The magic is in the details
What are Pen Pals? What is Snailmail? What's inside this magical and interesting world that makes it so special and that you will surely fall in love with and want to be a part of?
In a world where artificial intelligence, digital technology, and information overload overwhelm us daily, there are people like Barbara (a.k.a. Lady Caracoles) who enjoy taking quality time to write a beautiful handwritten letter, fill an envelope with gifts and creative details, and take this unique and special letter to the post office to send it to a Pen Pal who will receive it with much anticipation in their mailbox, several days or even weeks later, somewhere else in the world.
In this post, we invite you to delve into Barbara's world and discover why writing letters is still a unique and special way to connect with others, with oneself, and helps us to stop and take time to appreciate the simple things in life while doing something special and creative.
Let's dive into it!
Who is Lady Caracoles?
Before we dive into the world of Pen Pals, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, who you are, and what fills your stomach with butterflies?
My name is Barbara, but my family and friends call me Babs. I have two beautiful daughters aged 8 and 10, and although we have been living in Vienna for 9 years, I am from Barcelona (one of the most beautiful cities in the world).
I work in the world of advertising and communication as a creative copywriter, and besides writing, which I am passionate about, I also love reading. I enjoy anything related to creativity, art, and handmade crafts. So the world of snail mail, scrapbooking, journaling, making cookies or cakes, and decorating them... I find it all very enjoyable!
Butterflies in my stomach? I prefer chocolate. 😉
What are “Pen Pals”?
What does “Pen Pals” mean? At what age did you start having Pen Pals? How did you discover it?
Well, Pen Pals are anyone with whom you correspond, whether it's letters or postcards. They can be people close to you (a family member, a friend, a neighbor) or people who live thousands of kilometers from your city, in another country, or on another continent.
Usually, it's someone you regularly exchange beautiful mail with, but they can also be sporadic Pen Pals or a one-time exchange.
The truth is that since I was very young, I have enjoyed the feeling of receiving a letter addressed to me.
I remember being 8 or 9 years old and asking the doorman of my parents' building every day if I had received anything. It used to be very typical to receive postcards from the trips your grandparents, cousins, or some close friend took. But that custom disappeared. Such a shame!
I have always remembered writing letters during the summer with classmates or people I met at camps who lived in another city. Obviously, since there was neither the Internet nor the mobile phone, it was the only way to keep in touch. But I always liked to sit down and write several pages of letters. At that time, it wasn't called "having Pen Pals," you simply sent letters.
Afterwards, when I entered university, the daily use of the computer, emails, WhatsApp... I stopped writing, and of course, stopped receiving letters. The novelty was sending images with the mobile phone, emojis, gifs, and postcards were forgotten, relegated to memory boxes.
Many years later, I moved to a new city and country.
When I arrived in Vienna, I had no friends, no acquaintances, and didn't even speak the language! And I discovered on Instagram something called "snailmail" (which is the cool way of saying "sending decorated letters by regular mail"). And it was a lifesaver for me in a new life that was beginning, far from my family and friends.
How to find a Pen Pal
How do you find a Pen Pal? Are there groups or communities where you can find them?
As I mentioned before, a Pen Pal can be anyone: a family member, a friend, someone from your own city, or someone who lives thousands of kilometers away from where you are. You can start with someone you know, who is also willing to write back to you.
You can also find a lot of people on Instagram (which is where I have met all my Pen Pals) through specific hashtags like #penpal #snailmail #snailmailcommunity, or by following accounts of people who sometimes post things called "Find a Pen Pals". @marionbcn or @penpaling_paula often post such things from time to time.
For example, one of my Pen Pals has an Instagram account of this kind. It's called @penpalsover30, and if you send her a message explaining your hobbies and the type of Pen Pal you're looking for, she will post an ad on her profile with your name.
There are also websites like www.postcrossing.com or www.penpalworld.com, or Facebook pages like Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals where you can find people from all over the world who are also looking for Pen Pals.
