Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Going Home

Part 6: Arlene just spent a year living with a family in the American south. Little did she realize that going home required almost as much re-acclimation as going away did.

The first few months I was in Shelby, I was exceedingly homesick. Almost to the point of being depressed. I didn't make as many friends. All I wanted to do was come home and see if there was a letter for me. Especially from my boyfriend. I missed him. I remember sharing with my host family a little bit but mostly I just kept it to myself because I didn't want them to feel bad for me. In retrospect, I regretted that I was so upset those first few months because I felt like I wasted time.

Towards the second half of my year, I started socializing a lot more. I started acting more like an American teenager. I turned 18 while I was in Shelby and that made me legal to buy alcohol. So I would go to convenience stores and buy wine coolers. My friends and I would go where the school buses were, climb in one and drink. We were never caught and I don't think my host family knew. Or maybe they did but chose not to say anything. Regardless, we didn't go crazy, just mostly show up at church on Sunday with a hangover.

When I look back over my year, if I had to point to the best part of my experience, it was about the people that I met; my host family and my friends. I got to meet hundreds of people and was able to make a few really close friends. And the experiences that I had were so much fun; homecoming, the prom, band concerts, marching band competitions, going to the Biltmore Mansion in Ashville.

Leaving Shelby was hard. I had really connected with a lot of people and I had no idea if I would ever see any of them again. I spent my last few days in Shelby spending time as much time as I could with my friends.

Before we left the US, AFS took us on a two week tour of the East Coast. We made various stops on our way up to New York City. We would usually stay on college campuses but there was one stop where I stayed with an Orthodox Jewish family. While I was with them for only one night, they seemed like fun people and the father broke my stereotype of the stoic Jewish man in the black suit. But I definitely got a taste of the North-South dynamic with them. They made a few weird remarks about southerners which, while I don't remember exactly what they were, I do remember the comments being inaccurate. They also seemed very much against the white South African "regime" as they referred to it.

The tour ended in New York City on the Fourth of July. We spent the whole day there and in the evening saw the annual fireworks show. It was amazing. The next day, we departed from JFK for home.

I was depressed, depressed, depressed.  I was looking forward to seeing my family, but I wasn't ready to leave not knowing when I would see my American or AFS friends again.

I remember before I left South Africa for the US, a reporter from the Benoni City Times did an interview with me. He said he would give me like ten rand if I came back weighing the same. He said most girls who went to the United States put on a lot of weight. I came back the same weight, if not smaller. I think it was from all the marching. But when I got home, he was there, he did an interview and I got my money.

Ian, my South African boyfriend, and I were faithful to each other for the first six months that I was in America. Then we decided that was too hard to do, being so far apart.  I ended up going to the prom with somebody and then in May, before I returned to South Africa, I met the catcher of the baseball team, Brad. We spent a lovely summer together. But when I landed at Jan Smuts Airport, Ian was there. And the understanding was we would get back together, which we did.

The day I landed back home was crazy because my whole family was there. My friends had a huge "Welcome Home" banner outside of our house. It was early in the morning. When we got to my house, there was a huge breakfast of eggs, sausages and bacon. All my relatives were there. All my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. And I had an accent. I didn't realize it, but I picked up a bit of a Southern twang.

I missed my sisters like ridiculous when I was in the US. When I got home, all I wanted to do was talk with them, be with them, show them my pictures and tell them about stuff. Because my sisters and I grew up singing and playing music, I was quite excited to show them the new songs I had learned. I remember the day I got home, pretty much within an hour, I was at the piano teaching them some songs.

Re-acclimating to life in South Africa was hard because there were so few people who could relate to me. At first, I just corresponded with my other AFS friends because I had no idea how to explain to people what I had just been through. I mean I had a scrapbook and photos to show people, but my experience was more than that. And I had to be back at university very soon. I was very happy to be home and very grateful to see my family, but I now knew there was a big wide world out there. I wanted to go back to New York City.  It was like all of a sudden in my head, this big travel bug. I think I always had it, but my AFS year showed me that there was so much more to life than what was happening here and I wanted to experience that. But first, there was school work to be done.

read the whole story: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

Friday, September 10, 2010


I’ve been challenged recently to think about why I believe what I believe. Part of what convinces me that God exists are the miracles that happen in my life. Not those biblical miracles. I’m talking about more subtle, minor miracles. I make this distinction because I don’t want a biblical miracle. My pastor once said you really don’t want a miracle. This is because if you say you need a miracle, that means things have gotten so out of control, so bad that only divine intervention will save your hide. The miracles I’m talking about are those events that frequently pop up to compensate for some foolish decisions in my life. You might call them coincidences, but many of these “coincidences” have happened just at a point where I thought I was in over my head. This seem to happen a lot while I was in England.

