Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Juliet Letters
I received the following article from Andrew Anderson of Lier, Belgium

"The Juliet Letters" by Andrew Anderson

In these times of e-mails and text messages, the handwritten letter is fast becoming an anachronism. In the North Italian city of Verona however, this art form lives on through missives not written to a living person, but to Shakespeare’s Juliet, the girl with the most beautiful love story in the world.

Verona is the city of romance, where 700 years ago, the most famous love story of all time 'Romeo and Juliet’ first saw the light of day. All year round, you can see couples of all ages walking arm-in-arm around the historic centre, drawn irresistibly to the house on Via Capello known as ‘Juliet’s’. The balcony is far too modern to be where Juliet listened to Romeo’s declaration of love, but nevertheless draws large crowds.

Outside stands a bronze statue of Juliet. Tourists rub the right breast for good luck. No surprise that it is now considerably shinier than the left.

Since the turn of the last century, messages have been left at Juliet’s tomb in a former monastery about a 15-minute walk from Juliet’s house. But since the late 1930s, probably inspired by the film release of ‘Romeo & Juliet’, letters began to arrive addressed to Juliet. For many years, the custodian of the tomb, Ettore Solimani, answered the letters.

In the 1980s, a group of volunteers began to answer them, receiving a subsidy from the city for stationery and postage costs. The ‘Juliet Club’ was born.

The Club receive hundreds of letters a week in many different languages from all over the world. Some are simply addressed ‘To Juliet, Verona’, but the postman knows to deliver them to the Club’s Via Galilei headquarters. The letters are from writers of all ages and backgrounds. The emotions expressed are timeless, and many reflect how a particular issue or social movement shaped the writer’s feelings and perspectives. When the Club first started, a Turkish NATO commander and staff from local Chinese restaurants helped with translations. Nowadays, a network of translators around the globe works on the letters. The answers are always personal, and despite the sadness and loneliness often expressed in the letters received, the Club always tries to be positive and encouraging in their replies, signing off as ‘Juliet’.

Around Valentines Day they choose the ‘Juliet letter’, the most beautiful letter of the year. The event has become famous enough to bring artists and stars such as Andrea Bocelli and Franco Zeffirelli to the city to award the prize. The winning writer wins an all expenses paid weekend in Verona.

The Club now has more than 50,000 letters stored in boxes. A quick glance through them reveals how they have become a reflection of the changing times. The letters are from couples in love, and people looking for love. There are many people who write over and over again, presumably seeing Juliet as a sort of pen friend. The Club even once received an official wedding invitation.

Many write to Juliet the way children write to Father Christmas, hoping she can bring them the gift they desire the most – true love. A woman from the Ukraine writes: “I have an unmarried 27-year old daughter who is looking for a fiancĂ©. Can Juliet help?”

There is a letter from a priest: “You do fantastic work. You and I both stand in service to love, each in a different way. God bless you”.

In 2006, two American sisters, Ceil and Lise Friedman put together a book which includes the stories behind about 75 of the letters received down the years, together with features over the volunteers who have worked for the Club. Ceil Friedman notes that in the early years, the writers of the letters were concerned with questions of race or class, or about a loved one who had perished in a war. In more recent times, the letters are more about personal feelings. The majority of the modern day letter writers are women. Maybe this is because women are simply more romantic by nature, or they simply believe that the letters will bring them happiness in their lives.

As a concession to modern day technology, the Club does now have an e-mail address. However the vast majority of correspondence is received by letter, and mostly handwritten. The volunteers who respond to the letters believe that this is because writing with a pen is still a more intimate process, requiring more concentration, and making it easier to express emotions.

Lise Friedman sums it up in her book. “It’s about suspending disbelief, and having a life of the imagination”.

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