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.