The first time I went was in 1989. I was a sophomore in college and took part in a six week trip to England to research my family tree. I wanted to visit Bishop Thornton, a village north of Leeds, where my great-great-grandfather, John Grattan, was born. I took a bus north from London to the city of Harrogate  (home of Farrah’s Harrogate Toffee!) At the Harrogate tourist bureau, I found that there was a bed and breakfast right in Bishop Thornton proper. My masterful reasoning concluded, “How small could a town be if it has a bed and breakfast?” I called the proprietor, he assured me of accommodations and I jumped on the first bus out, filled with visions of an ancestral homecoming. The bus was not crowded and it was a pleasant ride out of the bustling city of Harrogate into the bucolic Yorkshire Dales. So bucolic in fact that the scenery became nothing more than endless hills, dales and a periodic stone wall.

Now there are those travelers who, unable to let the inner Bedouin out to indulge their wanderlust, will make hotel reservations, check bus schedules, etc., before so much as packing their bags.

To you, I say… that’s probably a smart idea.

Because in my youthful exuberance, I left Harrogate without plans on how to get back. Really. Didn’t even grab a bus schedule when I had the chance.

When the bus finally stopped, the driver opened the door and said, “Here you are!”

“What?” I asked, not seeing anything resembling a town.

“This is Bishop Thornton, you said this was your stop.”

“Oh.” I took up my bag and got off the bus. And as I stood by the side of the road looking back at the kindly driver, a wave of regret came over me. “When is the return bus coming through?” I asked.

“Tomorrow,” he said, and he shut the door and drove off before I had a chance to hop back on. Note to self: next time, assure ability to return before getting off the bus.

So there I was, standing by the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere. Now when I say I was in the middle of nowhere, I mean there was not another living creature as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance I saw three cottages and a small church. I had no earthly clue what to do next. There was no town in sight, no road signs, no human beings to inquire of. How was I going to get to the B&B? What if I couldn’t find the place? It was getting late. Could I walk back to Harrogate? The thought crossed my mind that I was either going to have to muster up the courage to knock on a complete stranger’s door, or spend the night sleeping in the fields. I was about to panic when I experienced what I would consider to be a miracle. As I turned around to survey my situation, right behind me was a phone booth. You know those Doctor Who shows that have the police booth drop down right in the middle of nowhere? Now I know where they got the idea from. I scrambled to the phone booth and pulled out the paper on which I had written the phone number of the B&B.

“ ‘allo?” answered the gentleman proprietor.

“Uh, yes, I called earlier about a room for tonight?”


“Um, well, I’m here.” Some times I’m struck by my brilliance.

“Oh wonderful. And where might that be?” he asked.

“Well...I’m not sure. The bus left me at this phone booth and all I can see are three cottages and a church in the distance,” I said.

“Right, I’ll be along to fetch you.”

“You know where I am?”

“Oh yes, I’m familiar with that phone box.”

Now I ask you, what are the chances of a working phone being right next to where I was just abandoned? Or the B&B owner being home and willing to come get me? Or him knowing just what phone booth I was speaking of?

I consider it a grievous sin that I can’t remember the names of the lovely couple who ran this bed and breakfast. It was an exceedingly quaint and cozy cottage. My hosts were in their sixties but still ran their farm with the B&B as a side business. Safely ensconced in their sitting room, the lady of the house made me dinner and I spent the evening by the fire with a mug of tea, petting their ottoman of a dog and answering questions about America. I explained I was from Long Island, which was parallel to the state of Connecticut. The owner asked how many bridges there were between Long Island and Connecticut. I said none that I knew of. He asked why and I said I suppose the people in Connecticut didn’t want us coming over. Given my incredible show of intelligence that day, I don’t blame them.

The next day, my host very graciously took me to the the ruins of the Catholic church in which my great-great-grandparents were married. He helped me hunt for gravestones with family names on them. Then he drove me to Fountains Abbey, the ruins of a Cistercian monastery built in 1132 (?!?) I stayed in Bishop Thornton one more night and the next morning my host took me back to the bus stop so I could return to Harrogate.

