Due to scheduling issues, we could not take any small or large trips for Spring Break. Gabriel did have the opportunity, however, to travel with a group of fellow exchange students to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. Imagine traveling with 7 teenaged boys and one other adult chaperone, and you can imagine the level of patience and generosity that fill the heart of Gabriel’s Local Coordinator for his exchange program.
When Gabriel returned from his week long “educational field trip”, one of the youngest Spoerndle kids had a dance performance as a Sprout with a professional dance company in the area, Saturday night. The next day, we concluded our family “Spring Break” weekend with Easter!
It’s a busy life. It’s a full life. But we are making every moment matter. This international family only has one academic year to live life to its fullest.
As a member of a host family for an exchange student, each day begins to feel like it’s meant to be lived to its fullest. It doesn’t start out that way. But, one day, you wake up and realize you aren’t “us” and the student “them”. You realize the lines have blurred and you can’t see the difference. You realize you have become family. Your exchange student is no longer someone you host, but simply one of your kids.
As this realization settles in, it usually brings along reminders that the end of the year is approaching. You try not to focus on the end, but it’s darned reality keeps cropping up and nipping at your heart. The answer to this dilemma is to begin living life to its fullest.
And so…..we did. Our life as a family of 8 (now 9) is generally action-packed, but Springtime activities always seem to ramp everything up just a bit. I took lots of photos and made lots of notes, but there just wasn’t enough time left for blog posts. So, in an effort to catch up the rest of the world on our 2nd year as a host family, I present a number of “Throwbacks Posts” to remember the good times when life was lived to its fullest.
Has it almost been a year? I guess it has. Our whole family is dreading the inevitable “Goodbye” lurking around the corner. The experience of hosting always opens up family life to fresh new experiences. Even a boring weekend day holds something new to discover.
We’ve had some unexpected discoveries while hosting Gabriel, discoveries I never expected. Ironically, Gabriel introduced our family to many treasures held in our home town. It’s about seeing your own community through fresh eyes. Being a part of Gabriel’s experience has helped us get reacquainted with our hometown. Here are a few examples:
We joined the local YMCA– Gabriel loves to work out, so he asked us about the local Y. His enthusiasm for exercise was contagious. Now the entire family is at the Y, working out, reconnecting with old friends and living a healthier life.
We met all kinds of new friends that live in our home town- Gabriel has interests outside of our regular family routine and therefore has met people we would never have met. Gabriel introduced us to new faces we will see long after he returns to Brazil. During our Friday night Chipotle tradition, it’s Gabriel who often greets more people and introduces us to them.
We became Grizzly parents– Although we live in a small community with good schools, our family has not taken advantage of them. That’s another story for another day, but since Gabriel attended our local high school, my husband and I have met the teachers, coaches, and fellow parents of Wadsworth High School Grizzlies. Since I graduated from WHS many moons ago, this has been a fun trip down memory lane. I didn’t expect all the reunions.
Hosting an international student definitely brings the world a lot closer. You just might be surprised, however, that it also helps you get to know your home town.
I’m sure one of the first things Gabriel noticed about Ohioans this Fall/ Winter was our obsession with discussing the weather. It’s true we frequently discuss weather, but in our defense, the weather is ever changing, and generally proves to be an interesting topic for small talk with friends or strangers.
“Do you talk about the weather in Brazil ?”, I asked him after one particularly dramatic account by my husband regarding dipping temperatures.
“No, never”, he said.
“I guess I understand that”, I added. “Why would you talk about how perfect the weather is, if it’s perfect every day”.
This winter has been exceptionally volatile with deep-freeze wind chills and heavy snow storms. For someone used to 80F/ 25C and sunny, Ohio winter has proven to be quite a shock.
“In Brazil, we never thought this temperature could be anywhere, but like the North Pole”, Gabriel told me one day when the high was -3F.
“I know”, I responded. “It’s horrible, but for some reason we put up with it”.
This past week, Gabriel discovered one benefit of putting up with Ohio winters. Snow Days!
For the first time, Gabriel experienced joy mixed with heavy anticipation as we checked, then re-checked, the school closings list, waiting….For the first time, he understood the ecstasy of receiving a magical 411 phone call from the district Superintendent, even at 5:00am, announcing his regret at having to shut down school for the day. He, like most Ohio teens, embraced the reality of a “forced” pajama day of movies, video games, and sleeping in. Snow? Cold weather? No problem because there is no school!
