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‘It feels nice to spread some joy around the place’



Penpals is a word that suggests a specific era in time; decades back in time, when people wrote with pens and posted actual letters. A time before email and Facebook and WhatsApp. Unlike other kinds of correspondents, penpals were usually people you hadn’t met personally, and who often lived in other countries. Back in the pre-internet day, you found them through girls’ magazines, or school forums. It was almost exclusively something teenage girls engaged in.

Penpals are having a bit of a moment again, nudged by all that extra time people have had this last year, on account of not being able to go anywhere. American-born Liz Maguire (27), who came to study marketing in Dublin, and now lives here, has accrued an astonishing 80-plus penpals in the last year. One thing that hasn’t changed is that all but two of them are female.

“The majority of them are in the US,” she says. “Some are in the UK. A handful in France and Germany. ”

Maguire found them though a digital platform that was created last year called Penpalooza, by a staff writer for the New Yorker, Rachel Syme. It uses Elfster – a programme used a lot at Christmas time for Kris Kindles – to randomly match people with each other via an algorithm. Some 12,000 people have signed up to date. Word of it spread via Twitter, on @penpalooza.

“The postman knows my house well by now,” she says. (Incidentally, she is the rare interviewee who can recall her Eircode instantly, without having to look it up.) It’s Thursday when we’re talking, and so far that week, she has sent seven letters and received 11. “I keep them all listed in my book,” she explains.

Some of her correspondents, who range in age from early 20s through late 50s, write frequently. Others just once. One correspondent writes 20 page letters akin to short stories, which she saves to read. “My house is still full of glitter from all the Christmas cards,” she says. Maguire has only met one of her many correspondents, but that’s not really the point.

Why does she do it? “It feels nice to spread some joy around the place. I send strangers birthday cards,” she explains. For birthdays and Christmas, she seeks out cards on Etsy or Instagram made by Irish designers and independent stationery brands. “I believe in the value of shopping Irish and supporting Irish.” For letters, she writes on a legal notepad. She used to use rollerball pen, until her partner gave he a fountain pen at Christmas, so now she writes all the cards and letters in blue ink.

What about the cost of all the cards, not to mention the stamps? “I’m not able to go out to the pub or to restaurants, so I’ve found external ways to spend my pocket money. I have definitely spent money on it. My dad is an accountant, and he is always asking how much I’m spending on it all.”

The earliest thing Maguire recalls getting in the post herself was a card from her grandmother, Gert. “She is a real card sender: Easter, Christmas, birthdays, all of the holidays. She has has the knack of making sure they all arrive on time.

Not all her penpals have kept in touch. It’s in the spirit of the randomness of the contacts: some just send one card or letter and they drop away. Others write regularly, although Maguire won’t reveal about what.

Will the penpal card-writing and letter-writing survive when All This is over? “That’s what a writer working on a novel involving letters contacted me to ask,” she says. “I think it will slow down a bit, and it won’t be the same because we won’t be at home all day, but it will change.”

Maguire believes there is a possibility in creating new kinds of networks of people in the future, who had been corresponding as penpals, but who, when travel restrictions end, will want to meet up in person in different locations around the world. This is what some of her correspondents are telling her. “It’s a new community of people.”

The penpal project is not the only correspondence-based project Maguire is engaged in. She also set up the website

“Since 2017, I have been buying up old letters and diaries from the 1940s.” She posts these letters up on the site. “It’s a history project,” as she puts it.

She buys them on eBay, at fleamarkets and in antique shops. In addition to posting the letters themselves on the site, she also has pieces about preserving old letters, books that feature letters in their plots, letters and love songs – pretty much anything where letters and culture intersect.

I go into the site, and have a random look at a few letters. The viscerality of handwriting is somehow so intimate and moving. One letter was written on Christmas Day, 1944, from the Union Service Men’s Lounge in New York city. From a distance of almost 80 years, the yearning is palpable.

“My Dearest Darling, this is Christmas evening . . . and I am so lonely without you. I just sorta walked around all day in a trance . . .”

What about the ethics of publicly posting formerly private pieces of correspondence on the internet, particularly as many of them are love letters? “If anyone contacted me and said, oh, that’s my grandmother or whatever, I would take them down immediately,” she says. To date, nobody has claimed to be a relative of any of these long ago letter-writers from the 1940s.

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HSE staff should receive bonus for work during pandemic, says Donnelly



All Health Service Executive (HSE) staff, including those working in administrative roles, should get a financial bonus for the work done during the Covid-19 pandemic, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said.