Despite my poor planning, the trip turned out to be one of my most memorable one.

Two years later I returned to England to spend my senior year studying at the University of Bath. By this time I had met and become engaged to Bo Hunkmeister and, having already graduated, he followed me to England to make sure I didn’t run off with some English plonker.

Wanting to show Bo my roots, I convinced him to travel with me back to Bishop Thornton to stay in the same B&B I had stayed in two years earlier. This time, being aware of the bus schedule, I travelled with confidence. When we got to Bishop Thornton, we met the B&B hosts, and early the next day Bo and I set off to see Fountains Abbey. Having thoroughly enjoyed our morning, we decided to take a walk. Lost in conversation as young romantics are wont to do, we paid no heed to where we were walking or how long we were gone. We let our love guide us. Lost in each other’s thoughts, each road started to look like all the rest. After while, we stopped in a pub to eat. We had a leisurely dinner until the pub owner struck up a conversation with us. We discussed where we were from and what we had done that day and then the owner said, “Where is your hotel?”

“Oh, we’re staying at a wonderful bed and breakfast in Bishop Thornton,” I replied.

“Where?” he asked.

“Bishop Thornton.”

“And did you come by car?” he asked incredulously.

“No, we walked.”

“Walked? That’s a far way to walk. So how are you getting back?”

“What do you mean? We were planning on walking back.” Remember how we let our love guide us? Love is not a good GPS device. In fact, I had no clue which direction to head back in.

“That will take you two hours or more! And it’s pitch black outside!” he said.

“Is that a problem?” Again, me being brilliant.

“The roads are narrow and have ditches or hedgerows on either side so there’s no good place to walk. On top of that, at night, it’s hard to see and the cars go really fast. It would be rather dangerous to walk all the way to Bishop Thornton tonight.”

“Oh. Can we call a cab?”

“We don’t have cabs out here.”


So yet again, Divine Intervention made up for my lack of thinking. The pub owner closed up his pub for the evening and drove us two complete idiots strangers back to our B&B.

But this was not the end of our travels.

We had made plans and reservations to travel to Ireland. Unfortunately, our departure date coincided with one of the worst snow storms England had experienced in 50 years. We did not know this until after we spent four hours on a bus traveling to the port of Holyhead. I discovered that, after four hours, there really is no difference between the smoking and non smoking section of a bus.

At Holyhead, we boarded the ferry for Ireland only to be trapped in port by the oncoming storm. After twelve turbulent hours rocking in port, the ferry captain decided not to sail. Fortified by a breakfast of fried eggs and blood sausage, we went to the train station to try and salvage our trip. We arrived just in time to catch the last train out that day as the storm started shutting down the rail system (coincidence #1). On the downside, it was the local train which stopped…every…fifteen…minutes.

Partway through the trip, we had to get off the train at a rail station that was closed. It was late afternoon and we were hungry, not having had anything since the blood sausage that morning. With the storm closing down towns, we didn’t know where we would get our next meal from and all we had between the two of us was one Snickers bar. Just as we making our last meal of it, the snack bar opened and we were able to procure a decent meal before getting back on the train (coincidence #2).

At 9:00pm, on the advice of a fellow traveler, we got off the train. What this fellow traveler helped us realize was that most B&B's will not accept visitors after a certain hour so if we hadn't gotten off then, we would have been stuck on the train all night (coincidence #3). Starving, we wandered into a pizza shop where the power had gone out but the ovens were still hot enough to make us a pizza (coincidence #4). We then found a B&B accepting visitors during the storm and right after we arrived and checked in, they lost power. The owner told us that had we arrived after the power went out, they would have had to turn us away (coincidence #5). Being unable to travel north, we decided return home but had to spend one more night in a B&B. We picked some town in Wales, the name of which invoked a “Why did you visit that shite hole?!” from a British house mate when we returned. According to him, the fact that we traveled through there looking like we did without being mugged constituted coincidence #6.

So despite setting out during a snow storm, with no itinerary or reservations, “coincidences” would happen that would smooth out what would potentially have been a train wreck of a trip. I could almost imagine an angel in heaven sighing and shaking his head as he was called on again and again to intervene. But I consider the biggest miracle of all to be this: despite this death march of a trip that could have been perceived by Bo as a nefarious plan to get him miserably lost in England, he married me and still travels with me.