My International Kids:  Danilo, Olga, and Llazlo

My International Kids:  Danilo, Olga, and Llazlo [1]

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Danilo was the next student who came to live at my house. I was hosting International students in Toronto while waiting for my U.S. documents so that I could join my children in California. Tall and handsome, with hazel eyes that belonged on a film screen, he was my first Brazilian student, my first male guest, and a breath of fresh air every time I came home after visiting my mother. We got along so famously, it was like having an eighteen-year-old son live with me. (They’re so happy when you feed them well!) He wouldn’t let me lift a finger to do anything that he could physically help me with.

He explained to me that the degree of poverty experienced in Brazil is almost unimaginable for a Canadian. It is nearly impossible for poor people to have any upward mobility. If you are born poor, you die poor, he said. Even though I did not consider myself to be a rich person, Danilo would point to my dishwasher, or to my washing machine and dryer, or the décor in my living room and pronounce gravely, “You are a favored person” in the English he was rapidly learning.

* * * *

Photo credit: http://www.legacytrunks.com/images/flat%20top%20trunk%20history%204.jpg

The next student to enter my home came through the door with the largest suitcase I had ever seen – almost the size of an old-fashioned steamer trunk – and behind him slipped a second someone who appeared so furtively that, for a moment, she appeared to be a shadow.

“I am expecting one student,” I said. “Not two.” It was two in the morning. I had expected my Yugoslavian student to arrive well before midnight, and I was already in my nightgown and bathrobe.

“No,” the shadow cried dramatically, her feet firmly planted in my hallway. “We cannot be separated.”

“You are from [the former] Yugoslavia?” I inquired. “Students at the language school?”

The male student nodded vigorously, as his female companion in the hallway answered rapidly in understandable, heavily accented English.

“Yes, and we have been assigned to different home. No! No! We must remain together.”

“Why did the school place you in different home?” I asked, trying to assess the situation. The school’s rules did not require that hosts keep students assigned to them if they did not find the students suitable to their home environment.

“We are not married,” she told me. “They say that we can only stay together in the same house if we are married. But we live together in Yugoslavia. We are like one!”

“I see,” I replied. I knew that many of the host families had young children, and the language school had set the rule in order to prevent embarrassment to the families.

“It’s very late,” I continued. “I can’t contact the school now. I do not have any young children, and I have no objection to you sharing a room since you have apparently been living together for some time, but I have only one room to offer you. It does have a double bed.”

I thought for a moment about my former students — Lily from Hong Kong and Mariko from Japan — and their different space perceptions compared to their home environments. Lily thought the guest room in my house was small, and Mariko thought it was very big. Danilo from Brazil thought I was rich. Khaled from Saudi Arabia prepared rice sitting on the floor of my kitchen.

“I think the room is big enough,” I told the Yugoslavian students, “but you might find it too small for two people.

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” the girl replied, tears filling her eyes. “it does not matter if it is a single bed. The room will be big enough.”

When I opened the door to what would be their bedroom for the next two months, they gasped with happiness.

“It is wonderful. Thank you, thank you.”

“We’ll talk at breakfast,” I said, summoning up a pleasant smile. I could hardly keep my eyes open. “Welcome to Canada.”

After a myriad of “thank yous” later that morning, they began the task of hauling the new suitcase up the stairs to their new room, where they somehow stashed it in the clothes closet. Olga and Llazo were a team not only in regard to hauling a suitcase, but when it came to language skills as well. They were a totally complementary couple. She could speak English but not read or write it (Cyrillic script is very different from the English alphabet), and he could read English but not write it. Their intention was to equalize the situation at the language school. She hoped to learn to read and write, and he wanted to learn to speak English. Meanwhile, together they could communicate in a strange land.

During the few weeks they were with me in the last year of the 1990s, gradually they told me a lot about their life in their home country. They marveled at the variety and plenitude of food that stocked the shelves of Toronto’s supermarkets. “We earn salaries,” Olga said sadly, “but we can’t buy anything with them. The shelves are empty in my country.” In comparison to the other students I had hosted, their concerns were so serious, so concentrated on basic needs.

At my anything but empty table, they greedily filled themselves with food. Olga was a tiny brunette, but it was amazing how much food she could hold. And Llazlo was a big boy, a professional hockey player in his home town, who was always hungry. They ate everything at every meal. It was as if they wanted to make sure they were full in case another meal was not forthcoming.

One day, as Olga grew closer to me, she showed me the contents of their still bulging suitcase. It contained mostly food. “Look,” she gestured grandly, “dried soups, smoked sausages, sardines, crackers, enough for a long time.” They had stocked themselves up for a disaster.

When their language classes concluded, a relative of one of them – an aunt — drove up to our door. By pre-arrangement, she carried with her official documents allowing Olga and Llazlo to visit her in New York State. Down the stairs came the suitcase, and somehow they stowed it into the trunk of her car. As they said their goodbyes, accompanied by hugs, kisses, and heartfelt thanks, I wondered if they would ever return to their home country.

 

[1] ©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved. Adapted from Corinne Heather Copnick, Cryo Kid: Drawing a New Map, Los Angeles, (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008). Finalist, Next Gen Awards of Excellence, 2009. Available from Amazon.com.