For a long time in our family, this was the season when a new person would come to live with us. Every fall for six years running, we would nervously drive to the airport to meet the new young woman from Austria who would join our family and begin to taste the jazzy sauce of American life. How lost and uncertain must they have felt on arriving here on Foreign shores to live for a full year with virtual strangers?
But being a self-centered soul I always saw it from MY point of view: what if the young woman didn’t have enough English to get along comfortably here? What if she only THOUGHT she knew how to drive a car? What if God forbid, she was a disliker of children, a secret pincher, say?
All these old fears came to mind again during the fall when our youngest was a high school junior and we found ourselves again driving to the airport, this time to bring home an exchange student from Madrid.
His name was José and all we knew of him was that he had a ponytail. Within minutes of identifying him, we were walking that long mile to the car, during which my whole family seemed struck suddenly dumb. Desperate to keep thing going, I talked my head off, with great animation and very s-l-o-w-l-y.
“On drugs,” the kid must have thought. But things got easier once we were driving. A Bruce Springsteen tune came on the radio and he said “Ah, de Boss!” – and when “Stairway to Heaven” started, we knew we had not one, but two Led Zeppelin fans on our hands. The rest of the language barriers we got past with pantomime.
At supper that first night, I thought I might go for the historical angle. “So what was the deal with FRANCO?!” I yelled, pronouncing the name of that old Spanish dictator with what I hoped was a meaningful anti-fascist frown.
“Franco!” cried José, and executed a Nazi salute.
But lucky for us all, we were all soon talking more naturally.
My man David is often busy nights with meetings and dinners out, and in the fall of his killer Junior year our poor burdened youngest who was the unofficial ‘host’ of José was constantly plugging away at homework every night.
That left me.
And since by nightfall I have always been way too sleepy for any ‘thinking ‘ work, I spend evenings catching up on mindless tasks. And so José, who was neither busy nor sleepy, would keep me company, lounging on a nearby chair.
I learned the words for existentialism , which is existencialismo, the adjective for manic depressive, which is maniaco depresivo and the term for paranoid schizophrenic, which is esquizofrenico paranoide. (We were drawn to the darker themes, José and I.)
He told me he thought all humans were basically out for themselves – egoista. I told him I felt sure he would soon encounter at least one person whose unselfishness had helped change lives.
Prompted by his stay with us, I began thinking back over time to those Austrian girls and remembered that some of them really couldn’t speak much English – and then was that one who is spite of her very earnest nature kept locking the car with the engine still running.
We loved them anyway; of course we did.
And now here was José who didn’t need to drive, and whose English, if slower than ours, was pretty damn good. Once he left, we missed him like crazy.
So in the end, there was nothing to dread and everything to look forward to on any one of those runs to the airport.
I’ll have to remember how often this is the case – and how we should all recall that if we think it’s hard to welcome strangers, how much harder is it to BE them?
Now I don’t have a picture of José but here now are two of our former au pairs, Alex and Gabi, once strangers, now our forever friends. :-)
And HERE is Sonja, the one who stayed stateside, went to school, married and raised her own family, seen at my landmark birthday party a few years ago – WITH the child who was once the baby these young ladies came to help care for.
Time does fly does it not? I never thought he’d even shave!