I cannot remember the first time that I received an unexplained and strange looking letter through the post, and by that I mean one which was clearly not of an official nature, a bill, reminder or anything from a government agency. I know that it has been many years since anyone has written to me without me having written to them first which, I suppose, is understandable. You are probably very well aware that the writing of letters has fallen out of fashion to a certain extent; in fact, I wonder whether you have ever written a letter to anyone – again, aside from on an official or business level – excluding your grandparents, perhaps after Christmas and birthdays. I suspect that most people of your age are more attuned to the convenience of modern technology, and text one another when there’s news or when you want to arrange a meet-up or similar. I can understand that, despite being very set in my ways, but have never been able to accept that a text message or a status update can replace the sheer pleasure of receiving a real letter, on paper, through the post. My pleasure these days is more in the receiving of letters, from all across the world, from people who I have written to, and who have settled down and taken the trouble to put pen to paper, but it is a different feeling to the one which you, undoubtedly, have at the moment.
I wonder, as I write these words – indeed, I was thinking about it even before I began, when I made up my mind to write – whether you will read the whole letter all the way through; whether you will share it with anyone else; whether you will laugh at the preposterous idea that a stranger from overseas could possibly expect you to read it or, even more so, reply. I wonder whether my letter will find its way into the trash, or be left on one side and forgotten in a moment of rush or disinterest. For me, though, it is the act of writing the letter, whether it is well received or not, which brings all the pleasure; it may seem very strange to you that anyone can gain pleasure through writing to a stranger, but I have discovered that many of those strangers have welcomed the contact, and several have even become friends over the years, despite the fact that our friendship is exclusively through the written word, and we will probably never meet in person. The problems of distance, more than anything else, and the fact that many of my friends are not allowed to travel at all combine to make the act of sending and receiving letters so important to them.
Fortunately you are not in the same position as they are: you have a good home in a good neighbourhood with friends you’ve chosen for yourself rather than acquaintances who have been forced upon you. You can travel and mingle, go to bars, shop in the local stores or in town. You can get up in the mornings and take your time going through all the necessities of life, without having to worry that someone else is timing you, or limiting the amount of time you have available to shower, to dress, to appear at the breakfast table and join your family. Weekdays you probably go out to work and are blessed with a good environment in the workplace: did you go to college, or are you still at college perhaps? Have you planned your vacation for this year – it’s still early in the season – or are you more of the spontaneous type, ready to jump in a car or train, even a plane perhaps, and jet off to some wonderful holiday resort and soak up the sun, the sights, the pleasures of being able to relax with no worries in the world. Although, as we know, you do have worries at the moment, ones which could haunt you for the rest of your life, but perhaps there is a way of either putting them out of your mind, or solving them through careful thought and action. The latter is probably best, but I am sure enough people have told you that already; just as long as you listen to the right ones, and not those who write such exploits off and say they’ve never come back to bite you in the butt. The sad fact is, these exploits will come back one day, they don’t just disappear from the record, from public view, they are there forever. Even someone safely ensconced in his office in Germany, writing a seemingly innocuous letter, can be privy to all these facts.
Or, to put it slightly better than it appears here at the moment, can see the surface of what happened afterward, if not beneath to find out why or to see what could happen as a direct result. But I am not a preacher, I am not someone who goes around slapping wrists and saying ‘don’t do it again’ whilst knowing that such a reaction is worthless. I am a merely letter writer, living in a foreign country, who has travelled the world over many sears, met up with some fascinating people over time, and who knows how much can be lost through a small action taken on the spur of the moment which hadn’t, perhaps, been properly thought through. And that is exactly the same as many other people will see it too, but despite that in a different light. They too will probably see the photograph – one of one hundred and thirteen published at the same time, so easy enough to hope it would be overseen – and read the caption, and then form their own opinions. Most people do not need anything else: a few words and they believe they know the whole story, believe they can judge a person, that they’ve got their character down perfectly. They are wrong, of course, we both know that, but how to convince them? How to make them see the person, the story, the life behind that one photograph, that one damning description?
Shall I tell you something else about what I saw that other people would not? As I said, there were one hundred and thirteen photographs – mug shots if we want to be vulgar – and of those only two showed any remorse, any realisation of the trouble they had caused for themselves, the embarrassment to their family and friends. And to themselves, of course. You were one of them, and the other – also a young woman – had changed from tears of remorse to a certain level of defiance; I could see it in her eyes, in the set of her features. She looked as if she was ready to blame someone else for her predicament.
