Terry Marotta: Is it harder to be a stranger or live with one?

Terry Marotta

Every October used to find me driving with my family to the airport to greet a young stranger from Austria who would live with us for the year.

And every single time I was filled dread.

I mean, what if she’d lied in her letters and didn’t really have a driver’s license? Or couldn't actually speak English? Or was mean at heart, a secret pincher of children?

All these old fears came to mind again on the night I found myself once again at the international terminal with mate and offspring, this time to bring home a 17-year-old Spanish exchange student, here to both tour a bit and go to school with our 11th-grader.

All we knew was his name was José and he had a ponytail, but in about 30 seconds, we were making that long, long walk to the car with him, during which time my mate and my offspring were struck suddenly dumb.

I was desperate to keep thing going, and so I talked my head off, speaking both with great animation and also very s-l-o-w-l-y.

He must have thought I was on some kind of medication.

But things got easier once we were driving. Some Bruce Springsteen came on the radio – “Ah! De boss!” he exulted, and when “Stairway to Heaven” started, we knew we had not one but two Led Zeppelin fans on our hands.

For the rest of that day we relied on pantomime – well, pantomime and shouting.

For example, at supper that first night, I thought I’d try going for the historical angle.

“So what was the deal with FRANCO?!" I yelled, with what I hoped was a meaningful anti-Fascist frown.

“Ah, Franco!" cried José, executing a Nazi salute.

Another night I told him I had been going to school to become a massage therapist.

"You know?" I asked pointing to my hands and then to the muscles of my neck.

He pointed to the long muscle in his own neck and exclaimed "Esternocleidomastoideo!"

“Exactly!" I shouted back, grinning like a monkey.

Soon of course we were talking more naturally.

But my mate was out many nights that fall, for business dinners and church meetings and games of cards with his buddies, so he was no help. And our poor burdened 11th-grader was drowning in homework, junior year being what it is for kids.

And so it was that José sought me out of an evening, whether I was folding wash in the kitchen or ironing in the bedroom. Wherever I was, he would come find me, eager for conversation.

I learned the Spanish words for philosophy, which is “filosofia,” and existentialism, which is “existencialismo,” for manic depressive, which is “maniaco depresivo,” and for schizophrenia, which is “esquizofrenico.” (We were drawn to the darker themes, José and I.)

He told me he thought all humans were basically out for themselves (“Egoista!”)

I told him I felt sure he would soon encounter at least one person whose unselfishness had helped change lives.

As it happened, some of those Austrian girls really couldn't speak much English at first, and one really did keep going around traffic circles in the wrong direction, but José? José didn't need to drive, and his English was sure better than our Spanish. And when we left we missed him like crazy.

So in the end there had been nothing to dread and everything to look forward to.

I try to remember this and remind myself always: If you think it's hard to welcome the stranger, how much harder is it to BE him?

Write to Terry on this or any other topic at or P.O. Box 270, Winchester, MA 01890. To read more or leave a comment, go to her blog at