Ief Postino - Limburg and Italy connected by letters

The mining past has had an important and very decisive influence on the development of Limburg. From the beginning of the 20th century, the mining industry had a significant economic value in the province. Many foreigners were attracted to come and work in the Limburg mines, including many Italians who left their country and also often their family behind. This all came about due to the signing of the “men for coal” agreement in 1946, a cooperation agreement between the Belgian and Italian governments. As a result, several generations of Italians built their future in Limburg. Even after the mines closed, many Limburgers of Italian origin or Limburgers with links to Italy stayed in Limburg. Each one has his or her own story and specific ties with Italy. This migration flow created the typical Italian-Limburg culture in Limburg’s mining areas, which directly or indirectly determines the DNA and the identity of many Limburgers right up to the present day. In fact, the influence of the historical migration extends beyond the Italian community in Limburg.

The character “Ief Postino”:

Ief Postino bridged the distance between Limburg and Italy by means of letters – like it was done 70 years ago, before the advent of mobile phones and the internet. Specifically, theatre performer Ief Gilis played Ief Postino, going in search of authentic stories and anecdotes between Limburgers and the acquaintances, family, exes, school friends, etc. that they left behind. The Limburgers wrote letters that Ief Postino collected and delivered to Italy personally, using a Piaggio Ape, a typical Italian, three-wheeled vehicle. The APE was converted into a post office and meeting place for personal stories from Belgium. Ief listened to the stories and outpouring of emotions from those writing and receiving the letters, both in Limburg and Italy. The receivers in Italy would then send a letter back to Belgium with Ief Postino. After having delivered 16 letters and driven 7,000 km with his APE, Ief Postino returned to a big street party at which Italians, Limburgers, Limburger-Italians, and Italian-Limburgers all came together to share in the joy. This is where the Belgian and Italian letter writers and receivers could meet up with one another and their families.

As a postman, Ief Postino built bridges between the Limburgers and Italians, bringing various communities closer together, and strengthening the connections within those various communities by working with their communal histories and identities. Moreover, this project proves that the connections between Limburg and Italy are still relevant today and have a daily impact on the lives of this entire group of people .

Aims and objectives:

The initial aim of the project for the Province of Limburg was to spotlight the 70th anniversary of the Italian emigration to Belgium and the impact of that historic event on Limburg and Italy, including beyond the borders of the province of Limburg. A crucial goal in this respect was to start out from within the Italian community itself and give it a central role in the project. Based on that, we drew up the following three project aims:

- To bring into all Flemish living rooms the mining past of Limburg and how it has so strongly determined the appearance, identity and dynamics of the entire region today, and to do so in an easily accessible manner. The way this is done is through the personal stories of the writers and recipients of the letters. After all, the letters contain a universal range of subjects such as bidding farewell, homesickness, friendship, relationships, people missing other people, and integration or reintegration into society.

- To bring people and communities closer together and to establish new connections between them (intercultural and intergenerational):
To put Italian Limburgers into contact (or back into contact) with their family, friends, former sweethearts, acquaintances and so on in Italy.
To make connections among Italians in Limburg, their descendants and others with links to Italy. To put that Italian community into contact with the rest of the Limburg population.
To interconnect with other (migrant) communities in Limburg and with the Limburg population To interconnect the various generations (intergenerational).
To draw attention for the authentic medium of writing letters and the reflection on contemporary communication tools and how we use them.

- The goal was to reach as wide an audience as possible through different media and communication channels.
By combining different media and communication channels, we were able to reach as wide an audience as possible and increase the sustainability of the project through tangible results. Ief Postino provided quite a series of beautiful stories about the past of the Limburg mines, the Limburg and the Italian culture, about friendship, farewells, homesickness, relationships…. These stories were recorded and revealed to a wide audience through various channels.

This project specifically entailed:
-after the appeal there were eventually 35 candidates in Limburg willing to participate in the television documentary.
- 32 episodes (16 weeks – 2 episodes per week) by the Flemish public television VRT, broadcasted in prime time (immediately after the daily news bulletin) in the programme Iedereen beroemd (Everybody’s famous) (autumn 2016), 1,000,000 tele viewers.
- online story telling with additional stories by means of a Postino-page on Facebook, parallel to the television broadcasts (autumn 2016) 46,378 followers via the Iedereen Beroemd page and today still 1,042 followers on the Postino page.
- weekly background articles in the newspaper Het Belang van Limburg (16 episodes), with additional background information, parallel to the television broadcasts (September - December 2016) 105,000 readers.
- party (C-mine, Genk) where the stories, the writers of the letters, the Limburgian-Italian community and other detainees gathered (December 10th, 2016), 1,200 people present, among whom a few who travelled especially from Italy to Belgium. Eventually, the party brought up a little more than € 5,000. Via the International Committee this amount was employed for the victims of the earthquake in Norcia in Mid-Italy in September 2016.
- a book in which the entire project is bundled and extensively documented with footage and in which the reader obtains a wider scope on the persons in the series and the stories are elaborated more profoundly (publication October 2017), edition 500 copies (first edition).
- an interactive theatre performance with the emphasis on personal stories and a reflection on writing letters and the contemporary communication channels. The show was already performed over 20 times and will continue to run in theatres in 2019. (October 2017 – ongoing).
- an overview movie of the entire Ief Postino-project (October 2017)
- Ief Postino was awarded with the European Union Price for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards 2018 .