These past two weeks, our quota of snow days has been met for the year. My teenage daughter found, and re-tweeted, “5 day school week? That’s so 2013!” We are in amazement at the constant onslaught of cold, snow, and time off. No one is regretting the misfortune of living in extreme January Ohio this year. We may not have the beach. We may not have 25C and sun, but We. Have. Snow days!
One of my favorite holidays is Thanksgiving. I’m not sure exactly when I discovered this, but I have a feeling it was sometime near the beginning of my motherhood career. As the Mom of the family, traditionally speaking, the thrill of holidays lessens a bit because of the burden of creating the holiday. Once awarded the title of “Event Manager” for my own family, I quickly warmed up to the joys of simple holidays that provide maximum fun with minimum exhaustion.
Birthdays and Christmas are awesome, but exhaustive in their expectations and duties. Thanksgiving, often under rated, asks little of me, but offers great rewards. All that is required for a successful celebration is the gathering up of food, family, and friends.
Thanksgiving, is also a truly American experience. Despite our vast diversity as citizens, most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in some form. This holiday is one of my favorite American cultural traditions to introduce to international friends. It’s true other countries have Thanksgiving celebrations, but only in the U.S.A., do we combine turkey, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, football, gratitude, family and friends into one big party, then follow it up with the epitome of consumerism with Black Friday madness. It’s classic American culture at its best.
This year our family had the privilege to introduce Thanksgiving to Gabriel. Like most teenage boys, Gabriel loves to eat. As I encouraged everyone to help themselves to seconds, I told Gabriel to grab a turkey leg. He hesitated at first, I think not wanting to seem greedy. We told him everyone should have a giant turkey leg for their first Thanksgiving. It’s delicious, fun and a bit crazy. He grabbed the leg and I snapped his picture. Nothing says, “American Thanksgiving” better than a giant turkey leg.
After dinner our family sat around the table and shared things we were thankful for. We migrated to the living room to watch football and play the Wii. We discussed and plotted our our Black Friday shopping trip. Relaxing and fun. A simple holiday with simple expectations and maximum enjoyment. I’m thankful for Thanksgiving.
This past Fall was filled with soccer. Gabriel played mostly JV soccer for his high school team, and my daughter, Micah, played soccer for her private all girls high school team. Having two high school soccer players in the house required strict attention to schedules and a balancing act of managing rides, soccer Mom duties, and tending to the needs of non-soccer playing siblings that would send most corporate CEO cowering into a corner. We were busy.
The best part of the soccer season, however, occurred after the last game. The infamous awards night, or in my daughter’s case, soccer team banquet.
The public high school honored all of their Fall sports during one massive assembly on a Thursday evening. Name after name of scholar athlete was read, while bleachers filled with proud parents looked on. After a short break for cookies in the cafeteria, the various Fall sports teams separated into individual classrooms for sport specific awards; speeches from coaches, and individual recognition. Gabriel’s team returned to the gym.
To our surprise, Gabriel’s coach spoke briefly about each “Senior” recognizing him within this select group. Kind words were exchanged and Gabriel received a Varsity School Letter, pin, and a special Senior gift. He was thrilled and we were too.
Micah’s banquet was equally rewarding. After three years of playing on her school’s soccer team, and a bit of high school athletic politics, she received her Varsity letter. For Micah, this meant the ability to purchase a Varsity letter (woman) jacket, valuable cultural capital at her school. It was a sweet victory earned through patience, persistence and fortitude.
It was a busy soccer season, but the effort was worth it. Two high school soccer players, two varsity letters, two varsity letter jackets. American high school culture at its best.
Did you know Pumpkins did not grow in Brazil? I didn’t until I asked Gabriel. Needless to say, when I explained we would be carving pumpkins to use as decorations to celebrate an American Halloween, Gabriel had no frame of reference for this cultural experience.
Our family hosted an International Pumpkin Fest last weekend. As a fun activity, I suggested all the exchange students bring a pumpkin to carve. I thought it would be a great American cultural experience for the exchange students to experience.
My favorite moment of the evening was standing around our impromptu pumpkin carving station in our living room, helping Gabriel carve his first pumpkin. He ran into his bedroom two different times to change his shirt, after realizing the full scope of our project.
