Cathy Stallter 2015-08-12 23:04:03
A Love Story: Me and Brazil Painfully shy and terribly unhappy, I was a 17-year-old high school student in 1974. My sister had gone to Japan thanks to the Nappanee Lions in our small Indiana town. The Lions told me Brazil was the option this time. Brazil? I knew nothing about it. But then I remembered a glorious picture in a fifth-grade school book of the statue of Christ on the mountain, his arms outstretched over Rio de Janeiro. So, not exactly sure what I was getting into, I signed up to be a Lions’ exchange student in that far-away, mysterious nation. My friend was also slated to go. So she and I learned a few words of Portuguese from a Brazilian exchange student at our high school. Oddly, the two words that stuck with us were “banheiro” (bathroom) and “alface” (lettuce). Banheiro—we guessed that would come in handy. But alface? We used the word as a joke. Shall we go to lunch? Alface! My family was not exactly rich. I delivered newspapers when I was 10 and then babysat and sold soft-serve ice cream and greasy burgers at the Dairy Queen. I needed my own money for “luxuries” such as lunch at school. We couldn’t afford to buy many new clothes for my trip. So what if my exchange family looked down at my few possessions and decided I was beneath their dignity? I was worried sick. The night before my departure, I begged God to let me stay home and cried myself to sleep. I discovered later I was not the only one anxious about my trip. Months before my arrival, when her husband told her they would host an American exchange student, my host mother burst into tears. They lived in a small apartment with six children in a small town. What would they do with a rich American girl demanding the finest of everything? What would they feed her? Don’t Americans eat sandwiches all the time? Like me, my host family prepared for the visit. The boys moved into the bigger bedroom so I could share a bedroom with the daughter closest to my age. My host mother, who knew some English, feverishly studied new words. After our plane landed in Brazil, our bus drove to a huge soccer stadium in Belo Horizonte. Welcoming us noisily, cars honked and headlights flashed. Mobs of people then rushed to our bus. We heard shouting voices, each one loudly trying to find the right student. One man frantically yelled, “Catch! Catchy!” What in the world was he saying? Then I saw that he was holding a sign with the name “Cathy.” He was my new Brazilian father. I reluctantly followed him to the car, where he enthusiastically introduced me to his wife. We didn’t really understand each other but tried to make a connection. On the drive to their home, we stopped in front of a church in a small town. My mother went in to pray. They didn’t know how much that comforted my heart. Finally we pulled off the main highway into the small town of Manhuaçu, located by a river and built on hills. My father tooted the horn. In an instant, a small boy turned from his futebal (soccer) game in a lot nearby and raced to us. And so I met my 7-year-old brother. Inside the home the rest of the family greeted me. So much was new to me especially the food. But I learned to enjoy the meals. My host family was surprised that I ate their food without complaint. I explained how my family at home ate a varied, farm-based diet, too. Eventually they gave me the soda drink Guarana. It was delicious. I love Guarana Antarctica to this day. Those six weeks passed quickly. I learned more Portuguese, slowly, and they learned more English. At dinner, my father asked me questions in Portuguese, trying to help me learn. The younger children started doing it for fun, too. We made jokes about our language barrier. “No, thank you. It is too much,” I said when they offered me more food. Too much? Tomate? Was I asking for tomatoes? Whenever the oldest daughter didn’t understand me, she would nod her head gravely and shrilly say in Portuguese, “Yes, tomorrow at two o’clock!” My stay there was a simple visit, just spending time with them. A few nights I went to a small club with the older ones, but I was not comfortable there. I’m not a dancer, and I could not speak easily with Brazilians amid the din. I happily spent the evenings at home with the younger children. Often one of my family members would pick up the guitar and begin playing. They sang the popular songs of the time. We also sang tunes we all knew such as “It’s a Small World.” The family introduced me to the expressive, emotional music of Roberto Carlos. His music really struck a chord with me, and the girls took me to the music store, where I bought several of his albums. By the time I was to leave I had learned to love this family. They accepted me with open arms and found a place for me in their lives. Sadly, at home in Indiana, I had a strained relationship with my mother. My value seemed to be tied to what I accomplished. My host family accepted me for who I was. It was life-changing for me. I was not the same person after I returned home. I was more comfortable facing new situations and approached life with more confidence. My time as an exchange student not only bolstered my shaky self-image but also colored the rest of my life. Brazil and I were apart but not separated. My host family and I exchanged letter after letter. I sent my little brother colorful leaves from our changing autumn trees. I sent my family photos and told them more about American life. In turn, they sent me cassette tapes of themselves talking and singing to me as well as tapes of Carlos’ music. From their letters and from my listening to the music, my understanding of Portuguese increased. His music became a soundtrack for my life. Doing housework, relaxing in bed or particularly when feeling lonely or sad, his music gave me a sense of peace. I met my Brazilian family in person again. Through the Lions exchange program, my brother came to my town for a six-week visit. Then, two years after my trip to Brazil, I returned there for the wedding of my sister. I actually flew to Brazil with Lions’ exchange students. I tried to ease their worries by explaining my experiences and taught them a few helpful words of Portuguese. It proved to be a small world after all indeed. Again through the Lions club, a friend’s family took in a Brazilian girl named Marisa. We became good friends. Several years later, working at the post office in my small town, I met another Brazilian exchange student. Rejane and I became close. I went to her host family’s home, and we made brigadeiros together to share with her family. Years later, on another trip to Brazil, I felt at home as never before as I visited Marisa, Rejane and my Brazilian family. I made sure Brazil was part of my children’s growing up. They listened to my music and heard me speaking Portuguese. Without consciously trying to, I taught them how to read body language, hand signals, voice inflections—all very important lessons in communication. I also taught a mini-class on Brazil at my children’s elementary school. I showed photos, played music, made the children feijoada and brigadeiros and shared Guarana Antarctica with them. To my delight, one of the students in that fifth-grade mini-class later went to Brazil to help rebuild a school in a Christian missions’ outreach program. Now Brazil has become part of my grandchildren’s lives. Tired of showing “Winnie the Pooh” movies, I cuddle my grandchild to sleep with a video of Carlos I found on YouTube. Her older brother is entranced with the strange music. What is the man saying? Why can’t he understand it? What is “Portuguese”? What is Brazil? Now with both grandchildren I play language games using my Portuguese. Or I whistle words to them, which my grandson calls “whistle-talk.” It challenges them to figure out what I am trying to say. I would love to show my family the places I visited in Brazil and to introduce them to the people that I love. But travel is expensive, and I will probably never return there. Fortunately, the Internet is affordable. I use Facebook to keep in touch with my Brazilian family and friends. I even follow Carlos on Facebook and relish learning the details of his annual cruise ship tour. One six-week trip to Brazil and, oh, the difference in my life. I think of all the love that followed: my second family there and then my husband, children and grandchildren. Lions sent me abroad, and the acceptance and love I experienced from a caring Brazilian family set me on the path of fulfillment and happiness. Digital LION The LION salutes the International Youth Exchange on its 25th anniversary (March 1986 LION).
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/My+Roar/2242722/269071/article.html.