I was overjoyed when I was selected at age 16 to be an exchange student. I was ready to explore the world, live in another culture and meet new people. My one worry was whether or not I would make good friends at school. I had attended the same small school for eleven years. The majority of the students in my grade were the same people I had known since kindergarten. What would happen when I started school in Tasmania?
I toured the school, Hobart College, the week before I started classes. I was overwhelmed. There were seven buildings and 1400 students in grades 11 & 12. I came from a class of 64! I was the only student who used a wheelchair and I was the American exchange student. It dawned on me I would never just fit in – people were going to know me.
The first day I pasted a smile on my face and entered a classroom. A willowy blond with a friendly smile caught my eye and came over, saying, “G’day! You’re probably sick of everyone saying that, aren’t you?” Just like that, Ulla and I became friends.
Ulla was one of the group of students who took the bus daily from Huonville, a town about 25 miles from Hobart. Each morning and most lunch breaks the group gathered in D Block. The group adopted me, teaching me the short cuts around campus and Australian slang. Ulla and I would spend our breaks running up to the canteen to get Cadbury chocolates for the gang. She would wheel me in my chair, my lap covered in candy bars and confections. When the guidance counselor approached me to discuss anorexia as a risk for exchange students, we laughed because it definitely wasn’t a concern for me! I was eating my fair share as often as possible.
Ulla was my partner for many adventures throughout the year. Together we attended concerts, went shopping, made cookies and helped the school debate team successfully defend the premise “green Smarties are better than red Smarties.” When the time came for me to prepare to return home, Ulla came to spend four nights with me. As we sorted through all I had accumulated over the course of the year we reminisced about what we would remember. We selected what to box up for me to send home, discussing when we would travel to see each other again in the future. Whenever I hear the song ‘That’s Just The Way It Is Baby” by The Rembrandts (which played every hour or so that weekend) I am instantly transported to my last weekend as an exchange student when Ulla and I sat in my bedroom trying to cram a year of my life into two suitcases.
I returned home and started college here in the United States. Ulla became a flight attendant for Alitalia. She would send me cards and letters from Rome, Naples, Nairobi, Paris and London. Having been bit by the travel bug, I was jealous of her jet setting life. It was her turn to experience the world while I completed school. Every now and then she would be sent to New York City or Newark, New Jersey, on a flight. She would call and we would marvel at being together on the same continent. One summer weekend in 1995 she had the opportunity to come for an overnight visit. We laughed like school girls all night, sharing travel adventure stories and planning my next trip to Australia.
I was able to return to Australia in 1996 as a graduation present to myself. Ulla was finishing her contract with Alitalia and I ended my month-long trip in Sydney for a fun-filled three days before returning home. We walked the streets, wandering through parks and stopping at cafes along the way for cappuccinos. We played tourists at the Opera House and made fun of the obnoxious American student group we kept running into at every venue. I think we knew it would be years before we would see each other again and we wanted to fill those days with as much laughter as we could.
I have not seen Ulla in almost twenty years but whenever I receive an email or card from her I still smile like a school girl. I have plans to see her next year when I return to Australia and I am thrilled to have the chance to visit with her again in person. Nothing can replace shared laughter with a friend to make you feel warm inside and Ulla has always made me laugh and smile.
Ulla – thank you so much for taking this nervous young girl under your wing 25 years ago and making me feel welcome. I know when we see each other next year we will share chocolate, cappuccinos and many memories. I am grateful to know there is someone on the other side of the world who calls me “Bella” and who hasn’t forgotten those many laughs. Ciao!