The story of a classroom assignment turned lifelong friendship. The moment I finally met my pen pal of nearly two decades in Athens, Greece…
Roughly 17 years ago, in a middle school just outside of Pittsburgh, PA, my English teacher unknowingly changed my life for the better with just one assignment. It was that year that our teacher had a special project for us — her own sister was teaching English abroad to a 7th grade class in Greece, and the sisters wanted the classrooms to connect by writing letters back and forth to help the students practice writing in English.
I had the pleasure of writing to Danai. The assignment was the ultimate test of patience and reward for an impatient middle school kid. We would wait several weeks to receive our overseas snail mail responses, but the fun of opening a letter from halfway around the world was always a rush of excitement that made me want to immediately write back.
The assignment eventually wrapped up with the school year and students stopped writing.
Well, almost all of the students.
Danai and I kept writing letters that summer. And the letters turned into packages, packages turned into Christmas cards and birthday presents. The letters spanned months, and then years. Looking back, some of my favorite days in high school were ones when I came home from track practice to my mom exclaiming, “Your package from Greece is here!”
Over the years, we mailed photos, magazines, mix tapes and more overseas, giving each other a glimpse into our Greek and American teenage lives. She would send me photos from the Greek island of Naxos that her family visited in the summers, and I would reply with postcards from Myrtle Beach. We shared successes, school updates, dreams of travel and our future plans. This was all before social media and iPhones.
Eventually, our letters did slow down as email, Facebook and WhatsApp became prominent. In the back of our minds, I believe we both wondered if meeting in person would ever actually happen.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
In early 2018, while wedding planning, the Greek islands kept coming up as a destination as a honeymoon. Naturally, I wondered if my now-husband and I could build in an extra day in Athens into the trip with the intention to meet Danai. It was a big ask to my husband and a lot of faith, trust and anticipation went into planning for it. We knew it could either work out wonderfully, or fall through.
It was almost 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in July when Danai met my husband and I in front of our Athens hotel. She had messaged me earlier in the day to tell me what she’d be wearing, but it wasn’t necessary, because we immediately recognized each other. The moment was surreal, filled with hugs and greetings in both English and Greek.
Danai took us to a popular dinner spot on a crowded tourist street where we met up with two of her friends. Later, we moved on to a more quiet, local spot for drinks. The five of us spent the evening swapping stories of culture, travel and lifestyle like old friends.
The next day, Danai and her friends picked us back up from the hotel to travel to her hometown. An hour outside of Athens, we spent the afternoon swimming at a beautiful beach. After we had successfully soaked up enough sun, we traveled to a nearby restaurant for an authentic Greek meal.
The highlight of the day was when Danai invited us to meet her parents at their home. Her parents only spoke a few words of English, but we never felt like there was a language barrier. We all sipped Greek coffee while sharing stories and laughter about the pair of pen pals who were crazy enough to meet.
AN ASSIGNMENT OF A LIFETIME
My husband claims he saw a lot of personality similarities between Danai and I, which I think that makes sense because it takes a special kind of passion to keep writing all those years.
This entire experience and friendship would not have been possible without that 7th grade assignment. It sparked an interest and appreciation for a culture I would have otherwise not had a personal connection with. I have studied a language I would have otherwise never been motivated to study. And now I am forever thankful to have beautiful memories of spending nearly 24 hours with Danai, my husband, her friends and family in Greece.
And yes, the letters will continue until we can meet again.