When I was about ten, maybe younger, I was crazy about horses and I would buy this horse magazine for girls religiously (or have my mom buy it, anyway). At some point, they started this category for readers to place penpal ads. Soon, this was the first page I’d check and read through all of those ads with a curious interest. Who were all these girls? Was one of them a future friend of mine? But I was too shy to write to any of them. First letters are always hard to write and those ads were barely more than a name and an address. What was I supposed to write about? What do people write in first letters? I had no idea, so I took what seemed like the easy way and placed an ad of my own. Maybe, if I was lucky, someone would find me remotely interesting, enough to write me a letter.
Well, that someone ended up being several dozen, maybe even a hundred. My ad got placed almost straight away and within a week or two, the letters started coming in. Several a day. I was ecstatic. And I wrote back, to every single one in the first few weeks. Until my mom had a serious talk with me because she kept buying stamps and stationary for me (of course, simple paper and envelopes wouldn’t do!) and it was becoming a little too much. So I had to sort out those I didn’t really feel suited me. I still promised myself I would reply to them all but that it would take longer. I don’t think I ever managed to do that, it was simply too much. But I did write to many of them. Needless to say, a lot of the exchanges ended very quickly, we were all young girls, after all. In the end, just one of them stayed with me for a few years.
Her name was Barbara and she lived in a town barely two hours from me. But back then, without the Internet or money of my own, it seemed like she was from an entirely different world. When you’re a child, especially one without Internet access, your social group starts and ends with school, neighbors and family. And here I was, corresponding with a girl who belonged to neither of those categories. I thought I was the shit. I carried her photograph with me and would whip it out and show it to everyone without so much as a prompt. I’d randomly drop her name in conversations. ‘Look at me, mere mortals, I know someone you don’t!” It was awesome.
But I think this excitement was the only thing that kept us going. We had close to nothing in common and with hindsight, our letters were dull, even for kids. So our friendship ended as soon as we changed schools and our lives became busier.
But still, Barbara deserves some credit because she sparked something in my life. Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed writing letters. I love the thrill of finding an envelope in my mailbox that does not have the logo of some company on it. I love seeing someone else’s handwriting. And I love learning about their lives, their likes, their joys and what keeps them going.
Problem is, I’ve had two great penpal friends over the years – and both of them vanished eventually. Well, one is still around but I fear we made the mistake of moving on to Facebook. That sort of killed the magic.
So I’m eager to find new pals. I post ads on penpal sites randomly. Nowadays, of course, I’m cautious enough not to just post my address. I leave my e-mail and see what happens and if things click between us, we exchange addresses. Only thing is, I’m older and wiser now – and also a lot pickier. Not necessarily in a mean way. But I’ve learned to see the signs for when something isn’t meant to be. If the first few exchanges are thick and slow and nothing seems to click between us, it becomes a drag all too quickly until one of us gives up. And the thing is, most of the e-mails you get through those sites are like that.
The latest ad I posted sounded almost harsh to me. The only Don’t’s I used to add were that you shouldn’t ask for money and – something I adopted from other ads – that I’d accept no contacts from African countries. I soon realized how silly that is. It’s true, a large percentage of mails from those countries are scam but you soon learn to sort those out anyway. They don’t all come from there and those who mean to send you crap will also ignore requests like that. Geez, this time I even received an e-mail from a 50 y.o. guy from the US who is openly seeking for a woman to marry, despite everything about my ad screaming penpal / friendship only. So ruling out entire countries’ population because of a few bad experiences seems cruel. But this time round I let them know straight away that I couldn’t handle mails that have close to zero content. No proper introduction, no start of a conversation, nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s frustrating to write your heart out in a mail or letter and then receive no reply. So I understand if people keep the first contact short. But there has to be something that shows me that (and why) they really want to get to know me. What about my ad seemed interesting enough for them to write me? What do we have in common? What don’t we have in common but they’d like to share with me anyway? Honestly, I felt a bit bitchy adding those parts to the ad but I received a few genuinely nice replies that told me it was exactly that what made them want to reach out to me. But, quite frustratingly, I’m still receiving empty word mails, too. Which I ignore nowadays. It may be disappointing for those people but then again, how disappointed can you be when you receive no reply to a mail that you whipped out within thirty seconds – and probably sent in the exact same wording to a dozen others?
What’s also frustrating is that so many people on penpal sites don’t even seem to be looking for penpals. Or even e-pals. I keep getting asked for some messenger or Skype ID, or even my mobile number, so we can text. How about no? I don’t mean to be stuck up or mean but text messages annoy me. No, that’s not true. I have some friends with whom I am constantly texting. But those are real life friends who I see every few days. It’s just different. And I can’t bear the thought of being bugged by constant chat messages from a bunch of people whenever I am online or even trying to get some work done on my computer. And, perhaps the most important argument here, I wouldn’t be posting an ad on a penpal website if I was looking for a chat. IRC is still a thing. You can still look for people through most messengers. If I wanted that, there’d be so many other ways of finding people. And am I gonna go on video chat with a stranger? Hell to the no! I can count the number of times I’ve had those with friends on the fingers of one hand. Video chats are a modern plague. It’s like a phone call but you have to be decently dressed, sit in one place or hold your phone or tablet in an awkward angle all the time and you can’t pick your nose or paint your toe nails or even just silently roll your eyes at something the other person says. No!!! When I get home, I put on my most hideous comfy clothes, take my bra off, wear my hair in ridiculous buns and scrub my makeup off. Often I walk around with a face mask for half an hour. Video chatting is like letting someone watch you doing stuff that people used to pretend they don’t do. Ever. What’s wrong with this picture? And why, oh why, would you ask a stranger for that? What’s the secret here?
Someone write me a good old-fashioned letter already!