Mar 25, 2018

the Penpal, my Lover

Last spring, I decided to sort through pile is of letters that I had saved from my twenties. They’d outgrown their home, and I was feeling nostalgic, after a break up.

There was a love letter from a holiday romance. A letter from my grandmother when I lived overseas. A mix CD from a foreign correpondent. Postmarks from Stockholm, Portland, Amsterdam, New York, Tokyo, Oxford, Berlin. Devonport, Balmoral, Herne Bay. Invercargill. Before I binned any of the letters (I could only throw out about five) I took pics  of them and sent .jpg's to the senders. One gave me full permission to throw her letter out. I made a compilation of the favourite songs from the fifteen mix CDs that Renée had sent me over the years, and sent it to her home in Amsterdam. It was a few months before I realised that she lives in the States now...

Is there anything more thrilling than a well-traveled package in your letterbox? Alas, I don’t get much mail anymore, and not just because there's a mail thief in my neighbourhood. Are one’s twenties a halcyon time for getting and giving mail? Or is Facebook’s true crime that it has brought down the  postal service?

What options are there for a 'penpal' relationship, in a digital age? Penpals take a lot of commitment, and it is a rare person can sustain that level of dedication. Zoe is an example of a conscientious communicator. When Zoe was a tween, on the Kapiti Coast in 2001, she had 45 penpals. She'd come home and get her mail, and write three letters back. She says her penpals were mostly 'petpals', as animals were the main subject matter. Her penpals included a circle of Kyoto friends who were all writing to Zoe. Here's one from Japan...

Post-puberty, the passion formerly for pets is often transferred to lovers. It's a lot of work to get to the post office these days, the sort of devotion only a love interest can inspire. If you're really lucky, a penpal relationship can turn into a love affair. Meeting up around the world, crossing space and timezones to be together. Long distance relationships are paradoxical. They are fired by imagination. Proust said “it’s our imagination which is responsible for love, not the other person.” But in more rational moments your ardent desire is tempered by the sobering gulf between.

Jess from Sydney dated a Dane, who was based in Copenhagen. They would talk or write every day, and meet up every couple of months. Both of them travelled for work, her to Europe, and him to Asia. Their home and away rendez-vous-es were always exciting. In the beginning of every new meet-up there was a sense of having to start again, as they rediscovered the feeling of being in each others’ presence. Meet-ups would last a week, and very moment was precious. But as their hours drew to a close, Jess said they might spend the last 48 fighting. When they were apart she noticed herself become jealous and anxious, something she’d never been before. A bad day was made worse by not hearing from him.

Jess only recommends long-distance to high-achievers who are very into the relationship. It is not just for Christmas. The highs are euphoric, but the lows are lonesome. She was always tired from talking on a different timezone. There are cultural differences and communication barriers — the Danes are notoriously reserved, and Jess is a natural communicator.
Jess said it worked for so long for them because they both liked their space, and but could afford to jump on a plane to see each other. There was a recurring ‘thrill of the chase’ in their relationship, an addictive quest to see each other again. As the last meeting faded, the anticipation and planning for the next one began.

Would you like to have your space, but to keep your lover too?

1. buy a plane ticket
The French have a more romantic version of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder. They say, ‘Distance is like the wind. If the flame is great, the wind will make it burn! If the flame is small, it will blow out.’ Is it just pretty words? Test it out. Perhaps you or your lover have a dream — to practice Fencing in Moscow, or to learn how to surf in Mexico, or train Eagles in Mongolia? The Eagler, the Surfer, the Swashbuckler — are they all metaphors for long distance relationships, engaging and then retreating?

2. go get ‘em!
Is there someone you always wondered about, over the seas? Go and see them! If it wasn’t meant to be, you might meet someone, in those parts.
Or no love interest? No problem! Pay $20/month for Tinder and you can swipe anywhere in the world. Every nation has a different dating style. Argentinian men are famous for their persistence. The Japanese are scared of rejection. Are the French the most romantic? Chileans the cutest? Australians the closest? You will find out.

A word of warning. New Zealand, it's the last stop on the line. It’s not uncommon for long distance relationships to end because one or other tripped and fell into someone closer. Long distance relationships can seem safer than dating someone who will smash your heart in your hometown. But ultimately the price is not being able to see if it would work under normal conditions. But that’s a thousand skype calls away. For now, love like you’ll never get hurt.

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