When I was 17 I decided that I wanted to go off to see the world as an exchange student. I look back now and can’t believe my parents actually let me do this. I had studied Spanish for many years, but had taken only one year of German. As fate would have it, the organization placed me in Germany, not Spain. About a week before I was to leave, I received pictures and a biography of the German family I would be living with. I had a lot more guts at age 17 than I do now. I thought nothing of packing my belongings into a giant backpack with my one year of high school German and taking off alone on an adventure leading me to Bonn, Germany, and to a family made up of a single mom, two teenage daughters, and a 10 year old son.
When I received the biographies on each of the family members, I anxiously read about my new family. The narrative was written by Helga, who would become my German mom. She described their family and the various activities they liked to participate in, and their family dynamics. When she started describing her daughters, I noticed that she was describing exact opposites. She characterized her oldest daughter Kerstin as outgoing, charismatic, and wildly friendly. She cautioned that Kerstin would take a keen interest in me when I first arrived and then would lose interest after time. When she described her other daughter, Gudrun, her tone was more subdued. She explained that Gudrun was quiet, hard to get to know, and shy, but she said that once you know Gudrun, you will have a friend for a lifetime.
I arrived at the train station in Bonn to find the family waiting for me. They were exactly as she described. Kerstin was immensely vivacious, very blonde, blue-eyed and gorgeous. She gave me a big hug and smile. Gudrun was mousey with thick glasses and a very serious nature. She extended her hand and shook mine.
As I lived with them that summer, I realized she was right. Kerstin immediately lost interest in me when her friends would call and ask her to go to the movies or dancing. On the other hand, Gudrun and I spent a lot of time together. We would often ride our bikes to the pool and spend the day in the sun, and while she did have a boyfriend, she always included me in their activities. Little by little she grew on me.
When I left Germany and returned back home, we always wrote letters back and forth. Gudrun didn't care when I made huge grammatical mistakes in German. She was just glad that I tried to converse in her language even though she was fluent in English. She came to visit me one summer when I was in college. She was still the shy and quiet girl that she had always been, and I occasionally found myself getting frustrated at her lack of words and opinions.
I haven’t seen Gudrun since that day that she left on a plane to head back to Germany. That was almost thirty years ago. We both have families of our own now, and we write back and forth through email often, sharing family photos and stories. (She is the one in the red in the picture.) We have found out that even on opposite sides of the world, we struggle with the same toils of motherhood and family, and our friendship has deepened to a sisterhood.
I am so thankful that my parents let me go on that great adventure many years ago. Helga was only partially correct when she said that I would have a “friend for a lifetime.” Gudrun is not just my friend. In German, she is my “schwester” (sister) for life.