“I want to see something done, yes, I absolutely really do. I think our healthcare teams have been incredible. We are still fighting the fight, but I definitely want to see some form of recognition for the extraordinary work that they have all put in,” he said.

Speaking after a visit to the HSE’s Limerick Covid-19 vaccination centre at Limerick Racecourse, Patrickswell, Mr Donnelly said: “We need to listen to the frustrations that they have.

“We do need to acknowledge that for nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, administrators – for everyone who has worked in the HSE over the last year and a half – that they’ve had an incredibly difficult time.

“I think they represent the very best of us and they have stepped up to the plate,” he said. “When the rest of us were told to stay at home to keep ourselves safe, they went into the hospitals, and into the Limerick hospital to keep other people safe, and we need to recognise that.”

The arrival of the Delta variant has been delayed by the use of some of the “strongest” lockdown measures in the European Union, but foreign travel now is adding to case numbers.

“We are seeing spikes in some parts of the country. There are cases linked to [international] travel, we know that. Most of the cases we are tracking are Irish people going abroad and coming home,” he said.


Some people travelled without a vaccination, or before their vaccinations had time to work. “They shouldn’t have done that. Some of them have come back and they have contracted Covid, but we will take care of them, we’ll make sure they get the care they need,” he said.

In “certain cases”, people have received a second dose of vaccine within 17 days of their first jab, as opposed to the previous advice of four weeks, and this may happen more generally, he said.

A HSE spokeswoman later said “For operational reasons and due to the pace of the rollout we are in a position to offer the second dose after 17 days in some cases. Second doses within this widow are clinically safe and effective.”

On the vaccination programme, the Minister said: “There aren’t that many people who would have thought just a few months ago that, in July, we would be vaccinating 16-year-olds.”

There will be no immediate change to rules around attendance at funerals, Masses, Confirmations or Communions, while the closure of indoor summer camps is being kept under review.

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Covid-19: More than half of Austrians now fully vaccinated



With 53,386 vaccinations carried out on Thursday, Austria cross the 50 percent mark for total vaccinations. 

This means that 4,479,543 people are completely vaccinated against Covid-19 in Austria as at Thursday evening, July 29th. 

A further nine percent of the population have received one vaccination, bringing the total percentage of people who have had at least one shot to 58.9 percent or (5.2 million people). 

UPDATED: How can I get vaccinated for Covid-19 in Austria?

The Austrian government has welcomed the news. 

“More than half of the total population is now very well protected against the coronavirus and thus the highly contagious Delta variant thanks to the full immunisation,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein said on Thursday afternoon. 

Burgenland has the highest percentage of vaccinated people with 66.1 percent, followed by Carinthia (55.7 percent) and Salzburg (55.2 percent). 

The lowest percentage is in Upper Austria, where 54.9 percent of the population is vaccinated. 

Kleinmürbisch in the Güssing district has the highest percentage of vaccinated people in Austria, with just under 80 percent of people vaccinated. 

The village however only has 230 residents. 

“But we are still a long way from reaching our destination,” warned the minister. 

Around one quarter of the Austrian population has indicated a reluctance to be vaccinated, with around 15 percent saying they will refuse the vaccination. 

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6 Amusing Historic Stereotypes of Major Russian Cities



About the authorFor lovers of Russian culture, folklore, and history, Kotar’s work is a treasure. The grandson of White Russian immigrants, the 34-year-old is an author of epic fantasy novels inspired by Russian fairy tales. You can see his four books here on Amazon.

He is also a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, a professional translator, and choir director at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he lives. Here is his bio from his blog, where he writes about many aspects of Russia. We highly recommend following it and subscribing to his email list to get exclusive material.

He has an excellent Pinterest page, and you can follow him on Facebook. Here is an archive of his work published on Russia Insider.

He is currently running a remarkably successful crowdfunding on Kickstarter to be able to publish his upcoming novels. Please support him if you can!

Stereotypes are a funny thing. On the one hand, they’re often no more than caricatures. On the other hand, there’s a surprising amount of bitter truth to some of them. Like the Russians say with their morbid humor, “In every joke, there’s a bit of a joke.”

This is especially interesting when we consider old Rus. We don’t have much to go on, historically speaking, other than chronicles, treaties, and a few bits of birch bark.

