I wondered the other day, how many of us had penpals when we were growing up, and how many of us had them when we were adults too?
I never had a penpal when I was a kid, living in a small village (of French origin) there was not exactly an opportunity to have one, hell, my primary school consisted of just 28 pupils, and apart from general subjects with a huge overdose of religion, yes it was connected to the church, there was nothing to inspire people to look further than their own garden gate. No one I knew ever went on a foreign holiday, it was all quite alien.
When I was in my early 20’s I decided I wanted a pen pal, the internet did not exist, so this became a challenge. I had no idea where to start. By this point, I was working in the city, and on my lunch popped into WH Smiths as I knew they had international papers and odd publications you would never find elsewhere. The New York Herald had nothing in at all but was an interesting read. I tried several foreign publications including Le Monde, but nothing seemed to have the information I wanted. In the end, I asked one of the staff there if they could recommend something, and to my surprise, she knew exactly the paper. It was one called Loot, which had every conceivable advert you could think of, and I guess you would compare it to Craigs List on paper. Adverts for cults, sex, personals, animals, you name it, it was getting sold in this paper, then close to the back, there it was, penpals. I have no idea where they got the information, but I jumped right on it.
I ended up with quite a few people I wrote to, which suited me well as there was a great shop called Athena that sold coloured writing paper and envelopes, and there was also a few places you could get other designs of writing paper too just around the corner from work. Some of my pals dropped off and stopped replying, so I dropped them too, but I had two that were constant writers, both from California, one Heather from Burbank and the other Rocko from San Diego.
Both came to visit me. Rocko was a little over the top and was a party animal. I was living about 2 miles away from the city at the time, so nightlife was easy to get to and walking home was good. He was supposed to stay for a week, which I took off work, however, he stayed for a lot longer, which really was a strain as I was used to living on my own and in the end it really started to affect our friendship and my bank balance. His friend was killed when he was over and that was my queue to make him go home, which was a battle. He was not convinced that he should go, even though it was his best friend, but I persisted and eventually, he went after staying for about 6 weeks. I heard from him once more after that, and then he vanished without a trace.
Heather, however, was a delight when she came to visit me. It was 1998 and I had moved to a seaside town 25 miles away from the city, and she was touring again. We had a great time, she only stayed for a few days as she was covering a lot of the UK visiting penpals and distant family. We carried on writing for many years, then the internet came with email, so we ended up emailing each other, which was novel at the time, but I really missed getting snail mail. Our emails slowed down over the years but still kept going, however, they soon stopped when FaceBook arrived. To this day we are still in touch with each other through FB, but it’s not the same excitement that was felt when a letter dropped through the door. I have FB but don’t really bother with it, as I really don’t feel the need to see every aspect of everybody’s life, warts and all, so it is there for the odd message and to keep up to date with the dog trainers.
About 10 years ago, I tried to start up writing again with penpals and had a few who then all wanted to swap to email, talk about colour me disappointed. M started about 6 years ago to write to a few American prisoners, who were all quite charming, but then the begging letters started, asking for him to send money to them. He did, to begin with as he knew they did not have much, but this turned out to be an error and they asked for more and more, and unfortunately, he ended up cutting ties.
I keep thinking that I would like to have penpals again, but knowing the way past ones have wanted to switch to email puts me off, and as for writing to prisoners, I would be happy to do that, but hey, I do not need someone that begs for cash in each letter.