Répondez, s’il vous plaît: do you still write to a pen-pal?

How would opening up to a complete stranger in writing feel in contrast to our guarded lives on social media?

Here’s something never encountered before in 17 years of reading the mail at MaltaToday: a request for pen-friends from the Swiss town of Chur, the capital of the Grisons canton.

“I’m young, Swiss and I’m very interested in Malta. That’s why I’m looking for penfriends from this wonderful country. Please write me in English or German to the following address: Vitus Castelberg, Aspermonstr. 19, CH-7000, Chur, Switzerland.”

The ‘Vitus Castelberg’ letter is not new… similar letters have been published by newspapers in Russia, Sweden, Indonesia and also Israel, which also express surprise at the request, with the letters carrying the photo of the same person and a quaint postcard of idyllic Swiss pastoral life.

Written in ink and in a large calligraphic style that is redolent of the visual art it once was, in an un-slanting style that suggests openness, the youth of the author in the image however contrasts too much with the penmanship, suggesting this likeness might be as dated as his request for epistolary friendship. Sure enough, the sender is not on Facebook…

With physical distance reduced to a matter of data travelling in bytes and seconds, penpals carry a whiff of the old world – even though the widespread use of email only dates back to the late 1980s, hardly a matter of prehistory. As a pupil of 9 or 10, I remember one teacher who indiscriminately handed out penpal letters to us from the American midwest. I was matched with a kid who lived in a trailer park and loved ‘mac and cheese’ (an unknown monstrosity in 1980s Malta). In 1995, the internet relay chat mIRC made it possible to have real-time chats with American teens, with all exchanges introduced by the obligatory ‘asl’ (age/sex/location) salutation.

So what was the point of writing a letter to a stranger who could be emailing you or instant-messaging you on the web? Indeed it would be easy to assume that social media has killed the pen pal, however - even by taking a look at the Vitus letter – surely here is an invitation to take some time out and enjoy the meditative qualities of letter-writing and penmanship.

Even the singular act of the analogue function of writing, represents a rupture from a life that is now spent thumbing and scrolling into our smartphones. Writing invites us to reflect before committing ink to paper; hand-writing is itself a window into certain personality traits, if not a clue into the kind of discipline we put in at school to have legible writing.

And how would opening up to a complete stranger feel in contrast to our guarded lives on social media, shorn of the gratification of the instant reply and instead replaced by the prolonged anticipation of snail mail?

If you do have had a long pen-pal relationship, write to us about the story of your friendship.

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