Community impact:

A. How did cultural heritage benefit from the project: focus on the Limburg mining heritage throughout all of Flanders
a. Tangible heritage: some of the mining sites have already been repurposed, others are right in the middle of redevelopment and yet others are unused and have to fight for their survival. Through Ief Postino, people discover the story behind these monumental features in the landscape and their importance and significance.
b. Intangible heritage: the particular Limburg-Italian culture that forms an important part of the identity of a large group of people is set out in this project and relayed positively to a wide audience. The project has also created additional stories about this characteristic Limburg identity. Through Ief Postino, the mining past can be illustrated and appreciated in a positive manner. The project shows a nuanced image of the mining past, which transcends prejudice and stereotypes.

B. Evidence of influence at local, national and regional level:
The project created a faithful audience of followers. 1,000,000 viewers a week for the TV series, 105,000 readers for the articles in the newspaper “Het Belang van Limburg”, almost 49,000 followers for the online storytelling, 1,200 attendees at the party, including a group of Italians. It was only through this loyal following of the Ief Postino project that it was possible to raise money in a short space of time for the victims of the earthquake in the Italian town of Norcia.

C. Involvement of youth, community and/or non-traditional audiences:
Thanks to the varied choice of letter writers and the various media used, different generations were approached and several different generations were interconnected. Next to that the heritage passed on over several generations. In addition, a variant of the theatre performance is being made just for young people. Thanks to this tailor-made show, young people too can learn about this story and our heritage identity. In addition, during the show they pause for a moment to reflect on contemporary means of communication and their own communication behaviour. During the show they set about writing a letter themselves. The use of contemporary channels such as online storytelling also provides an extra appeal for younger generations.

D. Contribution to intercultural dialogue and to the protection of cultural diversity:
The core of this project is the intercultural dialogue . In addition, through Ief Postino, the defining aspects of the characteristic Limburg-Italian culture are also highlighted and by extension the defining features of the other immigrant communities in Limburg. The wonderful stories and connections that the project provided highlight on the one hand why it is essential to value, preserve and interconnect these different cultures.

Following in the footsteps of the Italians, men from many other countries such as Turkey, Greece, Spain and Morocco made their way to the Limburg mines to work there. This makes Limburg a region with a very specific immigration history. People with diverse origins, backgrounds and/or life perspectives all live there together. This project with the Italian community and its associated stories is therefore also very recognisable for the other immigrant communities and people who in one way or another acquire their identity or part of it from a foreign background. Their roots might be in a different country, but the stories of migration, mining history, integration, links with the old country, their community, etc. are very similar. All these communities together make Limburg the colourful province it is today. A project like Ief Postino provides insights into contemporary multicultural society and expands everyone’s field of vision.

E. Long term impact of the project :
This project also proved that there will always be a link between the two countries and therefore the communities as well. Limburg culture and Italian culture have melted together in Limburg to form a colourful Limburg-Italian culture, which was exported to Italy upon the return of some of the miners. And on the other hand, the Flemings were brought into contact with a community that was fairly unknown to most of them. Thanks to the “Iedereen Beroemd” programme on VRT, the Flemish public radio and TV broadcasting system, a very accessible medium was created, supplemented with online storytelling, stories in the newspaper, a book and a movie. In this way, a very wide target audience, both young and old, was given the opportunity to come into contact with a heritage project.

Also, this unique project will resonate elsewhere in the European Union as it serves as a valuable inspiration to other countries and regions, each with its own migration background. Ief Postino is a straightforward, original idea which can easily be copied and implemented in other EU regions with a multicultural society preceded by a history of migration.

Ief Postino’s journey hasn’t come to an end yet. Aside from the theater show, he travels Flanders with his mobile post office. People can come in, write a letter and leave it at the post office’s wall. If someone else comes in afterwards and thinks he/she can deliver the letter, he/she can take the letter and bring it to its receiver. That way, people get in touch in an old fashioned way, by knocking on the door and starting a conversation. La forza di una lettera.