A Royal Adventure – Scotland Part I – The Highlands

It began as a plan to celebrate, and spend time with, my two favorite traveling companions. It turned into something so much more.

My kids, Anna and Ben, have always been game for anything. Together, we’ve visited big cities, braved the wilderness, tramped through old ruins, “trespassed” – the views were worth it! –  and gotten lost and then found again. Finally, the time had come for us to travel overseas together. Scotland was my choice. They, as usual, were up for any kind of adventure. 

Ever since I was young, Scotland has been my dream. I can’t really put a finger on it, but I do know that my aunt and uncle returned from a European vacation once upon a time, with a toy Highland “coo” and an authentic Scottish tam for me, both of which were prominently displayed in my room for many years. Scotland… Highlanders, rugged wilderness, the sea, lovely accents. It was my dream and my kids let me drag them along.

The Plan

I started researching options during Anna’s last year at Michigan State University. I mentioned our plans to my European family members – you may recall from previous posts that I have a large, very tight international family. I was hoping that they may be interested in joining us for part of the trip. Silly question! We have a family WhatsApp group and the idea quickly spread. We’d had two successful “family reunions” over the previous 15 years – one in Michigan and one in Florida – and it was apparently time to gather in Europe. Color this natural-born planner over the moon!

It took us a year to get from plan to fruition, but I enjoyed every minute. I learned so much about our destination, met kind and helpful people along the way, and simply enjoyed the anticipation of this magical trip!

We were 22 people, when all was said and done, set to spend a week in the Scottish Highlands together. What better accommodations for such a crowd than an honest-to-goodness castle!? I googled my way through some absolutely amazing options, finally settling on a place near Beauly, about 40 minutes drive west of Inverness. If you’re an Outlander fan I’m sure you are practically swooning right now. Let me drop the bad news: We did not take any Outlander tours – though there were a number to choose from. I hope you stick with me, because the Highlands we experienced were every bit as enchanting, even without Claire and Jamie. 

Getting There

My immediate family, except for Ben, who lives in California, are in Michigan. Flying out of Detroit seemed the most practical option, but I found some absurdly good deals flying direct from Toronto, Canada to Glasgow. Four hours drive to Toronto followed by a seven hour flight to Glasgow on AirTransat was what we chose. Our other options were at least 50% higher in price and involved one or more layovers. Our actual travel time was shorter this way, though we did have to allow for potential traffic issues, leaving the car in long term parking – which turned out to be super cheap – and customs at the Canadian border, which was a breeze via the Blue Water Bridge entry point. I would fly internationally on AirTransat again in a heartbeat. We had an excellent experience with them. 

We met my Japanese sister, Rihoko, who married an American and now lives in South Dakota, in Toronto. Four of us – Anna, her boyfriend, Jake, Rihoko and I –  flew to Glasgow where I had arranged to pick up a minivan rental for the two weeks we travelled the country. Two things to note here: I rented a minivan and that lovely Scottish accent I was so keen to experience? –  well, Glasgow has its own special version. We sat in the car rental place and I tried desperately to understand the instructions the young man was giving us. I pride myself on being pretty good at understanding non-native English speakers… but understanding a Glaswegian accent is a whole other story, made worse, I’m sure, by my travel fatigue. Suffice it to say, I’m very grateful for Siri and GPS! I was the designated driver since Anna and Jake were too young (drivers had to be 26+). Rihoko was my backup. In Michigan, I drive a tiny car, on the right side of the road while I sit in the driver’s seat on the left side of the car. I’ve done that for most of my nearly 40 years of driving. Driving in the UK = old dog, new trick… It was a challenge to get from the car rental place to our hotel, just outside of the city. Anna will probably tell you differently, but I thought I was doing pretty well until I took a wrong turn and ended up at a 4-lane, multi-pronged roundabout during what appeared to be rush hour. After several minutes of trying to figure out the system, I screwed up the courage to hit the gas and went for it! We finally got out of the city and I began to relax. I shouldn’t have, as I nearly crashed into a parked truck at the final turn into the hotel parking lot! Whew… did I tell you the minivan was brand new? 

We picked Ben up at the train station. His international travels were much more challenging than our direct flight, but being clever and resourceful, he arrived just a few hours later than planned, the last legs via train rather than airplane, but safe and sound. It had been several months since we were last together, so I was very glad to see him. I have to admit I was even happier to hand him the keys to the minivan! Ben was our driver for the rest of the trip. Despite some harrowing moments that were probably not as harrowing as they seemed at the time, he did a fabulous job and I was tickled pink to remain a passenger.

Our Royal Getaway in the Heart of the Highlands

We arrived at Erchless Estate on a Saturday afternoon. The winding, narrow country roads were mostly impassable for two vehicles, so there were periodic “passing places” where one car could move off the road and allow the oncoming traffic to pass. I was thoroughly charmed by the low, moss-covered stone walls running right alongside the road bordering the estate. As we drove through the entrance, a row of attached old, stone cottages appeared.

