LSS: Exchange Value

Through the years, my family has hosted a variety of exchange students from around the world.
The truth is that sometimes an exchange experience isn’t worthy of its own vignette in “It’s a Small World.”
However, there are times when all is right, and it turns out to be a small world, after all.
Seventeen years ago, my parents became the rebound host family for a 17-year-old girl from a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany.
Her name was Herdis. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. My family called to say a German version of me had taken the back bedroom.
“She even looks like you, Jan,” my mom said.
It was the beginning of a long friendship across the Atlantic. Her parents came and visited. After Herdis returned to Germany, I went to visit her and her family there. In 2006, my parents went back to Germany for Herdis’ wedding to a wonderful fellow named Martin. All total, we’ve visited each other’s families on one side of the big pond or the other more than a dozen times.
Last week, Herdis, Martin and their baby girl came for their third visit to Lafayette. However, it’s the first time any of us had met their almost 2-year-old daughter. Having watched Herdis make the transition from a schoolgirl to a young lady to an incredible mom has been a gratifying experience. She may not see any of us for more than a year. However, the moment we see each other, we all pick right up. She understands our family and our eccentricities — and we’ve spent enough time with her family that we also understand them.
During their visit this week, my brother and his wife introduced Herdis and Martin to a young girl and her family. The 18-year-old girl may end up going to Germany to be an au pair for Herdis’ daughter. The girl’s father asked, “Why would you do this? Surely you could hire a German girl who could keep your daughter.”
Herdis’ response was simple.
“Since I had the opportunity to make this big experience, I would like to give it to someone else.”
I asked Herdis what she thought the exchange experience did for her.
“For the first time in my life, I had to make decisions and feel the consequences. My whole life before, my parents did that for me. I got much more self-assured while I was here,” she said.
But in the big picture, the experience changed the course of her life.
“It taught me how to get along with strangers. It helped me to realize that family and friendship is important,” she said. “I know this is not my real family, but they are somebody else I have — somebody who, if I fall, they will catch me.
Her husband said, “She has more of an open mind because of it.”
She agreed. She realizes that travel changes a person and is almost always a character improving experience.
Travel is one of the many topics Herdis and I fully agree on.
One of the few things I missed out on growing up was having a sister. I’m 11 years older than Herdis. So we come at things from slightly different angles, but our perspectives are close enough to connect more often than not. I’m grateful my relationship with Herdis provides a glimmer into sisterhood.

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