No love (letter) is lost in the land of Romeo and Juliet

Letters to Juliet have poured into her hometown for decades. One group of volunteers makes sure they get answered.

Giulio Tamassia knows exactly what to do when a young person, confused by feelings of love, writes in for advice. Mr. Tamassia's wisdom has been honed over 20 years of intercepting letters addressed to Juliet, whose ill-fated romance with Romeo rings true in lovelorn hearts worldwide.

Tamassia is the founder and president of a volunteer group called "Club Juliet," who answer the 5,000 letters addressed to Juliet every year, seeking relationship advice. Eight volunteers reply with counsel and solace to every single one - in Italian, English, Japanese, Spanish, and German, or with the help of translators.

"This is not work for me," says Tamassia, a retired bakery manager who is dressed in a black suit and yellow polkadot tie. "This is a passion."

One volunteer at Club Juliet calls Tamassia "the last great romantic of Verona." According to some, he may be the only one.

The aura of Romeo and Juliet draws 3 million tourists a year to this northern Italian city of 250,000. But the city's fortune as the heir of romantic legend is the source of ironic amusement for the locals.

"The people here are cold and provincial," says Catarina Marson, a native. "The spirit of Romeo and Juliet is brought here by the tourists, but the Veronese have become used to the idea and are no longer moved by it.

Scholarship acknowledges only faint threads of the legend of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare himself never set foot in Italy, and he based the play on a poem by an English poet named Arthur Brooke, who had borrowed it from two different Italian sources.

Legend and time shroud the feud of Montagues and Capulets, and even their residence in the town is subject to question. Therefore, what history was not kind enough to give, the Veronese have invented.

Most of monuments relating to the drama were fabricated in the 1930s in an effort to promote tourism.

The marble sarcophagus now known as Juliet's Tomb, residing in a cloister, had a previous occupation dispensing hay to horses and cows. What is now Juliet's House used to be a stable.

The bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard was commissioned by a local bank in 1970. Now it is the destination of millions of tourists, posing for photos.

In truth, fair Verona is indeed fair and warmer and less provincial than the locals are accustomed to admit in the humor of self-deprecation. And the main streets are paved with a white marble that casts a cheerful glow on the buildings.

But over at Club Juliet, the glow is sometimes buried under the mountain of letters. Their content is often trivial and dull. Occasionally, it is poetic, and worthy of the annual Valentine's Day contest, the prize for which is a trip to Verona.

The majority of letters come from teenage girls, and the numbers surge dramatically upward in the wake of any film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The margins of one letter from Kendallville, Ind., are plastered with butterfly stickers. In another, one boy simply says, "I've been with 3 or 4 girls recently but never had the sparks fly. What's wrong?"

Others are grave and tell of extramarital affairs, agonizing loneliness, and contemplation of suicide. For them, there is caution.

"We tell them Shakespeare speaks of a medieval society. We speak from a modern perspective," says Manuella Uber, one of the volunteers. "Juliet couldn't go to her parents. We can learn from her intensity of feeling - not from her solutions."

Tamassia, who wears a Mickey Mouse watch on his left wrist, acknowledges that he has learned from his work. His glasses magnify his eyes, and his whole face seems to look at its objects with great care.

"I've become more respectful of the young," he says, thoughtfully. "More tolerant of their problems."

The secret of love, he says, is simple: "A love maintained by acts of courtesy can last a lifetime. Little things, on a daily basis."

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