Flynn, a friendly red dog, was the first to greet us, offering a game of fetch with a stuffed Pikachu as a gesture of friendly Scottish hospitality. He was soon joined by his people, Allison and Greg, caretakers of the property, who also extended a warm greeting – minus the offer of a game of fetch!

We spent our first night in one of the cottages. It was large and well-appointed with all the comforts without losing the charm of its age. Two of the other cottages are occupied – one by the caretakers and the other by an older gentleman whose companion was a sweet spaniel of some sort.It didn’t take us long to understand that Scots are definitely dog people.

Entering Erchless Estate – The Cottages

Because the castle grounds were off limits until Sunday, Greg and Allison invited us to explore the rest of the estate. We wandered around acres of pasture land where cows and sheep grazed contentedly, explored outbuildings where we found a handyman swearing good-naturedly at a stubborn broken wheel, and then, as we circled back toward the cottages, we stumbled upon a rather mysterious walled garden. The entrance to the garden was a weathered wooden door with a rusted iron latch – something straight out of The Secret Garden. Inside, we found a wild garden and oh, so many happy chickens and ducks pecking and scratching and flitting around their untamed sanctuary. It really was like a fairy tale, and the story was just beginning!

The rest of the family rolled in throughout the day and evening, Sunday. They came from far and wide – Sweden, Brazil, the US, France and Australia – and the mood became more festive with every arrival! This was the first time we’d gathered since our last reunion in Florida 3 ½ years prior. As we drove through the wrought iron gate onto the castle grounds, proper, we were confronted with a stunning, white-washed castle, holding court in the center of a beautifully manicured lawn dotted with the grandest rhododendron bushes I’ve ever seen, in glorious full bloom! The lawn is also home to many beautiful and exotic trees.

Parts of the castle date back to the 13th century. The Clan Chisolm made Erchless Estate their home in the 16th century. Ownership has since been passed along to other families, with updates made through the years. Though it is now let as a vacation home, it retains the feel of what it once was – a grand private family home. There is a large games room with a beautiful old billiards table. Table tennis is available on the lower level, with a hot tub sitting just outside the door. The River Glass runs through the estate, which encompasses over 12,000 acres. The wilds of the estate are home to red deer and many other creatures. Honestly, we could have spent the entire week on the estate and never been bored. 

Our group was so large – 22 of us, with beds for “only” 19 in the castle, that we kept the cottage for our use throughout the week as well. The rooms of Erchless are grand but cozy. It is very spacious, with so many staircases and “secret” nooks – it never felt crowded, and I honestly got kind of lost at least once a day!  Dad, or “the Laird” as we called him, made breakfast most mornings, and the delicious smells would help us all find our way to the kitchen to start each day. There were two dining rooms – the grand dining room which could fit all of us, and a smaller, less formal one that seated about 12 – as well as a large island to gather around in the kitchen. 

Some days were planned out for the entire family, but others remained unscheduled so that smaller groups could do as they pleased; hiking, exploring, shopping, etc. The castle is rented as self-catering, and we did most of our own cooking. We did, however, take advantage of the option to have meals catered – once for a grand Scottish feast for all the family and again later in the week Allison prepared some lovely comfort food – cottage pies and vegetables. 

The Grand Feast

Our grand feast was, indeed, grand. We gathered in the formal dining room that had been elegantly turned out just for us. We enjoyed several courses, which included traditional haggis along with smoked salmon and goat cheese tart starters, a choice of beef bourguignon, fish pie and Tuscan stew with wild game sausages for the main and traditional Scottish cranachan, sticky toffee pudding or cheesecake for dessert.

The food was fabulous and we all stuffed ourselves silly. We opened a bottle of 12-year-old single malt Scotch Whiskey to wash it all down. The entire evening was memorable. The kids – all of my siblings, international and natural, and their families – presented Mom and Dad with their own piece of Scotland, courtesy of Highland Titles. They are now a Laird and Lady of Glencoe, complete with the deed to an actual square foot of Scottish soil! It was a novel way to commemorate the occasion while supporting conservation efforts in Scotland. The evening was filled with laughter and love and so much joy, and the icing on the cake was that we didn’t have to lift a finger. The dining room and kitchen were left gleaming and leftovers were stowed in the refrigerator for us to enjoy the next day.


You can’t visit Scotland without learning all about the distilling of Scotch (or simply, whisky, as the Scots call it). As we splintered off into smaller groups to explore the area, I think we all made our way, at some point, to the Glen Ord Distillery, the home of Singleton Whisky. There, we learned the different methods of distilling and aging whisky and how to properly sample it. 

