Ilse, Belgium

4Hello there! How are you doing? Tell us more about yourself, your hobbies, personal life, interests.

What else does my world consist of? Well, I studied theology and religious studies – which made me fall in love with the student city Leuven – and am now employed as a teacher. When I get back from work and when I’m done with all the duties, I enjoy quiet nights in front of the TV, watching mainly crime-scene-TV-shows (such as The mentalist, Castle, CSI New York, Code 37, …) or feel-good TV-shows (such as Glee, Desperate housewives, …). Not all at once of course. I love orange-kiwi and orange-strawberry juice, so I always have oranges in the house. The past few months I’ve been going to these zumba classes (yes, I know, it’s a hype, but it’s a good one I think), partly because of the sports, partly because my instructor is always super enthusiast and positive. It’s like therapy and workout two-in-one. Impossible not to love it. I like losing myself in fiction, usually being a good book, but I often have months when I’m not reading anything at all (apart from work-related things, glamour magazine and … letters of course). Then suddenly I realize I’m missing it and hup, I’m off to the library. Both with movies and books I’d often pick “light” material when it’s for my free time. I don’t like crispies. Nor coffee. And oh, I can be a bit chatty. You might notice in this interview I’m not that good at putting things in short. I always feel the urge to tell the whoooole story. My apologies for that already.

If you have to describe yourself in only 5 words what would they be?

That’s a tough question… And I could probably give you a different answer if you asked me the same tomorrow. Well, here you go for today: penpals – cocorosie – Leuven – caring – theology.

Penpals, that should be easy to understand. The whole snail mail thing isn’t just a hobby for me – it’s really something that I believe defines me.I just can’t imagine quitting it altogether. There might come moments in life when I’ll have to limit it, but really stopping? I don’t think so. I hope I’ll always find a way to continue.

Tell us something about your town, city or country.

Where to start? Belgium is a small though interesting country. Interesting for several reasons, not only because we have delicious chocolate ;). For one, we are small but bilingual. The northern part of the country (Flanders) has Dutch as official language, while the southern part (Wallonië) has French as official language. There’s even a small region near the German border where the official language is German. Nowadays, politics in Belgium is a bit shakey. Flanders and Wallonië have some issues going on and somehow along the way we broke the world record of time it takes to get a new government… Hurray? In daily life we don’t notice that much of the political crisis, but I do hope they’re figuring things out. So, what else makes Belgium interesting? French fries! I never knew why they called them “French” fries, because they’re really considered Belgian over here… Our national monument is the atomium, but Manneken pis (basically a small statue/fountain of a small boy peeing…) is just as famous. Tom Dice was our latest attempt for world fame at the Eurovision song contest and he did pretty well. Waffles are quite Belgian as well, there’s even a Belgian guy who brought the Belgian waffles to New York, it’s called “wafels and dinges”. It must be pretty unique then, right?

My city then. I live in a city close by Oostende, which is a city at the North Sea. It’s mainly visited because of the beach, but it has some other things to offer as well, for example some museums (including the James Ensor house) and the Mercator, a ship that brought the remains of father Damien (a Belgian who recently was proclaimed a saint by the catholic church, mainly because of his work in the leper colony of Molokai). The city I love most though is Leuven, the place where I studied five years theology and religious studies. It has a very cozy atmosphere, it’s easy to get to know new people, it’s lively and it has some really nice architecture. There were always lots of fun things to do, for student-friendly prices or even for free, so I’ve had a great time there. Whenever I return, I’ve got this instant smile on my face when I get off the train.

introHow did you start penpalling? When was that? And why did you decide to start Penpalling?

