Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Do You Want to Host?

Although we do not plan to host next year for a variety of reasons, I highly recommend that people who are interested in hosting submit an interest form to AFS and listen to what they have to say about the hosting experience!!!  If in reading my blog, you’ve felt interested in hosting in any way, please visit http://www.afsusa.org and let them know that you’d like to know more about hosting!  There are students who will be desperate for a host family this spring and summer, and you could be the host parent who makes a student’s dreams into a reality!

If anyone has any questions for our family about anything we haven’t covered here on the blog, please feel free to leave a comment with your questions.  Comments are hidden pending my approval, but I do get an email with the comments and then I can “publish” them.  I will address any questions about hosting that I can!

The big question we get about hosting is:  Would I get paid to host a student?

The answer is no.  You are providing your student with a home and meals and other expenses as you would your own child.  The rule our AFS liaison suggested to us was that anything we did as a family, we should plan to include Penny and budget appropriately for that.  If she wants to do something on her own or with friends, she should plan to use her own money.

Penny did come with plenty of spending money, and we told her on her arrival that she’d have to use her own money to purchase her school supplies, souvenirs, and the like.  We do however cover food if we all go out to eat, regular groceries (she does occasionally buy her own snacks), occasional toiletries (she likes to cover some of these on her own), and travel.  For instance, when we traveled to Florida, we bought Penny’s plane ticket.  She did pay for her own ticket to DisneyWorld, however, even though we did not ask her to.  We do not give her money to go to the mall or movies with friends, we do not give her money to buy clothing and shoes and CD’s, and the like.  She is responsible for her own finances and her family has provided her with a pot of money for the things she needs.  She occasionally does not know if something is a good deal/cheap or not, so she does ask our advice on purchasing items and tries to compare the prices with what she’d pay if she were buying a similar item in Thailand.  She will not purchase jeans here, as she feels they are quite expensive, in contrast to European students who feel jeans here are quite cheap!

Just before we started our exchange year, AFS sent us a letter for tax purposes, and you can claim a certain amount of money as a charitable contribution per month.

Another question we have been asked by friends is:  What do you have to do as a host family?

The only thing AFS requires is that you provide the student their own bed, three square meals a day, and treat them as you would any other member of the family.  As long as you are willing and able to provide the basics, you can be a host family!  Your student can even share a bedroom with a sibling of the same gender, close in age.

By our nature, we tend to travel a lot.  Penny has seen a pretty good portion of the country already and will be seeing a few more spots along the way.  However, she has spoken to some of the kids she met in Thailand before coming to the US and their experience has been that they don’t travel at all.  We simply have friends and family all over the place and choose to spend as much time as possible visiting them.  Penny indicated a strong interest in travel before she arrived during the course of our pre-exchange emails and so we are more than happy to even add in an extra trip (NYC) so that she could see the country some more.  There are places she’d like to see that we are just not going to get to (Las Vegas and California).  But other families might decide to try and make that happen for their students! 

I have been really impressed at the breadth of opportunities my fellow host families have offered their students this year—travel, theater, sports, etc.  No exchanges have been even close to the same, but it has been a lot of fun to see the students busy with their exchanges and families.

Anyway, there are a couple of questions and answers.  Feel free to leave a comment if you have any others!

Friday, February 18, 2011


Last night, as her final gift from Three Kings/Christmas, I took Penny to see Hairspray at the Riverside Dinner Theater.  We went with our neighbor, Lisa, who had a friend who runs the theater, so we were able to get the table right front and center of the stage.  Pretty awesome!

When we were talking about it yesterday afternoon, she said that her parents had never taken her to see live musical theater, so she was really excited.

The production is really fantastic and well worth the price of admission.  Penny was ready to jump up and dance.  She was hooting and hollering and cheering.  It was a lot of fun for her, and she even noticed one of the girls was from her high school.  During Link Larkin’s big number, he came to the front of the stage and made eye contact with Penny, singing several bars to her.  It really capped off her experience, I thought she’d melt into a puddle on the floor!

Afterwards, we went over and met several of the cast members, including the girl she goes to school with, and who recognized Penny.  They were all quite nice and even took a picture with her. 

It was my first trip to Riverside, but it won’t be my last, I can guarantee!


