When I was in the eighth grade, I was approached by one of my teachers to see if I’d like a pen-pal. She had taken part in an exchange program with another school. I’m not entirely certain of details beyond that. (I was thirteen, what do you want?)
Mrs. Lees had a letter from a girl my age introducing herself to a possible new friend. The girl lived in Riga, Latvia. In February 1989, that was still very much part of the U.S.S.R. In 1989, many of the bad guys in American films were still Soviets.
Even at thirteen, I was interested in a wider world than my tiny corner of rural Ohio.
My friend, Urate, and I wrote consistently through High School. We talked about how teenagers make spending cash in one another’s countries. I sent her Teen Magazine, and she sent me Art books. We talked about television shows and music we liked. (We both liked Madonna). We talked about our boyfriends.
We talked about the Berlin Wall when it went down. I read her first-person accounts of Latvia’s exit from the Soviet Union (If you remember, it was the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia that left first.) She asked me questions like the ones in this scanned letter:
“Do you hear something about events in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia? What do you think about Perestroika and Glastnost?”
I was glued to the world news. It might have seemed strange for a teen to care so much about the dissolution of the Soviet Republic, but I had skin in the game. I had a friend there.
When the US was the first to recognize the sovereignty of the Baltics as countries, I cheered.
No one else among my friends and peers really cared. No one else seemed to notice.
I have adult friends who say “Oh, yeah, I remember the Berlin Wall”. But they might not also remember tanks in Riga square (just blocks from Urate’s house). They don’t remember the trouble that brewed after the Baltics left the USSR. Though she had been born and raised as a Latvian, Urate’s parents were Russian. I had to learn a new Cyrillic address for my friend when their family moved to Siberia.
This probably had something to do with my International Affairs major, and my interest in the United Nations. It’s easier to tell that with hindsight than in the moment. My embarrassment that she wrote me in English (and apologized for it!) and I didn’t know her language certainly propelled me to learn more languages.
We fell out of touch when we both moved away for college, but our parents managed to get our letters to us. For a while, we wrote from Moscow and Virginia. After we moved again, letters became infrequent. I did find her on the internet years later. We exchanged emails for a bit. For some reason, knowing her email address made it permissible to write less often. She is an art teacher in Moscow. I would still like to visit her someday.
I want to mull over the fact that the internet made this kind of contact with the rest of the world seem both more accessible and more disposable than postal letters. The transient contact of a tweet or a Facebook post stretches across the globe, but it doesn’t last. This woman changed the trajectory of my life, and I don’t know how to get in touch with her.
Excuse me, I’ve got some Googling to do…..