• LET INGA TELL YOU:
Jan. 20, 2015 will be the 50th anniversary of the day Olof and I met. As he likes to tell people, we were four days old.
Actually, we were 17. And we were two of a group of 40 exchange students from all over the United States boarding a Varig flight at JFK en route to Brazil for the Southern Hemisphere school year that started in March. It was below freezing in New York City when we took off, and a massively humid 95 degrees in Brazil’s deep-summer heat when we landed. My hair in the attached photo (at a stopover in Bahia, Brazil) tells the whole story.
Once we arrived in Brazil, we would be dispersing to all parts of the country. While my then-adventure-seeking self hadn’t had a nanosecond’s hesitation about this venture, the reality that I wasn’t going to see or talk to my family for a full year was starting to sink in. I had only turned 17 six weeks before.
An hour into our flight, I had ascertained that three guys, but no other girls, were headed to the same town just a few degrees off the equator as I was. Tim, Bill, and Olof instantly became my new best friends. At the time, there was no transatlantic phone service to our new home, and even mail often required a six-week turnaround time — if it got there at all.
We would be living with local families and going to Brazilian schools. Since I’d had only two weeks’ notice that I was going, I spoke about 10 words of Portuguese. My host family spoke exactly three words of English: “hello,” “party” and “Coca-Cola.” Language acquisition was strictly the immersion method. Learning enough Portuguese in the six weeks before school started was a fazer-it-yourself project.
I knew within weeks that Olof and I would be friends for life. He and his Brazilian “brothers” (from the family he lived with) were frequent visitors to my home. Olof and I were the only people in our then-world who could appreciate the profound overnight changes in our lives.
An all-American teen, Olof found himself in a world with a lot more freedom than he’d had before. That midnight curfew he railed about at home? A quaint and puzzling concept in his new town. On his first night there, his Brazilian brothers took him out to celebrate with a lot of cachaça drinking followed by the local whorehouse. (He swears to this day he didn’t partake of the latter.) The town was unpredictable enough that his family required him to carry a weapon, preferably, a gun or a knife. Fearing he’d only hurt himself, he talked them into letting him carry brass knuckles instead.
Meanwhile, I experienced a time warp to the Victorian era. I couldn’t leave the house without a chaperone, required not only for my reputation (and the family’s) but for my own safety. I attended the local convent school where we dropped to our knees and prayed between classes. Olof and his Brazilian brothers would hang out across the street in their car waiting for me to come out of school, even though I wasn’t allowed to speak to unrelated males while in convent uniform.
Not that it mattered. I was usually too busy doling out cruzeiros to the lepers who waited for me outside the convent gates. My Brazilian family had warned, “Don’t give money to the lepers or they’ll be there every day!” Definitely not advice I was used to hearing on the first day of school. But I was so distressed by these heartbreaking people missing parts of fingers and noses that I couldn’t help myself. Treatment for Hansen’s disease (leprosy) hadn’t yet made it to this impoverished area of Brazil. Mere weeks before, my biggest preoccupations were college applications and how my hair looked in my yearbook photo. Leprosy, not so much. As I noted in my new book, Olof’s and my early history was not one of A&W Root Beer dates.
I didn’t have any choice of curriculum as all the seniors in my school took the same classes. I had fortunately already studied French and Latin; translating them into Portuguese was problematical, since I had to get there via English. A lot got lost in the process.
As I also detailed in my book, Olof and I married other people the first time around but we stayed in touch in the pre-Internet era via letter*. (noun, archaic): communication on paper requiring envelope, stamp, and physical address.) While both of our first marriages had ended in divorce, a fortuitous business meeting in San Diego for Olof in early 1987 brought us together in person again. After eight years of a commuter relationship, we married in 1995, 30 years after this photo was taken. At our wedding, a friend said she was glad to see we weren’t rushing into anything.
— Look for La Jolla resident Inga’s lighthearted looks at life in La Jolla Light. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org