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Time Keeps On Ticking…

A couple of weeks ago, I added a countdown ticker to the blog to mark the time until we have to put Penny on a bus and wish her farewell.  I was so surprised when the time on the countdown clocked became less than the clock that is counting how long she has been here.  As you’ll see above, she has now been here 6 months and she only has just over 4 months to go.

Before Penny arrived, I became friendly via Facebook and our blogs with a number of other host moms.  These incredible women from all around the country have been a wonderful source of support and insight into raising teenagers (having never done it myself!).  We have even decided to have an AFS host moms camp at some point and meet up!

I was sad that for two of these families, their much hoped for exchange didn’t pan out in the ways they had planned and their “children” have ultimately moved on to live with other families.  It is a reality of the hosting experience that ultimately, for whatever reason (and there are many!), a host match may just not be a good situation for the host family or for the exchange student or both.

I feel in some ways I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it is possible an exchange match doesn’t work out.  As I have alluded to, one of the four siblings AFS sent to live in my parents’ home wound up moving out mid-way through her year, just after Christmas, to go live with a different family in town.  It was a challenging time as a family for us to live through.  The student was clearly unhappy and withdrawn from family life.  My parents ultimately decided that they could not tolerate behaviors from her that they would not tolerate from my sister and I, and as they were unhappy and the student was unhappy, she was relocated.  It happens.

There are a lot of feelings that can lead up to a change like that.  In our family, we experienced moments of hope when we all tried to make it work, moments of anger when nothing anyone did seemed to improve the situation, moments of anxiety when we didn’t know how AFS would handle the situation or what people would think of our family as we lived in a very small town and the gossip mill was (and is) in full force. 

Afterwards, there was an immense feeling of relief.  It was over, we could get back to our family’s normal without being sneered at, judged, or looked down upon by this girl, and a sense that if there were problems in the future, they were someone else’s to deal with.  There was still some worry that when she left, she might say negative things about our family that would negatively impact how people viewed us (my father in particular was a well-respected public official), but she was, as far as I know, relatively quiet about her experiences with us and I don’t know much about what she said or did afterwards other than today she continues to live in the United States and is in touch with her second host family.

For our final exchange student with my parents at the helm, we were actually his third placement.  And I would like to address this because even though a student gets bounced around from home to home, it may be that once he or she finds the right spot, it works like magic.  When he first arrived in the US, he was placed with a welcome family.  For anyone who doesn’t know what a welcome family is, they are a family who agrees to host a student for up to 8 weeks upon their arrival until a permanent host family can be found.  So Franc wound up with a host family who had no intention of a long term hosting situation but had room in their hearts and home for a student seeking  a permanent place to call home. 

Once he was placed with a permanent family in Northern New York, it turned out not to be a good fit for him there.  The woman who agreed to host him already had a student living with her, and for whatever reason, it just wasn’t a comfortable match for Franc.  So our regional chapter of AFS decided to place Franc in the high school that my sister was attending, and as she was acting student president of the chapter at the time, she was told she’d have to host him until a permanent family in the school district could be found.

She dreaded telling my father the news in particular. He had taken the previous year’s “failed” hosting experience particularly hard and had informed everyone that we were categorically done with hosting any future students.  But that night, my mother and sister had a meeting to go and left Franc and my dad alone and by the time Mom and Judy got home, my father had Franc’s year in America planned out.  And it was one of those magical placements where all the pieces clicked into place and despite typical sibling fights and whatnot, to this day, we are extremely close.

So I’ve seen it work from both sides of the equation—from having a student move out to having a student in need of a home move in, and I can say that it works very positively if done correctly, which on the whole AFS seems to do pretty well.

When we had our initial interview with an AFS rep before hosting Penny, this topic came up, with regards to hosting a student and what if the experience didn’t go well and how we would handle things if it seemed like Penny would need to be moved elsewhere.  There is so much hope in the matching process and in the planning and preparing for a student that you don’t like to think of anything other than the best possible outcome—that being tearful goodbyes at the end of the year, visits to your student in his/her home country, them returning to visit, weddings, births, and the like. 

