A Hippie, A Host Mom and the Making of an International Family

One day in 1972 my parents brought home a big brother for my sister, brother and me (aged 10, 8 and 6 at the time). Heitor was an exchange student from Brazil, and we thought he was cool  because he had long hair and was in high school! That day was the first of many times my parents invited the world into our home.

Heitor when he arrived at our home

To be honest, I don’t recall much of Heitor’s time with our family that year. My six-year-old self was more concerned with avoiding becoming my sister’s live doll and wondering who would be visiting Mr. Roger’s neighborhood that afternoon. Lucky for my siblings and me, my parents had the same open, welcoming spirit as Mr. Rogers. 

Mom and Dad have always been civic-minded. Dad is a lifelong Rotarian and both were active in their local Chamber of Commerce. Mom has the enviable gift of hospitality. She makes everyone feel welcome in her home. So, despite being parents of young children, hosting a teenager from another country was an idea to which they quickly warmed. Mom, at home with us kids all day, was used to the house being filled with noise and dirt and minor excitement. I’m not sure, though, that she had any clue what a teenage boy would bring into our lives!

Mom felt a bit out of her depth parenting a high school boy, but, really, she could handle anything, so, why not? Heitor came to stay with us half way through his exchange year (Rotary typically had their students stay with two different host families). He made friends easily and, like many exchange students – or any teenager, for that matter – wasn’t terribly keen that Mom always expected him to tell her what he was up to. This was a common theme throughout my parents’ hosting experiences. Apparently, American parents are a bit more “helicopter-y” than parents from other countries. Heitor was a pretty easy-going guy, and never gave my parents much trouble. But there was this one time…

Heitor had plans to stay overnight with friends. When he didn’t return home as expected, Mom began to worry. She called the friend’s house and was told he hadn’t spent the night there but had, instead, spent the night at another person’s house – a friend who just happened to be a girl! Ooh. Mom wasn’t happy.

Actually, Mom was boiling mad. I’ve tried, and failed, to recall an instance when my mom lost her temper. So this story she told was a bit of a surprise! When Heitor finally walked in the front door, my 5’2”, unflappable mom was right there, waiting for him. He quickly took refuge behind a recliner in the front room as she gave him a piece of her mind! Heitor was smart enough to stand there, contrite and silent. I don’t think he kept anything from my parents after that! I can just imagine what was going through my mom’s mind – she was, after all, responsible for this boy she hardly knew! What if something had happened to him? Being a host mom puts you in the unique position of being entrusted with the care of another mother’s child. That’s some serious responsibility!

Heitor’s sense of adventure and fun wasn’t squashed by that incident. According to him, during one of the trips Rotary offered to exchange students, he got in trouble with the chaperone.  He and a few other boys returned late to their rooms after occupying themselves into the wee hours of the morning by “chasing girls”! My sister recalls Heitor “baja-ing” down our quiet country road on the riding lawn mower! Dad took Heitor to Deer Camp that winter. My father made sure any kids who visited Camp learned how to handle a gun safely and how to shoot it properly. Heitor got his lesson as well, of course. Unfortunately, the recoil caught him in the head and he still has the scar to remember it by. [Most exchange programs allow handling of firearms with certain restrictions.] Heitor never shied away from a good time or an opportunity to experience something new – really good qualities in an exchange student! 

Heitor, my brother and me on the day he returned to Brazil

His shenanigans notwithstanding, Heitor’s stay was clearly a success. My parents went on to host several more long term high school students as well as some short term young professionals. Heitor calls us an extension of his biological family. He recently told me, “Not even in my faraway thoughts I would dare to imagine that almost half a century later I would feel to be so close to this family, even living thousands of miles away.”

It’s especially fun for me to hear the stories about that girl-crazy, long-haired Brazilian “hippie” (my mom’s words), since my memories revolve more around encounters with Heitor as an adult. He’s my big brother; the one who introduced our family to the richness of international exchange. When my parents and Heitor reminisce like this, it adds depth to our international family’s story for me.

