Issue #54 (February 1986)
Some friendships are special, but mine with Daniel is extra special. Daniel, you see, is my pen pal. When we "met" in 1965, we were both in high school. Back in those days, anything French was — in my book — magnifique, merveilleux, fantastique!
And Daniel, being French, was ipso facto more than wonderful. What's more, he was a Boy. Looking back, I think of Daniel as a childhood friend, a sort of exotic playmate.
To meet Daniel could shatter my illusions.
[quoteright]And play we did! In the early years cards, letters, and packages were coming and going constantly. Between us, I'm sure, we kept the post offices of France and the U.S. safe from bankruptcy. We wrote mostly in French, with a paragraph or two in English, and just for fun, an occasional paragraph in Spanish. We entertained each other, not just with words, but with cartoons and sketches, and little surprises — things like messages on a balloon. We even looked into exchanging tape recorded messages, but Daniel's father, a postal official, said the red tape would be prohibitive.
Having a foreign pen pal put some zing into our otherwise ordinary lives, as well as a measure of prestige. It certainly never occurred to me not to brag to my friends and classmates about the good thing I had going! Daniel must have talked it up too, because we ended up matching a pair of friends who were eager to get their own pen pals.
Our friends' correspondences fizzled out, but for Daniel and me, our friendship steadily grew stronger. Most of our news was cheerful, but we shared the sad times and disappointments too. My stepfather died, and Daniel didn't pass his baccalaurate exam the first time. But most of our news was good news.
Then after nearly four years, Daniel stopped writing. No letters, no explanation. His last letter had seemed normal, perfectly cheerful. He was joining the army, and looking forward to his assignment in the ski patrol. He drew a comical sketch of himself, skis tangled, tumbling down a mountain slope. A conversation bubble said "Bye-bye, Daunna!' — but I didn't take it literally. A couple of months went by with no word, no new address, so I sent a letter to his home address. No reply. Six or eight months later I sent a Christmas card. Daniel sent one back with a brief note of holiday wishes.
I missed him, of course, but I wasn't devastated. My life was happy and full at the time, and I figured that perhaps as a military man, Daniel felt a pen pal would be an embarrassment.
Four or five years went by. One day, perhaps when I was at a low point, I yielded to an impulse to write to Daniel. His reply was immediate and enthusiastic. We'd both been through a few knocks in life, so it was comforting to hear from an old friend. Neither of us attempted to re-establish our old pattern of frequent exchanges, but we've kept in touch ever since. We write from time to time, and exchange Christmas greetings and vacation post curds.
It's surprising how much you can share another person's life even without meeting. In November 1984, for instance, Daniel sent me an invitation to — at last! — his wedding. His accompanying joyous letter left me walking around in a happy glow for days. Using Print Shop on an Apple //, I promptly created a five-foot long banner with wedding bells and a personalized greeting card with cupids. In my own cornball way, I even attended the wedding. Knowing the ceremony was to begin at 4:00 p.m., I phoned the international operator to find out exactly how many hours' time difference there was, and set my alarm to get up in time to be there in spirit, to imagine what might be going on. In fact, I had a very happy time and even shed a few tears of joy.
To be sure, knowing someone from letters and photos is limiting. Nonetheless, I always felt that I knew Daniel from his letters. I could guess with confidence his character: obviously polite, modest and unassuming (but hardly self-effacing), more of a follower than a leader, sensitive to others, and so on. The only way to know if my reading of his character was accurate, of course, would be to meet Daniel face-to-face.
I suppose I could have met Daniel during one of three trips to Europe in the seventies. I even spent time in France, but that was when we were out of touch. The fact is, however, that I was content with the mystery of the unknown. To meet Daniel could shatter my illusions. Who knows — we might even take each other in dislike! No, I preferred not to risk it.
Then in early 1985 I knew I would soon be going to London for an extended stay. Daniel, living in Paris, was not far away. To meet him or not to meet him?
My list of "why not's" was endless: Daniel would discover my French wasn't flawless. My hair was sure to frizz. I was too tall, too fat. What on earth would we find to talk about? Ridiculous excuses! I excoriated myself for my silliness right up till I got on the plane. But on the way to Europe, I decided once and for all to send Daniel a card with my phone number so we could arrange a meeting.
The card mailed, my next hurdle was to get through a telephone conversation, all in French. Conversing in person doesn't alarm me, but on the phone....well, that's downright scary! What if we couldn't understand each other? What about all those flowery greetings and leave-takings the French go in for? I just didn't know any of those polite rituals in French — would Daniel think I was boorish? Such were the trivia I agonized over until I remembered that Daniel was my friend, not my enemy. Naturally he would share the communication burden and excuse my blunders.
And he did. Making voice contact was exhilarating. I hardly knew what I expected him to sound like, yet his voice — a quite normal one — surprised me. We understood each other well enough to make plans, and even joke about how we'd recognize each other — I would carry a flower in my hand, and he would wear a gray hat.
