In a household where everyone is often running just a few minutes late for nearly everything, I was confronted with the unique challenge of hosting a German Music Exchange student in the midst of a summer filled with kid’s work and internship schedules, college classes, summer camps, getaways, driver’s ed and swim team. While I was initially excited at the prospect of the second of my children participating in a cross cultural exchange (last summer my son visited our student’s home in Rheinbach, Germany), I could feel my anxiety level rising as I reviewed the very full itinerary and rehearsal schedule planned for the German guests visitng Rhinebeck this summer.
To make matters worse, our truck died a slow, painful death just three days before his arrival leaving us with one car and seven very busy passengers. I complained, I groaned, I fretted and lost more than one night’s sleep. I comforted myself with the notion that my son would have a unique hosting opportunity and he would learn and be enriched as a result of this experience. I also acknowledged that I could forget the idea of getting much writing done for the two weeks our guest was in town. So I put on my chauffeur cap, grumbling all the while and waited for my son and children to be wowed by German music, language and culture.
They weren’t. Don’t get me wrong. They enjoyed our guest. Were even kind and gracious, but they were typical “not impressed” American teenagers. While I drilled our guest on questions about his family, food preferences, hobbies and the like, they twirled their pasta. While I laughed with our guest while trying to learn German and he tried out new American phrases (think “YOLO” and “square dancing” and “tacos”), they were peering at their text messages. By the time his stay came to an end, I had learned so much from him, the exchange, the shared love of music, that I can barely wait for the next.
With the help of friends, everyone got where they needed to be and a good time was had by all. But as I snapped the last photo, exchanged one last hug before he boarded the bus and wiped away more than one tear, I thought about all the things I learned from his visit.
He taught me the importance of being prompt. And in order to be prompt, you need to be prepared. Plan the night before what you’ll need, set your alarm, don’t complicate things by reinventing the wheel each morning (eggs or a bagel? protein shake or yogurt? Chinese flower or decaffinated green tea? ) “Toast and a little marmalade please,” each morning are all that’s needed to start a day and be on time.
He taught me to be a good guest. Make the bed. Keep your room neat. Bring a good book to read, compliment a home cooked meal by asking for seconds (and thirds!)
Never underestimate the value of a family dinner. I noticed during one meal as the dinner conversation took a turn into a heated debate, our guest sat, quietly observing. When I gestured that he was free to leave and not subject himself to a seemingly endless debate, he opted to stay put. “Do you have family dinners like this at home?” I asked. “Yes.” he smiled. “Only not so loud.” I would wager those family dinners taught him as much about American culture and family than any visit to Times Square/Empire State Building/Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty combined.
Send a postcard. Even in the age of facebook, twitter and Instagram, there’s nothing like taking the time to write a note, stamp and address it and put it in a mailbox. Small gestures go a long way.
Speak the language. Or at least try. Or at least pretend to try.
And finally, when in doubt, Smile. It is the international symbol to relax people, ease tension and make others smile in return.
Complete with all the sarcasm they could muster, my children suggested that since I so enjoyed this experience, (all comparisons to our German guest are now strictly verboten), perhaps on the next exchange in four years, I should consider going as a chaperone. My kids may never learn to make it out of the house on time or make make a bed daily, but they do make excellent suggestions….