I’ve not yet visited Heitor in Brazil, but my parents have been there twice. Heitor tells me that the Brazilian culture is the result of a complex mix of people: Portuguese colonizers, indigenous peoples, Africans who were brought as part of the slave trade, and millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia. He says, “As a result, we are a very informal people; quite communicative and friendly.” My mom tells me that the people were very welcoming and kind, no matter that there was a language barrier. My parents were grateful that Heitor and his wife, Vera, as well as their families, were wonderful ambassadors of their country.

Mom, Heitor and his mom in Barbacena during one of my parents’ visits

Mom’s memories include a visit to a very large market in Belo Horizonte. Vera didn’t let go of Mom’s hand the entire time and all of them were careful to remove any fancy jewelry prior to visiting the market. Like any big city, I suppose, the chance of being robbed exists, especially for tourists. Mom’s memories focused on family. She loved meeting her Brazilian grandchildren as well as Heitor and Vera’s parents and siblings. It’s really thanks to my mom, and her dedication to maintaining family connections, that Heitor is in our lives at all. She worked hard at staying in touch with him after he returned to Brazil and he eventually responded more consistently (I think, thanks to Vera). Kudos to the women in our family!! 

Dad is an avid fisherman, so for him, a highlight of their travels to Brazil was a fishing trip with Heitor and his brother-in-law. They flew to a fishing camp in the Pantanal region on the Paraguay River. This UNESCO World Heritage site and national park extends beyond Brazil into Paraguay and Bolivia. The fish they caught there is a relative of the piranha but with human-like teeth versus the razor sharp teeth of its cousin. Until they open their mouths it’s a bit hard to tell them apart!  The Pacu is vegetarian, however, and seed pods are used for bait. Dad remembers the manager of the fishing camp “calling the alligators”. Like pets, they would come to her to be fed every day!  I’m not sure I would like to be anywhere near hungry alligators…

Heitor and Vera live in Barbacena, population 120,000, in the state of Minas Gerais. It is in the foothills of the Serra da Mantiqueira, 100 miles south of the state capital, Belo Horizonte. Since the city is at 4,200 ft, temperatures are quite mild year around. Heitor tells me it is a quiet and calm place. The highlights of Barbacena, he says, are the beautiful mountains surrounding the city and the natural vegetation. It makes for lovely sightseeing. If you seek more excitement, you could try Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, the vibrant financial center of Brazil, or Juiz de Fora, a city with beautiful architecture, and abundant shopping and dining options, located just 50 miles from Barbacena. Ouro Preto, a colonial town known for its baroque architecture and beautiful churches, is 80 miles north. The famous city of Rio de Janeiro is a bit further afield, but accessible as well. I was surprised to discover that Brazil is just slightly smaller than the United States; 8.5 million sq km vs 9.8 million sq km – lots of ground to cover! I look forward to visiting one day!

The view from Heitor and Vera’s apartment in Barbacena

My parents agree that anyone considering hosting an exchange student should absolutely do it! They both say they’ve received far more than they’ve given and the long-lasting, deep connections are the unexpected bonus. Heitor made sure to mention that becoming a member of our family not only gave him a second set of parents and three new siblings, but also “three lovely and open-hearted exchange sisters, and their families”. You see, our international family has enjoyed several “family reunions” through the years so that all of our exchange students were able to get acquainted. Heitor says this was unexpected, and “an additional gain due to being an exchange student.” 

Dad, Vera, Mom and Heitor during one of our international family reunions in Florida February 2016

As for me, I feel blessed and so proud to have Heitor as a big brother. I’m grateful that he was the first, but not the last, new sibling that my parents brought home to us.

