To Steffi, with lots of love, tacos, and a Chopin sonata

`DO you drink Coke, watch `Dynasty,' and eat at McDonald's?'' our exchange student from Hannover, West Germany, asked. I looked into her strikingly blue eyes and wondered if she would be disappointed that we are not glossy Americans as seen on TV. Actually she was relieved to carry in milk rather than soda for supper, but as we sat across the table, each tentatively fingering our dictionaries, I wondered if I could find enough words to fill our two weeks.

Finally Steffi eased the moment by showing us photos of her family. I held the smiling vacation snapshots, as Steffi said her mother cooks with pleasure and bundles the dishes under blankets to keep them warm until Steffi gets home from school. I ruffled through the thin pages of my dictionary, but the word ``insulate'' was not there. I scowled at the pages of words I did not want and then let go, imagining a red-and-blue plaid blanket tucked around an exotic-smelling casserole.

When Steffi mentioned that she brought piano music to practice, I showed her our harpsichord. Steffi did not perform, she worked. At the first break, I burst in on her, excitedly telling her that my sister had played that same Chopin sonata when I was a child, that I deeply enjoyed hearing the process of her music.

``What does `process' mean?'' she asked.

It was so clear in my mind. How could I explain that I liked the way she confronted the hard passages, not moving on until her fingers found the patterns, discovering how one passage opens into the next, shaping the piece. Beaming, I found the word ``process'' in my dictionary. Days later I discovered that the word I had pounced on meant I enjoyed the legal process, or litigation of her music. No wonder she only nodded.

By the time I made chocolate chip cookies, I had misplaced my dictionary. Steffi always carefully cleaned her plate, but she ate these cookies with relish. I passed her seconds and she said, ``There's nothing like this at home.''

``Steffi, you could take a measuring cup and spoons with recipes for your mother.'' I eagerly offered her recipes I had made: carrot soup and carrot cake. I wondered if Steffi would go back home explaining that Americans don't eat all junk food; mostly they consume carrots?

To correct this impression I made tacos. Steffi ate them with a knife and fork. Did our family eating with our fingers seem crude, or should I urge her to lay down her steel fork and pick up her food in her hands, so she could feel the warmth of the taco and lick the last juice from her fingers?

Gradually I realized that words are not the problem. As a deaf friend says, ``I miss lots of words, but I can hear the melody just fine.'' We need to translate our moments and sometimes it's hard.

One morning the radio announced that school was closed for the snow. ``In Germany school doesn't close for snow, not once in 10 years has it closed.''

First I tried the logical, official reasons: This was a major storm. The roads should be cleared of children, so that the people who must go to work can get through. But that is not it. That's not why my boy's third grade teacher pulls down the shades when snow starts.

Snow is exciting. In Pennsylvania kids stay up late listening to the weather, hoping that the Winter Snow Watch will continue to report deteriorating conditions, hoping to wake up to a wonderful white world and hear, ``753 will be closed today.''

Snow promises snowmen with real hats and scarves to the little kids, snow forts that could almost be igloos to those who can get an old piece of rug for the floor, and sleds that race downhill flying over one big hump, not landing till even the brave cry out. Maybe American kids are allowed to play while German children are expected to work.

Even agreeing on our differences doesn't make them easy. Steffi asked me one night, ``Why do American kids throw so much of their lunch away?''

I imagined the gray garbage can with its dark green plastic insert filled with globs of tuna-fish salad and dribbles of green beans, mixed with napkins and half-filled containers of milk.

``My mother always says, `Think of the starving children in Africa,''' Steffi said.

``In my family it was China. Remember the poor starving children of China. I don't know why our children waste food,'' I replied. We sat together in silence.

At first I turned over our differences, but gradually I remembered the careful way Steffi chose a cello tape instead of American makeup for her sister. I felt close to Steffi's mother, who takes naps and cooks with pleasure as I do, and to Steffi's dad, who proudly shows her the new streets he designs the way my husband, Dave, showed her the plane he flies. I'm glad that Steffi and my girl talked and laughed so much, and that Steffi amazed my boy with the story of the Minotaur.

When the blue van finally pulled up to take Steffi to the airport, my stomach lurched. Other exchange students politely thanked their hosts, shook hands, and boarded the bus. Suddenly Steffi and I collided in a hug that knocked my glasses cockeyed. I knew exactly what she meant.

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