In the first year of secondary school we were encouraged to sign up to a “Pen Pal” organisation. It matched British children with others of similar ages across Europe and, on joining, returned a list for you to choose a pal from.
I went for the most foreign sounding name on the list. My finger passed over Klaus, Emil and Pedro and settled on Juha. Juha Myllylä from Finland, a country I knew absolutely nothing about. I thought it was a marvellous idea and got completely carried away with the idea of corresponding with someone so far away, I even bought an impenetrable Finnish phrasebook.
I wrote my first letter on air mail paper that I’d been given as part of a writing set on my birthday. It’s hard to imagine now that a gift of a zipped leather folder enclosing a selection of paper, envelopes and a fountain pen could be gratefully received by a twelve year old. I initially became familiar with Basildon Bond and Schaefer to write underwhelming thank you letters (under duress) to distant aunts, I couldn’t wait to have an excuse to write something more interesting.
The air mail paper itself had a whiff of the romantic about it. Extra thin, light blue paper that folded to make a self enclosed, ready gummed envelope, it was printed with pale lines and a red and blue drawing of an aeroplane. It also sported the wonderfully evocative words Par Avion.
At first I followed the guidelines set out by our form teacher and wrote about my family, hobbies and where I lived. I enclosed a photograph which showed a chubby-chopped adolescent sporting a mid seventies haircut akin to something Cleopatra might have favoured – my mother’s homemade attempt at “styling”.
I waited three weeks for a response. When the reciprocal airmail finally slipped through our letterbox I reached it almost before it completed its flight by wafting to a gentle landing on our hall carpet.
It looked identical to the one I’d sent but the stamps were intriguingly different, the drawing of the aeroplane more stylish and the exciting, foreign smell of it immediately entranced me, a first hand introduction to the exotic.
I took the limp epistle upstairs to my bedroom and marvelled at the glow it seemed to exude in my hands despite its insubstantial material. I read the unfamiliar handwriting and marvelled at the crossed number seven in the return address. How cool!
I unzipped my writing case and took out, for the first time, my shiny new letter opener and carefully sliced along the edge of the paper. A passport photo fell out. An almost exact clone of myself, though a little slimmer of face. So, Finnish mothers had a sadistic streak when it came to haircuts too, it seemed.
I learned that Juha lived with his parents in a flat in a town called Forssa. He had a younger sister and rode his bike to school. He was a fan of English language television (especially Starsky & Hutch), and played ice hockey. He’d never heard of rugby but we both liked ABBA. He was my instant new best friend.
I quickly wrote back and we were soon exchanging a couple of letters a month. We sent each other small gifts of badges and magazine cuttings, photographs and pens. We discussed pets, friends, the weather and movies. On opening each letter I got a whiff of a cold, dark, austere country where the stoic populace spoke a unique language and loved saunas and the outdoors. I fantasised about visiting the truly foreign land of forests and lakes Juha described in his letters.
I never did. I blame girls and music and rugby and all the other interests that took me over in the following years. The closest I’ve ever been to Finland was a holiday in Sweden a couple of years ago.
I can’t remember which of us wrote the last letter but I’m sad to think that it might have been him. I wonder if it was at the point when that fleeting moment of exoticism metamorphosed imperceptibly into the mundane.
I tried recently to track Juha down on Facebook. My search returned a gallery of grizzled, snow squinting Finns, one of whom might well have been my friend from forty odd years ago. I tentatively messaged him but received no response. My attempt at contact just joined the everyday blizzard of global digital messaging, at once extraordinary, and nothing special.