I can say that our exchange has not happened as we envisioned it.  Are we disappointed?  No way.  In many ways it has been so much better than we’d ever hoped.  I can say without a moment’s hesitation that Penny is a member of our family, 150%.  Barring major meltdown disaster in the next 4 months, that will not change.  I feel confident that if I were the exchange student, I would not do things the same way that she has gone about them, but I think that is true regardless of what you attempt in life—no two people do anything the exact same way.  I have learned a lot from how she has chosen to handle things, however, and I am attempting to model good behaviors for things that I feel she needs a good role model on—things like dealing with hurt feelings, how to effectively communicate with family, goal setting, taking initiative, being adventurous and trying new things (tubing and Polish food are high on her list of new loves!), and being assertive. She has taught me to be more flexible, being accepting of people as they are, being adventurous and trying new things (seriously, I would NEVER in a million years have ridden Space Mountain or eaten Thai food were it not for Penny’s presence in my life), calling people who hurt you “friend” anyway, and not taking everything personally. 

I don’t know what our new normal will look like at the end of June, but regardless, each and every exchange student whose experience I have been part of has indelibly touched my life and I know even for families whose exchange didn’t end as they expected, there were positives and negatives to the situations anyway and we have all learned and grown a lot.  Here’s to a great spring!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tubing and Valentines Day

This past weekend was a weekend I wanted to keep really busy.  February 13 is a day I am very superstitious about—a lot of things tend to go wrong for me on that day, not the least of which was my grandfather dying and I broke my leg!  So I was excited when some friends suggested we go tubing on the 12th, and I made plans to do some volunteer work on the morning of the 13th and choir practice started up again in the evening.  Plus Penny was super excited about Valentine’s Day, so I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what to do, since we don’t really do anything!

We met up with our friends Andy and Melissa at 10:30 on Saturday morning and headed out to Ski Liberty, a resort just across the Maryland border in Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg.  We had a good trip with a quick stop for lunch, but unfortunately there was quite a delay once we got to the resort so we had to sit around for 3 hours and wait.  We played games on various iPods and iPhones to pass the time until our lift tickets were good at 5pm.



Penny was absolutely terrified when we took her tubing at my father’s house, so I made darn sure she was going to go tubing when we got up to Liberty, but she swore she would, so she bundled up and we rented some boots for her and we headed up the mountain.

P1090888 There were a TON of tubers that day (sounds like we were potatoes, doesn’t it?!) so there was a bit of a wait, and when it was finally Penny’s turn to go, she attempted to talk me into going first, but I wanted to catch video of her first run.  She carefully grilled the employees about what to do, and finally sat in the tube.  She demanded the “pusher” “WAIT!!!!” twice and finally just said “Bye!” to all of us and off she went.  She screamed the entire way down to run.  It was hilarious.   She waited for me down the bottom, as I was having a few second thoughts of my own.  It doesn’t appear that way, but it’s actually a VERY big hill, and a steep one, so you get going pretty fast! I felt confident when I saw Penny stop well short of the end, but when I went, I somehow got going so fast that I hit the wall at the end and bounced into the next lane and headed back up.  The guys were chasing me, I was attempting to flip myself out of the tube, wound up scraping both my knees and jamming the right one, but there was someone coming down as I was going up, so it was critical I get out of there!

P1000271 Penny agreed to go again, this time because she wanted to videotape herself screaming her way down the hill, which she did and then watched over and over, laughing hysterically.  After the third run, she gave up on waiting for me to get to the top and just started meeting me back up at the top of the mountain.  (There was an escalator to ride back to the top after you hit bottom.)  She forced me to go first on our last run, at which point the slopes were turning to pure ice and despite all of us dragging our feet, we were shooting down like crazy.  I was knocking the employees down like bowling pins as well as hitting the walls, so I wasn’t too upset that it was time to be done, although we are considering going back before they close since it was so much fun!  Even Penny wants to go back, so that’s a good sign that she and snow have now made peace with each other!  (After our New York trip, she announced, “I am done with winter.”)


On Sunday, I was so tired and sore from our day on the mountain that I skipped my volunteer work and helped Penny make Valentine treats for some of her friends at the school.  She made Chex Mix Muddy Buddies (her absolute favorite thing we have made together so far!) and we made chocolate covered strawberries.  She got cute little gift boxes for her friends and we got sweet little cupcake papers and she filled one with Muddy Buddies and one with a strawberry and sealed them up.  It was a fun project, and a messy one, but she was pleased with the results!

