I’d been a high-school English teacher for almost 20 years, and I was teaching “Romeo and Juliet” when Sadia, one of the students in the front row, asked me if I believed in fate.
“Well,” I began in my best teacher voice. “Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed. And that means . . .”
“No,” said Sadia. “I don’t mean them. I mean you. Do you believe in fate?”
I didn’t know how to answer. Fate seemed to be handing me a pretty rough deal lately. I had been in love with my best friend for more than a decade. I’d seen her scroll through a number of ill-advised boyfriends, but I couldn’t seem to get her to see me as a potential boyfriend. Typical romantic-comedy stuff, I guess, but in that moment I had an idea.
Our “Romeo and Juliet” textbook included an essay about the “letters to Juliet” phenomenon, where people around the world send letters to the tragic heroine, asking for love advice. Thousands of notes flood into Verona, Italy, every year in dozens of different languages. They funnel into a little office off a cobblestone lane where, each morning, a group of Italian women sit down to answer them. These “secretaries” at the Club di Giulietta are not paid. For them, it is a labor of love.
So, right then and there, I decided I would join them over the summer break. I was going to travel to Verona, volunteer to answer the English letters and when I was there, I would write my own letter to Juliet. Fate be damned.
The place was in a state of organized frenzy. Opera posters and photographs obscured the walls. Books and papers lined the counters. “So,” I said, “how many letters do you get a month?”I e-mailed Giovanna Tamassia, the head secretary who had been answering the letters for more than 20 years, and asked if I could come when the school year was over. I think because I told her I taught “Romeo and Juliet,” she said that would be fine. And when I first arrived, stepping uncertainly into the small office, there she was. Giovanna was elegant, the kind of woman who wore pearls even in the afternoon. I think she was a bit surprised that I had actually come.
“Come with me,” she said, ignoring my question. I trailed her down a corridor to a smaller office at the back. Shelves ran along two of the walls, sagging under the weight of boxes labeled according to each language: Russian, Chinese, Swedish, French. On the table was the biggest box of all, the English letters. There must have been 500 of them.
“Oh,” I replied, “how am I supposed to . . . ?”
Giovanna stared at me for a moment then whirled out the door. She had, I knew, taken over this post from her father, Giulio, who organized the first office in 1982. But the tradition goes back even further than that. The letters have trickled into Verona since at least the 1930s — originally dumped at a place called Juliet’s Tomb, where a groundskeeper first began to gather the letters and answer them.
These days, I was the only male in the office, and the other secretaries didn’t know what to make of me. They buzzed past my doorway as I kept at it, answering the letters as best I could, and gradually they came in to speak with me. There was Manuela, who stared at me through yellow-framed glasses like a professor. And Anna, one of the younger secretaries, who oversaw the Web page and other new media for the club.
Most of the letters I saw on that first trip were from teenage girls. One read:
Dear Juliet, please send me my Romeo. Send him to San Antonio, Texas.
Only occasionally was there a letter from a boy. A young man from California wrote:
Dear Juliet, my teacher is making me write this letter and I think it’s really stupid. But, there is this girl . . .
He went on for two pages in messy handwriting, concluding: So, seriously, Juliet. Help me out here.
Giovanna checked on me frequently. She told me I wasn’t there to offer solutions. Instead, I was to offer an empathetic ear, no matter how mundane the letters. I fell back on my Shakespeare. A lot of the letters could be answered by the line “To thine own self be true.”
That’s not even from “Romeo and Juliet” but it seemed to work well. Then Anna told me that every time you answer a letter, you are really replying to yourself, and I took that to heart, answering the letters as if the writers were all younger versions of myself.
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