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.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Our next story comes to us from Verona, Italy. That's the home of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Each year, the city receives thousands of letters addressed simply to Juliet. It's a tradition that likely goes back centuries. People started out 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 them.
NPR's Lulu Miller reports on the small group of volunteers charged with handling the correspondence. They call themselves, appropriately, the Juliet Club.
(SOUNDBITE OF LETTERS BEING OPENED)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This comes from India; this one, from Japan.
LULU MILLER, BYLINE: The Juliet Club is housed in a small building on the outskirts of the city. I reached them on a recent Tuesday as they were opening that day's mail.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Reading) Dear Juliet, recently I broke up with my boyfriend. I feel very sad because I still love him...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Reading) Dear Juliet, my fiancé is a chef in Greece. He's always tired.
MILLER: The women you are hearing from call themselves secretaries - secretaries of Juliet. There's about 15 of them. They can read letters addressed to them in a wide variety of languages; Italian, of course, English, German, Japanese...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: (Foreign language spoken)
MILLER: And the amazing part - what makes the Juliet Club different than, say, Santa Claus - is that the secretaries reply to each and every letter.
ELENA MARCHI: Handwritten letters, paper and pen.
MILLER: And, says secretary Elena Marchi, they take their job seriously.
MARCHI: I come here almost every afternoon.
MILLER: Really, every afternoon?
MILLER: Are there letters waiting every day?
MARCHI: Oh, yes. Yes. Yes. It's really a huge amount of letters.
MILLER: These days, it's up to over 6,000 letters a year, which is why they need so many secretaries.
HANNAH: I'm Hannah.
MANUELA UBER: Hi, I am Manuela.
GIOVANNA TOMASIA: I am Giovanna.
MILLER: You've got grandmothers, old men...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Buon giorno, tutti.
MILLER: Bakers, economists...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: One of us is a ballet dancer, Barbara.
MILLER: The city pays for stamps and paper. Furthering their identity as the home of Romeo and Juliet is not a bad thing for tourism. But the secretaries work for free.
MARCHI: Of course, we use our experience to reply.
MILLER: Again, Elena Marchi.
MARCHI: When there's a - maybe a difficult letter, we talk to each other to see which is the best answer to give.
MILLER: Giovanna Tomasia is the manager of the club.
TOMASIA: When you see all of these boxes full of letters, sometimes you have the feeling that you will not be able to answer them all.
(SOUNDBITE OF LETTER BEING OPENED)
MARCHI: (Reading) Dear Juliet: I just don't know what to do anymore. I'm crying every day. Juliet, can I become happy again?
MILLER: Elena Marchi says thiris never-ending stream of sadness can get to you.
MARCHI: People start the letters - often - saying, Juliet, you are the only one who can understand how I feels - which is nice, in a way; but very sad, in another way...
MARCHI: ...because they do not feel they can talk to the people next to them.
MILLER: So how long can a person stand in this fire hose of human loneliness, and take it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I joined the club 18 years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I have been working here 20 years.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: I've be here for 10 years...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: It started just to see because I was curious, and I never stopped.
MILLER: Why? Why have you stayed?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Why?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Um...
MILLER: Marchi says it's about the connection.
MARCHI: Some days that maybe I was sad because of my own problems, seeing that so many people share the same feeling makes you feel a little less lonely. You know?
MILLER: And it's that contact that the letters writers are likely seeking, too, says Manuela Uber
UBER: Yes, someone will listen to you, and takes time to read your letter and also, to reply.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANDWRITING)
MILLER: That's what's quietly unbelievable about the Juliet Club. In a world that can be isolating, the secretaries are there.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Yes .
MILLER: Always there.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #11: Yes, of course.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #12: Yeah.
MILLER: For those interested in writing, you can address your letter simply to Juliet in Verona, Italy. It will get to them.
Lulu Miller, NPR News.
GREENE: And one more note about the Juliet Club. The secretaries also keep every letter they receive. And so there's an archive available to the public. Think of it as a sort of repository of loneliness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.