Penny came to choir practice with me on Sunday and joined the choir I sing with.  (Stafford Regional Choral Society)  I think it’ll be a pretty cool thing that we sing together for a few months.  We will be performing in a concert in April together, so that’s awesome.  When we got home, she went up to bed after we had a marathon chat, and I decided to take some of the construction paper I had around for Leah, cut out hearts, write messages of the things we love about her on them, and place them all over the house.  It took about an hour to do 3 dozen hearts, and during that time, my legs fell asleep and I didn’t realize it until I stood up and promptly tipped over! :-D 

So, I started in the bathroom and taped a little poem to the bathroom mirror for her.  I figured she would surely see that one first thing, and I was right. 

P1090901In case you can’t read it, it says “Roses are red!  Carnations are pink!  You are awesome!  Is what we think!  Happy Valentine’s Day, Penny!  We love you!  The Chief, Cookies, & Leah”.  Yeah, I’m a master of originality!

I scattered other hearts around.  On our picture of her and Leah:

P1090898On the dishwasher, I stuck one that said, “you are a great helper”, on the mirror one that said “You are beautiful inside and out”, on the door she leaves through to go to school one that said “You are a well-respected and great student”, that kind of thing.

Now, little did I know that Penny was listening to my tape dispenser from her bed, and she thought I was up to something entirely different…  She vowed to stay in bed till morning, but when I woke up the next morning, every last heart was gone.  She did not miss a one on any of the floors of the house.   When she came home, she thanked me for putting the hearts up and said she loved them and had stuck them all to the door of her closet.  But she confided, “I thought one of them would say I didn’t have to go to school today!” which is why she was so determined to find every last heart.  She was so disappointed that she had to go to school on Valentine’s Day, poor thing!!!  But let’s face it, she’s had a ton of snow days!

Anyway, after we had a laugh about that, we went to Walmart to do some Valentine’s shopping.  Leah had already made Penny a card from a paper heart that she colored and put stickers on, but I decided to do a dinner time card exchange, so we got cards to and from each person.  Penny showed me the one she bought for us before she bought it, as well as the candy she bought us, but who cares about the surprise!!!  hehe  We also took the opportunity to try an ATM so Penny could get some money.  She has been pretty frugal with her money that she came with and hadn’t needed to use an ATM since she got here, so we were quite proud, but now things are getting a bit more expensive—she is taking the TOEFL and needed to reimburse us for the registration fee, she is taking an SAT prep class, there was a fee to join the choir, that kind of thing.  Her mom had made some money available to her, but she hadn’t had the time to go to an ATM in the past couple of weeks.  Happily the ATM at Walmart worked, so we were able to get her some money!  (we had heard at our orientation that some students have needed to visit 3 or 4 different ATMS before finding one to work, so I was happy that the first one we tried took her card!)

When we got home, we put a heart covered table cloth on the table and made a little centerpiece out of heart garland I got on sale.  She and Leah shared some strawberries and then I taught Penny how to make shrimp ceviche, which we had for dinner along with quesadillas.  When The Chief got home, we all sat around the table and shared our cards, reading them aloud and there was lots of “Awwwww!” moments.  We ate dinner and played Yahtzee and then Penny went upstairs to study.  It really was a lovely day, compared to Mike’s and my usual “go out to dinner” and send flowers and a card kind of day.  It’s interesting that trying to make the day somewhat special for Penny made it more meaningful for all of us.

So that brings the blog pretty much up to date for now.  We are working on squeezing in some extra trips, albeit short ones, to Savannah, Myrtle Beach, and NYC.  Penny desperately wants to go to NYC, she says it is everyone’s dream of America.  She has a day off on April 8th, so I was thinking it would be a good time to go until reality smacked me in the face and reminded me that it’s Leah’s 2nd birthday and we have lots of plans!  Fortunately I hadn’t booked anything!


(We did put the videos of Penny tubing on Facebook but she refuses to let me post the video to YouTube.  If you’d like to see the video, send me a friend request!)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Trip to Northern New York

Looking at Penny’s school schedule and trying to coordinate travel plans around it has been a fun challenge of our hosting experience.  For my money, I would like to give her the chance to see as much of the United States as is possible, or at least as much of the East coast.  If I play my cards right, the only state on the eastern side of the country she won’t get to before she heads home is Vermont.    We have a trip to New England planned in April for her spring break and I intend to take her to New Hampshire and Maine while we are there.

