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Talking about love: Valentine's Day tales from around the world

From love-letter scribes for hire in Mexico to the perfect place to escape romantic expectations in Japan, Valentine's Day takes many different forms.

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A woman holding a heart-shaped balloon walks with her partner at a residential area for migrant workers on Valentine's Day in Beijing February 14, 2013.

Jason Lee/REUTERS

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Valentine’s Day is always a day for cynics to smirk at a holiday they say has been co-opted by card companies and chocolate factories. And true enough, it has become an unabashedly commercialized affair, from Texas to Thailand. But it’s also a time to reflect on the way love is expressed and has endured across the globe. Here are our vignettes of love on Feb. 14 the world over.

Mexico

If anyone’s witnessed the passion that pulses through Mexico City, it’s Miguel Hernandez, a scribe whose crafted love letters under the arched portico of Santo Domingo Plaza in Mexico City for more than 30 years.

He’s an “evangelist,” or professional typist, a trade that’s been carried out at this pretty plaza for more than 150 years. While his predecessors used inkpots and plumes, now rows of electronic typewriters add to the din of the lively square.

True, most of his clients, from the poor and illiterate to the harried and printerless, today use his services to take care of far more routine matters, like filling out tax statements or applying for jobs.

But once in a while, a man or woman approaches the bespectacled Mr. Hernandez at his wooden desk and asks for a declaration of love. And this time of year, he always hopes for at least one such request.

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“The most romantic still use our services,” says Hernandez, the secretary general of the typists’ union.

So far this Valentine’s Day, though, no one has approached him. Instead, he is drawing up a receipt for a public accountant, a frequent client.

So I, arguably among the least romantic people out there, feel a sudden burst of inspiration. And Hernandez lights up.

“What do you call your husband?” he asks, pulling out a piece of paper.

“Um, his name?” I say. He looks at me disappointingly. So I suggest: “Why don’t you just start it with ‘Dear.’”

“I’d say ‘Beloved,’” he offers.  And I nod.

But this is no exercise in templates. He wants to know if we are Catholic, what I’m most grateful for, and why we’re in Mexico, and then pulls out a calculator to figure out exactly how many years we’ve been married (I told you I wasn’t romantic).

He then sets down to work. After typing the first letter, he realizes the type set is too small. “Your love can’t be that small,” he says, pulling out a whiteout strip, resetting the type, and beginning anew.

He types a line, looks up thoughtfully, types another. After 10 minutes and $3, I have a three paragraph missive on how, in our 8th year together, my husband and I have entered a new stage in our marriage and may God keep us together for all existence. It’s not exactly what I might have said – but it admittedly beats a Hallmark, at least for the uniqueness factor.

Mexicans are considered, according to a Match.com survey widely published in the local press, the most romantic citizens of Latin America.

Hernandez says that doesn’t surprise him. And he would know. He’s heard it all, and in all manner of expression. He can’t point to the love story he cherishes the most but his last request, about three months ago, was typical: It was from a long-married man who recounted to his wife how they met – a memory he wanted to preserve in writing for his grandchildren.

It used to be the poor and illiterate who sought services from the evangelists. Today, most clients simply don’t have secretaries, or computers, or the time to draw up official documents requested at every turn in Mexico. And of course some, like myself, just don’t put romantic feelings into words very well.

“It’s not the same thing to talk and to write,” says Hernandez. “That’s where we help.”

Israel

In Israel, love forged amid the battle for an Israeli state has proven surprisingly durable, even today.

When Alisa Berman and Pinhas Ofer decided at age 17 to go out on their first date, they faced an unusual hurdle: A barbed-wire fence and armed soldiers guarding their base.

It was February 1948, and they were part of an elite fighting force known as the Palmach. Tensions were running high and there were frequent deadly skirmishes, as both Jews and Arabs battled for the upper hand in what would soon become full-out war after Israel declared independence in May 1948.