I Lost My Chicken in the Loire Valley

If you asked my sister to tell you what I was like as a child, she’d say I was a chicken. My default response to anything unfamiliar or slightly scary was to hide my face in my mother’s skirt – quite literally at times. I didn’t enjoy being afraid of everything and I can’t tell you why I was. My sister and brother were the adventurous ones. I was the baby and they usually left me behind because I wasn’t much fun.

So, I read a lot as a kid; I still do. Don’t you find books to be a safe place to go on all kinds of adventures?! One of my favorite literary characters was Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and another was Pippi Longstocking. One helped kids kick bad habits and the other thumbed her nose at convention. I think I longed to be a rebel but I was, at heart, a rule follower… and a chicken. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s appeal was how she “cured” bad habits by overexposing the kids to the offending behavior so that they were forced to see it and work themselves out of it.  

So, what would Mrs. Piggle Wiggle prescribe for a painfully shy, apprehensive teenager? How about this: to board a plane and land in a place where she knows no one, barely speaks the language and will have virtually no contact with home for an entire summer? Yes! That sounds like the perfect Mrs. Piggle Wiggle “Afraid of Everything” cure! So, that’s what I did.

You’ll recall that I come from a home that welcomed many exchange students, so the concept was familiar to me. I was studying French which made France an obvious choice, and my parents were agreeable as long as I ponied up half the cost of the program. Decision made. Thank goodness I didn’t let my fears take hold until it was too late!

I waited expectantly through that spring to hear where in France I would be going and who my host family would be. I waited and waited and waited… By the time my departure date arrived, I had worked myself up into a nice ball of nerves. I don’t know how my parents did it, but they put me on a plane to France without knowing where I was going to end up. Back in 1983 we didn’t have the ability to instantly connect like we do today. They had to wait for me to arrive. I sent a telegram, if I remember correctly. Yes. A telegram.

I flew to NY and met up with some other exchange students, which made me feel a little less afraid. We were all in the same boat! Arriving in Paris, we were met by local area reps and driven to the program offices where our host families were waiting for us. My host mom and host dad were there – they had kind eyes and friendly faces. And they spoke French! My brain froze. I couldn’t utter a single mot en français. We did a lot of smiling and gesturing, made our way to the train station; grabbing a sandwich au jambon on the way to my new home! 

I spent that summer in the Loir-et-Cher region of the Loire Valley – a beautiful agricultural region with oh, so many castles. My host parents owned a working farm with grain fields, chickens, rabbits and a large family garden. I was so excited to find out I would have a little brother! I am the baby in my family and always wanted a little brother or sister. I also gained two new sisters, one younger and one older than I. My host father was gregarious and charming. He communicated with me through teasing and laughter. My host mom was kind and hard-working. I rarely saw her sitting except at meals and at the very end of the day. My oldest host sister spoke very good English. She was preparing for her departure to the US for an exchange year.

I relied heavily on my older host sister to translate. It was nice to have her help but I learned so much more, and was better able to enjoy my host family, when I stopped relying on that crutch. Some of my best memories are of sitting with my host mom snapping beans or otherwise helping her in the kitchen or while hanging laundry on the line. I know, chores don’t sound terribly fun, but those were the times when we would talk, when I really felt like I belonged. And right, kids help out with chores in France, too, just like at home. My little brother was another great teacher. We spent countless hours playing outside, playing foosball in the garage when it rained and reading his books. His books were right at my level of understanding of the French language and his young vocabulary was much easier for me to grasp as well.

I kept a journal that summer and I will tell you it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. The food was different. The rules were different. There was one very unfortunate incident that involved me, my host brother, some ill-fated baby rabbits and a very angry host mom! I promise, we meant no harm. I’m not a farm girl and I don’t pretend to understand rabbits. I’m still a little haunted by that day…

Despite all that family bonding and rabbit tragedy, I remained a chicken. I still had a hard time talking to strangers, especially in French. There were many friends and family in the area, though, and they were all very interested in meeting me. I was “la petite américaine”. And several of them had very definite ideas of what an American was. Some of those stereotypes weren’t terribly flattering. What could I do but try to change their minds, right? So, I put a smile on my face and put my best American foot forward. I think it helped. I know it helped me. 