But I digress!  I noticed in the school calendar a string of half days at the end of January.  I thought it was strange, but I also thought it would be a great chance for us to get some travel in, if Penny would only miss a couple of half days of school instead of missing whole days, which I couldn’t support.  I called my dad and we made plans that we would go up to his house near the Canadian border for a mid-winter holiday.

Unfortunately, we then found out that the half days were scheduled so that the kids could have mid-term exams!  So we pushed our trip back to Thursday so Penny could take her midterms, only to have “severe” weather that caused her to have several days of delays and no school.  Seriously, people, she had a 2 hour delay due to RAIN.  Is that nutty or what?!

P1000165 So we left on Thursday morning, having determined that the weather was favorable for driving, even though on Wednesday night, there was a bit of snow and things in the DC area were pretty dicey.  I hauled Penny out of bed at 10AM and we were on the road by 11:00.  We stopped off at a BK in Winchester for lunch and started driving.  Penny was impressed once we got into Pennsylvania with the mountain scenery we were passing.  She kept asking if we were going to drive on the mountains, and I said we were going through them to go to NY, so she was happy.  She snapped a couple of pictures to remember the mountains by, while reminding me she is afraid of heights!

We made it to my father’s house around 8:30PM and he had prepared a full dinner for us.  I showed Penny the house where I grew up and I felt very proud of it.  She kept wandering through the house saying, “I don’t know, but I really like it here.”  That made me feel like a million dollars!  I showed her the room she was staying in, and she is but one in a long line of exchange students who have left their mark in the room, starting with Yuko and Cornelia, onto Sofia and Francisco, and now Penny.  Hilariously, my dad has my old prom dresses hanging in there, so I showed her hot 90’s prom wear!  We had a nice meal and then I was exhausted from driving all day, so we went to bed!

The next morning, I was up early with the little one, but Penny slept in a bit.  When she did wake up, it was broad daylight and she could not get over the snow in the backyard.  I do think it was the most rural place she has ever been (my hometown has a population of about 400 people), and she was kind of awed that the house is in the forest.  She quickly snapped photos.

P1000168This is my dad’s back porch under the big drift of snow in the foreground and his yard beyond.

Dad made us a big pancake breakfast while and Leah tried on his War of 1812 re-enacting gear.  There was lots of giggling going on while Penny tried looking like an early American soldier.

P1000170After breakfast, Dad took a quick trip up to town and then came back and got Penny who was dressed and ready to add a new country to her list of conquests.  En route to NY, we had been through West Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as New York, so she had racked up some new states, but now was time to go to Canada!  We had gotten all the paperwork straightened around to ensure she’d be allowed back into the country, so around 10:30AM, my dad gave me some money for lunch at the local diner and they took off.  He had a full day of activities planned for Penny so she would get the most from her experience.

The first stop was at Parliament.  They found a parking spot and when they came out of the parking garage, there was a Thai restaurant at the top of the stairs.  My father decided it was a sign and they should eat there, so Penny later remarked that she went all the way to Canada to eat Thai food! :)  But they had a great time.  Then they went to Parliament and took a tour of the building.  I don’t know how much Penny enjoyed it or didn’t enjoy it, but they both look happy in the pictures!

P1000190 P1000178After touring Parliament, Dad took Penny to the Canadian Museum of  Civilization, which clearly had more appeal to him than it did to Penny.  I was informed that she was a “typical teenager” and so he kind of rushed his way through.  However, since the museum is located inside the province of Quebec, Penny got to go to two different Canadian provinces too!  After the museum, Dad decided that Penny should experience the joy of the Hard Rock Cafe, and frankly, I think he was just excited he could tell people that he took a teenager to the Hard Rock and lived to tell the tale!

After dinner, he took Penny to his dancing class.  My dad is big into English Country Dancing (you know, the kind you see in Jane Austen movies) and so he thought Penny would enjoy seeing it and trying it.  The group at the class was considerably older than she was, and I can’t really get a straight answer about what she thought of the class, but she came home in an extremely introspective mood.

