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The families of strangers by Stephanie Miller

The first thing most people in their 20s want is to get out of their parents’ house and into the world. Even if this means barely making rent, or running off to study in Europe and spend a lifetime’s savings like I did, the independence this offers is worth it. Then there is the promise that it is supposed to get easier, that one is supposed to get more successful with time, which drives us further. Families are pushed to the background, some being pushed more than others. It is easy to forget what family provides, what it means.

I was out of the country for six months. I thrived in my freedom, but I got homesick, sometimes horribly. I was traveling with two girls who were not as close to their relatives, though of course we all genuinely love our families. Neither had an extremely close relationship with their parents, and one even went as far to say that she couldn’t talk to either parent comfortably for a long period of time. Regardless of our family differences, we all experienced European families, the families of strangers, in the same exact way: with a sigh of grateful relief.

Families affected our travels even when we didn’t come within 20 feet of them. Babies and dogs – nature’s best inventions – made us smile when we hadn’t slept in 2½ days and wanted to kill each other. In Spain, I once sat with my friend for over an hour, watching three young fathers play a repetitive game with their toddler sons, and we felt that they were doing it just to entertain us with their happiness. Old couples, comfortable on a street they walked every day together, made any unknown place seem more welcoming. 

Closer encounters with families were marvelous. In Strasbourg, France, we stayed with my friend’s distant family, who she hadn’t seen since she was 10 years old. They had chickens (poulets) in the yard, two dogsnamed “Spike” and “Chocolat,” big goldfish (poisson) in a pond, and a wild garden (jardin); these permanent fixtures in their lives, growing and living things, were ours for three days. Even when the teenage daughters bickered in French and their teenage brother retreated, their familiarity with each other was something we didn’t have with anyone that was within 4,000 miles of us. The father was quiet and formal, slightly awkward, but his personal tour of the city along with an old German-style house he had restored, made our trip so much better than if we’d tried to explore the city on our own.

On our last day with them, they had a family reunion, 20 French people on a screened porch, laughing around huge trays of pork and kraut. I was the only one who didn’t speak French and I still felt their contented energy mixing with the breeze on my back. I was frustrated that I couldn’t fully communicate to them how much I liked them, and how grateful I was.

In Tavarnelle Val di Pesa in Italy, a tiny wine town, we encountered family when we didn’t expect to. We stayed in a small hostel which was owned by a lovely single mother, a brilliant 38-year-old woman named Sylvia who was fluent in English, French, German, Hungarian, Spanish, and Italian. Her four-year-old son was fluent in Italian and Hungarian, and he was learning English. She gave us wonderful suggestions, sending us to a free wine tasting that was incredible and a hike that was stunning. She shared stories and a bottle of wine with us.

The next night it was raining and cold, and we walked into the kitchen with our supplies for a meager dinner, only to encounter about 15 people around a table with Sylvia, singing. It was her birthday and her family had come from all over – even her sister from Spain and her boyfriend from England – to celebrate.

We shyly set up our food at a table in the corner of the dining room, but the noises and the laughter made its way over to us. The little kids came up to us and said cute things like “Ciao Bella,” “Hi-hi,” and “Bye-bye.” Sylvia gave us a huge bowl of spaghetti to share and some birthday cookies. They laughed hysterically about everything, switching into English sometimes to include us. Never had we missed our families so much, and never had we loved strangers more.

In Germany, a woman who didn’t speak English taught me how to say “daffodils” in German; “Osterglocken” is the word, which translates literally to “Easter bells.” I laughed about this perfect description of the flower, and explained.

Later, I wrote the word down, so grateful to her for teaching me something directly. It reminded me of my parents, who taught me everything about flowers and trees.  I was in such a far-away place, not realizing until then that that direct way of teaching, and my own easy childlike acceptance of another’s lesson, dwindles with age. I hope there never comes a day when those lessons have stopped and I become only the teacher; yet I do hope for the opportunity to teach, to lighten a traveler’s life like these surrogate families did for me.