Friday, 10 October 2008

Window To The Outside World

When I was 15 years old, and where the most pressing issues in life were how to get more As in exams, a friend approached me with a pen-pal programme.

She was recruiting half the class, and had managed to make them all cough up the application fee.

After some brief hesitation, I was suckered in. :)

A couple of months later, I got a letter from my new pen-pal in Poland. And that opened up a whole new window to the other side of the world.

Don't start thinking that we wrote to each other of the important world issues surrounding us. There was no mention of politics, economy, philosophy or even social issues.

She could barely speak English, so that limited our conversations. But we discussed the latest movies in the cinema (and naturally, the celebrities involved), perfume (she liked Joop and Kookat, brands I had never heard of prior to meeting her) and festivals.

I discovered that New Year's Eve is called Sylwester in Poland. Enlightenment only happened after a bunch of exchanges later. :)

Poland - being a Catholic country - celebrates Easter in a big way, in addition to Christmas. I don't know why that bit of news astounded me back then.

So we wrote letters and made empty promises to visit each other in the future. I say "empty" because on my side, I never really believed I would ever visit her in person.

I was your average Malaysian kid, and about as common as a garden snail.

But I did. I visited Gosia in her home in Swiebodzin, located in the beautiful Lubuskie province of West Poland.

The 10th of October is my pen-pal's birthday. I sent her a card and I hope she's received it. Even with the advent of email, both of us have not stopped writing to each other using snail mail.

There's something just so personal about seeing ink crafted on paper by handwriting, that we mutually agreed to spurn technology.

That's her best can-you-stop-taking-photos-of-me-for-the-hundredth-time impression. :)

The photographer in question was her boyfriend, and I have a lot of pictures of her (for which I'm very grateful) and Polish scenery, that he burned into a CD and presented to me, just before I left Poland.

If you know me well enough, you'd be aware that I don't actually own a proper camera, and I've never carried one to any of my trips abroad.

But that's Polish hospitality and thoughtfulness.

When I arrived, evidently some of the neighbours had caught a glimpse of me from their windows.

A day later, there was a knock on the door. A neighbour dropped by to pass a package and left quickly. But before leaving, he/she mumbled, "For your visitor".

I never got to see that neighbour. Never got to thank him/her.

But when my hosts opened the packaging and I discovered it was a traditional Polish pastry - made with love and care for the 'visitor' - I knew I would always have fond memories of Poland.


shar101 said...

The beauty of low-tech communication i.e. snail mail, postcards and ahem.. love letters etc, is that you can still put your signature to your words and thoughts.

For some of us, it's our reason for being.

Anonymous said...

Hi Crankster

What an honest post! Candid, congenial and poignant. Brings me back to those days when I had pen-pals haha who, being of the opposite sex, became would-be admirers ;).

You are right though. Life was different in the past when we were exuberant, spontaneous, creative and expressions came from the heart little expectations or fear of being judged.

Somehow, the written word via electronic medium is colder devoid of the personal touch. In snail mail, we can read the person's character through the handwriting or the way he/she folds the paper etc...

And it is wonderful that you sealed that friendship with a visit...I always believe that one must travel to broaden horizons and expand the vista of human existence...

Aha - when I visit KL, I must go for a meal with you. Usually, I will be at either Wangsa Maju at my sis-in-law's place or holed in a hotel at Bkt Btg. Would love to have a tete-a-tete with u over teh-tarik, tosai or capati. Likewise, if ever you come up to Penang, please let me know. I know the best places for Indian cuisine and other hawker fare, whatever my lady fancies. Just let me know in advance ok and it will be my pleasure to make u more horizontally challenged(by the way - how on earth do you remain so svelte????Life is unfair!!!)Drop me a line at to let me know when u r in town and i will happily send you a snail mail!!! It has been more than ten years since I sent any letters and this sentimental old lady here still has all the letters/cards I received from the 1960s!!!

Take care n have a good week. Btw, I've added you to my blogroll. And I love to read you too!

just me

walla said...

