At the Denver Airport. My daughter’s shirt turns out to be portentous.
The guy with the “experience” shirt is a random foreign student. We didn’t have the heart to tell him to get out of our picture.
On my own I would never have entertained the idea of hosting an exchange student in our home. I assumed that a foreign student coming to America would want to stay in nice new home with more than one bathroom, and stairs that don’t creak. A home that had, perhaps, a working furnace. But someone had recommended our family for a particular German student who was seeking a host family.
Her interests were music, theater, dance, and the arts. I had to admit this seemed a perfect match up with our entire family, so, after some discussion, we agreed to take on this adventure. But I did feel obligated to let her and her family know that our family lived well below the poverty line. I didn’t overstate it. For instance I didn’t mention that, by the first of each month, we usually still didn’t know how we would meet that month’s mortgage payment. (It is also true that we had never missed a payment in 9 years of payments, but that is a different story of God’s monthly provision for our family.)
Klara and her family seemed pleased that she would be hosted by a family of artists, musical theater performers, and dancers, so we all began to prepare for Klara’s arrival in America. I began to be a little anxious that she would be comfortable staying in our home.
After some months of our families exchanging communications as best we could, (we spoke no German,) the day at last came to pick up Klara from the airport. I should mention that our minivan had been totaled months before, and we were now down to a 20 year old, 5 passenger Toyota Camry. The Camry had been acting up of late, and my goal for the day was to simply make the hour long drive to the Denver airport, pick up our European student, and get back home and out of the car as quickly as possible. Of course I also hoped to make a positive, welcoming first impression on Klara. We were able to scrape together the gas money for the airport trip. I would work on finding the money to get the car fixed later.
Klara’s plane was scheduled to arrive at 1:00. Our two teens who still live at home were, of course, coming to the airport with my wife and me to welcome Klara to Colorado. I should also mention that my son was scheduled to perform in a concert at 4:00 that afternoon in a neighboring town next to ours. This seemed like a comfortable enough window that I agreed he should come with us to the airport.
Off we went. It was August in Colorado, a typically hot day. On the way to the airport I apologetically asked the kids to suck it up because I didn’t want to turn the AC on yet. I wanted to wait until the ride home when we had Klara, so that we would appear to be a reasonably normal American family. Until then I wanted to maximize the chances that our car would make it to the airport and back. I figured the sweat would dry from everyone’s clothes while we waited for Klara at the airport.
Meeting Klara for the first time was wonderful. We had already begun to grow fond of her through our correspondence. At the airport she appeared suddenly in the crowd of passengers, smiling, dark-skinned and beautiful, with a guitar strapped to her back. A great first impression on her part! We loved her instantly. We all exchanged hugs. Her American adventure had officially begun. I hoped our family could make it the best experience for her that it could be.
After loading her luggage into our little car, we piled in and began making conversation. The car started. I turned on the AC and it worked. Perfect. Now all that remained was to continue to act normal, and not stop the car until we made it back to Loveland. Soon we were halfway home. I was very pleased. I imagined that I seemed like a responsible adult.
However, I soon noticed in my peripheral vision that some jerk on my left in a big-ass Colorado pickup was gesturing at me, trying to get my attention. After ignoring him for a mile, he kept right up with me, so I knew I had to turn and deal with him. I faced him. Impossible! It was my wife’s brother, grinning at me. We’re on a freaking four lane, major interstate going 75 mph. What are the chances of this? He wants us to pull over. He calls my wife on her phone. He wants to repay us some money he owes us, (which we need,) so I see no way out of taking the next exit. I exit and park, but leave the car running. We make the transaction and I get back onto the interstate, relieved.
I milk the moment, “Well, that was fun! Isn’t America a great place? America…where people stop you on the highway so they can give you money!” Another mile behind us and Mollie turns to me quietly and says, “I have to pee”. I look at her, longer than I should have. “What do you mean?” I ask. In response she quietly burns a hole into the side of my face with her eyes. I suggest, “You mean you have to pee as soon as we get home, right?” She indicates this is not what she means.
