Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Twenty years ago I lost my wallet during the overnight bus ride from London to Glasgow, Scotland. I stumbled off the bus into my host father's arms and before introducing myself announced that I had no money, no travelers checks, and no passport. He took me home and sent me gently to bed and spent the rest of the day at his (very busy and important) job phoning around to see if he could locate my identification. He had no luck.

While our rocky start did not cast a pall over my entire year with them, it did warn all of us that the times ahead were not to be comfortable and smooth. I was sixteen years old and away from my very small hometown and my very small family for the first time. My Scottish family was in the midst of a rocky year - health crises, work uncertainties, and what else I'll probably never know. I could tell my host mother wasn't so sure about me. They took me to plays and concerts and toured me around the country. Sometimes I was rapt. Sometimes I slept through the sightseeing.

When I left at the end of the year, I didn't cry, and they didn't promise to visit me. I felt slightly cheated out of the second family I'd been promised. I wondered if I would hear from them at Christmas.

Over the passing years, none of us has changed too much. But somehow we've kept in touch, just like a family does, even when we weren't in the mood. I took my mom to visit them when she came to see me on my London college semester. They showed up at my wedding, despite my host mother's broken leg (she dyed her hair purple for the occasion). I still felt the awkwardness sometimes, the inkling that we never quite belonged to each other, but still I sent them a picture of Theo when he was born. And still I wanted to visit them before life takes us far apart again.

Our weekend in Scotland was charmed in many ways (see photos below for proof) - warm weather, no wind, Hugh Grant at the golf course, delicious Argentinian wine, and the celebration of my host father's seventieth birthday. I met another of their exchange student daughters, a Japanese woman who had lived with them five years before I did. They shared updates from their other students too -- two from Mexico, another American girl, a Chinese teacher, an Indonesian college student. Their "waifs and strays," we're called. We sat together, like a family does, with our shoes off and the baby playing on the rug. There are many conversations we'll never have, and plenty of ways we'll never understand each other, but in this particular family that's how it works. And, finally, I've stopped trying to imagine what a better host family might be like and, twenty years later, started enjoying mine.


Carol said...

Loved this! I think all exchange experiences just have to be taken exactly for what they are... because they're all so different!

Glad you found the right place for yours.

Carol (HUGH GRANT?!!?)

Katie said...

Your last line reminds me of the Nicole Kidman interview in VF...where she admits to finally halting her search for happiness. So,in addition to both being tall, you've got that in common as well.