He cried when he left. A hard cry, not a few crocodile tears. I was in the kitchen making coffee, and he was in the foyer, wrestling with his bags.

“Do you have your passport?” I called.

I waited a few beats and when I didn’t hear an answer, I walked across the kitchen and around the corner, and found him hunched over his suitcase, shoulders heaving, tears running down his cheeks.

He’s 15 years old, and I’m sure it wasn’t easy, having me catch him in tears, but he let me hug him and comfort him and by then, I was waterlogged, too.

In a mere 4 weeks, this teenager from France had become family. That’s what hosting an exchange student–even for a month–can do. We had a mere month to get to know this boy, but in one month, we learned so much about him.

We also learned a lot about ourselves, lessons that surprised us.

Lesson: Your Family Has Strengths You Take For Granted

One day, after a trip to the swimming pool and the wonderment that is a Dairy Queen soft-serve, we decided to play a rousing game of HeadBandz. Our family plays board games a lot; we also take no prisoners, so there was plenty of playful teasing and arm-punching and banter back and forth. Later, after the game and familial jousting/barbfest was over, Valentin (our student) turned to me and said, “Your family–you are so funny with each other always.”

It took a few minutes of back-and-forth to get the exact translation, but what he was trying to tell me was that our family is unabashedly playful with one another. We find each other amusing and humorous and our family tends to rest on the more lighthearted side of things. Sure, there are times for serious stuff, but for the most part, our family runs on laughter. That’s a gift we give each other.

A gift I sometimes forget to appreciate.

Lesson: Goals are Good.

Before Valentin arrived, we sat down with the girls and talked about things we thought it was important for him to see and do in our fair state of Colorado. Items ranged from the small (experience a large American supermarket, plant a garden) to the large (whitewater rafting in the Rocky mountains). We also emphasized to the girls that taking someone into the family–one who may or may not understand what we’re saying very well–was going to be a process of adjustment. There was going to be patience and empathy and yes, sacrifice involved.

So, what was our goal, here? We decided that our goal was to show him a wonderful time and try to make him as comfortable as possible.

Translation? Everyone gives a little and makes an effort to be on best behavior.

Articulating that goal really helped us focus on what was important, and it also came in handy when someone had to sacrifice what they wanted for the “common good.”  The littlest Minx, for example, had to push herself our of her comfort zone (the house) and go on outdoor adventures. I had to put down the novel and join the boys in watching the World Cup. My husband had to sacrifice his day off to take Val shopping for gifts to bring home.

Having a goal and recognizing that everyone was working hard to make that happen made everything go a lot more smoothly. And it made me wonder what would happen if we took this experience and tried to work more goal-oriented planning into our daily lives?

What if we sat down and talked about our family goal for say, the first month of school? What would our goal be? A mission to get settled and organized and adapt to a new routine? A schedule of a few stress-busting activities on weekends to get over the starting-school blahs?

What about the last few weeks of summer? What would our goal be? To have more cookouts in the back yard? To make that epic (and parentally dreaded) trip to the giant water park? To begin a few pages of homework a week to ease into academics again?

Our family really benefitted from having a goal to work towards this past month, and I’m determined not to squander what we learned. When we work together, good things happen. More goal-setting is in store for our family.

 

Lesson: Articulate Your Gratitude

This is related to the lesson I mention above. When sacrifice was made, we were certain to do a couple of key things: a) acknowledge the sacrifice being made and b) express appreciation to the family member who went the extra mile for the group.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many “thank-you’s” or “hey, I really appreciated that’s” in my life. We were really, really diligent about this during the 4 weeks we had Valentin with us, and it had a big impact. Just taking the time to say, “I know this may not have been easy/your first wish/convenient, but I want you to know that I’m grateful” means a lot. Too often, we take these small acts for granted or view them as expected, and that’s a mistake.

I found this to be true especially with the girls. Just the simple act of saying, “I saw what you did. I appreciate it. Thank you,” worked wonders.

Particularly powerful was the “I see you” part of the message. When my kids were toddlers (and when I still read parenting books in volume), I made a concerted effort to “catch them being good” and to comment on that behavior. As the girls have grown, however, I’ve gotten lazy or complacent or maybe just oblivious, but I forget to give them kudos when they show grace or perform acts of kindness. This month was a potent reminder that kids still crave that praise; no matter the age, we flourish under positive reinforcement.

My eyes are open again.

 

Lesson: No Matter the Language, Some Things are Universal

We lucked out with Valentin–his grasp of English was pretty darn good. He was here in an English immersion program, so he wasn’t allowed to speak French, so all communication was in English.

Well, not really. We found many ways to understand one another: futbol, food, action movies, dogs.

I was shocked to learn how true it is that futbol is a universal language. I have always had ZERO interest in soccer, but with both the US and France participating in the World Cup, I thought it would be a great way to spend time with Valentin. I was right. Especially in those first tentative days, asking Valentin to explain the game, identify the star players, tell me why a certain call was “bullshit!”…it was golden. He was eager to share his expertise, I wanted to learn, and we got to share the experience of rooting for our respective teams.