Ms. Berman and Mr. Ofer were based at Mt. Canaan, a freezing outpost in the northern Galilee, where the female guards would take turns wearing a single oversized British Army coat on their two-hour shifts. Conditions were harsh, and even teenagers in love had to think about precautionary measures.

“We decided to go out of the base, to just walk together a bit outside, but we had to warn the guards,” recalls Mr. Ofer.

“So we told the guards – we are now going out, please don’t shoot at us when we come back.” (See full story here.)

“We endangered ourselves, actually,” he says, laughing now. “And we probably weren’t the only ones.”

Russia

Valentine's Day is a relatively recent import into Russia but thanks, perhaps, to its Western-style romantic and consumerist appeal, it appears to be catching on quickly, at least with the more worldly post-Soviet youth demographic.

Until 1992 Russians marked International Women's Day, March 8, as the main date for men to pay notice to the women in their lives. In Soviet practice it started out in the 1920s as a militant feminist holiday – an occasion for speechifying about women's rights – but gradually morphed into a kind of cross between the West’s Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. March 8 remains a state holiday in Russia, and is still the primary occasion for men to bring flowers and chocolates to wives, mothers, and girlfriends, offer fulsome vodka toasts to them, and maybe even offer to wash the dishes and help clean up after the party.

But with post-Soviet exposure to the wider world, including Hollywood movies like, well, Valentine's Day, and the Internet, many younger Russians have also begun marking Feb. 14 in the Western style, although it enjoys no official status.

According to Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center, a Moscow-based polling agency, about a third of Russians now celebrate Valentine's Day in some form.

"There's no culture clash going on, Valentine's Day isn't seen as an alternative to March 8, just a nice addition," Mr. Grazhdankin says. "The big holiday is still March 8, and everyone celebrates it."

According to a 2010 poll by Levada, 34 percent of Russians said they celebrate Valentine's Day. The age breakdown showed that 81 percent of the under-25 set marked it, 46 percent of those between 25 and 40, 21 percent of people between 40 and 54, and just 13 percent of those who are older.

One attractive advantage to Valentine's Day, say some Russians, is that women are not treated merely as the objects of male attention and gratitude, but may adopt the spirit of the day and pitch in as equal participants.

"I don't treat this as a holiday, but more of an excuse to say something nice to my partner," says Maria Strizhevskaya, a 30-something Moscow journalist.

"I know it's been commercialized a lot, but it feels nice to have the opportunity to put your feelings on a little card shaped like a heart, give a little gift. You know, step out of the daily routine."

Japan

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is not as fraught as it is in the US.

It’s the morning of Feb. 13, and in snowy Nagano Prefecture, Keiko Matsuzaki, a mother of two, is mulling over her plans for the next day.

“My husband’s out of town for a couple days, so I might make truffles or chocolate cookies with my daughter. Or maybe I’ll just forget about it this year!” she says, with none of the gloom the prospect of such a ho-hum Valentine’s Day would likely inspire in many Americans.

In fact, Japan is the perfect place to escape the romantic expectations that can make Valentine’s Day so depressing for singles elsewhere. Here the rules are clear: Women give chocolates, and a month later, on what’s called White Day, men give something in return. It’s all about “saying ‘thank you’ with chocolate,” Ms. Matsuzaki says. Married women give to fathers-in-law, high school girls give to friends and teachers, and working women give to officemates.

Sometimes the give-and-take is blatantly mercenary. Matsuzaki says that when she was a cash-strapped college student, she baked her father a chocolate cake every Valentine’s Day. Inside the box, she’d slip a note specifying what CD, DVD, or item of clothing she wanted to receive on White Day. “He’d usually laugh and get me what I wanted,” she says. 

This year Japan’s Yuraku Confectionary Company created a stir by playing on the entirely un-romantic nature of most Valentine’s Day gifts. The company set up two temporary vending machines in a Tokyo subway station where 1,000 people a day could receive a free “obligatory chocolate kit.”