I live in a small town in northern Germany which, through its long history, has the right, despite a mere five thousand inhabitants, to call itself a city. I didn’t always live here: I was born in London; educated in Yorkshire; travelled at fourteen to Paris; worked in London for five years and then began my travelling proper: France, Venice, Italy, Belize, Mexico, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia (as it was then, now Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia), Belgium, Holland and, of course, briefly the USA. I have lived in houses and hotels, in wooden shacks and tents, under the stars with a sleeping bag, and under bridges without. I have jumped freight trains and used by thumb to get from one place to another; worked in fields and kitchens, on building sites and in factories. I have owned houses and property, and seen the depths of financial despair. I have had love affairs, and gathered up the dismembered remains of friends for burial. Despite all these wonderful experiences, and the many years I have spent gathering them, I cannot claim t have found the true Me. At least, not to my satisfaction. Perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places, or mixed with the wrong people. Perhaps I need a jolt from someone else to bring me on the right path, to set my step in the right direction. Perhaps I will never discover Me, let alone anyone else. I envy you your youth, as you still have time to search and to find, to experience all those things which are behind me. I envy you all these chances, and fear that you could blow them out of the water.
In my small town, and I have lived here officially for more than twenty years now, we have a local newspaper as well, of course, as access to all the national and international ones. I get to see the different publishing styles, the conventions, the manner in which people are dealt with in the press. Here it is not allowed to publish the surname of a person accused, nor their photograph. We have pixelated photographs in the newspapers, and forenames followed by a single initial. This is, of course, no protection of identity for locals who are well known in their own area, but it certainly works on a wider level. Were I to appear in one of these publications – something I would avoid under the circumstances like the plague – no one in the next major town or city would know who I am, would be able to recognise me. A wonderful benefit for anyone who errs but once or twice and is still young enough to wish their life to carry on without having anyone else pointing at them, whispering over the misdoings, their past, their reputation. We do not appear, whether found guilty or confirmed and released as innocent, on the internet. There is gossip, of course, which small town can escape from such things, it is almost human nature to want to talk about other people and their doings, but it passes quickly. There is always something new, something more exciting, perhaps even something scandalous to be discussed across garden fences or at the bar over a cool German beer.
Have you travelled? Have you seen anything of the world outside of your own city or State? I was surprised to learn how many people do not go further than the next town, sometimes in their entire life. There are people whose furthest journey has been to the State Fair, but not as far as the State lines. A short while ago I came across a man, in his eighties, attending a shooting fair at a neighbouring village for the first time in his life; he had never been out of his own village in those eighty years; had spent his time on the small farm his family owned and within the small community of the village. I daresay he was happy with all that, quite content with his life and lifestyle: can you imagine such an existence? One of the most common questions posed to me is a plea to describe the lands, the cities I have visited over the years, and that from people who will never be allowed to travel out of the country, who, when released, will have to ask permission to cross the city boundaries, may not be allowed to vote, and certainly not be granted the privilege of holding and using a passport. I try to imagine some of these people, highly intelligent and open to the world, never being able to marvel at the beauty of Venice, or roam the streets and markets in Paris. I suppose, from this point of view, their life of crime really hasn’t paid off: but you are not a criminal, and I don’t want to give the impression I consider you to be one, that would be wrong of me. But, on the other side, how do you see yourself? How do you see your future?
As I wrote at the very beginning of this, I don’t know whether you will read it through or discard it. I don’t know whether you will write me off as an interfering old fool who has no knowledge of your life, or crumple the pages up and discard them. I don’t know whether you will sit down having read these words, and put pen to paper so that I can share some of the wonders of what I have seen in my life of travelling with you and, perhaps, inspire you to see beyond your own boundaries, beyond what has happened, and into what could happen if you give it, and yourself a chance. I wonder: is that worth half an hour of writing a letter and one dollar fifteen in postage?
I enclose a postcard of one of the many surviving murals in Pompeii, Italy, destroyed by a flood of molten lava from Mount Vesuvius in the famous eruption of 79 CE which, as you can imagine, does not do justice to seeing it in person, or having it described by someone who has stood before, and marvelled over, this work. Regardless of your decision, take good care of yourself, and don’t let the wrong people take your photograph again, it would be such a shame.