40 Years Later – My YFU Story
June 17, 2010
It was 40 years ago, but it seems like yesterday when I stepped on that plane on June 17, 1970. I was bound to Germany to spend the summer as a Youth For Understanding exchange student with a family I’d never met, a family that became so much my own that I grieved for months after my return just eight weeks later.
After the proverbial flurry of planes, trains, and automobiles, I met up with the Carl family in Verden, Germany, and headed back to their beautiful, old home surrounded by a walled-in garden. Mami, Papi, sister Anette, little brothers Oswald and Schorsi, plus three dogs and two trained turtles, were all eager to make my acquaintance despite my jet lag. My first night I met with an embarrassing disaster when I locked myself in the third floor bathroom and a neighbor had to use a ladder to climb through the window to come to my rescue. I contemplated heading back home as soon as possible, thinking they probably thought I was a total idiot, unable to cope with the culture, the language, and all the adjustments I would need to make.
My host sister and I shared an interest in tennis and played eagerly together (promising to meet at Wimbledon in five years). Other than that, we were very different with contrasting tastes in clothes, music, friends, but still we became sisters. As adults, we have laughed about our silly youthful activities, as documented in my copious diaries.
My brothers at ages 14 and 12 were my most enthusiastic language teachers. We’d play catch in the backyard with a Frisbee while they laughingly taught me to conjugate verbs. When I would clumsily drop the Frisbee and say “Missed,” they laughed hysterically, thinking I was saying the German word Mist (manure), not yet part of my meager German vocabulary.
On the Fourth of July, I promised to make a secret American meal and holed up in the kitchen all afternoon. Little brother Schorsi kept pestering me about what I was making, and I finally told him, asking for a promise not to tell. He looked at me horrified when I told him what we were going to have and asked if we really ate that in America. I assured him we did, all the time. When I brought out the fried chicken for dinner, he laughed in relief, “Oh, haenchen, not hundchen.” (Chicken, not puppies.) Just a typical and memorable pronunciation error for an exchange student!
Our family spent a lovely two-week vacation in a thatched roof cottage on the North Sea Island of Sylt. I loved the daily walks in the sand to the local harbor where we bought paper bags of little shrimp to snack on while sitting out on the docks on the windy, overcast late afternoons. But it was more of a stretch for this Midwestern girl to visit the local nude beach where folks from 8 months to 80 years old cavorted in the sand, digging craters around their beach chairs to block the incessant winds. I discovered a new cultural version of family values. Another favorite pastime was accompanying my host dad, a small-town physician on afternoon house calls, zooming around in his Mercedes from one village to the next. During these car rides I was trying to calculate if it was really true that 180 km/hr equated to over 110 mph. It was like living in a TV drama, and I strongly considered a career in medicine for the next year.
My host mom was my inspiration, and to this day, I still remember well many of the lessons I learned from her. She had experienced great hardship during World War II, and we had long deep conversations about those experiences, sometimes while we were cooking, walking, or marketing together. But she also brought a winsome sense of fun into the home with her lively and unpredictable sense of humor.
The last weekend we went to the Lueneburger Heide, a nature preserve of moors and heather, for an afternoon of family hiking. I was feeling pretty broken up at the prospect of leaving already, and I tried to express my thanks which seemed totally inadequate to the incredible experience they had given me. My German mother said, “No, stop trying to thank us. You don’t need to do that.” I insisted that I did, but she said, “No, you don’t have to do that because someday you’re going to be doing something like this for someone else.”
The words hung in the air and seemed far-fetched, but the prospect didn’t really sink into my 16-year-old mind until many years later when my own daughter was just about the same age. Then, the prediction came true, and we’ve paid it forward like so many other YFU host families by making our sons and daughter from Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Korea, Denmark, Finland, Spain, and Thailand part of our family.
So, as I celebrate this 40th anniversary of that German YFU summer that changed my life, I reflect on these and many more memories. I didn’t know then what effect that journey would have on who I would become. I couldn’t have predicted how much I would come to treasure my German family and all that they shared with me and taught me during my experience. My YFU connections led to important life lessons and caused me to meet some of the most influential people of my life: not just my host family, but also my husband-to-be at a YFU party the next summer, two of my closest friends who were fellow YFU students that year (from Finland and Chile to the U.S.), the many wonderful sons and daughters we have hosted, and all the students and wonderful families and volunteers I’ve known since that time.
Each YFU host family offers a huge opportunity to a young person. That’s why I want to express my thanks to the whole YFU community of families and volunteers who have given 240,000 of us YFU exchange students this incredible opportunity. Families can rest assured there are life lessons emerging even when you can’t tell you are getting through to a young person. We exchange students do grow up. We do remember. And we are thankful, whether we can express it in words, or simply in something extra that we someday do for someone else.
I encourage families to be a link in YFU’s chain of international friendship. Consider the chance to host a young person who is waiting with shining eyes and an open heart for this opportunity. You take a chance; you truly change a life.
Forty years later, I am filled with awe and wonder at the potential majesty of this experience that YFU founder Rachel Andresen set in motion almost 60 years ago. And it begins anew each year for every eager teen who sets forth to become part of a warm and welcoming host family. Join the wonder—help be the force that sets in motion another brand-new YFU story.
~ Barb Kilkka