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The beauty of a real letter

Back when I started this blog in November 2009, I wrote all my entries in the form of a letter. Over time, I developed a number of personalities as recipients and tailored the voice of the letters to those people. I can’t remember exactly when or why this ended. My attention to the blog came and went. At some point, my essays became more comments on and about daily life. Of the 264 posts that I’ve written so far for during this adventure, well over half of them are letters.

erikaThe reason I chose the letter form was that I missed writing letters. Back before E-mail, I engaged in correspondence or ongoing conversations with people through the mails. For years, I depended on the letter for the heartfelt connection that doesn’t happen in any other form of communication. A letter has a specific audience. The voice of the writer is more personal, more revealing. I could talk about anything that struck my mind. I can do that now. I conceive my essays on whatever happens to be in my head when I sit down to write. But writing letters, I think, is an art form of its own and one that the E-mail has essentially obliterated.

Still, when I write E-mails, they are rarely snippets of thought. I tend to write E-mails that look like letters. I write in sentences. The grammar is about as right as I can get it. I spell out words and don’t use shortcuts. Even my texts, small as they can be, contain sentences, paragraphs, sometimes even theses which guide and direct them.

My thirst for letters first occurred when I lived in Germany. When I traveled there, I was alone. I had no contacts and very little money. By luck, I wound up with a job at a reputable German winery in Trier. The winery’s director intervened on my behalf and found me a small room in the attic of the winery apprentice school. For 210 DM, I got the room and a breakfast at the school. There were three rooms at the top of ten flights of stairs. A bathroom and shower stood at the end of a small hallway. The view from my room’s window looked out on the quiet neighborhood in the Gartenfeld district. The Petrisberg, a mountain-like prominence, rose up beyond my street, Egbertstrasse.

Trier is an old city. The Romans established it as a western outpost in Gaul in 16 BCE. The city grew to be a significant center of Roman life in the West, with all the amenities and infrastructure to support a population of several tens of thousands of people. Just under the Petrisberg stood the old Roman amphitheater, where gladiators fought and lions ate Christians. Egbertstrasse, it turns out, formed on side of the city’s circus, or track for chariot races—Ben-Hur style—track and field events, and other forms of Roman sport. The houses across the street from where I lived were built on the berm separating the two sides of the circus. Hettnerstrasse, the next block over, formed the other side. Hermesstrasse and Schutzenstrasse bounded the short sides of the track.

At first, I didn’t know anyone. I made acquaintances of some of the other interns at the winery and we got together once a week or so to visit the Trierer Loewenbrauerei, the brewery in my neighborhood. Other than that, I spent a lot of time alone. Evenings after a nap, I took walks around Petrisberg and up beyond the amphitheater toward Olewig, which Trier swallowed in the modern age. I ventured into the center of old Trier, which was only about a five-minute walk, and strolled around the pedestrian zone watching people come and go at the cafes and shops there.

On weekends, I made long tours of the city. I woke and drank coffee and then lit out for eight or ten hours through the streets and into the surrounding countryside. I came to know the town well. Even today, I can find my way around Trier as well as I can my own neighborhood.

When I came home to my empty room, I spent time each week, sometimes every day, writing letters. At first, I wrote by hand. Then, at breakfast one morning, an intern named Petra told me she had a typewriter she wasn’t using. It was an Erika portable. Made in East Germany, it was built like a tank. I told her I would buy it from her but I didn’t have much money. Fortunately, the typewriter didn’t mean much to her. I traded a hat of mine she liked and threw in 5 DM for the typewriter. It changed my life.

Now instead of laboring away with pencil and pen, I could spill my thoughts out on paper at nearly the speed in which they came. Instead of a letter or so a week, I wrote five and sometimes six. I covered my daily goings on, what I was thinking, and the hardship I felt at being all alone in a strange city. I wrote letters to family members and friends. People I hardly knew received my missives.

And, every day, I came home from the winery and checked in at the office of the school to see if I received any word from my correspondents. I came to live by the post. I received letters at least once a week. They sustained me until I began to build a set of friends. Even after, the mail kept me going. I started a long correspondence with an American opera singer who would come to Trier in the summer. We started a steamy relationship. After the summer, I kept writing. She kept writing back. Those letters would lead through a relationship would end in heartache, the greatest of my life. (See, http://patrickdobson.com/?p=118.)

So, today, I write letters, sometimes E-mail, sometimes the old postal kind with a hand-written address and a stamp. When I send a letter, usually the recipient is so surprised that they get out their paper and write back. Getting a letter in the mail is a special event these days. It fulfills a desire to carry on conversation unfettered by time and place.

Now, whether E-mail or post, I carry on correspondence as if I had that old Erika typewriter. I used it long after I returned to the states. I still wonder what I did with it. My letters took on a kind of personality on that typewriter. So, while I still write letters, I miss that old East German.

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