Penfriends for 35 years

The Polyglot Gathering was only the beginning of my trip to Germany. What came next was an extremely special and emotional meeting that I will never forget.

How it all began

In 1980 I was attending a German nightclass in Sydney, Australia. I was very keen to have contact with someone actually living in Germany, so when I got hold of a German magazine I wrote to the Editor and requested a penfriend. I had no idea what was to come!

Literally hundreds of letters started arriving – 52 on one single day! Evidently the idea of having a penfriend in Australia was very appealing to a lot of Germans. At first they were overwhelmingly from West Germany, but then a trickle started to come through from the East – behind the Iron Curtain. A lot of the letters were very similar, but one stood out in particular. I don’t know what it was, but Traudi’s letter seemed different – somehow more personal – and I was keen to write to her.

I selected a few, mainly from the East like Traudi, and took the rest to local secondary schools that taught German. There was NO WAY I could handle that many letters!

Gradually the other correspondence dwindled and stopped, but Traudi and I kept writing. It was fascinating comparing our lives and sharing our experiences as new mothers living in completely different circumstances. We exchanged photos and talked about our hopes for the future.

A phonecall in the night

Then came a letter with a surprise. Traudi had organised a 17-digit phone number which I could use to call her. She wasn’t able to call out, but she could receive a call. I worked out the time difference and saw that it would be good to call when I was up in the night feeding my young baby girl.

I had to make the call through an International Operator in Brisbane, who sounded half asleep and was very surprised that I was trying to call East Germany. “I hope YOU can speak German when they answer on the other end, as I can’t!” but he was keen to help.

We got through, but that first time Traudi wasn’t home. Jürgen, her husband, asked if I could call again at the same time the following night and he would make sure she was there. The following night I contacted the Operator again and we went through the procedure again.

This time Traudi answered. I don’t think we said a lot: it was mainly laughing, crying and exclamations of joy, but it opened a small chink in the Wall.

A change of strategy

Unfortunately I didn’t keep my German up, moving to Weipa where there was no nightschool and then starting to learn Spanish instead. Gradually I wrote shorter and shorter letters as it took longer and longer for me to write in German.

I didn’t want to stop writing though, so Traudi suggested that I write in English and she would get help to translate it, and she would continue to write in German which I could manage to read with the help of a dictionary.

This worked well, and although we dropped down to only once or twice a year, we kept the communication up.

The end of the Wall

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 Traudi’s life began to change. At first it wasn’t for the better in terms of job security. She and Jürgen both lost their jobs and with a young child wondered what to do. Keen environmentalists they decided to become as self-sufficient as possible, and established Haselnusshof – a traditional German country house with enough land around to grow all kinds of vegetables and fruits, raise chickens, and generally live off the land.

And it was to Haselnusshof that I made my way from Berlin.

Meeting after 35 years

Traudi and her son, Christian, who is now a husband and father of a delightful 2-year old, met me at Wittenberge station and it was truly as if we’d known each other all our lives. We couldn’t stop hugging each other, delighted that we had finally met. Even the fact that my German was decidedly rusty (despite cramming from an old textbook during the 1.5 hour train ride) didn’t detract from the emotion of the meeting.

Meeting in Wittenberge

I stayed for 2 nights, sleeping in a little Swedish style guest cottage in the garden, and finding out all about Traudi’s life. She explained how lucky she was to get that original magazine, sent to her from the West by a relative. Often such items were removed by the East German officials, but with it being a busy time just before Christmas somehow the magazine had made it through in a parcel. Traudi wasn’t sure if her first letter would reach me or if she would be able to get a reply, so it was amazing that we were able to correspond all that time.

With Jürgen we visited Das Grüne Band at Wirlspitze, near Arendsee. This is the site of the dividing fence between East and West which has been preserved in its entirety as a long nature strip. Jürgen often leads groups here to learn about the history, and pointed out some of the key features – remains of casings of landmines, a post with rusted barbed wire pinned to it where the old fence used to stand – then he took Traudi and me by the hand and together we walked symbolically from the old East part into the West.

Das Grüne Band

It was an incredible feeling, knowing how very different that spot would have been when we started corresponding.

It was hard to leave on the third day, but it was time for me to head home to Wales. Now I’m determined to get my German back to a reasonable level of fluency so I can write more often and perhaps we can even Skype! And of course, I look forward to welcoming Traudi to Wales when she’s ready to make a return visit.

It definitely won’t be another 35 years before we meet again!

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