Sigh. At this point we’ve been married for 26 years, and I know there is no point in discussing this further. I take the next exit. The car chugs and dies as soon as we hit the off ramp. I swerve into a parking lot with just enough momentum that I am able to swing into a parking space. I restart the car and it immediately dies again. My worst fears have now been realized. I apologize to Klara.
The good news is, we happen to be parked in front of a Starbucks. “This could still turn out well”, I think to myself. (I find that it is more fun to be an optimist.) We all go in and have a seat. I announce that if we let the engine cool down for a while, that it might start up again, having no idea what I’m talking about. I buy everyone something to drink (with the cash we just got from Uncle Keith), but Klara refuses to let me pay for her. What does this mean? Is she just being polite? Is she already making plans in her mind to find a different host family? We hang out, enjoy more conversation. Eventually my son, Joel, calmly points out to me, “Dad, I’m supposed to be onstage in Berthoud in 40 minutes.”
We hurry outside. The car won’t start. Crap. I apologize to Klara again. Joel calls a guy from the band, who graciously hops in his vehicle and comes to get us. 17 minutes later he pulls up. It’s an enormous, beat up, 8 seater van. With AC. We pile all of Klara’s earthly belongings into the van. 17 minutes later we arrive in Berthoud. Joel & the driver, who happens to be the lead singer, reach the stage just as their band is called up. I glance at Klara. She doesn’t seem freaked out by this razor thin timing. It turns out that we’re actually in a beautiful setting – cute little town, big shade trees, nice little music festival. Klara’s new host brother performing. I think, “This could still possibly turn out OK.” We enjoy the concert.
At this point we are only 10 minutes away from home. It should be a pretty simple matter to find a ride the rest of the way, but I don’t want to impose on the lead singer any further. It occurs to me that a good friend of mine from Loveland actually works in Berthoud. Maybe he’s still here. I call him, and he cheerfully agrees to take us home when the concert is over. ‘Could be worse. We finish watching the concert, happy that our new student seems to be enjoying herself.
The musical act that follows is less than professional and I think I detect that it is grating on Klara’s finely-tuned European cultural sensibilities, so we decide to leave. After all, she hasn’t even settled in to her new home yet. We gather her luggage and find our ride home.
My spirits sink – I see that our ride home will be my friend’s old, lurching mini-bus that he uses for hauling wood and yard waste. I happen to know that this vehicle has been on its last legs for a couple of years now. There are no seats in back, and there probably hasn’t been AC for a couple of decades. I apologize to Klara again. She enthusiastically pretends that she is accustomed to being hauled around in a hot, dirty metal can.
We load her earthly belongings into this, the third vehicle of the afternoon, and pile in. As we lurch along, rolling around like dice in cup, I bury my head in my hands. As I face her to apologize again, I see her smiling out the window at the scenery. She is having a great Colorado adventure in the American West.
My chance to smooth over the disastrous airport pick up would come when we arrived at home. Mollie and I, in a carefully thought out and sensitive gesture, had Klara’s first evening planned out. We knew she would be tired and jet-lagged, and in new and foreign surroundings. We envisioned letting Klara have plenty of undisturbed time to herself to settle into her new room. Mollie would make a nice dinner, and we would all have a relaxing evening together before Klara went to bed early.
What happened was, no sooner had we said, “…and this is will be your room,” than our son’s phone rang. Some friends were going to the drive-in to see a double feature and would be by to pick him up in ten minutes. He turns to Klara and asks, “You wanna go to the drive –in?” Her eyes light up. “Yes”. She sets her luggage down, and they run to the kitchen and slap some sandwiches together for a lame “dinner” as the carload of teenagers pull up. Then she was gone.
I turned to my wife and smiled weakly, “Well…this could still turn out well!…