Dear Juliet, this is my story . . .

Juliet’s tragic romance with Romeo inspires many star-crossed lovers to write to her, care of the city of Verona, where a team of volunteers reply

Sat, Feb 1, 2014, 01:00

A photography student from Cork will soon hand over her title as the world’s best love-affair correspondent. Last year, Jessica Lynch became the recipient of the “Premio Cara Giulietta” literary prize for the best letter sent to the world’s oldest agony aunt.

The 2014 winner is 43-year-old Annika Langa from Sweden who fell in love in the darks days of apartheid and whose husband was sent to Robben Island. Part of the annual Verona in Love festival, the Scrivenere Per Amore prize is awarded every February by Club di Giulietta. Sponsored by Cesari wines, the winner receives a bronze plaque and a weekend in Verona.

Fifteen voluntary secretaries work for the Verona-based Juliet Club, opening and replying to post addressed to Romeo’s lover. They receive 10,000 letters every year.

Dancer Barbara starts her day as she starts every day, reading her fictional boss’s post. “The first letter I opened was from a Polish girl who wanted to commit suicide. I wrote back telling her not to. I don’t know if she took my advice or if she is alive or dead.

“It’s a great responsibility writing on behalf of Juliet. The letters she gets are all about unrequited, forbidden and thwarted love. There are many people still suffering in the same way Juliet did with Romeo. They relate to her. She’s a symbol of doomed but eternal love. Her story is universal. As relevant today as it was in the 14th century.”

Set in 1303, and first published in 1596, the tragic tale, told by Shakespeare among others, was well-known in Italy. A cavalry captain, Luigi Da Porto, had already written a novel about the two feuding families. The first lonely-hearts fan letter arrived in Juliet’s town in 1927. In 1937, shortly, after the release of George Cukor’s film, another arrived. It was simply addressed “Juliet , Verona.”

Courteously , the then-curator of Juliet’s tomb, which is in a monastery in the city centre, replied. The letters continued to arrive, the club was founded and its humanitarian services offered to the world.

The office is a converted garage in the city’s Via Galilei. The only male is the club’s founder, 82-year-old Giulio Tamassia, a retired cake-factory manager. The club used to have a cat: called Romeo.

“It doesn’t matter if Juliet was real or fictional,” says Tamassia. “The letters and problems are true. What matters most is that everyone gets a reply.

“People come from around the world to renew their vows and kiss on Verona’s balcony although it is not the original. An outside balcony would have been an open invitation to burglars. It would have been in the inner courtyard. Couples come to marry near her empty sarcophagus. Some, like Lord Byron, chip off souvenirs from her tomb.”

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