I first became interested in Handwritten Mail when I was in school – I used to keep a journal to collect my thoughts and reflect on various experiences. Penning them down helped me appreciate some moments that would have otherwise gone forgotten over time. The process of writing also helped me make decisions, set goals, and do some self-introspection. Additionally, I love art – painting, sketching, doodling, and crafts, so combining this with writing felt like a nice way to de-stress, and a way to let the creative juices flow.

Eventually, I felt like sharing my thoughts with the world, and I wanted to read about other people’s lives and exchange ideas through pen and paper. I have always enjoyed connecting with new people and learning about different cultures – letter-writing seemed to be the right fit for it. I started my snail-mail journey back in late 2009, and it has been one of my biggest passions ever since.

My name is Sneha Chattopadhyay, and I am a curious mind with a creative soul. I have an electronics engineering background and currently work as a software engineer at Intel in Munich.

Ever since my childhood days, I was attracted to gadgets used in everyday life and often tinkered with them – I was fascinated by the science behind how they worked. Both my parents are from an R&D background, so their influence enabled my interest in science to grow. These were the initial things that eventually made me passionate about the scientific and engineering fields. Reading a magazine article on the application of robotics in the consumer world (for instance, a robot serving food to a customer at a restaurant) was something that made we want to understand more about how systems are designed and integrated right from micro to a macro level that leads to a remarkable end-product, a robot in this case. This led me to pursue a Masters in electronics & communications engineering. Alongside working with hardware, I came to realize how important it is to have the right software developed in order to achieve a high system performance. I enjoyed coding right from when I was in school, and this paved the way for my journey as a software engineer (while still being close to hardware) as part of Intel’s debugger tools group in Munich.

I moved to Munich a few years ago from Bangalore, India to start my Master’s program in electronics and communications engineering. Germany was my favourite option because I wanted to experience living in a country with a completely new language than what I was used to back at home – I thought this would be a fun adventure. Germany is often synonymous with engineering, and I had found a great program to apply for that aligned with my educational background. And thirdly, I love nature, so Munich seemed to be the perfect fit (with the Alps not too far away!).

Outside of my job, I love writing letters and doing mail art. There are many things I love about these hobbies:

• A combination of mail-art and letter-writing fuels creativity: I love the aesthetics of it. I like to design my own envelope and letter-paper, and I love the creative process that comes with doing it. I am often inspired by the letters I receive – my pen-pals around the world send me creatively designed letters and envelopes; that makes me push my limit and try to be more creative in the next letter I send out.

• It helps you discover the world in ways unlike any other: it gives you an insight into people’s lives when you read true stories of people living on the other side of the planet. Stuff you see on the news (whether good or bad) is heavily influenced by the media these days, but the stories I read from pen-pals reflect the ground reality of the situation. For example, when eastern Ukraine became a war-zone some years ago due to attacks carried out by Russia, one of my letters that I had sent out to a pen-pal living in the Luhansk area got redirected to my home address and ended up coming back to my own mailbox with an official sticker on it stating that it was rerouted through Kiev back to the sender (me) because “delivery was impossible”. This was the first time I had experienced this after years of having exchanged letters with my Ukrainian pen-pal – and I could finally come in terms with what I had been seeing on the news on TV about that area.

• Nothing like the excitement of finding a handwritten letter unexpectedly in the letterbox these days, when it’s otherwise almost always just bills and ads. Through their letters, my pen-pals bring sunshine into my letterbox. It is simply heart-warming.

• Building friendships on another level: I love the possibility of being able to connect with a pen-pal in a special way – it is like having a best friend on the other side of the world. Writing a letter to a pen-pal is like having a conversation with a friend you have never met – I like the thrill of suspense that comes with it. I also like that it gives you the chance to open up to someone far away on a personal level – something you wouldn’t necessarily do with people you meet in person. You have the freedom to write it in your own time, with no burden of having to instantly reply (as opposed to sending a text message). Writing is like breathing; it is so relaxing and just comes naturally – something we all have the potential to do.

• Letter-writing also gives you the chance to learn about different cultures and languages. For starters, just by looking at the postcards and stamps that come with it – every stamp has a story to tell. I have learned how to say ‘hello’ in over 10 languages (I think!).

I have had many unique experiences and stories from my pen-pals from all over the world:

• In 2011, I received a snail-mail package from my Bavarian pen-pal, which contained a “gingerbread heart” (Lebkuchenherz). In the letter, she explained how it was traditional during the Oktoberfest in Munich. Little did I realize that this was going to be something I was going to experience years later – when I went to Oktoberfest after moving to Munich, I was so thrilled that I got a sneak preview of these gingerbread hearts in my letter from 2011!

• A pen-pal once wrote to me that her mum loved the mail-art package (that I had previously sent her) so much that she showed the envelope to all the kids in the kindergarten that she worked at – reading about it simply made my day.

• Years ago when I was in India, a pen-pal once sent me a letter in the form of a journal – I brought it with me to Germany because I was simply so inspired by it and thought I would miss it if I had left it back home. I have been showing it off to friends who visit me here, and just a glance at it has also inspired them to consider letter-writing.

• Meeting a pen-pal in person for the first time after years of snail-mail correspondence was a magical experience. And because we had been exchanging letters for years, it didn’t feel like we were meeting for the first time. But at the same time, there was something special about meeting them face-to-face. It’s hard to describe that feeling in words. It was like being in some sort of a fairy-tale – imagine reading a book and then seeing the main character come into life! I got to experience a traditional holiday with my pen-pal and her family and also learned so much about their culture and way of life. This has been one of the most memorable moments so far.

