Lessons of Teen Summer Last Lifetime
When I was 17, I could ask for a bathroom in French or Spanish. I could get directions to the post office and slip in a “s’il vous plaît” or “gracias” as required. I thought my language skills were obvious.
So the letter delivered a jolt. It shattered the visions I’d created since learning I’d received a scholarship for an international summer exchange program. In 1959, I would be just the second student from Lebanon Union High School to participate in the American Field Service summer program abroad.
In those years, “going abroad” wasn’t common in Lebanon, Oregon. In my family, it was as out of reach as the moon. But here, in a sweep of fortune funded by civic and social groups of the community, the moon was beckoning me!
I was sure it was destiny at work. Sure, also, that my language studies—one year each of high school French and Spanish—would be acknowledged with an appropriate foreign destination. France or Spain, most likely. Throw in the Latin roots memorized in Mrs. Taylor’s eighth grade English class and even Italy could be considered a fit.
Obviously, the letter blindsided me. How was it possible that a placement committee in New York City looked at my background and decided a family in rural Sweden offered just the right place for me to spend the summer before my senior year?
But on a sunny afternoon last month, I sat on the deck of my Swedish “sister’s” home just north of Stockholm sharing a warm connection with the siblings who taught me just how right that choice had been.
We are aging now, the youth who met 56 years ago in the living quarters of a rural bakery run by Sven and Eina Carlsson. There were four of them—two boys and twin girls my age—but just two English speakers in a family of six. Yet, somehow, we scrambled over the hurdles of language and culture to form a kinship that summer.
Later, in an impractical act of allegiance, I fulfilled a language requirement at the University of Oregon with two years of Swedish while the Swedes were perfecting English on an influx of American TV. English sustains us now.
This year at a gathering of siblings, their spouses and children who now have children of their own, we basked in the warmth of a relationship that has deepened through the years. We have been fortunate to reconnect several times since we parted in August 1959.
The first reunion brought us together for Christmas 1971. In the twilight hues of a Swedish winter we introduced new spouses and met babes who were expanding the family. We caught up on 12 years of maturation and cemented a connection. In future decades, visits to Oregon and return trips to Sweden sustained the ties. Two sons of a “sister” spent separate summers with us in Eugene on a personal exchange program that expanded our bonds.
So this summer, when we gathered in Sweden for an extended family reunion, it was not surprising that we tumbled headlong into nostalgia, as siblings do, leaving our spouses and offspring on the sidelines.
We retold the stories of parents now deceased. We tried, once again, to reconstruct details of a road trip to Gothenburg with the eldest son at the steering wheel. Did I remember, a sister asked, moving my bed into the girls’ bedroom mid-way through my two-month stay to enhance the sisterly experience? I’d forgotten that, I admitted. Also forgotten how I accumulated the cluster of Swedish swimming medals stored in my jewelry box at home.
Through the reminiscing, the subtle presence of age hovered just beyond our spoken words. With all of us in our 70s, or close, would we still be here in another decade? Would we sit together like this again? The questions, unvoiced, deepened the warmth of our laughter, and our hugs.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do
“I’ve been thinking about the significance of this relationship since I started packing for the trip,” I confessed as we sat around the picnic table. “It was from you, I think, that I learned you don’t have to ‘belong’ to ‘fit in.’
I’m not Swedish. Not an actual relative. Not even as connected as a school classmate or a work associate. But the comfort that secures this relationship is undeniable. No question, I fit in.
“No, no,” protested one of the brothers. “I think you came knowing that. I remember a saying: ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’”
Of course! I laughed in instant recognition. I would have said those words, but it was my mother I was quoting. She sent me off with stern advice to pay attention, not roil the waters, fit in. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” My mother gave me the formula. This family gave me the proof.
Back home in Oregon this month, I dug out the box of letters my mother collected and saved for years. I’d found them after her death but had not yet opened the envelopes to look closer. Some, I knew, had a return address from the village of Björsäter, Sweden, where I landed in 1959.
I was hoping to find missing details as I leafed through the rustling airmail pages of letters remaining from that long-ago summer. Maybe I could fill in missing pieces of the trip to Gothenburg, or explain the swimming medals from the lake a bike-ride from the bakery.
But I was hoping also to find insights into the youthful ideals and insecurities that remain a sensory memory of this journey that carried me far beyond my boundaries at age 17.
Instead I encountered a teen-age girl I don’t remember at all. These letters reveal a giddy adolescent, babbling with optimism about the “swell gals” and “good heads” encountered on the 10-day ocean crossing with 800 teen-age exchange students aboard the Holland American liner SS Zuiderkruis.
They portray a youthful gaiety about life in a country village of 200 residents, insisting I felt “right at home” in a family where only two people understood me. They boast about helping with dishes at every meal, and proudly share my language triumphs.
Speaking Swedish by Heart
“Tack så mycket. Matan vär bra,” I offered after a first meal, surprising my hosts with phrases taught in shipboard Swedish classes. “Thank you. The food was good.” Amid the youthful exclamations, the letters also disclose the two-sided process that led to this place of “fitting in.”
I looked “absolutely terrible,” I insisted in one letter, after shortening my skits five inches to match the length worn by my Swedish “sisters” and escape their friendly jibes of “granny,” A few weeks later, we sewed two dresses at their request to match the red cotton print with a prim white collar I’d made for myself before the trip. Twin sisters became triplets. Another stitch in the seam work of “fitting in.”
Nothing emerges from these letters to confirm the political hopefulness that permeates my memories of that summer. Nothing to confirm the idealism of eager teens traveling abroad on an exchange program founded by volunteer ambulance drivers who had picked up the wounded of World Wars I and II and dreamed of a world without war.
On board the Zuiderkruis, a retrofitted World War II troop transport vessel, we had balanced evening dances with daytime seminars on world political systems. Student groups bound for different nations split up for language and cultural classes. We were tutored in the history of the program we were on—a history of bringing healing in a world divided.
I shared that dream, in those optimistic years. The United Nations was young back then, and promising, under strong leadership of Sweden’s Dag Hammarskjold. It seemed that we, the youth of AFS, had a role in this new world—ambassadors of sorts, creating cultural connection and understanding through homestays with strangers we would come to love.
Today, there’s no need to look beyond the daily news to be reminded that the world wasn’t changed by the high hopes and giddy enthusiasm of 800 American students who went abroad in 1959.
But I was changed that summer. Maybe that’s enough.
Carolyn Scott Kortge, of Eugene, is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,
and author of “The Spirited Walker.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Not the Retiring Type” appears in “The Register Guard” newspaper on the third Sunday of each month and is reprinted here.