Memory in letters (Collector of memories #3)

I love scribbling and writing all sorts of things.

I enjoy writing diaries, I get a kick out of writing blog entries (although I can get very lazy), I believe in writing thoughtful birthday/holiday cards for my close friends instead of just giving gifts (and my friends have often accused me of writing the bible instead of a simple message), I have fun scribbling stupid stuff on the note pads lying around in the living room, and I have recently found that the best way to tell Dad I care about him more than I let him know (ugh, that just gave me goosebumps, just writing that) was by leaving notes on his smartphone while he’s not looking so that he can read them later at work.

But if there’s one type of writing I enjoy more than anything else is writing letters. I know that it’s usually the old people who go around complaining ‘Ah, back in the old days’, ‘They don’t do them like they used to’ or ‘It’s a lost art these days’, and I agree, it’s not the most pleasant thing to hear. To these people, I usually just want to calmly tell them ‘Deal with it, times are changing, embrace change. Don’t dwell in the past’. Nevertheless, one true art I can’t help mourning for its loss is ‘that of writing letters’.

Picking up and choosing the right pen and letter pad, seeing the memory lane of your mind fold into letters on paper, folding the stack of papers to fit in the small envelope (if I write long cards, imagine how long my letters are), the weird taste of the stamp on the tip of your tongue, carefully writing down the address, which you’ve memorized by now, but which you nevertheless make sure every time you’re getting it right, and sending it off at the post office.

Then, comes, of course, the waiting. Will the letter have reached its destination by now? Is my letter en route?

Finally, the moment you see an envelope with a hand written address on it, your address, and your name, those nano-seconds that spend between you having the envelope in your hand and deciding between being excited at the thickness of it or a little bit disappointed by the lightness of it, ripping out the envelope, and reading the lines, which you’re sure your friend put down with the same care and devotion as you did, the second reading after the first moments of excitement have calmed down, and finally the answering.

Every single day, my sister and I would leave for school with the distinct and clear feeling we were going to get a letter that day. As soon as we got off from the cab that used to take us back and forth from school, we would rush and run through the front garden so that we would each be the first to reach the front door… most of the times, only to find out that nothing was waiting for us on the top of the shoe shelf, where Mom usually put the mail. But oh the joy when there was a single letter waiting for me, or even, once or twice, two letters at a time (the ecstasy!), and the envy and jealousy when only one of us received something. Mails still get lost these days in countries like Korea and the States, so imagine how it was, 15 years ago, in Mauritania. Having that precious envelope in hand was a symbol of the fortunate end of a risky adventure, the happy ending of a thriller with an open scenario.

Getting letters became a much more significant event in my last years in Nouadhibou, mainly because… well, all my friends had left town to go to ‘bigger cities’ and my sister and I were barely going to school (lack of students and lack of professors… *sigh*). Letters were a divine distraction from the boring routine and lack of excitement and novelty we were going through, studying at home for the Baccalaureat and going through mind blowing (not in a good sense) theories of philosophy. The format of these correspondences would vary too, through time. When I first got letter pads from Korea (once again, I cannot emphasize enough on the awesomeness that is Korean stationary), I was at awe that one could write on such precious papers. I could not make myself use them at will, and would carefully copy all the drawings on a separate piece of paper, so that I could have more stationary to use. Then, the computer came, and it was a new world that opened up, typing away, changing the fonts at every single opportunity. And once in a while, for special occasions, came the recorded cassette tapes; recording my favorite boys band songs to my Korean pen friends, along with myself in between.

Among the many pen friends and letters I have had and have kept, some obviously have more sentimental value than others. They are mostly those that prevail on others in numbers and time.

From left to right, Adrianna from Hungary, with whom I kept in touch until I came to Korea, and then, somehow, lost touch. Mansoura, my best friend in Nouadhibou, who stuck in that small town long after everyone else had left, but then moved to Senegal in 11th grade. Next to her stack is the correspondence with my only cousin of the same age, which, frankly speaking, doesn’t have much sentimental value. But somehow, we managed to exchange a large number of letters when I was in NDB, and I have to give her credit for that, although it didn’t take long after I came to Korea to realize we actually had nothing in common. The two stacks below are the ones I cherish the most; the left one from my most devoted pen friend among the many people I’ve corresponded with, which makes her my oldest Korean friend, and the right from my oldest French friend from NDB. You can see some stamps have been cut from the envelope (by now it shouldn’t be a surprise that I also collected stamps, right?) and… the numbers on each envelope because naturally, my obsessive side would never allow for these letters to get mixed up and not be in order according to the date they were received.

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Rummaging through these letters, I discovered people I had completely forgotten about, them mostly being temporary pen friends with whom only a few letters were exchanged… and then had naturally disappeared from my memory. Debbie from the St Lucia island, Ludovic from France (who, by reading his letters now, was most definitely a nerd…), Miss Pat from the States who was very religious.

I was pleasantly (for the lack of a better word) surprised to find two postcards from a Korean ahujussi whom I had met through a Yahoo chatting room, back when internet had so barely started it was even too early to call it a ‘sensation’, and chatting rooms were exploding everywhere, even in the small living room of our house in NDB. Remember, a/s/l? Chatting rooms were of course another open door to getting more potential people to write to, this time through email, and in my defense, I think there were much less perverts at the beginning than now. It didn’t take long for these chat rooms to be crowded with weird people, but for the short time frame before that happened, I think there were more people who were genuinely interested in making ‘new email friends’ rather than unleashing their degenerate tendencies over the net. This Mr. Song was in his 30s I think, was living and working in Germany, and had sent me two postcards during his trips to some other countries in Europe.

There are also old friends from NDB, with whom we can now keep in touch through email and Facebook, or with whom I’ve unfortunately lost touch with and seriously wonder whether I will hear from them ever again, among them Mlle Chantal, my first grade teacher, and Mr. Moreau, my second grade teacher.

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Like many things we share, my sister and I share the same devotion to this outdated mode of communication. And naturally, the times we have spent living in separate corners of the world have left their trace through a bewildering accumulation of letters and cards. The first bundle on the left is from when she was in Canada, and then Spain, while I was in France. The one next to it is our correspondence from August 2010, when she left for the States and I stayed in Korea. And… the last one on the right… well, that’s an embarrassing story for another time.

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Since I had some Disneyland plastic bags left from my trip to Tokyo Disneyland in 2010, I decided I would use them to organize my latest collections of letters.

From left to right, the birthday and Christmas cards from a very close unni I briefly worked with in 2007, but still keep in touch, who has been a support and an inspiration in so many ways ever since. Although I am now fervently doubtful about the Catholic church, there was a time when faith and church people meant a great deal; and that is why I cannot uncouthly put the remains of that past behind me. Those remains are safely bundled in the second plastic bag. Then comes birthday and Christmas cards from my group of besites since university. Although we don’t meet up as often as we used to, and  there have been times one of us was overseas, without them, I would have been even more lost and miserable during my first years in Korea. Finally, cards and notes from my GSIS peeps.

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