A tiny office in Verona is inundated every year with thousands of letters. All of them are addressed to Juliet–yes, that Juliet—and all of them ask about love and heartbreak. A remarkable group of women calling themselves the secretaries of Juliet have been answering these letters for decades and, in my book, Juliet’s Answer, I worked alongside them over the course of two years, answering letters myself, and coming to know the wisdom of these amazing women.
We all feel love the same way. I met Giovanna first, the head secretary, in the cramped offices just outside the old town. She was elegant and her English was perfect. “For more than 20 years,” she began, “I have answered the letters as my father did before me. And what I have learned is that love is the same all over the world. No matter where you come from, what your background is, your age, your sex, your religion, your country, when it comes to the feelings of love, we are all the same.”
It’s important to live it. Giovanna brought me an espresso in a tiny doll-house cup. “Love,” she explained, “is the most important feeling that we have. Maybe love can be filled with pain, sometimes joy or happiness, but it’s important to live it. It’s worth it to live deeply even if your love story can be painful.”
Check your self-esteem. Manuela is the historian of the group. She is a certified tour guide for the city and she came out from her own office to meet me. “Mostly, it is women who write to us,” she began.
“And I see, unfortunately, many of them have no self-esteem. They think they are only good when they have a man by them. When they lose love they feel like they can do nothing in their life.” Manuela shook her head. “They write to Juliet as a way to move on. It is the act of writing that is important. Just to send it, like a wish.”
There are stages in your life. Manuela asked me if I’d like to see the sites of Verona. We walked through the cobblestone streets to the house of Juliet – an ancient building which had belonged to a family named Cappello – a name Shakespeare later changed to Capulet. In the court yard there, a red letter box accepts the letters to Juliet. “Sometimes,” Manuela said, “I read a letter from an older woman, sixty-five, seventy, maybe, and they are now looking back on their lives. Maybe they made mistakes but it is in the past. They can see a bigger picture now, and they accept it. I think this is important, these stages in your life. If you are in pain now you must realize it will not always be this way.”
Keep up hope. The next day, back at the office again, I was introduced to Elena who has been cataloguing the letters for more than fourteen years. “Many of the letters are sad,” Elena admitted. “When you are in darkness, you cannot see the light, but you must keep up hope. Really, things can happen in such unexpected ways that all we have to do is keep our hearts open and give other people a chance.”
There is love all around you. Elana paused. It seemed there was something more she wanted to say. “There are people who say I’m okay being single,” she started. “I have so much love in my life all the same; friends, family, and of course from our pets. What I’ve learned is that love, in all its possible forms, is something that makes life worth living. It’s not only romance.”
Love yourself first. Most surprising to me, in all my time in Verona, were the words of a much younger secretary, Soňa, who was a Czech exchange student. She’d come to work on her Italian and had joined the club, like me, as a volunteer. She took me to the finest gelateria in Verona. The gelato was heaped in metal pans, as soft as silk and to even call it ice cream would be to discredit it. It was there that I asked Soňa what she had learned from the letters. “I think,” she said, “you need to know yourself first before you can fall in real love–and before someone can fall in love with you. It’s like once you are in love with yourself, then others can follow your example.” I thought that was brilliant.
There were other things I learned along the way. There’s actually quite a bit of advice in the play itself (Shakespeare was always wise in the ways of the human heart) and there’s much more in my book, Juliet’s Answer. There’s so much more to learn about this crazy thing we all feel, this soul-wrenching experience that is both our deepest sorrow and our greatest joy.