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
The award-winning love letter written by Cork student Jessica Lynch
Juliet’s balcony and statue in Verona: touching her right breast is said to bring luck in love. Photograph: Getty Images
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.”
“We have two letterboxes in town,” adds his daughter, Giovanna, the club secretary. “But the thing everyone wants to do is touch her right breast. You will be lucky in love if you touch the right bosom of the statue standing in front of her house. It has got smaller over the years with all the manhandling. It’s now an A cup!”
Giovanna is a professional translator. In her postbag she finds a letter from a mother of two in the US whose husband of six years has begun to have more fun with his friends than her. She has begun an affair.
A teacher tells of her love for one of her students. A gay Cuban boy is in love with his best friend.
“We get letters from prisoners,” says Marinella who works for the chamber of commerce. “And from Middle-Eastern women. People just want to talk. To establish a dialogue. To share their innermost feelings with Juliet Capulet. ”
“Juliet does not theorise or judge,” says Anna, who works at the airport. “She listens and tries to understand. We say things like age and race are not important and only true love counts. And that sometimes keeping love is as hard as finding it. These people share with Juliet a feeling that the world is against them. That they’re not cut out for happiness. We answer SOSes from modern star-crossed lovers.”
“Despite the fact she was only 14 when when she died,” says Olga from Moscow, “Juliet is their sister, their mother and their confidante. Young people don’t relate to their elders: to priests, teachers and parents. Juliet is their ideal role model.”
“The Italians write passionate letters, so do the French,” says Juliet’s Belgian PA Tineke. “The French seem to have the most complicated romantic lives. British men can get quite lyrical.”
The staff has become more cosmopolitan since the film Letters to Juliet.
The women gather around a table to discuss how to answer one letter. “Dearest Juliet , I know you are still living because you live in each one of us. In all our hearts . . .”
The letter has an Irish stamp on it.