My host family showed me some of the best things about their country; hard working, kind people who were open-minded and generous, with a familiar family dynamic. While I was with them they also shared their culture and customs. We visited le Chateau de Blois – pictured above, one of many castles in the Loire Valley. I’ve since seen several more, and I will never say, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” because they are all so very different and have such interesting histories.

The French equivalent of our Independence Day is July 14, Bastille Day. On that day we attended a small town celebration. Talk about charming! The village was filled with locals. There was a small parade, led by a slightly off-key marching band, that grew bigger as we all joined in. It wound its way to a local hall for a large party afterward. There was food, wine (always wine!), music and even some dancing! That day alone fulfilled most of my romantic notions of what France would be.

Toward the end of the summer we went on a family camping trip to Ile D’Oléron. The island sits in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of France. Camping, it turns out, is pretty much the same on an island in France as it is in northern Michigan. Campers, tents, lots of sand, public bathrooms, campfires, beaches. One thing that shocked my innocent eyes were all the topless women on the beach – including my host mom! My host father got a really good chuckle out of that. I will never forget that summer and I will always hold that family close to my heart. I’ve been back to visit them, now, twice, but I will save those stories for another day.

So, you see, I did leave my chicken in the Loire Valley. Without realizing it, I had come home a little braver and more open and I’d gained a fair amount of self-confidence. My comfort zone had begun to expand, too. Mind you, I’m still no devil-may-care, throw-caution-to-the-wind kind of gal. I prefer to have a plan when I head out on an adventure, but I’m willing to go off-book, too. I don’t know about you, but I have found that those can be some of the best times.

Venturing

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. – Mark Twain

Do you agree with Mr. Twain? Why or why not? I so look forward to this; the beginning of a conversation with you. I’ll start by sharing why I believe travel and cultural exchange can open our hearts to the humanity in every corner of the world.

Growing up in small town Michigan, USA between the late ‘60’s and early 80’s didn’t offer much in the way of diversity. World travel wasn’t an option for our family at that time either. Instead, my parents invited the world into our home via my father’s involvement with the Rotary Club. Rotary has an international exchange program for high school students as well as business people. My childhood home played host to many young people from all over the world as a result. Beginning when I was about 5 years old and continuing, on and off, until after my sister, brother and I had grown and left home, my parents welcomed a diverse group of people into their home. We were introduced to India, Belgium, Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Zimbabwe and other countries and cultures along the way. 

As a result of my parents’ openness and hospitality, our family grew. Many of our international visitors wriggled their way into our hearts and have become integral members of our family. 50 years on, and these people are as much my true siblings as my natural brother and sister. Our family continues to grow as each of us marries and has children. And so, my parents’ willingness to open our home so many years ago has continued to have a ripple effect around the world and through generations. I promise to share more about my international family in the coming months.

The world is so much smaller these days, with technology and the ease of travel. You guessed right if you assumed that my family has finally been able to travel the world – visiting our extended international family in their home countries and experiencing their cultures firsthand. Our cultural exchange continues to expand as our family grows. I’ll be introducing you to each of my international siblings in some of my future posts!

My international family at a gathering in Florida in 2016

My parents’ actions opened up a world to me that I might not otherwise have experienced. I chose to become an exchange student in high school, not only because I was studying French at the time, but because I had had such wonderful experiences with international exchange in my own home. My desire to experience new cultures and meet people who are different from me is just as keen now as it was then. As a result, I have followed in my parents’ footsteps and hosted students as well. The one thing I’ve learned is that people are people no matter where they live, who or what they worship, what they eat or what language they speak. Our differences make life so much more interesting!

I look forward to exchanging ideas and opinions with you; discovering new places to see and hearing your stories, too. 

Mr. Twain finished his thoughts with these words:

“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Let’s, you and I, go beyond our little corners!