When Verona, Italy said ‘yes’ to me coming to be a Secretaria di Giulietta – or a Secretary of Juliet, the plans began to take shape for that guy that I like so much’s Sabbatical. I will write more on the other places we visited – Istanbul! Sicily! Venice! but a full week in Verona quickly became the place it would all be centered around because hello, I’ve always loved words, and writing them on paper, and of listening to stories…and of telling them too.
How perfect this would be.
Verona is lovely. Really lovely, We scored on a beautiful air bnb in the middle of the historic center, steps from the office of Juliet and her well visited balcony. October is the perfect time to visit…not so very touristy, the temperature warm enough to just barely need a sweater and the leaves on the trees were starting to turn yellow and fall.
Autumn perfection for this Autumn loving girl.
On Monday morning we left our flat and headed downstairs for coffee. I love the way Italians ‘do’ morning coffee. You either stand at the counter, have a quick conversation while drinking your espresso and then head on your way…or you sit, read the newspaper (for us the obituaries because our italiano is no bene) and drink your coffee while eating a brioche. And oh, the brioche – I dream of you in between every trip.
I was so nervous that first morning as that guy that I like so much, who spent his time in churches (how fitting) while I was away, walked me the 180 meters to the office of the secretaries…it’s located on the 1st floor (2nd floor American) in a building not far from Piazza Erbe. Walking in, there are rows and rows of boxes – every letter is saved and filed away. Every letter for decades is in this office…so. many. letters! And in the middle of the room, a long wooden table, boxes of letters sorted by language, pens and stationary.
I had thought so much about the week I was going to spend answering letters. I had talked about it to many – most of who had no clue what I was talking about and thought I was a bit crazy, so I finally stopped saying anything…because who knew if this would work out or not?
Anyway, I had pictured myself sitting at a table, laughing and talking with other women who had come from around the world to also write. I had thought about the friends I’d make and the stories we’d share.
I thought about every part of it…except what was really involved. The struggles, the heartache, the loss. I had no clue the type of letters that I would be reading – letters where woman (and men, too!) pour out their heart to a young woman who we aren’t even sure existed, beneath a balcony that we all know didn’t, who took her own life at 13 over a boy she hardly knew.
I mean, what kind of letters would I really be responding to?
The first letter I picked up and read was from a 13 year old girl in the midwest who was on vacation with her parents in Italy and who scribbled on a restaurant napkin if she would ever find ‘true love’. It was sweet (literally – it had been stuck to the wall in Juliet’s courtyard with chewing gum) and innocent and pure of heart. I imagined talking about this same thing with my nieces and boom, letter number 1 was done.
Lighthearted, quite simple…this was going to be fun.
The second letter was about a 27 year old woman who had been raped and wondered if she would ever be ok again. After that, there was the letter from the woman my age, who said ‘I know this is crazy, writing a letter to Juliet under balcony, but what the heck?’ and poured out her heart about recovering from her sons death. And then the others…like the letter from the 19 year old college freshman, who was broken hearted and lost and wrote that she could easily see herself ending up like Juliet.
I sat at the table and looked over at another secretary who had traveled from the Channel Islands with her childhood girlfriend because of the movie, Letters to Juliet, that we had all fallen in love with. She had tears streaming down her face at a letter she was reading and soon, this all became something much more than we ever thought.
If we couldn’t, or didn’t feel comfortable, answering a particular letter, we could pass it over to another secretary who might have better insight. Marriage stuff, young love, anything that had a reference to God (Yes! Juliet then had a Christian voice!), raising kids, questions about life – those I could answer. Others, I wasn’t so sure so chose not to answer.
Every day I cried. I tried my best to give some hope. To share a bit of me through Juliet…to share that I know love is big and that it is good and that it is worth fighting for.
Every letter that is left in the mailbox or stuck on the wall (usually with gum) or is mailed in (just write Juliet, Verona, Italy and it will find its way!) or now, emailed in, is personally answered by a secretary.
And every letter is signed by Juliet.
In between writing, the bell would ring and in would come a group of tourists. Usually older, American and on a grand adventure to Italy. They’d watch us write and some would ask questions along the lines of ‘why the heck would you come do this?’ and ‘why would anyone write to Juliet anyway’ and occasionally would try to read the letters we were working on or our replies. I learned to hide them when the tours would come in…they had no clue how personal this had all become. But most were nice and simply intrigued…and I was glad to share where I was from and that I had no idea what this experience was really about until I showed up.
By 1:00pm, when the office closed for the day, I was emotionally exhausted. That guy that I like so much would be waiting in the courtyard when I was done, he’d grab my hand and we’d walk to lunch. After the first day he knew I needed some quiet time while I processed a bit of what I’d just written about. Did I answer well enough? Did I explain what I really wanted to say? Did I offer just enough advice followed by hope? I prayed through every response that grace would flow onto the paper…did I help at all?
In the end, I think I did. But I am changed. I do know I will return to Verona to write letters every time we are in Italy…even if it is only for a day or two. But more than that, I will carry my secretary work out here. While there isn’t a red mailbox outside my house (yet…haha), the whole art of sending a letter in the mail is a dying one. Think of the joy of opening your mailbox and having a letter inside…one that someone took the time to actually hand write, on paper, put in an envelope and snail mailed?
I am different because of this experience. I thought it would be lighthearted and fun and easy. And some of it was. But it was eye opening (and heart-wrenching) to see how many people are struggling and just need someone to listen without judgement…and I am so thankful we were able to slow done long enough to give someone a little hope in the form of a handwritten letter in their mailbox.
I already miss it and so…for the last time in the next little while, I will simply sign this:
All my love,