Friday, May 4, 2012


When i was in 7th grade, our French teacher told us that we could be penpals with students around the globe. Apparently, there was some scholastic group that was a clearing house for this sort of thing. You requested what country, age, and sex of desired penpal, and sooner or later, a letter would arrive for you, or, if you were the self-starting sort, you wrote your penpal immediately.

Of course, our French teacher thought it would be wonderful if we all chose French penpals so we could practice writing our French, and i dutifully asked for a male French penpal. His name was Marc, he was from Vendรดme, and he collected stamps. My father collected stamps, and tried to get me interested in it as well, but it never really took. Marc always responded promptly to my letters, and i wondered if he really stared at mine the way i did his. His penmanship was far nicer than mine, he crossed his 7's, fountain pens were his ink of choice, and even though i wasn't a collector, i was taken with the different stamps on the envelope. It seemed a marvel to me to think that thousands of miles away, someone i had never met was writing to me. We had struck up a conversation, however halting it was, and my father would give me stamps to send Marc and would tell me about them so i could let him know a bit about them.

Since so many of my....well, we have no word in English for it, really. They're not quite my ancestors, as i think that word means ages ago, but yet aren't really my relatives, as they died just before i arrived on the planet—I suppose i shall stick with "forebearers." As so many of them had come from Wales at the end of the 19th century, i thought it would be nice to have a penpal from Wales, too. I again requested a male penpal and got someone named John Davies, who was 14. I was 12, and in my introductory letter, i told him i had a brother who was 14.

It was ever so much easier writing someone in English, and after a few weeks, i got a reply. It was thrilling to get a letter with my name on it from another foreign correspondent. I opened the letter eagerly to find that it wasn't John writing me, but John's younger brother, Robert, who was 12, just like me. I instantly felt that John had no interest in me because of the two-year age difference, and how my brother had often thought me a bother as well. I shrugged, was glad Robert wrote, and replied. 

Others also wrote me and i them; Brigitte in France, and Norma in Ireland. But the correspondence with them was short-lived; whereas Marc and Robert remained my penpals for a few years.

In one letter, Robert sent a photo of himself and asked if i'd do the same. His looked like one of those taken in a photo booth. He looked like a nice enough lad, and by this point, we had written often enough so we felt we knew one another.

I have never liked having my photo taken, and i'm not terribly photogenic. I'm sure i don't help any, thinking that i'd rather be anywhere than on THAT side of the camera, but my cousin convinced me that i shouldn't disappoint Robert. We had had our pictures taken in a similar type photo booth and had been in hysterics when the bulb flashed off. As a result, the pictures actually captured our essence because we were too busy laughing. She thought one of those to be good to send, and i could explain how we got all silly and couldn't stop giggling and settle ourselves before the flash went off.

With much misgiving, i sent the photo and explanation. I told of how we were visiting our grandmother, that she lived miles away, although we visited fairly frequently. I don't recall what else i said in that letter, but i distinctly remember Robert's reply. He thanked me very much for the photo and said that John was now a bit sorry he hadn't decided to be my penpal. I could hear the triumph in Robert's words and appreciate them as only a younger sibling can. I replied that i was glad he had decided to write back, even if John hadn't, as i had written other penpals to get no response, leaving me to wonder if my letter arrived at all.

I still remember his and Marc's handwriting very clearly and kept those letters for a long time.

Flash forward 40 years (good Lord, has it been that long?), and here we are in the Internet age. I can email people all over the planet, and through emails or on a blog share snippets of my life with them as they do with me. We can encourage each other, send jokes and funny pictures, post photos of ourselves, if we have a mind to do so. Just this week, I've found myself wondering about a man's garden in France, a woman's flower garden in New Zealand as they head into winter, what it's like to live in a historically rich place like Bath and work on creating things that look 17th century, how construction is going for someone in Angola, and crying over a bulldog named  Mabel who lived in Wales whom i've never met and yet feel i know.

I do like the wide variety, and i'm saving ever so much in postage. I do miss the thrill of opening the mail box, seeing a letter with my name on it from some faroff place, and examining its contents intently, but i daresay since my penmanship was never good and has plummeted to the depths of  "worse than a doctor's," that typing it out makes it far easier on others to read.


  1. My daughter's in-laws were pen pals. He American (of Welsh descent); she an East German who escaped. Great love story. How small the world the internet has made.

  2. Two of my children went through the French school system until the age of 8ish. They both developed that classic beautiful French handwriting. Then they returned to the UK to continue their schooling, and were both obviously so embarrassed by their skills that they instantly adopted the usual English SCRAWL (just to be like everyone else).

  3. About 20 odd years ago I met a lovely German girl whilst trekking across Europe, named Olivia. We kept in touch for a while via post, but regretably lost contact after about a year, probably down to me. She made the extra effort to write to me in English (I could never get my head around German).

    I often wonder what happened to her. It would be soooo easy nowadays to keep in touch via something like this blog.

    Hey maybe she's reading this?