You may have heard of the film Letters to Juliet, a classic 2000’s rom-com starring Amanda Seyfried, who plays the much-loved trope of New York journalist searching for love and a promotion. Although embellished with plotlines involving a long-lost soul mate and a brooding British love interest, the basis of the plot resides in a true story. In the film, Amanda Seyfried’s character Sophie writes an article about the Secretaries of Juliet – just as I am doing now.
The Secretaries are a group of volunteers that live and work in Verona, Italy – the so-called town of love. All over the world, people send letters to the Secretaries addressed to Juliet, entrusting her with personal tales of heartbreak, dilemmas, misfortune and excitement. ‘Juliet’ then responds with advice and heartfelt encouragement to thousands of love-struck people every year from across the globe.
In the film, Sophie then discovers a letter that had been lost for over 50 years and never received a response. She tracks down the author who turns out to be lovable widow Claire and meets her handsome, but emotionally unavailable grandson, Charlie. Together they hunt down Claire’s first love through the scenic Italian countryside.
The Secretaries became known worldwide after the film’s release in 2010, but the real Secretaries of Juliet began as early as the 1930’s when Ettore Solimani, the Guardian of Juliet’s tomb, began gathering letters left at her grave. She was so moved by their content that she began replying, thus becoming Juliet’s first secretary.
During reading week 2021, two of my friends and I managed to get cheap flights to Verona, so we visited the beautiful town and the secretaries for ourselves. Our first stop was Juliet’s balcony, a crumbling brick landmark where tourists can stand and quote, “Wherefore art though Romeo” whilst posing for pictures. It was as picturesque as we’d envisioned and of course, we took our own obligatory photos.
In the film Letters to Juliet, the wall underneath the balcony is where each heartbroken soul leaves their letter for it to be collected later that day. In reality, there is a much more practical post-box beside it, painted red and covered in hearts. Although, it is true that the secretaries do tirelessly collect its contents at the end of each day!
Once we arrived, we were greeted by several women from all ages and backgrounds, who were very chatty and welcoming. The woman in charge, with whom we had been emailing, introduced us to the group and told us a bit about the operation. She and her daughter had been running it for years with the help of interchanging volunteers alongside them.
Her daughter spoke to us about how she grew up answering these letters, something you could definitely tell from her immaculate calligraphic handwriting which made her letters appear to be written by Juliet herself. Even from a young age, she had been dressing up in old-timey gowns for photo shoots as Juliet, and her Instagram was full of photos of her atop Juliet’s balcony looking gracious and regal.
We also spoke to a volunteer from Columbia who was just as excited to be there as we were. She told us about how she had recently married her first love whom she met when she was studying in Italy several years ago. The pair had broken up and gone 10 years without speaking, only to bump into each other in 2019 and rekindle their love.
With her own story spookily similar to the plotline of the film and feeling so inspired after watching it, she felt she had to volunteer here after settling down in Verona with her new husband.
After speaking to the volunteers, we got a chance to look through the secretary’s vast storage boxes of letters. Every letter sent to Juliet since the 90’s was carefully filed away and categorised behind their writing station. We were given an overflowing box of letters that had been written in English and told to read and respond to anything we liked.
Reading people’s stories was fascinating and we tried our best to give advice, although I’m not sure the senders were expecting responses from 19-year-old British students. We aimed to be as helpful yet poetic as we could and, of course, signed each letter off as Juliet.
We couldn’t stay for too long, so I only managed to respond to two – both of which shared similar problems despite being from drastically different women. The first was from a 17-year-old American girl who was dating a boy for the first time, who endearingly asked for advice on hugging, holding hands, and conversation starters for their first date. The relationship was long distance and she felt extra pressure when meeting him as there had been a substantial build-up.
The second letter I responded to was a 35-year-old Spanish woman living in Germany. She had also just started up a long-distance relationship and was finding it hard to trust him. She talked about how she had been hurt in the past and was scared that he would snatch her heart and run away with it. Despite her fears, I encouraged her to take the next step as he had asked her to move in with him, ‘you don’t know until you try’ being the main theme of my response.
Meeting with the secretaries and experiencing the culture of Verona was a once a lifetime experience and I encourage everyone to send them a letter, email or even visit if they can. The reply might take some time as they are sent from across the world in many different languages, but for a letter from Juliet Capulet herself, I believe it’s worth the wait. Although the film Letters to Juliet was heartfelt and romantic, it really didn’t do the real thing justice.
You can post your dilemmas, queries or just rant about any form of love to JULIET CLUB, Vicolo Santa Cecilia 9, 37121, Verona – Italy.
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0161 275 2930 University of Manchester’s Students’ Union, Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9PR