I think it started when I was about thirteen because I was way too chatty to tell my friends everything I wanted on schooldays (imagine!), so I started writing them short letters after school. It was quite fun and soon I decided to place an ad in a local newspaper for kids and that’s how I get my first penpals. They soon stopped writing, but I kept looking for some penpals, also on websites, and then I found my first real penpal, a girl from the Netherlands. She really made me get the penpal “virus”, but you should read more on it in question 7 ;). Anyway, after two years all of my penpals had stopped writing once again so I think that between my 15 and 19 years old I didn’t penpal at all. Somehow I started missing it so I decided to look for penpals once again. This time I went all international, placing ads in English. I got some wonderful penpals who got me back into it, but the penpal I have the longest now is someone I’ve ‘only’ been writing to for about three years I think. Somehow they always seem to stop writing, but I haven’t found that a reason to totally quit with it myself so far.

What do you like / dislike about Penpalling/correspondence?

It’s just that magical feeling when you open your mailbox and tadaaaa, there’s a letter in it for you and you can instantly tell that it’s not a bill or anything like that! I love the idea that someone sat down and took the time to write me a letter. Nowadays with the internet everything seems to go so fast and “in between” all the other things you’re occupied with. When you write a letter, you can slow down a minute and make time for a person. It’s definitely the best thing about it. It works the other way around too. I love it when I’m writing a letter to someone. It’s a way to think about things, interact with someone else – sometimes building a strong connection through letters – and an opportunity to try and be creative. What’s not to like about that? Of course sometimes it can happen that it doesn’t click with a penpal. I’ve experienced that myself as well. It’s usually not because I think the person isn’t nice, but it has more to do with the fact that we have different ideas about penpalling. For me, a letter should be like a conversation, not a monologue, so I like to tell from the letter that the other person has read mine. The length somewhat matters as well. When I keep writing letters of a decent length, and only get very short letters back, it can get hard to find things to talk about and keep the conversation going. I like to take my time to write a letter and put everything I want to say in it, while others prefer to write a letter more quickly, so shorter, but more often. In my opinion, it’s a matter of having the same expectations or finding a good solution in between to make the penpal relationship working.

How do your friends react when they discover you are into Penpalling? Are they also into it or they give you the “strange” faces?

I’m happy you use the word ‘discover’ in your question, ‘cause that’s usually how it goes. I won’t often introduce myself as “hi, I’m Ilse, and I love to penpal”. It’s something they find out along the way. My friends from Leuven usually find it pretty cool, although they might not be interested in doing something like that themselves and they might not understand the whole stationery and decorating-a-letter thing. Sometimes, when a friend is really close and they go abroad for quite a while, I try to surprise them with a letter that would look like one I’d send to a penpal. So far I’ve only got very enthusiast responses on that :). Sometimes they even write back ;). My mom used to look at me like I’m a crazy person, acting all childish with cute paper or cutting out pictures from magazines and using stickers and rubber stamps for letters. But then again, she’s not as girly as I am, so there are other things she doesn’t get neither. She’s like “well, that’s your hobby then, if you like it, that’s fine”.

Do you still stay in touch with your first penpal? Tell us about your first penpal even if you have lost touch with them. We might be able to help you locate him/her.

I consider the Dutch girl (see 4th question) my first penpal, because she was the first one who wrote me for a longer time and she was the one who really got me into it. She’s an extremely creative person, always finding a way to “pimp” a letter or to put something extra to it. I believe it was the first time I discovered the art of a letter. We’re not in touch anymore, we kind of stopped writing after about three years (after getting longer and longer times in between letters) but I did find her back via facebook and I know she’s alright nowadays. We had a short chat and she didn’t seem to have any interest in penpalling anymore, or maybe she wants to leave that time behind her. Although her letters always made me very happy, we were both teenagers with all the drama and dark sides that can come with teenage life. I can imagine that it’s not always fun to look back at those times or to think about things you may have written back then ;).

5How many Penpals do you have? Where are they from?

