On the car ride from the South London bus station where all of us exchange students dispersed to our home stay families for the week, I’m pretty sure Danny had only said hello. Though with his thick Devon accent, I wasn’t totally sure. He seemed big for a sixteen-year-old – and I thought I was tall back in Ohio. He was over six feet – a bulky frame with long black hair, jean jacket with band patches, black shirt, and Chuck Taylor high tops to match. I was still feeling cool in my preppy shirt and khaki long pants. A sarcastic Great, I remember thinking, I had been set up with a poser punk teenager from England who didn’t like to talk. It was going to be a long week.
At their home, the Mom tried to get Danny to ask me questions – I sensed her tacitly apologizing for her son’s reserved manner. The dad politely handed me a cup steaming with afternoon tea. When offered milk, I refused, thinking it an odd question. They don’t serve tea in Ohio. Their eyebrows lifted and I revealed that I hadn’t actually ever added milk to tea. Even Danny perked up at that. I sensed a value behind their prescription: Not too hot. Earl grey goes best. And always add milk. Reluctantly, I gave in.
Turns out I really like milk in my tea.
Small talk revealed that Danny and I both played guitar. That was the segue for Danny (with encouragement from his mom) to give me a tour of the house and his room upstairs where band posters lined the walls. I remember recognizing Def Leppard, but not the other bands. Music tapes and records were spread out on the floor. And there was an extra bed where I would sleep that week. He handed me his electric guitar and told me to play something.
No problem, I remember thinking. I proudly played U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday – I thought it was a cool lick. (What the heck was I thinking, playing that song for my English hosts?) He quietly nodded. It was his turn.
He then proceeded to shred what I think was a Ramones solo, playing three times as fast as I ever could.
My preppy white collar shirt and khaki pants suddenly felt like the wrong thing to wear. Danny seemed a heck of a lot more authentic. And while I felt unworthy, I must have made a good enough of an impression because I remember exactly what he said then: “Want to go to a bar?” Turns out the drinking age in England was sixteen. My first day in England was turning out to be pretty cool.
I could recount all that happened in Biddeford, England. How Danny lent me a black t-shirt. How I had my first English beer at a local tavern with Danny and his friends. How I met a beautiful teenage girl, a self-proclaimed “white witch” who described dancing naked around a fire on the beach. I could go on to tell about the rest of the summer tour – the brothers I stayed with in Malmö, Sweden. A bus to Stockholm where tall evergreens lined the winding highway. An overnight car-ferry to Finland with overcast Gothic scenes, stark churches, and jostling train ride to Leningrad where we saw a palace lined with gold and met with factory workers as part of a language learning meet-up.
But let me just say that it was my first week with Danny that sparked a change.
Meeting Danny and his family inspired me to be curious about what’s different. Back in Ohio, I befriended exchange students studying at our high school – Olga from Spain, and Iris from Israel. I ultimately chose to attend Denison University for the deciding factor that I could use my scholarship to live abroad. After college, I set up non-profit communal food stores as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Bolivia. And ultimately, I’ve sought out regular overseas travel with my wife and daughter. And while each family adventure has gifted unique experiences, connections, and stories, it’s that home stay with Danny that first showed me wonder.
I only wrote to Danny and his family once after my return, but the inspiration has been rippling ever since. Today, if I hear or see the words Devon, white witch, or Joey Ramone, I think of Danny and his Chuck Taylor high tops shredding a punk guitar solo. And I wonder if Danny, wherever he is today, were to hear the words preppy or Ohio or witness tea without milk, if he might smile and think of a sixteen-year-old kid too.
A slightly out of focus image of Danny in the front seat – this was taken at the end of my stay, on our way back to the bus station.
A 16-year old preppy me, sipping on some water.
Danny’s parents above – the nun was a relative. His smiling sister is pictured below.
Danny, taken during a visit later that week to a seaside Devon village.