However, Russians have preserved some interesting stereotypes about the inhabitants of old Russian cities. Whether there’s any truth to them or not is almost beside the point. They’re fascinating, revealing a window to a world long gone, yet still persisting in the habits and personalities of today’s Russians. (Here’s the original Russian article that I translated)


Novgorod’s rebelliousness is legendary. The image of a brawling Novgorodian is almost a calling card of the city. The reason this stereotype came about has to do with the old chronicles. They were filled with illustrations of the constant arguments at the Novgorodian Veche, a kind of popular assembly that met in the central square. (See my translation of “Martha the Mayoress” for a vivid fictionalized example).

Of course, there were arguments and even fights during the Veche. However, they did not constantly devolve into fist-fights, as the legends suggest. Naturally, the chroniclers would choose the most vivid and bloody examples from history to illustrate their point. After all, Novgorod was often an opponent of Kiev and, later, Moscow. But in actual fact, the inhabitants of Great Novgorod were fiercely loyal to their government and loved their city. Compromise was the order of the day, not broken heads. Plus, they were more than usually literate.


Even in modern times, Pskovians have had to endure countless jokes about their crudeness, stupidity, and their lack of good manners. This may or may not be true. As for their lack of manners, that is entirely a matter of hats. The inhabitants of Pskov, no matter what their social standing, hardly ever doffed their cap before anyone (which is extremely bad form in old Rus). However, this wasn’t crudity or bad breeding.

It used to be that a hat symbolized one’s personal dignity. In Pskov in particular, to actually take off your hat meant to be shamed. It may be a bastardization of the more generally accepted rule that if someone else took your hat off your headthat was a terrible insult.


The painful topic of Russian alcoholism became especially relevant in Nizhni Novgorod at the end of the 17th century. A kind of epidemic of alcoholism rose up, and it was normal to see women as well as men lying in the streets in a drunken stupor. Foreign travelers recounted after their visits to Nizhni Novgorod that “Russians don’t do anything but feast.”

Of course, they did more than feast. But on holidays, Russians have always allowed themselves some excesses. It’s not entirely fair to single out Nizhni Novgorod, when alcoholism still is the gravest problem facing Russia today, as in olden times.


This stereotype appeared very early. It’s easy to understand. Vladimir itself had five prisons, including the famous “Vladimir Central Prison.” From the beginning, Vladimirians have been considered con artists who like a dangerous life. It didn’t help that the path to Siberia for exiled convicts went through Vladimir. It was even called the “Vladimirka.”

Exiled convicts stopped in Vladimir to have half their heads shaved (a scene vividly recounted in the excellent Russian film The Siberian Barber). Then they’d be branded as exiles or thieves, clapped in irons, and set upon the road to Siberia. In old times, the path could take as long as two years, and those two years were not counted as part of their allotted time.

Vladimir itself, for all that, was a typical enough provincial town.


When a Russian hears the word “finift’” (enameling), he immediately thinks of Rostov. Nothing could change the old stereotype that every inhabitant of ancient Rostov worked in the enameling guild. That’s complete nonsense, of course. First of all, the best enamellists in old Rus were as a rule in Kiev, the capital city. There were also some famous artisans in Pskov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Great Novgorod.

The only difference is that Rostov alone has preserved the traditional techniques of enameling since ancient times. Even today, there is a factory producing enameled work. Perhaps for this reason alone, tourists still visit Rostov exclusively to see enameled boxes.


The industrious muzhik from Yaroslavl is an image that we even find in Gogol. From the times of Rus, Yaroslavians were known as people who were never apathetic, lazy, or prone to tiredness. Instead, they’re known to be active to a manic degree. This may have something to do with the odd tradition that Yaroslav is a city of buried treasure.

Apparently, wherever you turn, you see someone uncovering a jewelry box or trying to break into an ancient chest of drawers. Perhaps a little more seriously, Yaroslavians have long been known as “chicks of the cuckoo.” In other words, they’re more than usually capable of leaving their homeland without much regret. This quality has a clear historical origin.

Yaroslav was built on the crossroads of ancient roads—a path used by merchants from Scandinavia all the way to the Arab lands. From the middle of the 16th century, Yarsolavl became the most important center for trade in all of Rus. This constant movement often inspired young Yaroslavians to try out their luck in foreign lands.

True or not, such stereotypes make for fascinating stories. For myself, the “myth” of the boisterous Novgorodian comes to life in my third novel, The Heart of the World, in a semi-fictionalized setting of the Veche that goes fabulously wrong for all concerned.

Source: Nicholas Kotar

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