Sometimes, one quick decision can change your entire life.
Early 1980s in a north Texas high school. My French teacher, knowing I had an aptitude for language and a longing to see the world, suggested I become an exchange student. I knew it would be an interesting year. But I wasn’t prepared for how much it would change me.
Before I left the United States, I received a packet of information, including pictures of the family I would be living with. The Plotenys looked like such a jolly, lively family. Gisela, the mother, had a smile that would light up a room. Paul, the father, with his long white beard, looked as genial as Santa Claus. And all the brothers and sisters—Gisi, Agnes, Pauli, Elisabeth, Peter, and Veronika—looked wonderfully sophisticated and intelligent, just as I had imagined young Europeans to be.
I was nervous about living with such a large family, because I’d never really been part of a big family before. That may sound strange, given my three siblings and five nieces and nephews. But I was the youngest by far—my closest sibling, my sister, is 11 years older than me, so as soon as I was old enough to know much, my brothers and my sister were already grown and living outside the house. In my daily life, I was the only child of a single mother—who just happened to have a house full of relatives from time to time.
So it was with great trepidation that I came to live with the Plotenys. But they were all wonderfully welcoming, and very patient with this painfully shy girl who knew about 10 words of German when she first arrived. Gisi and Agnes were already living on their own—Gisi lived and worked in the Salzburg area, while Agnes was studying at the Sorbonne. But they came back for visits, and on a daily basis the house was lively with Pauli, Elisabeth, Peter, and Veronika—and their friends—filling the house with activity and love. The love that each one of them had for the others was so strong it was palpable. And they made room in their hearts for me.
One of my fondest memories of my life with the Plotenys was the lively conversation. The whole family (and often several friends as well) would gather for meals in the Bauernstube, a cozy room warmed by a massive ceramic heater in the corner, with a table big enough for everyone. Conversations over meals (and after meals) often went on for hours. Serious topics would be delved into deeply—world politics, the environment, history—and suddenly laughter would erupt over some absurd comment, lightening the mood and bringing us all back to earth again. Conversations over cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and sometimes a little guitar music made that room, this family, my life there so very, very gemütlich.
Their curiosity about the world helped deepen my own. The intelligence of the conversation helped sharpen my intellect. Their questions about American life, culture, and politics helped challenge my understanding of my own culture, my nation, and even myself. Their experiences and understanding of history moved me deeply. They all helped me open my eyes to different ways of viewing the world. They taught me to challenge my assumptions and to question, always question, and to be open to new ideas. They helped me cross the bridge from awkward teen to confident adulthood. They helped me become the person I am today, and for that I am forever grateful.
In memory of Paul Ploteny, 1964-2010. Ich werde mich an Dir immer erinnern, Pauli.