After all

Travelling back in time on board a yellow 'post auto'.

What is time? Strictly speaking, it is but a numeric expression of our lifespan which extends to 600,000-700,000 (if you are lucky) hours only. And we spend half of these sleeping, eating and performing other unexciting bodily functions, which leaves us with a miserly 350,000 hours to pursue life (and that includes work!).

Chekhov once observed that the time you spend fishing is not included in your lifespan. If so, someone who spends his whole life fishing will probably live forever. But what a tedious life it would be!

At times, I seriously wish I live in Albury-Wodonga, Australian twin-towns on the border of Victoria and New South Wales. What attracts me to this fairly nondescript place? There are always 60 minutes to spare. Victoria is one hour ahead of New South Wales, so if you live in Wodonga and work in Albury, you do not run the risk of being late. In fact, if you are quick enough, you can start your working day before you actually wake up. Also, you can (theoretically) have a quiet lunch in Wodonga without leaving your working place in Albury.

Time can be a relative commodity. Here's an example. Whereas the whole modern world lives by the Gregorian calendar, Mount Athos, a tiny monastic republic in the north of Greece, still adheres to the Julian chronology, which is 13 days behind. When we have 1 August, say, it is only 18 July in Mount Athos. When we approach a New Year, they haven't yet celebrated Christmas, which comes to the Holy Mountain on 7 January. To confuse things further, in some of the monasteries, clocks are set to noon at dawn, while in others they are set to midnight at sunset, and the rest do not have clocks at all. Time, as such, does not exist in Mount Athos, and fixing any kind of appointment in the village of Karies, the republic's miniature capital, is a hopeless business - which does not seem to bother the monks who spend their lives in prayer. Their only appointments are with God, and He is a pretty flexible fellow.

Punctuality is the politeness of kings, according to Louix XVIII of France. It is also an increasingly rare commodity in everyday life.

Many years ago, I read a sci-fi story about a savings bank of time. The idea was that one could put aside and redeem later the hours wasted in purposeless waiting: for a train, a bus, a hospital appointment, a friend running hopelessly late etc.

Alas, such a bank is firmly in the realm of science-fiction.

Why is stealing a chocolate bar from a supermarket a criminal offence, but robbing people of their most precious possession - time - doesn't entail even a small fine? Why don't we call a spade a spade and classify a post office queue as theft, a train delay as burglary, and a flight cancellation as attempted manslaughter?

Luckily, there's still a place in the world where time is highly valued. I am talking about Switzerland, the birthplace of the cuckoo clock, the Swiss Army knife and the yellow 'post-auto', or post bus - the world's most precise (from my point of view) means of transport.

Talking buses

The origins of the post-bus - a great Swiss institution on wheels - go back to 1849, when the Swiss postal service was first made a monopoly of the young Confederation. The role of the yellow buses was then played by horse-drawn carriages - also yellow. It was not long before they started carrying passengers too, although Swiss Post didn't open the first scheduled service between Berne and Detligen until 1906. This line is still in operation.

In winter, some carriages had to be replaced with sleighs. With time, the longest and busiest routes were gradually taken over by railways, whereas most Alpine destinations were still served by mail coaches.

After World War I, Swiss Post bought a fleet of decommissioned military trucks, which were converted into first mechanical post-buses - predecessors of modern post-autos.

In all these years, there was hardly a serious accident involving a post-bus - quite an achievement, if we remember that they operate mostly in mountainous areas. And, allegedly, there has never been more than a one-minute deviation from the timetable.

Like many years ago, yellow carriages, with 250 horsepower engines, still carry passengers and mail. Like in the old times, the drivers blow their melodious three-note (C sharp, E and A in A major) post-horns, still playing the same wistfully nostalgic tune from the andante of the overture to Rossini's 'William Tell'.

It is not widely known, however, that these horns also allow post-buses to 'talk' to post offices and to each other from the distance. Different combinations of the notes announce: 'departure of post', 'arrival of post', 'arrival of special post', 'bus swerving out' and so on - so much more romantic (and probably more reliable) than radio or mobile phones.

This musical language started in the mid-19th century, when the coach drivers blew their horns on approaching a destination to forewarn the station about the number of horses that needed to be fed.

My numerous post-auto journeys in the Alps have always started (and finished) with minute precision. Earth tremors or avalanches notwithstanding, if a post bus is scheduled to arrive at 12:21, it will be at the stop, not at 12:20 or 12:22, but at 12:21 on the dot.

One winter morning, I was shifting from one foot to the other inside a bus shelter in the town of Martina on the Swiss-Austrian border. My connecting post bus was due to arrive at 15:01. To my surprise, it pulled up two minutes early, at 14:59. I rushed towards it, only to see that it was not my bus, but a different one. As its tail lights disappeared behind the road turn at 15:00, I could see my bus approach.

Shockingly, it was three minutes late to depart. I thought this would make for a good front-page headline for tomorrow's Swiss (and, possibly, Austrian) national newspapers - 'SWISS LIFESTYLE UNDER THREAT AFTER POST-AUTO GETS DELAYED AT BORDER', or something of that sort.

In actual fact, the delay was caused by the driver talking on his mobile phone. The conversation, I am sure, was work-related. Most likely, he was getting a warning of an approaching avalanche from his controller, who advised him on an alternative route. Even post buses, it appears, are not entirely immune to life's big and small irregularities.

Vitali Vitaliev's new books 'Vitali's Ireland' and 'Passport to Enclavia' are published by Gill & Macmillan and Reportage Press respectively.

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