I received the email in June 2009. The subject line simply asked one question: “What do you think?”
The email was from my wife, Jodi, so even though I was at work at the time, as a good husband should, I opened it immediately. As it turns out, it was actually a forwarded email with the picture of a young girl named Ania. She was just three weeks older than our own daughter, Kelsey, and she was looking for a host family as part of a high school foreign exchange program.
The email explained a little about her, including personal details to help a prospective family decide if Ania would be a good fit. I immediately noticed she was from Poland and spoke English relatively well. I also noticed my gut reaction. No way! I was all for helping others, but this was a bridge too far. I was against hosting a foreign exchange student from the start.
Did I mention I am married? I protested and protested and protested, all the while knowing if I couldn’t talk my wife out of the idea, I was fighting a battle I was destined to lose. Less than a week later, it was decided. Ania would spend the school year in our home.
In an effort to get ready for our guest-to-be, we turned the guest room into an actual guest room. We cleaned out the clutter in the closet and took out the junk that had accumulated in the room for no other reason than it fit. There was a dresser filled with stuff we weren’t even sure was ours, so we emptied that as well. In short, the guest room, now Ania’s room, became the cleanest room in the house.
On August 13th, 2009, my wife and daughter picked up Ania from the airport. I was, of course, at work. Their trip home from the airport lasted over an hour. Mine home from work was almost as long. Even though I had been against the idea from the start, I could not help being excited to meet the newest member of our family.
When I finally arrived home, to my chagrin, Ania and her jet lag were both fast asleep. I often wonder if she could hear our conversation from the living room as I asked my wife and daughter all about her. According to my wife, her English was very good, but you had to speak slowly for her to understand everything. This was a little concerning as I come from a long line of fast talkers. I’ve been known to talk so fast I can’t even understand myself.
I also found out she had learned English almost exclusively from watching the television show Friends. Our family had long been Friends fans and those facts didn't seem like coincidence. As I learned more and more about her, my defensive walls came down and my hesitations slowly disappeared. Then as if on cue, this sweet young lady came down the stairs. I jumped up to greet her.
To this day, before or since, I’ve never had someone stick their hand out so rigidly while offering me a handshake. I’m certain if she had a ten-foot pole with a fake hand on the end, she would have preferred to extend that. It was as if she wanted to be as far from me as possible when we shook hands. I, as you might expect, found this incredibly endearing and took a liking to her immediately.
The next month or so was spent getting to know each other, developing a routine, and introducing her to our town, our family, and our friends. She was with us the day she ate her first hot dog. We also allowed her to choose a new paint color for her room; she selected “Blushing Bride.” To call “Blushing Bride” pink is to deceive those who think they know pink. It is electric pink on steroids. Fortunately, we talked her out of painting a pig's face over her bed.
Little by little, Ania’s own defenses began to dissipate. One evening when I came home from work, my wife called me in the other room. In a whisper she said, “I got a hug.” I was both thrilled and jealous at the same time as we were all falling in love with Ania. I think it took the longest for her to trust me.
The most memorable part of my first hug was how unusual it was. As was part of Ania’s nightly routine, she got up from our living room couch and gave my wife and daughter a good night hug. She would then turn to me and say good night. But one night, she walked up the first three steps towards her room before she turned and came back down. No words were spoken; she just walked over to me, shrugged her shoulders and gave me a hug. The last piece of ice between us had melted.
My wife will tell you she knew all along it would be a good idea to have Ania spend a year with us. I don’t know if that’s true, but I was shocked at just how quickly she became part of our family. We took her to New York City to see Chicago on Broadway. We went to the top of the Empire State Building and took pictures of the New York skyline. We took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and bought hot dogs from a street vendor. We showed her Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the home where I grew up. We took her to visit my wife’s family in Louisiana and Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
We tried to do as much as we could to show her all America had to offer while she was here, but more than anything, we gave her ourselves. In turn, she reciprocated in kind. We were there to dry her tears when she didn’t make the swim team. We comforted her when her romance with a local boy didn’t work out. We stood in for her own parents the night of her senior prom and took tons of pictures. We sang and laughed and played and hugged and cried with her.
Before we knew it, June came as we watched her walk across the stage to get her high school diploma. That day was bittersweet because we knew it meant the end of her year with us.
It’s a funny thing about time. It goes slowly when you don’t want it to, and it flies when you wish it would stop. The last week or so she was with us was a blur. She was packing and making arrangements and spending time with friends she had made. We sat back and grew sadder by the day.
On June 27, 2010, we woke up and packed her things for her return trip to Poland. The Charlottesville Airport is just over an hour from our home, and we used the time in the car to reminisce about the fun times we had shared, making promises to visit each other. As good fortune would have it, her flight was delayed by more than two hours, an unexpected gift we would not waste. We went to eat one last time as a family. Using Ania’s laptop, we watched the last episode of Friends. From that moment on, there wasn’t a dry eye to be found anywhere.
With our temporary reprieve expired, we made our way back to the airport and cried in unison as Ania boarded her plane. Soon, she was on her way back to Poland carrying with her a piece of our hearts.
In the years since, she has visited us once while my daughter, Kelsey, spent three unforgettable weeks in Poland. Ania will be getting married in August 2022, and you can bet your bottom dollar we will be there to see her walk down the aisle.
As for our guest room? It's been more than ten years, and the closet is, once again, filled with junk but to this day we still call it Ania’s room.