Of all the hobbies I’ve ever entertained, Pen-palling seems to be the one which has stuck most rigidly.
It’s never something I wanted to get into, or something I was super passionate about – but like so many of us born before the days of email or instant messenger, when text messages were 30p a pop and you could top up your phone with £5 on BT Cellnet – penpalling was the only real way to keep in touch with friends met on holiday or distant relatives.
I remember my first (and longest) penpal – Isabelle. We met in Rome at our campsite’s swimming pool. She was German and we managed to make friends, as children do, despite the language barrier. A few hours after meeting I found myself in her caravan, meeting her family and exchanging addresses. I was 10 and 16 years later we’re still in touch – albeit through more digital means.
Since then I penpalled with dozens of people – some for years, some for just a few weeks. Letters to Japan, Korea, Russia, France, Spain, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia and the UK. Letters to teachers, students, mothers, convicts. All kinds of letters and all kids of people. I’ve exchanged sweets, photographs, textiles, drawings, books, recipes, advice, merry wishes and sad announcements with most corners of the world.
I’ve written to a mutual Japanese friend to announce the death of a beloved school pal. I’ve been to the wedding of a lady I met through the mail. I’ve visited with a pen-pal halfway across the globe, and watched another’s trial appeal be discussed on national news.
There’s something very special about receiving a letter which has been written by someone else, from another place on Earth – for you. Something very warm about another human, who has no obligation to you, to sit and write to you, and for that message to travel through all of the networks, over all of that land, to appear on your doorstep. It’s just as warm to do the same for someone else.
It’s physical proof of a friendship – new or very old, deep or casual – and a lovely thing to receive indeed.
I think that’s perhaps why I’ve never stopped.
Well, that and because Paperchase always sell beautiful writing sets, but it just goes to waste if you’ve nobody to write to!
Oh and also because it makes me feel a bit like I’m in Harry Potter. Letters instead of text messages. Its just a shame we don’t use post owls…
I know there’s a huge community of penpallers out there, but I get the impression its a somewhat dated hobby.
Do I have any other snail mail users out there?