Juliet has a place in our hearts

Staff at the Romeo and Juliet office in Verona
Staff at the Romeo and Juliet office in Verona

An average of 10,000 people a year send letters to the Italian city of Verona, asking romantic advice of Shakespeare’s tragic teenage girl, the personification of young love, says Richard Fitzpatrick

You open a letter from USA, Japan, China or the Netherlands. They tell Juliet their most personal stories, problems and hopes

EVERY year, 10,000 people write letters about their love life to teenager Juliet, many of them addressed: “Juliet, Verona, Italy”. A month later, they receive a reply in the post, but not from Juliet. She died in the 13th century, a few centuries before William Shakespeare immortalised her in his play, Romeo and Juliet.

Twenty volunteers (two male), or ‘Juliet secretaries’, collect the letters in an office in Verona. Some are hand-delivered. Unless the missive is an email, replies are by hand on ‘Dear Juliet’-headed paper. Postal bills and stationery are paid by Verona’s city council.

The letters, which inspired Letters to Juliet, a 2010 film starring Vanessa Redgrave, address forbidden love, lost love, unrequited love, betrayal, and, says Lise Friedman, the co-author of the book, Letters to Juliet, “occasionally, happy endings”.

“When you start reading all these stories, it’s very, very interesting,” says Giovanna Tamassia, a Juliet secretary. Her father, Giulio, set up Club di Giulietta in the late 1980s. “You open a letter that might arrive from USA, Japan, China or the Netherlands. They tell Juliet their most personal stories, problems and hopes. Some letters are very romantic, some are more tragic, some desperate, some very sad. It’s something magical. It’s a strange phenomenon.”

Some letters are illustrated. A Japanese lady who married last year sent her diary to Juliet; she didn’t want her husband to read it. An English left a photo album cataloguing a love affair that ended.

Friedman, who has published 75 Juliet letters in her book, says a letter from a soldier in the Vietnam War was one of the most disturbing: “Dear Juliet, I am in a bunker. Outside I hear missiles exploding, bullets being fired. I am 22 years old and I’m scared ... A hand-to-hand battle awaits us. I feel I will die. I leave life with this brief note that I am entrusting to you, universal symbol of love.”

Others are more whimsical: a teenage boy wondering whether to get a girl a bracelet or necklace for Christmas (“I can’t afford diamonds, so that’s out”); an Australian farmer looking for the “one and only” true love, adding, “please, send rain”.

Another Australian man, married for 30 years, wrote: “I have never made love to another woman, let alone kissed another. Despite our advancing years we are still like young lovers.” A Ukrainian woman wrote asking if Juliet could find a guy for her 27-year-old daughter, who’s “looking for a fiance”.

“Everyone thinks that writing to Juliet gives you luck, or that maybe you will get the right advice that will solve your problems,” says Ms Tamassia. “It’s very strange, because they don’t know who will reply and when.”

People have been interested in Juliet since the 1800s, paying respects to her empty tomb or posting notes and photographs on the wall behind it. “It seems to be that her love ended unhappily,” says Friedman. “The fact that she committed suicide seems to be lost on those who come to Verona to pay homage to her. The public admires her strength and resolve above all and, perhaps, forgets how badly it ended. That’s, curiously, beside the point.”

In 1937, a year after the George Cukor film, Romeo and Juliet, Ettore Solimani became custodian of her tomb, and started love rituals (visitors were invited to hold hands over her tomb) and trained turtle doves to land on the shoulders of female visitors. Tourists flocked, including celebrities such as Vivien Leigh, Ginger Rogers and the Duke of Windsor. Solimani began answering the letters written to Juliet, but “curtly”. It wasn’t until Guilio Tamassia set up Club di Giulietta that responses became more nuanced.

“You should love writing,” says Ms Tamassia, who has been a Juliet secretary for 18 years, is married and has two daughters. She began as a Juliet secretary while in university. Her father needed a translator.

“You have to love the Romeo and Juliet story and the town of Verona; Juliet is a symbol for true love,” she says. “It’s important to have experience in love. We have teenagers who want to help, but, of course, it is not easy for them to give a proper answer. It is not always possible to give the right advice, but it’s enough when you give words of friendship and understanding. It’s important not to judge. People tell their story because they need to write it down, and to be listened to. You don’t have to be a psychologist.”

Each year, an award is handed out to the best ‘Dear Juliet’ letter. This year’s winner is Jessica Lynch, from Cork (see panel). She’s travelling to Verona for Valentine’s Day to receive her prize.

“When you read and answer so many letters, it’s like giving an answer to yourself,” says Ms Tamassia. “All these letters enrich you. They give you the chance to read different stories and cases. Maybe you can also become cynical, because you read about so many problems, but, in the end, you discover that all over the world love is the most important thing in life.”

Love letter wins prize, but not heart

Jessica Lynch, 24, lives in The Lough, Cork City. She’s a first-year photography student at St John’s Central College, Cork. She didn’t know there was a prize for the letter written to Juliet.

“There’s an arts centre in Cork,” says Lynch. “It’s run on a voluntary basis. I’m there most of the time. I wrote the letter about someone I met through there, and how I felt about him. I believe in the Romeo and Juliet idea that there is only one real love and that it should be eternal. I’ve never had a relationship, or gone out with anyone, because I have a traditional view of love.

“I wrote that when I talked to him about my feelings, he said that he only loved me like a sister or a friend, and that he wasn’t right for me and that he’d ruin my life. It was unrequited ... He read my letter in November.

“He thought it was beautifully written, but he said, again, that he’d ruin my life and didn’t want to break my heart.

“The reply I got from Juliet was written in a hopeful tone. It said love can be complicated and that even though it’s simple for me, it’s difficult for him, and to never give up hope, but not to get lost in him.”

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