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Each year, the town of Verona, Italy — home of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet — receives thousands of letters of heartache and unrequited love addressed to the play's star-crossed heroine.
The tradition of sending letters to Juliet very likely goes back centuries. People started by leaving notes on a local landmark said to be Juliet's tomb. Later, many started sending mail directly to the city. By the 1990s, Verona was receiving so many letters, it created an office to deal with it. And each letter — the Juliet Club office gets more than 6,000 a year — is answered by hand.
An example, from India:
I am madly in love. I know you get millions of letters with love problems written from around the world. I write today to ask you for strength. I live in India where my parents won't allow me to marry the guy that I love because he is from a different caste. He's the only guy I have felt so strongly about. I know I will have to fight my family for him and I am ready. I ask you only for strength.
The Juliet Club is housed in a small building on the outskirts of the city and is staffed by a small army of volunteers who call themselves the "secretaries." There are about 15 of them. They can read letters addressed to them in a wide variety of languages: Italian, English, German, Spanish, Japanese.
Secretary Elena Marchi says that they take their job seriously. Some of them come every afternoon to tend to the ceaseless outpouring of letters. They are grandmothers, young students, old men, divorcees, married folks, bakers, economists, scholars of literature, a ballet dancer.
The city pays for stamps and paper — promoting its identity as the hometown of Romeo and Juliet is not a bad thing for tourism — but the secretaries work free.
Marchi says they use their own experience to reply. "When there's a difficult letter, we talk to each other to see which is the best answer to give," she says.
"People start the letters often saying, 'Juliet, you are the one who can understand how I feel,' which is nice in a way, but very sad in another way, because they don't feel they can talk to the person next to them," says club manager Giovanna Tamassia.
Still, despite the heartbreak, many of the secretaries have been doing this for years — decades even. But the odd effect of witnessing so much loneliness, the secretaries explain, is that it actually makes them feel closer to humanity at large. "Seeing that so many people are sharing the same feeling," says Marchi, "makes you a little less lonely."
Most likely, it is that contact that the letter writers are seeking, too. All of the secretaries say that it is not advice so much that the letter writers are seeking but being witnessed. That's what's quietly unbelievable about the Juliet Club, that in this sometimes lonely, isolating world, the secretaries are always there.