It’s really hard to tell. I have about twenty penpals who write more often than once a year and they’re from all around the world (such as USA, Australia, South Korea, Hong Kong and lots of places in Europe). That amount of penpals probably sounds worse than it actually is. I think you should look at frequency of letters instead of the number of penpals. When I was still a student (a year ago) I used to send and receive two letters a week. That was really a fun frequency for me. Nowadays I send and receive one a month … Most of my penpals seem to have adapted that slower pace right now. See, back in September I started life as a working girl, in November I started living by myself and last February then I moved. I’m still looking to find a good balance between duties (such as work and the household) and things I like to do. So far I’m really still in search of that, always being behind with letters. I’m very aware of the fact that my penpals have to be patient with me the past few months and I hope it’ll get better soon. For now I decided not to take any new penpals because it just wouldn’t be fair to my current penpals. No matter how interesting new people may be.

Are you searching for new Penpals? If yes, please give us some contact information that we can publish in the magazine so that people can write to you back.

See previous question ;). Like I said, it just wouldn’t be fair to my new penpals, who already have to wait way too long for a reply.

What are you looking for in a penpal?

Someone who can become a friend. I really believe that it’s not necessary to meet someone in real life to build a friendship. Letters can do the trick as well. It’s just different. Sometimes penpals may get to see other sides to me than my “real life” friends do. And it probably works the other way around as well. I can talk of some penpals as if they were “real life” friends. I can care about them just as much.

So, what do I find important in a penpal? That he/she makes it possible to get a connection. By that I mean what I already mentioned before: keep the conversation going. And you don’t do that when you just give the shortest possible answers to my questions, nor when you don’t mention anything I said in your letter at all. I’ve noticed it’s good to have more or less the same view on penpalling. If someone just wants to be penpals to know about my country or to learn the language, I’d be hesitant. When I have a penpal, I’d like to talk about what’s going on in my life, what keeps me occupied. Getting to know each other is the main reason for penpalling for me, all the rest is just a bonus. Same goes for decorating letters. Although I love doing that myself, it’s not a must. Of course I like it when a penpal does this, but the message that’s in the letter is still the main thing.

Where do you find new Penpals from? Do you rely on FBs or Facebook or other websites/blogs?

Usually I find them in livejournal groups, or interpals. I try to avoid FB’s because I generally just don’t like that concept. But we all have to do what we feel best about and if I, by accident, get a FB, I’ll search for someone to pass it forward. It’s not like I’ll break the chain, but I’d rather they not send me it in the first place ;).

Tell us a funny/interesting story from your Penpalling experience?

It probably sounds a bit cliché, but penpalling allows me to meet people I’d never get to know in real life. I’m not only talking about a distance issue, but also about personalities. Sometimes people think in boxes and we easily judge on the way people look, but penpalling makes people look further than that. It happened the other way around as well. There was this ‘dark’, interesting girl whose profile I liked but I thought she would find me too superficial so I didn’t contact her. She had noticed that I visited her profile though, and guess what? She contacted me whether I’d be interested in being penpals. I’m still happy she did that :).

Another nice story is that when I was preparing my trip to Romania, I decided to look for Romanian people who are into snail mail on interpals to ask them about stationery / postcard shops over there. I got into this conversation with Edina and we kept sending each other messages back and forth, not limiting ourselves anymore to the topic of stationery shops. At one point, Edina asked me a bit more about my trip and the practical aspects about it and when I mentioned I had some trouble finding couch surfing hosts in two of the cities I wanted to visit, she suddenly surprised me by saying that I could stay over at her place! The cities I mentionedweren’t too far away so it would be a good base she said. Since we had already messaged each other that much, I really felt like I was going to visit a friend and the days we spend together were wonderful indeed. Strictly seen, she’s not a penpal, but since we did meet each other on the interpals website and are still in touch on it, I thought it’s still a story worth mentioning here :).

How do you keep track of your mail? Share your tip on how to organize ourselves.

I keep all letters in a small cupboard. I used to organize them by name, but since I moved it got a bit more chaotic… I really should try to make a new birthday calendar as well, as the other one got lost while moving, but then I should contact all my penpals or search for the birthdays in – usually – their first letter and that could take a while :/. Sounds more like a job for during holidays.

