As a young boy growing up in what seemed to be a pretty school in Noida, I had the greatest belief in the theory of true love. The theory was then put firmly into practice when all of twelve years old and no facial hair to speak of, I fell for that loveliest of creatures ever made by God – Megha.
Such was the devotion that I carried in my chest that she became a permanent fixture of my fantasy world. I saw her in the puddles on the road, on the ceilings of my bedroom and on the pages of my school notebooks. Well, in the last, because I wrote her name a few times there. In code of course, couldn’t risk anyone else seeing it. Come ninth standard and it was the season of slam books and when tackled with the profound ‘Love is…’ question, I firmed my jaw and filled in ‘all consuming’. “You are cheesy,” my friends let me know.
Today, however, the world seems such a different place. Chits have changed to whatsapp, long nights next to that faithful landline phone have been replaced with snazzy mobile phones; and letter writing has gone extinct.
Or has it? In a small corner of the world, in the fairytale-like Italian town of Verona, there are thirteen women and two men replying to thousands of letters that come in from all over the world. The letters are addressed to ‘Juliet’ and they call themselves the “Secretaries of Juliet”.
For once upon a time, there was a man in Verona called Romeo Montague who fell in love with a pretty girl named Juliet Capulet and from here was told the greatest story of love.
Fictional as the characters might have been, the town of Verona did declare a house as the one where Juliet and the Capulet family had lived. And every year, millions of people visit Verona to see Juliet’s house and her tomb. The house is not easy to find, but once you do so, it is a surreal sight. There is a small notice board that announces that the house has been owned right from the 1200s by the Capello family, clearly adding that from here comes the name Capuleti, the house of Juliet. There are people from all over the world standing, even crying in the courtyard. There are young lovers with their video recorders, standing on the balcony below which Romeo is supposed to have stood and serenaded Juliet. And there are the letters, posted on the walls of a tunnel leading into the house, by hundreds of lovers wishing to be heard, wanting Juliet’s advice, revealing their innermost secrets and pain to a girl who probably never existed.
The tradition began when in the 1930s, someone left a letter on Juliet’s tomb, which is in the crypt of a monastery just outside the city Walls, and Ettore Solimani, the tomb’s caretaker, replied to it. Soon more letters started coming and Ettore replied to every one of them. After World War 2, a local poet took up the practice. Later in the eighties, the town mayor asked Giulio Tamassi, a retired baker, to take charge of replying to the letters.
And that is how the Juliet Club or the ‘Club Di Giulietta’ was formed. “We get over five thousand letters every year says Giovanna, one of the club secretaries. Most of these come from American teenage girls but do not grin at that, for there would be a lot more people from India too writing in if only they had heard of this.
But why would these people reply to so many letters?
Nigerian-born Franklin Ohenhn, who replaced his sister as one of Juliet’s secretaries, says that often the letters take him to a world, a realm, that is as far as is possible to imagine from the mild, quiet picturesque Verona. “One girl studying in the ninth grade told me she was crying as she wrote her letter, about her boyfriend who had been killed in a gang fight.” The most disturbing letter he says he had to deal with was from another American teenager, who wanted to know if she should keep the baby of a boy she knew had only playing around with her. “I told her to follow her heart,” Ohenhn says, looking into the distance.
Often, the secretaries call upon the advice of a psychologist to help in replying to the letters. Giovanna recalls that there was once a young man who visited a cemetery and saw the photograph of a young woman on a tomb. She had been dead for years and the tomb lay unattended to, dirty and forgotten. Moved, he returned regularly to take care of it and over time it turned into a relationship. “He lived as if they were in love”, says Giovanna.
Not just teenagers, the Club receives a number of letters from people in need of support. “There are people writing in to us from prisons, and we haven’t ever not replied to any one ” proudly says Giulio, the Club President.
What is remarkable is that all the Secretaries, devoting so many hours to these letters, do it for free. “Well, the council gives us the money for the stamps,” explains Giulio. “But it’s not even enough to cover the postage. Right now, I’m having a battle with the council. What we do brings is so advantages for Verona. It is time they stopped treating us like this. We’re all working for nothing.”
Carabetta, a club secretary smiles. “Not for nothing, Giulio…For the pleasure of reading these wonderful letters.”
And perhaps, for others, there are other personal reasons. “It has helped me to believe again in feelings,” says Elena Marchi, another secretary. “If a love affair is happy, it is happy. But what counts is to have a heart that is alive, no?”
Let us drink to that Elena, if I ever come to Verona. And maybe you’ll let me write a reply to one of the letters.
Come to think of it, what was once a love story is now a great money turner for a town’s tourism. It is a strange world, folks, and a rapidly changing one. The twentieth century and a few following will be remembered for the great changes that they brought about in technology. However, it is stories such as these and people such as ‘Juliet’s Secretaries’ that will tell us that however much the world changes, there are some corners that never will; for faith works in wonderous ways.
If you like the story and are inspired to write your own letter, this is the address:
Address: Via Galilei 3 Verona, Verona, Italy (37100)
Contact Number: +39 045 533115
1.5 million tourists visit Verona every year; and Juliet’s house and tomb are second only to a Roman era arena as a tourist destination, according to Italy Tourism records. If you ever buy a Italy tour package, maybe you should include the beautiful, beautiful Verona in it.