Geni was an 18-year-old girl from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who left the tropical country and landed in 1970 in the ultra-conservative state of Iowa in the Midwest of the United States, under a temperature of -15 Degrees Celsius (yes, unbearable cold), in a little town called Colesburg (which literally was not on the map).
Many people have already gone or known someone who has been on an "exchange in the United States". In the 70s, this experience was fashionable among Brazil's wealthiest teenagers. Geni could have been another exchange student who had a "dad" and a "mom", improved fluency in English and moved on with life, or everything could have gone wrong, after all, Geni ended up in a town that had exactly 365 inhabitants, less than the number of residents of the street where she lived in Rio. But it was neither.
44 years after Geni left Colesburg, I'm sitting across from her and her American sister Jane at a bar in Washington DC. The life went on but they never lost touch. Daddy and mommy are still worried about the "daughter" as if she was still in her teens. "My father Buck phoned me and told me not to stay late on the street because DC is dangerous at night," Geni says, laughing at her father's advice. (He passed away in 2015, two months before Geni returned to Iowa for another High School graduation celebration.)
She currently lives in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, but when I met her she was working for a couple of months in the US capital, and her sister left Iowa just to spend the weekend with her. They both talk as if they have never separated. In addition to Jane, Geni has two other American sisters: Anne and Judy. Jane was the closest because they went to high school together and shared the same bedroom. After seven months of exchange, Geni returned to Brazil and Jane stayed in Iowa. The two were married and had children at the same time, and, coincidentally, they started working in the same area: Public Health.
Geni explains that when she arrived in Iowa she was surprised when she saw washing machines, dryers, and vacuum cleaners while in Brazil at that time everyone still used a broom and a washing tank. On the other hand, Jane says that at that time she thought that it was strange (and still thinks that) to have a housemaid at most of the houses in Brazil.
Over these four decades, Wanda, the American mother, never stopped writing letters to Geni. The American parents went to Brazil twice to visit her in 1974 and 2001, they met Geni's parents and even without speaking the same language they understood each other very well.
Jane went to Brazil for the first time in 1979, already married. "It was a great culture shock, I had never left the United States." Jane's husband went to high school with them. They remembered that it was he who introduced them to“internet chat conversations” in 1997, something revolutionary. From there to here, online communication is another form of contact that they cannot live without.
After the children have grown up, Jane goes to Brazil once a year. "She has her bedroom in my house, it is very important to me," Geni explains. "I love pamonha and galeto gaúcho," says Jane, who makes at home, inspired by her "Brazilian sister", rice and beans every week!
Geni has returned to Iowa many times, once for the 40-year high school graduation celebration. "My parents always greet me like the dear daughter who is coming back home," said Geni getting emotional.
Far beyond cultural exchange, they both believe that there was an affinity that overcame borders. Geni actually has a family in the United States, despite having a family in Brazil. Jane says her acquaintance with Geni added something they did not know. "Kisses and hugs, so common for Brazilians, was something introduced by Geni to my family," says Jane. "We've definitely become more loving to each other because of her in our lives."
Fabiana Santos is a Brazilian journalist, married and has two children: Alice, age 5, and Felipe, age 11. They live in Washington DC. She never went on an exchange, but her mother went, also in 1970, but lost contact with the family in the United States. She would love to make a meeting like this happen.