“You are going to England for the summer,” my Grandma surprised me and she would spend my favorite time of the year with two children from Italy. She had been given a pamphlet of EF a student summer exchange program -which is still existing to this day. She had liked the idea to send me off so it seems because she had signed up for it months before.
It was my summer-wonder and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Before I could complain or even think about protesting, she gave me a letter. Funny looking thing, written on very thin paper with an interesting envelope, written by a family who welcomed me to stay with them for four weeks. My first airmail letter, written in a language I was not interested in learning, another fact my Grandmother had just ignored.
She could have sent me to Italy, Spain, France, Greece, but no, she wanted me to meet the Queen, that’s what she said, and so before I knew what hit me, I found myself on a train, leaving Innsbruck (Austria) passing through Germany on my way to Calais, France -a major port for ferries to England.
I was 14 years old, unkissed because I spent most of my time in a boarding school for girls, had a suitcase full of clothes and presents for my guest-family, and I was rich. I had 2,000 Austrian shillings in my neck pouch which I soon would exchange to 50 British Pounds ($85 in 1977). A train full of boys and girls close to my age from Italy, Austria and Germany, all on their way to England. The world was our to take and most of us were excited about the adventure we just started.
A few hours later after a short trip by boat, we arrived in Great Britain. Busse awaited us and we got separated into groups-all direction London.
Our bus driver wore a turban, something I had never seen in real before. He looked like out of fairy tale. Dark skin, funny clothes, and we couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Our tour guide informed us that we would stay in a Youth Hotel in London for three days. We would have classes -all held in English- and we would tour the city in smaller groups.
I saw Asian people for the first time and enjoyed watching them. I met punkers with interesting colorful hair. London was overwhelming for most of us who came from smaller villages. I assume some of us were already a bit homesick, many struggled with the language. I carried my Langenscheidt dictionary everywhere I went and talked with everybody I met. Boarding school had given me a bit of an advantage, I was used to be independent.
I felt all grown up and couldn’t wait to meet My family.
A few days later I was on my way to Plympton by Plymouth, and when I left the bus I saw a family holding up a piece of paper with my name. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged. I didn’t understand a word they were saying and felt rather intimidated by it. They were talking and laughing and gave me a warm welcome. Mom and Dad, two kids, and a set of grandparents, who I would meet later.
After a short drive, we arrived at a small house and just a bit later, during dinner, I got informed that EVERYBODY wanted to meet me. Neighbors came over, friends stopped by. I was squeezed, hugged, and kissed by strangers who didn’t give me a chance to withdraw. A loud woman, the best friend of my Guest Mom was a beautiful black woman who I felt drawn to instantly.
I had never met black people, never had had contact with Asian people, didn’t think I would ever have the chance to talk to someone who was wearing a turban. My summer vacation in England changed all of that.
I met children and their parents from Africa and Asia. I didn’t know people could co-exist like that and be happy. All of them wanted to know more about me and the way I lived. My stories of boarding school made them laugh. They listened when I told them about our farm and all the animals we had. They wanted to know more about my dreams and the goals I had. They wanted to learn about Austria, our culture and our tradition. That surprised me the most, they were just as curious as I was.
My guest family, and all their friends and family made me learn English at lightning speed. They corrected me, but also gave me the freedom to produce sentences with wrong words and grammar that nobody could understand. My dictionary went from one person to the next, everybody used it.
They helped me in so many ways.
I ate Indian food and English scones, tried African dishes I could not pronounce, listened to music from all over the world. I tried salted butter for the first time, ate fish and chips on a newspaper page, and drank tea in the afternoon which kept me up all night. The small suburb Plympton had torn down the wall I had around me. It didn’t give me a chance to be afraid or shy.
I got my first kiss and many after -my first summer romance with an English boy who set the bar of kissing pretty high for all future contenders.
I had only £5 left when I left England, but I was richer than I had ever been to before. My suitcase was filled with gifts for my Grandma, Orange Jam and Smarties, and a surprise present for me. I was proud owner of a new jacket that I had bought in London, which I wore for many years, even though my Grandma insisted it was a horse blanket. I had made friends for life and I had grown taller -perhaps not in centimeters, but in my mind.
Thinking back I can honestly say that the time I spend in Great Britain at such a young age changed me as a person. A seed was planted and it would grow with each passing year. The curiosity about other people is something that I have to this day, and I am grateful for it.
I want to believe that had been my Grandma’s plan all along.
Born a Racist – Changed by Life! This was part II