Hours in Germany after decades of friendship

Last summer, my family and I traveled to Iran. My husband is Iranian-American, and like many immigrant families, we travel "home" every few years to visit our relatives.

But you can't get from the United States to Iran without a stopover in Europe. And this time our air arrangements were exceptionally dreadful - we had a seven-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps my friend Sabine could meet me at the airport. Sabine and I hadn't seen each other in 22 years.

My four kids all know the story: Before there were computers and Instant Message "buddy lists" (here my youngest son will roll his eyes and say, "Back in the olden days"), I had a pen pal in Germany.

Sabine and I began writing to each other when we were 13. During our high school years our friendship grew and became extremely important to both of us.

We did eventually meet. I stayed with Sabine and her family the summer I was 16 and again when I backpacked through Europe the summer before college. But somehow we lost touch with each other soon after.

For my part, during my college, early career, and young motherhood years, I didn't have much time for writing letters.

But six years ago, yearning for an interest separate from my kids, I remembered the simple pleasure of writing to Sabine - penning a letter on onionskin airmail paper, sharing stories of family, exchanging ideas on culture and world affairs. So I wrote my old friend a letter, reintroduced myself ("Do you remember your American pen-friend?"), addressed the envelope to her childhood home, and waited. Sabine responded immediately.

Sabine, like me, had married her college sweetheart. She is employed as a social worker and has three kids close in age to mine. Now we "pen pal" almost exclusively by e-mail - immediacy is key, because we are both busy, modern, working moms!

Sabine and her family now live outside Munich, Germany. Was asking her to meet me in Frankfurt a reasonable request? I've always been lousy with distances.

I did an Internet search. The distance from Munich to Frankfurt is about 190 miles. I checked the relative distance from my home outside Boston to New York City. Coincidentally, it's also 190 miles. Would I drive four hours to meet Sabine if she had a seven-hour layover at JFK? Absolutely.

So I typed, "Flying through Frankfurt" in the e-mail subject line and gave her the flight information. By evening I had my answer. "Have a great flight to Old Europe; we'll see you at the Meeting Point in Terminal 1."

And a few weeks later when we arrived in Frankfurt, Sabine and her husband Franz Xavier and their children were at the airport to meet us, an American family just passing through.

Our families lingered for hours in the airport cafeteria - the adults talked over plum cake and coffee, the children over ice-cream sundaes.

Later, the kids shared chocolates and chatted about the topics in their world - the storyline of the fifth Harry Potter book, professional soccer teams (especially Bayern Munich), the latest video games. Even our husbands found common ground in their views on Iraq and tech talk about their digital cameras.

Then, in a quiet corner of the terminal lounge, Sabine and I brought forth our treasures - a stack of each other's letters, school-girl pencil sketches, and postcards. We each brought lots of photographs of our families - parents and siblings, husbands and children.

And although we were bleary-eyed from the flight and Sabine's family had the burden of hosting our family in a public place, we all knew we were witnessing something special.

For seven hours in the Frankfurt Airport, two girls - now grown women - celebrated a lifetime's friendship.

Our reunion also helped us recognize how much we'd grown. Sabine found me to be "Not as shy ... and happier." I told Sabine that she's more relaxed. Watching her interact with her family, she's obviously happy with her life, too.

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