FLAT EARTH

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The Independent Online
Red letter days

The Italian mail system is surely what the term "snail mail" was coined to describe. Records of slow delivery and lost letters abound in the annals of Italian postal history.

In 1993 a letter arrived in one northern town 126 years after it was mailed from another town just more than a mile away. Italian unification and two world wars got in the way.

But it's now time to forget all the jokes and stories about letters in Italy arriving weeks, months or even years after they were posted. A modern miracle has quietly taken place. A new state postal service that promises to deliver letters in 24 hours for a small extra charge apparently works.

So stunning is the feat to Italians that La Repubblica dedicated a front- page editorial entitled "Miracle - The Letter Arrives" plus a full-page story inside to mark the event last week.

The newspaper sent 20 letters via the new system to addresses in Italy and 17 of them arrived as promised within 24 hours. A miracle indeed.

New balls please

First there was ping pong diplomacy; now it's golf course diplomacy. In the 1970s a group of American table tennis players was famously plunged on to centre stage in the eyes of the world when they visited then isolated China. The trip prised open a crack in the locked door, which Kissinger and Nixon were able to stick their feet into in the pursuit of diplomatic relations.

Now the Taiwanese are suggesting a similar sporting gesture to the Chinese. Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui wants to play golf with the Chinese President Jiang Zemin in an attempt to ease tension between the old rivals. "Leaders of the two sides can meet through golf games in the future to improve the atmosphere across the Taiwan Strait and increase harmony between the sides," said Mr Lee.

There could be a problem with his master plan, though. Mr Jiang is not renowned for his golfing skills, while Mr Lee is reputed to be quite good. The Chinese might save face by sending Zhao Ziyang, the Party secretary deposed and put under house arrest after the protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. He's allowed out each week to play a round or two and the rumour is that all that practice has made him pretty formidable.

Bad idea

Red tape and bureaucracy are the standard fare of life in Germany and everyone must comply. But it got the better of an obedient east German bank robber last week. The teller at the post office bank in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, calmly asked to see the man's identity card after he pulled out a pistol and told her he was robbing the bank. German banks and bureaucrats require ID cards for even the most routine business transactions.

The robber handed over his ID card and was given a small amount of money. He then fled but forgot to ask for the return of the card and was arrested hours later.

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