Nfld. & Labrador

From letters to video messages, pen pals celebrate decades-long friendship

In 1987, two high school students who lived an ocean apart began exchanging letters. Now, the pair say they're more than friends, they're family.
Birthe Rapraeger looks back at her family during a screech-in ceremony organised by her long-time friend Carolyn Whiffen. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Carolyn Whiffen reads from a letter she sent to a new German pen-pal while in high school back in 1987.

"[It] basically just starts off talking a little bit about myself, what sports I'm into, what music I like."

That introduction was the beginning of a friendship with Birthe Rapraeger that continues today, more than three decades later. 

Birthe Rapraeger prepares the German dish schnitzel for a potluck during her visit to Newfoundland. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"I certainly never thought it would come to this. You know, I lost contact with my other pen pals and for some reason Birthe and I just stayed in contact," said Whiffen. 

They began sending letters thanks to an international pen-pal program, where people paid about two dollars for a name with an international address.

Over the years, letters changed to emails, which led to Facebook messages and video chats. 

Birthe Rapraeger and Carolyn Whiffen enjoy a pint together at a local Irish pub during Rapraeger's two-and-a-half week visit to Newfoundland. (Carolyn Whiffen)

Their first face-to-face meeting was 13 years ago when Whiffen was on a trip to visit her husband who was working overseas. She used a stopover in Frankfurt as a jumping off point to tack on a few extra days in the country.

"You're nervous and you're excited and when you first meet someone, you don't know how the relationship is going to go," she said.

"It would have been very sad for me if we did not get along, because we had been writing and been friends virtually for so long. But when I was there, I felt like family."

That bond has only gotten stronger in the years that followed.

First, Rapraeger reciprocated with a visit to Newfoundland with one of her sons. Then for their latest meeting, Rapraeger returned this summer with her husband and her three sons. 
 
"That was my big dream, to come here with my whole family," she said. 

Carolyn Whiffen and Birthe Rapraeger toast more than 3-decades of friendship during a potluck at a an RV park near Roache's Line. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

It was a busy two-and-a-half weeks.

Together, the families took in a Cape Spear sunrise, zip lining in Petty Harbour and a healthy helping of big family dinners. 

They also spent a couple of days in Terra Nova with a stop at Splash n' Putt.

There was even some cultural exchange during a stay at an RV park near Roache's Line — Rapraeger cooked schnitzel and Whiffen organized a screech-in with Purity Syrup for the boys. 

Thinking about the pending separation again, Whiffen was more glass half full than empty. 

"I guess that's the biggest thing that we get out of this, just because we're separated thousands of miles away, our friendship keeps getting stronger," she said. 

Next to Whiffen, Rapraeger nodded in agreement saying, "I think we will be friends forever."

"Yes, I think so too," said Whiffen.