Arrangements made, I boarded the train for Paris. I lied to myself that I was calm, even blase. Still, every five minutes for the next seven hours, I was snatching my mini French dictionary out of my purse to look up a word. That activity helped steady my nerves. My pretended nonchalance lasted until the announcement that the train would arrive at Paris Nord in two minutes. Two minutes! My heart started hammering and my brain froze except to shout over and over: "This is it! This is it! This is it!"
It was the end of the line. I had to get off. I wanted to get off. I was scared to get off. I got off. All the other passengers zoomed off at a diagonal. I wondered if I should too, but at the moment, the train was like an umbilical cord; I didn't dare cut it yet. There was a lone man at the head of the train — but no gray hat. Could that be my pen pal? As I walked closer he seemed to be smiling. It must be Daniel, so I smiled back. The smiles got bigger... And so we met. Face-to-face after twenty years!
Once in his car, Daniel told me we were heading for a fashion show, where we would meet his wife Babette, who happened to be friends with the designers. Blithely confessing he always got a bit étourdie driving in Paris, he handed me a map and asked me to navigate. Me?
The particulars of our activities over the next four days aren't significant. Journal entries would relate that we played tourist and took meals with various friends and relatives. All very enjoyable. I loved seeing the wedding album, so cleverly laid out and annotated in theatre jargon — so appropriate considering Daniel and Babette had met through their mutual passion for acting. What is important about those events is that they made a good backdrop for connecting, for getting acquainted with a stranger who wasn't a stranger.
Getting acquainted was, in a positive sense, eerie. It must be akin to seeing yourself in a mirror for the first time. A boxful of letters, cards, and gifts had seemingly overnight metamorphosed into a delight- ful human being. It was utterly fascinating to compare Daniel-on-Paper to Daniel-in-Person. They matched! Daniel-in-Person was polite, modest, unassuming, sensitive, etc., just as I'd known Daniel-on-Paper to be.
There were little surprises, but no shocks. Daniel was more informal and in behavior, appearance, and lifestyle than I'd expected. I'd expected him to be slightly more assertive and outgoing. But Daniel- on-Paper had given me all the clues to Daniel-in-Person. If it were possible to make a picture of a person's character, my image of Daniel was like that of a painted portrait rather than a photograph. Once I met him, I could see the minor distortions, all of my own creation.
Daniel and Babette were wonderful to me. They took care of my needs and fulfilled my wishes. They kept everything relaxed. They always spoke carefully so I could understand. When we were in groups with rapid conversations going on, Babette was excellent at summarizing often enough for me to feel included, but not so often that I felt like a burden.
I especially enjoyed all the family activities. Daniel's sister spent a lot of time with us, even at Babette's mother's suburban apartment, where we stayed. (Daniel and Babette lived in a tiny Parisian attic.)
On my last evening there was a family dinner party with about a dozen people. The food was great and the wine flowed, but what impressed me was that we never left the table. We all must have sat there for three hours. I was sorry when the party broke up.
I'll never forget my first night. I was just about to get into bed when there was a knock on the door. There were Daniel and Babette in their nightclothes, scrubbed and ready for bed. They said they'd come to say goodnight. And the next thing I knew, first one, then the other lunged forward and kissed my left cheek, then my right cheek! Was I ever startled! (I hope they didn't think I was too standoffish.) The next morning when I went downstairs, they greeted me again in the same way. I began to look forward to the ritual.
There had been some discussion about bathing, which seemed normal to me considering there were three extra people staying in the house. It wasn't until the second time I went to take a bath that I realized why people wanted to know my plans: you had to fire up the hot water heater in advance. So my second bath was very chilly; I was in and out within sixty seconds. I remember laughing at the time, yet I know I was embarrassed too, because I didn't want to tell anyone about my little fiasco.
My four glorious days went much too fast. The experience was very emotional for me. Everyone was so kind, made me feel so welcome. As I packed my bags the last morning, I started crying, and I knew I had to stop. How could I explain red eyes to people who had been so good to me? After all, I was merely a weekend guest. I felt terrible because my French was inadequate to thank these good people properly, to tell them how much they had enriched my life.
Daniel doesn't reveal his thoughts casually, but things he said give a few clues to how he views our relationship. Like me, he saved all the letters he'd received. Unlike me, he had never experienced any doubts about the desirability of meeting face-to-face. At lunch the last day, just before I boarded the train, he made a toast to our twenty years of correspondence and announced, "No longer are we pen pals. Now we're friends!"
How could I have known all those years ago when I signed up for a pen pal that I was embarking on a rare and extraordinary life experience? I wouldn't trade my special relationship with Daniel for the world.
Penpal DAUNNA MINNICH is currently in the People's Republic of China, helping our Business Manager, TOD WICKS, install telephones. Tod reports that the Chinese phone books are full of Wong numbers.
Daunna started her professional career as an English as a Second Language instructor in Iran in the 70s, managing to exit the country a few days before the Shah. Since then she has continued to teach, become a mother of two girls, and is actively involved in foreign language immersion and special education in her local school district.