In France, I knew I'd fall in love with the language, the sights, and the food, but I never expected to fall in love with the people.
The idea of a home exchange came from necessity. I'd rarely traveled outside the United States and never lived in another country. I had no money for an overseas vacation, but I did own a house.
With my cousin's encouragement, I posted my rowhouse on a home-exchange website. The next morning, I woke up to an e-mail from a family in Draguignan, a small town in Provence.
Using fragments of high school French, I began corresponding with the Moreaux family: parents Hervé and Christelle and their two children, Léa and Max. They practiced their English as we exchanged photos and planned our summer sojourns through cyberspace.
When I met them at Philadelphia International Airport, even 2-year-old Max greeted me with a double-cheeked kiss! Later, at my house, 9-year-old Léa dashed upstairs to put on the American flag T-shirt I had bought her. I couldn't believe it - they were excited to stay in my house in South Philly.
The next day, Hervé's parents welcomed me to France with a traditional déjeuner (lunch) in their garden among the vineyards. We feasted on melon, roasted chicken, fresh vegetables, bread, local cheeses, and ice cream. Afterward, Hervé's father taught me to drive the family car - a stick shift - speaking entirely in French.
In the little town of Draguignan, I enjoyed my status as the only American. Every morning, the café waitress wished me a warm bonjour. On market days, I chatted with the vendeurs, who sold Provençal delicacies such as olive oil, honey, and chèvre (goat cheese). Each one told me their story and helped me communicate mine.
One afternoon, I wandered into a ceramics studio and met Virginie, a sculptor who crafted a necklace for me in exchange for English practice. She shared that in high school she'd spent time in, of all places, North Dakota.
At a restaurant one night, a group at a nearby table invited me to join them. They worked at the local boulangerie (bakery). Over rosé wine, we spent hours talking, scribbling on scrap paper when translation became tricky. A few days later, I met up with them unexpectedly. Like old friends, they presented me with a beautifully wrapped box of macaroons, a specialty of Provence.
When the Moreaux family returned to France, we spent two days exploring mountain villages in the Alps, canoeing through the Gorges du Verdon, and watching Bastille Day fireworks on the beach of Fréjus. We barbecued at Christelle's mother's house as we laughed about our adventures in each other's homes.
On my last morning, I walked the streets of Draguignan to say goodbye to my friends. I was teary as Hervé drove me to the airport.
Through this exchange, I found more than a vacation. I discovered the comfort of friends and a second home. But more important, I became part of a second family.