It’s so easy to fear, misunderstand, or dislike those people, places, and things about which you are truly ignorant. But sometimes getting know to them does more than take away the fear or the potential for misunderstanding; sometimes it turns strangers into family.
Recently, my youngest son took advantage of the opportunity to travel through a substantial portion of Europe with a group of students from his high school. For most of the youngsters, including my son, almost everything about this adventure represented a first in their lives. Traveling to unfamiliar countries, being exposed to different cultures and norms, getting around primarily via public transit, and dealing with language barriers were all certain to involve some challenges. And naturally, any parent harbors a bit of apprehension about such a venture, despite the many anticipated benefits it is likely to afford. So, it was with excitement and relief that my wife and I received the first text messages from Adam. It gave us comfort to know that he was safe, sound, and enjoying his experience.
Perhaps the most heart-warming message arrived the morning of our son’s first day in Florence, Italy. “Having a sip of wine and a wonderful conversation with Giacomo,” the message read; “life is good,” it concluded. A bit of background is in order here: “Jack,” as Giacomo prefers to be called, is a young man our family hosted as an exchange student several years ago. Adam was only a young grade-schooler when Jack was with us, but because of how easily he assimilated into our home, and because we have maintained contact over the years, he truly became and continues to be a part of our family. So, it touched us deeply when the two “brothers” re-united to renew old acquaintance, to catch up on events in their lives, and to witness first hand just how much each other had grown.
Hosting an exchange student for a year, adopting him into our family, eventually connecting with his family of origin, and getting to know them all better during our own stay in his country 7 years ago, was an eye-opening and extremely rewarding experience for our family. In a way like no other, it sent the message home to all of us that there is no power quite like the power of knowledge, especially the knowledge of one another. It’s so easy to fear, misunderstand, or dislike those people, places, and things about which you are truly ignorant. That’s why really getting to know those who would otherwise be strangers can’t help but change you in some pretty dramatic ways. It changes your outlook, broadens your awareness, dispels erroneous notions, and in countless ways, enriches your life. And perhaps the greatest enrichment in our lives has been the expansion of our family to include Jack and his folks. And for parents who were more than a bit nervous at the prospect of their child being so far away from home for the first time and in an unfamiliar environment, it has been more than a little comforting to know that for at least part of the time, he was able to access the support of family. We can only hope that the overseas branch of our extended family possesses the same degree of comfort and reassurance, knowing that open arms will always await them should they travel to the United States.
My wife and I are contemplating a return trip to Europe, hopefully next year. There are some places we’d like to explore that we haven’t seen and places we’ve already seen that we’d like to visit again. And we’ve already committed ourselves to carving out a substantial amount of time for this anticipated venture. That’s partly because there are so many sights we want to take in, and we don’t want to feel hurried. But it’s mostly because we simply can’t imagine being in such near proximity to our adopted family without being able to spend substantial quality time with them while we are overseas.
Since the opportunity for our son’s trip presented itself, we’ve had high hopes for its potential to expand his horizons. Above all else, we hope he “gets it” with respect to how important the process of building connections and nurturing relationships is to understanding and appreciating the human family. We have felt abundantly blessed by the many benefits that came our way as a result of opening our home to a stranger on our shores those many years ago. But of all those benefits, perhaps the one that means the most right now is knowing that even though he’s an ocean apart from us, our son is not only well and among friends, he has family there.