In 1987, I was an exchange student at the University of London. There were around 35 of us from universities in the Pacific Northwest. My roommate was from the University of Washington. I was a student at Oregon State University. We were assigned to the Penny family in Pinner, the village where Elton John and Simon LeBon (Duran Duran was a big deal in 1987) grew up. We quickly found out that we had won the lottery for exchange students. Not just because we lived in an affluent suburb and lovely home, but because we were assigned to a warm, loving and hilarious family, run by a woman who was a Godsend to me.
On our first day of school, they taught us about “culture shock”, told us about the warning signs. Reassured us it would pass. I didn’t think culture shock would happen to me as I was a Californian going to school in Oregon. I felt like I already knew what it was like to live in a land where they had disdain for my kind. Oregon is a wonderful place, but like their weather, they can be cold to Californians. They really like their “don’t Californicate Oregon” jokes. Like most other states in the US, Oregonians lump us in the same category: if you are a Californian, then you are from the beach, pretentious and different. The only thing I will agree with them on is different. That we are. If only they could see a little deeper and see that different is good. Different is fun. Just let us in, you’ll see.
English culture shock hit though. It wasn’t because some random, unattractive English guy with bad teeth told us to “sod off and throw some tea in the sea” though that was really odd to us since it had been a long time since the Boston Tea Party and he knew we were from the west coast. It wasn’t because my bible-thumping roommate was nice to my face but talked behind my back the rest of the time (well, yes it had a lot to do with that). It wasn’t because I was running out of money too fast (yeah, it was that too). It was all of those things. I was homesick for everything American. How could a country that was supposed to be so American be so very not American? Naivete has always been my strong suit.
During the thick of my culture shock, I stayed home from school. I didn’t feel well and spent the day in bed. Peter, our dad, worked very long hours. He had come home early that evening and came up to our room with Glenys to try and cheer me up. They gave me a pep talk about culture shock (they were experienced exchange student parents) and strong personalities. They had never hosted a Californian before and said my personality and accent was very different than all the north westerners they had hosted. They told me stories of times Glenys had stuck her foot in her mouth at parties. When they told the stories, they alternated parts like the longtime couple they were. When I was shocked, they gave me more details, putting me at ease, showing me that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t a freak of nature.
I watched them tell the stories, felt their sincerity and love for each other and felt much better. They reassured me that even though my roommate was being a two-faced girl, did I really care? They pointed out the hypocrisy of a bible-thumping, back-stabber and that made sense. They pointed out my other friends, new friends that also went to Oregon State, whom I never would have known had I not gone on this exchange program. They treated me like my own parents would have: they pointed out the obvious that I was missing, pointed out that everybody has flaws and told me to get over myself. It was just what I needed. A little kick-in-the-butt of confidence.
A few weeks later, I totally ran out of money. I had been spending money like a sailor on leave. Seriously. All out. The next morning before school, I called my parents to tell them and they told me what all good public school teachers with no money should tell their self sufficient daughters, “Figure it out.”
That evening, on the way home from the tube station, I saw a “Help Wanted” sign in a pub and went in to check it out. The first thing I noticed was a few older waitresses gathered around a new computer, complaining. In 1987, computers were just coming to restaurants and the older servers were not happy about it. I took the sign out of the window and asked to see the manager. When he came downstairs, I handed him the sign, pointed to the women kvetching at the terminal and said, “I’m an exchange student at the University of London. I have no legal right to work in England, but back in the US, I’ve trained all of our servers on that computer system and I love it.” I pointed to the sign again. “Are you looking for servers?”
His face lit up.
I went on to have the best experience of my time in London. Going to school with a bunch of Americans in an English University is not exactly immersing yourself in the English culture. Learning how to properly pull a Guinness in a pub full of regulars who will make you cry if you mess it up, that’s properly immersing yourself in English culture. Serving the pensioners their roast dinner every Sunday afternoon is English culture. I knew the culture shock had worn off when I was told to “sod off” by a regular (in his defense, I deserved it – it was a bad pull) and instead of crying, I laughed and said it back.
I knew I had arrived the day I had made so much money that they had to take taxes out of my paycheck. Instead of complaining like the rest of my coworkers, I shouted in glee, “I’m a subject of the Queen! I’m a subject of the Queen!” I was thrilled to pay taxes even though I have no idea how I paid taxes or under who’s number?
