The Foreign Exchange Student you Never Knew you Always Wanted

Senior year in high school, a friend asked me for a small favor. Apparently, a collection of German exchange students were about to descend on our town and one poor girl was about to get…is there a good German word for when America won’t let you in because you’re too edgy? Anyway, her name was Francesca and no one would have her. This may have been because she was the only student who admitted to being a smoker. Having visited Europe a time or two, I can only imagine at least 80% of the other students had the good sense to lie. Or they saw the question and assumed we meant a smoker of crack-cocaine, because OBVIOUSLY everyone over the age of ten smokes cigarettes, so why would we even ask? Or they lied.

Francesca was a lot of things, but she wasn’t a liar. You could tell by her picture on the application – in which she leaned against a barn…smoking.

Whiskey wasn’t living at home so we had the room. Shockingly, mom said sure. I think the whole “foreign exchange” thing sounded too wacky to pass up. Any idea that comes with its own odd couple theme music is gonna be a go for our family. So we went to a few meetings for host families, ate some 7 layer cookies, drank some free coffee, avoided conversing too much with the normals, and then signed the papers to get our very own German girl. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

Day of, my friend Kris gave me a ride to the airport to pick up my German. We stood in a big group of excited families collecting the cleanest-cut looking lot of non-threatening boys and girls (sporting a frankly disappointing lack of lederhosen) as they disembarked the plane.

Our new exchange student on her Lufthansa flight.

Our new exchange student on her Lufthansa flight.

Francesca was last off. They’d apparently had to wake her up to make her leave, and she looked like it, anorexic and exhausted, her nearly white hair streaked with blue. She wore the tightest pants I’d ever seen (now they just call them skinny jeans) tucked into motorcycle boots, and a gauzy sweater/scarf/blanket situation draped around her bony shoulders. It was immediately obvious to me that I had scored the best foreign exchange student in the history of ever. She looked like a Scorpion’s groupie who missed the last plane out of Los Angeles… or a card carrying member of Motley Crue.

She spotted me and floated over, an unlit cigarette already in her pale fingers. “Do you have any coke?” she asked.

I was in love. Not with her, but with whatever was going to happen next. Frannie smelled like a Lifetime Movie of the Week and I was happy to make the popcorn.

“No coke,” I said, leading her toward the car, “but how do you feel about LSD?”

I was supposed to take her straight home. Probably. I don’t remember mom saying anything to that effect specifically, but I imagine it seemed obvious to her. Step 1: Get the German. Step 2: Bring her home. Instead, I took Frannie to Kris’s house where we dropped acid and watched Ace Ventura. Within hours, we were joined by Frannie’s boyfriend, Mark (pronounced Maaahk), who had followed her from Germany because he couldn’t live without her for a month. Mark was in his twenties, so he brought Mescal and a bunch of copies of his band’s demo tape. He was polite like that. Good People. I believe his band had Satan’s something in the name.

At some point, Frannie asked me if it was okay if she went back up to the city with Mark. He was staying with friends there.

I remember being honestly confused about why she was asking. No one ever asked my permission to do anything, and it seemed pretty clear that Frannie was her own woman. Or she was Mark’s woman. Either way, it wasn’t any of my business and I was a little busy trying to work out why the Native American in the bad painting over the TV wouldn’t stop crying.

“Sure,” I said, “knock yourself out. And, hey, thanks for the Mescal!”
This all seemed perfectly reasonable to me. She left with Mark. I sobered up and went home. Mom asked me where the German was. I told her.

And that’s when everything went completely to hell.

Apparently, mom felt some weird responsibility toward her visiting foreigner and wasn’t 100% hokey-dorey with me sending our imported waif off to San Francisco in the company of a twenty something guy who’d stalked her from Germany.

Being a parent now, I can see her point. At the time, I thought she was overreacting. It wasn’t like she’d gone to OAKLAND. And I’d given Frannie our phone number. That had seemed like a responsible thing to do.

Mom called “the Germans” – who were actually the Americans in this story, but they were Americans in charge of the exchange program at the school, and they acted German and so they became “the Germans.” I begged her to be cool. Funny how rarely that charge works on parents.

That’s about when Frannie called, right before the Germans called the Cops. She was fine. She gave my mom the number where she was, the address. She talked mom off a cliff in heavily accented English, but it was too late. The Germans were involved, now. She was hauled back by the scruff of her neck for a meeting with them and mom on our couch. The girl had been in the country all of two days and was already in danger of being deported.

Mark brought her back to the house. He would act as her counsel, apparently. He sat beside her on the couch looking distraught, his dreadlocks (which he’d used to smuggle some excellent hash into the country) weeping around his face, his hands clenched in his lap.

The Germans tried to come down hard on Frannie, put the fear of God in her, but she mostly just looked bored and slightly constipated. At one point she went to the bathroom for a long time. Mark leapt to her defense at every turn. “You must not make her leave,” he pleaded, grabbing and clutching her hand like we’d have to tear them apart. “This is all she has ever wanted. It is my fault. I followed her. Do not punish her for my love.” He was quite earnest. “How could you not love her?” he asked of us. Demanded of us. “Look at her! She is so beautiful!” Seriously, those are his words. I am not making this up.

Ultimately, they decided not to deport her. She slept in our house, lived on cigarettes, Top Ramen, and French bread dipped in ketchup, which I’m pretty sure she threw up after every “meal.” She dressed like a rock star all the time. Who the hell can actually pull off snake skin stretch pants and not be in a hair metal band? Seeing her participate in the wholesome activities put together for the other exchange students, people she held in total contempt as boring, insipid fools, pretty much made my year. Watching Frannie take part in the end of year pot-luck cultural dance routine, like a young Patsy Stone, stands out as one of the more memorable moments in my life.

Absorbing American culture!

Absorbing American culture!

It may have been less entertaining for my mother who, sadly, had chosen that month to quit smoking.  She didn’t quit smoking that month.



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