P1000206 They got home long after midnight.  Leah and I were already in bed.  Penny stumbled out of bed around 9:00, bleary eyed and tired.  She told me she had spent much of the night crying, that she was starting to realize she only has 4 months left here and that she is going to miss our family so much, and she is going to miss her friends at Stafford High.  I felt like she finally made a big breakthrough.  She said she wanted to really start putting the time in to make an effort with the people around her now.  (remains to be seen!  in my opinion, her head is still stuck in Thailand and probably will be till she gets back there, but I am proud that she’s at least having a change in thinking!)

So anyway, after a busy day and then a night of crying, she was exhausted.  PopPop, however, was not to be deterred!  He had a full day planned for us on Saturday which included going tubing at the local golf course, baking chocolate chip cookies, and I had invited a friend over to play Skip-Bo with us. 

Penny had never seen this amount of snow before, so the idea that she could go sledding/tubing on it was a bit strange.  I decided to take her on a tour of my hometown by car, and we stopped in to show her the school I had attended for many years.  They have made some major renovations to the place and it really looks incredible.  I am proud the community is supporting the school to do such great things even though the population of kids has seriously decreased (the current 5th grade—I think it’s the 5th grade—has a grand total of 16 children in it). 

I also showed her the hospital where I was born, which has also undergone major renovations.  There is a whole new wing where a doctor’s practice has been added and other things.  The new wing is huge, when I was born there and through my formative years, there were only 17 beds in the whole hospital.  It now functions as a nursing home and medical center.  Anything serious happens, you have to go somewhere else, unless it can be fixed in the ER.

P1000207(The wing to the left is the new part of the hospital.)

P1090809 Going to the golf course was a lot of fun.  Penny was terrified so we put her on a “bunny slope”—namely the small hill from the parking lot to the course itself.  We got a hilarious video of her going down the hill screaming—which brought rave reviews from Penny’s mother back in Thailand.  She was terrified of the big hill and flatly refused to go.  There were some guys there using snowmobiles to transport kids up and down the hill and they offered me a ride.  Believe it or not, it was my first ride on a snowmobile, so I was very, very excited to try it out!  The ride up was as thrilling as the ride down.  Finally, I put the two tubes we’d brought together, and I had Penny sit on one.  I told her to hold onto the handle of my tube and I was holding onto one of the handles on hers and I started to push us towards the edge of the hill.  She put her foot down and tried to stop me, so I said, “Pick up your feet, Penny, we’re going!” and so she finally did and we went down, her screaming the whole way.  Once was plenty, however, and Leah and PopPop were getting cold, so we got our lift back up the hill on the snowmobile (which also terrified Penny!) and then headed home.  After naps and hauling Leah up and down the street on a tube, we baked chocolate chip cookies and played lots of Yahtzee.

After dinner, my friend Linette came down with her husband Tom and their son Hayden.  We introduced Penny to the joys of Croghan bologna and played Skip Bo for hours.  It was pretty awesome.


Sunday was a relax and take it easy day.  PopPop prepared a big Polish dinner, Linette’s sister Kim came over with her husband Bruce and daughter Natalee, and we watched TV.  Lots more Skip Bo, lots more Yahtzee.  :-)  In the late afternoon, a local girl, Emily, stopped over to meet Penny.  She was going to be Penny’s escort for the day at the high school on Monday.  They agreed to meet up around 7:50 to go to school.  Penny then asked me what would happen if she didn’t feel well in the morning.  She was very nervous about going to school, but I told her she had to go anyway!!!  So consequently, she was up, dressed, and ready when Emily arrived. 

And you know what?  She LOVED it!  She had a great time giving a speech about Thailand to all the kids in various grades, she enjoyed meeting the kids there, and came away with such a favorable impression that she really talked so much about it to her parents that they would now like to find a similar private school to which they can send Penny’s brother.

After she got home, I took her up the hill to visit my high school librarian, Rosie, at her house on the lake.  We had a nice visit and Penny got to see the lake really well instead of fleeting glimpses as we drove past it. 

P1000222When we got home from Rosie’s, I put in a call to my high school English teacher and he and his wife came down to visit us.  It gave our visit an extra personal touch that all these people dropped in and out.  I think it gave her a real slice of small town life, unlike life in the suburbs where everything is scheduled to death and no one bothers with each other most of the time.