With the push of a button, recipients got three “Black Thunder” chocolate bars packed into a can, along with a sheet of black heart-shaped stickers reading “obligation.” According to a report on the MSN Sankei News website, the lines of Tokyo women hungry for their share of Valentine’s Day black humor stretched out the door.  

Paris

If romantic expectations are low in Japan, they are sky-high in what has long secured a spot on top 10 lists of most romantic cities: Paris. It's the “city of love,” the epicenter of the Romanticism movement in the 1800s, and the setting of Cyrano de Bergerac’s exploits in amour.

And French entrepreneur Nicolas Garreau has sought to capitalize on the world-celebrated setting, from the Champs-Elysées to the Eiffel Tower, offering a series of “romantic scenarios” that cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to many thousands.

“It certainly is the most beautiful capital in the world,” Mr. Garreau says. “It has a very romantic side.”
 
Garreau’s company, called ApoteoSurprise, offers 30 scenarios that customers can choose from, such as a ride in a carriage followed by dinner on a boat down the Seine or a one-hour limousine ride at the end of which a marriage proposal message appears on a screen outside the limousine.

And Valentine’s Day is always much busier for Garreau’s company than the rest of the year.
 
“It is a particular time,” Garreau says. “Everybody is talking about love. You are about to enter the long winter time and it’s good to take a little romantic break.”
 
The company usually sells three to four scenarios a week but it can go up to a dozen on Valentine’s Day.

“It’s a complicated time to manage for lovers,” Garreau says. “You always wonder which idea to come up with.”

Garreau says he was specifically targeting Paris’s foreign tourists, which number about 18 million per year, when he launched the company in 2006, but later realized that locals were interested, too. Now the French account for half of his customers. Garreau says most of his foreign customers are from the United States and Russia.

“My goal, I say this very openly, is to allow men to offer a fairy tale to their loved one,” Garreau says.

Thailand 

And some are treating Valentine’s Day this year not as a marketing opportunity but as an opportunity for political gain, such as in Thailand, where activists are promoting the country's first-ever same-sex civil union bill.

There’s no better place to do so than the CAT Telecom tower in Bangkok's Bang Rak district, where by 8 a.m. a slew of Thai couples have already filled out their marriage registration forms and are waiting in line to be processed by staff from the district office so they can marry on Valentine’s Day.

On an ordinary work day, the office might handle 20 marriage applications, but this is Feb. 14, and Bang Rak, whose name translates to "love village," is by far the most popular district for Valentine’s Day unions. Last year more than 900 couples got married here on this day, according to officials. This year Thai officials expect even more.

Like every other year, the lobby of the building is bedecked with flowers and balloons and lined with kiosks offering newlyweds everything from breath-freshening toothpaste to plastic surgery. But this year the gay rights' activist group is part of the scene. As new couples leave the building they are congratulated and presented with roses wrapped in rainbow ribbons by activists holding signs with messages saying "Love is for everyone" and "Humanity + diversity = equality."

Though Thailand has one of the most tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality in Asia, there are no specific laws designed to protect same sex couples from discrimination. Anjaree, a nonprofit, organized today's event to promote awareness about the bill, which is currently in public hearings and is expected to be presented to parliament in March.

A lesbian couple volunteered to apply for a marriage license here today to help publicize the bill, following in the footsteps of a well-known gay activist whose refusal of a marriage permit by another district in 2012 lead to the formation of the committee that drafted the current civil union bill.

The activists' presence at the event was tolerated by security and organizers, although as the same sex couple approached the first table to collect marriage forms, they were firmly denied.

"Many people still don't know that we can't register,” says Sattara Hattirat of Anjaree. “Our message to the couples today is 'Congratulations, but we cannot do this, so we hope you will support us.'"

Sara Miller Llana reported from Mexico City; Christa Case Bryant from Jerusalem; Fred Weir from Moscow; Winifred Bird from Tokyo; Bastien Inzaurralde from Paris; and Matthew S. Vaughan from Bangkok, Thailand.

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