Speaking “World Cup” with Val was one of the highlights of his month with us.

We also made his mother’s chocolate cake, which you hopefully already read about (and you’ve made it, right? You really should make it). We also fed him Thai, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, Italian and Vietnamese food. Sitting down to a meal connects people, and nothing delighted me more than watching Valentin gamely stick his chopsticks into pad thai or try to wrap his jaws around a Chipotle burrito. Watching him taste those things for the first time made me appreciate it with a new eye, too.

And of course, there was Mozzy. Valentin wasn’t sure what to make of the Mozzerator at first–such a white, wiggly, assault-via-tongue kind of creature. It took maybe two days for that small dog to worm his way into Valentin’s heart. Without a doubt, Val fell for Mozzy far before he fell for us. Soon, he wanted to help me take care of him, so he joined me for walks and helped me give him baths and soothed him after one particularly taxing trip to the vet. The Language of Mozzy was probably the easiest of all to speak.

 

Lesson: Leave the Comfort Zone Once in a While

I am a huge advocate of the comfort zone; so much so that I rarely leave it. Adding another family member put the kibosh on comfort and lazy routine. It just did. We pushed ourselves to do new things, keep an open mind, and stretch our already full lives and hearts this summer. All for one earnest, sweet and adorable boy. It was hard work, but also so laced with joy and compassion and hilarity and camraderie. It reminded us that no matter how set in our ways we are, there’s room to grow.

 

Thank you, Valentin, for sharing your life with us. You taught us more than you know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I have no idea what’s going on with me, but I’m doing it again. The Freakshow Breakfast. I mean, on a regular day I’m a breakfast oddity–I don’t like breakfast food. I just don’t. My breakfast is usually leftover hot and sour soup, or cold pizza, or half a turkey sandwich with mustard, tomato and pickles.  This practice makes my husband gag.

This summer, I’m eating weirder things than ever.  It’s a puzzlement.

I could blame it on my lack of a sweet tooth, but then again, people eat perfectly normal savory breakfast items (eg: eggs, sausage) all the time. I can’t stomach eggs or sausage in the morning. Lunch or dinner? Great. But not for the morning nosh. I can eat bacon in the a.m., but let’s face it, I could eat bacon any time, any day.

 

Whatever the reason, my breakfast of champions right now is…salad.  That is a nutjob thing to crave in the morning, is it not? But here I am, munching on a bowl of garden goodies right along with Peanut Butter (our resident garden rabbit) and friends in the back yard.  It’s pretty refreshing and quite satisfying, actually. And I have to admit, my skin looks a lot better after a few weeks of breakfast salads.  My husband’s gagging louder than ever in the morning, but he and his cereal can stuff it. Breakfast salad is what I want to eat, and I’m eatin’ it.

The only downside to breakfast salad is that it takes organization. At least for me it does, because I don’t really feel like chopping and dicing a bunch of different things when the sun is rising.  If you’re perky enough in the morning to do that, hat’s off to you. Go for it. I, however, am moving a leeetle slow in the morning, so if I want breakfast salad, preparation is key.

My refrigerator contains a truckload of Tupperware containers, each with a different treat inside: sliced cucumbers, washed lettuce, fresh corn kernels, shredded carrot, chopped snap pea, slivered bell pepper. Those containers await me in the morning, and it makes me happy to just open a few lids, pluck out what I need, and call it done.

The two exceptions here are the tomato and the avocado. I don’t really like leftover tomatoes, and I think we all know what happens to pre-diced avocado. Brown Town. Ewww.

Sometimes I’ll add bacon bits (another Tupperware affair) or sliced rotisserie chicken, if I’m really hungry.  If homemade croutons are around, I may sneak a few of those in.  Sunflower seeds? Yes, please. They add a lovely little crunch (I’ve used chopped pistachios in there, too, and I recommend it).

Besides the fact that I’m eating a freaking salad for breakfast, I bring more of the strange with my choice of salad dressing. I don’t use any.  Instead, I top my bowl of garden yummies with a hearty scoopful of cottage cheese.

I know.

But it’s good! Cottage cheese has protein and calcium and honestly, cottage cheese is a little pissed off about having to hang out with fruit all the time. Diversify, readers!

Top the whole affair with cracked black pepper and some nice sea salt,  and it’s heaven.  At least for me. Salad: It’s not just for lunch anymore.

If you’re brave and decide to try it, let me know how it goes, and who you repulse by doing so.  And if you have a trademark weirdo breakfast, make me feel better by sharing it, would you?  I hate to think I’m the only goofball out there.

