Swede to meet US penpal 36 years after first letter

Two women who have been exchanging hand-written letters between the United States and Sweden for more than three decades are set to meet in person for the first time, thanks in part to an innovative internet fundraising tool.

Swede to meet US penpal 36 years after first letter

Lena Ånimmer from Sweden and Melissa O’Brien from the United States were introduced through an international penpal organization over 36 years ago.

The two then-12-year-old girls began writing letters to each other – a routine they have kept up into adulthood.

Despite their transatlantic friendship enduring almost four decades, they have never met in person. But thanks to the support of a crowdfunding website called Kickstarter, Ånimmer and O’Brien will finally get to meet for the first time.

Becoming a penpal felt natural for O’Brien, who enjoyed writing a diary from a young age.

Born in North Dakota but raised on the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, her exposure to Europeans was limited. But O’Brien’s correspondence with Ånimmer gave her a rare glimpse of the Swedish way of life.

“I was always a curious child and wanted to learn what life was like for girls living outside my little hometown and thought it would be cool to write to someone in a different country,” O’Brien says.

“I was paired with Lena – we were the same age and shared similar interests such as skiing and outdoor pursuits. We connected instantly.”

Ånimmer also relishes the craft of letter writing.

“I enjoy handwriting letters – putting words together and finding expressions that correspond to what I wish to say,” she explains.

In the early years, they exchanged letters up to twice a month. Each time Lena’s letters arrived it was a cause for celebration. The whole O’Brien family gathered together, keen to learn more about Sweden.

“My grandparents died before I was born and we had no extended family outside the US,” O’Brien says.

“My exposure was limited in that respect. Lena’s letters offered me a different perspective of the world and my first real introduction to Europe.”

As they grew older, both women built careers and reared families. Now aged 47, O’Brien is a photographer and single mother of three and says she always found time to write to Ånimmer – even during the busier years.

“When we became mothers we corresponded less but we still made time to write and stay in touch,” she says.

“We never stopped.”

Ånimmer admits full-time work and raising children has made letter writing more difficult than it once was.

Though the two have flirted with using modern forms of communication such as Skype and text messages, they favour handwritten letters and have only ever spoken on the phone once.

They have not even exchanged that many photographs and both are unsure of each other’s appearance.

“For a brief period of time we did try to email one another but we didn’t like it and stopped,” O’Brien explains.

“It didn’t work for us at all.”

Ånimmer has access to a computer, but would rather put pen to paper.

“I still prefer sending a handwritten letter to friends and relatives because it is more personal. The handwritten letter has qualities beyond words that an email can never equal,” she says.

“The fact that I like to write – and receive – such letters is probably to some extent linked to my work.”

An archivist at UNESCO, Ånimmer cares for a number of family records, in which innumerable private letters are kept.

“A letter has a much longer life than the person who wrote it,” she says.

“They allow us to imagine what it was like living many years or even centuries ago.”

While emails tend to require short responses, letters exchanged between the two women are often many pages long and usually written over a few days, O’Brien says.

“We could communicate more quickly using modern technology but our friendship might risk losing some of the magic,” O’Brien says.

“Nowadays everything is so immediate people forget to be patient and to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life.

“I remember explaining to Lena that we had purchased a computer but no one at home had a clue how to use it. Lena’s response was classic. She said she didn’t understand why people would own one.”

For both women, the friendship has been one of the longest running relationships in their lives. Though they have yet to meet – they did come close on more than one occasion.

In 1986, O’Brien was studying English literature in London. They planned to meet but it didn’t work out. O’Brien later invited Ånimmer to her wedding in Vermont during the 1990s. Unfortunately Ånimmer’s father fell ill and she couldn’t make the transatlantic crossing.

“Our collection of letters and postcards document the history of our lifelong friendship but also the history of what was happening in the world at that time,” O’Brien says.

“I have always been impressed by Lena’s descriptions of Sweden – it sounds so progressive and liberal.”

But earlier this autumn, O’Brien came up with an idea that she thought might help finally bring her to Sweden to meet her distant penpal.

She set up a project on Kickstarter, a popular crowdfunding website, in hopes of raising $3,500 to fund a documentary about her friendship with Ånimmer.

The project seemed plausible.

Her 17-year-old son Sam, a film student, could produce it to keep costs down, she hoped. They offered incentives to encourage donations on Kickstarter: a book, photographs – even a meal. To their surprise, donations poured in from around the world.

“The reaction to our story and the project is heart-warming,” O’Brien says.

“Sharing stories is important for humanity. The reaction reminds me of something Lena referred to in one of her letters when she described how people react to tragedy. She said the simple act of letter writing can create a bridge between people who, otherwise, might not have any connection. I guess that’s true of my friendship with her and of the people supporting this project.”

In a little more than a month, O’Brien had raised over $4,500, and a trip to Stockholm to being the documentary is planned for June 2013 – but exact dates have yet to be confirmed.