That was because of Peter and Glenys Penny and the confidence they gave me. Glenys liked to tell the story of my getting a job because she was so proud of my dad for saying, “Figure it out.”. She liked the part where I had that job twelve hours after my admission of being broke. I like to think about the fact that none of that would have happened without the love and confidence they gave me.
Life got busy for my family and me. The last time we visited her was 1997 when my 18-year old son was 20 months old. In that visit, they got to meet my husband and son at the same time. She pulled out all the stops that night. Her best lamb, mint jelly, yorkshire pudding and my all-time fave, her chocolate bread pudding that took her three days to make. She knew I would appreciate the work it took her to make that meal. She knew I’d feel special because I knew that was a special Sunday meal that she was making on a Tuesday. That was love.
We haven’t been back to England since 1997. The Pennys have never met my 15-year old daughter, Alice. I hate that. My new goal is to get some English rights to Gridley Girls sold as soon as possible so I’ll have an excuse to get to England straightaway. I shouldn’t need an excuse though.
In 2011, exactly 24 years after I moved in with the Pennys, I got a call asking if we would host a Dutch exchange student. They were desperate, as he had been in our district for four months and his second semester housing had fallen through and they didn’t want to make him change schools. He was friends with our son Cole, so it seemed like a no-brainer. I thought about Glenys every time I wanted to say no. We arranged a dinner to meet Youri the moment we arrived back in Minneapolis after spending the holidays in California.
I knew Youri would come live with us the moment I saw his face light up when I told him Cole and I were allergic to dairy and he said, “Me too!”. My husband knew when Youri asked us “what the house rules were” before we had even made a decision.
When Youri struggled with homesickness (I still have no idea how a 17 year old can spend an entire year away from his family!) I tried to channel Glenys. When he didn’t clean up after himself and I didn’t want to say anything, I remembered Glenys and her firm, but loving hand on house rules.
Youri is forever a member of our family. He even came back to spend last summer with us. He and I have long talked about our family going to Amsterdam to meet his family and my dream of taking him to London to meet the Pennys.
When I first had kids and tried to balance my workaholic husband’s life with family life, I tried to channel Glenys and remember how she kept her family together with a workaholic husband.
I may have only lived with Glenys and Peter for three months, but their impact on my life will be with me forever.
Three nights ago I found out Glenys Penny passed away from a brain tumor. I felt even worse that she passed away two years prior and I was just hearing about it. That’s how disconnected I had become from a family who had meant so much to me. Did I ever really tell her what she meant to me? She told me once that she was grateful that I stayed in touch with them, that I made the effort. Always sending Christmas Cards keeping her up on my family’s comings and goings. I used to call them once a year just to catch up. When did that stop?
In the last two years since Glenys’ passing, Peter has climbed 13 mountains in her honor, raising money for The Brain Tumour Charity. Read about it here: http://www.getwestlondon.co.uk/news/local-news/widower-scales-13-worlds-highest-6365930
When I started this blog a year ago, it was to support the launch of my ebook, Gridley Girls. I didn’t have a focus to the blog. I decided to let it take me where it wanted. I wanted to treat the blog like a living thing, just as I did with my writing. I’ve always felt like my writing is not really mine. Since so much of the dialog and any of the fictional parts of my book came to me in dreams, it can’t be considered my own, can it?
After the initial publication of the ebook, my brilliant director/writer friend (and fellow Gridley Guy) called to give me his “notes” on it. He said something that struck me, even though it would seem obvious to anyone who knows me well. “Everything you do in your life is based on your fear of sudden death. Everything. Figure that out and there you will find the theme of your writing.” I told you he was brilliant.
The thing is though, people keep dying. And people keep dying suddenly. Old people, young people, it doesn’t stop. How do I reconcile that when it keeps happening? When I think of that, I remember what another writer friend said to me when I despaired over my son leaving for college (which I now see is much better than leaving for Heaven – talk about a dichotomy there). “Write. That is your salvation. Go to your computer now.” When did I acquire all these writing friends and how do they know just the right thing to say at the right time?
So write I will do. I’m sorry this post is so long, but to me, it’s still not enough to honor a woman who meant so much to me.
Rest in peace, Glenys Penny. I know I’m not the only American girl who is grateful for your generous spirit. God be with you ’til we meet again.