Once upon a pre-internet time, back when people had to think of stuff to do on their own, one of my favorite pastimes was writing letters. My first pen-pal was my cousin whom I wrote when she went off to college, when I was in middle school. Her letters would arrive in envelopes addressed to “Chick,” my nickname, and were marvelously decorated in hundreds of hand-drawn hearts and brightly colored stickers. I found this to be truly revolutionary, as I had no idea the U.S. post office would allow such frivolity. When I was in high school I struck up another correspondence with a friend who joined the Navy. She would share stories and send pictures of all the exotic locales she visited. I had more time and desire to write than I had opportunity, so I tried several times to join the pen-pal clubs that were prevalent in the backs of magazines in those quiet, isolated pre-internet days. Nobody ever wrote back.
At the end of my junior year in high school, my French teacher (actually let’s call her my “French” teacher) handed out details for a pen-pal program, meant to foster our language skills by writing to an actual French person. The fact that I could not speak French (more on that later) did little to deter me. It was a pen-pal program. I wrote in.
Much to my amazement, in the middle of the summer before my senior year, a green envelope addressed to me and with a French postmark showed up in my parents’ mailbox. The number “1” in our address was written with the extra hook we were taught was French custom. Inside was a one and a half page letter where French Jennifer introduced herself to me, American Jennifer. We had each filled out a questionnaire when joining the program, which was a thorough investigation into our likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests. Though we did not seem to be dissimilar, I still wondered if we were placed together because we were both named Jennifer.
I immediately wrote back and introduced myself, in English. I couldn’t write in French because thanks to the famous American education system, I’d spent the previous year learning nothing but vocabulary words and hadn’t the faintest idea how to conjugate a verb or construct a sentence. Jennifer’s letter proved to me she was fluent in English so I knew she’d understand me.
I had my doubts that a second letter would make its way overseas to my mailbox, but it did. 5,000 miles apart, we shared our last year of high school and our first years of college. In 1998 when I was a sophomore in college, Jennifer spent the year in New York studying and working as an au pair. Before returning to France, she came to visit my family in Washington state. After three years of putting pen to paper and sharing the details of our lives, we finally met face to face at the Sea-Tac International airport at three o’clock in the morning. I held up a sign, “Bienvenue Jennifer,” in case we didn’t recognize each other from the pictures we’d exchanged. I tried to keep up the conversation on the 45-minute car ride back to the house. It wasn’t easy to do. Despite years of letters, meeting an actual, three-dimensional person is awkward. In fact, the letters may have made the meeting more awkward than approaching a stranger. I knew many things about her, but I’d never heard her voice. I didn’t know how she walked or any of her mannerisms. I’d had time to cobble an identity together in my head through pictures and information, but now I was face to face with the real thing. Adjustments to the mental picture had to be made. Also, it was three o’clock in the morning.
We started the process of getting to know each other – the three-dimensional versions – over the next two weeks. My family and I took her to the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, we walked around the UW campus where I was attending school, we went to Ocean Shores and to North Bend and Snoqualmie Falls. Though I’d describe the two weeks she stayed with us as quiet and laid back, it was the most effort my family had put in to sightseeing – in to getting out of the house, period – in years.
At the end the two-week visit, the two of us traveled to Los Angeles, to go – where else – to Disneyland. Travelling with someone is probably one of the quickest ways to get to know them. It is an eternal testament to Jennifer’s good-natured personality that she continued to write me after that trip. I was hot and miserable, an inexperienced and bad traveler and a good complainer. To top it all off, our “express” bus took 4 hours to get from Los Angeles to Anaheim, severely shortening our time in the happiest place on Earth. But we survived the trip and our letters resumed, with that much more of a connection through the page.
Over the next three years, our letters turned to e-mails but we kept up the communication. In 2001, I decided to study abroad in England. For spring break I hopped a tiny propeller plane with tiny coke cans and landed in the city of Orange, located in Southern France. I immediately fell in love with the appropriately named town, which was tinted a brilliant shade of orange from the rooftops down. In the three years since I’d last seen my pen-pal, I’d taken two and a half years of college French and done really well. I even began writing to her in French. However, the intervening six months before my visit was plenty of time to forget it all. When I had to talk to the lost baggage department, I was incredibly grateful that my friend could translate. Any other time in my life, lost luggage would be an excellent catalyst for a meltdown. In France, it became merely an excuse to buy new pajamas and a robe, clothing which I still have and still wear.
Language barriers and lost luggage aside, I can easily say that the two weeks I spent in the south of France was the best trip of my life. Every morning there was a fresh baguette in the kitchen and every night my host family allowed me to polish it off. French shades are dynamite at keeping out light, and I slept better than I ever had. I ate frog’s legs and escargot, and though they weren’t my favorite, I got to feel exotic. I met my friend’s two sisters and her mother, who graciously forgave me when I backed away like a frightened puppy dog from the customary French bisous. My friend and translator gave me the grand tour of Southern France, from Avignon to Nimes to the Mediterranean sea and I’ve spent all my time since scheming ways to go back.
In 2004, French Jennifer took a teaching gig just outside of New Orleans to be near her then-boyfriend and future-husband. The two had met a few years earlier on a trip to the Grand Canyon, the only time she was stateside that I didn’t get to see her. I visited her for Mardi Gras and while I had fun, I have not spent any amount of time since trying to get back to Louisiana.
Each three-dimensional meeting brought us closer together and we continued to write each other with a greater understanding of our friendship. After getting married, Jennifer was a permanent U.S. resident, and that little bit of kismet that brought us together in the first place brought us together again, in a very different way. In 2008, Jennifer’s husband took a job in Seattle, and after 13 years of trans- and inter-continental correspondence, we were virtually neighbors. We see each other every few weeks now. Two years ago I held her newborn daughter in my arms, and eight months ago she held mine.
Though my pen-pal Jennifer is now my friend Jennifer, I still almost always refer to her in passing conversation as my pen-pal. The events that transpired in our lives that brought us to be so close together are somewhat quotidian, but the story as a whole is kismet personified, and I believe her title should reflect that.
Going back through old correspondences to find that fateful first letter made me sad that the internet has rendered the letter a lost art. The information contained within bites of data in an e-mail may be no different from the information in a letter, but who remembers an e-mail? Things like green envelopes and 1s with hooks on them are details we lose and memories not made. The pre-internet days may have been isolated, but at least they left some physical evidence they existed. Though I’m sure my daughter will have plenty of different kinds of memories to look back fondly upon, I wonder what will take the place of boxes of old letters to evoke memories and inspire stories. I hope it’s something good.