A teacher named Dave organized a summer exchange program. My mother saw the ad in the paper, and we hosted a 17-year-old French girl for a month during the summer when I was 15. The next year, the exchange program said anyone in my family who’d had 2 years of French could go stay with a French family. My parents didn’t have money, so I took my $500 (pretty much emptied my savings account—in those days, I earned money doing odd jobs, people didn’t give money for birthdays), and it paid for my trip, including air fare and insurance. A chaperone accompanied us at airports and on the flights and was available in France if we needed help.
I loved staying with the French family. I watched my French host mother cook fabulous meals every day (learned to make some ), saw places the parents or two of their sons (a bit older than me) took me in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and learned the language all the while. That experience changed my life. When I got back to the States, I realized at an even deeper level how different things were in Europe and how interesting that was to me. I decided to major in French in college.
Following my sophomore year in college, I took a year off school to work full-time so I could save enough to study in France for my junior year. There is nothing like living abroad!!! It taught me more than any other life experience except maybe parenthood. Maybe. During that year, I visited my French family.
After college, I became a French teacher. Dave gave me my first teaching job! It was only part-time, but it was a start. Later, I became a French technical translator, and even later, co-developed an innovative system for preparing technical writing for translation.
I visited my French family a couple more times, when I could. I knew that my French host parents had been born in Belgium. I learned that they had left Belgium during WWII and walked about 400 km (250 miles) to Dijon. My French host father joined the French Résistance. After the war, they raised a family. It turns out that I was just one of the many people they had hosted from many countries—any country. He said, “Making friends is better than war.”
I kept in touch with my French family. I named my first child after my French host mother, who had taught me so much just by being herself, and was then fighting cancer. The first, glossy photos of my baby arrived in my French host father’s hands one afternoon; his wife had passed away that very morning. This sort of continuation helped him.
I speak only French to my kids, since their births, and my husband speaks English to them. They’re bilingual. My French host father was so touched by that, and to have the pleasure of meeting my daughter twice. We had French-speaking au pairs (a sort of exchange student who does child care for a year) when my kids were little. One of them has kids of her own now, in France, and speaks English to them!
Two years ago, I bought a bigger house and wanted to make sure people had my new address, so I sent letters to many people I hadn’t kept in touch with. I sent one to Dave, thanking him for getting me started. The exchange program made such a difference in my life. His wife wrote back that he had passed away (at a relatively young age, of cancer), but would have been happy to know how much of a difference he had made.