When our daughters were young, my wife, Becky, and I thought it would be good to set them up with pen pals — children their age in other English-speaking countries who could give them a sense of the wider world beyond their Atlanta suburb.
We had no idea then that a pen pal would become our younger daughter's closest friend, or that our families would form a 15-year-old bond that recently came full circle in Lexington.
Mollie and Shannon began by exchanging hand-written letters with sisters about their ages in England — granddaughters of a couple I had met there — but the relationships didn't last. Then the Internet came along.
While exploring the Web one day, I found a newsgroup for people looking for e-mail pen pals. Scanning the long list, I saw that an Internet consultant in the southern Australian beach town of Torquay was looking for a pen pal for his 7-year-old daughter.
Shannon and Lisa Currie soon began exchanging e-mails, dictating them to their parents until they learned to type. As it turned out, the girls were born on the same day — Lisa is a few hours older, thanks to the order of International time zones.
Shannon and Lisa found they had many common interests. The girls became fast online friends, and so did their parents. Mike and Marg Currie were as curious about America as Becky and I were about the land Down Under. We discussed everything from politics to food to television.
The pen pals finally met in the summer (their winter) of 1999. We rented a van and the two families spent a week traveling around southeastern Australia. We drove down the Great Ocean Road, watched whales off the coast of Warrnambool, visited a gold rush theme park near Ballarat and learned about everyday Australian life from the Curries' large and friendly extended family.
The only sad note came near the end of our trip, when Marg was hospitalized because of the cancer that would claim her life the next year.
When Shannon and Lisa were about 16, we set up an exchange. Lisa spent a month here, visiting New York City and attending Tates Creek High School. She had wondered if it would be like the American high schools she had seen in movies, complete with cheerleaders and a prom.
Shannon then lived with the Curries for a month, which included a ski trip to the Victorian Alps and studies at the Catholic girls' school Lisa attended. Shannon borrowed a blue blazer and plaid kilt from another student so she wouldn't be out of uniform.
With our cyber relationships now bolstered by real ones, we exchanged phone calls each Christmas and, later, video conversations via Skype. Facebook eventually replaced e-mail.
The girls are now young women of 23. Shannon graduated from Centre College last year, and Lisa will soon complete her studies at the University of Melbourne. Shannon is heading to New York to try for a career in the fashion industry. Lisa plans some European travel before beginning a job with a major accounting firm in Melbourne.
With the girls about to begin their adult lives, and Mike turning 60, the Curries decided it was time to visit us. Earlier this month, we took them to Mammoth Cave, the Corvette Museum, the state Capitol and Buffalo Trace Distillery, among other Kentucky attractions. They enjoyed a meal at Outback Steakhouse and got a good laugh from its Crocodile Dundee portrayal of their homeland.
Mike liked touring Shaker Village and Henry Clay's Ashland estate, and he enjoyed a bicycle ride to Paris. The young people pursued their own adventures, hanging out with Shannon's friends, some of whom Lisa had known since that high school visit. Lisa's brother, Damien, 21, especially liked Ramsey's Diner and McCarthy's Irish Bar.
Becky and I have always enjoyed travel, and our daughters now share that love. But our relationship with the Curries has shown them that it doesn't always take time and money to learn about other cultures.
The larger world can be as close as your home computer, and your next friend doesn't have to come from around the corner; he or she could be on the other side of the world.