letter writing that allows her to communicate more lasting thoughts and emotions than through email.
“When Vincent told me about his project, I thought it was awesome,” says Ms. Furic, who has invited Mr. Berthelot to her photo restoration studio in Redon to give him a new letter to deliver. “It’s great to surprise someone, a person I haven’t seen in a long time. If we didn’t write these letters, we’d lose touch.”
Mr. Berthelot chooses his route based on the letters he receives, but people also inquire about his plans and look for people they can write to based on his destination. A few years ago, Ms. Furic wrote a letter to a long-lost family friend in Switzerland, after learning that Mr. Berthelot would be heading in that direction.
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“He took a while to understand because it’s just not normal for someone to show up at your doorstep with a personalized message,” says Mr. Berthelot of his encounter with Ms. Furic’s friend. “But when it finally registered, he went into his room and came back down with a photo that Gwenola had given him as a kid, that he’d kept in his bedside table.”
Some of these intimate moments were captured in 2018, when filmmaker Alexandre Lachavanne accompanied Mr. Berthelot for 800 kilometers – 500 miles – of a trip between Redon and Switzerland. By then, Mr. Berthelot had clocked more than 9,300 miles on his bike and delivered 230 letters. He has since stopped counting.
In 2020, he self-published a book about his encounters. While people confide in him stories of love affairs and family secrets – even illegal acts – he’s tight-lipped about what he hears, likening himself to “something between a psychologist and a priest.”
His role as the surprise messenger has a power to break down barriers. Clément Bouju, a local vegetable farmer, asked Mr. Berthelot to deliver a letter to his father just before becoming a father himself. It has since opened a channel for communication.
“We’ve always been in touch but we never talk about intimate things or emotions,” says Mr. Bouju. “It’s still hard for him to open up, but that letter allowed us to finally talk about certain things.”
The human touch
How is Mr. Berthelot’s mission different from the regular postal service? For starters, it aims to be 100% no-carbon. He and his team are committed to taking routes on bike or foot, whenever possible. Moreover, “I’m the human delivery service,” says Mr. Berthelot. “The post office is no longer a human affair.”
What he does is a throwback to a time that no longer exists, says Marie Chiron, who worked for the French postal service for 35 years before retiring in 2009.
“We used to knock on the door, and if no one was home, we’d open the door and leave the letter on the table,” says Ms. Chiron, who comes to sit with Mr. Berthelot for a midmorning coffee on Redon’s main street. “Other times, people would invite us in for coffee, or ask us to pick up something at the bakery or the pharmacy for them. People had a real fondness for the mail carrier.”
Mr. Berthelot’s desire for human connection is infectious. Thanks to his initiative, there are now around 90 facteurs humains prepped to set off around the country – and beyond. One trip took a delivery person all the way to St. Petersburg, Russia, while a couple recently left for a three-year trip to Nepal, on foot, with someone’s letter in hand.
Even the younger generation is excited about connecting old-school. During an afternoon party in a nearby village, Mr. Berthelot’s 11-year-old grandson asks if his grandpa can deliver a letter to one of his friends from summer sailing school.
Back at home in a tranquil part of Redon, Mr. Berthelot and his wife of 42 years, Marie-Anne, take a break with homemade apple juice, their chickens squawking in a nearby cage. A neighbor sawing wood next door cuts the silence. Then, an email arrives.
It’s a woman who lives in southeastern France and wants a letter delivered this summer to someone near Carcassonne. With this, Mr. Berthelot’s back springs up straight, ready to pounce on this new mission.
“It only takes up one-third of my time,” says Mr. Berthelot, smiling.
“It’s a lot of organization,” says his wife, throwing her head back in a laugh. “More like half.”