NEWBERRY — When Betsy Alexander was given instructions in her fifth-grade classroom to write to a pen pal across the world in Italy, she had no idea just how close the two of them would become many years later.
Alexander said she remembers sitting in her fifth grade classroom at Pomaria-Garmany Elementary School, when teacher Jane Ringer instructed the class to bring a dollar and a pencil to school the next day because they would be given an address for a pen pal.
“As I opened the tiny slip of paper, I read that my pen pal was from Italy and her name was Roberta Zampi,” Alexander said. “At 11 years old, I did not know it yet, but that tiny slip of paper and new magical pencil would change my world forever.”
Alexander is now 32 years old, and she and her pen pal have continued to keep in touch for the past 21 years. Although she doesn’t know an exact number of exchanged emails, letters or other communications, Alexander said it has to be hundreds.
“We discovered in 2004 that we could email, but we’ve written just as many letters,” Alexander said. “Although email is more convenient, there’s just something about getting a letter in the mailbox.”
In January 2004, Alexander said she randomly received an email from U.S. Airways containing their airline’s e-savers for discounted flights. As she glanced over the destinations, it clicked that there was a flight to Frankfurt, Germany. Zampi was studying in neighboring Heidelberg.
“I rushed to locate Roberta’s phone number and immediately placed the international call with a calling card I had stashed away in my wallet,” Alexander said.
Alexander said she listened to the phone ring for what felt like an eternity, suddenly aware of the time difference, concerned that Zampi would even answer the phone. Eventually, Zampi answered, accepting Alexander’s offer to visit her in Germany in February 2004.
“Having just heard my voice for the first time, especially so early in the morning, she was so warm and welcoming,” Alexander said. “It’s amazing — we live half a world away, and it’s not like two strangers, but two best friends that have known each other their entire lives.”
The flight from South Carolina to Germany, complete with a train ride into Germany, took about nine to 12 hours, according to Alexander.
“I wasn’t nervous on the plane ride at all,” Alexander said. “But on the train ride, the closer I got to meeting her, it really hit me … what am I doing?”
Waiting for Zampi at the train station to pick her up, Alexander said she became even more nervous: full of questions of what Zampi would be like, and was she at the right place? Upon arriving at the ticket counter at the train station, Alexander asked two employees if they could call Zampi to be sure she had found the correct destination.
“As they picked up the phone, I happened to look over my left shoulder and I saw a person walking up the stairs, then turn the corner and headed in our direction,”Alexander said.
Zampi and Alexander spent the next week traveling by train to Strasbourg, France, and to Stuttgard, Germany. They had dinner on a boat, explored “Philosopher’s Way,” and shared beyond memorable experiences, according to Alexander.
“Having never met Roberta, I had never felt so warm and welcomed from that forever-cherished moment on the platform until I left to return home a week later,” Alexander said.
Since Alexander’s visit in 2004, she said Zampi has completed three upper master’s degrees in languages. Zampi has travelled all over Europe, lived in London, and accepted a job with a technology marketing company in Northern Ireland, where she currently lives and works as a translator and interpreter.
Alexander said the two communicate with a letter once a month, as well as emails two to five times a month.
“We always make time for each other,” she said. “It’s like Christmas morning when I see her name in my inbox.”
In August 2013, Alexander said she learned that Zampi would be flying to the United States to visit her Italian relatives. Upon arriving, Zampi called Alexander to inquire that they make plans to meet a second time.
“I just kept thinking, could we really see each other a second time?” Alexander said.
With blessings from her husband, and approval from her boss, Alexander said she booked her flight, where the two of them explored Providence, Cranston, and Narragansett, R.I., during her visit.
“Roberta and I stayed up talking until the wee hours of the morning during my visit and it was like we had just picked up where we left off,” Alexander said.
“It is amazing that we share so many of the same interests even though we live a world away,” Zampi told Alexander.
While dropping Alexander off at the airport in Rhode Island, Zampi and Alexander agreed they were not to say goodbye, but rather “until I see you again,” as Zampi plans to return to visit the United States.
Until next time
To this day, Alexander said she has kept all of their handwritten letters, photos and keepsakes stored in her “worn-out” elementary school pencil case dating back to 1992 when their correspondences began. She said she also has all of their typed messages sent by email kept in a binder, and a photo album filled with photos from their time in Germany together, which she took with her on her most recent trip to show Zampi their friendship on paper throughout the years.
Alexander said that although they still write letters and send gift packages by the old-fashioned “snail-mail,” they discovered that email and Facebook are also in their favor with the power of technology for remaining in close contact.
Although Alexander is not certain the next time the two will have another reunion, she refers to Zampi as her “forever friend,” because the history of them only being pen pals slowly transitioned into being friends forever.
Alexander currently works at Pope & Hudgens P.A. in Newberry, while her husband, Louie, is the athletic director at Mid-Carolina High School in Prosperity.