In a recent spring clean, whirling through my home like a dervish in an effort to declutter, the discovery of three boxes stopped me in my tracks. I had no need to open the lids for I knew what was in them. Letters - probably two or three hundred of them.
The temptation was too great. I ceased my whirling, made myself a cup of coffee and settled down on my sofa with the boxes. Three hours later, I was still immersed in their contents.
I consider myself privileged, in some senses, to have been able to live through two very distinct time periods - before and after the internet! The first lasted throughout my childhood, adolescence and into my late twenties; the second began in earnest around 1998, when I set up my first internet account. The web and ‘constant connectivity’ have changed my life dramatically, without a doubt.
As an editor and writer, and a woman who is constantly travelling, I have come to appreciate the joy of email, WhatsApp, Instagram and Wikipedia and how it keeps me close to those I love, in whatever far flung part of the globe they reside. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t have regular pangs of nostalgia, for landlines, libraries and - most of all - letter-writing.
By the age of 23, I was living in San Francisco, and the letters were now flying thick and fast to Australia, where my best friend from childhood was living.
I was always a letter-writer - I must have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours - over the years - penning missives. At 18, I was an undergraduate, penning letters to my mother from the north of England to London.
At 21, I was scribbling frantically as I spent six months journeying through Latin America. (Trying to mail a letter was often an experience in itself, but that’s for another blog).
At 22, I’d left my homeland and had set up shop in Berlin. I wrote long letters weekly to Colorado (I’d fallen in love with an American that I’d met in Prague, and was determined not to let the thousands of miles come between us!)
After I left grad school, I embarked on some serious solo travel - wandering through the Far East, hitching around Africa and ambling through the Middle East. International phone calls cost a fortune so, for weeks at a time, I was, in effect, ‘incommunicado’...save for the letters I was writing in Bali, Katmandu, Windhoek and Havana. Penned on long bus rides through Tanzania, guest houses in Cairo and on station platforms in Harare, I poured my heart and soul out to those closest to me.
I didn’t realise it at the time but these letters were a lifeline for me...a means of expressing my complicated feelings about being a solo woman traveller in some very tough parts of the world. After I’d sealed them up, bought a stamp and found a post box (which is not as easy as it sounds, in many developing countries) I’d say a silent prayer as I plopped them into a box, hoping they’d eventually to make it to their destination. No doubt those writing to me felt exactly the same!
It would be weeks later, for the most part, that I received replies. Since there was nothing to do but be patient, I bade my time, eagerly anticipating the moment I’d arrive in a major city, find the main post office, search in there for Post Restante then begin searching painstakingly under the letter ‘M’ (for my family name).
Once I was rewarded, and had 2 or 3 letters in my hand, with all-too-familiar handwriting on their fronts - well, the joy I felt is almost indescribable. Here’s one from my beloved grandmother, who died almost a year ago. How could I not treasure something this precious?
To be continued…