Christmas Eve, 2014. My husband and I are lucky enough to be able to come home for Christmas and we are in my parents’ restored 1761 house in a small village about 20 miles from Frankfurt, Germany. My husband and my dad are off somewhere, and it's my sister, my mother, and myself trying to add the final touches to the Christmas tree. We are all laughing and talking at once; although it's only been two years since our last visit, phone calls can't cover everything, and we are trying to catch up on each other's lives. Mostly, we are laughing about my plastic tree ornaments, purchased because they will not break in our suitcase, while Lucy, the family cat, takes a swipe at one of my mom's glass ornaments and sends it crashing to the floor.
We are waiting for a visit from my sister's boyfriend, whom I've never met. Francesco is everything she promised; a handsome, charismatic Italian who owns a restaurant about a half hour away and who will host my sister's 50th birthday party in three days.
On Christmas Eve, two of my brothers arrive to join the celebrations. The dinner table is full of people and good food, followed by the uproar of passing and opening presents. It is a wonderful evening, full of love, hugs, family and laughter, and I know I will remember this Christmas for a long time.
Two days later my sister turns 50 and it begins to snow in the morning. The snow is beautiful on the trees, bushes and old houses in the village; everything looks like a picture of an Alpine village. Not realizing it is time to stop, the snow keeps falling and now the serious business of snow removal becomes necessary. By law, each resident must clear a 4 foot walkway around their property. Sadly, because our village streets are so narrow, old, and crooked, the village does not have any snow removal equipment. The area between the cleared walkways are filled with parked cars and are now about six feet wide with snow and icy ruts.
After a nail biting trip out of the village, we arrive at Francesco’s restaurant and are escorted into their back dining room. The lights are dimmed and each long, deep window has a candle burning in it. Tables with white cloths and fresh flowers are everywhere. Along one wall stretches more tables joined together and filled with an amazing array of Italian appetizers, a prelude to the four main courses displayed on the tables around the corner. The room is full of Italians. These are Francesco's extended family who love my sister and who are now prepared to love our family. Trays of drinks are passed and 40 people sit down to feast.
After dinner, Francesco wheels in a cart with a massive birthday torte. So large that he baked the layers, one at a time, in his pizza oven! We all sing Happy Birthday in German, then English, then Italian (sort of). Francesco gets out his guitar, sits down at one of the tables and plays and sings for the next hour. Magic! My parents, husband and I leave for the trip home, but the party continues long after we leave.
On January 30, my parents celebrate their Diamond (60th) anniversary. As is the village custom, people start dropping by the house around 10:00 in the morning; the mayor comes and the local priest, along with various neighbors and friends. My mom and I are in the kitchen frantically washing out champagne flutes and making more open-faced sandwiches as visitors come and go. At noon, there is a dinner planned at a restaurant in our village. The restaurant is closed except for our party and we take up the whole main dining room with one huge massive table for 45 people. Our florist has sent flowers and they fill the length of the table. My last brother and his family, who live over two hours away, are able to fight through the snowy conditions to be there, as well as my aunt, uncle, various cousins and their families, some friends of my parents, and all us kids. A close family friend from Poland makes the 12 hour drive to our village with his whole family to help celebrate, which was very special for my Mom and Dad. There are speeches, toasts, and lots of pictures. It is a glorious time that goes on all afternoon, and is a proper celebration of such an important milestone.
Lest I give the impression that all we do is party, in between all these special celebrations, there is the daily cooking and cleaning. As usual, I hang over my mother's shoulder as she cooks, writing down her recipes as fast as possible, and trying to guess if a large handful of chopped onions is either more or less than a cup, and hoping to be able to reproduce what she is making when I get home.
At the end of our trip, a final celebration is in order. On January 2, my husband and I host a final get-together with our immediate 17 member family. Now, I wish for a better command of the German language, with fewer “cooking”, “cleaning”, and “shopping” words and more “feelings” and “gratitude” words. They are most certainly needed, because I am giving a short speech to commemorate the 50 years that have passed since I first became a part of this very special family in the summer of 1965. I tell my family that my initial exchange experience has led my life in a totally unexpected direction. One that absolutely and forever changed my life and the person I would become and has shown me another, broader, and better world than I had ever imagined. At the end of the speech, I am privileged to present my parents with a wonderful letter from YFU President and CEO Mr. Michael E. Hill, and a YFU Certificate of Recognition for their lifelong commitment to intercultural exchange.
That first summer, I remember my Dad telling me he signed up for an exchange student because he wanted his children to know other cultures and people in the world. These were far loftier thoughts than I, aged 16, had when I signed up as an exchange student with Youth For Understanding. It is impossible to overstate how clueless I was. One summer was all it took for us all to cement the relationship that has lasted for 50 years.
I remember surprising my family with a visit for my Grandmother's birthday; my German father showing up unexpectedly in Michigan after the birth of my son, pulling a little wooden wagon filled with blocks; and then again, after my divorce to make sure my son and I were alright. There are too many visits to count. The foreign exchange that began in 1965 between myself and one German family has widened and grown to include many countries and many, many more people. As we have passed the 50 year mark, it is amazing to look back and reflect on how much our original exchange has profoundly and happily affected the horizons of so many people.