In 1977 a young woman from Brazil traveled to California from her home in Venancio Aires 200 miles south of Sao Paulo, a high school exchange student with the American Field Service (AFS). For three months she lived with the Clarke family starting a friendship that would last a lifetime.
Her exchange sister was none other than my wife, Kelly Clarke Turner. Two years later Kelly would become an exchange student herself, traveling with AFS to Sweden to spend the summer with the Olssons. Karl Gustav, a farmer, Anne Marie, a school teacher and their three daughters Malin, Karin and Hanna.
As farmers in the south of Sweden the Olssons wanted their girls to experience the world outside of their own country and decided the best and most economical way to give their daughters a world view was to bring the world to them. They took in AFS exchange students, 7 students over seven years. Their daughters adopted seven new siblings from around the world and have kept those relationships to this day. Kelly has visited Sweden often and our children and I have joined her. Her exchange sisters have visited us in Seattle as well. Our son, Jacob, stayed with Hanna last summer while he traveled around Europe and we will stay with Hanna and Karin next summer.
I have mentioned before my belief that some of the best moments in life are spent around a dinner table sharing food and conversation with friends and strangers. One of my most memorable dinners occurred in 1993 around the dinner table at Karl Gustav and Anne Marie’s farmhouse where we were joined by their friend, a professor in agricultural economics at the University of Berlin. Our multilingual hosts decided dinner would be in English to accommodate the Americans who only spoke one language. What followed was a memorable meal with conversation about the recent collapse of the neighboring Soviet Union and the demolition of the Berlin wall from the perspective of a Berliner who was also trying to reclaim his wife’s family property Estonia. It was fascinating, and a bit humbling that these people were fluent in my language, and several others.
But I digress, the point of the post is how friendships with people of other cultures enrich our lives. Last weekend we met up with that girl from Brazil, Viviane Ventura De Mello, Kelly’s Brazilian exchange sister from 1977. Viviane, who now lives in Hamburg Germany, came to the US for a long overdue visit with her exchange family. Kelly and I traveled across the state to reconnect as it had been 10 years since our family stayed with Viviane at her home in Luxembourg. It felt like yesterday, we picked up where we had left off and by the end of the weekend we had agreed to add Hamburg to our travels next summer.
Over another memorable dinner Viviane told us of her most recent small world experience and chance encounter with a fellow exchange student. Recently, Viviane was wandering around the village of Oia, on Santorini Greece. She was photographing the island in the early morning when a group of Americans asked if she could take their picture. She readily agreed and struck up a conversation asking the standard question “where are you from?” The obvious response of America prompted her to ask for more specifics as Viviane is very familiar with America having lived and traveled throughout the US. The Americans then asked Viviane where she was from and she said Brazil, to which one of the gentlemen responded “I would ask where in Brazil but the only place I know is Venancio Aires. His statement shocked Viviane, no one outside Brazil knows her small hometown. For most of her life she would say she was from neighboring Sao Paulo because most people outside Brazil had at least heard of Sao Paulo. How do you know my hometown of Venancio Aires she asked? He responded, “I was an exchange student with the Rotary club and lived with a family in Venancio Aires in 1977. He continued, “if you are from Venancio Aires maybe you know some of the people I met, like the young girl who showed me around the village and introduced me to everyone. She was the only person in the village who spoke English as she had just returned from her own exchange in California, her name was Viviane.”
Remember, you are traveling the world even if you are at home, the globe is turning even when you are standing still. When you least expect it you may cross paths with a friend from 40 years ago.