“You just have to reach in, Gabriel, and grab the ‘pumpkin guts'”
“Oh, boy….I think I need to change my shirt”
Gabriel’s expression was priceless. There is no way to explain a US American’s love of pumpkin carving. It makes no sense, but, like Homecoming, it’s what we do each fall to celebrate. Sometimes, culture defies explanation, and you just have to live it, to believe it.
As the party wrapped up, upon my direction, Gabriel carried his giant pumpkin outside to our front porch.
“It’s not good”, he said.
“No, it will look fabulous lit up. I promise, you’ll see”, I said.
“Oh, I think it’s bad. I think it’s a bad pumpkin”.
“No really, it’s great….trust me”.
My husband took out his cell phone, placed it into the pumpkin, and ….magic!
“Oh, it’s good! It’s good! Yeah!, okay….okay”
Pumpkin carving phenomenon explained. Sometimes you just have to live it to know it.
Costumes, Trick or Treat, Pumpkin Carving, Pumpkin flavored cuisine, China, Brazil and Germany. These were just a few of the ingredients at the International Pumpkin Fest held at our house last night. Most of the exchange students and host families, I supervise through Academic Year in America (AYA), came together to share culture, food and friendship.
Guided by the inspiration of Pinterest, my daughter, Micah and I, planned a delicious array of Pumpkin Pie Popcorn, Pumpkin Pie Cream Cheese Dip, Pumpkin Macaroni and Cheese, and BBQ Beef Sandwiches. A German exchange student brought Kaiserschmarm (delicious caramelized German pancakes), and others brought an assortment of chips, pretzels, nuts, and cookies. It was a feast of Fall treats.
As a host family it is always fun to meet others who “are as crazy as you”. Student exchanges are as meaningful to host families as they are to the exchange student. You really can’t fully understand until you live it. Our International Pumpkin Fest brought together cultures and families, and helped us all build new friendships.
One host “Mom”, who is actually a retired Grandma, is having a wonderful time rediscovering the joy of having a teenager in the house. She sent me a lovely email, after the party, that summarized beautifully why I do what I do, for AYA.
“Thanks for the nice get together – it seems like those folks are my kind of folks – all good people who like helping and you are our leader 🙂 Thank you, Regenia”
We were celebrating my daughter’s birthday with a family dinner at Olive Garden. Sitting around the table, eating pasta, salad and those amazing breadsticks, we laughed with each other, chatted about the news in our lives, and relished the unique experience of being gathered together around one table. The meal was excellent, the company even better.
As the conversation and dinner lagged, Gabriel made an announcement.
“You know, today….it is exactly one month that I have been here. It seems so fast!”
I looked at him in amazement and realized I had forgotten I hadn’t known him his whole life. It was only one month ago that I had met this young man for the first time. One month ago, we had arrived at the airport searching for him through a sea of passengers, and hoping to recognize him from his photos. One month ago, we had drove from the airport trying to speak slowly for understanding. One month ago, we were nervous, polite and unsure of each other. Now we were “family”. Had it really been one month?
“You’re right”, I said. “It was August 15 and now it is September. Happy Anniversary!”
We reminisced about the past month. It had been good, very good, but busy. Lots of soccer practices and games, the frustrations of registering at a new school, the start of classes, crazy teachers who didn’t understand the struggles of taking a class as a non-native English speaker, catching the school bus; most of the time. So many things. So many experiences. So fast.
I usually try to remember important moments like birthdays and anniversaries, but this one caught me off guard. I’m glad we remembered, but I love that I forgot. Without our formal realization, Gabriel had become a permanent fixture in our family culture. He was not a stranger or a temporary resident in our home. At that moment, I realized, Gabriel was family.
Not too long ago, my husband decided to introduce Gabriel to a good friend of his, John Deere. Being the main provider of lawn service for our family, my husband is always anxious to find a little help from unsuspecting children. Exchange students are never exempt from his tactics.
I don’t think Gabriel had been in our home more than a week, when I overheard the following conversation.
“Would you like to learn to drive a tractor?”
“Here, come outside. I’ll show you”
Poor Gabriel. He never stood a chance. The call of the green machine was too great.
From the look on his face, however, I think he enjoyed his lesson on lawn maintenance. I guess there must be something about a green tractor and the great outdoors that appeals to men across cultures. Go figure.