Pen Pals – The Best Friend that Money Can Buy
They say that money can’t buy friends. Fortunately that’s not true: In 1984, I bought one of my best friends for $.50.
My 6th grade my teacher invited the class to take part in an international pen-pal program. I don’t remember all the small details like whether or not I asked my mom’s permission before sending our home address off to some stranger on the other side of the world. I don’t even remember where I got the money. There’s a fairly good chance that I now owe one of my classmates $6.00 after 30 years of compound interest on a pen-pal loan.
In fact, the decision to fill in the ovals next to ‘France’ and ‘Female’ on that enrollment form were pretty secondary to all the other things occupying my 11 year old mind that day, yet looking back now, filling those two little bubbles changed my life in more ways than I could imagine.
Having a pen pal opened my eyes to the world.
Within weeks, I received my first letter from this exotic stranger. Its crinkly, impossibly thin air-mail envelope covered with the words “Par Avion” and colorful, foreign stamps seemed very out of place in our mailbox in rural southern Idaho.
The letter inside was written on the same nearly transparent air mail paper and in the most unique handwriting I had ever seen. I read it over and over and stared at the picture she enclosed until I had memorized every detail of her face, hair and super-cool French clothes. I had never seen anything as charming as the cobblestone alley lined with ancient limestone buildings in her photo. I couldn’t believe that people actually lived there. More importantly, I couldn’t believe that I now had a friend who lived there.
Having a pen pal redefined my definition of friendship.
Over the years we exchanged letters every month or two. We shared stories of teenage love and heartache, our latest school projects, summer jobs and everything in between. I was enchanted by her photos featuring castles and beaches in the background while she marveled at the frequency of our formal middle school and high school dances. She sent me lotions and oils made with fresh lavender from Provence and asked me to send her real American mint toothpaste in return. She wrote to share her sadness upon hearing the news about the Challenger explosion. I wrote to make sure she was okay whenever I would hear about violent workers’ strikes in Paris. (And sadly, in recent years, terror attacks.) It’s hard to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that a communication delay wasn’t just a slow internet connection, it was the ten days it took for your letter to get to Paris and then ten more days of waiting for the response to be sure your friend is okay.
Having a pen pal made me adventurous.
Finally, after eight years of writing, we decided it was time to meet. The summer after my freshman year of college, Virginie’s family invited me to stay with them for an entire month. It was a dream come true to finally meet the person behind the words I had been reading for eight years. But there were still fears, like once we met, would she still like me? Would I still like her? And would I remember a single word I had learned in my four years of French?
Every fear was erased when I saw her waiting for me outside the terminal. We said hello, hugged and picked up immediately as if we were simply two dear friends who hadn’t seen each other since lunch the day before.
The next month was completely surreal and life changing for a girl who had spent the previous 19 years in a small town in southern Idaho. One day we were at Marie-Antoinette’s hamlet at the Chateau de Versailles and the next we were inches from the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
As much as I loved the castles and cathedrals, some of my favorite days were spent visiting her grandparents in Strasbourg, near the German border. I will never forget the time I spent by her grandmother’s bedside and she recounted animated tales of her childhood. I didn’t understand most of what she said, but there was no mistaking the look in her eyes every time I made out the word ‘Hitler’. All I could do was listen and nod. At that moment, I realized that the true history of France is not just in the art and architecture but also in the stories of the people who live there.
Having a pen pal gave me strength when I needed it most.
A couple of years after my trip to Paris, I met up with Virginie and a half dozen French au pairs as they were wrapping up their RV tour from the Grand Canyon to San Diego, (yes, that will probably be a new reality TV show now.) For over a year prior to this trip I had been recovering from an illness that had left me bed-ridden for months and home-bound for a year. As a result, I had built up quite a bit of anxiety about traveling anywhere beyond my school or the grocery store.
But when Virginie asked me to join her in San Diego, there’s no way I could miss it. Summoning the energy and the courage to move out of my comfort zone for that trip was exactly what I needed to get my mind and body back on the road to recovery. I hate to think what direction my life would have taken if I had allowed myself to remain stuck instead of facing my fears and taking that trip.
Having a pen pal gave me the permission to be the mom I wanted to be
A decade after my first trip to Paris I returned for a client business trip for MacWorld, Paris. After a couple busy days of meetings, I extended my trip to stay with Virginie and her family, which now included her son. He was celebrating his third birthday during my visit, which I learned was an especially important birthday because in France, maternity leave ends when your child turns three. (Yes, that’s three years, not months.)
My husband and I had recently started discussing starting a family of our own and I was wrestling with the whole working mom versus stay at home mom decision. Living those few days as a stay-at-home mom with her I grew to appreciate the demands of being a stay at home parent and the privilege of being given the option to have those three years with your child. Most of my friends at the advertising agency where I worked had returned back to work after their three months of American maternity leave, so it was freeing to see someone that I admired choosing to stay at home and to experience a country where a lengthy maternity leave is valued.
Having a pen pal started a new generation of friendship.
Another couple of years went by before I saw Virginie again. This time, I was five months pregnant with my daughter when we met up in Barcelona with our husbands. Although it was only for a couple of days full of jet-lag and pregnancy fatigue, I’m forever grateful that she offered to put her life on hold to come meet us there. A few months after we returned home, I received the exciting news that Virginie was also now pregnant with a little girl too.
Not surprisingly, I have not had the opportunity to see Virginie in the ten years since my daughter was born. Life gets busy with kids in the mix. We say we’ll visit after the kids have grown out of naps, but by time that happens, they’re busy with school and other activities. Once we finally felt like we were ready, baby number two came along and started the cycle all over again.
So, here we are now, thirty years after the first letter arrived in my mail box. Our daughters are almost the age that we were when we started writing to each other all those years ago. Last year, they even started writing to each other and a few months ago, for Virginie’s birthday, we had the special treat of doing a video chat with all of the kids joining in.
But one thing will never change.
You would think with all of the technology available today that we would update all of our communications to chatting on video, instant messenger and email. But instead we still continue to write letters on paper, print out photos to enclose with our letters and wait the ten days for our letters to travel half-way around the world. (Although I have a sneaking suspicion that Virginie mails her letters because she writes them in french and doesn’t want me to be able to use Google translate like I could with an emailed letter.)
Even though our special friendship has changed my life in many ways, we both realize that nothing will ever change the magic of the moment you open up your mail box to find a crinkly ‘Par Avion’ envelope inside and gently tear it open to discover the treasures of friendship enclosed inside.
I love you, Virginie – Happy Birthday!
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xo - Susanne