Most of the roads in the area are, as I mentioned, single lane and winding with miles of countryside and pastureland between each village or small town. The views are by turn stunning and incredibly peaceful – always green and quite rugged. We saw more clouds than sun and a fair amount of rain, which rarely lasted for long and was usually a light drizzle. That’s the price you pay for the views you get in return! 

Plodda Falls and Glen Affric

Two of my favorite spots were less than an hour from Erchless, along the A831 near Cannich. We hiked Plodda Falls and then did the Dog Falls trail at Glen Affric, during two separate outings. The hikes were quite easy, though there were certainly more challenging options available. There is an extensive network of trails throughout the Highlands, and we found that it was perfectly acceptable to find a parking spot almost anywhere and just start walking. You can even set up camp in the countryside, for a single night, without question. You are expected, however, to leave any wild place you visit in the same condition you found it. Glen Affric, in my opinion, was one of the most picturesque places we visited. Walking in the forest with the sound of flowing water nearby has a way of filling me with such peace. Glen Affric reminded me of my favorite place in Michigan – the western Upper Peninsula – but it was even grander and, at the same time, more serene.

After tramping several miles through nature, one does get hungry – and thirsty! Fortunately, we stumbled upon a gem of a local pub in Cannich called The Slaters Arms. It is an unassuming, cozy place that serves up a delicious plate of hot chips and a cold pint of Scottish ale that you can enjoy while settled into one of their well-worn arm chairs or couches. The pub is home to several spaniels who are happy to stop by for a pat and perhaps to share your chips. I told you, the Scots really treasure their dogs! The owner was quite chatty with us during one of our visits – sharing some interesting tales about local critters. Everyone we met was very generous with recommendations and advice, and most willing to share their opinions about everything! 

Loch Ness and Inverness

Loch Ness and Inverness drew most of us through the week. I found Inverness very clean and walk-able. The buildings are charming and the views from the Inverness Castle (now serving as governmental offices) were lovely. My father took my international siblings to the Loch Ness Rotary Club weekly meeting. The club members were thrilled to have them there to share a bit about their experiences with the Rotary International Exchange Program. Loch Ness, itself, was definitely a tourist trap and, aside from the appeal of trying to catch a glimpse of Nessie, I feel it paled in comparison to some of the more lovely lochs in Scotland. 

Somewhere In the Hills Above Beauly

I mentioned earlier that we were grateful for Siri/GPS, but I have to tell you that Siri did fail us one time while hiking in the woods. A group of us were encouraged to try some lesser known trails nearby that promised some lovely views, so off we went. Well, we got lost. Terribly lost, really. And Siri was silent for much of the trip – no signal! Fortunately, it was daylight and the weather was cooperating, because we wandered around the hills near Beauly for a good two or three hours. We found some friendly cows who tried to help us, but their Highland brogue was  as much a challenge to understand as the Glaswegian accent! We did stumble upon some lovely views and we had a lot of laughs at our own expense. You can’t really call it an adventure if you don’t get lost at least once!

Brodie Castle

Brodie Castle is another worthwhile day trip. It has lovely gardens, an adventure playground for kids and many trails to enjoy the natural surroundings. The castle itself is impressive – rose-colored and boasting beautiful turrets – and the docent who guided our tour shared some very interesting history and fun details about the building and the people who lived there.

Dining Out

Finding a place that could accommodate a large group was a bit of a struggle. The majority of eating establishments in the area are intended for smaller parties. The Cnoc Hotel, just down the road from Erchless Estate, was able to accommodate eleven of us – my parents and all of their kids with spouses – for a lovely family dinner. The grand- and great-grand kids stayed back at the castle enjoying pizza, video games and the hot tub. (Not too shabby!) We practically filled the lovely dining room of the hotel. The staff were attentive and kind. We were able to spend some quality time basking in our 50-year history as a family, enjoying the delicious food and the delights of making memories on top of memories. 

There were further day trips – to the village of Beauly and its Priory and to the Battlefield of Culloden as well as others. There is definitely plenty to see and do and most certainly we missed some goodies. I hope those of you who have been there, or plan to go, will share your impressions in the comments.

But wait, there’s more…

Despite the challenge of organizing activities that we could all attend as a group, we did manage to put two wonderful events together during that week. The family feast – thanks to Allison and her team – was amazing, of course. The second adventure involved two tour buses and plenty of time on the road – but the Isle of Skye was so worth it! That trip merits its own post, so… Coming Soon!

If you’re a fan of beautiful scenery, fresh air and friendly people, I recommend you consider a trip to the Scottish Highlands. I know, once flying overseas is possible again, I will be planning a return visit. I fell head-over-heels for this beautiful country. As noted, I’ll be following this post with one dedicated to our trip to Skye. The kids and I spent an additional week traveling around the country and I will share these adventures, which include a day in Edinburgh, with you as well.

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.


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!