There are events in life, seemingly insignificant when they occur, that loom large when examined through the rear-view mirror of destiny. One such event in my life occurred in 1991 as our family prepared to travel by train from Paris to London.
It was our first trip to Europe that included our children. A whirlwind 2 weeks that took us to Italy, France, the Netherlands, and England. Our children ranged in age from 8 to 12 years old. As we waited for the train to depart Paris, a woman approximately our age with a young teenage girl in tow entered the train car. “Are there any English-speaking families aboard?” She had a perfect English accent and after a moment’s hesitation I caught Christine’s eye. Chris nodded her affirmation to my unspoken question. I raised my hand to the woman. “Oh, thank you! Would you mind terribly if my daughter accompanied you to London? Friends will be meeting her there at the station and I had hoped that she would not have to travel alone.” After brief introductions we made Bryony a temporary member of the family.
I recall her to have been 13 or 14, a year or two older than our son Peter. She and the children hit it off immediately. Our journey that day took us to the coast of France where we would board a ferry to cross the Channel. On the English side we were to board another train that would deposit us at Victoria Station in London. It was there that Bryony was to be met by family friends.
Over the course of the trip we learned that Bryony was fluent in 5 languages, a duel citizen of England and France, and had the ambition to be educated in law in both England and France. We were captured by her engaging personality and sense of humor. At the beginning of the journey a train attendant had identified her to be a native. Referencing our children, he had made a remark about the American habit of saying “Have a nice day!”. Later, as he passed through the car she addressed him with a perfectly imitated American accent saying, “Have a Nice Day!” to which our children joined in chorus.
When we arrived at Victoria Station Bryony’s friends were nowhere to be seen. It turned out that there had been a misunderstanding about the time of her arrival. We were not about to leave her there alone, so we enjoyed extending our visit until they came.
That chance encounter with Bryony set in motion a series of events that changed the course of life for our family. We marveled at the impact that even a brief intercultural exchange had on us and our children. Upon our return to the States we began exploring options for hosting an exchange student. That school year we hosted Andre’ from Germany and for each of the 5 years that followed we became “parents” of other children from Europe. Christine and I became representatives for AFS, the international student exchange program. Our children went on to each spend a year living abroad with families; Peter in Spain, Renee’ and Alexis each in France.
In 1993 we returned to Europe and were guests of Bryony’s family in Lille, France. Her parents and brother were every bit as warm and engaging as she was. We have maintained contact with Bryony now for nearly 30 years and we look forward to seeing her during our upcoming journey. It is a marvel how a one-day encounter with a child on a train in France has impacted our lives, the lives of our children, our exchange student children, and so many others, including you who are reading my “Thoughts”.
Peace Everyone! Pete