Kalunba fairly regularly receives long-term interns from UCC (United Church of Christ – a Protestant Christian denomination based in the United States) and also from PCC (the Presbyterian Church in Canada). Our most recent UCC intern, Priscilla, spent two years with us, while Stephanie, our PCC intern was here for one year. I am fully aware that the primary aim of their visit was not to make me wiser or happier. But still.
I have a friendly and outgoing personality but I do not make new friends – in the real, serious sense of the word – very easily. I just seem to be quite content with my friends from decades ago. Girlfriends I have never had, not even as a teenager. Somehow I just get on better with men. Or, at least, I used to.
English is my second language. To be more precise: British English. It is an art to be mastered. A chance to have two identities and the ability to switch between them. Until a few months ago, I did not mind all too much if our interns from America saw me as too reserved or formal, as long as it was due to what they perceived as my British accent.
Last autumn, my middle son asked me if I could help him find a place in the US, where he could volunteer for three weeks. After the initial shock – it is not Britain! – I reached out to our present and past interns in America, asking for their advice. He ended up with a three-month summer internship in a wilderness camp in Montana, as a participant of UCC’s Summer Communities of Service Programme. He had never been abroad alone before. He had never taken a flight alone before. He had never been to another continent before. We had never been apart for more than two weeks before.
His first message from the US airspace read: “I’m not sure I want to land. 90 days is a lot.” Then, a few minutes later: “I’m surrounded by all these people who travel together. They plug up their ears and watch films throughout the entire journey. I would give the world to have someone here I could chat with.” Kearstin, Kalunba’s previous UCC intern, offered to go and visit him from the next state, give him a hug for me and take a selfie. I felt incredulous and acutely grateful.
Even with an ocean between us, I wanted to be there for him. It was summer, and yet, now he was gone, the city turned black and white and I was hugging thin air. But our interns from America could relate to his experiences in the US and I found refuge in their company.
For a while, most of my son’s messages started with the same question: “Why is everyone so nice to me?” I made wild guesses but could not really answer, so we dropped the question. About a month later, he reported that everything was awesome, only he felt guilty that his English was not improving. I gave him a fairly long lecture – considering that all of our communication took place on Messenger – on applied linguistics. “Language is identity. And identity is – for a large part – about who we love,” I said. Little did I know, he was already very well on his way to falling in love with both places and people. Stephanie and Priscilla had a much more straightforward and efficient answer for him: “Sorry, we don’t believe you,” they smiled.
My son and I continued texting, throughout his time in the US.
“It’s only 50 days left. It feels like I arrived yesterday.”
“I should start packing but I really don’t want to leave.”
Then, from the plane: “They have become closer to me in just three months than practically anyone else in my 18 years of lifetime. It sucks. I am feeling terrible.”
He had never lost a country before. I told him I knew how he felt. I told him I had been through this. I promised it would be ok. But what do I know? I have always been reluctant to stand up face to face with the knowledge that while you can love a country, a country will never love you back.
We meet in Amsterdam. On our way back home in the car, he sleeps in my lap. I am not hugging thin air now. But I become increasingly aware of the sadness in his eyes. I slowly realize that he has not really lost a country; he lost people. And losing people – even if it is not to death or sickness, it is just in life – is probably the worst thing that can happen to any of us.
On my return from Amsterdam and to work I become fully aware that we have only a few weeks left together with Stephanie and Priscilla. My heart sinks when we play our last game of table foosball, all of us together. But at least Priscilla is still staying for another fortnight. Priscilla and I tell ourselves – and others – that she is going to take me with her, in her suitcase. We cling to this notion because without it, these last weeks would be quite unbearable. The stark reality hits when we weigh her baggage. She does not take me but I take some of her books and jeans home. And I try to promise myself that it will be ok.
Written by Székely Ágnes, Kalunba HEKS project coordinator