For keeping track of mail I use a blog, with basically one entry that counts, it’s one I keep editing when mail comes in or goes out. I decided to do this because I’ve heard stories about mail getting lost and people who stopped writing because they thought the other person never wrote back… It seems like a terrible way to end a penfriendship. So whenever someone doesn’t hear from me and wonders whether I got the letter or whether I sent a letter, they can just ask me (obviously) or check the blog. If you want to get an idea of what it looks like, you can find it at, but I have to note I got this idea from a penpal myself.

Do you swap things? Do you like sending gifts to friends? If yes, what is the most funny gift you have ever sent/received?

I don’t really swap things, but sometimes close penpals send me gifts on special occasions and I do the same for them. One time my Australian friend sent me an Australia-package which I totally adored. It included a CD of the Australian singer Sia, a cookie cutter in the shape of her country and a “come on aussies!” scarf. Usually we send each other small things though, so that it can fit in an envelope. A couple of times, I’ve ordered online, to avoid high shipping costs, but since I don’t have a visa card of my own it’s no longer an option.

Have you met a penpal? If so, let us know how the meeting went.

I met two penpals, though one of them is more like a livejournal-friend than a penpal, since we don’t write each other very often… So, one time I met my English friend. When I was on a holiday with a friend in London, she came over to visit me and we had a really nice afternoon together. She took me to all kinds of cute shops and we had a lovely lunch. The other time I met my Polish friend Kama, who was once again traveling around. She had decided to drop by my city and it was a really nice afternoon as well. We might meet again in Summer, but it’s not decided yet. There are other penpals I’d love to meet (although it would also be okay if we’d never meet), but we haven’t really spoken about it yet or the distance – with budget / time issues – is a still a problem. For example, my Australian penpal invites me every year to her birthday party… in Australia.

What do you usually like writing/reading about in the letters?

Anything that keeps my pen pal occupied! I like to discover what they’re busy with or what’s on their mind. It can be daily chitchat, or deep conversations. Both are nice to read. As I said before: the trick is to keep the letter being some kind of dialogue. Make sure you’re not just writing a diary, but let the other person be a part of your letter, either by asking questions or by reacting on things he/she said.

When it comes to making cute and personal letters, everyone has his/her own style. Tell us your trick how to make a letter/envelope unique? Do you decorate it? If yes, how?! Give us some tips on how to make the letters more interesting.

The trick? There are lots of tricks I think! If you want it easy and don’t have much time, you can always look for stationery that’s already nice-looking the way it is. If you do have time, you can keep yourself busy decorating paper in all kinds of ways: use rubber stamps, decotapes, stickers, … or why not draw things or make collages? It’ll reflect your personality so there’s not much you can do wrong, trust me. I love to make envelopes myself too. To do so, I just cut out two big pictures from a magazine (the ‘lookbook’ section in glamour magazine or advertisements for example work out fine) and then I fold it around an existing envelope, make sure I leave a bit extra space to glue, and then cut out the right shape and glue it together. Make sure to leave one end open so that you can still put the letter inside it (classic mistake one could make). Piece of cake, trust me! I usually finish it up with decotapes for two reasons: it’ll stick together better and it’ll look nicer, because the parts of the front image you have over the back image (to stick them together, remember?) won’t be visible anymore. You can just have the decotape over it, which will make it look like a smoother transition – well, that’s what I think.

Where do you buy your stationery supplies from? Do you prefer traditional shops or e-shops? If so, give us some links.

I prefer traditional shops because it’s easier to pay and because you can really see what you’re buying. I know e-shops have pictures, but sometimes it looks different in reality. Not that I have been disappointed myself. I’ve ordered three times online so far, one time I did this huge order on and the other two times were big orders on . Both e-shops have a good service, sharp prices and great items. Here in Belgium traditional shops don’t often offer stationery that’s suitable for penpalling, but the postcrossing subforum of my language (so basically the Netherlands and Belgium) has a special topic where we keep each other updated on the rare offers of nice stationery traditional shops have.

Contact information:

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not looking for any new penpals at the moment, but if you’re somehow dying to contact me or really need to ask me something, you can contact me via my interpals profile ( or my livejournal page (non-members can comment there as well,

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