real Pen Pals – My Mum (Sue) & Traute
'Letters are longer so as well as news about our families, holidays etc, we often reflect on world events and how they have affected us. The fall of the Berlin Wall was something that had particular significance for both of us in different ways, as did Brexit, and of course we are both currently experiencing different changes to our lives through Covid.'
Our latest instalment of real Pen Pals is a little different – two pen pals that aren’t actually members of our letter writing club, but I’ve that known(!) since day one – my Mum and her pen pal from Germany.
For as long as I can remember, Traute has played a keen role in our snail mail experiences at home. Letters and postcards would arrive regularly, but the favourite was at Christmas time, when she and my mum would exchange presents. Traute sends us the most beautifully wrapped gifts, which my sister and I would place under the tree, give an investigative squidge to see if we could detect what’s inside, and wait with anticipation for the big day to unwrap them – always something beautiful would lay inside with a beautifully written note attached.
We’ve met Traute and her family several times, but her friendship with my Mum is based purely on the written word – giving me an insight from an early age into the joys of letter writing.
Having been writing to one another for well over 5 decades, I wanted to learn a little more about their writing journey and why they've kept up this relationship through pen and paper for so many years.
How did the idea of a pen pal first come to you? Was it something your school encouraged or was it through another means?
S - Traute and I started writing to each other when we were at school, each studying the other's language. I think our schools may have twinned with each other to match pupils who wanted a pen pal, or perhaps we had friends in common who put us in touch with each other.
T - When I was about 14, I read a magazine for teenagers which offered addresses of young students who wanted to have a penfriend. I had chosen three addresses, in France, Finland and Japan to whom I wrote for several years. In 1966 I changed school and had a classmate, Angelika, who had an English penfriend who was looking for a penfriend for her friend Susan. I immediately agreed to write and so everything started.
Were you always interested in the written word, or have you developed an interest since you became a pen pal?
S - I moved schools when I was 14 and receiving letters from the friends I'd left behind was something I really looked forward to. I would write back straight away, and our letters were sometimes over 100 pages long.
T - I enjoyed writing, exchanging thoughts. It was simply wonderful to know a girl from England.
How long have you and your pen pal been writing to each other?
S - I think we started in the mid 1960s - several decades ago now.
T - I think we started writing in 1966!
Early letters my Mum received from Traute and has held onto
Can you recall the contents of your first letters? Was it difficult to know what to write initially?
S - Because I wanted to practice my German, and had only a limited knowledge of the language to start with, I think my letters were limited to really basic exchanges of information about things like the weather, my pet dog, and how much I liked the Beatles' latest records.
T - I can’t remember exactly but I think we wrote about different subjects like our family, surroundings, school etc.
A note from Mum:
'Traute has always had lovely neat handwriting - puts mine to shame. When we started writing to each other, we would try to write one half in German and the other in English, to give ourselves practice. In this letter Traute begins in German and tells me about her recent ski trip. Then she switches to English and talks about the recent General Election here and notes that the miners' strike has finally ended. We think times are tough now, but the 1970s were pretty awful too!'
How regularly do you write now?
S - Not so often as we used to, but perhaps three or so times a year.
T - It’s twice a year that we write letters, at Christmas and on our birthdays. But we write postcards whenever we travel as well.
What is it about letter writing that you prefer to more modern methods of communication?
S - It's so much more leisurely than dashing off a quick text message or email. You can give more thought to what you want to say, and take your time over it.
T - I prefer letters. I appreciate holding them in my hands. To read letters that have been written personally by hand is somehow special, more emotional than typewritten messages with lots of abbreviations.
Do you share anything different by letter to what you would by text, phone or even in person?
S - Yes - Letters are longer so as well as news about our families, holidays etc, we often reflect on world events and how they have affected us. The fall of the Berlin Wall was something that had particular significance for both of us in different ways, as did Brexit, and of course we are both currently experiencing different changes to our lives through Covid.
Do you have any nice little anecdotes or stories you can share with us about your letters to one another?
S – Nothing specific that I can think of!
T - Susan studied in Tübingen. When she had decided to go to Tübingen her teacher told her not to talk to the people there because they speak ‘dreadful’ German. We talked anyway with each other but I found it funny that he warned her because of our dialect.
Have you ever met in person or do you stick solely to snail mail for your communication?
S - Yes, we have met. I lived in Germany for a while when I was a student and was kindly invited to stay with Traute and her family for a few days. Later, after we had both married, Traute and her husband stayed with us here in England. We also met up with Traute's daughter when she came to England.
T - We met several times. The first time was when Susan had stayed in Tübingen. The only time in Germany. I have been to Great Britain several times and visited Susan and her family.
How did the past year or so affect your letter writing? Did you write more regularly during the lockdown or was it harder to stay in touch?
S - Letter writing became more important during the lockdown. As we couldn't see friends or family in person, or only at a distance, letter writing was a great way to stay in touch.
T - We just continued to write. The letters might have been a little bit longer.
Describe your writing set up to us – are you sat at your desk with a glass of wine, or do you prefer a cosy sofa and nice cup of tea?
S - I have terrible handwriting so I usually sit down at my desk to write as that seems to keep it more legible! (Note from Jenny – I can vouch for this – every letter or card from Mum takes a good day to read and translate her miniscule lettering!)
T - I often sit on the sofa which might be recognised by my writing with short breaks of having a sweet.
What is it that you enjoy most about letter writing, and would you encourage others to try it?
S - Yes! Definitely give it a go - it gives you a chance to reflect about what you want to say, so take your time over it, and enjoy the experience.
T - It is a pleasure to take somehow part in the life of somebody else and to think and reflect the things going on.
Lastly, what are your writing essentials or go-to’s in terms of stationery?
S - Good quality materials - a nice, smooth writing surface, and a pen that doesn't blotch.
T - I enjoy to have nice stationery and a pen I can properly write with.
Thank you both for taking part!
If you'd like to have a pen pal and get involved with the joys of letter writing, then why not sign up to our Letter Writing Society, where we pair you with an unlimited amount of pen pals and send you a box of gorgeous stationery as well to enable your new hobby.