TKW’s Breakfast Salad*

serves 1 morning weirdo

Lettuce, washed and torn

Cucumber, seeded and diced

Fresh corn, husked and sliced off the cob

Snap peas, sliced

Red or orange bell pepper, sliced

Tomato, diced

Avocado (I use 1/4 to 1/2 per salad, depending on how hungry I am), diced

Optional: bacon bits, sliced rotisserie chicken, sliced hard-cooked egg, sunflower seeds, chopped nuts

1/2 cup cottage cheese (I use 2%)

cracked black pepper and sea salt (kosher salt is good, too)

Toss vegetables in a large bowl or layer on a plate.  Top with nuts, if using, the cottage cheese, the pepper and the salt.  Devour.

*Obviously, this is a seasonal and imprecise recipe. You can use any veggies you like, really. This is just my “code salad.”

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Memo: if you host an exchange student, you’re going to be spending more time in the kitchen than you usually do.

Well, if you’re me, anyways. Maybe it’s because I wanted him to try new things, or maybe it’s because I’m a show-off…the jury’s still out on that one…but I did spend quite a bit of time cooking and stirring things this June/July.

Valentin was a really adventurous and willing taste-tester. He was also an incredibly well-mannered taste-tester; he deemed everything I made “delicious,” even though I had a sneaking suspicion that some things, such as the halibut in Thai curry broth and my grilled zucchini salad, weren’t exactly his favorite things on the planet. Kid has a good appetite and an excellent poker face, though. I’ll never know for sure.

Well, I do know about the hot wings he tried, but I didn’t make those, so I plead innocence.

Before he arrived, I emailed him, asking him what (if any) foods he was allergic to or didn’t like. He replied that he wanted to try anything and everything but the one thing he didn’t like was (he said apologetically) Coca-Cola. He actually doesn’t like any carbonated drink. The kid lived on apple juice and milk.

The aversion to Coca-Cola was no problem–I don’t let the girls drink it anyways. Over a months time, though, I did learn that he wasn’t completely honest with me in that introductory email. I learned he loathes cucumbers, which I’m glad I found out about early on, because this family runs on cucumbers in the summer months. He’s also not big on lemon or citrus of any kind.

We also learned that he loathes American iced tea, which made for a pretty humorous lunch one day. No matter how many packets of sugar he stirred into his glass, the grimace remained the same.

He was a surprisingly good vegetable eater, although one dinnertime conversation was quite illuminating. “I always eat my vegetables first,” he said. “Did you notice that?” I hadn’t noticed, but I asked him why.

“Because vegetables just taste kind of like nothing,” he said. “I always save my favorite things to eat last. I get the vegetables out of the way first.”

Huh.

I thought that was fascinating, because when I tackle a plate of food, I always eat my favorite thing first. I’m always afraid I’ll get full before I eat the good stuff; plus, aren’t the first bites of a meal always the best?

This little tidbit led to a conversation with all of my children and–who knew?–all of them professed to eating the least desirable item on the plate first. Great. Yet another instance where I’m an oddity.

Although it was a bit of a guessing game which dishes Valentin truly liked out of my kitchen, this one was one of his favorites. I know this because his eyes rolled back in his head a little after the first bite and an instinctual little “mmmm,” came out of his throat.

I made this pasta sauce with different types of pasta over the month he was with us, but I think the orchiette version was his favorite, and I don’t blame him. Orchiette (or “little ears” in Italian) have a lovely little curve to them, and the sauce pools up delightfully in the little nooks and crannies.

As the month progressed, I learned to go a little easier on the pepper (“why you always pepper so much?”) and to use a lesser amount of parsley (“what is this stuff that tastes like grass?”) and you can certainly adjust the recipe to your taste.

Valentin liked the version with mushroom and Canadian bacon the best, but sometimes I made it with artichokes or peas or sun-dried tomato or chicken. Feel free to throw in whatever pleases you, really. The sauce is a blank (but delicious) canvas for almost anything.

If your family takes the Valentin approach to eating, I guarantee that this will be the last thing they devour on their plate.

Orchiette Alla Vodka

serves 4-6, depending if you’re serving young boys

1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil

3 chopped shallots (or one small onion, diced)

1 clove minced garlic

2/3 cup vodka

1 cup good quality tomato puree, such as Cento or Muir-Glen Fire Roasted

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup reserved pasta water

4 ounces chopped ham or Canadian bacon

1 cup sliced mushrooms (optional)

a pinch or two of crushed red pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4-1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound orchiette pasta

2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1/2 cup fresh parsley, basil or chives, chopped

 

Melt butter and oil in a heavy 12-inch saucepan/skillet over medium-low heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and saute 1-2 minutes.

Stir in the vodka, bring it to a simmer and cook for about 4 minutes to evaporate the alcohol. Add tomato puree and cream. Simmer 5 minutes. Add ham and mushrooms, the crushed red pepper, salt and pepper. Keep warm at a very low flame.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of well-salted boiling water until al dente. Set aside a cup of the pasta cooking liquid and drain pasta.

Add the pasta to the sauce and add the cooking liquid by tablespoonfuls until it reaches the right consistency. You will doubtfully use all of the pasta water (I usually end up using about 1/2 cup, but do it according to your taste preferences.)

Add the cheese, stir, and serve, sprinkled with any of the fresh herbs listed above.

 

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