But a storm was a-brewin’!  We started getting reports that the weather was going to be real lousy up and down the 81 corridor on Tuesday, our scheduled day of departure.  We evaluated the situation until 9AM, because Penny needed to get back to school and make up her midterms that she missed.  But ultimately, we decided it would not be safe.  I promised to take her to the “local” mall (by which I mean the mall 50+ miles away) and to the movies, so I packed her and Leah into the car since PopPop had some appointments for the day, and we drove to Watertown.  I actually slid through a stop sign at Fort Drum, so I knew we had made a good decision.  We stopped off at the Super Walmart—Penny was thrilled to find this outpost of civilization!—and procured supplies, as it seemed we’d be snowed in till Thursday.  We picked up DVD’s, snacks, soda, cereal, fruit, a couple cheap new toys, washer fluid, and the like.  My cell phone worked for about 15 minutes until the battery died after days of searching for a signal (I’d forgotten and left it on!). 

Supplies procured, we headed to the Salmon Run Mall, and I was pretty surprised by how much it had changed.  But one thing hadn’t changed:  the perpetual motion machine.  And Leah was totally enthralled by it.  That kept her busy while Penny was able to look around.  She was shocked at the fact that we used to drive all that way to go to the mall, but as I pointed out, there weren’t any other options closer and it gave us a lot to do!  Unfortunately, the movie theater was closed down for renovations, so we had lunch and then were on our way home before the weather got any worse (it was snowing pretty good!).

After dinner, which PopPop left for us, PopPop got home and we put Leah to bed and took a break from cards and dice to watch The Hangover.  This is one of Penny’s most favorite movies ever, she laughs hysterically whenever it comes on and I even gave her a copy at Christmastime.  I had a funny feeling my father would like it, so we got him a copy while we were at WalMart.  In essence, we needed to thank him for putting up with us for a couple of extra days since there was no way we were leaving on Wednesday.  True, as I thought, he did love it, although not the language, and I had to give Penny the eye once when she repeated some pretty racy parts of the dialogue.  (She has a tendency to curse like a sailor, which I am attempting to curb, but if that’s the worst form her rebellion takes, as long as she doesn’t drop the big two, I can’t get TOO upset about it). 

Wednesday was really spent with serious cabin fever.  We plugged into my father’s dial up, made more cookies, watched more movies, played more cards and dice, kept Leah entertained.  But I was so happy and relaxed that I really didn’t care all that much about the fact that the snow was continuing!  Penny was really worried about all the school she was missing, so we sat down and composed an email to all her teachers, all of whom emailed and told her not to worry, to relax and enjoy herself and she would catch up in no time.

P1090846 The snow finally stopped on Wednesday night, and looking at the radar and maps and track of another storm on its way, we decided to head home on Thursday morning.  It was a looooooooooooooooooooong trip home.  My washer fluid was frozen and didn’t work until we hit Maryland, so I had to keep getting out to clean the windshield.  Leah knew there was a long car ride ahead of her and was supremely unhappy about it and let us know it.  We finally stopped at Wegman’s near Wilkes Barre for lunch and we were in Warrenton, 40 minutes from home, when Leah had a total meltdown and so we stopped there for dinner and let her play at BK.  We finally made it home after 12 hours, and I was so exhausted I just about fell into bed.

It was a fabulous trip indeed, and it was a joy to share my humble roots with Penny, who is a pretty cosmopolitan girl in the end and from a well-off family.  So I think it was pretty eye opening for her to have the experience of a place with no cell phone coverage, limited internet access, no Walmart, no major restaurants, and tons of trees.  She loved it there, and I loved showing it to her, and I think it did give her a lot of time to think about a lot of things.  We’ve had some pretty deep conversations about family, friends, and the future since we’ve gotten back.  I think she is starting to really change some of her mindset, so the break did her some good!  We will see where she goes from here!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Finding Siblings!