Are "Pen Pals" an international thing?
You live in Vienna, which parts of the world do you exchange correspondence with Pen Pals?
Well, I think I've had Pen Pals from all five continents! But currently, I have "stable" Pen Pals in Chile, USA, Spain, Sweden, Germany, and Italy.
The best age to have a Pen Pal
Are there Pen Pals of all ages?
Yes, of course. When you look for Pen Pals on Instagram, for example, you can narrow down your search a bit. You can search not only by age but also by language, by country (it costs different to send a letter or postcard to a country in the EU than to one across the ocean), by common interests…
From paper to the real world
Have you ever met any of your Pen Pals in person?
Yes, I have met several. And it has always been great to chat with them face to face. The truth is that they start as Pen Pals, but end up being friends. Even closer friends than some of the ones you already had as friends. I don't know if I'm explaining myself well.
What to write
What topics are usually written about?
Well, the first letter is usually an introduction. Who you are, where you're from, what you do, where you live, your likes and hobbies... In your first letter, you can include a "Question Tag" for your Pen Pal to answer in their next letter, generating topics of conversation.
A Question Tag is just asking your Pen Pal a question on a separate piece of paper that's not in the letter. In my case, when I include one, my questions are usually creative to surprise and make my Pen Pal think about things they may have never been asked before. For example, if you could have coffee with any historical figure, who would it be and where would you go? Or if you could have a superpower, what would it be? Or what are your top 3 destinations you'd like to travel to in your life? The sky's the limit!
What to send
What type of correspondence do you send? Do you only send letters or anything else?
Well, there is all kinds of correspondence, depending on the person you're sending it to. Normally, before sending the first letter, you agree with your Pen Pal on what type of exchange you will make. It can be that you send each other a single postcard decorated or painted by you, or it can be a decorated postcard per month, or a letter, which can be short or long. You can even do exchanges of pretty stationery or Christmas things... The options are endless. That's why you need to talk beforehand and agree on the style of exchange.
Usually, in a standard exchange, when you talk about sending nice mail or snail mail with a Pen Pal, in addition to a decorated letter, you include other things that they might like, such as stickers, samples of washi tape, a tea bag, a blank postcard, cutouts from magazines, decorated papers, old stamps…
What was the funniest thing your Pen Pal ever sent you? And the strangest?
Oh, I've received all sorts of things! Hehe. They've sent me chocolates of all kinds, a mug for tea (but I use it for pens), cookie cutters, a crochet doily made by the Pen Pal themselves, a lip balm to protect me from the cold in Vienna, Harry Potter socks, an aloe vera face mask, soap tablets with different shapes and scents, plant and flower seeds from my Pen Pal's home country, a fridge magnet... Can you have better Pen Pals than that? 😊
Any other type of correspondence that you have sent each other?
As I mentioned earlier, there are as many types of mail as there are people. For example, three years ago, I did a Christmas exchange with a girl from Lithuania. We made a list of things that should be included in the shipment (a letter, a washi tape, a Christmas decoration for the tree, a typical candy from your country, and a surprise), and we agreed on a budget. We sent it at the same time, and it was great to see what she sent me and how happy she was with what I sent her.
Another interesting shipment was "Stamp My Traveling Notebook." Seven girls from different countries (Australia, Austria, Germany, Malaysia) agreed and each of us sent a notebook where the other 6 girls had to stick stamps as requested. For example, in my case, I asked them to theme the stamps by color. So my notebook traveled halfway around the world and came back home with its pages full of red, blue, orange, green stamps... It was a great experience.
Taking the time to create something special
What feelings do you get from preparing the mail to send to your Pen Pals? And opening the mailbox and finding their letters? And opening them?
