We didn’t know what to expect when we hosted an exchange student from Spain. Our school matched us with Marie, who is the same age as our teenage daughter and gave us a few guidelines. The rest was up to us. Learning about her country and seeing ours through her eyes was a truly rewarding experience.

Cameron and Marie at the Macy's Flower Show. Photo: Cameron Reiss

Cameron and Marie at the Macy’s Flower Show. Photo: Cameron Reiss

Hosting an Exchange Student Opens Our Eyes to Our Culture and Hers

We got a frantic email from my 11th grade daughter’s Spanish teacher this spring: Would we host a student from Spain for two weeks? The teacher was charged with organizing a program that would see a dozen of our students visit Spain in the summer in exchange for our school hosting a group this  spring. But a gap in the plan left a visiting student without a host family. A 16 year old girl. Could we possibly host? “Can we, can we?” my daughter asked hopefully, even though she is not heading to Spain this summer.

Hosting an exchange student

Hosting an exchange student opened our eyes to how our cultures are different, and the same

After some discussion about logistics—would I be home the whole time? As it turns out, yes. Did we have room in our schedules to devote quality time to her visit? Again, yes. And, it was only two weeks. Even a miserable experience can be tolerated for two weeks. So we said yes.

Meeting Marie We Wondered, How Lucky Could We Get?

In late March Marie arrived. Assigned one of a group of 12 teens from Alicante, Spain, we hit the jackpot: Marie and my daughter Cameron hit it off immediately. They became friends on Snapchat and Facebook and exchanged messages through WhatsApp. Marie had a very good command of English (her parents are foreign language teachers at the University in Alicante) and despite the jet lag and American schedule that is very different from hers in Spain, she settled right into our home.

Culture Exchange Means Learning That We Do Things Differently Here

culture exchange

Some of the Spanish exchange students and their hosts at CitiField for a Mets game. Photo: Cameron Reiss

In Alicante, Marie is used to leaving for school at 8 a.m. We leave for school at 7:15 – a big difference for a teenager. She is also used to having a big meal at lunch (we practically eat on the run) and coming home at 2 for a nap, which she does every day (don’t we wish we had naps in our schedule?). She does her homework from 5 to 8 and then her family eats dinner at 9 or 10 p.m. before going to bed at 12.  If we don’t eat by 7 and get homework started, we’re sunk. But the jet lag took a toll on Marie; she was exhausted every night after dinner and went right to bed, putting her quickly on our schedule.

Kitchen Table Culture Exchange: Learning More About Spain over Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner 

culture exchange

Marie enjoyed tooling around town with us. Photo: Scotty Reiss/Driving TravelingMom

Marie shared photos and stories about her family in Spain. She has a younger sister that she talked about a lot (and missed very much) and while she does not have a dog, she would love one and enjoyed spending time with our dog, Eli.

Alicante is a warm climate she told us, probably similar to Northern Florida or central Texas. And even though it’s a coastal city with famous beaches, her family retreats to the beach at Villajoyosa each summer. We might think of a beach house as someplace far away – at least a two or three hour drive; for Marie and her family it’s only 25 minutes.

Marie’s father is from France and she has many relatives there. Her family travels to Paris like we travel to North Carolina—regularly, and it’s not all that exciting. She’s been to many places I’d love to take my kids: Paris, the south of France, Mallorca, Ibzia, Barcelona, Madrid.

One evening after dinner Marie showed us her home: We looked it up on Google Maps. She showed us her school, the streets she walks to school every day, where her parents work and her beach community. The magic of Google Earth and Google Maps street view let her show us her world, too.

Eye Opening: Seeing Our World Through Marie’s Eyes

culture exchange

Exchange students took a trip to a NYC and visited a firehouse; Elena and Carmen were able to hop onto the fire truck. Photo: Maggie Morris

We learned how rewarding it was to show off what we love about our home and community, and to see what we take for granted through Marie’s eyes. She wanted to go to CVS and buy candy —she’d never had Hershey’s chocolate and wanted to bring some home with her. She loved our mall and wanted to shop Victoria’s Secret and Forever 21—also not available in Alicante.

But what we loved showing her most was New York City. Even though the school took the exchange students to the city twice, we planned a trip for her first weekend to show her the city we love. We went to the New York Auto Show, shopped for prom dresses at Rent the Runway, walked through the flower show at Macy’s and toured Times Square. The school showed her the obligatory sites including the Museum of Natural History, the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. The school also took the kids to a Mets game. Marie loved the stadium, the setting and even the game.

The Best Culture Exchange? Learning that Parenting is Universal

It must be hard to be so far from home at such a young age. Even though Marie didn’t seem homesick, I wanted to make her feel comfortable. So I tried to understand how her mother does things to make her feel at home in my house. ‘My mother does the same’ was a phrase Marie used a lot. Scrambled eggs for breakfast? “My mother does the same,” Marie told me.

“Please try at least one vegetable,” I said to her more than once. “My mother says the same,” Marie said. “Do you mind if I watch the news?” “My mother loves the news,” Marie said. “No phones at dinner (said to everyone at the dinner table).” “My mother says the same,” Marie said. It felt good to know that my mothering instincts are similar to Marie’s mothers, and I hope that when my daughter has a chance to travel abroad, there will be a mother to look out for her, too.

Marie’s Favorite American Experience? The Food!

culture exchange

Our final dinner at Plan B Burger Estee, me, Craig, Cameron and Marie. Photo: Scotty Reiss/Driving TravelingMom

Marie and her friends from Spain all agreed: The food in America is great. She loved not only some of the dishes I served up at home, but the many opportunities to eat out. We decided to go out for our final dinner with Marie and she requested hamburgers. We went to our local Plan B Burger and she went all in, bacon cheddar burger and fries, finishing every bite. During dinner we asked what her favorite foods from the trip were, as she had tried many new things. The Japanese hibachi restaurant ranked tops; she loved both the food and the show. She also loved the hamburgers at Plan B. She loved the scrambled eggs with cheese I made for breakfast each day, and the hot dogs from a cart in Times Square that she had with her friends. She loved the pizza and pasta at Bertucci’s and the many new things we tried at home: chili, shrimp and grits and the chicken parmesan I made for her first night here. Again, there’s that happy mom feeling: you know you’ve succeeded when everyone is fed and happy.

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My text exchange with Cameron after Marie left; we were all so sad

“I hope you’ll come to Alicante,” Marie said as we dropped her off at school on her last day; the group was scheduled to leave from school for the airport that afternoon.

“I hope so too!” And I do. Or at least, I hope that we can send Cameron there someday so she can see Spain through Marie’s eyes, share her American culture with Marie’s family and complete the rich experience of culture exchange.