'You have helped me in my work and in myself. And I have helped you in your work and in yourself. And I am grateful to heaven for this you-and-me.'

(Kahlil Gibran from Mary Haskell’s Journal. March 12, 1922.)

They never met, this tragic lebanese poet who died young, and his english pen friend but Gibran's Love Letters is probably one of the most celebrated collections of pen-friend prose in human history.

One of the most paradoxical things about today's world is that we are becoming more remote from each other while awash in the very technologies that are supposed to cut distance, break borders and entwine the human dimensions more closely.

Convenience has banished the old fireplace and bear rug, while the idiot box and internet have become distracts from what really matters - that 'you-and-me' oneness.

As if to depict the poignancy of that, Gibran once drew an imaginary line using his spoon across the surface of a bowl of soup he was sharing with someone. As he was doing so, he said:

'I am now dividing this soup into two. Make sure you drink only from your half, and me from mine.'

Many of us will probably not get to meet one another. Some have problems which will not go away. Others will be celebrating new lives ahead. The wax and wane of life's cycles permeate one and all across the aether.

What is interesting is that all this can strike a common chord whatever our background and roots, wherever we be, however we find ourselves.

Malaysian Tigress said...

Now I am reminded of my Australian and German Penpals...lost touch with them. Leanne K Launer and Angelica Castellano. We stopped writing after I entered residential school. Really enjoyed their letters. Yes, snail mail had its own beauty. Anticipation was one of them. And patience. Now it's all in an instant. And over in an instant too.

I had one penpal I can't forget. But somehow I forgot her NAME!!! Her last letter was before the Iran/Iraq war broke about. We (my sis and I) never ever heard from her again after that...

Axinar said...

So you have friends all over the world with the perma-smirk, eh? :)

Jarod said...

Sentimental... i used to do that... until when? until Internet take over..haha! nice one... i for one prefer snail mail as well.. it was nice.. but, i don't quite like it due to to my messy writings. LoL :p

Patricia said...

I enjoyed this one, Crankster. You leaving your bad-ass days behind ya' now?

I have letters written in my husband's hand from before we were married. He'd promised to write me everyday, and when I returned at the end of the week, I'd read them.

So after the first ones, which were filled with what he did each day, the next were filled with: I miss you very (written a gazillion times!) much. And so were the rest!

I don't know if I should be happy or angry about them!


Crankster said...

Shar101, don't tell me you're a closet romantic! ;-)

Masterwordsmith, there's so much to read about a person's character from snail mail. My penpal and I used to paste stickers on our letters to each other.

You know those Mamee ones? And then the smurf, mickey mouse and what not. Quite embarrassing to think of my proclivities as a kid! :)

Sometimes, we even scented our letters with perfume! I know how wrong that sounds in this day and age, but I obviously have my sentimental side.

Crankster said...

Walla, obviously this pen-pal thing has a lot going for it than can be seen by the naked eye! :)

I read the quotes, and I think this is my favourite:
No human relation gives one possession in another - every two souls are absolutely different. In friendship or in love, the two
side by side raise hands together to find what one cannot reach alone.

Tigress, it's a pity you lost contact. Sometimes, the best people to pour your heart out to are those whom you've never met.

Crankster said...

Ax, the perma-smirk sisterhood knows no creed, race, religion or boundaries.

Jarod, who did you write to?

Pat, I get mellow at times, but I'm still essentially a bad-ass. ;-) So both you and masterwordsmith still keep letters from your youth eh? Why am I not surprised - I do that too!!

walla said...

"every two souls are absolutely different."

and maybe that's why his 'you-and-me' is so meaningful too.

Jarod said...


When you asked that question, I really have no ideas until I search for it.

Is been years of treasuring it and now all my letter can be place in museum. (All yellowish..hehe)

Looks like all my pen-pals are from Sabah, penang, and ipoh. just have one or two letter. May be I lazy to reply them until we have lost contact. haha!

Funny that I don't have any Europe letter. I guess at that time my english proficiency aren't that good. Thats why hang around within Malaysia friends.

Anyway, Thanks for your wonderful posting that bring me back to memories. :)