04 August 2007

The Required Anniversary Post

August 4, 1991. I was 16, and I'd never spent more than about 10 days away from my family. I boarded a plane in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, nervous, excited, scared beyond belief, ecstatic, and yet also sad at leaving my family behind. I was headed for Stockholm, Sweden, Arlanda International Airport, and I didn't speak a word of Swedish.

More than 24 hours later, I was walking through customs in Sweden in my ugly Rotary jacket, made of VISA, America's Freedom Fabric! That thing was fugly then and is fugly now. I like it better now than I did then, but that's a story for another day. I had strained to see out of the windows of the plane, as we landed, anxious for a first glimpse of this new country. We flew on a huge jet, 3 seats next to the windows, 5 seats across the middle and 3 seats next to the other windows. I swear to god, that plane held 500 people, it took for-fucking-ever to deplane and there were hordes of people in the customs lines.

I was exhausted, and scanned the crowd for my host family, people I'd talked to on the phone and seen pictures of, but had never met. Sadly, I don't remember much of that initial meeting. Smiles, hugs, and hellos were exchanged, and we walked what seemed to be 600 miles to the car, but other than that I don't remember the first few minutes with them. They changed my life, have been hugely influential in many decisions that I've made, and I'm still close with them, but I don't really remember meeting them.

It seems as if I've known them a lifetime now. And in some ways, I have. This year marks 16 years since I left America and 15 since I returned. That is a lifetime. In that year I spent in Sweden, I lived more than some people manage in their entire lives. Went more places, had more adventures, made some of the most amazing friendships, had a whole bunch of "firsts," (first time I got intoxicated, first language other than English I learned, first time driving a stick-shift car, and many others) life experiences that I wouldn't trade for all the money in the world.

When I talk about being an exchange student, I often make it sound as if it was the perfect experience, as if it wasn't hard at all, was a constant party. I was very good at recruiting potential exchange students when I was doing lots of that in my 20s because I had such a positive experience.

It wasn't a constant party.

I worked hard to attempt to keep up in school, and worked very hard to learn the language.

I'm fairly certain that to some readers, that will seem fantastic, in the sense of fantasy, because when I tell stories from that year, many involve parties and very silly teen exploits.

But it was life changing entirely due to the family that I lived with. They made me feel as if I was a member of their family; in fact, when I was back to visit in 2003, they referred to me as 'the third daughter,' a title that I was both touched and proud to claim.

I spent untold hours sitting in the kitchen of their home with my host mother, who was my first teacher in the Swedish language. "This is a pot. A spoon. Garlic. Potato. Bread. Flour." Those were among my first lessons. The majority of Swedish that I know I learned from her. She is an amazing and wonderful woman, who I am extremely grateful to.

One host-sister was all of 12 the year I lived with them; she's 27 now. We spent quite a bit of time without the host parents, we were latch-key kids because both host parents worked until around 5 pm five days a week. I have never forgotten her joyous laugh, her gentle voice.

The other sister was here in America while I was in Sweden, so we didn't get to know one another so well in the early 90s. But we've made up for that in the years since, every time we've been together we realize anew that not only do we dearly love some of the same people, but we truly love one another too. She is one of those people that never seems to stop laughing, and never runs out of energy.

And of course in this recitation of my Swedish family, I can hardly leave out Papa. He didn't speak English when I got to Sweden, so if I wanted to talk to him, I had to learn one of the 3 other languages that he spoke. We managed just fine with smiles and charades until I learned Swedish. He is a strong, silent type.

The funny thing about my Swedish family is that they are quite a lot like my American family. Pictures of my host mother from the 60s show her wearing the same hairstyle as my mother did. My parents kept notes about trips scribbled in the atlas that remained in the car in those days before GPS units; my host parents did the same. Notes such as gas milage, restaurants they liked, drive times. The only difference is that the Swedish family's map was of Europe and the American family's was of North America. There are hundreds of small similarities like that, which as we all discovered each one, we were first surprised and then amused and finally, at then end, nearly prosaic about these Twilight Zone moments.

What that taught me, more than anything else, is that people all over the world are more alike than we are different. That we all love our families. That life is pretty similar even thought the vantage point might change.

I miss the Swedish family, think about them nearly every day. The impact that they had on shaping the adult that I am today is impossible to quantify. I'm left with inadequate words to express my gratitude. "Thanks" does not even begin to cover it.

Tusen, Tusen tack till alla som jag fick kanner igen i Sverige i 1991/1992. Jag behalla er alla kar i mina tanker.

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