Letter writing continues to be an important means of communication because it is simple and it is safe. The process of writing with pen and paper also brings a sense of mindfulness, which is something that has been becoming more and more relevant in today’s digital world. Not everyone receives a handwritten letter these days. The fact that it is rare today makes it something that people desire to have – and when they find a beautiful handcrafted letter unexpectedly in their mailbox, it brings in new cheer and delight, and helps (re-)build the relationship between the people corresponding. A study conducted by Harvard showed that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains”.

In the future, I would like to spread the awareness about letter-writing and mail-art to as many people as I can – either by means of show-and-tell or by posting a letter just to encourage more people to get back to using pen and paper, especially among the younger generations.

Looking at my other experiences, I also love Gardening. This is something I picked up only recently because of this year’s global pandemic lockdown phase. I had moved into a new apartment early this year and wanted to make use of the empty space I had in my balcony. As the initial lockdown set-in, there wasn’t much to do outside. As the spring set in, I decided to do an experiment, mostly by making use of my kitchen (bio) scraps – and Earth Day (22 April) seemed like a fitting day to start this. I threw in some seeds of tomatoes and other veggies, created a sort of a “veggie-flower-bed”, and watered it every day. Within a week, there were sprouts coming up – this gave me such joy to see there were signs of life. It brought in some hope to have some results out of this experiment that I fondly call “lockdown gardening”.

I currently have a mini fruit-and-vegetable garden. I grow strawberries, tomatoes, radish, pumpkins, peppers, potatoes, carrots, beetroot, and some greens – kale and herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, parsley). Additionally, I also grow some flowering plants that add a beautiful view to the balcony when the flowers blossom.

What I love the most about gardening is the process of observing and nurturing a plant from seed to flower/fruit, which is just fascinating. There is so much to learn from plant life – some plants grow much faster than the others, and I love capturing the progress of their growth through photographs. The first harvest is quite an exciting moment. It’s a great feeling to be able to cook a dish out of something that is home-grown – it gives me a sense of satisfaction.

There are lots of opportunities and few challenges to gardening in Munich. For the most part, the weather plays an important role. The period between April to July has been the perfect condition in Munich for the plants to grow. The soil composition also becomes vital if you want to have a good harvest. While preparing the flower-veggie-bed, I used a layer of organic waste saved from my kitchen scraps as the base layer, on top of which I poured in a couple of bags of potting soil, which was easily available in the nearby supermarkets. Seeds of greens and certain vegetables can be bought from the local gardening centres.

Ensuring there is adequate sunlight (not too much, not too little) and watering the plants sufficiently is key. The plants have to be watered sufficiently on hot summer days. There are days when the soil can get dry pretty quickly and may need to be watered more than once a day, depending on the day’s temperature. The only challenge would arise if you were planning a short holiday away from home – you would then have to make sure you either have a friend nearby who would be willing to water the plants while you’re away, or be prepared to invest in an automatic self-watering system.

I do have some future goals with my gardening. Since this was my first time, it was only an experiment to see to what extent the plants would grow. The result has been such that most of the veggie bed has been dominated by pumpkins and tomato plants, while the other plants have managed to grow in limited space. Next time, I plan to be more organized with pre-allocating garden space for each type of plant. My future goal is to make this a long-term project – therefore, the next challenge that would arise is to be able to grow veggies indoors during the winter. I would like to be able to grow them perennially.

I do see similarities between Letter Writing & Gardening and my current occupation. The keyword that connects them all is “experiment”. Letter-writing gives me the opportunity to experiment with new styles of creating and designing mail (for example, there are various materials to choose from/combine to make an envelope). In the case of gardening, with each new seed planted in the bed comes a new experiment that gives you the chance to observe, measure performance, and adjust the inputs (soil/amount of sunlight) if necessary in order to optimize the results. My work gives me the opportunity to experiment with different kinds of logic in order to make the code more optimized for the software tools being developed.

Letter writing and gardening have been a benefit to my technological career. Both fuel creativity and offer a fresh perspective towards looking at the big picture. They are both a great way to de-stress if I’m looking to take a break from work to help me unwind. Writing (not just letters) has made me more organized with my daily tasks – I prefer to have items checked off a real TO-DO list than an electronic one. It just feels more productive as soon as the last item has been ticked off.

My advice to anyone interested in gardening is that it’s good to experiment with things. It takes patience to achieve initial results. But don’t be disheartened if things don’t go the way you expect – don’t be afraid to try different methods and see if the results get better or worse, and you will eventually be able to steer your way through to your first harvest! There is no rulebook for each and everything you want to grow; you will have to try it first in order to find out what works and what doesn’t, depending on the environment you have.

My advice to anyone interested in letter writing is that it too takes patience. Letters take time to travel to countries on the other side of the world. Pen-pals also like to take their time with responses. If you are looking for a topic to get you started on a letter, you could maybe start by writing about a recent book/movie that inspired you, what your average day looks like, what your hobbies are, or where your last memorable holiday was.

There is always more than tech. Technologists cannot be their best without a hobby or passion outside of their daily work. It is this balance that makes them successful at what they do. Creative passions are things that connect people, irrespective of their backgrounds – it is something that makes life more enriching and meaningful, making the world a more beautiful place to live in.

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