It's the same feeling as giving a gift or preparing a surprise for someone, because you dedicate time to prepare something that you think they will like. You intuit through their letters and what they send you, what they like or what colors they prefer (and which they don't), what style they have (if they like vintage things, or are a superfan of Harry Potter, or they prefer minimalist things...). So, you gather several things that you think they might like and send them with the letter. And I always imagine the smile with which they will open the decorated envelope I send them.
And of course, it's the same the other way around. I love surprises, and receiving a beautiful envelope that I know will have beautiful things inside is always a surprise, right? And the best part is that you have the possibility of receiving a surprise every day in your mailbox.
Many times, I wonder what I like more about snail mail, if preparing it or receiving it.
How often do Pen Pals write each other?
There's no established rule on this, everyone responds when they can. We all have lives and the daily whirlwind doesn't leave us as much time as we'd like to write. Sometimes you have time the next day after receiving a letter and you sit down to respond, other times you wait until the weekend to find a moment to respond to beautiful letters, on other occasions letters pile up and it takes longer…
And then it depends on each person. I have a Pen Pal, for example, with whom we agreed to send each other a postcard every month. So each one sends it when they want within that month.
However, there's one premise that must be respected. The essence of snail mail is that it's not immediate, but takes time. First, it takes time to prepare, write the letter, and take it to the post office. Then each postal service takes more or less time to send and distribute, and distance must be taken into account. It's not the same to send a letter to Germany, which is right next door, as it is to send it to Japan or Australia, to give two examples. So don't expect a response within a week. Patience is essential in this hobby.
Tips on what not to do in the Pen Pals world
Could you share some friendly tips on what not to do when sending snailmail? We always hear about what to do, but I would like to know more about what is considered inappropriate in order to maintain a good relationship with our Pen Pals.
First and foremost, and almost common sense, is not to post your Pen Pals' address on social media platforms such as Instagram. You can post pictures of what they send you, but the address should either be covered or deleted. In my case, I also delete the content of the letter or postcard, leaving only the decoration visible. That letter was sent to me personally, and often talks about feelings, dreams, or things that have happened in our lives, so I have no right to broadcast it to the world.
Secondly, as hinted in the previous paragraph, when you write to a Pen Pal, you are speaking to her, getting to know each other and establishing a friendship. That's why you should not send generic and impersonal letters written on a computer, from which you could have printed 20 identical copies. Behind each Pen Pal is a different person, with different tastes, with whom you have different relationships. The beauty of snail mail is dedicating time to that person who will receive the letter, and not just sending it out carelessly.
Thirdly, having a Pen Pal is like having a friend, and the relationship is built slowly over time. In the first letter you send each other, there will likely be topics that you don't want to talk about or uncomfortable topics that, due to cultural issues, may create more trouble than good. For example, religion, politics, sexual practices with a partner... I don't know, for a first letter, these may be sensitive topics. With time and trust, you will see what you can and cannot talk about in your letters.
Lastly, don't leave a Pen Pal hanging. If you see that you no longer have time to respond to letters, or you've lost interest or for any reason, let them know. Whether it's a note, a postcard, a letter, or a private message on Instagram, don't leave them waiting forever. Their time is as valuable as yours.
Pen Pals are open to all
Who would you recommend having Pen Pals?
Everyone! I don't think there is anyone who doesn't like receiving a letter in which they tell you a funny anecdote, or where they explain interesting things from other places in the world, or where they give you a recipe for those dishes that always succeed at parties or dinners, and that you can try to replicate.
And if someone doesn't know where to start, I'll be happy to be that first Pen Pal. 😉
And what do you think about this wonderful activity? Do you often write letters by hand? Do you send postcards? Would you like to start doing it more frequently?
Having fun doing something creative and being able to bring joy to someone else despite the distances doesn't have to be difficult or time-consuming. That's why at IPERARTIKA, we designed this collection of postcards with designs meant to help you convey the best emotions to your favorite people. Just choose your favorite materials and colors and start painting!
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Do you have any other questions? Do not hesitate to contact us at email@example.com
Let's keep creating!💫