Regardless, the two lifelong penpals will finally get to meet for the first time next summer.

“It will be exciting to meet Melissa for the first time and interesting to see if the idea that I have of her corresponds to reality,” Ånimmer says.

“Of course I also find it a bit scary. Perhaps she will be disappointed when she realizes it’s just dreary old me behind all those fine words!”

O’Brien is equally excited about the trip but also harbours some reservations.

“Because we only know each other through letters a kind of magic surrounds our friendship,” O’Brien says.

“Until recently I feared a meeting with Lena might break that spell and remove some of the mystery surrounding our lifelong friendship. But we are both 47-years-old and I’ve come to accept that time is precious.

“I don’t want to live my life without having met her. The time is now.”

Jonny Rothwell

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Taking an exchange semester in Sweden as a US student: 7 key things to keep in mind

Applying to an exchange programme can be truly stressful, considering each application and country has its own set of unique requirements. For those coming to Sweden from a US university, here are the key things to bear in mind when wading through the administrative parts of the application.

Taking an exchange semester in Sweden as a US student: 7 key things to keep in mind
A lecture hall at Stockholm University. Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/

Apply to the programme through your university

Most exchange programmes in Sweden are arranged by either your home university or another university within the United States that allows others to take part in their exchange. 

Each university has their own requirements – whether it be writing an essay or a GPA minimum – so it is essential that you make a list of required documents and make sure you're eligible.

And each university also has its own specific turnaround date, but should at least give you your decision with enough time to apply for a residence permit. Apply as soon as possible to save yourself from added stress later on, and to allow yourself plenty of time to deal with the next steps on this list.

READ ALSO: Why international students are flooding to Stockholm

Select your classes

Depending on the university, you may have the ability to choose classes at your leisure, but in other cases, you need to inform the university months in advance about the classes you wish to take. You will likely be asked to provide a first and second preference for around four to six classes. These can fill up quickly, and it may not be as easy to add and drop classes as it is back home, so choose carefully.

It is also important to know that Swedish universities use the ECTS, or European Credit Transfer System, in which a standard class is equivalent to 7.5 points. Bachelor's and master's programs in Sweden are referred to by the number of points it takes to fulfill them, so you may hear Swedish students referring to their program by “180 hp.” or 180 points.

Seek out housing

While most universities in Sweden offer housing for students, they may not offer enough to meet demand, and there is a major housing shortage in many large cities.

Even if your home university has a formal agreement with one in Sweden, housing might not necessarily be guaranteed. For those who were denied university housing, a solution may lie in a university Facebook group or using other websites such as, where you can look at apartments for rent.

READ MORE: Don't panic! How to apply for student housing in Sweden

Apply for a residence permit

Tackle the residency requirements. In order to be able to study in Sweden for any period up to a year, you must have been admitted to full-time study at a university and you must apply for a residence permit through the Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket).

The application requires you to attach several documents, including a copy of your bank statement proving that you have the means to reside in Sweden and the letter of admission from the Swedish university. It is essential that you apply for this as soon as you can, because you need to have a decision from the Migration Agency prior to arriving in Sweden.

When you get to Sweden, you will have 90 days to visit your local Migrationsverket to get your biometrics taken. It is a good idea to arrange this appointment as soon as you can, because wait times can vary from days to weeks.

Apply for financial aid or a scholarship

Studying in Sweden can be expensive.

Some American universities offer specific study-abroad scholarships to students, while others offer to provide financial aid for those going abroad. Even if you have the means to study abroad, any sort of financial help will offset costs, especially unexpected ones that may arise during the duration of your semester, so it's well worth doing some research to see what you're eligible for.

READ ALSO: Six money-saving hacks for students in Sweden

Arrange health insurance

Accidents happen. If you reside in Sweden for less than a year, you will be unable to automatically access Swedish health insurance. Some universities in Sweden do offer health insurance, but it is important to find out the specific details about what services are and are not covered for international students. You should also check with your American health insurance provider, because some do offer to cover services outside of the United States.

Regardless of your health insurance status, everyone has access to 1177, a free 24/7 hotline which provides medical advice (also in English) but also can help arrange an appointment at your local doctors' surgery or hospital. There is a small fee for medical appointments even if you have health insurance, but this is significantly more expensive without any coverage.

Start learning the language

It's possible to get by in most Swedish university towns using English alone. However, in order to best understand your surroundings and appreciate the culture, it is highly recommended that you start to learn at least some basic phrases in the language.

Sure, Swedes are some of the best English speakers in the world, but that doesn't necessarily mean people go around speaking English all the time; their native language is Swedish, after all. And for the many exchange students who find themselves compelled to extend their stay in Sweden, knowing Swedish will go a long way in expanding your job opportunities and friendship circle.

FOR MEMBERS: Vocabulary guide: the words and phrases you need to know as a student in Sweden

Vocabulary guide: the words and phrases you need to know as a student in Sweden