Friday, February 18, 2005

Lunch with Magalie

by Zinta Aistars

(Magalie at far right with brother Olivier and sister Sylvie)

In 2002, I decided to become "mom" to an exchange student visiting Kalamazoo College, where I work as editor and writer for the alumni magazine, from faraway Reunion Island...

I check my watch: seven minutes to noon. I have a lunch date. Precisely at noon, she bounds into my office on the third floor of Mandelle Hall. Youth, I think with a smile, ah youth! Three flights up, no elevator - most of us here on the third floor arrive in our offices each morning trying vainly to disguise our gasping and wheezing. But Magalie breezes in with a smile, her cheeks flushed with the excitement of life itself, and not at all with the exertion of three flights of stairs.

My anticipation of this lunch with my "adopted daughter" is in part for just this exuberant joy of life that Magalie brings to our table. Magalie Fontaine is a 22-year-old exchange student on the Kalamazoo College campus for the academic year. Home is Reunion Island. While she is on our campus, I have volunteered to be something of a "substitute mom" - a little human piece of home away from home - as part of the College host program, run by Holly Wingard, associate director of the Center for International Programs. Many members of Kalamazoo College staff and faculty volunteer to host students who arrive here from around the world. It is part of the exchange of ideas and experience that crosses all cultural and ethnic lines that we work so diligently to foster here. Our hope and our goal is that it might turn into a seed of what becomes a farther journey beyond a textbook education.

But I am more than a little aghast to realize I know nothing about Magalie's home. I have never heard of this dot on the map - Reunion Island - before our meeting, and I am far from geographically challenged. I have one foot on this continent and the other across the "great pond," holding dual citizenship in both the United States, home by birth, and Latvia, home by heritage. I am forever explaining to others where my second home lies on the Baltic Sea, same spot it's been for 2,000 years. Still, many do not know where Latvia is, or anything of its ravaged and colorful history. Bilingual and multi-cultural, I pride myself on knowing my way around the globe.

"Reunion Island?" I wince when Magalie grasps my hand in introduction. "France has an island?" I blush. I haven't a clue. Over our first shared lunch, Magalie spreads open the pages of a book of photographs illustrating her faraway home. I am taken aback by the lush beauty of this tiny island nearly 700,000 people call home along with Magalie. It lies glittering off the coast of Madagascar, and from her bedroom window on its shores, Magalie can float her daydreams on the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. The island is created out of mountains, some of them bubbling into live volcanoes, and its sandy soil produces uniquely flavored mangoes and pineapples, orchids flamboyant with color, Creole spiced foods on beds of rice, and the musical sounds of the French language in daily speech. She explains quickly something of the island's history and culture, enthralls me with her exotic French accent, and then tugs at my heart with photo albums of her family that speak of families everywhere. This is her sister, here is her brother, his arm protectively draped around her shoulder, and there behind her stands her father, and here… I lean in closer… here is the pretty face of Magalie's mother, pride and maternal love giving a warm glow to her eyes. How must she feel, I wonder, to have her daughter a continent and an ocean away? I think of my own daughter, almost exactly Magalie's age, and my heart twinges with an ache of compassion. I study this faraway woman's face as a mirror of my own.

Magalie and I talk incessantly over lunch. She tells me of language labs she will be teaching at Kalamazoo College. She is not only a student here, but will learn by teaching also. She speaks of her wonderment at seeing her first snowfall. We trade recipes. She asks my advice about a boyfriend who sometimes grows too quiet and distant, and I speak in soft tones as I would to my own daughter, and I listen, far more I simply listen - as I know her own mother would. We share a joke. Her sense of humor is a little different than mine, but I explain the punchline in a bit more detail and she catches it, wham, and bursts into giggles. She talks of homesickness, and I nod knowingly. Magalie speaks of her love of travel, her appetite for adventure, her dark eyes widening in the telling. Oh, I understand. We are, after all, speaking the same language.

This is what we do here. This is it, what Magalie and I share over a lunch table. I promise someday to walk the sandy shores of Reunion Island and wave at the bedroom window that must be hers. She promises to return to this enchanted brave land of America. We will remain a kind of family.

I glance at my watch. Well past the end of my lunch hour. I glance at my plate. I have forgotten to eat my lunch. But Magalie and I leave the restaurant arm in arm. I send a mental message, a soundless whisper, across the continent and across the ocean, from one dot on the map - Kalamazoo College - to another dot on the map - Reunion Island - to another mother: all is well. Our students are not the only ones taking a farther journey, I know. I can speak for a couple of well-educated mothers who have yet to meet.

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