Recently, I went home to visit my father, who still lives in the house I grew up in.  Having an AFS student living in our home this year has caused me to reflect on being an AFS host sibling, which I was 4 times, as I have mentioned.  I am a bit of a packrat, and going home is always a bit of an adventure.  This trip, while Dad took Penny to Canada for a day, I started going through old piles of papers tucked in desks and plastic tubs.  What should I find, but these:

P1090874That’s right, the old paper profiles from two of the AFS students we hosted in the past, Cornelia and Yuko (I’m sure you can figure out who is who!).  When we were matched with Penny, we were simply sent a PDF via email and that was that.  But back in the “old days”, you actually got a paper profile that your student had compiled.  I remember well seeing these profiles arrive and how excited we were to look upon our new family member and wonder what they were like and how the year would go.

But in addition to the excitement of finding these, each profile offered some tantalizing new clues to aid my internet search for these girls who profoundly changed my life (in college, I went on to study international studies, having become keenly interested in foreign cultures and I even studied German 3 years after Cornelia from Germany spent her year with us!). 

I typed Yuko’s name and address into Google, but nothing came up.  I checked Facebook, and nothing.  I’ve Googled her father, her father’s hospital where he worked, her sister, and her mother and nothing.  Unfortunately, Japanese is very challenging to read, I have no idea how to do it, and it doesn’t display properly on my computer.  Nor do any of the sites I found have an English translation option.  For the time being, I am afraid that Yuko may be lost to us.

So I turned my attention to Cornelia.  Again, I searched for her, and again nothing.  So I Googled her father’s name and the company where he worked, and of all things, a Wikipedia site popped up with several other links.  While my German at best is rusty, I waded through the information I found and it turns out that Cornelia’s mother and father are quite active in politics in Hamburg.  Their address and phone numbers listed on their profile pages exactly matched the information that was contained in Cornelia’s profile.  My first clue!!!!

I was thrilled that both of them had email addresses listed, so I quickly typed out an introductory message, used Google translate to put it into German, and sent both a German and English copy to all 3 email addresses listed.  Then I closed my eyes and said a little prayer not to get a mailer back.  And I didn’t!

For two days, I heard nothing, but on the third day, I got an email with the subject line “Hi from Germany!” with Cornelia’s first name and a new last name.  It read in part:

 what a surprise to hear from you... a very nice surprise actually…I still live in Germany, but about 200 miles from my parents.  I would love to hear from you, and what you have been doing during the last 20? years.

I am totally in shock that it has been 20 years since Cornelia lived with us, but it is true, this August would be the 20th anniversary of the day she joined our family, and looking over the papers I’ve saved, August 17th or so may indeed be the date we met.

Armed with the new information, I Googled her again and I found the first picture of her I’ve seen in 19 years.  And the minute I laid eyes on the picture, I knew it was her!


She looks very much the same.  My father remembers her as being (and I quote) “such a sweetheart”.  And I still have a videotape of the Christmas she spent with us, which is pretty awesome.  I should figure out how to put it on DVD and send her a copy!

I sent her an email back and included lots of pictures of the family.  I hope to hear from her again soon, but a) she used to be bad at letter writing and b) she is now a school teacher and I’m sure short on time during the week.

It’s amazing to reconnect with a member of our global family.  I wonder if someday down the line, my daughter will be sitting at a computer (or whatever the latest and greatest is in 20 years), looking for Penny and wondering whatever happened to her.  Hopefully, we’ll keep in touch, but if not, I’ll tuck a copy of her profile away so Leah can discover it and remember how loved she was by a girl from the other side of the world.

Friday, February 4, 2011

She Makes Me Proud!

This past week, I took Penny up to Northern New York (another post on that topic will be coming up soon).  Unfortunately, while we were there, we got snowed in like crazy and so I took some time out to email all Penny’s teachers and let them know the situation and let them know we’d be back ASAP.  I received a wonderful collection of responses about what a great student she has been, and I feel so proud I could bust wide open.  A sample from several letters:

  • What an exciting opportunity for her to have. She is a very bright girl and will have no problem catching back up…  --Algebra teacher
  • I am glad Penny had the opportunity to go up to New York she is a wonderful young lady and a great student, I am proud to have her in class this year. –History teacher
  • Penny is awesome!!!  --Drama teacher

  It’s a good feeling to know that her teachers are responding well to having her in class.  When we hear from Penny and her opinion of school, we often are concerned that things aren’t going well.  Now we know otherwise!